Zucchini Spice Bread

Well, I did it. In my exuberance about having a vegetable garden at last (one year into our tenancy in our very own house, N. built us a few raised beds and I treated myself to a few varieties of heirloom seeds), I brought home a little zucchini plant from the garden store.

The first time I planted zucchini, it did what zucchini does: it grew so many squash for us that, halfway into summer, and after grilling, stuffing, roasting, and frying, I filled every baking dish in my kitchen with batter and looked for new friends so I had new possibilities for offloading all the loaves and cakes and muffins my happy plant had obligingly helped me produce.

The second time I planted zucchini, which was only a year or so later, about seventy percent of our potential squashes got about three inches long, then turned yellow at the blossom end, softened, and shriveled. Unwilling to dive into experimental hand pollination, I sighed and concentrated on tomatoes instead.

So I was delighted when, in a different garden and a different state, this spring’s zucchini plant proved the adage about third times and charms, as it perked its little leaves up and started to produce its familiar little orange blossoms. And then it got bigger, and I celebrated our first little courgettes. And then it made more. And its leaves reached the size of small umbrellas. Its flowers would have fit a full four-ounce mini-log of goat cheese and had room to spare. Suddenly, underneath those spiky umbrella-sized leaves and fragile, pollen-dusted blossoms, I was facing down an army of tiny squashes and remembering why so many avid home gardeners leave laundry baskets of zucchini on their neighbors’ porches in the summer.

It was time to bake zucchini bread. Fortunately, I have a pretty foolproof recipe, a zucchini spice loaf from the thick and dependable Bon Appetit Cookbook, and that is fine. But I wanted to play. My recipe calls for vegetable oil, cinnamon, and chopped toasted nuts. Oil is a good choice for quickbreads, especially if the loaf also contains nuts, because it’s 100% fat and thus keeps the bread moist. But the best banana bread I’ve ever had, bought from a roadside stand in Maui, was advertised as containing all butter. I wondered if, with a little tinkering, I could bring that buttery perfection to my zucchini loaf.

Converting from oil to butter requires a little calculation – butter is not 100% fat; it’s a mix of fat and water, so you need more butter than oil if you’re substituting. Since the oil is liquid when it’s incorporated into the batter, the butter would need to be as well, and if we were already melting it, well, we might as well go the extra step and brown it. This would also evaporate that pesky water in there, leaving us with 100% fat again.

That sorted, and wanting to keep things toasty and rich, I replaced half the granulated sugar called for in the original recipe with brown sugar, added some tart dried cherries for extra interest, and replaced the cinnamon with cardamom for a bright kick that played well with the fruit. And how was it? Well, so far we’ve sliced our way through three loaves of the stuff and I wouldn’t say no to another piece.

Should you decide to make your own (or if you’ve been the victim – I mean recipient – of some of your neighbors’ zucchini harvest), know this: this is quite a thick batter, almost like soft cookie dough rather than cake. There’s not a lot of liquid in the mix – just eggs and the melted butter – and I think that’s why the recipe doesn’t require any draining of zucchini shreds before you fold them in. They add just enough juice of their own to keep the loaf dense but tender after an agonizing hour and a half in the oven. That means, all told, this is at least a two hour endeavor, which might entice you to skip the initial steps of toasting the nuts and browning the butter. Don’t be tempted. Both really to enhance the flavor in a way it would be a shame to miss.

As is frequently the case for quickbreads, this is delightful on its own, sliced right from the loaf. It stays reasonably fresh wrapped in aluminum foil on the counter for 3-4 days. If, however, it starts to feel a little stale, or if you’ve overbaked it a touch, I’ll just remind you that a smear of cream cheese rectifies many sins…

 

Zucchini Spice Bread
Adapted from The Bon Appetit Cookbook
Makes 1 large loaf
2–2½ hours
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
3 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 lightly packed cup brown sugar
16 tablespoons butter (2 sticks)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups grated zucchini
1 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans, toasted
1 cup dried tart cherries or chopped dried apricots

 

  • Spray or butter a 9x5x3 inch loaf pan, and preheat your oven to 350F. This is a good opportunity to toast the nuts – they are usually ready by the time the oven reaches its target temperature. Once they are lightly browned and smell fragrant, set them aside to cool.
  • For the batter, first brown the butter. To do this, place the sticks of butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and let them melt and bubble. First, there will be a lot of foam on top. Then it will clear to liquid gold, then you’ll start to see a lot of clear bubbles stacked atop one another. Keep waiting and stirring occasionally. Eventually you’ll start to see some darker yellow residue, then pale brown, then almost bronze bits mixed in with the clear melted butter when you stir. As soon as these bits look bronze, turn off the heat and remove the pan to allow it to cool. If you get antsy, you can put the pan in the freezer for a few minutes.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cardamom, baking soda, and baking powder. In a larger bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), use an electric mixer or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer to beat the eggs until very well combined and foamy on top. Gradually add the granulated sugar and the brown sugar, then mix until pale and thick, about 4 minutes. It will look almost like you are on your way to meringue. Add the vanilla and the cooled brown butter, beating well to combine.
  • Now incorporate the dry ingredients in three additions, beating just until combined. The batter will be very thick. Stir in the grated zucchini, then fold in the nuts and dried fruit, if using.
  • Pour and scrape the thick batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake in the preheated 350F oven until the top is dry and crusty, and the center is cooked through and a toothpick or cake tester inserted emerges with only a moist crumb attached. This will take about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
  • Let cool in the pan at least 10 minutes to avoid breakage, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool completely before slicing.

Stone fruit and herb sangria

Summer is here. All that stands between me and falling deeply, fully, thankfully into it is one class of final essays and a little bit of paperwork. And then! It’s all soaking up sun and aimless wandering on the beach and all the vacation I can stomach. No, wait, that’s someone else’s life. For me it’s gardening and finalizing an article and planning a class and, well, okay, vacationing. But more on that later…

In celebration of the summer hanging just out of reach, I thought a nice little beverage might fit the bill. The inspiration for this one came a couple of Sundays ago, as we had lunch with M., a friend from graduate school who happened to be in town for an extended birthday voyage. We decided the occasion merited drinks with lunch, and I had a sangria that, oddly, is NOT the direct inspiration of this one. Rather, as we clinked forks and glasses, M. told me about her favorite way of making the drink in question, which involved stone fruit and herbs – her preference is sage; here I’ve used thyme as I tend to find sage a mite strong, but you could easily do both. This drink is easy to play with.

Typically sangria involves wine, fruit, and something a touch stronger to fortify it like brandy or liqueur. It gets lightly sweetened, and the fruit is allowed to steep a while to soak up some of the liquid. M. replaces the typical apples and oranges with stone fruit, and rather than the usual simple syrup she uses a spoon or two of apricot preserves, which very cleverly reinforces the stone fruit flavor while sweetening the drink.

Between the preserves and the fruit pieces, which break down a little bit as they sit in the wine, this isn’t a crystal clear brew. But it is crystal clear that it deserves to be drunk. It is bright and light – a perfect aperitif – and would pair well with almost any snack you can think of: flatbread, crostini, savory cheeses, maybe some cold salmon, and definitely the wine-soaked fruit at the bottom of your glass. As my sister noted when I sent her a preview photo, “Looks delightful. A+ Would drink.” Some people like to top up their sangria with sparkling water or lemonade. I do not, but you can if you want to. This is, after all, your summer.

* a note for serving: I used a champagne glass here for presentation purposes and loved the look of it, but once loaded with fruit, it held an unsatisfying quantity of actual drink. I’d suggest a wine glass or even a tumbler. Additionally, while the slices of peach looked very pretty, smaller chunks are a little easier to navigate both while pouring and in the glass itself.

 

Stone Fruit and Herb Sangria
I wouldn’t dare estimate how many people you like to serve out of one bottle of white wine…
At least 2½ hours (mostly time chilling), but could be prepared as much as a day in advance
750ml bottle crisp white wine (I used a vinho verde from Portugal, which was slightly effervescent)
2 tablespoons peach or apricot preserves
3-4 large sprigs of thyme or sage
3 ripe peaches or other stone fruit, pitted but not skinned, cut into thin slices or chunks as you desire
½ a lemon, thinly sliced or cut into chunks
optional: ¼ cup orange liqueur or limoncello
ice plus extra herb sprigs to serve
sparkling water or lemonade to serve, if desired

 

  • In a small pot, combine the preserves with about ¼ cup of the wine and the thyme or sage. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the preserves melt down and emulsify, so to speak, into the wine.
  • While this mixture is simmering, put the peaches and lemons into a large pitcher or punch bowl, then add the hot wine and preserves mixture, including the herb sprigs. Add the remaining wine and the liqueur, if using.
  • Refrigerate until cold; at least two hours is enough, but overnight is even better to let flavors mingle.
  • Serve over ice, being sure to get some of the fruit into your glass. Add an extra sprig of thyme or sage if desired, and top up with sparkling water or lemonade if that’s your thing.

Chopped Challenge #4: Green Gazpacho “Shooters” with Mayonnaise Toasts

Course: appetizer

Ingredients: sourdough bread, buttermilk, mayonnaise, ginger

Unlike other Chopped Challenges N. has issued me, this one emerged Athena-like: fully formed and near immediately (though admittedly without the headache). Though the most commonly recognized form of gazpacho is tomato-based, as I offered to you last fall, a green version, usually blended with bread for viscosity and sometimes with some kind of acidic dairy product (more typically yogurt), is also reasonably well known. Thus two of my requisite ingredients were already attended to.

Though the green iteration of this cold soup can include anything from tomatillos to green bell peppers, I decided on cucumbers for the crisp, liquid coolness, and grapes for a sweet touch that I thought would go well with the ginger. To keep things feeling savory, a few scallions made their way into the mix, as well as a handful of parsley for an herbaceous flavor and a more brilliant green color.

As for the mayonnaise, a traditional gazpacho incorporates generous glugs of olive oil, and what else is mayonnaise if not another fat source, already emulsified in itself? The few tablespoons I decided to allow in the soup didn’t feel like adequate representation of the ingredient, so I sliced up the other half of the sourdough batard, slicked it with a thin layer of mayo, and toasted it under the broiler for a warm, crunchy accompaniment to provide contrast. For aesthetic value and interest, as you can see, I dolloped in a touch of yogurt and a few halved grapes just before serving.

We found this tasty, and I think it would be an incredibly refreshing first offering at an outdoor gathering, particularly fun served in tall shot glasses (perhaps without the garnish) for cool, quick sipping. It wasn’t our absolute favorite, though I must admit its flavor improved given a night in the fridge to let the flavors intensify. Straight out of the blender it will taste quite sweet, but after the requisite minimum of two hours’ chill time, it edges back toward the savory side as the cucumber asserts itself. We found the buttermilk needed a touch of help from some vinegar for the right tang, and the ginger in my version was surprisingly mild, so I’m offering a range in my ingredient list below; aim high if you want a more assertively spiced soup.

Green Gazpacho “Shooters” with Mayonnaise Toasts
Serves 6 as an appetizer
2½ hours (includes chilling time)
For gazpacho:
1 cup crumbled or torn sourdough bread
1 cup buttermilk
3 small seedless cucumbers (I like the Persian variety)
1 cup seedless green grapes
3-4 scallions, white and pale green parts
⅓ cup parsley leaves and stems, or a combination of parsley and mint
1-2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
For toasts:
Thin slices of sourdough
Mayonnaise to spread
To serve:
Dollops of yogurt, optional
A few additional green grapes, halved, optional
Snipped chives, or individual parsley and/or mint leaves, optional

 

  • To make the gazpacho, combine the torn or crumbled sourdough and the buttermilk in a bowl and let sit 10-20 minutes. Meanwhile, cut the cucumbers and scallions into rough chunks and add to a blender with the grapes, parsley (or parsley and mint), ginger, mayonnaise, and vinegar. After the bread and buttermilk have soaked, add this as well and blend until smooth. Return to the bowl (or just keep it in the blender, if you prefer) and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or overnight for more intense flavor.
  • When you are ready to serve, preheat your broiler and spread the slices of sourdough with a very thin layer of mayonnaise, being careful to get it all the way to the edges (otherwise burning results, as you can see from a few of mine). Set the toasts in a single layer on a broiler pan or other oven-safe tray and broil just until they are lightly browned and just starting to become crisp.
  • Pour or ladle the gazpacho into small bowls or glasses, garnish with a dollop of yogurt, a leaf or two of complementary herbs, or a few fresh grape halves, and serve with the toasts on the side.

Miso Butter Broiled Shiitakes

It has been a busy couple of months. I’m getting used to the lack of cooking companion in my doorway, watching intently as food moves from countertop to stove (and sometimes to the floor – much consternation resulted!), and I’m slowly regaining that urge to putter around and experiment in the kitchen. I didn’t know how much this part of my life would be impacted by the absence of a big, golden dog.

But anyway, in addition to that change, we’ve also been busy planning our summer (more on that soon…), and working through the semester, and at the end of April, N. crossed a huge item off his bucket list as he successfully finished the Eugene Marathon! Not only was this a major accomplishment for him; it also provided the inspiration for this post. During that weekend, we stayed with our friends S. and M., and as part of a Friday evening happy hour spread, S. made these mushroom caps, smeared with a mixture of miso paste and butter, broiled until charcoal black but so savory and deep and perfect we could barely keep our fingers away long enough to let them cool. They were a restaurant recreation of hers, from an appetizer at a local izakaya, and I haven’t stopped thinking about them since. On a long, slow Saturday, punctuated by errands and an intense summer travel planning session, they seemed the right late-afternoon accompaniment to a glass of pinot noir.

The ingredient list here is unusually short, for me: shiitake mushrooms, miso, butter. Maybe a shower of chives, if you want a little color and hint of onion-y freshness on top. The mushrooms are stemmed, the miso and butter are whisked or smeared or stirred together, the mixture gets liberally frosted onto the gills of the shiitakes, and into the broiler they go. 5-10 minutes later, you are dispensing small, homely saucers approximately the temperature of the molten center of the earth, but so incredibly savory and chewy and crusty and almost too salty in just the right way, that if you are anything like me, you will already have eaten a few in the kitchen before anyone else knew they were ready.

When you broil miso and butter together, some of the intense mixture seeps down into the mushroom as it softens and barely cooks through, but much of it remains trapped in the enclosing folds of the cap, where the butter bubbles and the miso takes on an appealing char not unlike the crusty exterior of a grilled steak.

The trickiest part of the whole procedure is managing your broiler. You want the mushrooms to cook, but you also want the deep browning on top, and since every broiler is so different, I’ve included below only the most basic of instructions. Yours might do best on low, or on high, and it might take as few as four or as many as ten minutes for satisfactory results. In any case, I’d say to let them go a tiny bit longer than you think you need to, because I promise it isn’t burning; it’s just getting better.

Miso Butter Broiled Shiitakes
10-15 minutes, depending on your broiler
For 8 shiitake caps:
8 large shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
2 tablespoons red miso paste (or use white for a less intense miso flavor)
4-5 tablespoons softened (not melted) unsalted butter
sprinkle of chives to garnish, optional

 

  • Preheat your broiler. I set mine to low with the rack closest to the broiler element. Broilers are all so different, so you might need to experiment a bit.
  • In a small bowl, combine the miso paste and softened butter with a flexible rubber spatula. Mix and smash and stir until the butter and miso are homogenized.
  • Using the same spatula, fill each cap with the miso and butter mixture. Depending on the shape of your shiitakes, you might have more or less room to fill. Mine were quite roomy and I used almost all of the mixture. If yours are small or flattish, you will probably have miso butter left over. May I suggest an amazing spread for avocado toast?
  • Arrange the filled mushroom caps evenly, with space in between, on a broiler-safe tray or pan. Broil until the miso and butter mixture is bubbly and very, very dark – it will look a little burned – and the mushroom caps have softened and flattened a bit. Again, broilers are so different. On low, mine took about 7 minutes. Play with yours and judge accordingly.
  • Remove from the oven and let sit 1-2 minutes, until they are no longer the temperature of fresh lava. Sprinkle with chives if desired, scoop onto a decorative plate, and consume immediately.

Fake-out “beef and broccoli” over brown rice cakes

I fell off the wagon in a big way. I know. Between the time of the semester and the recent loss of my best canine kitchen helper*, I haven’t felt particularly inspired in the kitchen as of late. And I’m behind on my Chopped Challenges. The producer/judge has been informed of this and is apparently “cooking” up a basket for me… But I do have one little triumph I’d like to offer.

I tend to vehemently resist foods that try to be other foods – I like tofu and tempeh, but I like them for what they are, not as “fake meat.” I’ll happily buy both soy-based sausages and bratwurst in the same shopping trip, because I like the taste of each one. So it’s not really common for me to concoct vegetarian meals for the purpose of substitution or imitation. But when, a few weeks ago, I unceremoniously tipped a few tablespoons of oyster sauce over a skillet full of well browned mushrooms and kale and the result tasted almost exactly like a plate of beef and broccoli from a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, and when we spent the part of the evening usually reserved for reluctant washing of dishes instead picking the leftovers out of the skillet, I decided this one was worth sharing.

Recently I’ve discussed my new obsession of crisping rice in the pan before serving, and as the owner of a new stove with magnificently hot burners, this practice is getting easier and more dependable, and I just can’t. stop. doing. it. Here, I thought the crisp nuttiness of the rice would be a great flavor and textural contrast to the vegetables and their savory sauce. In lieu of a fancy ring mold, I packed steaming spoonfuls of cooked brown rice into a biscuit cutter, pressing the rice down firmly to create a disc that stayed together, before levering it carefully a pan of extremely hot oil to brown and crisp on each side.

It’s a classy looking presentation, too, if you’re careful enough that the cakes stay together during transport, as you can stack or fan the cakes artfully across a plate or platter before smothering them with their umami-laden topping.

For a light dinner (but heavy in flavor), we didn’t think this needed another thing, but if you want added substance, a good bowl of won ton or hot and sour soup as a lead-in certainly wouldn’t be amiss.

* At the very end of March, after much discussion and heartache, we let our Lucy go. She was almost fifteen and her quality of life was beginning to diminish due to mobility problems and increasingly frequent infections that were becoming resistant to antibiotics. Don’t worry, though; we sent her out with true foodie-style aplomb: on her last day she had bacon for breakfast, and a big slice of chocolate cake after a lunch of chicken, rice, and broccoli bits (her favorite vegetable), because why not? Eventually, her remains will fertilize and hopefully help grow a raucous mix of wildflowers in the back corner of our yard, beneath a pink trumpet tree. We think she would like that.

She couldn’t stand like this anymore, but this was her favorite way to be in the kitchen with me: interested and close to the food.

Fake-out “beef” and “broccoli” on brown rice cakes
Serves 2-3
About 60 minutes (brown rice takes a while…)
1 cup raw brown rice
24 ounces crimini mushrooms
8 ounces kale
about 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2-3 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce or to taste
black pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons sliced green onion tops, dark green parts only

 

  • Cook the 1 cup brown rice according to package directions. I always use my rice cooker, where it takes 45-50 minutes. You’ll prep and cook everything else while it is working. When it finishes, remove the lid of the cooking vessel to let it cool slightly, and stir in the 1-2 tablespoons sliced green onions.
  • Preheat the oven to 400F. As soon as you turn it on, line a sheet tray with aluminum foil, drizzle on 2 tablespoons olive oil, then put that in the oven while it preheats, so the oil is hot when the mushrooms are ready.
  • While the oven and the pan heat, prep the vegetables: stem the mushrooms, wipe the caps gently if they seem dirty, then quarter each one. Remove the central tough stem from the kale and chop into bite-size or slightly larger pieces (it will wilt down a bit as it cooks), and set aside. Slice up the green onions and set them aside as well.
  • When the oven has preheated, carefully remove the oiled pan, add the mushrooms and a little more oil, then place back into the oven. Roast at 400F for 20 minutes, remove and pour off any collected liquid, gently toss the mushrooms, and return to the oven to roast for another 20 minutes. They will be deeply browned, a bit wrinkled, and concentrated in flavor.
  • When the mushrooms have about 10 minutes to go, heat a scant 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the kale all at once and let it cook down for a minute or two, then toss in about 1 tablespoon water to help. Wilt until it is as tender as you like; I like a bit of bite in there still, so I only cook it for 3-4 minutes.
  • When the mushrooms and kale are finished cooking, add the mushrooms to the skillet with the kale, stir in the oyster sauce (start with 2 tablespoons – it is strong), then season to taste with soy sauce, black pepper, and/or more oyster sauce as you wish. Set aside (if you want fewer dishes, dump the vegetable mix back onto the sheet tray you cooked the mushrooms on, turn off the oven, and put the tray back inside – the residual heat will keep things toasty while you finish the dish. Meanwhile, quickly wash out the skillet, dry, and continue as directed below.)
  • To make the rice cakes, heat the final 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over high heat until the oil is shimmering and almost smoking. While it warms, if you haven’t done so already, mix the 1-2 tablespoons sliced green onions in with the rice. Pack about ⅓ cup rice into a 3 inch ring mold or biscuit cutter set on a cutting board that can handle the heat, pressing down very firmly with the back of a spoon. Carefully remove the cutter; if you’ve packed tightly enough, the rice should stay together. Repeat until you have sufficient rice cakes; plan for 2-3 each (I found 2 per person was perfect; I think N. would happily have gone for a third).
  • Use a spatula to carefully transport the rice cakes from cutting board to skillet one at a time. Once they are in the skillet, do not adjust or move them. Turn the heat down to medium-high, and let them sit and sizzle for 3 minutes without disturbing them. This is essential for structural integrity.
  • After 3 minutes undisturbed, gently but firmly flip each rice cake using a thin spatula, and cook another 3 minutes until nicely browned on both sides.
  • To serve, arrange rice cakes on a plate as desired, add a few scoops of kale and mushroom mixture on top, and eat immediately.