A reader asks for a vegetarian appetizer suitable for a Halloween-themed party. Learn why a jack o’ lantern isn’t your best pie pumpkin, and check out three vegetarian appetizers, on the Great Pumpkin page.
If you’re anything like me, you hate cutesy rhyming phrases and made-up words like “locavore.” So you’ll excuse me for using just such a phrase here.
“What grows together goes together.” As cornball an expression as it might be, this is the basis for so many classic dishes and food and wine pairings. Tomatoes and basil grow together – sometimes literally in the same garden plot or pot – and what could be more delicious than a pizza margherita, featuring crushed San Marzano tomatoes and whole basil leaves? Bonito and kelp both come from the sea, and together underpin much of Japan’s cuisine. Etcetera, etcetera.
The other night, passing through Whole Foods, I picked up a leg of lamb without thinking too much about what I was going to do with it. Once I got home, I canvassed the pantry. Eggplant and garlic, potato and green beans, all from the farm stand. Out in the garden, I found parsley, thyme, and mint. These are all favorite flavors in Greece, where tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant, all members of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), grow together, and wild herbs like thyme, mint, and oregano flourish. These complement the smaller foraging animals like sheep and goats, who are better suited to Greece’s arid, rocky interior than cattle or pigs. What grows together goes together.
This dish reflects the classic tastes of Greece – the lamb, rolled tightly with herbs, is roasted to a medium rare, and served atop a lemony eggplant purée using the ingredients in the classic roasted eggplant salad (melitzanosalata). The potatoes, zucchini, and green beans are loosely inspired by a classic Greek vegetable dish, fasolakia freska (literally “fresh green beans”), but cooked quickly in the lamb’s fat and dressed with herbs rather than stewing with tomatoes.
Roast leg of lamb, eggplant purée “melitzanosalata,” vegetable sauté “fasolakia freska”
For the lamb:
4 lb leg of lamb, boned, or 2 lb boned out leg of lamb
4 cloves garlic confit
small bunch flat-leaf parsley
about 12 sprigs thyme
about 1/2 c mint leaves
zest of one lemon
1/4 c unsalted butter
4-6 sprigs thyme
If the lamb is on the bone, remove the bone. Once boned, follow the natural separation between the muscles (you will see membranes and ligaments), and, using the tip of a knife, split the muscles along these separations to open up the leg. Season the leg with salt.
Wash the herbs and dry thoroughly. Mince the herbs (reserving the final 4-6 sprigs of thyme), and combine with the garlic confit, lemon zest, and about 1 tbsp olive oil. Spread this mixture evenly on the surface of the lamb. Roll evenly and tie tightly with butcher’s twine. [Note: if you are not skilled at tying meat, you may find this product useful – silicone bands that are heatsafe for roasting.]
Season the exterior of the roast. Place a large skillet over high heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp olive oil. Brown well on each side and, after roasting the final side, add the butter to the pan as well as the remaining thyme sprigs. Place in the 275F oven.
Baste the roast every 10 minutes with the butter-thyme. Roast until medium rare – the time will vary based on thickness but it should take between 35 and 45 minutes. Rest on a rack for about 25 minutes before carving. Pour off the fat and liquid, and reserve the fat for the vegetable sauté.
When ready to serve, slice the lamb about 1/2″ thick and remove the butcher’s twine.
You can prepare this while the lamb rests. It comes together in an instant.
2 medium eggplant, preferably longer and thinner eggplant, halved lengthwise
8 cloves garlic confit
Juice of one lemon
2 tbsp Greek yoghurt (or any unsweetened yogurt)
Turn the broiler on.
Drizzle the cut surface of the eggplant with oil and sprinkle with salt. Place skin-side down on a sheet pan under the broiler. Once the eggplant begins to turn dark brown, turn the eggplant over and reduce the heat to 425F. You also can perform this step on a grill, which adds a better smoky flavor.
Once the eggplant is tender (usually about 15 minutes), remove from the oven and peel off the blackened outer layer (don’t worry if you don’t get it all) Scrape the soft eggplant into a Vitaprep or blender, trying to avoid putting the seeds into the blender if possible. Add the garlic confit, the yoghurt, and about 2 tbsp lemon juice. Purée until very smooth, and then taste for salt and lemon juice. Add as necessary.
Vegetable sauté “fasolakia freska”
You can prepare this as well while the lamb rests. In fact, you can use the skillet in which you roasted the lamb.
2-3 red or yellow potatoes (about 1/2 lb), peeled and diced 1/4″
about a dozen green beans or 24 haricots verts, trimmed and sliced 1/4″
one large or two small zucchini, peeled and diced 1/4″
1 1/2 tbsp reserved fat from the roast lamb, or olive oil
1/4 c mint leaves, washed and dried
4-6 large flat parsley leaves, washed and dried
Place a large skillet over medium-high heat (you can use the skillet in which the lamb roasted). When hot, add the lamb fat or the olive oil, or some combination of the two.
Add the diced potatoes to the pan and sauté until beginning to turn golden and not quite tender (about 3 minutes). Add the green beans and sauté a minute more until the potatoes are nearly tender. Add the zucchini and cook until the potatoes are tender and the zucchini still have some bite. Season with salt and pepper and toss with chiffonade of the parsley and mint.
Putting it all together: place some eggplant purée on the plate and arrange slices of lamb on top. Serve with the vegetable sauté and drizzle olive oil on the plate.
Is zucchini anyone’s favorite vegetable? Too often, it’s shredded and disguised in quick bread, sauteed to a limp, soggy mess, steamed with carrots and broccoli as part of the ubiquitous “vegetable medley” that accompanies every protein at second-rate restaurants, or doused with balsamic vinaigrette – that turn of the century abomination – and thrown on the grill.
OK, so it’s not the most exciting vegetable. Zucchini isn’t tomato or sweet corn. People don’t queue outside farm stands hankering after the first ripe zucchini of the season and blog about it afterward. And it isn’t onion or carrot – versatile, indispensable, indestructible. If you overcook it, zucchini degrades into a floppy, tasteless mess. Still, zucchini has merit. It possesses a mild sweetness, with a slightly floral, melony quality when raw. Lemon and fresh green herbs like mint, basil, and oregano bring out its best qualities. A mild, delicate, green vegetable, it pairs perfectly with shellfish. And its blossoms are reason enough to grow a zucchini plant or two in the summer.
Zucchini and yellow summer squash are not identical, but for most purposes, you can use yellow squash in place of zucchini. It tends to be less sweet, with a slightly bitter edge. Don’t overcook these summer squashes – they can go from tender to mushy in a couple of minutes.
Fiori di Zucca
Grow your own, cut them off the plants, and use immediately. Sometimes you can find blossoms with embryonic fruit (baby zucchini) attached … those are a special treat, and a great way to use up the squash before you wind up with dozens of giant ones.
Note – if you’re pressed for time, you can omit the egg white, but the filling will be heavier. In that case, just beat an egg or two with a little water and use it to coat the blossoms before dredging and frying. You don’t have to separate the eggs.
16 zucchini blossoms, preferably with small zucchini attached
1 c ricotta*
zest of one lemon
small handful flat leaf parsley, minced
6-8 mint leaves, chiffonade
3 eggs, separated (you will only use one yolk so use the other two for mayonnaise or something)
Combine the ricotta, one egg yolk, lemon zest, herbs, and a pinch of salt.
Beat three egg whites to soft peaks. Fold half the egg white into the ricotta mixture and reserve the other half. Spoon in enough ricotta-white mixture to fill each blossom. Seal and twist at top. If you can’t get the filling in without ripping the blossoms, tear a seam down one side (between two petals) and fill. Then twist it to make sure the stuffing stays inside.
Turn the remaining egg whites into a dredging pan and fill a second dredging pan with about 1 c flour. Heat a deep sauté pan and add olive oil 1/4″ deep. Dip each blossom completely in the foamed egg whites, shake off excess, dredge quickly in flour, shake off excess, and fry until golden. Turn over and fry on other side. Drain on towels and season with a little sea salt.
*If you’d like to make your own ricotta, stop back later this week for a lesson in making this most basic cheese.
Chilled Zucchini Soup
Cold soup in the summer is more refreshing than just about anything else you can eat. Don’t omit the lemon zest and yoghurt garniture – it adds brightness to the soup.
1 very large or 2 medium zucchini, ends removed, sliced
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced thinly
4 cloves garlic confit
1 large or 2 small bay leaves
4 sprigs thyme
3 stems flat leaf parsley
6-12 leaves basil, 6-8 leaves mint (depending on size, strength)
2 c ice or 1 c cold water
1 lemon, zested and juiced
whole milk yoghurt or sour cream
Sweat the onion, and garlic confit in olive oil with the bouquet garni over very low heat until both are very tender. Add the zucchini, cover the pan, and sweat over the lowest heat until tender. The zucchini will give up a bit of liquid. Do not allow any of the components to take on color at any time, and stop cooking while the zucchini still is green. Remove the bouquet garni. Allow to cool until tepid. Pour zucchini mixture (liquid and all) in a Vitaprep or blender and add basil and mint.
Add about 2 c ice or 1 c cold water, and purée in Vitaprep. Add cold water to desired consistency if necessary. Press through tamis if necessary to achieve a smooth texture. Season with salt, pepper to taste (you will add acid just before serving to preserve the soup’s green color). Chill.
Before serving, add lemon juice and taste again for salt. Serve with lemon zest, basil chiffonade, and a quenelle of yoghurt or sour cream.
Try this one when you’ve just returned from the farmstand on the way home from the beach in summer. I do like to sauté the corn for just a minute, but you can skip that step and enjoy a completely raw salad, if you’re using very fresh corn.
1 medium zucchini
2 ears corn, shucked and scraped
1/4 lb cherry tomatoes (red and yellow if you can)
champagne vinegar (or white wine, or cider, or rice vinegar)
espelette or cayenne pepper
Slice zucchini into very thin rounds (1/16″) using a mandoline or benriner. Arrange in an overlapping layer. Saute the corn in olive oil for just a minute, until barely cooked through, unless you’re serving it raw. Season with salt/pepper, and a pinch of espelette. Arrange the corn beside the zucchini.
Quarter the cherry tomatoes and toss in a little vinegar with a pinch of salt. Arrange the tomatoes beside the corn. Whisk the juice/vinegar that remains in the tomato bowl with some olive oil; drizzle this over all.
Zucchini “pasta” with clams
There’s a great Portuguese soup called sopa de amêijoas – literally “clam soup” – in which clams, cooked in their own liquid with white wine and vegetables – are finished with olive oil and sopped up with crusty bread. Sometimes shredded zucchini is incorporated into the soup, thickening it slightly and soaking up the olive oil. This brothy dish of clams with raw zucchini, sliced to resemble linguine, reminds me of that dish.
Salting the zucchini and blotting dry helps to crisp the vegetable by removing some of its water content, and seasons it as well. Don’t go salt crazy – you don’t need much salt to remove moisture, and the clams are pretty salty.
2 medium zucchini, sliced into long, thin strands with mandoline or shaved with a y-shaped vegetable peeler
3 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
lemon zest, removed in 1 long strip
2 sprigs parsley
1 very small bay leaf
1 1/2 c dry white wine
4 lbs clams (cherrystone are best; manila are fine also), cleaned and desanded
1/4 tsp or more crushed red chile flakes
large handful flat leaf parsley, torn
juice and zest of 1 lemon
tiny basil leaves
extra virgin olive oil
Very lightly salt the zucchini strands and toss well in a colander. Set over paper towels and leave to drain for about an hour.
Place clams in a large steamer. Set large pot over medium heat. Add olive oil; sweat garlic. Add bay leaves, lemon zest, and parsley; add wine. Place steamer basket over top; cover and steam until clams open. Strain liquid through chinois and return to simmer. Taste and correct with lemon.
Blot water from zucchini. Curl around large fork tines and place zucchini nests in each serving bowl. Add clams in shells (half in shells and half out makes for a great presentaton). Ladle broth over top. Sprinkle with chile flakes, pepper, and lemon zest, and garnish with parsley and basil leaves. Drizzle a little olive oil over top.
Serve with toasted ciabatta, rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil.
Do you have an hour? You can make this meal.
The key is to break down the chicken rather than roasting it whole, because the parts will cook within 30 minutes. Meanwhile, as the chicken roasts and then rests, make the soup and prep the brussels sprouts.
1 chicken, broken down, breasts and leg/thigh quarters only
1 oz cold butter, flaked with fork
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp espelette pepper (or black pepper with a tiny pinch of cayenne)
2 sprigs thyme, leaves minced
1/2 lb sprouts, ends trimmed, halved
2 slices Nueske’s bacon or other smoky bacon, diced (1/4″)
Butternut squash soup:
1 leek, white only, washed well and julienned
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
1/2 medium butternut squash, peeled and diced (1/2″)
1 quart chicken stock
4-5 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
kosher salt, celery salt
espelette and cayenne pepper ((or black pepper with a tiny pinch of cayenne)
2 oz butter
handful sage leaves
Chicken: 40 minutes
Cut the leg-thigh joint (do not cut through meat). Combine butter, salt, espelette, and thyme. Gently lift the skin on the chicken but do not remove; stuff bits of the butter mixture under the skin. Season the skinless side lightly with salt.
Place a skillet over medium-high heat. Add a small amount of olive oil when hot. Add chicken, skin side down. Baste meat as butter melts. Turn chicken over, baste again, and place in oven. Roast, basting twice, for 20 minutes. Test for doneness (165F). Remove and rest. Immediately before serving, return to pan skin-side up and baste skin with melted butter. Place under broiler and heat to crisp skin.
Soup: about 30 minutes
Sweat the onion and leek until tender in a small quantity of vegetable oil in a stock pot. Do not allow to caramelize. Add the squash and sweat until tender. Saute for about ten minutes until the squash has begun to soften. Add the herbs and the stock. Simmer until the squash is tender enough to fall apart when pressed with a fork.
Remove the thyme branches and bay leaves. Puree in a blender, in batches if necessary. Process the purée through a tamis. Return the purée to a sauce pot and bring to a simmer; reduce to the desired texture. Season with salt, cayenne, and espelette. Seasoning with a small amount of celery salt in lieu of salt reduces the sometimes too-sweet taste of the squash.
To serve: heat butter until foamy and beginning to turn light gold; add sage and fry until crisp. Add a squeeze of lemon and pinch of salt. Add sage leaves and brown butter to soup.
Brussels sprouts: 10 minutes
Place a skillet over medium-high heat. Add bacon and fry until crisp. Remove bacon but reserve fat. Add halved sprouts, cut side down, and reduce heat to medium-low. Flip over when beginning to turn golden brown on cut side. Return bacon to pan and cook 2 minutes more. Season with salt.