Monday, September 21, 2009

Zucchini salad and the water problem

The surprise hit at our Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner was a zucchini and tomato salad. My wife generally dislikes zucchini, especially when it is boiled, and I have made a number of salads in the past that have left her completely cold. No amount of harissa, garlic and caraway in a Tunisian style zucchini salad could make up for the water that the vegetable kept exuding after it was mashed, no matter how long and how well we tried to drain it.

One of Claudia Roden's more recent cookbooks, Arabesque, contains an intriguing sounding Moroccan recipe for a salad of zucchini and tomatoes, but it called for the zucchini to be boiled and I knew that it would not go over too well. So, I adapted it with grated, salted and drained and sauteed squash: the process concentrated the flavors, kept the zucchini from oozing water, and ended being the most popular dish at the table. (It does require quite a bit of salt, which is a major staple in our house, so one of our guests was not able to eat it, but we were able to set aside some low-sodium versions of the other salads for him.) The recipe:

Moroccan Zucchini and Tomato Salad:
  1. Wash 1 to 1.5 pounds of zucchini well. (To get out the grit I use Marcella Hazan's method: soak them in water about 10 minutes, rinse, and use your fingernail to scrape off any grit that remains.)
  2. Grate the zucchini and salt well -- use about 1 teaspoon. Leave for 30 minutes to an hour to sweat. It will give off lots of water.
  3. Put the grated zucchini in a colander to drain off the salty water, rinse and drain again, and squeeze out as much moisture as you can with your hands. (Believe me, plenty of salt will still remain.)
  4. Saute the zucchini in about 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a nonstick skillet on medium heat for 10-15 minutes until tender. When almost done, add a mashed clove of garlic, cook a bit more, and set aside.
  5. Halve about 12 ounces of large cherry tomatoes.
  6. Heat 2-3 tablespoons olive oil in a nonstick or impeccably well-seasoned cast iron skillet (mine never seem to achieve the requisite impeccability of seasoning). Place the tomatoes cut side down in the skillet, and cook on medium high heat until they soften and the undersides begin to caramelize. (You have to peek).
  7. Turn down the heat to low and add 4-6 cloves of slice garlic, and saute until the garlic is cooked but not browned, which should take 5 minutes of less. Watch it carefully at this stage.
  8. Combine the zucchini and the tomato and garlic mixture, add a little pepper and taste for salt, just in case.
  9. Serve warm, at room temperature, or cold with bread. You could garnish it with chopped parsley or cilantro, but we forgot to and nobody complained. They were too busy trying to wipe every last bit of the oil out of the serving dish with their challah.
  10. Without the cilantro, which I forgot anyway, there is nothing about the flavors that would prevent you from serving it hot with pasta, perhaps with some chopped fresh basil. Try it and let me know how it turns out.
The water problem:
Just a little food for thought, which applies not only to zucchini but to other foods as well. I maintain, based on no particular scientific evidence, that many flavors are fat soluble rather than water soluble. Spices generally taste better after being sauteed in fat. And, while steamed and boiled veggies have their place, I am not always sure what it is, and there are few, that too my taste, are not better when sauteed or roasted, even using minimal low-fat cooking spray. The fat and dry heat concentrate the flavors, while the water carries them away. The sauteed grated zucchini in this recipe makes a far better side dish than steamed or boiled zucchini, no matter how much butter you put on the latter.
This works for meats as well. In general, a boiled chicken tastes less juicy than a roasted or sauteed one. I think that it is Harold McGee, in his first book, who writes that the sensation of juiciness comes when the fat (or salt or sugar) in food causes us to salivate, and not necessarily from the moisture content of the food itself.

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