July 23, 2012

Blog the Seventeenth: Zucchini in Season

Oniony and finished with egg,  
or maybe mixed with pasta.

I think that any discussion of what to do with zucchini in season must begin with the concession that zucchini bread is only a way to use up zucchini, not use it well.

Zucchini is abundant, it being mid-summer.  What to do with it all?  What a strange problem to have!  We choke on our prosperity.  I once heard an N.P.R. interview in which an impoverished third‑worlder said of America, “I want to live in a country where the poor people are fat.”  We’re not happy we’re fat, so why does being fat look beatific to someone hungry?  Is prosperity an optical illusion? 

How is it abundance becomes oppressive?  We exert ourselves to produce more than we need, and then need to exert ourselves some more to figure out what to do with it all.  We become indentured to our own abundance—the more we have, the more we need, to keep up and use up what we have.  Spending more to grow zucchini in our garden than it costs to buy it on the cheap in season at market, we end up with more zucchini in season than we know what to do with; so we spend some more on ingredients for zucchini bread, to use the extra up, ending up with more of that than we know what to do with; so we go get containers and ribbons to wrap it as gifts for other people who already have more than enough zucchini at hand, whether in their own garden or at the markets.  Conspicuous production leads to conspicuous consumption.

 John Locke argues that the Law of Nature prescribes that if any of us mixes their personal labor with materials Nature gives in common to us all, it rightfully becomes their personal property, so long as it does not waste in their possession, since such waste criminally deprives all other claimants to the common store.  The way around this wastage‑clause is money:  trade your zucchini overage for money, which does not corrupt, and you can stockpile it to your heart’s greedy content without violation of Nature’s Law.  Problem is, no one is willing to buy your garden-fresh zucchini, because there’s so much of it so cheap at the market.  So if you’re a Lockean at heart—as frugal Gentiles usually are—then you make zucchini bread to salve your conscience.  Isn’t it bad enough that the Protestant work-ethic forces us to produce an overage of zucchini?  Must it also then force upon us a choice between a bad conscience and a bad recipe?
My mother’s conscience is of a more Catholic cast.  She grew up hungry amid post‑war poverty.  Her family were the town merchants, so they had china, but not much to put on it for dinner.  She liked hanging out with her farmer friends, since they always seemed to have something tasty to eat.  America meant for her never being hungry again, and she is ever mindful of the blessing.  When she had to throw away unappetible leftovers in my youth, especially bread, she used to say, “God cries.”  That made an impression on me as a kid, and to this day it upsets me to waste food. The specter of God crying on account of my wasting food carries more weight with my conscience (or else imagination) than violation of a Law of Nature ever could.  After all, laws are meant to be broken now and again, but making God cry makes it personal.  Of course, I was a good little boy, who didn’t like to make other kids cry either.  It may be that bad little boys would be better moved by specters of vengeance, whether of an angry God or a pitiless conscience.

I figure that peasants of old in the hills of Campania planned out their vegetable gardens to provide their families with food enough in due season, and planted only as much zucchini as they could use, taking into account the other abundant produce of the season.  But there’s something about the profligacy of the zucchini plant that the modern home gardener just can’t seem to resist, even in the face of agricultural technology’s stupefyingly superabundant overproduction.  Hence, just as mounds of zucchini become available in stores on the cheap, your neighbors are pushing overage zucchini from their gardens on you as well.

My father is such a one.   In fact, he gets started early.  He loves to propagate fig trees and zucchini plants, and he will press them upon you in spring with the persistent gentleness of the seasoned pusher.  When I asked him earlier this summer for a couple of parsley plants (because I couldn’t bring myself to pay $3..99 at Lowe’s for anemic seedlings), he demurred by offering me instead a fig tree or zucchini plant.  I took the fig tree.  I still have no parsley.

Zucchini plants are gangly creeping things that, left to themselves, will fill open spaces, but are also amenable to being tied to trellises or fences.  The fun thing about them is their flowers.  Some are virginal, and some not.  It’s the virgins you want to pluck.  (If you think that sentence untoward, then you have a dirty mind, “For a man judges according to the evil in his own heart.”)  When flowers open to the morning sun, you peer in, and if there’s a tiny fetal zucchini, you leave it to grow to full stature; if not, take the flower, to stuff with mozzarella, dip in batter, and deep-fry.  In Rome’s ancient farm‑market in the Campo dei fiori, they sell such zucchini flowers in season by the bouquet, and the local eateries sell the batter‑fried flowers along with such other deep-fried specialties as rice‑balls. 

My mother collects the flowers from morning to morning, checking them for bugs before closing them back up and storing them in a plastic bag in the frig, until she has flowers enough and reason enough to fry up a batch.  The batter is just a mix of an egg and dollop of milk with flour, salt and pepper, beaten together to the consistency of a thin pancake batter.  Stuffing the flowers with a bit of mozzarella (and anchovy) is optional.  Let the flowers sit in the batter until you’re ready to fry them at a gentle sizzle, to golden, on both sides, salting some more after frying.  In Rome, stuffing with mozzarella is the rule, but back in Sacco, only batter was used, for pure zucchini‑flower flavor.  They make for delightful antipasto. 

In my mother’s town they also have a recipe for cooking zucchini that I love for the way they finish it off with a couple of eggs beaten with cheese and parsley.  This wonderful little scrambled-egg finish is used in several recipes of the food of my mother’s people, and it’s always a clincher.  Do not, however, confuse the spirit of this ancient practice with the excesses of present day American prosperity.  I have a Philadelphia foodie friend who thinks everything tastes better with a fried egg to top it off, and he delights in discovering and reporting to me such concoctions as a lasagna sub topped with meat sauce and a fried egg.  This I pass over without comment.  In Sacco, the addition of egg was born of temperance, not mannerism. In the hungry times my mother grew up in, eggs were sparse.  You only got a whole one to yourself if you were sick in bed.  Adding a couple of eggs to a big pot of vegetables was  a way to extend the treat to the whole family. 

This dish makes use of onion, and lots of it, as well as tomato, but only a bit of it, for color.  Any onion will do, but sweet Vidalia are in season and are ideal.  I would use a large Vidalia per pair of zucchini.  Halve the onion vertically, and then slice the halves into thin slices of onion.  Pour out into a broad pan a pool of olive oil (whether extra virgin, regular, or a mix), plump a wad of butter in the middle of it (but don’t tell my mother I told you to), and add the sliced onion into the pan of cold oil.  Shower the onion with salt, cover the pan, and turn it up to medium/medium‑high, for initial steam-softening.  When you hear the onion begin to sizzle, grab a spatula and flip the onion all around, to break up clusters and coat the slices with oil.  Cover the pot again, and let it work itself up into a steamy sauna that softens the onions to the point of translucency, at which point uncover the pot and let the onions dry off and come to a lively (not violent) sizzle. (At this point you can also sneak in a little bit of finely sliced garlic, not more than a clove.  This would be judged profligate in my people’s cuisine, where the rule is either onion or garlic, but not both, no doubt for temperance’s sake.  But God bless America!)  Let the onion sizzle away, scraping and flipping now and again, until it turns golden and sweet‑smelling.

Meanwhile, wash your zucchini well.  Marcella Hazan instructs you to soak your zucchini first, and then scrub it with a vegetable brush, to get all grit out.  I’ve never noticed any such problem with grit in zucchini, but I do what she says anyway, because I like giving vegetables a bath.  I then slice the zucchini thickly, nearly a quarter-inch thick, and for this reason I’m usually obliged first to halve the zucchino lengthwise (yes, zucchino is the singular form of zucchini, as my Spell Check has just learned), so as to end up with demi‑lunes rather than discs. 

At the very first sign of any gilding, add in the sliced zucchini with showers of salt.  Use your spatula to scrape onion off the bottom of the pot and on top of and in with the zucchini.  Cover the pot again, to give the zucchini a sauna‑treatment; when you hear the zucchini begin to sizzle, scrape and flip everything over, to mix the onion in with the zucchini and keep it from sticking and browning.  When the pan has worked itself up into a steamy sauna, uncover and let the zucchini dry off and sizzle lively.

Meanwhile, take a few pelati (whole peeled Roma tomatoes imported from Italy), halve them, gently squeeze out the juice and seeds, and roughly slice them into bits.  When the sizzling zucchini glistens golden, mix in the tomato bits together with several basil leaves (perhaps torn, if large).  Let it all cook together, scraping and flipping now and again, until the zucchini is tender and tasty.  If it’s tender and not tasty, you probably need more olive oil, salt, or both.

I say “scraping and flipping” because I don’t want you to vex your food.  It upsets me to see cooks poke their food with their spatula.  Why do you do that?  Do you like getting poked?  No?  Then do not the like unto your food, which doesn’t like it either.  I think your problem may be sublimated aggression. Nowadays you’re not allowed to poke your pet, let alone your kids or spouse, so people need something to poke at at the end of a hard day, especially when they don’t make it to the gym.  But poking’s not good for your food either—it roughs it up and breaks it down.  You want to marry your ingredients like a good match‑maker, which means coddling and nudging, not poking and prodding.  Your job is to facilitate a group hug.  To this end, you want to get your spatula underneath the food and scrape off the bottom of the pan food that will otherwise stick and brown, and then flip it over and on top.  Mix with folding motion, flipping batches of the food onto and into itself, evenly all around the pot.  Be gentle, even, rhythmic, and Zenny.  Take your time; be graceful and enjoy your gracefulness.

Okay, once the zucchini are tender-firm, beat a tablespoon or two of grated Pecorino Romano cheese into an egg or two, with salt and pepper, a dollop of milk or water, and some fresh chopped parsley, if you have it, and then pour it all over the sizzling zucchini.  Just let the egg settle where it likes, and let it cook until you see a firm underside forming.  At that point, gently scrape under and flip over batches of the zucchini, in order to turn the egg over along with it.  Let the egg firm up some more on its other side before you scrape and flip the zucchini some more, to mix the now scrambled eggs throughout the whole batch.  Generally I prefer eggs moist and fluffy, but in this recipe I like to cook the egg through, long enough to tint it with tomato rosiness and imbue it with oniony sweetness.  That accomplished, you can further finish the dish by throwing in crumbled bits of Pecorino Romano, turning off the heat and using residual heat to mix in and soften the bits.  You’ll only want to do this just before serving, because the cheese bits might otherwise melt and stick to the pot, all in vain.

Needless to say, this dish is to be eaten with crusty bread, and is a deliciously moist and oily side-dish to dry-roasted meats.  It can even pass as a vegetarian main course, on account of the eggs.  You can of course leave out the eggs, but I denounce the omission.  My father has thus ruined this recipe in my parent’s house—unless I’m there, in which case Tradition prevails.  If you watch television, you don’t need me to tell you how corruptive life in the Jersey suburbs can be, and I have the degeneration of my parents’ ways of eating to attest to this.  When I was growing up, my father promulgated all sorts of rules at the dinner table about the “right way” to eat, always invoking the authority of Tradition.  He said that it took centuries to discover the best food and the best way to eat it.  But nowadays, in Jersey, he eats as he likes, and he can always give a reason for it.  I think of him as a Sophist rather than a hypocrite—he’ll say whatever he has to to win the point.  If his own preference accords with traditional usage, he invokes it; if not, then he invokes the traditional Italian adage, “Dress according to other people’s tastes; eat according to your own.” 

In the case of this dish, he has my mother not only leave out the egg, but also mix the zucchini with penne (in which case, my mother uses a little more tomato).  Myself, I don’t like it as a pasta dish; it tastes thrown‑together.  This new penchant of my father’s for turning vegetable side‑dishes into pasta dishes goes hand‑in‑hand with a new habit of making the pasta dish his whole dinner, with no meat dish following.  This was unthinkable in Brooklyn, and my father used to laugh at the ignorance of Gentiles who thought pasta was dinner.  But these days he says he’s lost his appetite for meat, and a dish of pasta is plenty for his dinner.  “One or the other is enough for me.”  Well, I have 4 inches and 30 pounds on the guy, and he eats a dish of pasta at least twice the size of mine.  No wonder he has no “appetite” for meat afterward—like a kid who fills up on carbs.  An American sense of individualism has vitiated his Old World sense of tradition.  I, for my part, remain true to the Tradition he impressed upon me in impressionable youth.  You, Gentle Reader, I leave to your own culinary conscience, for  be it egg or pasta that you choose, it’ll be better than zucchini bread.