I was here before “small plates” became fashionable, and I am here now that they have fallen out of favor. There are some exceptions – a good steakhouse for example – but on the whole I would rather sample a bunch of small dishes than eat larger portions in one or two courses.
But that’s not how I cook at home. At home, dinner is a protein, a vegetable dish or two and a starch of some sort. It’s not a philosophy so much as what I know the family will consume. I still try to be creative, but I don’t have a pair of tweezers in my kitchen.
The other day my wife asked me to make something she could bring to a Seder. For some reason I thought of a recipe I’d read online in which thinly sliced zucchini strips were grilled then rolled around a stuffing and tied with quickly blanched chives. I don’t remember where I read the recipe or what was in the stuffing, but I knew we had goat cheese, cream cheese and a fennel plant in my garden that is threatening to crowd out some of its neighbors. I figured that with some lox and some cucumber it would be pretty good.
I cheated on the grilling. I could have lit a chimney full of charcoal, but it seemed a bit much given how quickly zucchini cook and the fact that I wasn’t going to be grilling anything else. I settled on the cast iron grill pan I keep in the bottom of my oven. Worked like a charm, if I do say so myself.
The trick to the thing is to use a mandoline to make uniform slices that are about twice as thick as you’d get with a standard vegetable peeler, because if the slices are too thin, they’ll disintegrate. If they’re too thick, on the other hand, they won’t become supple enough to roll. I have an inexpensive plastic v-slicer with three settings for the thickness of the cut. I used the middle setting, which is about 1/8th inch. I cut each lengthwise strip in half, ending up with rolls a little more than an inch in diameter.
They cooked about 2-3 minutes on each side in a preheated 475˚ oven. I think using the heat-sink of the cast iron grill pan was important to keep the slices from steaming in the water they released.
The filling is almost irrelevant. The only thing I’d say is that you do need something to seal the ends of the strip that overlap. I mixed up fresh goat cheese and cream cheese in a 3 to 1 ratio favoring the goat. I minced some fennel leaves, parsley and some garlic chive flowers and combined everything with a little lemon juice and salt. I spread a teaspoon on one end of each slice and added some chopped lox and cucumber sticks cut to the same width as the zucchini. I did not tie each roll with a blanched chive, but I coulda.
I thought they turned out well, though I probably wouldn’t want to eat a dozen in one sitting. You could stuff them with just about anything; while I was making them I was already thinking about a ginger/garlic/pork meatball and maybe prosciutto/mozzarella and arugula.
I am not trying to take credit for the technique or for the filling. These are hardly novel combinations. If I were the first person to pair figs and cured ham, or figured out how to make a soufflé potato I’d be crowing from the rooftops. That’s not the case, but the technique in the recipe does make use of a piece of kitchen gear that a lot of us have but most of us don’t use.
And once you lay out a few slices of perfectly uniform zucchini with a bare strip of green skin on each edge on top of each other to trim them, it may occur to you to cut those strips crossways into very, very thin batons with a tiny square of green on each tip. Maybe you use those as a component of a raw salad, or add them to a tomato-basil soup at the last minute, or sauté them for 30 seconds with olive oil and garlic.
You might start using that v-slicer as often as I do, and not just for zucchini… If you already use a mandoline or similar device at home regularly, I’d love to hear how in the comments or by email.