Zucchini Daze

It’s finally happened! After a solid six years of trying, I grew a single, perfect, fuzzy zucchini!

Stop laughing.

Yes, they grow like weeds and turn into fat old gourds if you don’t pick them the very minute they arrive, and after paying actual dollars for dirt (dirt, people) and building a shrine to hold it in, and covering it with a critter-proof cage, and faithfully watering, and singing songs of hopeful longing to little sproutlings, I have managed to grow…this.

This being the sum total of four months of labor. This year.

I don’t know where I’ve gone wrong. It used to be so easy.

But the zucchini was beautiful. I discovered it an hour before we left on a family vacation and packed it gently with a towel into my car. There was no way I was not going to eat it. This little veggie cost me a lot of money and a few tears and I deliberated how to do it proper justice.

Enter Ziggy. Ziggy was not technically camping in our particular hut but he came over all the day long to cook his own food in the little kitchen we had, the cafeteria not able to furnish his dietary requirements. Ziggy is also not technically his name, because I protect the identity of happy campers who cook with wine and wield large knives. Furthermore, Ziggy was always barefoot. I told him we were going to lose our “A” in the window.

As the fam and I trudged off to the cafeteria for meals, heavenly aromas drifted on the breeze as Ziggy made himself smoked salmon omelets and lamb shank stews. He hummed the occasional melody. Carrot peels festooned our trashcan. I realized then that he was a Hobbit. I dubbed him Siegfried Wanderfoot.

My little triumph sat on the counter, blending in with the coffee grounds, pondering its fate. Days went by.

Finally, Ziggy asked, “Are you going to eat that?”

“Um, yes. I just can’t decide how.”

“Too small for bread,” he agreed, “too large for a pickle. What are your thoughts on garlic?”

And this is how the most triumphant zucchini dish ever prepared materialized out of actual thin air.

And also how I ended up with a personal chef who is also a Hobbit who can survive at an altitude of 5,400′ above sea level. If you ever used to have a plethora of zucchini and disguised them in a multitude of recipes, you have forgotten what a squash tastes like. Heaven. It tastes like fresh, green, heaven with little clouds of garlic butter. Enjoy.

Ingredient List: hand-reared organic zucchini, pure butter, fresh garlic, Oakwood smoked black pepper, pink Himalayan rock salt, Rosemary, thyme, marjoram, and a machete.

No shoes, no hairnet, no facenet, no “A” in the window…Ziggy living the life.

Ziggy’s Zippy Zucchini
Hand tended organic zucchini sauteed at altitude in pure butter with finely chopped fresh garlic and seasonal herbs.
  1. Plant organic zucchini seeds and tend and water daily.
  2. After many weeks, and in the height of summer, pick one fresh zucchini and carefully transport to a mountain over 5,000′ in elevation.
  3. Let zucchini rest for a minimum of three days, soaking up the wild scent of pine.
  4. Slice zucchini lengthwise into 5mm thin slices with a sharp knife. Put aside to rest.
  5. Grind both pepper and salt over both sides of zucchini slices with love.
  6. Finely chop fresh garlic cloves and place in saute pan with a sizable portion of pure butter.
  7. Put gas stove on high heat and melt garlic butter, adding herbs in small doses as it melts.
  8. Lay zucchini slices in hot pan and saute, turning every two minutes to ensure an even cook.
  9. When zucchini starts to caramelize and crisp up along the edges, remove from pan to rest for one minute.
  10. Arrange on plate in floral pattern. Enjoy with a glass of Layer Cake cabernet sauvignon.

The Plated Wonder

Wonder Pot

Things are getting very quickly out of control.

I just went to the store and bought dried seaweed, the neck bone of a lamb, coconut water, and stood for five minutes seriously considering a package of chicken feet, toenails included.

If that’s not a sign of shopping under the influence, I don’t know what is.

Somebody stop me. I bought an InstantMagicWonderPot last week, and I think the rest is history.

I blame my girlfriend, which is where most of our peer pressures come from, right?

She’s a young, hip, trendy gal who raises her app-wielding toddlers on quinoa and paints her walls gray, so already I was suspicious.

“It will change your life!” she insisted, and texted a photo of a salted caramel pretzel crust cheesecake.

I hit the Amazon button.

Because my life could definitely use a change in the cheesecake department.

When the box arrived, I danced happily into the house singing, “Guys! My Magic Pot is here!”

From around a corner I heard, “Mom, you shouldn’t do drugs…”

“Hey! That’s legal now.”

“In that case, how magical is it?”

Such kidders in my family.

Half of the instruction book is in honest-to-goodness Chinese, the other is in Canadian, so I called that girlfriend up and she came over to play Interpretive Cooking Channel.

I had the ingredients to one recipe: lemon chicken. It’s citrus season in San Diego.

I got to work, GF coaching me while her toddler and baby roamed free-range around the house.

What I learned was that this pot is basically a pressure cooker: it forces the food to cook at gunpoint (as opposed to the microwave which is insidious with X-rays) and if you disturb it while it’s got a death-grip on your chicken and lemon juice, it gets very nasty and hisses at you.

It holds the pressure of a thousand mommies trying to make dinner.

It may very well blow up your house if you look at it funny.

Which is why I spent the whole time spying on it from around the corner, confirming that I am my mother’s daughter after all. Explosions are her favorite specter.

The pot spent twelve minutes coming up to pressure, one minute steaming into the kitchen, and another twelve minutes cooking. I watched GF flick the button to quick-release the pressure and the top blew. I jumped five feet, and the toddler looked at me with disgust.

“It’s just steam, Jolie,” she said, “You don’t have to be scared.”

From the mouth of babes.

The chicken was perfect. I decided I still had time to get fancy, so I spread them under the broiler in my oven for another six minutes to brown up, and made gravy in the pot with what was left seething in there.

Rice was fifteen minutes on the stove top while the chicken cooked, but the Pot – so it says in Canadian – can do it in five.

We had chicken and rice and sort-of gravy and salad and girl scout cookies and tea and if I sound a little giddy, it’s because it’s been so long since I’ve cooked real food.

It just gets me…right here.

GF laughed, and drove away bragging about spaghetti squash and pot roasts.

After cleaning up the kitchen, I decided to give it the real test. It’s one thing to cook in broad daylight, with plenty of time and no starving children under foot, it’s another entirely to come home from a long day at work and stare into a messy kitchen at the witching hour and try to not eat Cheetos.

I had a house full of teenage boys, aka: guinea pigs.

I set the pot back up.

I dumped a pound of frozen, cooked ground beef into it. I dumped a jar of spaghetti sauce into it, and another jar and a half of water. I broke a pound of dry spaghetti noodles in two and piled them on top.

The lid went on, the display lit up, and I backed away slowly.

Twelve minutes to warm up, five minutes to cook, five minutes to cool down.

The boys began sniffing, and walked in to investigate.

I flipped the vent and jumped away, crying, “Stay back boys, she’s gonna blow!”

That was the cue for them to surge forward and do facials:

“Stop!” shrieked my own mother’s voice from my mouth, “That steam will burn you! It’s not a toy!”

Which is teenage for: Step right up and steam-iron your shirt; instill a lovely Italian scent to your wardrobe.

It looked like this when we took off the cover:

“Fine,” I said, “after those shenanigans, you deserve uncooked spaghetti for dinner!”

The problem is, once I stirred it up, it turned into this:

And it was lovely.

I’m sold. The pot fits in with how we roll around here: less dishes to wash, less time spent babysitting a stove or oven.

I’ve been following an entire community of pot lovers, gleaning recipes.

That’s seaweed in the mac n cheese, stop looking at it funny.

Herb-A-Vore

We were sitting at the Cheesecake Factory celebrating a girlfriend’s birthday.

The usual girly gifts were handed over and, of course (insert eye roll), mine had to be different.

I got her a Little Stripper.

Not candles or lotion or earrings. Something practical.

Something that will encourage her to get her groove on.

Her gardening groove, that is.

She’d asked me recently about putting her spring garden together and I certainly want to support all things green and beguiling. The Stripper is for harvesting tiny leaves off herbs for her meal.

It will definitely up her game in the kitchen when she takes food from garden to table. There is absolutely nothing sweeter than a home-grown tomato except maybe a home-grown ear of corn. I think she was starting with squash and melons, but if she wants the fastest, easiest bang for her buck, herbs are the clear winners.

I keep fat garden pots on the front porch and my two favorites are finally sprouting up in them.

Crisp fresh basil is a salad to itself. Layer slices of creamy mozzarella, juicy garden tomatoes, and whole basil leaves on a platter and drizzle with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.

This is the flavor of long lazy sunshine days and hot nights full of fireworks.

If there’s pasta of any kind on the table, toss fresh basil at it.

The basic diet of beans, rice and tortillas sings to my childhood heart. I prefer my Mexican food freshened up instead of heated with jalepenos, so I take a pair of scissors to a fistful of cilantro and sprinkle over all possible combinations of Mex meals.

I would add a lime wedge too, but you’ll have to take it out of the beer bottle.

Not many things are sadder than girlfriends who ended up moving north, east, or across the globe, where Mexican food is a dim memory found in the back of grocery store freezers.

Sometimes, I’ll send a photo of a plate of fish tacos or maybe chile rellenos to a girlfriend in food exile.

Just trying to be friendly.

I put in two rosemary plants because I use it every other week on chicken, but the poor things don’t get enough sunshine. When I have time, I’m going to plant cuttings in the ‘badlands’ of our backyard. Rosemary can become a mighty hedge if you abuse it with hot sun and scant water.

The lemon thyme stays pretty constant. That gets thrown on chicken, too, with lemon pepper and garlic powder. And a couple of lemon slices from our lemon tree if I get real fancy about it.

The mint pot holds both peppermint and spearmint. I routinely rip the stuff out and throw it away, so it knows it’s loved. It will take over the universe if it escapes the pot and we both know it. I don’t currently use the mint for anything but a room freshener, but this summer I can garnish your lemonade, juleps, and iced tea with it.

I added two new herbs this year: lemon verbena and tarragon.

I have no idea what to do with them but they seem happy enough to join the party.

Don’t let your meals go topless. Grow herbs and use them lavishly.

Your rambunctious guests will appreciate the shameless seductive smells luring them into the dining room.

Happy birthday, girlfriend.

You’re welcome.

Pavlova

Good morning to you! Take a moment and breathe deeply. I hope you’re in your comfy chair.

Enjoy the sounds of excited kids, perhaps the hissing of the tea kettle or distant bells on the street corner.

Smell the pine or the dinner cooking or the candles on the table.

This is a moment for peace and reflection.

It may become my one lasting tradition.

Although my family has grown through many stages and tried several holiday traditions, I have to admit none of them really stuck. We used to make a family photo card every November, but no one will sit for it now. Young children made paper countdown chains, teens did puzzles from an advent calendar, but now we are never all home at the same time for those 24 doors to be faithfully explored.

Perhaps it’s a good thing not to be too tied down to any one ‘necessary’ bit.

Flexibility is key. One year we chopped down a palm tree that had the audacity to grow where it was not wanted. That’s the tree we brought in and strung with lights.

When we moved, I brought along a Christmas tradition. Or so I thought.

For many years we’ve made cookies or truffles or cinnamon rolls or biscotti, wrapped them up and delivered them to our neighbors. Our old ‘hood was steady as a rock and our kids knew everybody.

As the kids grew, the tradition somehow morphed into me doing everything and then begging someone to help deliver the goods. They have better things to do than decorate cookies I guess.

All of our new neighbors are strangers and seem to be constantly moving themselves. I can’t decide if a plate of slightly crooked gingerbread men delivered by slightly surly teenagers will solidify a month-old relationship.

It may just make them reconsider their new location.

So maybe it’s time to re-think this tradition as well.

I can fuss and plan and stress and make huge kitchen messes all by myself.

Or, they should all be expecting wine-in-a-bag.

I will be choosing by the label design, how else?

One Christmas we hosted a wonderfully fun family from Australia. Among the many memories we made, a recipe for pavlova is one that stuck. Probably because I wrote it down.

Her measurements were metric and my kitchen was not.

The ingredients had to be interpreted. ‘Caster’ sugar is finely granulated, but we used what I had and all was well.

This lovely lady reached for my pint of buttermilk, thinking it was milk. I only just saved her cup of tea.

She was gracious enough to demonstrate her pavlova magic for me and with the leftover egg yolks, prepared a chocolate cake from scratch a couple of days later. No one bakes from a box except us Yanks. She used cocoa powder and the flavor was distinctly different. Her kids were in heaven, and so was I.

I had the cooking channel right here in my kitchen! Woot!

Don’t let the recipe worry you. I made it successfully for a couple of Christmases thereafter and it’s a nice change of pace, especially if you top it with fresh fruit or perhaps crushed candy canes.

Lovely Pavlova

  • Separate 4 room temp eggs (they should sit out for at least 20 minutes first); save the yolks for another recipe.
  • Beat the whites and a pinch of salt until they won’t slip in the bowl when it’s tipped sideways. (Use a glass or metal bowl. Make sure your bowl and mixer were dry.)
  • Gradually beat in 2 cups of white granulated sugar until it’s stiff and glossy. This will take forever. (Because the sugar must melt a bit at a time. If a pinch feels grainy between your fingers, you’re adding too fast. If you over beat it, it starts to separate or curdle; start over.)
  • Last, beat in 1 tsp each of: cornstarch, baking powder, vanilla, and white vinegar.
  • Lay a sheet of foil on a cookie sheet. Parchment paper works. No rim on your pan.
  • Gently spread your egg glop onto the center of this foil, spreading into a 10” roundish cake shape. (You could use a plate to mark a guide first if you like. But messy is also pretty. And a gentle hollow in the center will hold fruit nicely.)
  • Pop it into a pre-heated 300 degree oven, and then immediately reduce the temp to 250 degrees.
  • Bake for 1 hour and 20 minutes, then turn off the oven and leave it in there to cool and dry out. No drafts allowed. (A challenge on rainy days. Better during santa anas.)
  • When ready to serve, beat 2 cups heavy whipping cream with a pinch of powdered sugar and a drop of vanilla until stiff. Spread it onto a completely cooled pavlova and top with fruit, etc.
  • Refrigerate leftovers.
  • If, by chance, your pavlova is cracked or tanned or weeps or acquires other beauty marks, eat it all the same! You could switch up this recipe into a lot of flavor variations. Have fun!

Talking Turkey

What will be on your Thanksgiving table? I am more grateful for the people around it than for what lands on it. Rich is the man with a simple meal surrounded by great love. It took me years to understand this.

Which makes every day Thanksgiving.

Traditions are lovely, if they add to the love, so if some secret modifications occur, hey, who needs to know?

I am about to blab all of my turkey day short-cuts. I will understand if you decide not to eat the apple pie after all, but I have learned the hard way that life is too short for a great many things. And making your own pie crust is one of them.

I somehow always end up making the turkey. Early in my marriage I was asked to do it and there are few things more intimidating. You’re wrestling with a 25 pound naked headless bird that is supposed to feed your in-laws in just a few short hours while six other dishes need to be started.

The anxiety levels alone radiating off me should have cooked the thing.

All you know is that if you screw up, not only will we all have food poisoning but I will go down in family history…probably legend…as the one who ruined Thanksgiving.

Is there a Girl Scout Badge for suffering? No. There isn’t. Listen up.

I cook my thawed turkey (yes, I pulled all the bits out of the middle first) breast down in a plastic oven bag in a tray. I throw garlic and rosemary and thyme from the garden in it and on it. I cook it on 350* somewhere between 2 and 3 hours, depending on it’s weight. The bag directions will tell you.

But I will tell you to do this the day before Thanksgiving.

Yep. It’s wonderful. I take my time, no party pressure to hurry. When the bird’s done just right, I leisurely carve it. I take my largest metal pan, lined with foil, and arrange slices and wing joints in it and then seal it all up. I pop it into the fridge.

I pour the juices into a large tupperware and refrigerate.

The next day, I will take both items out. I put the fat chunks that have floated to the top of the tupperware and spoon them inside my turkey pan. Use some dripping juice if you think you want a little more moisture, just don’t end up making soup in there.

Pop the turkey pan, all sealed back up with foil, into the oven at 300* for about an hour and a half from when you want to eat. The fat will melt as the turkey warms and your house will smell amazing.

Polite guests will wonder why you’re sitting around chatting and drinking Pinot Grigio instead of fighting the turkey in the kitchen.

Because you worked smarter, not harder, that’s why.

If you wanted to pull out your Martha Stewart, that was yesterday. When you took the turkey carcass left over and put it into a stock pot and made broth for the freezer. And when you simmered the giblets in a pan and then saved the chopped up bits and the broth to make gravy. Which I didn’t make. Because enough years of trying went by before I decided to cheat on that one, too.

I set up two big crockpots.

One holds a twin-pack of ready made gravy from Costco, up to 1 and 1/2 cups of the turkey juices from that tupperware we used, and the giblet bits. People who wanted giblets are satisfied and people who don’t, won’t know they’re in there.

The other crockpot holds boxed stuffing mix made with the giblet broth. To this you could have added literally anything to make it more realistic. Chopped apple, celery, dried cranberries, whatever your great Aunt Mable insisted on.

She will never know the difference.

To cheat or not to cheat…that is the question.

To tell or not to tell…that’s a no brainer.