Rare and lovely are moments in which we learn something new about ourselves. I never expected to learn anything new about me, today. And then I did.
The Stop and Type Books co-hosted Mark Bittman tonight on his tour for The Food Matters Cookbook. I went mostly because he’s Bittman and I’ve been reading his work as long as I’ve been reading about eating. He would tell me about the catastrophic state of our diet and food system, he would encourage us to eat fewer cows and chickens, he would laud The Stop’s fine work (with good reason). I’d return home, self-satisfied - consciously or not – with my mostly plant-based diet as I cooked dinner.
This didn’t happen.
Instead, Mark Bittman taught me that I’m a cook.
Cooking is buried so deep within my hungry stomach that I forget it’s there. In all the ephemeral bits that make up Maria, cooking is the constant. Do you remember when David Foster Wallace’s old fish said to the two young fish swimming along — “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
The cooks at our family restaurant didn’t push away a curious little girl. My mom gave me her wooden spoon and her trust to stir the tomato sauce. Now, I imagine dinner as I comb market stalls on Saturday mornings.
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes: ”What the hell is water?”
I’ve never felt gratitude that I just cook. It takes a lot for me to remember that cooking every day to feed myself is not the norm. It isn’t that most North Americans just don’t cook. Many can’t cook – never having been taught basic skills to follow a recipe – let alone to see dinner in raw ingredients. Most non-cooks are not lazy or too busy or lacking discipline.
I made sense of this last night, finally, as I listened. “Cooking is easy!” I say. But I’m wrong. To someone who has never turned on a burner, or bought fresh produce, or learned the basics of storing food, or honed proper knife skills – cooking is hard.
I want to remember this. When I cook from heart or create a recipe, each time I suggest an “easy substitution” for an ingredient, as I help a friend cook dinner, and always as I feed others. I want to consciously not assume. I want to remember that it’s easy for me, but for me this is water.
Have you ever noticed that come a particular time toward the end of each summer, we become awfully vocal about zucchini? I’ll be sick if I eat another, we say, and I can’t possibly freeze one more loaf of zucchini bread. We offload it on unsuspecting neighbours in great heaps. This terrible, terrible glut of zucchini.
I really like the romantic story of zucchini over-abundance. But here’s the thing: I don’t know what on earth people are talking about! I’ve never been at the receiving end of a zucchini dump, and I happily scoop them three-for-a-dollar all summer into my basket. Perhaps next year, when I plant a garden, I will be revisiting this post in horror at my naiveté. I will be leaving bowtied zucchinis in mailboxes along the street. For now: bring on the summer squashes!
I never intended to post this recipe. It looked pretty unassuming in the pan, on my plate. It was a late Monday spent at work. I arrived home and yanked a zucchini from the fridge, contemplating what to do with it – a great, spindly green specimen – the kind that are long but not too thick and watery. I shredded it to toss in a pan with garlic and olive oil. Halfway through, I flung in a great heap of flame raisins. I dumped the lot over some fettuccine and over that grated some cheese. It looked bleak, all the green and brown and beige.
But this sauce! It was the best of every contrast. Soft and textural. Sweet and salty. Gentle and assertive. And made even better by this strange floral taste that the zucchini and raisins share. Since then, it’s all I think about. I shouted its greatness to Sameer: I made pasta with a zucchini/raisin sauce! SO good. I don’t know how people get sick of zucchini. It is so delicious. And last night over dinner, I near-demanded that Mere make it. (Speaking of: Rawlicious, have you been, Toronto? Name aside, the food is great! Try the pad thai and the brownies with coconut butter-vanilla icing.) Tonight, I made the sauce again, but this time with a yellow squash, and it was no less tasty.
While there’s still a glut of zucchini at your disposal, I hope you will make this sauce, too. I think you’ll agree that more zucchini is always better. But if not, please send your surplus vegetables my way.
I made this using green and yellow zucchini with equal success. I ate it one night over pasta, and another straight from the bowl dusted with cheese. Next time, I want to serve it cold, atop croutons, as an appetizer. It would also be a terrific side to fish or pork.
4 cups grated zucchini
1/3 cup flame raisins (sultanas or golden are fine, but flame raisins are extra absorbent because of their size)
3-4 medium cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp olive oil
ample salt and pepper, to taste
Parmigiano-Regianno, for grating, to taste
Grate zucchini and crush garlic. Heat olive oil in a good-size saucepan over medium heat. Add zucchini and garlic and cook about five minutes, until the zucchini starts to break down. Add the raisins and salt. Continue cooking about 10 minutes total, until the zucchini is soft and the raisins plump. Add more salt and pepper, to taste. Serve over pasta, alone, on toasts or as a side. Top generously with grated Parmigiano-Regianno, or another hard cheese. This is equally good warm or cold.