Today: On her 100th birthday, Julia Child shows us how to cut zucchini down to size.
If you want to get me to pay attention to an email, start it off with "the promiscuous zucchini". (And it is promiscuous. For more on zucchini's antics, put down -- or throw away -- Fifty Shades of Grey and read last week's Down & Dirty.)
So mainecook61 writes to me, "Hmm, the promiscuous zucchini is underserved in the genius department. August is as bad as July; they just keep on coming."
And then, where others might simply complain, mainecook61 proposes a solution that might end our promiscuous zucchini problems.
When you start to resent the zucchini, you could hide it in quick breads or -- my mother's trick -- split, hollow and fill the cavities of the bigger specimens with taco-like stuffings of rice and ground meat to distract and confuse the children. (It works.)
Or you could do as the great Julia Child (whose 100th birthday is today!) did, and cut them down to size. Two-plus pounds of zucchini doesn't look so demanding once you shred, salt, and squeeze it dry. It sheds its water weight, leaving a tamed pile and a lot of green, lightly salted liquid.
From here, Child offers no fewer than 6 different preparations. You could simply warm the shreds through with onions and garlic, as pictured below, or simmer in cream. (In Amanda's latest summer pasta, she doesn't cook it at all.)
Any way you choose, the pre-salting and squeezing step is essential to keep your dish from flooding in the cooking, which could leave it soggy and dim.
This is particularly important in Child's most cleverly constructed zucchini shred iteration, in which she paves them into a tian, or gratin.
It's one of those thoughtful, self-perpetuating recipes that could make a very elegant flow chart. The zucchini juice that you've squeezed out forms the base to a light bechamel, topped off with a little milk.
You add enough par-cooked rice to soak up whatever juices remain and thicken the sauce, without asserting itself as empty filler. Then you sprinkle in a bit of sharp parmesan, and bake it till it's freckled and golden.
What all this means is that while this tian gives airs of a rich dish, it has no cream or butter and its luxurious base is largely vegetable water. And it's not because Child was afraid of butter -- it's just good that way.
As mainecook61 points out, the tian is also substantial enough for a main dish (or a generous side) and, best of all, can be made ahead.
Zucchini, you little minx. You've never looked so classy, and yet so sensible.
2 to 2 1/2 pounds zucchini
1/2 cup plain, raw, untreated white rice
1 cup minced onions
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, mashed or finely minced
2 tablespoons flour
About 2 1/2 cups hot liquid: zucchini juices plus milk, heated in a pan
About 2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese (save 2 tablespoons for later)
Salt and pepper
A heavily buttered 6- to 8-cup flameproof baking and serving dish, about 1 1/2 inches deep
2 tablespoons olive oil
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by Karen Mordechai