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We're making space for more reader recipes

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

I can't tell you how much I enjoy hearing from readers.

Whether chatting after a speaking engagement like the Austin Newcomers Club luncheon last month or getting a phone call or email out of the blue, I love connecting with other Central Texans who love to cook.

Often, you give invaluable feedback about how we can improve this section, and one thing I'm hearing is that you want to see more recipes in print. Not even the world's largest cookbook collection can replace the joy we feel swapping recipes with one another.

In an effort to share more recipes with readers and provide the opportunity for you to share your favorite recipes with others, we're going to start publishing more reader recipes in this space. We're calling it In Your Kitchen. And if you've been reading my stories for any amount of time, you know that I'm as interested in the cook in that kitchen as the dish he or she is preparing.

Take Elizabeth Martens, a teacher at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Austin. Earlier this summer, when her garden was producing more squash and zucchini than she and her family of four could possibly eat, Martens emailed me not one or two, but three recipes for squash casseroles that could be frozen and baked later this fall or winter when you're craving a taste of summer.

"Having two teenage boys governs a lot of what I cook," Martens says. "They are pretty adventurous eaters, though." Martens' oldest son, Daniel, is getting ready to move out of the house to start his first semester at the University of Texas, and 15-year-old Sam has become a "very adept cook" in recent years. Her husband, Steve, is a hunter, and last year he bagged his first elk. The meat was a little tough, but Martens improvised by marinating the meat for a few days, which made a huge difference in the final texture, she says.

Another influence on her cooking is her large garden at their property near Giddings, which is where all those squash and zucchini came from earlier this summer. (Now, it's peppers and okra that she's incorporating into her meals. "That's what I'll be freezing next.")

Martens has a special love for her cookbooks, which she started collecting when she was in law school. "It was a diversion. I couldn't afford to cook anything," so she spent her time reading about cooking instead. When she wants to cook something that she hasn't before, she takes out three books to compare recipes. "Then I decide, based on which one has more butter," she says. (Spoken like my kind of cook.)

Her family has taken a few international trips, but her cookbooks are what help get her through the middle of the school year, when summer vacation seems like light years away. "I read cookbooks like novels," she says. "It's a way of traveling, either regionally or out-of-country. It transports me."

Zucchini Pesto Casserole

Right around the time that Martens emailed these recipes, I got another email from Maggie Kadlecek, a member of the Austin Newcomers Club, who had offered to help test recipes, if I ever needed an extra hand.

So, I emailed Martens' recipes to Kadlecek, she cooked one of the casseroles and responded with her feedback. Incorporating some of her suggestions, I tweaked this recipe slightly but not too much as to take away Martens' original intention.

It's not a perfect process, but then again, none of us is a perfect cook. And even if there were such a thing as a perfect recipe — one that Cook's Illustrated hasn't already published — many of us would use it as a starting point to create our own dish, depending on what we have on hand and our family's personal taste preferences.

A few other tips from Martens: This basic casserole can be adapted, depending on your preferences. Like herbes de Provence? Add French herbs when sautéing the onions. Tired of mozzarella? Try Swiss or Gruyère. Want to add meat? Brown up some ground beef, chorizo or venison and add to the casserole mixture before freezing. "Using up items from the refrigerator or pantry in casseroles is extremely satisfying, as is learning to trust the feel of food measured in your hands," she says.

2 handfuls (about 1 cup packed) fresh, tender basil (older leaves get bitter)

1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

4 Tbsp. olive or safflower oil, divided

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. fresh-squeezed lemon juice

6 to 8 medium-sized squash and/or zucchini, quartered and cut into 1/4-inch wedges

2 cups uncooked rice or 2-3 cups orzo

1 medium white or yellow onion, diced

3/4 cup chopped waxy peppers, such as Anaheim or Poblano, seeds removed (if desired)

1 tsp. red chile flakes

1 cup shredded mozzarella

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

To make the pesto, place the basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic, 3 Tbsp. olive or safflower oil, salt and lemon juice in a food processor and pulse until combined. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add zucchini and/or squash. Blanch for no more than three minutes, gently spooning down the squash that rises to the top. Drain squash in a colander and rinse with cold water.

In a large saucepan, prepare the rice or orzo according to instructions on the package, slightly undercooking to accommodate for the time the dish will spend in the oven. (Drain orzo, if using.) Fluff rice or orzo with a fork and set aside.

In a medium to large sauté pan, heat remaining tablespoon olive oil and sauté onions until they start to sweat. Add peppers and red pepper flakes, cooking over medium heat until barely soft.

Using the pot that the zucchini was blanched in, mix the rice or orzo with the pesto until lightly coated. Add the pepper mix and the blanched squash to the pesto-coated rice or orzo. Gently mix, adding additional salt and pepper, to taste. Allow mixture to cool.

Spray two aluminum 8-inch-by-8-inch casserole containers, which are best for freezing, with cooking spray. (Depending on the size of the squash, you might have enough filling for three 8-inch-by-8-inch pans.) Spread the squash mixture in each container until three-quarters full. Sprinkle half of each kind of cheese on top one and then repeat with second casserole dish. Seal tightly with thick aluminum foil, write the name of the casserole on the foil with permanent marker, place casserole in a gallon-size plastic freezer bag and freeze in a deep-freeze freezer.

A day before you are ready to cook the casserole, thaw the casserole overnight in the refrigerator. Then preheat oven to 350 degrees, and bake casserole for 25 minutes. Remove foil cover and bake for five more minutes, or until cheese begins to brown.

— Adapted from a recipe by Elizabeth Martens

Do you have a recipe you want to share with readers? Want to volunteer to help test other readers' recipes? Email me at abroyles@statesman.com or call 912-2504.