Vegan Zucchini, Tomato & Onion Gratin

“Do you like zucchini?” my co-worker asked, peeking into my office.

“Of course!” I said.

She put the two globe zucchini she was carrying down on my desk.

“Are these from your mom’s garden?”

“Yes…”

“Oh, they’re still warm!”

“She just picked them.”

“Thank you!”

I had to keep working, of course, but looking at the two of them sitting there, I couldn’t help but think about what to do with them. Later in the afternoon I popped out to her desk.

“How about a zucchini and tomato gratin? How does that sound? It’s pretty standard, but I think it’d still be good.”

“That sounds great. Do you need more?”

“Oh, no. I’ll just make a small one to start. I have a red onion – maybe with some onion too?”

She nodded in agreement. I nodded back.

Since today was Wednesday, I stopped by the farmer’s market to get tomatoes. I grabbed four of an heirloom type called Black Russian and headed home to do the assembly.

Well, the two zucchini and the four tomatoes was enough to make a 9×13 pan worth, and I think I could have spread the vegetables out on a jelly roll pan and done just as well. This may not be a true gratin – no breadcrumbs, no cheese – but the idea is there. If I did this again, I might add a couple cloves of finely minced garlic to the cornmeal mixture.

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Poblano Peppers with a Black Chickpea Filling

Looking at the picture, you might think that looks like a lot of work.

You would be correct. Stuffed peppers are a lot of work to do well.

They can be done poorly very easily: slap cooked rice and some other stuff, mostly tomato sauce, into a raw bell pepper with the top cut off; bake until listless and flabby. Remove from oven. Eat; regret eating.

A good stuffed pepper, on the other hand, needs to start out with a thin-skinned variety, needs roasting or frying to make its flesh savory and flavorful, careful work to open the peppers up, and a filling with some character to give the whole thing a reason to live.

Black chickpeas have that character. They’re truly nutty and have slightly tough skins that keep them from cooking to wan split starchiness, as regular chickpeas will if unattended. For that reason, they grind up well in bits once cooked, rather than easily becoming hummus. Their toothsome nature occurred to me as a good texture for this spot where ground meat is usually found.

When it gets hot in Fresno, and boy, is it getting hot in Fresno this week, I tend to turn to Mediterranean foods. I flipped through a few of my Greek cookbooks to get ideas for this recipe, and not having looked at them for a while, I remembered why they seem like such a good idea in the summer – all those cool flavors and vegetable salads.

So the filling is Mediterranean-influenced. Onions, both raw and cooked, make an appearance, as well as copious garlic, salty feta and olives, bright lemon juice and green notes from parsley and mint.

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The Eat Local Challenge: Looking Back

It’s been a while since the May Eat Local Challenge ended. Frankly, most normal people have probably written their reflection posts by now. But I, Ms. Chronic Fatigue, sitting here with my head resting on my shoulder because it takes too much energy to hold it up, am getting around to it about two weeks into June.

So what came out of it for me?

My daily habits changed. I stopped eating frozen blueberries on my cereal (antioxidants, you know…superfoods…) and started taking a few moments in the morning to cut a local peach, nectarine or handful of strawberries into my bowl of plain puffed rice instead. It tastes like a great treat, like a light version of fruit and cream once I pour the soymilk over it.

My shopping habits changed. My goal had been to buy more of my produce from producers, and to do so with sources as close to Fresno as possible. I got my CSA subscription started, and I couldn’t be happier for it. I got back into the habit of going to the farmer’s market, and I’ve been on enough consecutive weeks now that I’m starting to be welcomed instead of just greeted by the farmers I buy from.

The produce is delicious, but that’s probably what feels best about the whole thing. Fresno has been such a struggle for us – the heat, the pollution, my illness, our disconnection from friends and family, the difficulty we’ve had making new friends here. Going to the market, and being recognized as a person, a member of a community, as a member of this community, with something to contribute that’s of interest, is where the real reward came from for me.

And I really do feel privileged to be welcomed by the farmers I buy from, because they do something amazing, something risky, something altruistic, by committing to feed others in their community.

Agriculture is inescapable in my day-to-day life – farmers pay my wage, they sit in restaurants at tables next to mine, they climb out of pickup trucks to check the trees along the road while I’m driving to work; crews kick ladders open and climb into trees, or weed strawberries, or bag onions, or pack grapes while I have the great fortune to sit at a desk in a cool office.

Hard work. Tom Willey said on the farm tour about his full-time 60-member staff, “Well, I guess I’m just a sucker for someone who’s willing to do an honest day’s work.”

It’s hard and amazing work, making stuff grow. So few of us do it now, as compared to how many did just a couple generations ago. We used to feed ourselves more, and more within our communities. I grew up with and still have farmers in my family, but most Americans don’t any longer, and the more time I spend close to agriculture, the more I think we all need a better connection to it.

It grounds us. It reminds us what raw materials really are. It removes us from the world of manufactured products a little bit and reminds us – or reminds me at least – that we are not unlike the living things that sustain us. We need sustenance, and we need farmers to provide it; they nurture plants directly and us indirectly by feeding us, by allowing us to grow, to thrive, to be protected from disease, to satisfy our stomachs and our palates.

I’m grateful to be cared for that way. I’m grateful to be fed.

Saag Story

I like to put up the repeatable recipes I come up with more often than not, and the great majority of them are, but I don’t mind putting up the odd ye-gods-let-this-serve-as-a-lesson-to-you-all post, especially if there are humorous moments or flashes of learning that happen along the way.

I’ve been trying to get this saag recipe (Indian-style greens) together lately. Last week I got some Russian and dinosaur kale and resolved to try again.

I usually chop the greens. This time, to get the texture closer to the disintegrated style of many of the greens dishes I’ve eaten, I got the bright idea to shred the greens in the food processor. It would get them closer to what I suppose you could describe as a ropa vieja texture (Spanish for “old clothes” – usually a long-simmered shredded meat dish), a texture with which I figured they’d be cut smaller and cook faster, plus they’d pile together more effectively than chopped greens, which tend, no matter how long they’re cooked, to clump.

So I fired up the food processor with the shredder disc in it, and jammed great handfuls of washed greens into the feed chute. As I pushed down on the plunger, well into the third batch, I realized I smelled a familiar smell.

A green…bitter…hot…damp smell. I looked up in that idle way you do as if you’re scanning the inside of your brain for something that you know is up there.

A chlorophyll smell. A smell of friction and plant matter. Shredded green stuff…

The smell of lawn clippings.

I looked down at the food processor and pressed the off button. I did that little combination lock maneuver you do on the Cuisinart in order to get it open, but I already knew what I had done.

I had effectively mowed my dinner.

Damn it.

Now, I already had the spice masala together and the aromatics cooked, so I just went ahead and kept on shredding, figuring the dish might somehow come together as it cooked, but I remembered warily my only interaction with fenugreek greens (which did actually smell and then taste exactly like lawn clippings to me) and warned Chimp, when he came in the kitchen, that we might be eating out of the fridge that night.

“What’s going on?” he asked, looking over my shoulder at the battered vegetation in the work bowl.

“I thought I’d shred it…and maybe it wasn’t such a good idea.”

“No?”

“Well, we’ll see – I’ll apply a good deal of butter and salt to it to see if that helps.”

Sometimes, most of the time, an increasing amount of the time, perhaps based on the amount of experience you have in the kitchen, you can pull those near-failures out and get something edible, if not repeatable, out of it.

When I got the ingredients into the pot and first set it on to simmer, I tasted it to see how the seasonings were going to work.

The flavorings were totally overwhelmed by the greens. Bleargh. Lawn clippings. I sighed and turned to open the fridge, weighing my options.

But 40 minutes or so later, when the greens had had a chance to leach out their bitterness and assimilate into themselves the flavors of the other components, it ended up working. The good news is that this was edible, by the time I got done with it, adding potatoes to it to cut the flavor of the very strong greens a bit, and I did get significant knowledge out of it, which you get out of near-failures perhaps more than you do out of a success.

Here’s what I learned:

Most importantly: Though I love strong greens, a recipe like this needs a balance of milder and stronger greens to be at its best.
Additionally: Shredding the greens does result in a good texture.
Incidentally confirmed: Cooking the onions until they’re well-browned is the right technique – you don’t want any of that half-cooked onion flavor that works in a soup.

So we applied these to some of our usual chickpea pancakes, topped with a little yogurt, with dal on the side, and everything was fine.

Chimp, slurping another one of my “failed” Scharffenberger frozen chocolate pop experiments, urges me not to give up. He has faith in my abilities, thank goodness, lawn clippings for dinner notwithstanding.

Fennel-Red Onion Salad

No long story here; just a good idea that worked well. This was one of the answers of What to Do With Fennel, which we had ended up with a lot of in the house. In this salad, sweet-crisp slivers of fennel and torn mint leaves cool while the slight bite of the onion and garlic and the briny feta add dimension.

This is a perfect example of what, precisely, one wants to eat in Fresno during the summer. Also on that list: fruit straight out of the refrigerator and big glasses of very cold water.

This simple little dish can be presented with far less effort than I’ve expended above. If you’d like to make this as a light main-dish salad, make a double batch of the dressing and toss it with a bowlful of any salad green.

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I Know It’s Love: He Insulted Me And It Was Funny

Me: (shaking a sauté pan full of summer squash) Look at this! Look at how even I cut this!

Chimp: (washing dishes; looks over his shoulder briefly at the pan)

Me: No, look! It’s beautiful! It looks great!

Chimp: (affecting Phil Hartman’s voice) People try to tell you that the secret to Pepper Steak is the seasoning. But we know differently, don’t we? It’s getting all the pieces the same size.

Me: I am not the Anal-Retentive chef! This takes knife skills! And spatial skills! And practice!

Chimp: (leaving the room)

Me: Get me the camera! I’m taking a picture of this, it looks so good!

Note: We don’t usually insult each other, even in jest like this. It wasn’t really about how evenly I cut the squash – I was just happy that I have the energy right now to chop and sauté something, and it brings me joy to do something I’m good at. Chimp was happy about it too – enough so that he felt free to rib me about it.

Vegan Carrot Spice Cake

This started out as a riff on the famous Vegan Chocolate Cake, which I have helped to further the cause of but for which I can certainly not claim credit; it seems to have been circulating at least since WWII, long before there was a word “vegan.”

When my in-laws were here. I made a vegan spice cake by an old recipe I had that was taped inside a vintage cookbook I bought some years ago, and it didn’t come out as well as I remembered.

Having time to try again, I thought I’d apply the spicing from that failed cake to the method from the Vegan Chocolate Cake, replacing the white sugar with brown, the cocoa with spices, and adding raisins. I poured over orange juice instead of water as the liquid. It worked quite well, and was a hit with my mother-in-law, and even with Chimp the Raisin Hater.

It was a good riff, so I thought I’d see how far I could take it. I hardly ever make sweet stuff – don’t really think it’s helpful to have a big tempting pile of white flour and sugar product around, as it just tends to get eaten if it’s there, as in any house – but I wanted to see what would happen if I added some carrots. And almonds. And different spices with a slight Indian slant.

So this ended up as a vegan spice cake with carrots, raisins and almonds. It’s not actually a carrot-cake-tasting cake – one cup of carrots isn’t enough to make it truly carroty. The carrots are a background flavor instead of a predominant flavor. I might try it without carrots next time in order to get a more straightforwardly-flavored, less complex “plain” spice cake.

I have reduced the liquid in the recipe I give below slightly from what I did; I used one cup orange juice in the cake pictured, and it’s just a touch too moist in the middle. I’ve reduced the liquid in this recipe to three-quarters of a cup before, with good results, so I feel confident recommending that.

This would look nice in a shaped pan like a Bundt, but as this was my first attempt (and I was out of spray oil) I stuck with the easily-greaseable cake pan.

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