Zucchini blossoms take a stuffing

zuke flowers2

Zucchini blossoms were the jewels of the market last week, fat bouquets of them piled on a farmers table, glowing green, gold and orange in the afternoon light.

We had come to the Watsonville farmers market in search of Mexican produce and found our share of glossy poblano peppers, leafy ezpazote to cook with beans and crunchy purslane, or verdolaga in Spanish.  But the gorgeous zucchini blossoms, celebrated all over the Mediterranean as well as in Latin America, were irresistible.  They’re only available in the market for a few weeks every year – about the time everyone has hit their limit of the prolific squash.  We went home with two bunches.

Not until we were driving home did I begin to think about what I would do with my treasures.  Continue reading Zucchini blossoms take a stuffing

Jam making for the rest of us

pluot jam1

As much as I adore homemade jam, I’ve always considered it an enormous gamble.  The more I invested in time and ingredients the higher were the odds I would end up with a runny syrup or a rubbery mass better suited for Gummi Bears than toast.  Perfect preserves eluded me.

Neither the old-fashioned cookbooks I inherited from my mom nor the new crop of canning guides and web sites were much help.   Most of their recipes relied on commercial pectin and called for specific amounts of sugar and fruit, stated in cups.  All advised checking whether the jam had set by watching it drip off a spoon or cling to a chilled plate – imprecise measures at best for the uninitiated.

Then I ran across Russ Parsons’ advice in the Los Angeles Times this summer and everything began to make sense.  He offered a simple ratio for making small batches of jam using equal weights of sugar and whatever fruit you have on hand.  Because you cook a limited amount of preserves at a time in a non-stick skillet, it’s easy to tell whether it’s ready just by watching the syrupy mixture become thick and glossy as you stir.  Flavors are also fresher. Continue reading Jam making for the rest of us

Moroccan salad from the grill

Moroccan salad

I didn’t grow up eating eggplant.  In my family, broccoli was about as exotic as produce got.  But I was hooked the first time I tasted the  Mediterranean vegetable in a slow-cooked ratatouille served by a friend.

Properly prepared eggplant is a luscious vegetable with the texture of velvet and a mild flavor that harmonizes beautifully with late season tomatoes and peppers. Throughout the summer, we often grill long, slender Asian eggplants to accompany a piece of fish or meat for dinner.

So I was intrigued by the idea of grilling the ingredients  for a Moroccan vegetable salad when I ran across an old recipe in my files from Jozseph Shultz, owner of the recently resurrected India Joze cafe in Santa Cruz.  His directions called for stir-frying the vegetables in a wok.

After a little research in Claudia Roden’s “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food,” (Knopff. 2000),  I decided to turn up the heat as well by seasoning the dressing with cumin and a touch of harissa, a fiery Moroccan chile paste now in available many markets.

The result is a lively salad packed with all the best flavors of late August.  Grilling adds a nice smoky note to the eggplant and brings out the sweetness of the peppers and onions.

This salad works well as a side dish at dinner but is substantial enough to serve as a light lunch or a vegetarian pot luck offering. Although it can be made ahead and refrigerated, I  like it best at room temperature.   Just take it out of the fridge about half an hour or so before serving to let the flavors blossom.

Serves 6

2 slender Asian eggplants (about 1 pound)
1 red bell pepper
1 green bell pepper
1 medium red onion
2 medium zucchini
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided use
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon harissa or more to taste (See Note)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 large tomato, chopped
½ cup Italian parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped

Slice eggplants, peppers, onion and zucchini in half vertically, spearing the onion crosswise with a bamboo skewer or toothpicks to hold the layers together.  Brush the vegetables with 2 tablespoons of the oil and season lightly with salt and pepper.  Grill over medium heat, turning as necessary, until eggplants just begin to collapse in on themselves and the onions and zucchini are tender.  The peppers should blacken and blister on the skin side. Remove vegetables from grill and place peppers in a sealed paper bag for 10 or 15 minutes, until they’re cool enough to handle and peel.  Cut the eggplant, zucchini and peeled peppers into bite-sized chunks. Slice the onion lengthwise into slivers.

Whisk together the remaining olive oil, vinegar, garlic, harissa and cumin in a small bowl.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  The dressing should be spicy but not incendiary.

Combine the vegetables with the dressing in a large bowl.  Add the chopped tomato, parsley and mint.  Toss gently until well mixed and serve.

Note: Harissa is available in Middle Eastern markets and specialty grocers like Whole Foods.  If you can’t find it, though, you may substitute the more widely available Asian chile paste known as sambal oelek or a mixture of paprika and ground chile (not chili powder).

Aleta Watson with inspiration from Jozseph Schultz

Bread and tomatoes for late summer feast


In the waning weeks of summer vacation, with the days already getting shorter and the first day of school on the horizon, few of us want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen.  Now is the time to make the most of the incredible bounty of the August garden.

I’m talking tomatoes, here, of course.  As far as I’m concerned, nothing compares to the deep, sun-warmed flavor and chin dripping juiciness of a freshly picked tomato.  Whether it’s a salty, smoky Cherokee Purple or a nicely acidic Early Girl, a good tomato needs very little help to make a good meal.

A couple of slabs of ripe tomato and a sprinkle of salt is the perfect mid-summer lunch.  Add toasted bread and a salty bit of cured pork and you have a simple feast of the season that crosses continents and cultures.  In America, it’s a BLT.  In Spain, it’s pan con tomate, or bread with tomato. Continue reading Bread and tomatoes for late summer feast

Savory cake with goat cheese


Sometimes, inspiration comes just when you need it.   I had returned from a wonderful Bakers Dozen tour of Harley Farms in Pescadero last month and was pondering what I could bake with the fabulous goat cheese I had scored when I spotted an article in the New York Times about the French enthusiasm for savory quick breads.

Cakes salés–savory cakes–is the French term for these popular breads laced with cheese, meat and even vegetables.  They’re homey loaves, as easy to stir together as muffins, and they’re served at picnics, parties and potlucks in Paris and beyond.  Sliced or cut into cubes, they make terrific nibbles with a glass of cool wine on a summer afternoon. Continue reading Savory cake with goat cheese