Breakaway Cook

Giant Zucchini, Two Ways

My extraordinary friend Michael — a painter, sculptor, and all-around enlightened being who has made Kyoto his home for the past 35 years — visited us this weekend. He came with a big smile on his face, bearing a zucchini the size of rolled-up yoga mat (I exaggerate just barely). I thought about all the usual suspects — zucchini bread is the classic answer to that problem, since it typically takes five cups or more of shredded zukes for a loaf. I like some zucchini breads, but I find most of them to be very heavy, with the exception of one special loaf that I call “Spicy Floaty Zucchini Bread” (I will make this soon, and post about it) that’s made in the cast iron pan along with mustard powder, ancho powder, ground ginger, and ground cardamom. It’s so light it almost floats!

I thought I would start the inspiration process by slicing the beast in half and spooning out the guts/seeds. A liberal salting came next, in the belief that it’s the excessive water content of summer squash that makes it, I dunno, unwieldy. While salt began to pull out water from the robosquash, it occurred to me that filling the cavity with savory goodness and baking the entire thing might be a good idea. So I hunted around the fridge and pantry, and came up with two versions for the two halves:

  • Vegetarian/Mediterranean: wokked up plenty of onion, finely diced carrots, eggplant, and green beans until the entire mass shrank considerably, and then dressed it with a pesto comprised of several roma tomatoes, good quantities of four or five herbs, olive oil, lavender salt, and parm. Spooned it into boat #1.
  • Carnivorian/Middle Eastern: onions, carrots, ground lamb, pomegranate molasses, walnuts, plenty of ground coriander seed, cumin, almonds, and pecans for boat #2.

Baked at 400 for about 45 minutes. It was fragrant and just right for the small gathering of (mostly) vegetarian friends who later came over. The nonvegetarians were happy too. The only thing I would do differently: squash of this size have rather tough skins, I’ve discovered, so I would peel the skins first. But it was still fun to scoop up the flesh with spoon, leaving the skin behind….

Anyone have any good ideas for LARGE quantities of summer squash?

(and just for reference: the photo above is the uncooked version, just before it went into the oven; the roasted finished version looked much tastier!)

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Beef Chuck Steak with Herb "Curry"

A neighbor came over recently and gave us a nice big bundle of herbs, mainly some robust-looking rosemary, thyme, and oregano. So in his honor, I chopped up a gigantic mound — probably two cups — and set them aside while I pondered what the hell I was going to do with such a large pile of fresh herbs. My kind of problem!

I had taken out of the freezer a two-pound (or so) pack of beef chuck steak (from Chileno Valley Beef), a cut I would normally braise for a few hours with lots of aromatic Indian spices, plus probably some coconut milk and beef stock, for a more-or-less classic beef curry. But the pile of herbs beckoned. Hmm, what about the possiblity of Mediterranean-style cooked-down mass of highly herbed onions and carrots, and braising the beef in that?

I’m happy to report that results were lovely.

Here’s how I did it:

  • heavily coat one side of the chuck with freshly ground pepper, coriander seeds, and salt, and brown that in some olive oil/butter. Do the other side in the same crust, and brown that too. Remove from pot and set aside
  • Add several cups of finely chopped onions and carrots, and roughly two cups of chopped thyme, oregano, and rosemary, and saute in the same pot.
  • Just for fun and for the maximum “curry” effect, chop up several fresh heat-packing chiles of choice. I used a combo of rococo, manzano, and new mexico.
  • When all of that is soft, put the beef back in and drizzle in a healthy stream of carrot juice. Cover and cook for about an hour over low heat. Check it — does it need more liquid? If so, decide which liquid.  I used a little homemade beef stock, but I could have used water, wine, other stock, more carrot juice, fruit juice, almost anything really. Cook for another 45 minutes or so, and declare victory

This dish has so much flavor it’s almost overwhelming. And real kick — the chiles did their job admirably. Not exactly what most people would choose to cook on a beautiful, 80-degree day, but what the hell — the smell of the house makes up for any additional heat! The photo above reflects the dish after the first braise, not as I would serve it, of course — the meat has to be deboned and de-fatted. The final plating would look something like this:

Served with a simple salad and some rice, possibly some Japanese-style pickles. My kind of meal!

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Cha-soba To Go

I can clearly remember the first time I had cha-soba (green tea buckwheat noodles). It was a sultry day in Kyoto, and I was thrilled to EAT green tea. They were served icy cold in the zaru-soba style: the noodles are cooked and chilled, and then presented on a zaru, or rollable bamboo mat, with a sprinkling of nori (toasted seaweed), a small mound of wasabi. You then dip the noodles in tsuyu, a blend of soy sauce, dashi, and mirin, and slurp them up. Heavenly when the humidity starts to make you feel like you want to wring out your entire body like a towel. But unless you want to use bottled industrial tsuyu — not horrible but not great either — it’s not exactly a last-minute, throw-together dish, by the time you’ve shaved the bonito, made the dashi, and all the rest.

Still, the green, slightly chewy (if cooked correctly), grassy-tasting noodles beckon. I recently had some good organic cauliflower, fresh English peas, and shallots, so I decided to saute those together with some fruity green olive oil and umami salt while the cha-soba cooked. When both the noodles and the veggies were cooked, I chilled the noodles with ice water, drained, and folded in the veggies, along with a quickly made dressing of olive oil, greek yogurt, and some picked ginger/raspberry vinegar brine. Topped with a good dusting of finely minced Thai basil, packed it into a tupperware, and brought it to the ballpark for a simulcast opera performance, along with a bottle of rose, some leftover roasted chicken, and chopsticks. An excellent evening, and great picnic food! Not a bad choice for the next picnic, hike, or other summery outdoor event.

Anyone else a cha-soba fan? They’re available at Nijiya and other Japanese markets, and are also easily found online.

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