Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Stuffed Zucchini And A Realization..........

Cookbooks and cooking magazines are practically an addiction of mine. They completely fill up a huge bookshelf that my dad built for me that sits in my kitchen, and they peek out from various desks, blankets and other odd places throughout our house. Most have post-its popping out of the tops, marking the recipes that, when I first saw them, I couldn't WAIT to try out.

Well now, of course, I see the squares of colored paper looking at me, waving like "Hey..weren't you going to make the Pappardelle with Boar Ragu at the next dinner party???" or "I thought you were dying to make this Tarte Tatin??" Don't get me wrong- there are still fewer things I enjoy more than sitting on the sofa with a good cookbook, slowly digesting the information, marveling at the beautiful photographs and daydreaming about how and when I'll make a particular dish, but lately.....well, I've been cooking a lot based on inspiration. It's strange really- I used to be the type that either cooked something super simple (open jar of pasta sauce, boil pasta) or followed an intricate recipe exactly, but now I find myself cooking with instinct. Cooking based on what I feel like eating, which flavors I want to taste, which techniques I like to use......which, wow......must mean that all those years of cooking-by-the-book and watching my parents in action must be paying off!! I mean, I don't mean to brag, and I don't feel it's bragging......it's just more of a realization. Over the last couple of weeks, I've been making a lot of simple, uncomplicated yet really delicious and hit-the-spot dishes, using my instincts only. The smell of Autumn inspired me to go out and get a nice, organic butternut squash which I cubed, tossed with olive oil, salt, minced garlic, lots of cracked pepper and thyme, then roasted in the same pan as a bone-in, skin on chicken breast rubbed with a similar mix of seasonings. The skin rendered down a bit while baking and coated the squash which caramelized into a deep, golden brown. The sweet, creamy squash and crisp, savory chicken were seriously a match made in heaven. Paired off with a simple stuffing I created using a stale, cubed wheat batard, reconstituted porcini mushrooms, criminis, stock, porcini water, white wine, garlic, leeks and celery, it felt like Thanksgiving on a regular ol' night at home in front of the TV. This all coming from the girl who once thought that recipes with fewer than 15 ingredients were too simple and not worth the time. How lame was I???

Which brings me to last night. Awhile back, when I was reading one of my favorite food blogs, Chocolate & Zucchini, I saw a post on some adorable stuffed zucchini- featuring little round ones exactly like those I had just bought at the farmer's market. I didn't remember the exact recipe while I was shopping, but I did know it involved a grain of some sort, and having bought a bag of farro the week before, I knew I wanted to test that combination out. When I did check her recipe online, it turned out that she had used quinoa. So, using her recipe more for inspiration and not exact instruction, I made my twist on the dish.

As Clotilde did in her version, I cut the tops off and hollowed out each zucchini, saving the "meat" for the filling. After a light brushing of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, they went into a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes while I prepared the rest of the dish. I salted the zucchini "meat" and squeezed it in a paper towel to release all of the liquid, then sautéed it with some chopped red onion, olive oil and salt. After adding a splash of vermouth and letting it evaporate, I mixed it in a bowl of cooked farro (which I had boiled in chicken broth), then added a small scoop of ricotta, a heaping cup of homemade tomato sauce, a nice grating of sharp parmesan and a handful of fresh, chopped basil. After filling each baked zucchini to the rim with this farro filling, I put the zucchini back into the oven for another 12 minutes to warm through.

Although the tomato sauce and zucchini flavors reminded me of summer, the warmth and heartiness of a baked grain dish made it the perfect supper for a cool Autumn night. This makes a perfect vegetarian main dish or would also be an attractive (and delicious!) side dish to grilled fish or roasted meat.

SO what's the point of this very long post? I suppose it's just a happy recounting of how I learned to really cook after years of thinking I was really cooking. Make sense? I mean, don't get me wrong- the next time I have a dinner party it doesn't mean I won't reach for my Bouchon cookbook and try out a new recipe, but I realize now that sometimes instinct can be the best guide.


santos. said...

what a lovely post. i think once that lightbulb goes off and you realize that you actually can cook--and not in the most perfunctory of ways--it's such a wonderful feeling that you've accomplished something. because you have--it has been years of training, from watching your family or from reading cookbooks and magazines, and from experimentation and practice. it's the best education, and when a moment like this comes it's like a private graduation day. that's not to say this moment won't happen again, but now you know you're ready for the master classes :)

Chubbypanda said...

Hooray! I once asked my grandmother if she read cookbooks for inspiration and she told me that all a really good cook needs is to be familiar with her ingredients and comfortable cooking them. Looks like you're there. Congrats!

Tokyoastrogirl said...

Hey Santos,

Thanks for such a nice comment. You still in Los Angeles??