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Stories & Recipes from Paul Graham
A Recipe for a North-Country Recipe: Chevre, Corn, and Red-Pepper Stuffed Zucchini (the Long Way)
The joy of cooking, we are told by kitchen illuminati, is preparing fresh ingredients. And indeed, on some summer nights I know of no greater contentment than walking out to our modest garden and snipping a cucumber or feeling the mild resistance of a tomato, still warm from the sun. Equally joyful is knowing the people who grow or make the ingredients you cannot provide for yourself. Great food is community, the short and well-worn path between the fields or waters and our kitchen table.
This is partly what distinguishes cooking in the North Country. In many places, unless you're an important chef, you will rarely see a farmer's home. The only proof I have is the year my wife and I lived in suburban Pennsylvania, where there was no farmer's market, the fish came from the store, we had no garden, and nobody raised goats and made chevre. We ate more poorly that year: not our diets, but in spirit. The only person who excited me was the crusty chain-smoking woman from Firestone Farms who sold exemplary sweet corn, still wet with dew, from beneath a tarp in her Chevy. $4/ dz, and worth every penny.
Here, then, is a recipe for a recipe, one well worth the wait:
Chevre, Red Pepper, and Sweet-Corn Stuffed Zucchini, the Long Way
- 2 Medium Zucchini
- 2 Shallots
- 1 Clove Garlic
- 1 Small Sweet Red Pepper
- 2 Ears of Corn, Kernels sliced off
- 4 oz Soft Goat Cheese
- 1/4 c. bread crumbs
- 2 tsp Olive Oil
- Salt, Pepper, and Oregano, to taste
- Grow your own zucchini and red peppers. Up here, zucchini are just about the only crop that yield so profusely people leave them in unlocked cars. Ours come from Miller's Greenhouses, in Lisbon. When we first visited the nursery on a May afternoon 5 years ago, I had never been to Lisbon but was positive, for no good reason, that the town was north of Canton (in fact it is 15 miles northwest). My wife drove while I squinted at the street signs and we circled roads lined with corn and copses of spruce and birch. With subtle but increasing authority, the North Country played that familiar trick: each new mile looked exactly like the last, and soon we were lost.
When we finally pulled up two hours later, we saw Amish buggies and knew this was the place. We have been going to Miller's ever since. Nobody there seems to know exactly what stock they have or how much is left, but the plants are healthy and produce well, and the people are exceptionally kind. One could also go to the farmer's market on the village green every Tuesday and Friday, and experience the same handshake, the same pleasing results, but this recipe is, after all, for the long way.
- While your zucchini grows, find the goat farm. Don and Shirley live on County Meadows Farm, three miles out Riverside Drive, between Canton and Morley. They have a mailbox shaped like a goat. You pull up, walk into the cheese house, take what you need from the fridge (be sure to close the door tight), and leave your money in the coffee can. When I described this process to someone who lives in suburban Baltimore, she looked at me as though I had discovered a time machine. Cold cash, Shirley calls it. Usually she is riding the John Deere or working with the girls, as she calls them, but she loves to talk. Once she took my wife around the pens, introducing her to the girls. Don, who is tall, broad, and always wearing a ball cap, is quieter. They make the cheese together, mid-week: chevre, plain and herbed, a farmstead feta with the sharpness of a Parmesan, curd, and a cheddar that used to come in wonderful black wax. They charge $4 for 8 oz. Now and then Shirley gives me a container close to its expiry date for free if I promise I won't serve it to company.
Find some sweet corn. People sell it on the side of the road. Most is good, and in August, great. I've struck up a sort of relationship with our local Amish, from whom I'll also buy eggs. A small story about eggs, since I can't resist: until I was 30, I'd never had an egg that didn't come from the grocery store, whose source, I've learned, are penned-in, hormone-loaded, rooster-attention-starved hens. The birds, as any reasonable person can imagine, get pretty morose. They pass the depression to their chicks, and we taste it in the form of blandness. Then, one morning in Maine, a woman gave us some eggs from her friend's free-as-a-bird hens, and, absolute revelation! Food can be like religion, that way. You see the light, you're touched, you're never the same again. For this recipe, you could add one egg to the mixture of shallots, corn, sweet pepper, and goat cheese, but that would be unnecessary. Just get the eggs while you get the corn and fry two up the next morning. Or use the left-over ingredients to make an omelet for lunch.
- Assemble ingredients. By now it's probably August. It should be an afternoon when you have the time, because you must blanche the zucchini in boiling water until firm but tender, and then plunge them into cold water to stop the cooking. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350. When cool, snip the ends from the squash, slice lengthwise, and seed. Leave about ½ inch of vegetable the bottom and sides. Set aside. Cut the corn from the cob, mince the shallots and a clove of garlic, and dice the red pepper. Saute, in butter or olive oil, the shallots and garlic until translucent and sweet-smelling; add the corn and the red peppers; saute over medium heat for about five minutes. Turn off the heat and add 4 oz of goat cheese and until well-blended. Season with salt and pepper and oregano. Stuff the zucchini with the mixture, top with bread crumbs (preferably homemade, but it's never an ideal world), and bake for 15-20 minutes.
This dish is dramatic enough for a meal in itself, and although zucchini is a notoriously unassertive vegetable, this recipe is quite rich. Serve it alongside something brisk and mildly acidic: a lemon-pepper pasta, a salad of bitter greens, etc.
Share. One of my favorite writers, Andre Dubus, describes cooking food as a sacrament. It is a sacrament, he says, to make a humble peanut butter sandwich; it is a sacrament to make anything you share with someone else. Most nights it's just my wife and I at the table, sitting down to eat and talk about our day: a deceptively mundane ritual which I've always tried to remind myself is in fact a sacrament, binding together the frayed ends of time's weakening rope, making sense of the senseless, choreful day.
Repeat. Vary ingredients, vary meals, and repeat, repeat, repeat.
North Country Food Book
Larry's Shrimp-Stuffed Sole with Herbed Cream Sauce
As an amateur cook and as a writer, I must celebrate Larry the Fish Guy, because he is a North Country staple and because I love him dearly. Every Thursday, April to December, he appears outside the Post Office in Canton from 9:30 until noon to sell fish from the back of his F-150 box truck. There is a faded lobster (I think it's grinning) painted on the side. I have never known Larry to cancel on us, but if you miss Larry in Canton, you could catch him in Potsdam, or Sackett's Harbor, or Alex Bay. He moves east to west, emptying out his ice chests as he goes. Life up here would be the poorer without him, and other places are poor for not having his kind.
Growing up, I was told to never, ever buy fish from the roadside. It was a common scene in Maryland, where people went crabbing in the Bay and then set up a beach umbrella and a few ice chests along the highway in the summer heat. The State probably required a license to do this, but oh well.
"You want Hepatitis?" my mother would say. "There it is. Bon appetite."
But au contraire. I've had better fish out of the back of Larry's box truck than I've had within view of the Atlantic. He has salmon, halibut, sole, tuna, haddock, rainbow trout, mahi-mahi, cod; live lobsters, a little disoriented, wrapped in damp newspaper; shrimp, scallops, clams, and mussels; and occasionally he has crabcake sandwiches, the only offering my wife, a native Marylander, would be inclined to judge harshly, and this makes sense since the seafood comes from Boston, and what could Bostonians possibly know about crabcake sandwiches?
Larry is like a magician, bending down to dig in the ice for your request, and lifting it out with two hands, as if he had plunged them into the sea itself. Then he holds the fillet or steak out over the gate for you to inspect the color, the thickness, and even to take a sniff, if you would like. (Ask the guy at the fish counter in the store if you may sniff his wares. Go on, try it sometime, just for kicks. I dare you.)
I get home, and the fish-the sole, or salmon, or halibut, usually-doesn't smell like fish, which is as it should be. It smells like nothing, or, better yet, it still smells sweet and mildly briny. Such food is often best treated simply, but sometimes it instills in me a mad desire to bang pots, chop, sizzle, flip, pour, and stir, and hence this recipe, a reliable imitation of several recipes from several restaurants, for aspiring cooks are like aspiring writers: We eat and say: How can we make this our own?
Sole Stuffed with Shrimp and Herbed Cream Sauce
- 1 Pound of Fresh Sole
- ½-3/4 Pound of Fresh Shrimp, Raw, Peeled, and De-veined
- 1½ C. heavy cream
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 shallots, minced
- ½ C. minced red pepper
- 2 tbsp of fresh herbs (parsley, rosemary, thyme), or 2 tsp Old Bay Seasoning
- Salt and Pepper, to taste
- Preheat the oven to 350. Melt butter in a heavy bottomed pan, then saute shallots in butter over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add red pepper and saute 2 minutes more, then add shrimp. Continue cooking until shrimp begin to turn pink and curl, about two minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, and any herbs (a little tarragon works well, as does parsley, thyme, or rosemary). Add cream and cook until just simmering, stirring constantly so the creme does not scald. Continue to cook until creme has slightly reduced and thickened into a pleasing sauce, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
- Grease a medium-sized gratin or casserole dish. Lay out the sole fillets on a cutting board, and salt and pepper both sides. Spoon a small amount of the shrimp mixture onto the thicker edge of fillet, and then roll. When you place the fish in the gratin dish, set the loose end on the bottom to hold in place. (If the loose ends refuse to settle, you can spear the roll with a toothpick, but be careful to remove them when serving.) Stuff and roll remaining fillets, reserving a portion of the cream sauce to pour over the top when finished. Cover and bake for 15-20 minutes.
This dish is, obviously, very rich. It's pleasing on a cool fall night, or one of those nights in April or May when it is spring in most parts of the country but not here. It goes well with a brisk, assertive salad, or some grilled asparagus drizzled with lemon and olive oil. It also goes will with a medium-bodied white wine.