Za’atar zucchini salad with crusted halloumi

It’s summer! There are outdoor movies, bike parties, art festivals, birthday parties, anniversary parties, housewarming parties…

Heeey, I’m just over here rationalizing why I haven’t posted in a while.

But summer also has lots of awesome produce. And every summer, whether it’s a fluff piece in the local paper or friends in my Facebook feed, I always see people asking, what the hell can I do with all this zucchini? One that I’ve seen popping up recently is zucchini noodles topped with feta cheese, which is what got me thinking about this salad.

za'atar zucchini salad with crusted halloumiSo, what’s going on here?

Zucchini. You’ll want to use smaller ones if you can, because super huge zukes are not great for eating in salads like this — they get all weird and fluffy. And you’ll need to use a julienne peeler or a spiral slicer to get the “noodle” thing going on. (My mister when we sat down to dinner: “How did you make these vegetables like this?”) I use a crummy julienne peeler that I got for $1.99 in Japantown when I visited San Francisco, and it works fine.

Za’atar. Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice mixture that you could make very easily to your preference. It seems like it’s one of those Italian grandmother tomato sauce situations, where every family has a different recipe. But generally it has some combination of sesame seeds, sumac, oregano, basil, thyme, savory, and salt. So you could be a rockstar and make up a little batch of za’atar… or you could be like me and use a jar of pre-packaged stuff that you impulse bought, while your partner pokes fun at you because the brand name is Urban Accents.

Preserved lemons. They are basically pickles made of Meyer lemons and salt. I probably should have made a post about when I made preserved lemons back when I made them last winter… but I didn’t. You can buy them in Middle Eastern markets, or in the ethnic aisles of some well-stocked grocery stores. My homemade ones were spiced with cinnamon sticks, cardamom, and peppercorns. Yum.

Halloumi. This cheese, much like feta, is salty and delicious. It doesn’t melt, so it’s perfect for browning in a skillet to warm it up and give it some crunch.

Za’atar Zucchini Salad with Crusted Halloumi

Serves 2 to 3 as a main, 4 to 6 as a side

3 small or 2 medium zucchinis (about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds)
1 small red onion
2 ounces halloumi
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 1/2 tsp finely chopped preserved lemon, peel and flesh (a little less than 1/8 of one lemon)
1/2 small garlic clove, minced
2 teaspoons of za’atar, divided
2 cups arugula

Using a julienne peeler or a spiral cutter, make zucchini into long, thin, noodley shapes. Put in a large bowl and set aside.

Cut the tip off the red onion, then cut in half through the root and peel outer layers. Slice into thin half moons. Put in a small bowl and set aside.

Cut the halloumi cheese into small (about 1/2-inch) squares. Put in a small bowl and set aside.

In a measuring cup, mix olive oil, vinegar, preserved lemon, garlic, and 1 teaspoon of the za’atar. Pour a small amount over the halloumi and toss to coat. Do the same with the red onion. Then pour the rest over the zucchini, and add the additional za’atar. Toss to fully coat (I just use my hands).

Let zucchini marinate for 20 minutes.

While it is marinating, heat up a cast iron skillet over medium heat. When one piece sizzles, throw in the red onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 4 to 5 minutes until slightly softened and the taste mellows out a little bit. Remove from skillet and set aside to cool slightly.

After zucchini has marinated for 20 minutes, add arugula and cooled red onion and once again toss to combine.

Then go back to your cast iron skillet and turn it to medium heat. When a drop of water sizzles, dump in the halloumi cheese in a single layer. Let cook for 1 to 2 minutes until a brown crust forms, then use a metal spatula to scrape them up and flip to the un-browned sides. Don’t worry about getting every single piece perfect, but try to get some good brown crustiness on as much of the cheese as you can.

Remove from heat and distribute evenly over the top of the salad, then serve immediately.

Marinated squash and fig summer salad and my dirty little secret

I love to cook.

You would hope so, wouldn’t you? Since I’m documenting my recipes on the internet and all.

But here’s my dirty little secret:

I buy a lunch almost every day at work.

I currently work right across the street from a Whole Foods, and their salad bar, hot bar, deli, and other prepared foods are just too convenient.

I’m one of those people who snoozes the alarm eight times and sleeps until the very last minute before scrambling to get out of the house in the morning. So I’m pretty much incapable of bringing a lunch unless it has been prepared and packaged the night before. Sometimes this happens. But more often, I forget about this crucial task and instead spend my evening working on a project, watching Doctor Who, or harassing Smells McGee.

I rationalize my lunch habit to myself by saying that it makes me eat healthier; I try to stick to the salad bar (“though that doesn’t always happen,” say my pants). I tell myself that I like variety, and if I were to buy and prep all that fresh produce that I like to load up on my salad, it’d go bad before I used it all. I tell myself that it’s really not that expensive, because at least I’m not loading up my salad with a pound of chicken breast.

These excuses have been enough for me so far. I mean, I’m still eating lunch from Whole Foods pretty much every day. But in just over a month, I am being forcibly relocated from my beautiful downtown office across the street from Whole Foods (not to mention walkable to three sushi joints, the vegetarian sandwich shop/juice bar, the tea house, the pizza place, and occasionally the cupcake truck). I’m being relocated to…

An office park in the middle of the ‘burbs. With nothing you can get to on foot. WHYYYYY??

I guess I’ll have to start bringing my lunch more often. Maybe I’ll even bring this salad, which was loosely inspired by a dish on the Whole Foods salad bar. Obviously you should be taking advantage of the summertime nectar of the gods, fresh figs, if you can get them — if you’re not so lucky, just use dried ones.

marinated squash and fig summer salad

Marinated Squash and Fig Summer Salad
Serves 4 as a main dish

1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated
1 heaping teaspoon fig jam
1 heaping tablespoon fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper, to taste (I like a lot)
1 medium yellow squash
1 medium zucchini
5 ounces baby spinach
5 ounces arugula
1/2 cup slivered almonds
6-12 (depending on variety) fresh figs, quartered
shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano to garnish

Stir olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, cheese, jam, salt and pepper into a storage container. Make sure the jam is fully dissolved. Remove the thyme leaves from the woody stalks, and crush slightly between your fingers before adding to the marinade.

Chop the ends off your zucchini and yellow squash, then cut lengthwise. Slice thin half moons (I like using the food processor slicing disc for this). Add to the marinade. Stir and shake to make sure all the slices are coated. Let marinate in the fridge for at least two hours, as long as overnight if you can plan that far ahead.

Mix spinach and arugula in a big bowl until integrated. Dump the marinated squash, almonds, and quartered figs on top, and toss to combine. I used Black Mission figs, which are pretty petite. If you’re using a larger variety of fig, you can use fewer and may want to dice them into eighths. Add more of the marinade as needed to fully dress the salad. Top off with some generous shavings of a good Parmigiano-Reggiano.

If you want to save leftovers to bring for lunch instead of buying your lunch out yet again: I would recommend preparing just as much as you are going to eat for the first meal. Then toss everything except the greens in a jar, and keep the greens separate to mix when you’re ready to eat.