One summer’s end, not so long ago, a “friend” brought me a zucchini from his garden. It was as mega as a teenager’s leg; I could have used the seeds to make a necklace.
I know that people sauté these beasts; they make bread out of them; they Parm them. I just didn’t want to do any of that. Plus, I figured this couldn’t be just a U.S. of A problem; summers must end just so in other countries’ gardens.
So, I looked around and found some recipes from Chile, Italy (of course, Italy; that’s where Zucchini got his name), and Brooklyn, all foreign lands that also grapple with the ends of seasons’ superfluity.
This is St John’s way to cook overgrown green vegetables, a melding of parts of three recipes from South and North America both, and Europe. It is delicious; I’ve made it to oohs and ahs a few times now. We will start with the zucchini, with substitutions given for other jolly green giants.
St. John’s ginormous zucchini stew
1 ginormous zucchini (you want to end up with just over 2 pounds of trimmed flesh, seeded if necessary and with some—not all—of the peel removed if the peel is extra-thick and gnarly)
1 rounded tablespoon kosher or sea salt
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
2-3 anchovy filets in oil (optional, though I strongly suggest that you use them)
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup tomato sauce, canned or homemade
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
Healthy pinches of dried green herbs (oregano works, so do herbes de Provence or thyme; rosemary may be a bit strong)
10 medium fresh basil leaves (or the equivalent in fresh mint leaves), torn, with additional basil or mint for garnish, in chiffonade
1 medium or 1/2 large lemon
Cut up the zucchini into 1-inch thick cubes or chunks. Place a colander in the sink, add to it the zucchini pieces, and sprinkle them with the salt, tossing the salt into the zucchini with your hands. Let the zucchini sit there for 20-30 minutes, draining. Before proceeding, pat the pieces with a lot of paper toweling in order to dry them off.
Put a large Dutch oven or similar pot over medium heat. Add the olive oil, garlic, anchovies, and red pepper flakes, stirring. When just sizzling, lower the heat a bit and cook until the garlic is golden and the anchovies have dissolved, 5-7 minutes. Do not brown or burn the garlic. Add the tomato sauce, parsley, herbs, and basil or mint, stirring.
Add the dried-off zucchini pieces and mix everything together well, bringing the lot up to a good simmer. Cover the pot. Lower the burner to the lowest possible flame and cook the zucchini for 2 hours, stirring every half hour in order to combine the flavors but not so vigorously as to break up the ever-softening zucchini. If even the lowest flame on your stovetop is too much – that is to say, if the zucchini mixture is boiling rather than merely simmering, use a heat diffuser or even cook in a slow oven (300-325 degrees).
Remove the lid; turn up the heat. Let any obvious water boil off and stir the vegetables gently a time or two, until there’s a sauce of sorts coating the zucchini pieces, about 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room or ambient temperature, garnished with squeezes of lemon juice and the chiffonade of remaining fresh basil or mint.
Substitutions for the zucchini: 2 pounds, after trimming, of broccoli or cauliflower (2-3 heads); long beans, green beans, pole beans; other summer squash (yellow squash, chayote, pattypan, crookneck); yellow or red bell peppers; or a mixture of any of these including zucchini.
A note on wine:
What makes vegetable dishes difficult to pair with wine is exactly what makes them vegetable dishes: no meat protein or animal fat. Those elements are made for most wines, especially bigger reds with their all-present tannins or oaky, fruity whites.
But vegetable eaters take heart; lots of wines taste great with foods cooked outside the animal protein corral. If you’re eating vegetable dishes, chances are you’re the conscientious or reflective sort—and good for you. So, take the modest way with wine.
The very best wines for vegetables are unassuming, laid-back, lighter whites and reds with elegance and finesse, low in alcohol and bright of acidity. They are, in a real way, like the food they match, food that lived a placid, humble life.
Reach Bill St John at [email protected]