There are many ways to cook zucchini, but for me simply braising is by far the best way to bring zucchini’s delicate flavor to full bloom. Once braised there are so many quick and easy applications awaiting.
Zucchini, in the squash family, is native to the Americas. However the zucchini we are now familiar with is a hybrid that was developed in Italy in the 19th century and named zucchini, the diminutive of zucca. Colors range from pale to deep green as well as light yellow to a deep orange. Zucchini is usually harvested while still young, about 6 to eight inches in length, with seeds that are still soft and tender. Left to grow zucchini can reach up to a meter in length.
Anyone who has grown zucchini knows full well it is the garden’s star over achiever. The harvest can be continuous and down right overwhelming, as are the challenges for the cook who is faced with “oh no, not zucchini again.”
More often than not zucchini is cooked into other dishes like a Provencal ratatouille which is splendid, but the zucchini’s real personality is somewhat lost in translation. Be that as it may, zucchini can really shine on its very own if cooked properly.
Using this simple braising method requires only a few ingredients and a well tended low heat braising on the stove top that slowly coaxes out a nuanced flavor of summer that could only come from zucchini.
Ounce braised the zucchini can then be used as a side dish, pureed for a soup that can be served chilled in the summer or warm as fall approaches, or as a sauce for pasta along with braised zucchini and poached chicken. This is a pasta sauce that has become one of my very favorites when cooking up a summery meal .
- 2 ½ pounds 6 to 8 inch zucchini, trimmed
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 ½ cups finely diced onions
- 3 plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- ½ teaspoon dried marjoram
- 4 ½ cups chicken stock (or water), hot
- ½ cup cream
- 1 cup grated Parmigiano
- flaked sea salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
Cut the trimmed zucchini into quarters lengthwise. Slice the quarters into ½ inch slices. Place in a bowl and set aside.
Place a wide heavy bottomed pan on the stove over medium low heat. Add the olive oil and when the oil slides easily in the pan add the onions and saute for 5 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Add the garlic and cook another 2 minutes while stirring.
Then add the sliced zucchini and fold them into the onion mixture. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 25 to 30 minutes. Stir frequently and be sure to lift the onions off the bottom of the pan so they do not burn.
Stir in the marjoram after about 15 minutes of cooking time and season sparingly with salt and pepper.
After about 20 minutes you will have to stir more frequently, being sure to continuously lift the onions off the bottom of the pan. Once the zucchini is very soft, just barely colored, and looking slightly glazed remove the pan from the heat.
At this point, if you are intending to use the braised zucchini for a pasta remove about ¼ of the braised zucchini and set aside to use for the pasta later.
If you are intending to serve the braised zucchini as a side dish, add a little cream and a little hot stock and to the pan and stir to combine. Then add some grated Parmigiano, season with salt and pepper, and serve.
Otherwise set the pan with the braised zucchini back onto the stove over medium heat. Add about two thirds of the hot stock (or water) and bring to a boil. Then lower the heat to a simmer and cook for about 20 to 30 minutes or until the liquid is reduced by half and the zucchini is very soft.
Remove from the heat, cool a few minutes. Then blend with an immersion blender (or transfer to a blender) and blend until smooth. If the puree seems very thick add a little more hot stock and blend.
Return the mixture to the heat and bring back up to a low simmer. Slowly stir in the cream until incorporated and then stir in the Parmigiano. Continue to stir 1 minute and then taste. Add additional salt and pepper if needed. Stir well and set aside.
Cool the puree to room temperature if you are intending to use as a soup. Then cover and refrigerate. Serve chilled or warmed slightly.
If you are intending to use the puree as a pasta sauce you may want to reduce the sauce a little bit more.
Meanwhile divide the poached chicken into bite size strips and reheat with a little chicken stock or water.
Boil your pasta until cooked al dente and drain.
Add the reserved braised zucchini and the warmed chicken to the hot reduced sauce and stir. Then fold in the cooked pasta.
Transfer the pasta to individual pasta bowls, spooning any remaining sauce over the pasta. Grate Parmigiano over the pasta and serve.
Maiale al Latte is a traditional northern Italian dish that has been passed on for generations by everyone’s Nonna (grandmother), and where their collective cookery savvy is all gloriously revealed. By slowly braising the pork in milk, not only is the meat tenderized, but the milk is transformed into a beguiling lemony caramelized sauce that defies everything you thought you knew about sauces. This is truly Italian comfort food at its very best!
The dish originates from the Emilia Romagna region of northern Italy that is considered by Italians to be where you will find the best food in all of Italy. The region’s products are a testament to its reputation and known the world over including, Balsamic vinegar from Medona and Reggio Emalia, cured hams from Parma, and of course Parmigiano Reggiano.
This all came to mind while reading a New York Times article The Secrets of Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk by Sam Sifton. Jamie Oliver’s recipe was inspired by a Maiale al Latte that he tasted while on a trip to Tuscany. His Chicken in milk recipe, published in his cookbook Happy Days with the Naked Chef in 2002, went viral and has since inspired home cooks around the globe.
Maiale al Lette is simple in concept, relatively easy to prepare, although a little time consuming, but well worth the effort. I have to say this is a recipe that is down right exciting to cook as the dish transitions into unfamiliar territory as it braises.
This is a dish that you are unlikely to find on any restaurant menu anywhere unless you happen to be traveling through the northern Italian countryside. This is, in Jamie Oliver’s own words, “a slightly odd but really fantastic combination that must be tried”.
Maiale al Latte serves 6
- 5 pounds/2 kilo pork loin with some fat attached, shoulder, or rib roast (ribs removed)
- flaked sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 large onion, peeled and finely diced
- 12 garlic cloves with skin on
- a handful of fresh young sage leaves (20-30)
- 2 ½ liters/2.6 quarts whole milk, heated to a near boil
- zest of 2 lemons cut into long strips with a vegetable peeler
- a small knob of nutmeg or ½ teaspoon grated
In the recipe that follows I have started the braising on the stove top and finished the braising in the oven. However, braising entirely on the stove top at a gentle simmer will essentially produce nearly the same results less a crusty finish on the top of the pork.
Equipment: cast iron Dutch oven or heavy bottomed casserole dish with lid
Bring the pork to room temperature. Season generously with salt and pepper on all sides.
Place the casserole on the stove top over medium high heat. When hot add the olive oil. When the oil is hot add the butter and stir until the butter is melted. Promptly add the pork and sear until nicely browned on all sides; about 2 ½ minutes per side. Transfer the seared pork to a plate.
Pour all but 2 tablespoons of the fat out of the casserole and discard. Don’t worry about the brown bits sticking to the bottom of the casserole. They will add a nice caramel flavor to the dish as it cooks.
Preheat the oven to 350f/180c
Return the casserole to the stove top set over medium low heat. Add the onions and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 6 minutes. Then add the garlic cloves and about a third of the sage leaves. Saute for several minutes until the garlic begins to color and the sage is wilted and dark green.
Move the onion mixture to the sides of the casserole and place the seared pork in the center. Then add enough hot milk to come about 2/3 of the way up the sides of the pork. Turn the heat up to medium and once the milk is boiling lower the heat to a simmer. Add the nutmeg, lemon zest, and the remaining sage leaves and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Then turn the pork over, give the sauce a stir, and transfer the casserole to the preheated oven. Partially cover the casserole and braise for 30 minutes.
Note: Braising times in the oven will vary depending on the cut of pork you are using. Pork loin will take about 1 hour braising time, while shoulder or rib roast will take up to 2 hours.
Remove the casserole from the oven, turn the pork once again, and give the sauce a stir. Add a little more hot milk if the sauce is looking rather depleted. Return to the oven and braise without the lid another 30 minutes.
Once again, remove the casserole from the oven and turn the pork over. You will notice the milk has reduced with a light caramel color, and the sauce may have started to curdle, looking like caramelized ricotta. This is what this sauce is supposed to do, so don’t be alarmed thinking things have all gone terribly wrong.
If using pork loin, at this point the pork will need about another 20 minutes in the oven. Add a little more hot milk if the caramelized sauce is looking a bit thick.
If you are using pork shoulder or rib roast you will have to repeat the turning process two more times and adding hot milk as needed at 30 minutes intervals.
When the pork is cooked to perfection remove the casserole from the oven and transfer the pork to a plate to rest.
Spoon off as much fat as you can from the surface of the sauce and discard.
Return the sauce to the stove top over medium low heat. If the sauce is a bit soupy reduce until the sauce holds together. Or, if the sauce is too dry stir a little hot milk into the sauce to loosen it up a bit.
Slice the pork loin into ½ inch slices across the roast. Fan out on a platter or individual plates and spoon the sauce generously over the pork and garnish with fresh sage leaves.
If you have used shoulder or rib roast simply pull the meat apart and serve topped with the sauce and garnish with fresh sage leaves.
As the midday temperatures soar here in Thailand more ideas for refreshing chilled soups are the order of the day. Practically speaking, it just makes sense to have meal preparations out of the way in the morning, avoiding the heat of the day, and having the evening meal nearly ready for serving as night falls and the temperature wanes enough for comfortable suppers al fresco.
The pairing of vine ripe tomatoes and Italian basil, both readily available at the moment, inspires looking towards the Mediterranean for ideas for chilled soups that that are both light and summery fresh.
Roasting the tomatoes and peppers sweetens their flesh and infuses this chilled soup with a light smokiness accented with the peppery and sweet aromatic spiciness of fresh basil. Add to that a swirl of freshly made pesto and a few dollops of Greek yogurt and you have a stellar beginning for a light summer meal.
Chilled Roasted Tomato Soup makes 2 1/2 quarts
- 4 pounds/2 kilo vine ripe tomatoes, roasted
- 2 large red bell peppers, roasted
- 1 or 2 small dried red chilies
- 2 heads garlic
- 2 onions, peeled and diced
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 quarts chicken broth (or water), hot
- ½ cup toasted bread crumbs
- 1 tablespoon flaked sea salt
- 20 fresh Italian basil leaves, thinly sliced
- sweet Italian basil pesto (see recipe here)
- Greek yogurt or sour cream
- whole Italian basil leaves for garnishing
Remove the stems from the tomatoes and the red bell peppers and flame roast, grill, or broil them until well charred. Set aside to cool. Once cool enough to handle remove the charred skin and discard it. You need not be too meticulous about removing every last bit of charred skin as bits left behind will add flavor to the soup.
Slice the tomatoes into quarters and remove any hard core bits and discard them. Transfer the tomatoes to a food mill or Velox Universal tomato press (see note below) and pass them through to remove the seeds and crush the tomatoes into pulp in the process. Set the pulp aside to use later.
Likewise remove the charred skin from the bell peppers and discard. Quarter the bell peppers and remove the veins and seeds. Cut the quarters into strips. Dice the strips and set aside.
Lightly toast the chilies in a dry pan. Then add a little water to the pan, bring to a simmer, and cook until the chilies are soft. Remove the chilies and cool. Then slit the chilies lengthwise, open them up, and remove the seeds and discard them. Finely chop the chilies and set aside.
Separate the garlic cloves from the head and put them in a dry skillet set over medium flame. Toast the cloves on all sides until evenly colored. Remove from the pan and set aside to cool. Then peel off the skin and discard. Mince the cloves and set aside.
Place a soup pot on the stove over medium low heat and add the olive oil. When nearly smoking add the onions and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and continue cooking for another couple of minutes. Make a well in the center of the pot and add the tomato paste and press it against the bottom of the pan to caramelize the tomato paste.
Add the tomato pulp, bell peppers, and chilies and cook another couple of minutes while stirring everything together. Then stir in the hot stock (or water) and stir. Raise the heat and bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer and cook 25 minutes. Skim off any foam that forms on the surface of the soup while simmering and discard. Then stir in the bread crumbs and salt and cook another 5 minutes.
Remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool a couple of minutes. Then blend the soup with an immersion blender (or transfer to a blender) and blend until smooth.
Return the pot of blended soup to the heat and bring back up to a low simmer. Add the sliced basil leaves and continue to cook for a couple of minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
Transfer the hot soup to a cooling rack and cool to room temperature. Then transfer the soup to containers with lids and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
Ladle the soup into individual soup bowls. Add a few dollops of pesto in the center, a few dollops of Greek yogurt or sour cream, and garnish with fresh basil leaves.
Note: The Velox tomato press is a must have tool if you are regularly processing fresh tomatoes. Passing the fresh tomatoes through the press removes the skin and seeds leaving you with a fresh tomato pulp that is ready for making red tomato sauces, soups, or fresh salsas. I’ve had my Velox tomato press for over 30 years which is a testament to its timeless design and durability. Readily available on line and well worth the small investment.
When summer comes around pesto is one of my go to favorites to brighten up so many summer meals. Fresh Italian sweet basil is available by the bushels full during the summer months and making batches of pesto to stash away for the winter is an annual ritual.
I have previously posted five pesto recipe variations, but not a truly Italian basic pesto recipe which follows. Take a look at the other pesto recipes below.
The word pesto refers to the pestle which has been traditionally used to grind the pesto ingredients in a mortar through the ages in Italy. More modern methods for making pesto, such as using a mezzaluna, a blender, or a food processor have not replaced the mortar and pestle, but have made the process more compatible with the time restraints of the modern cook. What ever the method used, Pesto remains enshrined as one of Italy’s most revered sauces. So, whether you are a staunch traditionalist ready for a work out or a modernist with little time to spare, the rewards of bringing this glistening emerald green pesto to the table will be apparent.
I have included the optional addition of butter to this recipe which has become quite popular in Italy. The butter gives the pesto a richer silky texture that works beautifully with pastas. You may well be a committed traditionalist, as I too have been, but why not give the addition of butter a try.
Fresh Sweet Italian Basil Pesto: makes about 2 1/2 cups
- ½ cup walnuts or pignole (pine nuts) or a combination of both
- 1 teaspoon flaked sea salt
- 6 black peppercorn, coarsely ground
- 3-4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 2 tablespoons softened unsalted butter (optional)
- hands full of fresh sweet Italian basil/ about 3 well packed cups of torn leaves
- ½ cup grated Parmigiano
- ½ cup grated Pecorino, Sardo, or Romano
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil or a little extra if omitting the butter
Place the nuts, sea salt, ground peppercorns, garlic, and butter (if using) in a mortar, blender, or food processor, and grind or pulse into a coarse mixture.
Add the basil leaves and grind or pulse until the mixture is semi-smooth.
Add the cheeses and grind or pulse until evenly mixed with the other ingredients.
Begin adding the olive oil a tablespoon at a time while grinding or pulsing. Gradually you can increase the flow of olive oil as the pesto begins to emulsify and the pesto is rather smooth but with some texture remaining.
Taste and add additional salt if needed.
Transfer to a container with a lid and set aside if using within an hour or so. Ideally the pesto should be used at room temperature, especially with pasta or other cooked applications. Slightly chilled is fine when using as a spread or condiment.
Refrigerated the pesto will last 5 days, although with each passing day the brilliant green color will begin to fade.
Freezing is the best option for longtime storage.
Other pesto recipes well worth a try.
Pesto alla Siciliana & Pesto Trapanese (see recipe here)
Spinach Pesto with Panchetta (see recipe here)
Pomegranate Glazed Pork Loin with Pistacio Pesto (see recipe here)
Pesto…Diverso (see recipe here)
Salsa Romesco (see recipe here)