Kitchen Exhibitionist
The Culinary Quests of a Food Enthusiast Stuck in the Sticks
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Killing Two Birds with One Stone - Smoky Zucchini and Potato Stew
Killing Two Birds with One Stone - Smoky Zucchini and Potato Stew

Late summer is a time of plenty; plenty of sun, plenty of heat, and plenty of fresh local vegetables. One vegetable in particular, the lovely zucchini, is superabundant this time of year. It must be all that sun and heat. So come late summer we’re all looking for different ways to utilize that prolific green squash.

When I was growing up, a summertime staple for meatless Friday evening fare was giambotta, a simple, flavorful Italian zucchini and potato stew. Although a stew may sound heavy for hot weather, giambotta was a light and perfect summer meal, served with a fresh tomato salad and good crusty Italian bread.

A few years ago I encountered a recipe for what looked like a Mexican version of giambotta. The key ingredients were still there: zucchini, potatoes, onions, and garlic, but it had a few interesting twists, so I had to try it. It was wonderful and has now become a favorite meatless main dish.

Like most stews it is pure comfort food, loaded with chunks of tender vegetables in a light savory broth. Raising it a few notches above comfort food though, is the spicy heat and fragrant smokiness from the canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce, which enriches the broth and makes it almost drinkable. The chunks of zucchini just thrive in that environment, absorbing the flavors and becoming so much more than plain old squash. The potatoes add an earthiness which reminds you, “Hey, I’m still comfort food”. It is a great combination of flavors that keeps your spoon going back to the bowl for more.

If you’re looking to feed vegetarians a delicious summer meal while using some of the overflowing zucchini crop, here is a great way to kill two birds with one stone.

Smoky Potato and Zucchini Stew
Adapted from Vegetables Every Day by Jack Bishop
Yield: 4 - 6 servings

If you don’t like things too spicy hot, use one of the smallest chiles from the can and scrape out the seeds and discard them.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 medium zucchini (about 2 pounds), cut into 3/4-inch dice
1 chipotle chile in adobo sauce, minced with 2 teaspoons of the sauce
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspons minced fresh oregano leaves or ¾ tsp dried
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 pounds red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/2-inch dice
salt to taste
2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro leaves
Fresh warm flour tortillas on the side

Heat the oil in a dutch oven or other large pot. Add the onion and zucchini and sauté over medium-high heat until lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Add the chile, sauce, garlic, and oregano and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add the stock and bring to a boil. Add the potatoes, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Uncover and continue to simmer until the stew thickens and the potatoes are tender, about 5 minutes. Add salt to taste. Stir in the cilantro. Be gentle when stirring so as not to break the tender zucchini.

The stew can be covered and set aside for several hours. Reheat gently before serving.

Ladle the stew into bowls. Serve with fresh warm flour tortillas.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Top Secret Topping
Top Secret Topping

I love simple little twists on basic ingredients that create something new and spectacular, like this top secret topping.

Imagine a crystal dish of beautiful fresh strawberries or sliced summer peaches garnished with a large dollop of a snowy white, creamy topping that tastes smooth and rich and a bit tangy. Is it sour cream? crème fraiche? cream cheese? yogurt? Nope, nope, nope, and nope.

Believe or not, this luscious, rich-tasting sublime sauce is made from only cottage cheese. That’s it. Plain old cottage cheese is treated in a simple secret way that turns it into a special topping for fruit or other desserts. The secret? Whirling the cottage cheese in a food processor until smooth and creamy and then chilling it until thickened.

The credit for this creation goes to Maida Heatter, my favorite dessert cookbook author. I have all her original books from the 70’s and 80’s and I see they still continue to be reissued in various formats. Her recipes are always fabulous and I highly recommend any and all of her books.

Heatter accidentally stumbled upon this trick while experimenting with cheesecake recipes using cottage cheese instead of cream cheese. She had some leftover blended cottage cheese in her refrigerator and in order to use it up she plopped some on top of fresh strawberries. She took a mouthful, expecting it to taste like cottage cheese, and then swooned with delight.

I don’t understand the science behind how simply processing and chilling plain old hum-drum cottage cheese turns it into something this rich-tasting and creamy; I’m too busy enjoying to find out.

This topping is the perfect foil for fresh fruit, especially sweet berries. Its tanginess plays against the fruit’s natural sweetness, creating seesaws of sweet and tart flavors on the tongue. And it is great for those watching their fat and calorie intake. If you like, you may sweeten it with a small amount of sugar or honey and/or add a tiny bit of flavoring, such as vanilla extract.

I like it honey-sweetened on strawberries, or sweetened and embellished with a bit of almond extract on fresh peaches. I love it slightly sweetened with sugar and tossed with coins of ripe banana, which duplicates the flavor of a favorite childhood dish my great-grandmother used to make for me with sour cream.

Top Secret
From Maida Heatter’s Book of Great American Desserts

This is best made with large curd 4% cottage cheese. If you use the low fat version, it will be thinner and not as nearly delicious. For best results, use a food processor, not a blender.

1 pound (about 2 cups) large curd 4% cottage cheese
sweetener (sugar, honey, etc.) - optional
flavoring (extracts, etc.) – optional

Dump the cottage cheese into the food processor with the metal blade. Process on high speed for one full minute (time it; longer is better), stopping once to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula. Then process it a few more seconds for good measure.

Scrape into a bowl, cover tightly and refrigerate for several hours.

Optional enhancements: Sweeten it with a few teaspoons of sugar, honey or other sweetener per cup of cottage cheese. Flavor it with 1/8 teaspoon of flavored extract per cup of cottage cheese. You may add these during the last part of the processing.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007
Watermelon, Arugula, and Toasted Almond Salad
Watermelon, Arugula, and Toasted Almond Salad

In the sweltering days of August nothing satisfies the palate more than a crisp cool salad. During a heat wave salads are often the only dishes that seem even remotely appealing. After a while though, even the freshest salads made from the ripest local produce may get a little boring. When that happens, its time for a summer salad that will jolt your senses and titillate your salad-weary taste buds. This is it!

The first delight of this salad is the slice of crisp juicy watermelon on which the dressed greens perkily perch. The next surprise is the sweet and tangy dressing, made from a reduction of watermelon juice and cider vinegar. Each mouthful of salad bursts with the contrasts of the sweet melon, the tangy dressing, the slight bitterness of the arugula, and the crunch of the toasted almonds.

Watermelon, Arugula and Toasted-Almond Salad
Adapted from Homegrown Pure and Simple:
Great Healthy Food from Garden to Table
by Michael Nischan

1 small watermelon (about 6 pounds)
2 scallions, thinly sliced, whites and greens separated
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3 ounces baby arugula leaves (4 cups loosely packed)
Sprinkling of fleur de sel or other natural coarse sea salt
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted until lightly golden and fragrant

To peel the watermelon, slice off both ends to reveal the flesh. Stand the watermelon upright, cut side down, on the cutting board. Using a large knife, slice the rind from the flesh, working from the top to the bottom in one long slice if possible. Repeat all around the melon, using the white of the rind as a guide for the knife, until the melon is completely peeled. Cut the flesh into 1-inch-thick slices. Trim six of the best looking slices into 3 or 4 inch squares or diamond shapes that will fit on salad serving plates. Refrigerate if preparing salad in advance but allow slices to come to room temperature before serving.

Chop the remaining watermelon into chunks, reserving 1 ½ cups to make the dressing. Refrigerate the rest for another use.

To make dressing, in a blender or food processor, puree 1 1/2 cups watermelon until smooth. Strain through sieve to make 1 cup juice. In a small saucepan, sauté the scallion whites with 1 teaspoon olive oil over medium heat, until soft. Add watermelon juice and vinegar; bring to a boil over medium-high flame. Lower flame and simmer until reduced to about 3 tablespoons, stirring occasionally, 20 to 25 minutes. Pour into a small bowl; cool. Whisk in remaining oil, salt and pepper.

To make the salad, arrange the watermelon squares on six chilled salad plates. Sprinkle with some fleur de sel. In a large bowl, combine arugula, almonds and sliced onion greens. Add 2 tablespoons dressing and toss gently. Top watermelon squares with salad. Drizzle with remaining dressing.

Yield: 6 servings

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007
An Exceptional Use for Oregano

An Exceptional Use for Oregano

A long, long time ago, when I was young and unencumbered by such things as a career or a mortgage, I spent several months traveling around Europe by myself with a backpack, a railpass, and very limited funds, visiting 9 different countries. Each country had its own unique personality, its own language, its own flavors, and its own currency. Every time I crossed a border I sensed a new adventure was on the other side.

I recall Greece with particular fondness. Some of my favorite food memories of that country are….

- the ubiquitous roadside eateries serving the exact same, never-changing, delicious menu of spit-roasted lamb, frites, salad, and wine for about 3 dollars

- the dense chocolate coconut stick confections sold by Athens’ street vendors in the Plaka

- the luscious fresh creamy yogurt, so thick a spoon could stand upright in it

- the faint aroma of cinnamon in all the tomato-based casserole dishes, like moussaka and pastitio.

- the surprising discovery that Greek salad, real Greek salad, contains no lettuce

One beautiful fall day, Greg and I were traveling through the rugged countryside of Crete on a rented motorcycle. I had met Greg two weeks earlier in Rome, one of the stops on his year-long trip around the world. We discovered we had a lot in common so we teamed up for a few weeks to explore southern Italy and Greece together.

We stopped the bike at the top of a peak to admire the gorgeous view. A small old man dressed in an ancient black suit tottered over to us from a nearby house and began chattering excitedly to us in Greek, and then in German, neither of which we understood. He realized we were American and although he didn’t speak English, he did know a few English words.

“Goot vine!” he announced as he waved around an unlabeled bottle.

“Good wine,” we interpreted.

He poured a little wine from the bottle into a glass he was carrying and offered us a taste. It was pretty good wine, homemade by him we surmised.

“50 Drachmas,” he offered for the bottle, which at that time was the equivalent of fifty cents. We found him adorable and wanting to support the local economy we purchased a bottle of his wine for a pittance.

He returned to his house and then quickly came running back to us, waving something in his hand and exclaiming, “Goot elinika!” We didn’t understand that word but when he presented us with a small clear plastic bag containing some dried green herbs we were momentarily taken aback. Greg and I looked at each other, wondering if this old Greek man in the middle of the remote Crete countryside was trying to sell us marijuana. I opened the baggie, inhaled its fragrance, and smiled. It was wild oregano, which he had gathered from the local hillsides and dried to sell to tourists that passed by.

To this day, whenever I cook with oregano and catch a whiff of its aroma, I am reminded of that old Greek man and my adventures in Greece. Were he to offer me some of his oregano today, this is what I would do with it.

Provoleta al Oreganato
From an ancient issue Bon Appetit

This simple appetizer or snack for two is sort of a rustic Italian fondue. As it cooks, the kitchen smells exactly like a pizza parlor.

1/2 pound Provolone cheese, in one thick round slice (about ½ inch thick)
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled (or two teaspoons of fresh oregano)
1 finely minced garlic clove
2 tablespoons olive oil
sourdough bread slices

Preheat broiler and set rack 6 – 8 inches below heat source.

Set cheese in small, shallow round baking dish, just the size of the round of cheese. Sprinkle with oregano and garlic. Drizzle with oil. Broil until cheese melts, about 8 minutes.

Serve immediately. Use small knives to spread cheese mixture on bread slices. As it cools, it will firm up and may require reheating.

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