Sunday, August 3, 2014

Around the world in 80 plates

Well, we didn't serve--or eat--that many dishes, but we were international!

A few weeks ago, we had a Bon Voyage party for my daughter, J. She's spending her senior year of high school in Sweden as a Rotary Exchange student. Ten months is a long time for any of us to be without our Boo, so we wanted to say goodbye in style.

I told her the theme of the party was "My Favorite Things" (cue the Julie Andrews vinyl), but in reality, I wanted her to have some last tastes of her favorite foods while surrounded by her favorite people. Those tastes just happen to be international. I didn't want to make a Swedish meal as she would be eating that--and then some--for the next 10 months.
(OK, Princess Cake for dessert was a concession, but that was her idea). And since she's a vegetarian, I wanted to make a vegetable-based main dish to accompany the burgers and chicken we grilled for the carnivores. (Note to self--the Tandoori marinade recipe for the chicken was popular but bit too sweet for my tastes, the Carribean too bland).

Thinking, thinking, thinking...and then, in the parking lot of the pan-Asian grocery store, I was inspired: Windischgirl's More-ish Stuffed Zucchini. Actually, there's a pun there: it's More-ish and Moor-ish, having been inspired by a recipe from Eva Zane's Middle Eastern Cookery. Ok, ok, so the original recipe claims to be Armenian, more Balkan than African, but with Windischgirl's spin on flavors, it could be from anywhere along the Mediterranean Sea.

This became a family favorite during those summer days when neighbors and friends would surreptitiously place overgrown zucchini before our door. You know the kind: the size of a baseball bat with a core like the innards of a hotel pillow. Of course, I can't throw anything away, so I had to do something. And this was it.

It's actually rather magical: simple ingredients combine in a synergistic way, yielding nuanced and compelling flavors. It can also be an opportunity to use up leftover cooked grains and beans. And this time we made ahead and froze until party time; it reheated nicely in a slow oven, wrapped in foil, until the festivities started.

More-ish Stuffed Zucchini
adapted from 'Middle Eastern Cookery" by Eva Zane.

2 large zucchini, about 3/4 lb each, or one behemoth (for the party I used 5 medium zukes, each about 10-12 inches long and less than 2 inches in diameter)
2 c. cooked brown lentils, although other small beans, such as great northerns or black beans, can be used
2 c. cooked grain--I like bulgur best but have also used brown rice, barley, or whole-wheat couscous
2 Tb. olive oil, or as needed--I use a flavorful Tunisian variety
3 stalks celery, diced (a medium onion for you allium fans)
1 clove garlic, crushed
salt, pepper, cumin, thyme, cinnamon, about 1 to 1 1/2 tsp each, to taste
pinch of allspice or cloves
1/3 to 1/2 c. each chopped fresh parsley and chives
Lemon juice to taste
1 c. shredded extra-sharp cheddar
1 c. chopped walnuts

Scrub the zucchini well, trim the stem end, and slice lengthwise. Now we need to parcook them. I take the lazy way out and place the zukes cut side down in a pyrex dish with 1/3 water and microwave for about 5 minutes, or until the flesh gives when tested with a knife (you can do the same by placing the zukes in boiling water for about 3 minutes). Let cool, cut side up.

Get your large bowl handy. Leaving about a 1/2 inch shell, scoop out the pulp of the zucchini, picking out and discarding any overly large seeds, and chop the pulp. Place the chopped pulp into the bowl and add in the lentils and grain, and combine. Taste. Surprising, isn't it? And we haven't even started yet.

In a saute pan, heat the olive oil and saute the celery (or onion) and garlic until tender. Add to the bowl. Now get seasoning--salt and pepper at first. Add in thyme, fresh if you have it, dried if you don't. Stir. Taste. Add in the savory spices: cumin, cinnamon, allspice or cloves. Squeeze in the juice of half a lemon if it needs a bit of brightening. Taste. Stir in the chopped parley and chives for color. Taste. When you are happy with the flavors--deep, savory, exotic, mysterious--it's stuffing time.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Place the zucchini, cut side up, in a baking pan. Spoon the filling into the shells, pressing down and packing it, gradually mounding the filling; be generous now. There may be extra, which I just eat as it is, scooped up into a pita if I have them, but which could also be stuffed into a pepper or tomato and baked alongside the zukes.

Top the stuffed zucchini with the shredded cheese, patting it down so it sticks. Sprinkle the chopped walnuts on top, also patting them so they stay put. Cover with foil and bake 20 minutes, until heated through, then remove the foil and bake 5 more, or until the cheese is browned. Cut into sections--a 3-inch wide piece is a serving in our house--and eat, alongside a tomato salad.

Just finished a Skype conversation with our daughter and her host family. She is all smiles, having fun exploring her new environment and starting to accent her conversation with Swedish words. She also enjoyed her first meal in Sweden: pasta salad and chicken.

Which means she's no longer a vegetarian. That was quick!

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