Chopped Challenge #6: Mystery Basket Revealed!

Course: entree

Ingredients: orzo pasta, onion, red wine, anchovies

 

What would you make? Give me your ideas in the comments, then come back tomorrow to see how I fit them all together…

(Note: tomorrow’s post will go live in the afternoon, not in the morning as per usual.)

 

* for an explanation of this year’s challenge concept, take a look at this post.

 

Lamb Stuffed Zucchini

The last week of summer is a curious avalanche of light melancholy and nervous action. I’m caught between the post-vacation-slump of wanting to curl and laze and bake my mind in nothing, and the deep itch of my protestant work ethic demanding I Get. Things. Done. before school starts.

So I cautiously plan in small doses, and I soothe the anxious itch that rears up when I am “wasting” time by consuming novels in gulps, to make up for reading little during the rest of the summer. I’m struck by Jesmyn Ward and Tommy Orange, and just this morning I fell back down into the entrancing, haunted wonderland that is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, inspired in part by this suggested reading list for white Americans assembled by a group of black writers. When I saw Morrison’s perhaps most famous novel on the list, I was brought back to an interview she did with Stephen Colbert in which she describes looking through her book for the right page to autograph for a reader, telling him “I looked down and there were these sentences.” I needed to read those sentences again. I burrowed through the first fifty pages this morning and now that itch is to open the book again.

But I do have other obligations, and one of them is to the final, late summer push of my miraculous zucchini plant. It flourished in our absence, our friend who was on plant-watering duties taking home several swollen specimens, and offering another few to our neighbors, and then suddenly, with only two large, hidden bats remaining, took a gasping breath and shuddered to a… pause? A stop? I think it will produce a few more, maybe, but its time seems limited.

That being the case, there was little time to waste in sharing my biggest zucchini triumph of the summer with you, in case you, too, have a few dark green baseball bats you aren’t sure how to consume.

Rather than an accompaniment or a burying-ground, this recipe uses the zucchini as a vessel. Ground lamb, seared and spiced and liberally tossed with toasted pine nuts, golden raisins, chick peas, preserved lemon, feta crumbles, and as much grassy, bright dill as you can handle, gets piled into the scraped-out cavity of the monstrous squash. A mound of oiled breadcrumbs on top is not a necessity, but what a luxury.

This may seem like a lot of ingredients, but they really play together well. Lamb with dill is obviously a winner, but if you haven’t tried lamb with golden raisins, I insist that you make it a priority – they add a perfect sweetness and here, soak up some of the fat from the meat so they are juicy and plump in the final product. The feta and preserved lemon each contribute a nice brininess – I wouldn’t forgo either, though if you don’t have preserved lemon (and are unwilling to make it yourself), plenty of zest might fill in reasonably well. I initially added chick peas as a way of stretching the lamb, and you certainly don’t need them, but they provide a nice lightness of their own and, I think, eradicate any need for a side of starch. Though we ate ours overflowing segments with garlic-rubbed toast and were quite happy.

I like to think this filling has a life of its own beyond zucchini, which is what makes it so nice. A well-hollowed eggplant would work nicely as well, maybe a cored bell pepper, and as the days shorten and hopefully cool, a carefully carved butternut or kabocha squash. Or you could just ignore the vegetables entirely and use the lamb mixture (maybe minus the chick peas) as a loose filling for a take on stuffed shells, or ravioli, or just tossed gently with rigatoni and a few glugs of sauce.

Lamb Stuffed Zucchini
Serves 6-8 with filling left over
About an hour
1 very large zucchini squash
a maximum of ½ cup olive oil (you probably will not use all of it)
salt and pepper to taste
⅓ cup pine nuts
1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
15 ounce can chick peas, drained and rinsed
½ cup golden raisins
2-3 tablespoons finely diced preserved lemon
3-4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill (you could sub with an equal amount of mint or about half as much oregano, if you don’t like dill)
4 ounces crumbled feta
¾-1 cup panko bread crumbs

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F and line a large baking tray with aluminum foil. Split the zucchini in half lengthwise so you have two long, rounded planks with seeds exposed. Scrape out the seeds and some of the interior flesh with a metal spoon. Discard the scrapings and place the remaining “boats” on the baking tray. Lightly coat them with olive oil before seasoning liberally with salt and pepper. When the oven is preheated, put in the zucchini-laden baking tray and let them roast about 20 minutes while you start the filling. After 20 minutes, remove from the oven and set aside.
  • To make the filling, first heat about 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium pan and add the pine nuts. Toast over medium heat, stirring and checking often, until they are nicely golden. Be careful; they burn quickly. When toasted to your liking, set them aside.
  • In the same pan, still on medium heat, add a little bit more oil and then your ground lamb. Use a flat-sided wooden spoon, if you have one, to break it up, then sprinkle over the allspice, cayenne pepper, and a bit of salt to season. Let it cook, stirring and turning and continuing to break up large chunks, until no longer pink in the center.
  • When the lamb is just cooked through, stir in the chick peas and the golden raisins, turn the heat down to medium-low, and let it go another five minutes. This lets the new additions pick up some flavor. After five minutes, remove from heat and drain off any excess fat.
  • To the now-cooked lamb, add the toasted pine nuts, the preserved lemon, the dill, and the feta, stirring well to combine everything. Taste for seasoning and add salt and more cayenne pepper, if needed. When you are satisfied with the flavor, scoop the filling into the empty, partially-cooked zucchini halves. I like to mound it up a bit. It will be crumbly because there is no binder.
  • In a small bowl, toss the panko bread crumbs with enough olive oil to coat them well. Pack spoonfuls on top of the lamb filling and exposed zucchini flesh.
  • Carefully place the laden tray back into the oven, turn the temperature down to 375F, and roast for 25-35 minutes, until the panko is deeply bronzed and the flesh of the zucchini pierces easily with a fork.
  • Let cool about 5 minutes before slicing and serving large segments.

 

Simple Spiced Rice

What, you were expecting Italian or French food?

As I know I’ve noted before, when we come home from any kind of vacation, even though I’m often flooded with food inspiration, we tend to start out with simple dishes; it takes a week or so to reorient myself to the kitchen and be prepared to let those inspired ideas actualize. Besides, at least for this vacation, there have been so many photos to edit I haven’t had much time for the kitchen…

So this time around, I was making a simple pot of rice as a side. But you know me: I can’t just make a plain pot of white rice. So as I put the water on to boil, I added a couple of bay leaves. Then after a minute or two, I plopped in some peppercorns as well. And as we were eating the perfumed grains, lightly warmed by the peppercorns, I thought some cracked cardamom pods would make a nice addition.

There you are, then. Simple spiced rice. The bay and cardamom are quite subtle (enhanced by an overnight stay in the fridge, if you’re looking for do-ahead), and the peppercorns add warmth that is not quite spicy. It’s simple, but it’s a really nice upgrade for a pot of rice you might, say, serve with tandoori chicken or kebabs or saag paneer, as we did.

The only downside, as N. would hasten to tell you, given the chance, is that there are an awful lot of whole peppercorns in the scoop you level onto your plate, and crunching one of those between your teeth is exciting, but not necessarily in that pleasurable way. You miiiiiight want to spend a minute or two in extraction duty before you start your meal.

Simple Spiced Rice
About 20 minutes
Serves 4-6
3 cups cold water
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaves
4-6 green cardamom pods, lightly cracked
1½ cups long-grain white rice, such as basmati
optional: salt to taste, and a pat of butter to serve

 

  • Pour the water into a medium pot, then add the peppercorns, bay leaves, and cardamom pods. Put the lid onto the pot and bring the water to a boil.
  • When the water reaches a rolling boil, add the rice, stir to break up any clumps that form and to distribute the spices, then lower the heat until the water is just simmering.
  • Simmer over low or medium-low heat until the water is absorbed and the rice grains are just soft in the middle, around 15 minutes. At some point during the simmer, the water will likely threaten to boil over. Just take the lid off, stir gently, and replace the lid again.
  • Serve hot, with a sprinkle of salt and/or a pat of butter if desired.

 

Reflections

Well, we are back. After two and a half weeks roaming France and Italy, we returned with tired feet, dazzled eyes, full minds, and happy stomachs. And since there’s no way, since our flight landed on Friday and we’ve barely unpacked yet (though I’ve made a pretty good start catching up on the TV I’ve recorded – the Colosseum out of gingerbread? Did you see it? I WAS IN THE REAL ONE A WEEK AGO! – ahem), that I’m going to have a recipe for you today, I thought instead I’d share a few food-based reflections and revelations from our trip.

In no particular order:

Prosciutto and butter sandwiches are really, really good. Especially when they are on fresh, high-quality bread. I know, prosciutto is already fatty. But that fat, combined with the saltiness of the meat and the sweet, creamy butter, is perfection. I thought briefly about the merits of adding something fresh, like arugula or sliced cucumber, but it wouldn’t be right to tangle with perfection. If you must, have a side salad instead.

French and Italian croissants are quite different. Both are delicious and rich and buttery, but they are clearly distinct. French croissants are devastatingly flaky and crisp on the outside, with delicate, soft-but-separate layers inside. Sometimes they contain chocolate, but those are a different shape – the classic crescent croissant wrap is just for the plain and original. Italian croissants, on the other hand, often have fillings. Apricot is pretty common, and I had one with pistachio cream inside that I’m still thinking about. The lurid green oozing out was a bit of a shock at first, but it was a stellar flavor. To that end, Italian croissants tend to run a bit sweeter than their French counterparts, and they are breadier inside – more like brioche or challah. The layers are still there, but they aren’t as distinct. Sometimes the exterior is swept with a sweet glaze, which renders a less shattering bite.

Rosé is just the best. I already knew this, but when you can sit down at any French café, say “rosé, s’il vous plait,” and wind up with a moderate-to-great glass of wine, often for less than 5 euros, it gets even greater.

Though my go-to remains rosé, my new favorite summer cocktail is an Aperol spritz. Everywhere we went in Italy, from lunchtime on I saw people sipping on large, bright, almost salmon-colored cocktails with half-slices of orange sunk inside. I finally figured out this was an Aperol spritz, a combination of Aperol, an herb-infused Italian aperitif, prosecco, and soda water. Sometimes the spritz is made with Campari instead, which is a bit more bitter than Aperol. It’s intensely refreshing, not terribly alcoholic, and pairs well with every savory snack I can think of.

This is really N.’s revelation more than mine, but tarte aux citron is an amazing dessert. More specifically, the tarte aux citron with passionfruit sorbet and lemon gel he allowed me to share at a bistro in Arles is an amazing dessert. I read about this spot, a more affordable kind of sister to the playground restaurant of one of France’s very well known chefs. Since we were staying in Arles, I knew I wanted that to be our splurge dinner, and when the chef himself very kindly talked the seating manager into giving us a table (what? Get a reservation? It didn’t even occur to us), we were in for a lovely dining experience. N. concluded his meal with this tarte, which arrived as a wide slice of lemon curd and piped, perfectly toasted meringue atop a crumbly just-sweet crust, accompanied by a perfect quenelle of intensely flavored sorbet and mouth-puckering dots of lemon gel. I’m now charged with recreating at least the pastry portion. More on that as developments arise, I suspect…

In summertime in Italy, “grilled vegetables” on anything, from sandwich to pasta, means you are going to get zucchini and eggplant.

Italian food is just really… simple. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just good, fresh ingredients, cooked well, and that’s that. With a few exceptions for aesthetic appeal, there isn’t a tremendous amount of manipulation to the ingredients, and at least in what we wound up ordering, there aren’t that many of them in any one dish. This results in pure flavors: you can taste almost everything the cook used.

Polpo. Or poulpe, depending on which country you’re in. This is my new favorite seafood. It might be my new favorite food. I’ve eaten octopus before – in fact, it’s one of the foods that made me realize even as a child that I was not a picky eater. But I haven’t had it very often, and where it is served in the U.S. it tends to be out of our typical restaurant price range. It’s a difficult protein to cook, since it can take on the texture of rubber bands if it isn’t cooked correctly. We were fortunate enough to have octopus cooked perfectly in two meals. Once was at that French bistro I mentioned above, when lovely chunks of the stuff were included in my squid ink pasta. The other, and the one that really converted me, was an appetizer we shared on our last night in Venice. The menu description was so spare we didn’t know what to expect: “octopus, potato, tomato, onion.” What we got was a gorgeous plate of food including potato puree well doctored with lemon, fresh, bright tomato sauce, just-burst cherry tomatoes, lightly pickled slips of onion, and two perfect, tender, meaty fingers of octopus that, to me, were reminiscent of nothing more than roast chicken. And I mean that in a good way. So now I’m determined to learn how to cook octopus. Perhaps not for an exact restaurant recreation, but because this heretofore underappreciated meat needs to cross our table much, much more often.

 

Rain Check

Do you think a major rain check is a flood check? A monsoon check? A climate change check?

I’m taking one of those.

Once again, I don’t have a post for you. And I won’t next week either. Or the week after that. But I do have a reason for this.

That’s right. We’re going to Europe. France and Italy, to be exact. And there are so many things we want to see and do, but to be honest with you, because I always try to be honest with you, I think eating tops my list. It’s true; eating is usually right up there, but France? Italy? The pastries. The bread. The cheese. The wine. The pasta. The pastries (oh, did I say that already? Yeah…).

So I obviously won’t be posting (or cooking) while we’re away, but I hope to come back brimming with ideas. If you’d like to follow along on our adventures a little closer to real time, come on over to Instagram: my username there is blackberryeating and I suspect I’ll be recording a lot of what we see and do. And eat.

So au revoir for now, and arrivederci! See you in August.