Mother Nature has been less than kind to me this year. She began in stealth one silent snowy night, wreaking havoc on the beautiful river birch in my backyard, breaking two of three trunks and a good chunk of my heart in the bargain. After clearing out the debris (and my wallet), Benny and his crew left me with a fresh palette on which to paint my dreams of a new garden bed: tall white phlox, sunny day lilies, blue veronica.
Alas, they proved to be a siren call, irresistible fodder for the plump-rumped doe that dared venture downhill from the dark safety of the adjoining forest. Aghast, I woke every morning to gruesome beheadings, trampled hostas and casual carnage until this vegetarian’s nights were filled with visions of venison. Yet again I rallied in the face of failure (graduate students, please note), replacing the smorgasbord of cervine delights with pungent bee balm, aromatic lavender and camphoraceous yarrow eschewed by the finicky freeloader’s palate.
All’s well, you ask? Mother Nature still mocked me, for as Marcus Antonius said, “Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar lov’d him! This was the most unkindest cut of all”. What started as a nasty chemical burn slicing my forearm, slowly spread up and down my sorry self as only poison ivy can. There, nestled in the new garden bed was the innocuous curling vine with “leaves of three”, too late for the warning to “let them be”.
For the first time in my life I was exposed to urushiol, which bonded to my proteins and triggered a hysterical aggregation of my CD8+ T cells and left those itch receptors (TRPA channels, I wonder?) permanently on. For three weeks, I donned a ghastly macquillage of calamine lotion while my family prudently kept their distance despite my reassurances that poison ivy was not contagious. While I skulked indoors waiting for my “skin infection”, as my parents solicitously termed it, to subside, my vegetable garden ran amok.
At this point in the narrative, history repeats itself. Gardens Run Wild is the recurrent theme in the reality show of my life. Unlike those with a “black thumb”, mine is colored a virulent, glow-in-the dark green. Anything in my garden grows faster, bigger and unrulier than recommended by the genteel gardening book occupying pride of place on my coffee table.
Little wonder that all the cabbages fattened in synchrony, the broccoli bolted, and the mint, that ultimate backyard bully, staged a hostile takeover of the herb garden. As for those zucchini…every gardener knows never to take their eyes off them for a moment.
If your delicately lovely zucchini blossoms morph into obscenely giant beasts overnight, here are two of my favorite recipes to harness that overweening excess:
Preheat oven to 375°F. You will need one bowl each for the dry and wet ingredients, and an oiled 9” bread pan. (Yes, three dishes to wash).
Step 1. In a bowl, mix together: 1.5 cups white flour, 1 cup (or less) sugar, 2 tsp baking powder, 0.5 tsp baking soda, and 0.25 tsp salt
Step 2. In a separate bowl, whisk together 1 egg plus 0.5 cup vegetable oil. Then stir in 2 cups or 1 large grated zucchini. For more flavor, add some citrus zest (you can use orange or lemon peel, about 1 tsp if you must measure it). For crunch and texture add 0.5 cup or large handful of broken walnut bits.
Step 3. That’s it..mix the wet with dry. Do not overmix (as with all baking powder breads). Scrape batter into buttered or oiled pan. Bake 50 min or until top is golden brown. Let cool before slicing! Take a moment to enjoy the delicate green flecks of zucchini strands distributed amongst the nutty chunks of walnut.
Zucchini Koftas (translation, meatless meatballs)
Step I: Make the koftas
- Grate a large zucchini, by hand or machine, into a bowl and sprinkle with salt. Let sit awhile then squeeze out excess juice. Save the zuke juice for the gravy. Remember, my bountiful cabbage? I grated in a bit of that too (feel free to experiment, likewise).
- Add spices: a tsp each powdered cumin, coriander, garam masala, pinch of turmeric and chilli powder. Add half tsp of baking soda to fluff up the kofta balls.
3. Stir in chickpea flour (“besan”) until the batter is semi solid. You may need a cup or so, depending on how much zucchini you have grated and how well you exerted those flexor-pronator muscles of your forearm in squeezing them dry. Form into small balls. (Tip 1. If your zucchini balls are too large, they won’t cook through on the inside; Tip 2: If your zucchini balls are too sticky, roll them in white flour to give them a crispy coating).
4. Fry them in batches, in hot oil. They should be nicely browned on the outside and not wet/doughy on the inside. You will need to taste quite a few in the process, all in the worthy cause of seeking perfection.
Step II. Make the gravy
1. To a tablespoon or two of oil, add whole spices. I used bay leaf, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, and fennel. When the spices sizzle, add a finely chopped onion, chopped ginger (1 tbsp) and chopped garlic (1-2 cloves). Stir around, reduce heat and cook covered for 5 min. Remove lid and stir until onions are browned. Add turmeric, salt to taste and a pinch of sugar. This is the standard base of a North Indian gravy.
2. Then add some crushed cashews or other nut of your choice. I’ve added this step for texture and nutrition. Also in an attempt to consume the large box of nuts my husband brings home from Sam’s Club. The nuts can be roasted or raw, salted or not.
3. Then come the tomatoes. You can use fresh or canned, chopped, pureed or sauced. Add enough to form a nice gravy. If you saved the zucchini liquid, add it at this point.
Step III. Assemble the dish
1. Add koftas to the gravy. Simmer gently and take care not to break the meatless meatballs. Check for seasoning. Add more spices if you wish. Yes, more. This is Indian food after all. (I use a spice grinder to whirl together whole cumin, coriander and fennel seeds to make a particularly aromatic mix).