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Betty Teller, Amuse Bouche; A taste of summer

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I am back and energized from my post-vaccine East Coast tour of old friends, which was even better than I imagined. There’s nothing like a year and a half of isolation and staying home to make you appreciate the joys of travel and seeing people in person.

Fortunately, my trip fell into the window between thinking vaccines had liberated us to realizing that the unvaccinated have doomed us to months more of mask-wearing and social disruption. I may have been living in a fool’s paradise last month, hugging friends and ditching my mask at every opportunity, but at least I got to enjoy it for a couple of weeks before the Delta variant spoiled the party.

This was my first excursion since late 2019 — my first plane ride, hotel stay, and travel of any type — so I wanted to make the most of it, cramming in visits with nearly 20 old friends from DC to New York and points nearby and in between.

I can report that plane travel is back to normal. Which is to say, my flights were every bit as annoying, crowded, and delayed as before the pandemic, with the mandatory seat-kicking child in the row behind me, along with his brother, the requisite crying baby. The only added burden was the need to wear a mask full-time both in the airport and on the plane, but beyond that COVID reminder, nothing about the trip felt life-threatening — or all that different than before.

The same was true of the Amtrak train I took later in the trip; it was the same as ever, including being half an hour late with no explanation. (Even Mussolini wouldn’t be able to get Amtrak to run on time.) And the only change beyond mandatory masking that I noticed on both the DC and New York subways was how pleasantly uncrowded they were, since folks in both cities were still largely working from home and not commuting.

The DC hotel where I spent a few nights was also sort of normal, though not quite: the gym and pool were open, but not the bar (where are their priorities?!), breakfast was a bit pared down, maid service was invisible and only on demand, and the elevators urged social distancing (largely ignored), but otherwise things were pretty much as before.

I just remembered this is a food column, so I’ll stop with the travel reporting and tell you what the food portion of my trip was really all about: reconnecting with my food roots. And fortunately, COVID had no impact there.

After two years of craving them, I can report that Maryland blue crabs coated in Old Bay seasoning are still one of the world’s great delicacies, especially when you and some of your oldest friends are hammering away at them on a newspaper-covered table on a screened-in back porch on a hot, humid night. With super-sweet corn on the cob as a side dish. (After more than 20 years in California, I still have a hard time wrapping my head around crab as a winter food, served cold and utterly unspiced at crab feeds. With pasta on the side. That’s just so wrong in so many ways.)

Also, East Coast crab cakes made from back lump crab meat are so superior that no one elsewhere should be allowed to use the term for their flabby fish cakes. It should be appellation protected, like Champagne.

In addition, I was reminded that hand-packed, locally made ice cream at the beach is way creamier and more delicious than ice cream anywhere else. I don’t know why that is, but it’s demonstrably true.

And even a mediocre Philly cheesesteak 90 miles from Philadelphia is better and more authentic than any pretenders I have tried on this coast.

Together, these favorite foods define summer for me. Alas, it may be a while until I can taste them all again, but now that I’m home, I’m savoring the memories.

And more grateful than ever to the vaccine scientists who made my trip possible. Those magic shots kept me safe (or at least safer) during my travels, and above all protected me from what I fear most from COVID (except dying, of course).

Losing my sense of taste.

Zucchini with Walnuts

Besides crabs, the other foods that spell summer to me are fresh vegetables, which are phenomenal right now. I am always on the lookout for new and interesting ways to prepare them.

I learned this Turkish recipe in a Zoom cooking class I took last winter. It’s a kind of cooked salad that in Turkey it would be just one of many dishes as part of a mezzes platter, but I think it deserves star treatment on its own as a side dish.

I find zucchini can be a bit insipid and watery, so I particularly like the technique of grating it and wringing the liquid out before cooking, which concentrates the flavor and improves the texture.

2-3 medium to large zucchini

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 cup walnut (half pieces or smaller)

1 cup strained (Greek) yogurt

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 large pinch medium-hot chili pepper flakes (Aleppo pepper or similar)

1 large pinch paprika

1/3 bunch of dill

Salt

Drape a piece of cheesecloth inside a strainer. Coarsely grate the zucchini with a box grater and place the grated shreds inside the cheesecloth. Sprinkle with some salt to draw the moisture out. Set aside for 3 minutes.

Gather the ends of the cheesecloth together, forming the zucchini into a ball. Twist the top of the cheesecloth tightly and use your hands to squeeze the ball, pressing out as much moisture as possible. The drier the zucchini, the better.

Chop the walnuts into small pieces and divide in half. Put 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Sauté the grated zucchini with the garlic and half the walnuts in the pan for 2 minutes.

Heat the rest of the oil in another pan over medium heat and sauté the rest of the walnuts with the pepper flakes and paprika for 3 minutes.

Whisk the yogurt until smooth. Place the ingredients in the serving dish layer by layer: first the sautéed zucchini, then the yogurt, then the walnut/spice mix.

Chop the dill and sprinkle on top.

Serve at room temperature.

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Betty Teller is back to wearing a mask and singing the Delta blues. Tell her how you’re coping at amuse-bouche@sbcglobal.net.

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