Perfect Puffballs and Zesty Zucchini
The beauty of being a chef is that you get to challenge yourself to turn something you once despised into something even you can love.
I subversively slipped as many vegetables to the dog under the table as I could, and fostered a special hate-on for two vegetables in particular: zucchini and mushrooms. Soggy, slimy, seedy round slices of limp zucchini. Fleshy, sweaty, bland chunks of mushrooms. They were both reduced to one word in my kid vocabulary: yucky.
The beauty of being an adult is that you get to eat what you like. The beauty of being a chef is that you get to challenge yourself to turn something you once despised into something even you can love.
I start by getting rid of the trait perhaps most offensive to kids and to me: the slime factor. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but slimy things are rarely delicious.
To achieve crisp, zesty zucchini, the critical first step is to remove the seeds. Just like you would with a cucumber, slice the zucchini in half lengthwise, then drag a spoon down the centre of the flesh to clean out the offensive slime-making seeds.
Alternately, slice the zucchini length-wise into quarters. Place each quarter on a cutting board with the skin side down, and with your knife blade parallel to the cutting board, slice along the pointed edge of each quarter to efficiently remove the seeds.
The flavour of zucchini is delicate and, if poorly prepared, blandness can easily result. Your goal is to encourage the very zucchini-ness of the little zucchini soul, wake it up out of its stupor. A fifteen-minute marinade in olive oil and balsamic vinegar is all it takes to shake up this quiet little veg and make it sing.
Mushrooms, of course, come in many varieties and this time of year, my mushroom of choice is the wild puffball. These huge white mounds grow in the forests and gardens throughout the hills and remind me a bit of giant sperm whales: ridiculously oversized, uncommonly seen by most, and very gentle. Choose young puffballs, free of gills and pure white all the way through with no soft spots.
Choose an herb with a similar earthy warmth, such as rosemary or thyme. Above all, be gentle and use a light hand when it comes to seasoning or saucing these over-grown yet demure forest creatures.
Zucchini and mushrooms are summer vegetables and benefit most by using the definitive tool of summer, namely, the out-door grill. Both have a high water content and, as a result, can easily suffer a mushy fate if cooked too long or over too low a temperature.
So be gentle, but firm. If you must sauté them, start with a very hot pan over high heat and toss quickly and briefly. Otherwise, stick with the barbecue and lightly grill just enough to produce a fork-tender, non-slimy vegetable that will reward you with all the fresh taste of summer and perhaps, the biggest reward of all, a “yum” from the kids.
Well, we can dream, can’t we?
Balsamic Grilled Zucchini
3 green zucchini
3 yellow zucchini
2 tbsp grapeseed oil (or vegetable oil)
2 tbsp good olive oil
2 tbsp aged balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp fresh thyme, washed, picked over, and chopped
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
2 tsp kosher salt
Cut tops and bottoms off of the zucchini to remove the woody nibs. Slice lengthwise in half, then each half again to make 4 long pie-shaped segments.
Place the skin side of each ¼-piece of zucchini on the cutting board. The seeds will be in the top piece of each of these strips. Turn your knife parallel to the cutting board and drag your knife horizontally along the length of the zucchini, cutting away the seeds.
Place all the pieces of de-seeded zucchini in a bowl. Put all the other ingredients in a separate bowl and mix well. Pour marinade over the vegetables and let marinade for 15 minutes, tossing a few times.
Remove from marinade, let drain for a couple minutes.
Cook over medium heat on a preheated barbeque, removing from the heat while still a bit tough. Cut into more manageable-sized pieces. Drizzle with a bit of very good olive oil, check seasoning and serve!
Serves 6 as a side dish.