Update: Added artistic food close-up photos courtesy of my roommate. See them after the jump!
I love to cook and I love food; obviously, or I wouldn’t be doing this. But this is a relatively recent development – in fact, it wasn’t that long ago that I was frying the living hell out of frozen hamburgers on a George Foreman rip-off. I’ve only been cooking seriously for about a year, and for almost all of that time I cooked almost exclusively for myself.
I mean, I like my cooking, but it is hard to see what others will think of it. And, like all people (at least I hope so) I crave praise. So now that I live in the city and cook regularly for other people, each dinner is an exquisite moment, poised between the excitement of possible praise and the looming specter of undercooked pasta (or overcooked vegetables; god, I get a cold sweat just thinking about it).
That feeling is magnified by the process of going off-recipe. As a chef, I’ve generally hewed close to a few cookbooks: Betty Crocker’s Everyday Vegetarian (don’t laugh), the Student’s Vegetarian Cookbook and most of all, Mark Bittman’s invaluable How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. The recipes in these cookbooks are broad ranging and quite tasty; generally I haven’t found the need to anything more than modify them. So there isn’t really a huge push to come up with my own dishes. Also, I have another problem: Imagining a meal has always come relatively easy to me; a dish, on the other hand, is much more difficult. I’ve never had any confirmation of the quality of my palate, and I don’t really have the experience to know exactly how things cook: how much heat, how much time – even what kind of heat doesn’t come completely easy to me.
So long story short: going off-recipe makes me nervous. So, when I was cooking dinner on Sunday, it was with a general sense of unease that I did that. Sort of. I had been giving a general concept; the outlines of an idea. But one has to crawl before one can walk.
And that, dear readers, is a very long intro to this: baked zucchini, stuffed with peppers, tomatos, garlic and bread crumbs.
I saw outlines of this recipe in a chat on washingtonpost.com. Also, Mark Bittman suggests stuffing zucchini with couscous, harissa and olives.
2 zucchini (I used “the smallest big zucchini” – about 2 1/2 inches wide), halve the zucchini and scoop out the seeds
1 tomato (once again, I used another heirloom, this time an orange colored Watermelon Beefsteak with a delicious citrusy flavor), roughly chopped
1 green pepper, diced
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
bread (I used 2 slices of whole wheat I had laying around in the fridge; most recipes suggest french)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Chop the bread in a food processor. You want cubes about 1/2 inch square. Heat the oil in a skillet; add the peppers and cook until they are soft but still toothy. Add the garlic and cook for another minute until fragrant. Remove the pan from the heat, and combine the pepper mix with the bread and tomatoes. Pull the mixture from the pan and mush it into the cavities of the hollowed out squash. Sprinkle with feta. Place the stuffed zucchini in a roasting pan.
This is where it got tricky. The guide I saw suggested baking at 350° “until fork tender.” Bittman suggests 400° for 40 minutes. Ma t/e suggested covering the zucchini with foil. In a desperate attempt to keep everyone happy, I cooked covered, at 400° until fork tender – I think it took about 20-25 minutes. i took the foil off for a few minutes at the end to let the feta brown a little. As the zucchini rested, I seasoned with a grind of pepper and a little pinch of salt.
I thought this turned out great. Once again I got an exasperated roll of the eyes after one too many, “Boy, this turned out nice, didn’t it” remarks. Really though, I think that this dish is more a testament to the quality of the ingredients I used than any particular cooking epiphany on your editor’s part. This is why I always talk about going to the farmer’s market: the peppers, squash and tomatoes I used in this dish were simply amazing. I’ve already mentioned the tomatoes, but the peppers were delicious, and even the zucchini had a little sweetness that I don’t usually see.
Yes, it was a little more expensive than it would have been at the store, but all in all, and it wasn’t that expensive, frankly. $2 for the tomato (it was a big tomato), $1.50 for the zucchini, $.50 for the peppers and $2.00 more for the feta. A little much for a side dish (we had pesto as well, but I believe I have a counterpart on this blog who will describe that), but certainly tasty. And another step closer to overcoming my fear of true culinary improvisation.