Something from Nothing: Ramiro’s Beef Stew

As a long time fan of both a) learning and b) free things, the relatively recent surge in available MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has me enraptured. Thanks to Coursera and EdX, as well as the many institutions they partner with, I’m on my eighth free, online course. While many study at their own pace, I tend towards the deadline-driven approach, keeping up with course material as it’s posted each week and trying my best to complete the occasionally rigorous, occasionally token assignments. The courses, while not worth any so-called credit, are my way of preventing a lapse in productivity and abundance of unallocated free time, which my anal retentive nature prefers to avoid at all costs (read: my sanity).

Whether or not the unnecessary rigidity is healthy or not, I’m certainly learning a lot of really fascinating things. I’m currently deep in focus on international development, exploring topics in subsistence marketplaces, forest livelihoods, and sustainable agriculture. One class has been providing a particularly rich experience through short videos of and interviews with people living in both rural and urban subsistence, with a focus on India.

As a relatively rich westerner with little exposure to poverty in day to day life, it can be hard to grasp what a simple, average life would look like isolated from the abundant, unappreciated wealth of the first world. Movies, television, and your average travel experience may offer glimpses of this reality, but generally fail to depict the mundane aspects of life that inform the human experience. Call me an anthropologist (which actually, I am), but to me the mundane holds the most meaning, value, and insight. Which is why I’m so excited that these straightforward videos answer simple questions like, “Where do you sleep?,” “Do you buy soap?,” “How do your children get to school?,” “When do you eat dinner,” and so on, providing an incredibly rich window into the daily life of billions.

 

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Why do I mention it?

Well, it just keeps making me think back to this past spring and the magical month I spent working on a small, off-the-grid ranch in Mexico, Rancho La Venta. The ranch was staffed by a small crew: the owners (a hard-working, dedicated ex-pat couple), one or two temporary helpers, and Ramiro, a Baja native and long-time ranch hand.

 

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And that’s why I mention it.

Largely isolated on the ranch, Ramiro was my window into life in La Sierra de la Laguna. His English was limited to a handful of words. My Spanish, a cruel amalgamation of Italian and Spanish unintelligible to either speaker, was a mess. But we worked with each other every day, and soon enough we were bantering – albeit disjointedly – comfortably enough that I became translator between him and my hopelessly Spanish-less (but expertly Australian) roommate.

Over the course of the month I got to know, piece by piece, a bit of his story. But the funny thing is that the most powerful exchange we had was not with words or pictures or even a shared wheelbarrow full of horse manure. It was a meal.

 

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Ramiro was – by his own reckoning – the best cook in his family. He was the requested chef for family events of all sizes, and never failed to bring a homemade lunch – albeit always the same one – to work. He had long promised to demonstrate his culinary prowess and one day finally showed up with a package of beef, a stack of handmade tortillas, and a fixin’ on makin’ good.

I watched him in action. Stern as a soap opera surgeon he requested: “Tomate.” “Patata.” “Poblano.” When what we had didn’t align with expectations, he made it work. To offers of assistance he merely raised a hand in silent dismissal. Taking a break only to march into the garden for a handful of scallions, Ramiro put on a nonstop show worthy of the finest in culinary entertainment. Finally, he turned and declared, “Finito.”

 

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Somehow that handful of incredibly simple – yes even boring – ingredients came together to make something not necessarily grander, but a whole lot more flavorful, than the sum of its parts. Hearty, yet somehow perfect even after a 95 degree day, this water-based stew had taken on new life in the 10 minutes it simmered together. Perhaps it was the beef, which likely came from a cow down the road, or the lovingly flowered cherry tomatoes, or the brave scallions just picked from our desert garden. I don’t know. However it happened, it did, and it will forever serve in my memory as a reminder that just because you have more shit doesn’t mean it smells any better. Not sure why it had to be a poop related adage, but there it is.

So if you use Ramiro’s lovely, simple, rustic, ranch stew as inspiration for your next meal, I hope you remember to keep it simple, and perhaps give a nod to others in the world making amazing things with what some might see as nothing.

 

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Ramiro's Beef Stew

  • Servings: Oh, plenty
  • Time: A little while, but not too long
  • Difficulty: fácil
  • Print

Ramiro used what we happened to have in our sparse pantry for this spur of the moment stew. I have listed those ingredients as best I can here, but in no way mean for them to be rigid instructions. You can adapt this very forgiving, incredibly simple recipe to your pantry as well, using whatever you happen to have, in almost whatever quantity.

Ingredients

  • Oil
  • Garlic, a few cloves, minced
  • Poblano, one or two, large diced
  • Scallion, two or three, chopped
  • Potato, a handful of small white potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
  • Cherry tomatoes, a handful, with two incisions made in the shape of a cross on one end so each tomato sort of opens up like a flower (this was Ramiro’s real showstopper move)
  • 7 oz. can of Herdez salsa casera
  • A few thin slices of beef, cut into bite-sizes pieces
  • Oregano
  • Black pepper
  • Handmade corn tortillas

Directions

  1. Add a swirl of cooking oil to a large pot over medium/high heat (we couldn’t really control the burner anyways). Then add the garlic, poblano, scallions, and chopped potatoes. Stir.
  2. Add the cherry tomatoes and can of salsa. Stir.
  3. Add the beef, and a generous pinch of oregano and black pepper. Cook until the beef is no longer pink.
  4. Add water. Maybe 1-2 quarts. Basically until it looks on the slightly watery side of “stewy.”
  5. Cook until the potatoes are tender.
  6. Eat with handmade corn tortillas.

Plug: If you’re ever in Baja Sur make sure to check out my friends at Rancho La Venta for a horseback ride through the beautiful mountains and a glass of mango wine! Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll get a handshake from Ramiro too!

 

The Best Ever Super Simple No Bake Cherry Chia Almond Granola Bars

Yet again, it’s been a while since I’ve gotten a post together. The months since I returned from my summer working/traveling in Mexico and California have been confusing, to say the least. It’s been tough to translate the otherworldly-ness of the experience to so called “reality.” There have been many big, life-related, distinctly millennial challenges. Decisions beg for the making. Time flies. Clocks tick. Cars go by. God damn analysis paralysis.

 

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The kitchen has been my solace during this mentally crippling phase in life. So much so that sharing my personal and intimate escapades with new ingredients, old favorites, and casual canning here has seemed imprudent. Despite that, I’ve received more requests than ever for recipes, links, and opinions. Perhaps this emotionally-charged silence has laced my menus with a hint of seduction. Who knows.

 

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In an effort to return from my blogging hiatus with a bang, I’d like to share the recipe I have been asked for most since going underground. The best ever super simple no bake granola bars.

 

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I’ve been sending my boyfriend to work with these bad boys for breakfast on and off for a few months now, and word’s gotten around: they’re GOOD. In addition to being perfectly portable and disarmingly tasty, these bars are super simple to make and contain only seven ingredients – all of which are seriously wholesome. No refined sugar to speak of in these bars. Only *cue buzzwords* whole grains, healthy fats, real fruit, and a touch of honey.

I know Clif bars are cheap at Whole Foods, but these are worth the extra effort, I promise. They pack a lasting energy punch thanks to the dates and oats, but don’t flood your body with a barrage of readily-accessible sugar like most store bought granola bars do. They’re the best of both worlds: road ready and cubicle friendly.

And maybe they’ll get you through some tough times too.

 

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Super Simple No Bake Cherry Chia Almond Granola Bars

  • Servings: 14-18 bars
  • Time: 1hr
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Adapted from Minimalist Baker

Ingredients

  • 2 cups pitted dates (loose – not packed tight)
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter
  • 3 cups rolled oats
  • 1 heaping cup almonds, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup dried cherries
  • 2 tbs. chia seeds

Directions

  1. Optional (technically interferes with the bars’ no-bake status, as pointed out by discerning reader Rose Winter): Toast the oats at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes until just beginning to change color. Place in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Using a food processor (or blender on low to medium speed), blend the dates until they form a sticky ball of “dough.” There will be chunks, but ensure the paste is at least somewhat uniform.
  3. Add the date “dough” to the oats, along with the chopped almonds, dried cherries and chia seeds. Mix until combined.
  4. In a small sauce pan, combine honey and peanut butter. Heat on low until the mixture begins to loosen.
  5. Add the honey/pb mixture to the oat mixture and stir until combined.
  6. Line a 9×13 inch baking dish with parchment paper. Pour the mixture into the lining and spread until evenly distributed in the pan. Cover the mixture with another layer of parchment paper, and using another smaller flat-bottomed dish, a hardback book, or some other solid, flat surface, press the mixture down into the pan. I am small, so I will actually stand on it!
  7. Put the pan into the freezer to “set” for 15-30 minutes.
  8. Remove, cut into bars, wrap in foil, parchment paper, or wax paper (if desired), and re-freeze in a freezer bag or otherwise freezer-proof container until the morning you plan on eating them. They can also be refrigerated, but keep better in the freezer.

These bars keep as good as new for up to one, maybe even two or three, months in the freezer.

The Watermelon Ritual

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Chores, labor, monotony, routine, physical. All describe my life here at the ranch. Each morning we rise just before seven (a comfortable hour – yes: I know and am thankful) to feed the horses, sheep, and chickens. We clean out paddocks, change straw bedding, scrub water tubs – all before breakfast. As each day’s work comes to a close, again – time for chores. Before dinner, of course.

Some days are harder and longer than others, but all are built on and around the schedule that our charges demand. The animals and plants in our care depend upon this continued and regular attention, and it forms the backbone of our life here.

Often, words like “chores,” “monotony,” “labor” and “routine” enliven a host of negative connotations among disciples of the so-called modern day, eliciting responses as mild as “simple” and as harsh as “PEASANT.” It’s why you probably never heard your high school guidance councilor suggest that you explore farming as a creditable career. But what many suit-wearing, cultured sophisticates don’t understand is that within the confines of a life devoted to physical routine, there lies an invaluable opportunity.

And that is: watermelon.

Every day here, Emily (my housemate, colleague, and companion) and I get up together, do chores together, make breakfast together, ride together, clean together, study Spanish together. And each day, after a laborious and yes – monotonous – morning and early afternoon, at an hour that varies slightly from day to day, our keen awareness of the day’s progression indicates to our sixth sugary sense that it is time. We descend upon our little outdoor kitchen. One silently opens our modest, gas-powered refrigerator. The other reaches past the spiders for our single cutting board and only chefs knife. And together, we butcher four thick dripping triangles of crispy red watery goodness from the godly green egg of mother melon.

This is the power (or at least one of the powers) of routine. Because when routine becomes a lifestyle – not just a “workout” or “diet” or “happy hour” – it is transformed into ritual. And rituals have meaning.

Any myopic belittlement of the agrarian lifestyle on the part of academics, paper-pushers, suburbanites, or politicos does nothing more than belie any commitment to meaningful pursuits they’ve signed for in student debt, contracts, mortgage payments, or oaths of office. To claim one understands meaning in a human life without understanding the things that make that life possible – how a well-pump works, when to plant tomatoes, or what to do with a dead chicken, to name a few – is poo-diddly-doo.

Don’t get me wrong here – there are certainly many other non-farm-related routines that have the power to become sacred. But there’s something really especially powerful about a ritual that is so fundamentally entrenched in, well, fundamentals. Food, water, shelter. The true necessities of life.

It makes the watermelon all that much sweeter.

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Full Disclosure: I’m not only living and working on a ranch, but reading Joel Salatin’s “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal.” Hence the bitterness.

Bugs on Bug Terms are Better than Bugs on People Terms

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The short of it:

Spiders are my friends because spiders eat flies. And flies suck.

The long of it:

When I was growing up, if a bee even so much as drifted within eyeshot I would alternately shut down completely or launch into a panic attack. Don’t ask me why – I’ve never even been stung or even near stung. Spiders? They’ve always made me sick to my stomach. I’m not a total weenie when it comes to creepies and crawlies, but I’m certainly a bit of city kid.

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Fast forward to my current seat…suctioned to a white plastic arm chair by the inevitable build up of sweat beneath my thighs as I attempt to enjoy the still and sweltering evening while bats circle the patio at a right tear…and those days of radical emoting seem quite distant.

Here, the diversity and quantity of insect life is astounding. No mosquitos – thank god – but more spiders, bees, hornets, flies, ants, moths, scorpions, tarantula hawks (look that one up for a good time), cockroaches, and daddy longlegs than you could shake a stick at. Outside, inside, in between. They’re everywhere.

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And you know what? Of all those terrifying insects from deadly to creepy to invasive to downright disgusting the worst of them is one that I previously had no qualms with: the fly. Hands down.

Not something I would have guessed prior to this immersion course in the living with insects.

It really all came together for me when Emily (my Australian roommate and domestic partner here at the ranch) and I had endured nearly an hour of constant “zzzzzZZZZZzzzzzzzzZZZZZzzzzzZZZZZzzzzzzzz” from three incredibly obnoxious flies making desperate laps of our room nonstop since after dinner. A dinner which was half spent eating, half spent trying to get flies off of us and out of our food and drink. We made the decision that they had to go.

Easier said than done. After another thirty minutes fruitlessly beating the walls with rolled up newspaper, we stood on our beds facing each other, speechless and defeated, as the endless drone continued to taunt us.

I reached up to make one last swat at a passing shithead, when suddenly “ZZ—-“ – all went quiet. One of the eight or so spiders dotting the ceiling had yoinked the fly right out of the air and began digesting it silently overhead.

Finally. A moment in peace thanks to my previously least favorite bug.

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Spiders, well, they kill flies and the rest of the time they generally mind their own business. Scorpions are rather slow, and don’t often venture far from their hiding spots. Cockroaches are scardy cats – and hey, at the end of the day they’re harmless. Ants (well, most) don’t bother anyone. Daddy longlegs you can toss around like it ain’t no thing. Bees have no interest in wasting their stinger on you, and here they have plenty of other things to keep them occupied. Tarantula hawks just wish they could fly better.

But flies.

They’re a menace.

Who knew?

Sometimes, more of a bad thing (along with other bad things) is actually a good thing because it puts all the bad things in perspective.

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The End of a Hard Day’s Work or Snot’s True Purpose

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There is nothing as satisfying as standing limp under a lukewarm outdoor shower in the early evening after a brutal day of physical labor in the hot, still Mexican air watching daddy longlegs run from the flowing water while scraping brown and black gobs of goo out from the deepest darkest crevices of your sinuses knowing that what comes next is a cold can of Modelo. Ah.

Unless it’s a Pacifico. Which was the case after a long day of paddleboarding in Los Barriles over the best shrimp tacos I’ve ever had:

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Ideas that Come at the End of the Dry Season in the Desert

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The desert really is a different animal. Living here is far and away unlike living in an environment blessed with abundant water supply. If a plant or animal (or person for that matter) doesn’t have the capacity to survive on its own, it will die. Unless a human decides to invest very large sums of time, money, effort, and resources (often imported) in its survival. Note “survival.” “Success” takes a whole lot more.

It takes huge amounts of water to keep this ranch going. Water drawn from a well supplied by an aquifer that is being abused up and down the Baja peninsula. Every non-native plant (even many of those native to the area but usually found growing only along arroyos) needs to be soaked thoroughly twice a week. Any edibles need to be soaked twice daily. Each of nine horses drinks ten to fifteen gallons a day. Ten or so sheep drink a few more. The chickens, maybe two or three. Then there’s the water used to wash and shower and drink. Approximately zero percent of that water is rainwater. Chronic drought means the aquifer we’re drawing from has not been properly restored in years. It will rain here, but the few torrential downpours aren’t enough to keep things moist year-round.

All I can think is: what and who are really meant to be here?

For some reason I’m beginning to think a bunch of expats with resource-heavy hobbies and a swimming pool might not be it.

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I’m not saying my hosts are irresponsible, by any means. In fact, they are very mindful stewards of their land and the resources available to them, making a commendable effort to minimize their impact and promote the health of the ecosystem.

All I’m saying is I’m not sure the desert is a great place to do anything but live a desert life.

And that life is one that is dictated by the availability of water. Perhaps there’s a reason Mexicans tend to treat plants and animals with what appears to be disregard and (to some) cruelty, especially when it comes to food and water. Because here, it’s every living thing’s own responsibility to do what it’s gotta do to survive. In the desert, the luxury of manipulating flora and fauna to suit one’s own needs just doesn’t exist.

And I think I believe that this fundamental scarcity is at the root of Mexican culture – and all cultures borne of an arid landscape, I’d imagine. Being dependent on a resource that is seasonal and often unpredictable keeps people here cognizant of nature’s power. It puts people in their place, I guess. Which is at the mercy of mother earth and father space-time. In the US, we’re big-headed assholes who think water comes from pipes and weather is controlled by a busty bimbo on network TV. Generalization, yes. Untrue? No.

It makes me think of how difficult it is to get people at home to appreciate the seasonality of fruits and vegetables. How about we take away your water for nine months out of the year and then see what you learn about patience and thankfulness and reality?

Us water folk have a lot we could learn from the desert.

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Roots on the Road

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As some of you may know, I’ve up and skipped town for a summer sojourn out west. While I’m a bit belated – by three weeks or thereabouts – in posting news of my departure (or really anything for that matter), I’ve decided that the lessons learned thus far and those still-to-be-acquired on this short trip are still worth sharing.

The plan is/was as follows:

  • San Diego, CA – 1 week
  • San Jose del Cabo, Mexico – 3 days
  • Rancho La Venta, Baja Sur, Mexico – 1 month ← I am here
  • Love Apple Farm, Santa Cruz, CA – 2+ months
  • Monterrey/Big Sur, CA – 1 week
  • Utah – 1-2 weeks

To experienced travellers I imagine this sounds like a quick vacay, no biggie – but alas I do not yet qualify as particularly “well-travelled” and as such consider this more of an “epic self-led quarter life crisis summer camp adventure.”

Why now, though? Why here? What even is Rancho La Venta? Aren’t there farms near Philadelphia? Don’t you have a great boyfriend and a great apartment…not to mention plenty of potential jobs and educational programs to pursue? Why any of it?

All good questions. All questions I’m hoping to have a better answer for afterwards.

All I know now is that I needed to go.

After twenty-six years living in Philadelphia, things were finally beginning to become unbearable. Environmental stagnancy, reappearing (and newly emerging) bad habits, and an ever-increasing awareness that a whole lot of my values and goals were going to be quite tough to pursue from a third-floor apartment in the thick of the concrete jungle of South Philly built up like a short shake and a bottle of kombucha to get my ass moving.

This sudden restlessness made me more keenly aware of a frustration that’s also been building over the year and a half since I started exploring careers in food, food systems, and the like a year and a half ago. Shackled by my urban locale and inconvenient resume of administrative strengths, my attempts to get more intimately acquainted with the source of my food were met with many hours hunched over a computer screen instead of the intended crouched in a chicken coop.

I hate cubicles. I told my mom that after my first desk job after high school. I told her I would never work in a place where I had to dress like that and sit in a fucking box (well, at the time just “box”) every day.

And somehow I had ended up back in one.

Screw this. That’s basically where I got to.

After a quick inventory of all the things I know I love in life (a good shower after a hard day’s work in the dirt, cooking a meal for friends and family, a good canter past a tree-lined river bank, shopping the farmers market with no more plan than spend the cash and fill the basket, a fine glass of artisanal beer – or cider or wine – paired with the perfect bite, being a know-it-all about something I actually know it all about, freshly-picked fruits and vegetables unadorned, a drink (or two or three) with good friends, the feeling of sweat dripping down my sternum, an impeccably casual tasteful tablescape…you get the gist) I started my research.

Anyway. Many hours of interneting, emailing, Skyping, and booking later, here I am. In Mexico. On a hobby ranch. With no contact to the outside world except in the five foot radius around a router from 2004.

I’m here to work (hard). I’m here to learn (anything I can). I’m here to ride (horses, paddleboards, boats, pick-ups, you name it). I’m here to eat (yes, I do love tacos). I’m here to think (and not think). I’m here to go (with the flow). I’m here to figure (it out). I’m here to search (yeah sorry: my soul). I’m here to live.

And hopefully, when I return, I’ll have a better idea about where the real me wants to go next.

I can’t promise anything, but I’m going to try to find the time, energy, and internet to post a bit about the things I’ve been doing, the thoughts I’ve been thinking, and the lessons I’ve been learning. Stay tuned.

Today’s Moment of Gratitute: Openness

In an effort to identify one thing each day that I have gratitude for: today I’m grateful for openness.

If your everyday practice is open to all your emotions, to all the people you meet, to all the situations you encounter, without closing down, trusting that you can do that – then that will take you are far as you can go. And then you’ll understand all the teachings that anyone has ever taught. -Pema Chödrön

It was during a conversation with a close friend who has a strong aversion to experience that I started thinking about just how lucky I am to have been graced with some degree of natural openness from birth.  Without this, how many things that I love in my life (be it oysters, yoga, south africa, my boyfriend…) would I not have right now because I was too worried or indolent or anxious or frightened or some combination thereof to experience them that first time?  Probably a lot.  And I love the things that I love, so today, I am grateful for all those first moments of openness, when I set aside the bull shit and said “Let’s do it. I’ll give it a try. What do I have to lose?”

Because the only thing I ever stood to lose was ignorance.

Zucchini INXS: Summertime Fun “Lasagna”

When the final surge of summer’s bounty bestows upon you big fat enormous zucchinis so mindbogglingly huge it’s almost mentally insurmountable, what do you do?

Think of things to do with zucchini.

This is one of the things I thought of.  My Aunt, whose garden is now overrun with the soon-to-be pumpkin harvest of the century, basically forced us to take on a haul of some of the gigantic zucchini hiding under the tangle of melon and squash vines.  So with squash out the wazoo, it seemed clear that zucchini needed to take a much more prominent role in the kitchen.  How about temporarily taking over where pasta once was?

Boom: summertime “lasagna.”  This beautifully simple concoction is simply summertime treat layered over summertime treat layered over even more summertime treats.  The garden offered me zucchini, tomato and basil, so that’s what I cooked.

While there are definitely some kinks in my zucchini noodle technique, which is currently quite primitive (any gluten-free/raw foodists out there with advice?!), this messy bake was actually delightfully delicious anyway.  So I’m going to share the recipe with you with the addendum that this is not a recipe box recipe.  This is a jumping off point for some summertime kitchen fun by no means meant to be followed.  I mean, have you seen it?  Sloppy, Emily:

Summertime Fun “Lasagna”

vegan, gluten-free, healthy healthy!

serves 2 if you’re starving, but really more like 3 or 4

  • 1/4 yellow or white onion, half mooned — Fountain Farmers’ Market
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced into rounds — Green Aisle Grocery
  • large zucchini, very very thinly sliced (lucky you if you have a nice enough mandolin to handle the challenge of an enormous zucchini) — Aunt’s garden!
  • a few nice tomatoes, sliced — Aunt’s garden!
  • 1/2 cup chopped olives (you could use capers too!) — Whole Foods
  • around a cup oil-free basil “pesto”the recipe from Oh She Glows here is awesome…so tasty!
  • nutritional yeast — Whole Foods
  • extra basil leaves — my garden!
  1. Preheat: how about 375 degrees?
  2. Take care of topping: saute onions with nonstick spray until soft, add garlic until fragrant and then let sit
  3. Prep pan: coat 9×5 baking pan (note you can double recipe and use a normal size baking pan!) with nonstick spray, just in case
  4. Layer: tomato, zucchini, pesto, olives, optionally a little of the onion, tomato, zucchini, pesto, olives, optionally a little more of the onion, tomato, zucchini, remaining pesto
  5. Top: with remaining onions and basil leaves
  6. Bake: cover with foil and bake 20-25 minutes, uncover and then cook 10 minutes more
  7. Serve: with crusty bread and a fresh ground pepper

IMPORTANT NOTE: See how runny the above soup-agna turned out?  Next time I’m going to, and I suggest you might as well, salt the zucchini first.  Sprinkle kosher salt over your zucchini slices, let sit draining for 10 minutes, then dry off with towels.  Lessen the moisture!  You could seed some of the tomatoes, but tomato “jelly” is filled with delicious umami and wonderful nutrition, so I’d advice against it.  But whatever you do, have fun. THAT is a rule.