Thursday, August 7, 2008

Traveling leads to pine nuts

Last summer, I took three weeks to visit various friends all over Europe. I started out in Paris with Sara, who was there working on a ten-week research project. Then Sara and I, along with Danielle, spent a long weekend visiting Nikos in Athens. I headed off by myself to Germany where I met up with an old friend, Kristian, and spent the last weekend with my friend Carolin in Trier.

Needless to say, the trip was amazing; I soaked up 24-7 time with friends, learned so much about the history and culture of the countries I stayed in, and saw some things I thought I never would.

And the food! When I travel to other countries, there are largely two things I find most interesting about the trip itself: 1) to understand or imagine what it’s like to live there, and 2) to taste the local food.

For example, one of my favorite “places” in Germany is the Rhine river. I remember the first time I experienced it: I was 18 and taking the train with Sara and another friend of ours from Cologne to Frankfurt. It was our last day in Germany and we boarded the train at 5am, or some equally ungodly hour, as our means to get to the airport. We were sleepy from lack of sleep and also heartbroken to be leaving Germany behind, so we barely spoke a word the first 20 minutes or so. We eventually realized the beauty that was passing by our windows and fell breathless as small towns with cathedrals, vineyards, and several castles, all dotting the green and blue landscape, came and went. I couldn’t help but try to imagine what it would be like to live in one of those small towns and wake up every morning to the beauty of the hills and the river. Fortunately for me, much of my travel abroad has been in connection with friends who are natives and seeing the country and culture through their eyes helps me understand such things.

I think part of understanding what life is like in another country is tasting their local food. Well, that, and I just love discovering new tastes! In the timeline of my life, my trip last summer occurred before I found out I am gluten intolerant, so I tasted breads and pastries and Nikos’ grandma’s melt-in-your-mouth almond cookies. On my last day in Trier with Carolin, I got to taste a Spanish flatbread, made by one of Carolin’s friends from Spain. It was crisp and lightly sweet, with sugar and pine nuts baked into the top. I hadn’t seen pine nuts in very many dishes before this, but I liked the unique flavor they added to the bread.

This bread came back to mind the other day in the grocery store, when I was looking to break out of my nut “routine.” See, I have been eating a lot of cashews and pecans and almonds lately and I was looking for a change of pace. I noticed the pine nuts in the bulk section memories of Carolin, Trier, and Spanish flatbread came rushing back to me.

Back at home, I tried adding them to some roasted zucchini and was amazed at the flavor they added to the vegetables. Just this one small ingredient shift changed the tone altogether! After a little more experimenting, and a bit of thinking, I came up with the stuffed zucchini recipe posted below. Pine nuts have certainly become a favorite these days, so you may see them popping up in future recipes as well!

Stuffed Zucchini:

2 large zucchini
1 can artichoke hearts, chopped
1 can white beans or chickpeas
1/3 cup pine nuts
1 large clove garlic (or 2 small), minced
1 small red onion, diced
20 or so pitted Kalamata Olives, sliced
2 teaspoons oregano
½ teaspoon nutmeg or cinnamon
½ teaspoon sea salt

Chop the ends off of each zucchini and then slice length-wise. Scoop out and discard any seeds. Using a sharp knife, score the zucchini meat and then scoop out with a large spoon, leaving about a ¼ inch shell. Place the zucchini meat onto a cutting board and chop into small pieces.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix the zucchini meat, artichoke hearts, and beans.

In a skillet, sauté the onion with a little olive oil, until the onion begins to soften. Add the minced garlic and sauté for about a minute more. Add the onion to the zucchini-bean mixture.

While the pan is still hot, add the pine nuts and toast on medium-high until browned, then set aside.

Place the zucchini shells into a glass baking dish (if the zucchini are really large, you will likely need 2 dishes). Add the oregano, salt, and nutmeg to the zucchini-bean mixture and mix well, then spoon into the zucchini shells. The filling will likely be higher than the edges of the shells. Sprinkle pine nuts on top.

Bake at 400F for about 30 minutes.


Feeds 4.

Tip: When they are done baking, slice the zucchini shells in half, crosswise, to aid removal from the pan. Use a metal spatula to carefully lift out of the pan.
Add ons: I can't eat cheese yet, but Ben and I both agreed that adding cubed feta to this would be oh-so tasty! If you can eat dairy - try it, and let me know how it goes!

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