Saturday, November 2, 2019


What’s cooking? Zucchini Spirals with Mushrooms

I spent all day last Saturday at the Texas Book Fair, an annual event that takes over a sizeable portion of downtown Austin near the capital and draws upwards of 50,000 attendees.  I started my tour with barbecue king Aaron Franklin (of the legendary Franklin Barbecue), who talked about grilling steaks and his new cookbook, Franklin Steak. Next up, I heard Malcolm Gladwell interviewed about his latest book, Talking with Strangers; then I hotfooted it from one side of the fair to the other to hear Sean Brock, former chef at McCrady’s in Charleston and the Husk group of restaurants across the South, talk about his newest project in Nashville and his latest cookbook, South, as well as his passion for Southern/Appalachian cuisine.

My last stop was a conversation between two authors who are also copy editors: Mary Norris (Between You & Me and her newer book, Greek to Me), who is also a writer and copy editor for The New Yorker; and Benjamin Dreyer (Dreyer’s English), executive managing editor and copy chief for Random House. The topic of their talk was “Word Nerds: Famous Copy Editors on the Glories of Grammar Punctuation.”

I had thoughts that a session with that catchy title might not draw a single person, so I was determined to put at least one face (mine) into the audience. Imagine my surprise when, arriving a full 15 minutes before the start of said session, I learned that there were no seats left. Wait – not only were all the seats taken, but a fire marshall had posted himself outside the room because it was “at capacity,” with people sitting on tables and standing at the back. Amazing, right? Who knew that many people would care so much about punctuation? I considered leaving, but then the fire marshall got called away, so I sneaked into the back.

The conversation was about as riveting as you could imagine, with bits about the “Oxford comma,” writing tics (subconscious gaffes committed on the page by writers), and styles of punctuation and usage that determine a writer’s voice. I’ve written before about finding “my people” in a room of food writers or bridge players, but these were true “ word nerds,” and I felt included, happy, at home.

So what did I learn on my day at the Book Fair? Well,...

■ From Aaron Franklin, I learned that grass-fed steak always has a beefier flavor than grain-fed steak. Also that you should never cook a filet mignon on the grill: there’s not enough fat on it, and what’s there drips down onto the coals or gas burners, leaving the meat dry and tasteless. According to Franklin, the best way to cook a filet mignon is to cook it on the stovetop in a skillet with butter. This was big news to the Kitchen Goddess.

■ Gladwell spoke about his prevailing premise in this latest book: that humans “default to truth” in our communications with others. That is, that we tend to take at face value things other people tell us, even if we should know better. It’s a level of trust that con artists and cheats rely on. But in the modern world, we have no choice but to talk to strangers. To assume the best about another person is “the trait that has created modern society. ... the alternative – to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception – is worse.”

■ Sean Brock has taken the past two years away from the restaurant business to investigate Southern cuisine. By his measure, the South covers an area equivalent to that of continental Europe, and has at least as many cuisines. Even within one state, the cuisine of, say, southern Virginia differs markedly from the cuisine of the Chesapeake Bay area. These microregions of cuisine have developed as influenced by the types of people who live there (natives, immigrants, Native Americans), the geography of the place, and the plants available in the area. His goal is to understand how these cuisines have developed and how they relate to each other. A food as simple as cornbread will vary widely from one community to the next because of the types of corn available, how it’s stored, and the cooking methods dominant in the area.

* * *

It will not surprise you that by the time I got home, the last thing I wanted to do was cook dinner. And fortunately, my prince was out of town on a golf trip. (Yes, the sport I hated most as a young mother because of the time it took is now a great gift for the time it takes. Not that I love my mate any less, but everyone needs a little alone time now and then.)

I didn’t want to cook, but I also didn’t want take-out. Hmmm... I stopped at the store on my way home and picked up these interesting veggie spirals I’ve been meaning to try, and a box of sliced mushrooms. That’s right – the Kitchen Goddess bought sliced mushrooms. Do as I say, not as I do. They’re not as fresh as if I’d sliced them myself, but when you’re really beat...

It was a perfectly wonderful meal, and embarrassingly simple given the Kitchen Goddess’s leanings. You have to be careful not to overcook the veggie spirals, but that’s easy if you just sample a piece occasionally. And some people will want their zucchini more al dente than others. That’s up to you, as is whether or not you add the chicken broth. I mostly did it for the Knorr flavor, and because I wanted a little liquid.

Zucchini Noodles and Mushrooms

Serves 2.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
8 ounces crimini (a.k.a. Baby Bella) mushrooms, in ¼-inch slices
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 package (about 10 ounces) zucchini spirals (a.k.a zucchini noodles)
½ cup flavorful chicken broth, or ½ cup water with ½ teaspoon Knorr Seasoning Chicken Bouillon
Garlic salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Garnishes (optional): freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, chopped parsley

Heat the butter and oil together in a large, high-sided skillet, over high heat, until the butter foam begins to subside. Add the mushrooms and sauté, stirring, for about 4 minutes, until they begin to brown.

Reduce the heat to medium and add the garlic. Cook 30 seconds, stirring, then add the zucchini spirals and continue stirring – gently, in a folding style, so as not to destroy the texture/shape of the squash – until the zucchini is al dente, another 3 minutes.

Pour the broth over the mixture and continue cooking about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and season to taste with salt/freshly ground black pepper, and serve. Garnish – if you want – with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or chopped parsley.

I served this to my husband a few nights later, and plated it with apple wedges and a nice slice of crusty bread toasted with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Outstanding.

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