Meatless Monday: Zucchini tomato goulash

This hearty goulash creates a lively side dish or vegetarian meal.

Blue Kitchen
Zucchini tomato goulash combines zucchini, tomatoes, garlic, fresh basil, jalapeño peppers, and ricotta cheese.

You know how when you’re traveling and one of the locals asks where you’re from, then says wistfully, “Wow, I’ve always wanted to go there”? I didn’t get that once in Los Cabos. Not once. And I live in Chicago, a place I consider capable of generating a certain amount of destination envy.

I was in Los Cabos a few weeks ago, at the southernmost tip of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, on a culinary press trip to explore the foodie side of this popular tourist destination.

My fellow travelers and I were guests of the Los Cabos Convention & Visitors Bureau. And while we were asked many times where we had come from to get there (besides Chicago, the answers included New York City, Los Angeles and Western Canada), our replies inspired little more than polite curiosity. No one seemed eager to leave this sunny, narrow strip of land with the Pacific on one side and the Sea of Cortés on the other.

Whether they’d been born in Los Cabos or had moved from Mexico’s mainland or other, more far-flung points around the globe, the waiters, hotel managers, drivers, restaurateurs, chefs, fishing boat captains and shop owners we spoke with all seemed to be precisely where they wanted to be. In the four days I spent there, I could see why.

Los Cabos (the capes) wraps around the southern tip of the peninsula. The region is mostly mountainous, rocky desert, quite beautiful (and to my Midwestern eyes, exotic) under the relentless sun and blue skies. And for all the heat (mid-90s during the day), the dry desert air and nearly constant ocean breezes keep things reasonably comfortable, especially in the shade. At night, the temperatures dip into the 60s, and jackets are encouraged. As a result, the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces are often blurred or obliterated – you flow seamlessly from one to another. I am a sucker for this use of space.

Our hotel, the newly opened Grand Solmar Land’s End Resort & Spa, is a perfect example. The spacious lobby area is open at both ends; the ocean breezes and sounds let you know you’re not cooped up inside as you sit around large, low tables in big, comfy chairs, sipping your check-in welcome drink. And there are no interior hallways, just covered outdoor walkways to take you to your suite.

But it wasn’t all refreshments and cool breezes. We were expected to work. Well, a little, at least. So one morning we made our way to Huerta Los Tamarindos, an organic farm operated by chef/restaurateur Enrique Silva. We trekked around the fields and then up to an 1880s brick ranch house that has been converted to an inviting, well-equipped demonstration kitchen. There we helped prepare our lunch. Turns out fellow Chicagoan Rick Bayless had recently cooked in this very kitchen, filming an upcoming episode for his PBS series, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, and impressing Chef Silva with his exhaustive knowledge of regional Mexican cuisine.

Chef Silva has a degree in agricultural engineering and, in fact, introduced himself to our group as an agricultural engineer and farmer, even though he is chef/partner at Tequila, one of the first fine-dining restaurants in San José Del Cabo. Silva’s love of agriculture along with the occasional lack of availability of fresh produce and herbs led him to create his own organic farm, just 10 minutes away from his restaurant. Huerta Los Tamarindos grows many herbs – basil, rosemary, sage, marjoram, thyme, chives and lemongrass – as well as heirloom tomatoes and eggplants. Silva’s organic produce is featured heavily on Tequila’s menu as well as at other top area restaurants. He also exports to the United States and Canada.

Last year, Silva expanded Huerta Los Tamarindos to include an events garden, packing plant, organic educational facility – and the cooking school, where we went to work on lunch. Chef Silva and his team had already started the main course, meaty chunks of bone-in goat in a roasted tomato pepper sauce, wrapped in banana leaves and roasted in an outdoor wood-fired oven. (Just typing that description, my mouth is watering in memory of this dish; I will likely attempt a similar dish sometime this fall, when the weather is more conducive to three-hour roasting in my indoor gas-fired oven.)

My fellow travelers and I helped prepare three dishes for the meal. First was a gluten-free “pizza” in which the crust was replaced with hoja santa leaves. Hoja santa is a licorice-tasting aromatic herb with large, heart-shaped leaves. It’s used a lot in Mexican cuisine and is said to be an essential ingredient in mole verde. For dessert, we stuffed squash blossoms with ricotta cheese, topped them with slices of membrillo, a quince paste very popular in Spain, popped them in the oven briefly and then drizzled them with honey.

And for a side dish, we made a zucchini goulash, using the farm’s beautiful heirloom tomatoes, topped with ricotta cheese. I’ve adapted this dish for this week’s recipe. For my version, I’ve added some jalapeño peppers for a bit of a kick and shortened the cooking time to let the various ingredients keep some of their individual flavors and texture. It works beautifully as a side dish, but served with a crusty bread, is hearty enough for a vegetarian dinner.

For the record, this isn’t a true goulash. It’s lighter and less saucy than traditional goulash, and it doesn’t contain meat. And as Marion points out, it doesn’t have any paprika.

Zucchini Tomato Goulash
Serves 4 as a side

1/4 cup olive oil
2 medium zucchini
1 medium yellow summer squash (or more zucchini)
1 medium red onion, quartered and sliced
2 jalapeño peppers, sliced into rings (see Kitchen Notes)
2 large cloves garlic, minced
2 medium tomatoes, cut into big chunks (see Kitchen Notes)
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil, loosely packed
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup ricotta cheese (optional – see Kitchen Notes)

Slice zucchini and yellow squash in half lengthwise, then cut into 1/2-inch-thick half moons. Heat olive oil in a large, lidded nonstick skillet over medium-high flame. Add the zucchini, yellow squash, onion and jalapeño peppers and sauté until just beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir frequently to prevent burning.

Add garlic and cook until just fragrant, about 45 seconds. Stir in tomatoes and basil, and cook for 3 minutes. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook for another 4 minutes. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper. Spoon ricotta in dollops on the top of the goulash. Cover pan and let rest undisturbed for about 5 minutes. Serve warm.

Kitchen Notes

Adjusting the heat. The jalapeño peppers don’t just add a very modest amount of heat – they add peppery flavor. If you want less heat, remove the seeds and whitish ribs, but still use the peppers. As a heat-free alternative, you can substitute some red or green bell pepper.

The best tomatoes are the ones you have on hand. No question about it, the nice mix of Chef Silva’s heirloom tomatoes added something extra to the goulash we all shared at the farm. You can mix cherry tomatoes and other varieties in this dish (you want about 1-1/2 to 2 cups of chopped tomatoes total). But whatever tomatoes you have available will work well. And include the seeds and whatever juices – the goulash can use the liquid.

Cheese? No Cheese? The ricotta cheese adds a nice, creamy finish to the dish. But if you want to lighten it up, you can leave the cheese out and still have plenty of flavor.

To see photos of Terry's trip to Los Cabos, click here.

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