A little while back, Musical posted an intriguing Punjabi “rural” recipe. I made it, and found that the final dish, plus her written introduction to the recipe, reminded me very much of another dish that my own maternal grandmother would often make, especially if she knew that I was coming to visit as she was well aware that I loved it so: stewed zucchini.
I don’t know too much about this dish’s history, but I can tell you that it is very popular here in the midwestern area of the U.S.; I would think it was introduced in the early 1900’s when there were many Italian immigrants settling in the area, but this is pure speculation on my part… and, although there are a few vegetable-canning companies that produce a simple and bland version of this dish, thankfully I never tasted them while I was growing up. My German grandmother always prepared it fresh with ingredients from her large garden.
Just short of 5 feet tall, she was a brilliant lady with a quiet, determined energy, who seldom followed recipes nor wrote down her own. Therefore, she had little to pass on to future cooks in the family unless you happened to be present during the heyday of her busy kitchen with an interest and a watchful eye, tasting and asking questions. Her spicing/herbing had a tendency to change with her moods, but I can tell you for certain that, in this dish, she always included garlic and a smidge of ground chiles- not too much, because grandpa would complain… but as much as she could get away with!
This is my own recipe….er, well, I should say that this was the way I made it a few days ago! I usually don’t think about it and just hum along while I add this and that to taste, but this time I wrote it down! And I must say it’s the best I’ve ever made.
Other summer squashes/young gourds can be used in place of zucchini; in fact, my grandmother usually made it using half dark-green zucchini and half yellow crooknecks for a nice colour combo.
Stewed Zucchini with Tomatoes
4 T olive oil
1 T butter*
3 T garlic paste
2 lg. onions, diced 1/2″
2-3 stalks of celery, sliced crosswise 1/4″
1 C of mixed green chiles and/or capsicums(bell peppers), seeded and diced 1/2″ (I used seeded serranos)
1/4 t or more of ground red chiles (I used 1 t)
1 1/2 t fresh thyme leaves (or 1 t dried)
4 fresh basil leaves, minced (or 1/2 t dried)
A few leaves of fresh oregano (1/2 t dried)
3-4 fresh spearmint leaves (1/4 t dried)
A few grinds of black pepper
A teensy-weensy, little-itty-bitty pinch (use your two pinky-fingers to do this) of ground allspice berries
3 1/2-4 C peeled and roughly-chopped fresh tomatoes (good-quality canned or home-canned works fine too)
salt to taste
2 medium-sized or 3-4 small zucchini, quartered lengthwise and sliced 3/4″
1 C fresh green beans, chopped 3/4″ or other mild-flavoured green vegetable of your choice (chopped spinach or other greens work well)**
1/4 C pickled/brined capers
1)Eighteen ingredients…it sounds daunting, but it’s not- easy easy! Warm the oil and butter over med-low heat, add the garlic paste and saute for about 30 seconds.
2)Add the onions, celery and green peppers, raise the heat to med-high and saute until the onions turn translucent.
3)Add the aromatics, and stir, frying for about 1 minute.
4)Add the tomatoes and some salt; keep stirring until the juices are released- about 3-4 minutes.
5)Add the zucchini, green beans, and capers; stir well. Add a half-glass of water, if necessary, to bring the liquid nearer the top of the veggies, and bring to boil. Cover, lower heat way down and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring now and then.
6)Adjust salt and grind a bit more black pepper on top. Serve with bread, over pasta or with rice.
*If you would like to serve this as a chilled soup, replace the butter with more olive oil; thin the stew with more water.
**Some people like to add ground meat or sliced sausages, browning it at the beginning with the garlic (reduce oil, omit butter), but my grandmother usually made it meatless, and often added small amounts of other seasonal vegetables. Just remember: the zucchini must be the star in this show!
Curious contenders for the starring role: Kalonji and Washiarla…
A few people have mentioned the dish’s similarity to the French ratatouille. I did some reading in Wikipedia, and found that there are several, similar dishes across Europe: kapunata– Malta, caponata– Italy, pisto– Spain, lesco– Hungary, letscho– Germany… Though many of these are prepared with eggplant, there was mention of variants using zucchini or other summer squashes/young gourds.
These dishes, in turn, seem to repeat the much-loved combination of eggplant with tomatoes found throughout the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean, again with variants sometimes using young gourds instead of eggplant, apparantly descended from the Arabian musaqqaʿa…