Imagine for a moment that you’re on a first date, a picnic, in a beautiful park with the sun shining on your face. Your date spreads a blanket on a grassy knoll, reaching into a basket to produce the lovely lunch you think you’re going to nibble on demurely while making googly eyes across the blanket. Your date produces, among other things, two eggs and a brown paper package tied with a butcher’s twine bow. How intriguing! you might think. The package is carefully unwrapped to reveal a mass of ground beef, your first thought being, Where’s the grill? But instead of placing that bloody red meat over sizzling coals, your date, instead, mounds a healthy portion onto your plate, expertly sculpting a divot in the center, like he is about to pour gravy over a heap of steaming mashed potatoes. Then comes the clincher; he gently splits the egg on the side of your plate—egg salad had been your naïve guess—and coaxes the golden yolk from its silky counterpart into the center of the raw “hamburger” mound. Lunch is served.
Sounds romantic, no?
I was probably about 8-years-old when I listened to a rendition of this true love story. It was the first time I had ever heard of someone consuming raw meat, and my parents’ friends, the ones who always served homemade pesto and fresh bread before dinner, were describing their first date. He the chef, she the gracious diner of this steak tartare rendezvous. I sometimes wonder if that was a deliberate test, a sort of how-adventurous-are-you barometer of dating. She obviously passed while I, surely, would have failed miserably. (Lest you label me a lame girlfriend, I, for the record, have passed the door test on every occasion, long before I remember seeing what is now one of my very favorite movies.)
It only took me 15 years to get over the initial shock and horror of that story and muster the courage to consume some raw beef, myself. My first and only taste of it was in the form of Carpaccio, not too long ago, at the lovely restaurant XIX situated atop the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia. I flirted with the idea of the beef Carpaccio appetizer as I had always wondered what it would taste like—and if it, like so many other mis-informed food boycotts of my childhood, would end being surprisingly delicious. After a few passes over the menu and more than a few sips of my *extra* dirty martini, I decided to be brave and order it.
The waiter brought out a small wooden board topped with tissue thin slices of tenderloin seemingly melting into a pool of olive oil with micro greens and shaved parmesan curls artfully placed around the dish. I remember the portion looking unexpectedly large. How much raw steak can one possibly consume in one sitting? I plucked up one lacy piece, placed it in my mouth and, to this day, remember the texture more than the flavor. It was sort of off-putting at how soft it felt, though not at all slimy as I had anticipated. I remember thinking that it was interesting, but rather bland—not the vinaigrette it was sort of marinating in—but the beef itself. If I had to describe the flavor, I would say it was vaguely sweet and somewhat tinny. I don’t really know what I expected raw beef to taste like, but I went back for a few more bites neither deterred nor especially intrigued. I was glad I had experienced it, but certainly wasn’t clamoring for another bite. I had had my fill.
If you are squeamish around raw meat or even if you’re not, I promise you will enjoy this Carpaccio. This Carpaccio, made with zucchini, a drizzle of olive, fresh lemon juice and herbs, is Tyler Florence’s playful pun at its meaty namesake. Since the process doesn’t involve any cooking, it is perfect for summer and al fresco dining. It’s also especially nice for those days when you can’t bear to turn on the stove. I made it as a last-minute accompaniment to a briny plate of linguine with clams and thick-cut tomatoes covered in olive and lots of crunchy sea salt and pepper.
The key to this simple dish is to cut the zucchini paper-thin, just the way beef is cut for Carpaccio, so it can quickly and easily absorb all the flavor of the herbs and lemon you put on top. I layered the veggie coins like shingles on a roof, sprinkling them with salt to release the natural juices. Once the lemon and oil is drizzled on top, the zucchini marinates in this little mixture and gets sort of melty and soft, again just like beef Carpaccio. You chop up some fragrant herbs to place on top, and let it all meld together in the refrigerator for a few minutes before diving in.
Tyler calls for dollops of ricotta on top, but the boy and I ended up pushing the too-rich cheese to the side and instead focused on mopping up every last drop of lemon juice. Perhaps if you’re eating it solo, and not with a giant plate of linguine, the ricotta would be just right. If you do choose to use it, I would suggest mixing in some lemon zest and cracked pepper before adding it to the plate. It adds a little extra something.
The whole dish is very refreshing and so bright and pretty when plated. I plan on making it again and again this summer. It’s hard to believe that something so simple and quick to assemble can produce such fantastic results. With good quality ingredients, there is really no need for bells and whistles, for sautéing or grilling or braising. And perhaps that is the real allure of tartare and Carpaccio, meatless or otherwise.
adapted from Tyler Florence’s Eat This Book
2 zucchini (about 1 1/2 pounds), sliced into paper-thin rounds
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (I used dill, chives, and parsley)
1 young leek, white part only, sliced paper-thin
1/2 cup ricotta cheese (optional)
Layer the zucchini slices on a platter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then drizzle with a 3-count of olive oil and the lemon juice. Scatter the herbs and leek over. Place in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes to give the flavors a chance to get into the zucchini. If using the ricotta, place in a small bowl, sprinkle with lots of fresh cracked pepper and a teaspoon of lemon zest. Stir to combine and spoon small dollops over zucchini.