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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The poor zucchini

I love zucchini (and its little brother, the courgette), but I feel that this humble vegetable suffers from a bit of an image problem. Quietly sitting on the greengrocer's shelves, it sometimes gets overlooked in favour of other, more visually commanding fresh produce (artichokes, beetroots and unusually-shaped pumpkins come to mind as examples). Not in my kitchen, though. I sometimes wonder if I actually overuse zucchini in my cooking, such is its appeal and versatility.

See, the thing is, it's just so agreeable. It's cheap; the flavour is mild and very 'clean'; and the texture is such that it will pick up almost any flavour you choose to throw at it (sweet things included). Also, it's one of those vegetables which lends itself to being eaten raw or cooked.

In the hope of expanding your zucchini-eating horizons, I'm not going to give a single recipe today, more a collection of little ideas which you can incorporate into a wide range of meals. In any given week, I might include 'the zucc' in the following dishes (and more):

Cut into rough chunks and tossed in a touch of olive oil, salt, pepper and perhaps chilli flakes, and roasted alongside a chicken or joint of red meat until melting and browned.

Grated into a bowl, stirred up with other veg (maybe carrots, onions and parsnip), a little flour, egg and some crumbled feta cheese to make fritters.

Sliced roughly into a pan with crispy-fried pancetta, mushrooms, garlic, chilli and a bit of white wine to make a fantastic 5-minute pasta 'sauce' (well, not so much a sauce as a collection of tasty bits to mix through your pasta, but the wine and pancetta fat will give you just enough of a slick to coat everything nicely).

Sliced lengthways, grilled on a barbecue plate and dressed while warm with lemon juice, olive oil, lots of black pepper and the merest hint of sliced garlic - this will keep for days in the fridge and is great warm or cold with just about anything.

Shaved into thin strips and tossed through a salad of leafy greens, bacon, carrot shavings and toasted nuts, with a light vinaigrette dressing.

And, not really last or least, but to finish this particular post on a sweet note, turned into a cake in much the same way as you would with carrots. If you'd like to give it a go, there's a lovely recipe here (I'm not a fan of the raisins/sultanas in it, so I substitute chopped dried apricots and/or dates, which works like a charm).

What's your favourite way to cook or eat zucchini?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Happy 2010 (a few days late)

Usually, the coming of a new year doesn't bring about any big or noticeable changes, apart from requiring me to switch to my new 'Foodies Diary' and remember the right year when I'm writing the date. The finishing of 2009 and starting of 2010, though, is a different story altogether.

2009 was for the most part a year of certainty and solidity. It was the year I got married, and where things both at home and at work were challenging but focussed. Skip the calendar forward, and here we are in a whole new decade. For me, 2010 means a lot more uncertainty and possible 'wobbles' than last year brought - hopefully not at home where newly-married life is going along swimmingly, but definitely on the career front. There is excitement though, mixed in with that uncertainty. Quite a lot of it, in fact. For in a few short weeks, I will be leaving the day job which comfortably pays my bills to venture into self employment as a freelance writer/food stylist/developer.

And herein lies that exhilarating and frightening mix which a new future brings. Will it work? Who knows - I've done my research (and my networking), and things all point in the right direction, but the only way to really know is to try.

So in the interest of countering all that instability, today I'm going to share one of the most certain and comforting recipes I know. The recipe has changed and evolved over the years, but it's the first recipe I can remember making without Mum's help, and it always makes me think of my childhood self standing at the bench with a bowl and a wooden spoon. The feeling of quiet achievement and satisfaction in the kitchen has been with me ever since I managed to weigh, mix and bake this all on my own, so here's hoping it will give you the same pleasure.

Chocolate Cake
makes one 22cm round cake

This cake is not rocket science, and there are really no fancy tricks involved in making it. It is, however, my go-to recipe for chocolate cake as it's incredibly reliable, keeps well for days, and can be just as easily dressed up as a birthday (or even a wedding) cake as it can be sliced and served simply for afternoon tea.

The most important thing for getting that really deep chocolatey richness, I find, is to use a very good quality Dutch-process cocoa powder (in this recipe it's even more important than the quality of your chocolate in giving a good result). My cocoas of choice are either Valhrona or DeZaan.

250g unsalted butter, softened and cut into cubes

150g dark chocolate
I generally use a decent 70% chocolate, however in the past when I've had to make vast quantities of this cake I've kept costs down by using dark cooking chocolate, and it still comes out ok

200g white caster sugar

100g brown sugar

250ml strong black coffee
instant is fine, but by all means use plunger/machine coffee if you have it

100g plain white flour

100g self-rasing white flour

50g almond meal
just use an extra 50g plain flour if you don't have almond meal - the finished cake will be slightly less fudgy but delicious all the same

50g cocoa

2 large (59g) free range eggs, lightly beaten

Preheat your oven to 170C. Grease and line a 22cm round cake tin.

Put the butter, chocolate, sugars and coffee into a medium saucepan and heat gently until the butter and chocolate are melted. Remove from heat and set aside to cool slightly.

While the butter mixture is cooling, sift the flours, almond meal and cocoa into a medium bowl and mix to combine.

Whisk the eggs into the cooled butter mixture, then stir in the flour mixture until combined and fairly smooth (don't overmix it or your cake will be tough).

Pour the batter into your prepared tin and bake for 35-45 minutes or until the cake tests clean with a skewer. Cool cake in tin for 10 minutes, then turn it out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

You can either dust the cake with icing sugar for serving, or make a simple icing by beating 150g butter with 50g cocoa, 300g icing sugar and enough warmed milk to give a spreadable consistency.

This cake will keep well for up to a week in the fridge if sealed in an airtight container, and in fact tastes best if you can leave it for a day or two before eating. Just bring it out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature before serving.