I can hear the joyous comments coming from the backyards of vegetable gardeners, farmers market browsers, and shoppers in the produce section of a first-rate market: “The zucchini—or tomatoes—look wonderful!” Finally. It’s that time of year that good cooks have been waiting for. I knew one of these cooks, a very elegant person and the proprietress of a famed San Francisco cooking school. I was astonished when, spotting the first red, ripe tomato on one of her plants, she demolished the orb in several chomps, core and all, as if it was an apple. On another occasion, she munched down a cooked shrimp, shell and all (don’t try this at home).
I remember the year I bought a good starter plant of cherry tomatoes and a bunch of us sat on the deck swilling wine and picking off those ripe little gems, completely denuding the plant save for the still-green next generation. That’s a truly no-cook hors d’oeuvre, though maybe a dish of salt for each person wouldn’t be out of order. Try adding a drop of white wine or dry vermouth to the salt and stirring in some very finely chopped fresh basil or fresh tarragon. Oh, boy.
I thought I’d start this seasonal topic by noting that I am goofy over heirlooms, and heirloom tomatoes as well. More and more farmers and home gardeners are growing these colorful orbs because you can’t beat the flavor. It’s what you dream summer tastes like. And the variety of shapes (some really gnarly-looking), colors (chocolate brown, yellow, green, blotchy pale pink, etc.), and sizes can blow your mind.
Via the Internet, I have found that Proven Winners, the growers who help support P. Allen Smith’s PBS TV show, sing the praises of the “smoky-sweet flavor” of a tomato named for (I assume) Paul Robeson, the fabled singer. There is much admiration for the Cherokee Purple and, having lived in Philly, I’m glad to see both the reddish Brandywine and its yellow version lauded for winning countless taste tests. Check out Gurney’s (another grower) Amish variety established in 1885 and touted for the “rich and creamy aftertaste.” They’ve got others I’d love to try, such as Chocolate Cherry and Black Krim. Burpee also has a good assortment of seeds. They sell out, I see, so plan your 2019 garden soon.
A platter of sliced heirlooms would make a fabulous party centerpiece. Drizzle with a basil vinaigrette, maybe crumble some blue cheese or feta over it, and add another platter of chicken wings. That’s a dinner I’d pine for. If I had the space I’d love to winter-start some San Marzanos, my favorite for sauces, and Romas, too. For another good source for tomato seeds and plants, visit Connecticut’s White Flower Farm—the online version if you can’t go in person.
There aren’t as many exotic forms of this vegetable, lovingly described in early cookbooks as Italian squash, which was silly, as the fruit, cooked as a vegetable, is from Mexico and the area around it. The seeds were brought to Europe by all those zany explorers, some of whom thought they were in India, for Pete’s sake.
I’d grow zukes for the plant’s flowers. I fell in love with those fragile yellow trumpets stuffed with a savory mix and baked. About stuffing, there is actually a round-shaped zucchini found in France and called Ronde de Nice. It’s nice. Different. And when prepared and baked looks great. Then there’s Black Beauty (a deep green) and Italian Striped, also different, and very heirloom. Names are tricky. Go to France and you’ll have Courgetti. Go under the Chunnel and you might have Baby Marrow. The zucchini invasion in the U.S. started in the ‘20s with Italians arriving and encountering the Irish on the shore, and a generation or two later the blended family made ratatouille—one of my all-time favorites and heavenly with good tomatoes and zucchini dancing together in the pot.
Here is a recipe I make all the time. You needn’t peel the zucchini. Here goes:
- 2 zucchini, about 1⁄2 pound each, grated (use large holes on a box grater)
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 3 Tbsp. mayonnaise
- 2 Tbsp. finely chopped onion (white, yellow, or red)
- 1⁄4 c. grated Parmesan cheese (the imported Reggiano gives the best flavor)
- 1⁄4 c. all-purpose flour
- 1⁄2 tsp. dried oregano
- Salt and freshly ground black or white pepper to taste
- 2 Tbsp. butter
Turn the oven to very low. Place the grated zucchini in a clean tea towel, one that hasn’t been bleached (the remnants may live on and spoil the flavor), or use paper towels. Squeeze excess moisture out of the vegetable. Combine all ingredients, except butter, in a bowl and mix well. Heat the butter in a fry pan and when it sizzles ladle in batter to make silver dollar-size pancakes, larger if you prefer. When nicely browned on one side, flip and brown the other side. Keep cooked pancakes warm on a heat-proof platter. Serve plain, with applesauce, or with marinara. Serves 4 to 6.
Here’s an old favorite recipe of mine that uses both home- grown zucchini and tomatoes. I’ve made it so often I could probably cook it in my sleep. Matter of fact I came close one time after arriving at home after a long drive. I always recommend serving this with an avocado and grapefruit salad, and tortillas that I’ve enclosed in an oven-proof covered skillet and popped into the warm oven to heat up a bit. Who needs foil, the stu that lls our land lls? You could also put them in a Pyrex bowl, cover that with a Pyrex pie plate, and zap it for maybe one to two minutes in the microwave, or until the disks are nice and warm.
- 2-3 Tbsp. vegetable oil (I use safflower)
- 1⁄4 lb. boneless chicken breast or thighs cut into strips 2 inches by 1⁄2 inch, approximately)
- 1 fat clove garlic, smashed, peeled, and diced
- 1 small onion, minced
- 1 lb. zucchini cut into 1⁄2-inch slices
- 4 oz. can diced mild green chilies, drained
- 1 large red, ripe tomato seeded and coarsely chopped (in winter I use canned or cherry tomatoes)
- 1⁄4 tsp. cumin powder
- 1⁄4 tsp. dried oregano (I used a heaping amount)
- 1⁄2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
- 1⁄4 c. low-fat sour cream
- 1 cup grated Monterey Jack or Cheddar cheese (try a version with peppers to zing things up)
Place oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium high heat and add chicken. Sauté for about 5 minutes, then add garlic, onion, and zucchini. Cover and cook 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chilies, tomatoes, cumin, oregano, salt, and pepper. Stir and cover. Cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and stir in sour cream and sprinkle with cheese. Cover and return to very low heat for 2 minutes. Do not allow the sour cream to boil. Serve with rice and tortillas. Feeds 4-6 diners, depending on appetites.
A seasonal side note—personally, I can’t live without my spiralizer. It makes great “spaghetti” from zucchini, and when you douse it with your favorite (heirloom) tomato sauce and dust the top with some Pecorino Romano, you’ve got low carbs, high flavors, and a quick meal.