Both of my parents died in 1999; she in April, he in September. Fifty years of marriage plus nine kids equaled a whole lot of stuff to catalog, sort through, redistribute among the family.
Among which was an enormous wooden trunk, dome-topped, lashed in iron straps and rivets. Totally “Treasure Island.”
My mother had filled it with one thing only, although many specimens of the same: each and every Gourmet magazine to which she had subscribed, likely as soon as she had moved to Denver from her native Belgium in 1949.
I and one of my younger brothers, he even more strapping than I, could not lift the trunk without first moving out the magazines in phases. I believe that the heaviest object on the planet is a 45-cubic foot agglomeration of clay-coated magazine paper.
Our mother wanted to keep the famed magazine’s recipes, many of which she had cooked for us. But not one of which she ever had thrown away. I remember her once saying, about any specific recipe in hand and therefore about all recipes she kept, “Just in case I want to make this.”
The trunk was not the sole trove. She collected thousands of recipes, scissored from newspapers mostly, stuffed in drawers, layered like pommes Anna. She also wrote dozens of her own, many inspired by those from chefs from whom she had taken cooking classes over the years, plus the many that she herself composed for her own cooking school.
Of these recipes in their accumulation, what I remember most is their inviting perfume, of aging paper, mottled with cooking liquids long soaked up, dried and thus kept, and with the inks of both her pens and typewriter ribbons.
Ever since that time, I have been in love with recipes, with reading them, writing them, playing with them.
Recipes work for us in different ways. In point of fact, I tasked (to use the modern term) this week’s recipe explicitly to work for me. Next week, I write about the history of the recipe and how both the term and the writing of recipes developed over time.
(I also thank you for the many instances of your requesting recipes from me, or thanking me for a particular publication of one, even for suggesting emendations. The recipe is our most shared experience, isn’t it?)
Oftentimes, a recipe solves a problem, much more than merely “what’s for dinner?”
Over the past three years, I have made today’s recipe six or seven times, tinkering with it each time, sharing it with friends who very well may have handed me its main ingredient: a zucchini as large as a bazooka launcher. As such, it remains perfect porridge for this gardening season’s end. I still spy such beasts about (as well as other felicitous elements for the recipe, such as beans long on the pole, or wrinkled peppers, sweet or hot). I am proud to say that the recipe, many times over, has been very well received.
At the outset, this recipe resulted from my thinking that the ginormous summer’s end vegetable cannot be merely an American issue. And of course, it is not; all lands grow gardens. The foreign places from which I took inspiration–Chile, Italy (of course, Italy; that’s where zucchini got his name), Brooklyn —also grapple with old or overgrown vegetables.
So, in my fashion, this recipe is a melding of several different recipes, kick-started by one of my favorite recipe writers, Samin Nosrat of the New York Times who wrote the great cookbook “Salt Fat Acid Heat.”
The first few go-arounds on this recipe, I would suggest that the anchovies were optional, getting people’s wariness for these misplaced eyebrows. However, I must insist that you use them; they add gobs of umami (and the taste of fish simply disappears; trust me). Vegans and vegetarians can get by with vegan fish sauce or even some Umami All-Purpose Seasoning, a delicious dry flavoring from the Boulder-based company Seed Ranch Flavor Co.
Substitutions for (or, indeed, additions to) the zucchini, in total to amount to 2 pounds of vegetables: other summer squash (yellow squash, chayote, pattypan, crookneck); long beans, green beans, pole beans; sweet peppers, yellow or red, or other more spicy-heat peppers, although of these latter, only a judicious amount.
- 1 very large zucchini (you want to end up with just over 2 pounds of trimmed flesh, seeded if necessary and with some, though not all, of the peel removed)
- 1 rounded tablespoon kosher or sea salt
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 8 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
- 2-3 anchovy filets
- ¾ teaspoon red pepper flakes (such as Urfa or Aleppo)
- 1 cup tomato sauce, or the same quantity of peeled ripe tomatoes, crushed
- ½ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
- Healthy pinches of dried green herbs (oregano works, so do herbes de Provence or thyme; rosemary is a bit strong)
- 10 medium fresh basil leaves, torn
- More flat-leaf parsley, chopped, or chiffonade basil, for garnish
Cut up the zucchini into 1-inch thick chunks. Place a colander in the sink, sprinkle the chunks with the salt, tossing to mix well. Let sit for at least 30 minutes, up to 1 hour. (Do not rinse.) Then, lay and roll the chunks over paper toweling to dry them somewhat.
In a large Dutch oven or similar pot over medium heat, add the olive oil, garlic, anchovies and red pepper, stirring. When just sizzling, lower the heat 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 or tomatoes, parsley, herbs and basil, stirring.
Add the dried-off zucchini pieces and mix everything well, bringing the lot up to a good simmer. Cover the pot. Lower the burner to the lowest possible flame and cook for up to 2 hours, stirring every half hour in order to combine the flavors but not so vigorously as to break up the ever-softening vegetables, using a heat diffuser over the burner if it helps. The total time will depend on how gnarly the vegetables were at the beginning.
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 vegetable pieces, about 10 minutes.
Serve warm or at room or ambient temperature, garnished with the chopped flat-leaf parsley, alone or over anything you think works such as steamed brown or white rice, orzo pasta, or cooked bulghur wheat.
Bill St. John can be reached at email@example.com.