Grilled Zucchini and Leeks with Walnuts and Herbs

I had only been in New York for a few weeks when I saw an ad in a trade magazine for a temporary data entry clerk for the New York Philharmonic.  For the past few years I had been working as the Box Office Manager at Alaska Repertory Theatre and as I looked at the ad I came to realize that ticketing is, in fact, almost all computer work.  The backbone of a box office is the database of all the subscribers and their assigned seats and I had been entering all that data… so maybe I could do this job. I called the number and spoke with the person in HR. After talking with her for just a bit and telling her a little of my background she said she was excited to have me come in and meet the subscriptions director and have a formal interview. I wouldn’t say that I was desperate for a job at that point but being unemployed in New York is not really a good thing, ever, so when she asked me if I could come to Avery Fisher Hall I simply said “yes”.  When she asked me when I could be there, I said “about 20 minutes”.   I should tell you that 1) I had no idea where Avery Fisher Hall was (except it was located in Lincoln Center), and 2) I actually had no idea how long it would take to get there from where I lived in Brooklyn.

As soon as I hung up the phone, I was in super-sonic mode.  I grabbed my subway map, (yes, a MAP) some tokens, my wallet, and my keys, and I ran out of the apartment like it was on fire.  I zipped down the sidewalk towards the subway station all the while trying to find the destination on the map.  Now remember, I was new to the city and while I can’t say it came as a huge surprise that I had to wait at the station for the train, in my head I was imagining the train would just be there when I arrived. Sort of like the Omni-mover at the Haunted House in Disneyland, you know, where there is a never-ending circuit of cars. When it finally arrived I got on as quickly as I could not really understanding that it doesn’t matter how quickly I moved, the train was on a schedule of its own… but surely the conductor knew I was in a hurry though… so come on close the doors already, let’s get this thing moving! The train seemed to take forever crossing under the East River and it didn’t take long before it dawned on me that it was going to take way longer than 20 minutes to get to 65th street.  My luck seemed to change a little when I had to transfer trains in lower Manhattan. I stepped off my train just as the train I needed to catch was boarding and within a few seconds I was on my way again. But, there were still at least six stops, including a long stop at Grand Central Station ahead of me. At each station I looked at the clock to check the time and calculated in my head that if everything went perfect I should reach the 59th Street station (which is the closest you can get on that train) just about five minutes late.  Of course that would still leave me five long blocks to walk to Lincoln Center.  

Now also remember, these were the days before cell phones, so I couldn’t just call and say I was running late but I did have an ace up my sleeve, if push came to shove though.  When the train finally rolled into 59th street station I was actually about ten minutes late already, so a little panic was starting to set in.  I suppose it’s in these moments we should stop, take a breath, and regroup, but that’s not what I did. I bolted out of the train, raced through the station, up the stairs and out onto the street, only to find out I had exited out the back end of the station and not the front so I was farther away from my destination than I was when I was actually on the train.  My heart sunk even further and so I started running.  I raced up the sidewalk, dodging food carts, weaving in and out of people and crossing streets as soon as I saw any opportunity. Finally, I reached the steps of Lincoln Center.  Up the stairs, just past the fountain in the center of the complex I could see the name Avery Fisher Hall on the building in front of me.  I was still moving as fast as I could as I pulled open the big glass doors leading into the huge, marble floored, lobby. I saw a sign that pointed to the administration check-in counter and I quickly made my way over and rang the bell for assistance.  My side was aching from all the running, I was breathing very hard and all I could say to the person who came to the counter was… pant, pant… “have an”… pant, pant… “appointment”… pant, pant… “Caroline”… pant, pant. After an odd glare from the man (who could blame him really?) I was told to have a seat in the lobby as I would have to wait for her to come down from the 4th floor… pant, pant…” thank you”… pant pant… was all I could manage to say. This wait though was a good thing because it gave me a few minutes to actually catch my breath and recompose myself. When she came down to escort me upstairs I apologized for being late and was absolutely ready to blame the whole thing on the train system, claiming either a breakdown in the tunnels, or a derailment, or some other equally absurd excuse… but before I could she said, “Don’t worry, it’s New York: no one gets anywhere in 20 minutes”!  

Obviously our meeting went very well as she offered me the job right on the spot and asked me if I could start the next day (my guess is I was the only person who applied!). When I left the interview and walked out of the doors back into the lobby and finally had a chance to look at the building - I was awestruck. The grandeur of it all was simply mesmerizing. I was in a big city and this is what a big city theatre looked like. And all I could think was… Wow, I work here now! 

The job, was to enter pledge form information into the computer from the annual radio-thon, which is a similar event to a telethon, but just on the radio instead. Set up in the lobby was a small makeshift radio relay station where they could broadcast classical music for a few weeks time, sometimes live, sometimes on tape and in between the music they would have pledge breaks to raise money. People would call and pledge when they heard their favorite piece of music, or when they heard Leonard Bernstein conducting, or just when there was some good giveaway, like a case of wine or a t-shirt with Gustav Mahler’s picture on it.  The thing I couldn’t imagine when I started on my first day was the sheer volume of pledges.  On day one, I was slightly overwhelmed with the response but I actually managed to get through most of the pile.  When I came in for day two there was already twice the amount from day one and that only covered the overnight broadcast. As the days went on, I got very good at the entry. There is a very specific rhythm to it. It becomes automatic when you hit the enter key, when you hit the tab key, when you hit the numbers keys. It’s musical in it’s own way. Even though all I had to do was enter data off pledge forms, when I sat down every day, I felt like I was part of something extraordinary; Something that was rich in history; Something that was quite special. I mean I was walking the same halls that Pierre Boulez walked and that Leonard Bernstein was still walking, and don’t get me started on Zubin Mehta. The staff I worked with were all equally fantastic people, all varied and different and yet somehow cohesive as a group and all of that reminds me very much of grilled zucchini and leeks with walnuts and herbs – (see what I did there?)

Okay seriously, this is one of those dishes where the parts look rather plain and yet put them together and you’ve actually got something special. The veggies are tender and a little soft, like the string section; the walnuts add crunch, like the percussion section, and there’s lemon and parsley bringing everything together, like the conductor and the soloists.  I originally found this in Bon Appetit back in 2014, but I didn’t cut it out of the magazine to save. Then one day I saw it again while looking through the Epicurious web site in search of side dishes and decided to give it a try. You can see the original recipe here and know that I don’t change it in any way.  Sure sometimes I don’t actually measure the parsley, and sometimes I don’t even measure the lemon juice but instead just squeeze the lemon until nothing is left, but this recipe is all about how you like it so that’s okay. Start with the recipe as is but adjust the seasoning, as you like… you really can’t go wrong.  Serve this next to… well almost anything actually. I have not found a meal it doesn’t go with yet. And maybe when you serve this put on some classical music. Maybe something like Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8, C-minor, Op. 96. And if you can find it with Leonard Slatkin conducting even better!

Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 2 large leeks

  • 2 large zucchini (about 1 pound)

  • 1 bunch fresh flat leaf parsley

  • 1 garlic clove, finely minced

  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

  • 5 tablespoons olive oil 

  • ⅓ cup walnuts

  • Kosher salt, to taste

  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions:

Prepare your grill for a medium high heat. If possible try to have a cooler spot on the grill so you can move things around a bit if they cook too quickly.

While the grill heats:

Trim the ends off the zucchini and cut each in half lengthwise.

Cut the dark green parts off of the leeks and discard. 

Cut the leeks in half lengthwise, leaving the root end intact (so the leek stays together), and rinsh thoroughly. 

Pinch off about ½ cup (lightly packed) of the parsley leaves. It’s okay to have some of the tender stems still attached to the leaves. 

In a large bowl whisk together the garlic, lemon juice and 3 tablespoons of the olive oil.

Put the walnuts in a small dry skillet over medium heat and toast them until they are fragrant, tossing them often, which will take about 5 minutes.

Chop the toasted walnuts coarsely and while still warm toss them into the bowl with the oil/lemon juice mixture. 

Season with salt and pepper and give the walnuts a good toss to coat them well. Set the walnuts aside for now, we’ll get back to them later.

When the grill is hot:

Brush the leeks and zucchini with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Grill the vegetables until they are tender and charred in a few spots, turning them often. The leeks will take about 5 to 8 minutes to cook and the zucchini will take about 8 to 10 minutes to cook depending on the heat level of the grill.  Use that cool spot on the grill as needed. 

Transfer the cooked veggies to a cutting board and cut into bite-sized pieces, discarding the root end of the leeks.

Add the vegetables and the parsley to the bowl with the walnuts and toss to combine.

Taste and adjust seasoning as needed with more salt, pepper and lemon juice as desired.

 

That’s all there is to this simple side dish of grilled zucchini and leeks. I hope you’ll give it a spin and maybe ponder: “if I were a vegetable, what type of vegetable would I be”? Me? I’m artichoke all the way!

Riley patiently waiting for food…