Zucchini Abundance

It is that time of year again, when the zucchinis are big and the harvest is bountiful. If you have a garden of your own, or you know someone who grows zucchini, you are probably trying to think up ways to use it all. And if you aren’t so lucky, find a farmers’ market and buy some. Zucchini season is here!

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Try making Oven Crisped Zucchini.

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Or pick up a few summer tomatoes and make Lemon Pasta with Zucchini Ribbons.

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Or, for something sweet, make Lemon Zucchini Muffins.

What’s your favorite zucchini recipe?

Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto

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I was wandering the produce section of the grocery store last Friday, in search of sun-dried tomatoes – they have rearranged since the last time I bought them. I finally found them, hiding behind the grapefruit. Alongside the packages of dried tomatoes were jars of sun-dried tomato pesto and other tomato based spreads. I was tempted, since I had never bought the pesto before, but I decided to make my own after looking at the ingredients on a jar – water, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, sugar, salt and various thickeners. I figured I could make my own and it would be better, and cheaper.

I whirled the dried tomatoes in the food processor, along with two cloves of garlic. I ended up with a processor full of tiny, sticky bits of tomatoes. I added olive oil and whirled it again. Now I had a processor full of tiny, oily bits of tomatoes. The pesto definitely needed more moisture. I didn’t want to make it too oily by adding more olive oil, so I thought of adding boiling water to rehydrate the tomatoes. Probably if I had been smart, I would have done that as my very first step. My way worked, after many tries of adding a tablespoon of water and processing and then adding another tablespoon. I think I was too hesitant at first. I used almost a half cup of water, but I ended up with a lovely, smooth paste. I tasted it and it was flat and one-dimensional.

After adding a pinch of sugar to offset the acidity of the tomatoes, as well as a little salt and pepper, it still needed something. Traditional basil pesto has pine nuts, so I figured I should add a few nuts. I didn’t have any pine nuts and pecans seemed a perfect partner for sun-dried tomatoes, so I threw in a few and whirled it again. Pretty much perfection – intense, almost meaty, tomato flavor, with richness from the pecans. The garlic was a little sharp, so I will probably use only one clove next time. Especially if I am going to use it raw, as a spread for bread or tossed with hot pasta.

I ended up with more than a cup of tomato pesto and a little goes a long way – I am looking forward to figuring out how to use my stash. I already used some as a layer inside stuffed chicken (post coming Friday) and am planning on spreading a thin layer on pizza instead of our regular tomato sauce. And then I might make crostini with a layer of the tomato pesto and a sprinkling of goat cheese or Parmesan cheese. I tried a version of that right after I made the pesto, and it was good, but it would have been better after a minute under the broiler to toast the bread and melt the cheese.

What would you make with sun-dried tomato pesto?

Download or print recipe here.

Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto
From The Cook’s Life
Makes about 1 cup

Use in chicken dishes, as a different kind of pizza sauce, stirred into hot pasta or spread on crostini for an appetizer.

Adjust the garlic and olive oil amounts to suit your tastes. Two cloves makes it very garlicky, one will be milder. More olive oil will produce a richer paste. Feel free to use any nuts you prefer – I like the rich sweetness of pecans with the tomatoes.

3 ounces dry packed sun-dried tomatoes
1-2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons pecan halves
salt
pepper
1-2 teaspoons sugar, optional
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
¼-½ cup boiling water, approximately

Whirl tomatoes, garlic and pecans in a food processor until finely chopped. Add salt, pepper and sugar, if using, to taste, along with 2-3 tablespoons olive oil and process again. If tomatoes are really dry, and you just have oily bits instead of a paste, add about ¼ cup of boiling water and process again. Continue adding water and processing until you have a mostly smooth paste. Store in the fridge in a tightly covered container for up to a week. Freeze for longer storage.

Roasted Garlic

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I get so hung up in trying new recipes and making up recipes that I forget to highlight techniques and easy things that can really enhance a dish. I love garlic, but it can be kind of harsh and overpowering sometimes. Roasting garlic can bring out all of its inherent sweetness, and it couldn’t be easier.

This one isn’t even worth a recipe, just a description of the process. Take a whole head of garlic and peel off most of the outer paper covering. Make sure you leave enough to keep the whole thing together. Snip off the very tips of each clove with kitchen shears or nip them off with a sharp knife. Place the garlic in a small pan and drizzle with just a bit of olive oil. Bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes, or until cloves feel soft inside when pressed. If garlic is getting too brown before it gets soft, cover the pan with foil for the last few minutes of cooking. Once the garlic is soft, let it cool enough to handle and squeeze the soft, roasted garlic out of each clove like squeezing a tube of toothpaste. If your garlic isn’t quite soft enough, like my last batch, run a knife through it to chop it into small pieces.

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You now have a stash of rich, nutty garlic paste to add to pizza or pasta sauce, spread onto pizza crust instead of sauce, add to rubs for meat or add to butter or olive oil to make killer garlic bread.

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Be sure you double wrap it in the fridge, or store it in double containers, to contain the garlic aroma. You don’t want your garlicky goodness to take over your entire fridge, especially your butter. While garlic bread is good, garlic-tainted butter on your breakfast toast isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Olive Oil Focaccia

 

I love making up names for recipes. It is so easy to make it sound fancy and gourmet. Olive oil focaccia sounds so much better than leftover pizza dough flatbread. Gourmet name aside, this recipe couldn’t be easier. I took half of my recipe of no-knead whole wheat pizza dough and made a killer loaf of bread, if I say so myself– slightly crispy on top, soft in the middle and fragrant with olive oil.

In case you missed the description of this dough in my original pizza post – this dough is truly no-knead, plus you can mix it up in about five minutes, and it can rise for anywhere from two hours to twenty-four. Make the dough fit into your schedule, instead of changing yours to fit the dough’s.

I mixed this up in the early afternoon and left it on the counter for about four hours before I used it. I meant to let it rise in the pan for about half an hour, while I made pizza with the other half of the dough. I ended up getting distracted and it rose for more than an hour. It worked beautifully.

Even if you have never made bread or worked with yeast before, you can make this bread. Buy some yeast, get out the flour and start baking. And please post in the comments to let me know how it worked for you or if you have any questions.

Olive Oil Focaccia
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 2 9 or 10-inch loaves

You can let this rise for up to twenty-four hours before you shape it and bake it. Let it rise in the fridge if you are letting it rise for more than four hours.

3 cups white whole wheat flour (or all-purpose flour)
½ cup all-purpose flour (unbleached preferred)
1 package yeast (2 ¼ teaspoons)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1-1 ½ cups water, approximately
Olive oil for drizzling and serving

Put all ingredients except water in your largest bowl. Add 1 cup water and stir to combine. If there is still dry flour, add water, a couple of tablespoons at a time, until a very wet dough forms. You aren’t looking for batter here, but a dough. It will be too soft to knead and look quite wet. Once everything is well combined, beat and mix the dough with your spoon or spatula for a minute or so. Cover dough with plastic wrap and put in the fridge or leave on the counter. If it is rising on the counter, you might need to stir the dough down every couple of hours if it is filling the bowl. Stir it a few times and re-cover. If it is in the fridge, just leave it to do its thing.

Lightly grease 2 10-inch cast iron skillets, round cake pans or a baking sheet. Use the pans you have – if you only have 8-inch round pans, your loaves will just be a little taller.  If you use the baking sheet, your loaves might be a little more freeform, and not perfectly round – which is fine.

Sprinkle the dough with flour and work the flour down around the edge of the bowl with a spatula. Divide the dough in half with a spatula or dough scraper. Scrape half of the dough into each pan. Sprinkle the top with flour and pat it to the edges of the pans, or to about 1 ½ inches thick, if you are using a baking sheet. Add more flour if the dough sticks to your hands. Flour your fingertips and poke holes into the surface of the dough. Drizzle the top with olive oil. Set dough aside, uncovered, to rise for anywhere from 30-60 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees about 15 minutes before you want to bake. Sprinkle the loaves lightly with salt and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the top is lightly browned and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.

Serve hot, with extra olive oil for dipping. Store any leftovers for a day or two at room temperature, in a plastic bag. The crust will soften, but it will re-crisp if you heat the bread in a 300 degree oven for 5-10 minutes, loosely covered with foil. Freeze for longer storage.

Download the recipe here.

One Zucchini and Three Tomatoes Lead to Pizza

 

Last Saturday we were trying to decide what we wanted to make for dinner. We didn’t really want to go to the store, and we wanted to make something new and different. We decided on pizza, but we wanted to change up the toppings to make something more interesting than our usual pepperoni or pesto pizza.

Part of cooking, and coming up with new recipes, is thinking about what you know how to do and how you can change it. This doesn’t always work if you are trying to change a baking recipe, since the ratios and chemistry matter – but with pizza or most dinner recipes, you don’t have to be as careful. Start by looking through pantry and fridge to see what you have on hand.

Our kitchen search uncovered one zucchini, a few small garden tomatoes, garlic paste, part of a container of fresh mozzarella pearls, a small chunk of part-skim mozzarella and a big chunk of Parmesan (Sam’s is a great place to get this for a great price).

The garlic paste was left over from our anniversary dinner at a tapas restaurant (Modesto for you St. Louis readers – definitely worth a trip). One of the dishes we ordered was fried garlic. We had expected to get a plate of chopped garlic that had been cooked with oil. We were surprised when we got several skewers filled with deep fried whole garlic cloves. They were sweet and nutty, but with a definite garlic kick when smeared on bread. We ate about three cloves each and had at least 20 to take home. I mashed them with a fork, and froze the resulting paste to use later – tripled bagged to keep the aromas from invading the freezer.

The paste was too thick to spread on our soft dough, so I mixed it with a little olive oil, but it was still too stiff. I didn’t want to add more oil, so I added a bit of white wine. Then I added some grated Parmesan for flavor, which made it too thick again. More wine and it was ready to spread.

We topped the garlic paste with thin slices of the zucchini and tomatoes. I wanted to avoid any possibility of crunchy zucchini, so after I sliced it, I spread it in a single layer on a plate and microwaved it for a couple of minutes, until the slices were starting to soften. We topped the veggies with a scattering of mozzarella pearls and a thin layer of grated part-skim mozzarella. A dusting of Parmesan and it was ready for the oven.

 

The pizza surpassed our expectations by a mile. The edges of each zucchini slice crisped, and the cheese on top of them browned – resulting in zucchini chips right on top of our pizza. The garlic sauce was the star of the show, though. Even after baking at high heat we could taste the wine, which added a nice flavor dimension. The garlic was a definite presence, but not overpowering. I am definitely going to experiment with roasting a head of garlic or sautéing minced garlic in olive oil to try to recreate the garlic paste without having to deep fry it.

The next time you are looking for ways to bring some interest to your meals, let the inner adventurer free. Think about dishes you have had in restaurants, or recipes you have read. Use the contents of your fridge, pantry and freezer for inspiration. You never know what new favorites you might create.

Have a pizza-making party!

We have good friends we get together with every month or so. With various allergies and picky eaters among the kids, we usually have trouble coming up with something everyone can eat. The last few times we have seen them, we have taken the easy way out and gone out to eat. This time we felt like having a more relaxed evening and staying in to eat. There was still the food conundrum, though. Rich and I came up with homemade pizza as an easy thing to customize, since everyone could have his or her own pizza, or we could divide up bigger pizzas to suit everyone’s tastes.

We started early enough in the afternoon that it worked out well to have everyone in on the cooking. The kids were playing, so the adults made the dough and the sauce and got in some visiting time while the dough was rising. Unfortunately I forgot to take pictures of that part of the fun, but check out this post on pizza for dough pictures and a recipe. If you are doing your own party and don’t want to start in the middle of the afternoon, you can time your dough to be ready when your guests arrive and then you can start building pizzas right away.

When the dough had risen, we pulled out the toppings and called the kids to do their own individual pizzas. With minimal mess and frustrations they each got their own pizzas ready for the oven.

Lesson 1: Flour is your friend when making pizza, as the kids found out.

Three different pizzas ready for the oven: one with no cheese, one with no sauce, and one with no veggies.

The parents had to make do with bigger, communal pizzas since the cast iron skillets were in the oven with the kids’ pizzas. We managed to share just fine!

Lesson 2: You can have too much flour.

Restaurant-worthy pizzas!

A kids vs. dads patio basketball game to work off the pizza before homemade chocolate chip cookies and coffee. Somehow that meant the moms did the dishes. Hmmm, next time I think the moms should take on the kids and let the dads clean up. Or better yet, the kids can do the dishes while the parents relax!

The next time you are having friends over, whether they have kids or not, make it a hands-on pizza party. Everyone ends up in the kitchen anyway – you might as well put them to work let them in on the fun.

Pizza Night

Homemade pizza is part of our regular menu, appearing at least every couple of weeks. I know most people don’t think of making homemade pizza, but it is easier than you think. And you can make it exactly how you like it, and be positive that you know exactly what is going into it.

Pizza when I was growing up was usually homemade. Our recipe came from the pizza my dad’s family made when he was growing up, inviting friends over and making a big party of it. Sounds like the idyllic 50’s, but you can do it, too.

I don’t claim to have any Italian background, or have any sort of ties to “authentic” pizza. Dad’s family is Irish American, via Mississippi, Arkansas and southeastern Missouri. And I have changed the recipe to be almost 100% whole wheat (though you can make it with white flour) and about as easy as possible to make. My pizza doesn’t taste like my mom’s, which doesn’t taste like what my dad’s family made when he was growing up. And yours won’t taste like mine. It will be yours. And that’s the way it should be.

I have been tinkering with this recipe for at least 15 years. I have now come up with a no-knead crust that you can make anywhere from an hour to 18-24 hours before you make dinner. You can mix up the dough the night before, or in the morning before work, store it in the fridge and be ready to make pizza in about the same time you can bake a frozen pizza or place an order for delivery. Or, if you are going to be home, you can stir it up after lunch, and let it rise on the counter until it’s time to make dinner. You will probably need to stir it down at least once, unless you have a huge bowl, if you are leaving it on the counter. The longer you let it rise, the more time it has to develop a more complex flavor, but a couple of hours is certainly sufficient.

Don’t be turned off by the length of the recipe. I tried to include lots of directions and pictures so you will feel comfortable trying this, even if you have never made yeast dough before. Be sure to post in the comments and let me know how it worked for you.

Homemade Pizza

If you don’t have round pizza pans, you can certainly use rectangular baking sheets. Growing up, my mom didn’t get round pizza pans until I was in my teens. To me, homemade pizza always came in square slices. She also used Kraft parmesan cheese, in the green can. Now I usually use freshly grated Parmesan, but every so often a sprinkle of the canned powdered cheese brings back a taste of childhood. I like to make my own sauce so I can control the salt and spices, but jarred sauce works just fine.

Dough:
Makes enough dough for 2 14-inch pizzas with medium thick crusts

3 cups white whole wheat flour (or all-purpose flour)
½ cup all-purpose flour (unbleached preferred)
1 package yeast (2 ¼ teaspoons)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1-1 ½ cups water, approximately

Beginning to mix dough

Put all ingredients except water in your largest bowl. Add 1 cup water and stir to combine. If there is still dry flour, add water, a couple of tablespoons at a time, until a very wet dough forms. You aren’t looking for batter here, but a dough. It will be too soft to knead and look quite wet. Once everything is well combined, beat and mix the dough with your spoon or spatula for a minute or so. Cover dough with

Mixed and ready to rest – see how it still looks pretty wet.

plastic wrap and put in the fridge or leave on the counter. If it is rising on the counter, you might need to stir the dough down every couple of hours if it is filling the bowl. Stir it a few times and re-cover. If it is in the fridge, just leave it to do its thing.

After 2 hours rising at room temperature

If your dough is in the refrigerator, remove it from the fridge and let it sit on the counter 30-60 minutes before you want to use it.

Pizza:
Sauce:
1-2 cups crushed tomatoes, low-sodium or no salt added, if possible
1-4 cloves garlic, diced
1-2 teaspoons brown sugar, packed
1-2 teaspoons dried basil
½-1 teaspoon dried oregano
paprika, few dashes
cayenne, few dashes
salt
pepper

Toppings:
½-3/4 pound part skim mozzarella, grated
Pepperoni, green or red bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, black olives, etc.
Parmesan cheese, freshly grated or in a can

You can see how I worked the flour down along the sides of the bowl to make the dough easier to work with.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Grease your pans fairly heavily. Sprinkle the surface of your dough heavily with flour, work a rubber spatula around the edges of the dough and try to work some flour down the sides of the bowl. Divide the dough in half with a spatula and scrape half on to each pan. Sprinkle each dough portion with flour and begin to press it out with your fingertips to cover the pan. Add more flour if it sticks to

I didn't get all the way to the edge – it will be fine.

your hands. If one piece bounces back, move to the other pan and come back the first after the dough has a minute to relax. Try to get the dough to the outside edges of the pan, but you don’t have to be perfect.

Mix together the sauce ingredients or use already prepared, jarred sauce. Spoon sauce on pressed out dough, using ½-1 cup per pizza. I don’t usually measure it, but just dollop it on and then spread it gently with the back of the spoon.

Sprinkle the mozzarella cheese all over the pizzas. Add your toppings of choice. Sprinkle pizzas with the Parmesan cheese.

Pepperoni pizza ready for the oven

Place pans in oven, staggering them so they aren’t right on top of each other, if they won’t fit on one shelf. Bake for 12-15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and continue cooking another 10-12 minutes, until cheese is browned and bottom of crusts are lightly browned (carefully lift up the edge of one with a spatula to see). If you are baking on two shelves, switch pizzas from top to bottom when you turn the temperature down.

Remove pizzas from oven and let rest for about 5 minutes so they can firm up. Cut and serve while hot.

Download the recipe here.