A few months ago, my friend Tony described something I’d written in these virtual pages as an “essay.” That idea was so pleasing to me, and it’s something I’ve thought a lot about since. I like the idea of writing essays. In school I used to love essay tests. I felt like I didn’t really understand whatever I was writing about until I started writing about it, and then connections would come flying out at me. I found it quite exciting (I was a weird kid).
On the one hand, essays feel so substantial and victorian. On the other hand – the smiling side of the janus face, if you will – is the fact that “essay” comes from the word “to try.” How lovely is that! You’re not succeeding (or failing). You’re not even worried about that! You’re just giving it a go. According to the highly reliable dictionary that pops up on my computer when I press a button (definitive source!) the “try” in “essay” doesn’t just mean “attempt.” It also means “test,” or “weigh.” As in “I tried the strength of the rope bridge that crossed over the fiery ravine before I commenced my journey upon it.” Interesting! If you’re following along at home, you’ll recall my infatuation with the word Selah, which also meant “to weigh.” I think of selah as being about feeling the weight of the words, and valuing that, and essay as being about testing the weight of the words by sending them out there and watching whether they sink or swim.
One thing I’ve been thinking about essays, as it directly relates to this collection of recipes, is that cooking is like writing essays. You have an idea, you try it. You weigh the possibilities, you weigh the ingredients. (I’m almost done, I promise! I’ve nearly followed this unravelling line of thought to its illogical conclusion.) You don’t know how it will turn out, and that’s why it’s fun to try. If you think that it might not come out well, you’ll won’t make the attempt. And there’s so much joy in trying!
I have a lot of zucchini from my CSA, and I’ve been thinking for a while about combining it with raisins, walnuts, goat cheese, cinnamon and basil, in some sort of dish. I thought I’d try (segue!) rolling it into a pastry, because a crispy layer would be so pleasant with the soft zucchini and goat cheese. I put a bit of lemon zest in the pastry dough, for piquancy. And I wanted to have a couple of sauces to dip the pastries in, so I decided to shape the pastry like little christmas crackers, so that when you broke it in half, you have two little tabs to hold onto, while you dip, and then you have a nice, buttery-lemony crispy bite to end with. I think it turned out well! I’m going to make other stuffings for this shape of pastry, because it’s so much fun to eat with your hands and dip things! For dipping sauces I used two leftover from a takeout Indian meal (lazy, I know, but they’re so good you can’t just throw them out!) That’s the sweetish tamarind one, and the cilantro mint one. And then I made some good old-fashioned basil/pine nut/garlic/parmesan pesto. I mellowed it out a bit by adding a teaspoon of honey, and by roasting the garlic.
Here’s James Brown’s Try Me, one of my favorite songs ever!
2 cups flour
1 t salt
zest of half a lemon
1 stick butter, frozen
Combine the flour, salt and zest. Grate in the frozen butter, and mix till you have coarse crumbs. Add enough ice water (should be less than half a cup) to bring it together as a workable dough. Knead for about a minute, then cover in foil and set in the fridge to chill till you’re ready to use it.
1 T olive oil
1 large zucchini or 2 small. Coarsely grated (should be about 2 cups)
1 clove garlic, minced
zest of half a lemon
1 cup walnuts – toasted and roughly chopped
1/3 cups golden raisins, chopped
1 cup grated cheddar
1/4 cup goat cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup fresh basil, cut into ribbons
salt and plenty of pepper
1 slice bread – made into crumbs
Warm the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the garlic. When it starts to brown, add the zucchini, and stir and cook till the zucchini is just wilted and the pan starts to dry. Put in a large bowl. Add the walnuts, bread crumbs, cheeses, raisins, basil, cinnamon, salt and plenty of pepper. (that’s everything else, isn’t it!) Mix well.
When you’re ready to cook, break off a small handful of dough, just bigger than a golf ball. Roll it into an oblong – either a rectangle or an oval, doesn’t really matter. Should be about 6 X 4. Put a large tablespoon of filling in the middle, spreading it out lengthwise to match the shape of the dough. Maybe an inch wide by 3 inches long. You want at least an inch on each end.
Roll the dough up over the filling, to make a long tube. You don’t need to seal the seam. Pinch the edges at the ends, with about an inch of dough leftover, to make tabs. Place the pastry seam-side down on a lightly buttered baking sheet. Using a fork, make a pretty pattern in the “tabs” and poke the top in two places.
Bake for 20 – 30 minutes until the top is browned in spots. Be sure to take it out before the tabs burn!!
Serve with some sauce for dipping.
3 cups loosely packed fresh basil, washed and dried
1 clove garlic, roasted or toasted in the toaster oven (remember to slash the skin so it doesn’t explode!)
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup parmesan (I use a very cheap kind that doesn’t have rennet in it!)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 t honey (some of the basil in my garden has a little bitter edge, if your basil is sweet you might not need this!)
salt and pepper
Combine the garlic, cheese and nuts in your blender or processor. Process. Add the everything else but the olive oil. Process. With the motor running, add the olive oil in a thin stream. When your pesto is smooth and thick, add enough water to make it smoother, and just as thin as you like it.
Note: This pesto is pale and sort of creamy. It’s not that vibrantly green, olive oily kind.