August 29, 2018

Dear friends,
Zucchini brings out the curmudgeon in me. I have opinions. I have likes and dislikes.
I don’t like the floppy fried zucchini rounds, unbreaded and dripping with oil, that my mother served us growing up. I kind of sneer at zucchini breads and muffins because what’s the point if you can’t taste the zucchini? And I am anti any zucchini that is more than about 8 inches long. The skin is tough and the seeds become tiddlywinks.

I like just about everything else about this summer squash, which, chameleon-like, soaks up any flavor it touches. I like it stuffed and baked, layered with tomatoes in summer casseroles, cut into batons and tossed in pasta salads, even used as a stand-in for tofu in ma po bean curd.

So I was excited to see what contestants would come up with in the Seville Farm Market’s annual Zucchini Smackdown recently. I got to judge the fun contest this year. I came away with a terrific recipe for zucchini relish. It is sweet, tart and crunchy-good on a cracker smeared with cream cheese. If only I could grow zucchini, I’d made a ton of it.

The recipe was submitted by Laurie Racco of Medina. The winning sample was a family affair, she said, with plenty of spoons in the pot. Racco kindly forked over the recipe. But because gardeners probably have a lot more zucchini than recipes right now, I’m also sharing a recipe for bacon-studded zucchini slaw from my own files.

ZUCCHINI RELISH

5 cups finely chopped zucchini
1 ½ cups finely chopped onion
¾ cup finely chopped green bell pepper
¾ cup finely chopped red bell pepper
¼ cup pickling salt
1 ¾ cups sugar
1 ½ cups white vinegar
¼ cup water
1 tsp. celery seeds
1 tsp. turmeric
½ tsp. mustard seeds
1 or 2 drops green food coloring (optional)

In an extra-large nonmetal bowl, combine zucchini, onion and bell peppers. Sprinkle with pickling salt; toss gently to coat. Add enough cold water to cover vegetables. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to stand at room temperature for 3 hours.

Transfer vegetable mixture to a large colander set in sink. Rinse with cold water; drain.
In an 8- to10-quart stainless steel, enamel, or nonstick pot, combine sugar, vinegar, ¼ cup water, celery seeds, turmeric and mustard seeds. Bring to boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 3 minutes. Add drained zucchini mixture (and food coloring if desired). Return to boiling, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Ladle hot relish into hot, sterilized half-pint jars, leaving ½-inch head space. Process in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes after water returns to boil. Remove jars from canner, cool and rack. Yields 5 half-pint jars.

SWEET AND SOUR ZUCCHINI SLAW
4 slices bacon
2 medium zucchini (8 to 10 oz. each)
Salt
2 tbsp. sugar
1/3 cup cider vinegar
1/2 tsp. caraway seeds

Fry bacon in a 10-inch skillet until crisp. Meanwhile, shred zucchini with a hand grater or a food processor.

Remove bacon from skillet and drain on paper towels. Add shredded zucchini to bacon fat in skillet. Season with salt and stir-fry 2 to 3 minutes, until glossy but still crisp.

Sprinkle sugar over zucchini, add vinegar and stir well. Turn heat to high and boil rapidly until vinegar is almost evaporated. Zucchini should still be fairly crunchy.

Transfer zucchini and any liquid remaining in pan to a bowl. Crumble bacon and stir into zucchini. Stir in caraway seeds. Cool. Serve at room temperature. Makes 4 servings.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Ciabatta pizza with chopped tomatoes, basil, garlic, pesto, mozzarella, feta and Parmesan cheeses; grilled American, feta and fresh mozzarella cheeses on seeded brown bread with pesto, tomato and avocado; Szechuan stir-fry pork with eggplant, yellow squash, carrots, onion and pepper; spaghetti and meat sauce with walnuts.

What I ate in (from) restaurants last week:
Pulled pork, green beans, vinegar slaw and corn muffin from Old Carolina Barbecue in Fairlawn; a California roll, karaage (fried) chicken and salad at Tensuke Market in Columbus; thick lamb chops, garlic mashed potatoes and pan-grilled rainbow carrots at Wise Guys in Akron.

THE MAILBAG
From Maryann:
I have been inspired to work at making my own vanilla extract, as it appears most of the work is putting the vanilla beans into a clean jar with a tight seal and covering it with vodka. I guess I’m a vanilla bean snob, as I really can taste the difference when it is real vanilla, and I use it often.

The question is, where and how do I purchase bulk vanilla beans, how do I know which is the good stuff, and how do I avoid being part of the problem of Americans who, I am told, are decimating the vanilla planters’ business because we want too much vanilla?

Dear Maryann:
Unless you’re planning on going into business, you won’t need to buy vanilla beans in bulk; a big jar of homemade extract requires just five beans. That should simplify your search.

If possible, buy vanilla planifolia beans, also called Bourbon vanilla, which are considered superior to vanilla tahitensis. Most planifolia beans are grown now in Madagascar; and tahitensis in Papua New Guinea, although the orchids that produce both kinds of beans have been planted as far afield as Uganda and even, lately, in California.

Demand for vanilla is very high, and the “decimation” you mention is the result of growers (especially in Madagascar) skipping steps and hurrying beans to market. That has affected the quality of some of the beans. This year’s harvest, which began in July in Madagascar, the premier producer, is expected to be large, which may bring down prices and temper the greed of producers, according to market reports.

Your best bet is to buy from a reputable source, such as West Point Market or vanilla expert Patricia Rain at vanillaqueen.com.

HOMEMADE VANILLA EXTRACT
5 vanilla beans, sliced open lengthwise
2 cups vodka

Place the beans and alcohol in a lidded jar, cover tightly and store in a cool, dark place, shaking once a week. The longer the beans steep, the stronger the vanilla will be. Steep for several months to a year for the best flavor. Pour into decorative bottles if desired, including a piece of vanilla bean in each one. Cap tightly.

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