People often ask me how I learned to cook or how do I stay so creative in the kitchen?
It’s easy. I eat out a lot. I am greatly inspired and motivated by restaurants and their talented chefs. I knew when I came home from the food press tour in Columbus, I was not just going to write about the food, I was going to make specific dishes that I thought were memorable.
I was eating a zucchini dish at Basi Italia, and noticing ten food writers and company finish every bite of a generous portion of roasted zucchini blanketed with tangy, salty, shaved Pecorino. It’s not unusual for me to rave about a vegetable dish, but to see others that don’t typically swoon over a green side dish, got my attention.
I was even put into my culinary place because my first thinking was that maybe the zucchini should have some lemon, but then the more I ate it, I realized, I was wrong. Of course, there is no right or wrong in a dish such as this. If you want a squeeze of lemon because you’re in that mood, that’s still right. But, I think I learned something about simplicity.
The sweetness of a fresh zucchini just barely roasted enough to be tender can be enjoyed for their own natural taste, especially when covered in translucent layers of my favorite sharp sheep’s cheese, Pecorino Romano.
This is a signature dish, one that evokes such culinary sensory pleasure, that your friends, your family will remember it and ask for it. I know those food writers talked about it and are still talking about it.
Zucchini is one of those summer vegetables that people joke about and take for granted. Gardeners and farmers often let them grow to the size of baseball bats and then try to pawn them off in the market or to friends. I know how easily that can happen because we grew zucchini this summer. I learned to go out every morning and pick them while they were still slim, small, tender and sweet. One day I missed one and found a zucchini club waiting for me. Even I didn’t want to eat it.
Pecorino, Cheese from Sheep’s Milk
Pecorino refers to any cheese made from sheep’s milk, but we refer here to the hard cheese that is typically grated upon 2/3’s of Italy’s pasta. Not all sheep’s cheese is alike. It can vary in softer, harder, saltier, but the common thread is that sheep’s cheese is fattier, richer than goat or cow’s milk as sheep’s milk has nearly twice the fat content. Spicy and sharp with notes of straw, it has a salty tang that jumps all over the mouth, into the nose and even awakens the throat with just one bite, linger on the palate. Sheep’s milk cheese is my favorite as the “sheepy” taste is distinct, more delicate than goat’s cheese, and very easy to digest. If I were a cheese farmer, I would want to make sheep’s cheese, but I don’t see a lot of that here in the States.
Did you know that sheep’s milk came before cow’s milk, is healthier and more nutritious, and due to short and medium chain fatty acids, has no effect on cholesterol? This is how this dish made it into the “Spinach Tiger Fit” category.
There are nuances in taste, depending on where the sheep graze. In Italy, the diet changes as the sheep climb the mountains to a cooler climate in summer months. Pecorino can be purchases in softer, creamier form when it’s young, aged 3 to 6 months, but for this dish, you need to use the Pecorino that graces 2/3’s of Italy’s table for pasta.
All Pecorino have a PDO, a protected designation of origin. The most common one used outside of Italy is Pecorino Romano, which I used for this dish. It is buttery and wonderful grated onto pasta, giving a fatty, salty boost, especially to dishes like Orchiette and Broccoli Rabe, a classic.
I used Pecorino Romano, aged 9 months which grates well, but also slices well using a hand held mandolin. If you don’t have a mandolin, use the box grater and go for mini slices, but now is the time to buy that mandolin you’ve always wanted. (I love this one.)
I sliced the zucchini lengthwise in 1/8 inch pieces and cut it to strips. You could use a machine to get perfect cuts but it’s not important, because the zucchini is covered by the cheese, and it’s supposed to be an easy, rustic dish, but has modern appeal.
I roasted the zucchini and the almonds at the same time. This helps ensure the zucchini is just cooked right, about 5 minutes.
Tell me, do you get inspired to cook when you eat in restaurants? What have you made?