19 August 2014

The Zucchini Project: Julia Childs' Zucchini Tian

This isn't my first post attempting to address the love/hate relationship gardeners have with zucchini.  We grow it because we know we won't fail (a nuclear bomb might not kill the zucchini plants in my yard), but we quickly grow tired of the squash these prolific plants produce, from mid-summer well into fall.  When I don't plant zucchini seeds, I still end up with more than I crave thanks to neighbors who just can't seem to kick the habit. But you know what?  It's fresh food, pesticide free and straight from the garden.  So I'm not going to complain anymore. And neither should you.

I have posted a few recipes utilizing zucchini in (sometimes) creative ways this year and in years past, and they are referenced below for your reading pleasure.  But just so you can see that I'm not cheating here, I'm going to come up with a new recipe to use zucchini/summer squash every week that we still have them growing in the garden. Lord help me.

Today's recipe is an adaptation from a Julia Childs classic. The zucchini flavor (yes, it does exist) really stands out amidst this gooey, bubbling, comforting casserole that can stand on its own or pair as a hearty side dish to meats.  Mine adds a little acid and some herbs along with some added crunch on top to create a slightly more interesting bite.

Julia Childs' Zucchini Tian (with liberties)

Serve 6-8

2 to 2 1/2 pounds zucchini, trimmed and grated
1/2 cup plain white rice
1 cup chopped onions
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon herbes de Provence
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups warm liquid: zucchini juices plus milk, heated in a pan (watch this closely so that it doesn't curdle)
2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese (save 2 tablespoons for later)
juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 cup fine breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper

Place the grated zucchini in a colander over a bowl to catch liquid. Toss with about a teaspoon of salt, mixing thoroughly. Let the squash drain 3 or 4 minutes, or until you are ready to proceed. Just before cooking, squeeze dry with your hands. 

While the shredded zucchini is draining, drop the rice into boiling salted water, bring rapidly back to the boil, and boil exactly 5 minutes; drain and set aside.

In a large frying pan, cook the onions over medium heat in the oil for about 10 minutes until tender and starting to brown. Stir in the grated and dried zucchini, herbes de Provence, and garlic. Toss and turn for 5 to 6 minutes until the zucchini is almost tender. Sprinkle in the flour, stir over moderate heat for 2 minutes, and remove from heat.

Gradually stir in the 2 1/2 cups warm liquid (zucchini juices plus milk, heated gently in a pan -- don't let it get so hot that the milk curdles!). Make sure the flour is well blended and smooth.

Remove from the heat, stir in the blanched rice and all but 2 tablespoons of the cheese. Add black pepper and more salt, if necessary, to taste. Turn into buttered baking dish and cook for about 30 minutes at 425F or until tian is bubbling and most liquid has been absorbed. Remove from oven, squeeze the lemon evenly over the top, scatter the breadcrumbs and remaining cheese evenly over the top, and return to oven to cook another 10 minutes, or until the surface is golden brown.  Allow to cool about 5 minutes before serving.

Past zucchini recipes from DFT...

“Fried” Squash Pasta

Mock Apple Cobbler

Summer Squash “Lasagna”

Zucchini Fritters

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15 August 2014

Downtown Chicago in 48 hours

I just got back from an inspiring National Flute Association convention, where I joined a new music commissioning consortium, played some tunes, and got up close and personal with one of the craziest ensembles I've had the privilege of seeing perform.  This all happened in the swanky (and uber-expensive) Hilton Chicago, so of course, I didn't get out of the building much, but I managed to spy a few deals and steal a quick, satisfying moment here and there to enjoy the lake breeze.  If you're headed there in the future, there are a few spots I can recommend:

It's pricey staying downtown, no matter what you do.  But for a much lower price you can get a private room in Hostelling International's downtown location that comes with a free breakfast, too!  The facility is very conveniently located, clean, friendly, and well-secured at night.

Next door, stuff your face with beautiful pressed sandwiches, homemade soups, and Cuban-style coffee for prices you usually only find in the outer 'burbs at Cafecito. I went twice: once for the traditional Cubano (roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles), and again for the Chimichurri (steak, tomato, and super-garlicky chimichurri sauce).  The grilled cheese with guava was awfully tempting, though...

Want to pig out on delicious eggs?  Go to Yolk (which I reviewed a couple of years ago.)

Booze is expensive in fancy hotels. Gino's East South Loop has deep dish pizza, if you eat that crap, but they also have a great list of local beers, something I never thought I'd see catch on when I was growing up in Chicagoland in the 80s.  So, go here, because you know someone you're with is going to want to eat that ridiculous pizza-casserole. Then you can walk a few blocks towards the lake and hear some great bands at Buddy Guy's Legends.  It's a little touristy, but the music is legit.

If you are in no hurry (really, the service is terrible), stop by the old crusty Artist's Cafe across the street from the Art Institute museum and school.  The cappuccino is the best, and the decor is old-school Chicago:

Touristy stuff to do along Lake Michigan, in no particular order: visit Millenium Park and gawk at the weird interactive art, stare at the giant metal bean, and run through the fountains; go to the Art Institute, for goodness' sake!; rent city bikes and ride along Lake Michigan; visit the museum campus, which includes the Shedd Acquarium, Adler Planitarium, and The Field Museum; go to a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert; visit the amazingly beautiful public library at State Street and Congress; shop for stuff on State Street; people watch in Grant Park (and on summer mornings, hear the Grant Park Symphony rehearse for free); visit the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Michigan and Harrison; take advantage of public transportation as often as you can, because it will take you anywhere you need to go!

This is all within walking distance, basically up and down Michigan Avenue and thereabouts, but you can see it all on a map here

05 August 2014

The apple cobbler that isn't . . .

My friend stopped by for a visit on the way home from a music conference, and at a potluck she attended, one of the guests brought in a delicious, bubbly fruit cobbler.  As people were eating it, the cook said "hey, guess what the fruit is in this dessert?" The general consensus was that it was apple, but guess what?  It was ZUCCHINI!  And I thought, "that is brilliant!  This has to go on my list of ways to use up all the neighbor's zucchini that I am already sick of eating", or words to that effect. There might have been swearing in the original, but you don't need to hear that.

With some cursory online research and willing guinea pigs at home, I came up with this pretty believable version.  The genius trick of cooking the zucchini in lemon juice and sugar to give it the tartness of an apple came from Taste of Home, by the way.  And that is probably the only time I will ever call them geniuses.

Baked Zucchini Cobbler

Serves 12

8 peeled, sliced zucchini (should be sliced into ¼” coins, then cut in half)
¾ cup lemon juice
1 teaspoon nutmeg
½ cup sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup whole wheat flout
1 cup rolled oats
½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
2/3 cup butter, softened

Place zucchini and lemon juice in a large saucepan.  Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until zucchini is soft, about 15 minutes.  Add nutmeg, cinnamon, and sugar; stir constantly until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and pour into a greased 13 x 9-inch baking pan.

Place all topping ingredients in a bowl and combine with your hands until it’s a little crumbly.  Pat evenly over zucchini.  Bake at 375°F for 50 minutes or until topping is golden brown.

02 August 2014

Western Wyoming sights, and my favorite travel links

Water rushing into the sink at Sinks Canyon State Park. 

Last weekend I spent three blissful days travelling around near-Western Wyoming. What I learned:

Casper has a new(ish) Vietnamese place called Pho Saigon, and it is delicious.  It's in a grubby little strip mall area in the middle of town and has that characteristic Asian immigrant restaurant look to it (so, not pretty inside), but the food is great, the portions are huge, and you will definitely not need another meal for at least 12 hours.  I got Bun Cha Gio (egg roll, vermicelli, vegetables, lime, chili, and fish sauce).  I thought I would explode.

Wonder Bar (also in Casper) is home of Wyoming State Brewery and has a great statewide tap takeover going on right now.  $5 gets you three 6 oz. samples of any Wyoming brew you want to try, which is a mad deal.  I loved Black Tooth Saddle Bronc Brown the most, but everything was worth drinking. (The current taps are to the left, and this menu was printed on the back of some recycled financial document.)

The only place to get shakes in Shoshoni now is at Fat Boy's.  You can't miss it, because I think it's the only restaurant open. I got a small chocolate marshmallow with extra malt and I still can't stop thinking about it.

Hot Springs State Park in Thermopolis can be completely free.  There is no entrance fee and the public pool, kept at a cozy 104 degrees, is free and unbelievably clean.  There are long hikes, short hikes, a bison viewing area, and a walk along the river.  I can't believe you could live in Thermopolis and this would be your city park. Here's a little photo I took of the trailhead of my morning hike on the outskirts of the park:
Jason has finally found his true home in Thermopolis.

Sinks Canyon State Park in Lander is also free and offers two long (4- and 6-mile) hikes along with a lot of gawking near water.  It is also a geologist's dream, so if you like rocks and stuff, you should go.

The Sink of Sinks Canyon State Park

NOLS is in Lander, too, and they'll rent you a room for $15/day if classes are not in session.  Last weekend classes were in session, and it was a no-go.  We didn't call ahead, but you could.  It was OK, though, because Lander Brewing Company was within walking distance to console us. Adjacent Gannett Grill has great burgers for lunch.

I found a couple of apps particularly useful on the road:

Gas Buddy locates all nearby gas stations with current prices so you can be as cheap as you want to be.

Hotels.com has an app that connects to your account to credit you nights toward a free stay when you spot a place and want to book it without missing out on the deal. And their prices are often lower.

And for your longer-term planning:

Smart Travel has great guides and tips, and I find this poster of classic American road trips so inspiring.  I want to do one every summer!