To continue my intended series of bringing you one Chinese vegetable, prepared two ways -- one traditional Chinese and one Western or of my own creation -- I bring you a perfect summer vegetable, the zucchini. American English is the norm here in China, so I've reverted from saying courgette in the British way I'm used to... which itself was a conversion from the "zucchini" I learned growing up in New Jersey... yeah it's fine, lingo ping-pong is now a confirmed fact of life.
So why is zucchini, both the seductively dark-skinned, slim Western type and the pale, plump and freckled Chinese type, the perfect summer food? Because their mild-flavoured flesh and thin, edible skins make them so versatile to cook and so easy to use. It's exactly the kind of low-maintenance, flavour-carrying veg which you might use to throw together quick summer barbeques (just slice, spice and grill) and easy breezy dinners (roasted or steamed as a side, grated into a salads).
I used to looked down on the Chinese zucchini, refusing to substitute it for the more expensive Western type; it just wasn't as pretty, its soft seeds were all too large and visible, and it seemed like a cop-out to use Chinese zucchini -- the stuff of meager stir-fries -- in my fancy-fancy JoySeed bento boxes. But then a simple stir-fry made by the ayi turned into a full-blown passion; I was amazed by the juiciness and mild sweetness of those unassuming, pale slices of zucchini, given a flash of heat in the wok with some garlic and sauce.
The recipe below for the Chinese zucchini stir-fry is kinda embarrassingly simple, but pretty much guarantees that you may actually get offline and really cook it. I've tinkered with a handful of local recipes to keep the flavours true and pure, but omit the MSG and other unnecessary enhancers. This one has fresh, sweet carrots in the mix and is glazed with oyster sauce which gives it all the flavour it needs.
Now, the Western way... I held off on making a Western zucchini dish after having mastered the Chinese, because life happened (and as a Mr. Elbert Hubbard once said, "Life is just one damn thing after another"). I finally (2 months lather) got around to buying two more Chinese zucchini and thought ratatouille (boring)... latke-like zucchini fritters (yeah!... but clichéd? Not original enough?)... then, out of sheer laziness and limited time I came up with essentially a much faster (and less carby) way to make those fritters whilst reserving the part about "frying", because I and everyone on the planet loves fried food.
I sandwiched thick slices of zucchini with minced-up, veggie fillings and whatever spices were sitting around in my cupboard, the ones wondering if they're doomed to a life of re-gifting or actual culinary merit. My favorite was red bell pepper and dukkah, given by the lovely Gorilla mother. After stuffing your little zucchini sandwich, you dunk as per American procedure: cornstarch, then beaten whole eggs, then finally breadcrumbs -- though, going through a corn phase, I went for cornmeal which gave it the gritty crunch and toasted popcorn flavor that I love. Shallow- or deep-fry in hot oil, and you, my friend, have got a real summer treat: hot and crispy outside, mellow and mild and wild inside.
Get creative with the stuffing; try minced meat. Actually, I got the idea for this cooking method from a Chinese dish my mom's cousin in Chengdu makes: a lotus root "pocket" sandwich with a minced meat filling and deep-fried. God I love those. Get creative with your own minced fillings and spices, just follow the guidelines below like adding a teaspoon of masa/cornmeal, and you'll really be fine.
Chinese Style: Easy Zucchini Stir-Fry
(serves two; enjoy with rice or other Chinese dishes)
- 275g Chinese zucchini (about 1 large)
- 150g carrots (about 1 large)
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 5g ginger (about the same volume as the garlic cloves), peeled
- 1 piece of Chinese dried chili (the dark, large and flat ones)
- 2 Tbsp oyster sauce
- Spring onions, diagonally sliced from about two stems, to top
- Slice the zucchini about 1cm thick, diagonally, to make long rounds. Slice those rounds vertically, also 1cm wide, to make rectangular strips of zucchini.
- Slice the carrots in the same way as the zucchini, but thinner (about 0.5 cm or less).
- Mince the garlic and ginger together. Chop the dried chili into 2cm segments and discard the seeds.
- Heat up the wok or frying pan on high heat with 2 Tbsp peanut or sunflower oil and when shimmering, toss in the garlic, ginger and chili pieces. let it sizzle for 30 seconds, then add the carrots and stir-fry for a minute or two.
- Add the zucchini and 1 Tablespoon of water and the 2 Tablespoons of oyster sauce. Stir-fry for a further 3 minutes until the zucchini is soft and cooked through.
- Tip it onto a plate and top with sliced scallions (and skinnt strips of fresh red chili, deseeded, if you wish).
Western-style: Stuffed Zucchini Fritters
(This recipe is fairly freestyle; I don't have prescribed quantities for the fillings, but the description, tips and your creative powers will guide you through this very straightforward-to-make treat. This makes a perfect snack or starter).
- 2 Chinese zucchini
- Masa or other fine-ground cornmeal
- Salt & pepper
- 2 eggs
- Slice the zucchini horizontally into circular rounds, 2cm thick or slightly wider. To make each zucchini round into a "sandwich", make a slice down the center of each round but slice down only about 3/4 of the way through.
- Prepare the stuffing: I made two types. Red pepper and dukkah (a gorgeously mild Egyptian spice blend with hazelnuts): mince the red bell peppers finely, then add a pinch of salt and tip it into a fine-mesh colander. Let it sit for 1 minutes then use your finger to push down on the peppers firmly (over the sink) to strain out excess water. Transfer back to a bowl and mix in a generous helping of the spice mix. Leek and thyme: finely mince the leek, repeat the straining process as with the peppers. Add fresh thyme leaves and some black pepper.
- Prepare 3 plates and 1 bowl. Put a generous helping of cornmeal on one plate; cornstarch mixed with pepper in another plate; and into the bowl scramble the eggs with a generous pinch of salt. Leave one plate empty.
- Use your hands and nimble fingers to stuff each zucchini "sandwich" with filling. Curve your index finger between the "lips" of the zucchini to press down on the stuffing firmly and keep it nice and smooth and tight, but don't over-fill it either.
- With gentle and nimble hands, dip each zucchini "sandwich" into the cornstarch and gently shake it off, and drop it into the egg mix. Pull it out, give it a little shake, then drop it into the cornmeal and roll it around to evenly coat. Put all your triply-cornmeal-crumbed zucchini on the empty plate. The whole dip-shake-dip-shake-dip process is easiest with hands; and as for preventing the mega clumpy goopiness that the zany genius Alton Brown refers to as "Club Hands", keep one hand for dry-dipping and the other for wet. So I used my right hand to do the cornstarch dip and airdrop into the egg mix; then I used my left hand to roll it in the egg mix and do an airdrop into the cornmeal; then use the right hand to pat the cornmeal all over the zucchini.
- FINALLY you have stuffed and triple-dipped each zucchini sandwich. You have moved onto the Level Deep Fry!, which is not as scary (or fattening) as it seems. Just heat up the oil in a heavy, wide and deep (at least 3 inches / 7cm deep) frying pan or pot til it reaches 350*F / 177*C (after a few times you'll get a spidey sense of when that shimmering oil is about ready; you can also drop a piece of bread in and see if it rises and sizzles the right way). Gently drop in the zucchini sandwiches ; don't fill up the pan too full. Give each side 3 minutes to fry to a beautiful golden brown.
- Remove with tongs onto a dish lined with paper towels; repeat with remaining zucchini.
- Be careful, it's juicy, hot and deliciously addictive.