Fiori di zucca fritti alla romana

There is not a more delicate, succulent, savory summer treat than the blossoms that arrive with young zucchini.

Zucchini blossoms are considered a delicacy in many part of the world.  In Mexico, the flower is featured in sopa de flor de calabaza and quesadillas de flor de calabaza.  The Greeks fill zucchini blossoms with feta, rice or meat and bake them in tomato sauce.  In Italy there are many different dishes that feature zucchini blossoms, but the best known is fiori di zuccca fritti, or batter-fried zucchini blossoms.

Summers in Italy, when the zucchini harvest is at its peak, there are more zucchini blossoms than one knows what to do with.  Mothers and grandmothers gently fry them in their kitchens for their children and grandchildren, pizzerie and trattorie offer them as appetizers on their menus.  The flower’s mild zucchini flavor and creamy texture, offset by the light and crispy batter-fried exterior, is something you must experience to fully understand.

In Rome, fiori di zucca fritti has become one of the city’s signature dishes.  While the blossom is filled with different ingredients in different parts of Italy – ricotta or prosciutto di parma, for example – fiori di zucca fritti alla romana are filled with a single strip of mozzarella, and a thin anchovy.

Here, zucchini blossoms are not always easy to find.  Like so many good foods, they have made their appearance as peoples from different parts of the world have made the Twin Cities their home and brought with them the cultures and cuisines of their homeland.  We owe today’s flowers to two Hmong vendors at the Minneapolis Farmers Market.

A few notes:

  • If you haven’t developed a palate for anchovies yet, you can omit them.  Just don’t admit it to a Roman.
  • This is one time when you want your mozzarella to be more solid and less milky.  It’s best to minimize the liquids when you fry the blossoms to prevent the hot oil from splattering.
  • Some claim that using sparkling water renders the batter lighter and crispier.  The fizzy water has the same effect that beer does in a beer batter, without changing the flavor.
  • Like most flowers, there are male and female zucchini flowers.  The males grow off of the stem of the zucchini plant, and have stamen inside their blossom.  The females grow directly off of the end of the zucchini, and have pistils inside their blossom.  (My apologies, reader. That was more information about zucchini blossoms than you cared to know.)  Both male and female blossoms are edible, and in both cases the stamen or the pistils should be removed before cooking.

Ingredients

For the flowers
12 – 16 zucchini blossoms
2 mozzarella ovoline (1 tub)
6-8 anchovies

For the batter
1 C. water
1 egg
2 C. flour
2 pinches of salt
Vegetable oil

Remove the stem of the zucchini flowers.  Carefully separate the petals of the golden blossoms and remove the stamen or pistils, as well.

Wash the flowers carefully under cold water, and pat dry with a cotton cloth or paper towels.

Cut the mozzarella into strips 1/4 inch wide.  Slice the anchovies in half lengthwise.

Carefully insert a strip of mozzarella and a halved anchovy into each flower.

Close the blossoms around the mozzarella and anchovies and twist the ends carefully to keep the filling inside.

Place ample vegetable oil into a deep frying pan and heat the oil over high gas.

Prepare the batter by stirring together the water, egg and salt in shallow bowl, gradually sifting the flour into the water and mixing with a wire whisk.  The batter should be moderately dense.  You may add flour or water as needed until the batter reaches the consistency of your preference.

Dip each flower into the batter, coating it completely, and place it carefully into the hot oil.  Turn it gently until all sides have fried to a golden brown.  Remove from oil and set on a plate covered in paper towels to absorb the extra oil  If desired, sprinkle a dusting of salt over the fried zucchini flowers.

Fiori di zucca are equally delicious hot, or at room temperature.

Pesto alla siciliana

This is the fourth and final post on the Tomato, each an entry in the Washington Post’s 2011 Top Tomato recipe contest.  Previous posts include our first entry, Pomodori al riso; second entry, Panzanella; and third entry, Melanzane e pomodorini.  We also entered our most popular post, Pasta fredda.

We find simple pleasure in upsetting the natural order of things.  The unanticipated, that which catches us slightly off guard, is good for the mind and for the soul.  We’re talking about nothing overt or drastic – just small things, minor interruptions in the routine of our days.  It keeps us slightly off-balance, forces the senses and the mind to engage, wards against getting stuck in a rut.

Pesto alla siciliana is just that – a simple and unexpected deviation from the dark green basil-pine nut-garlic-parmesean sauce that we’ve come to know as pesto.  The word pesto comes from pestello, or pestle in English, and refers to any combination of ingredients ground together by mortar and pestle.

We’ve mentioned before that Italian cuisine is regionally-specific.  In the rest of the world, we think of Italian food.  In Italy, food varies by region, influenced heavily by the climate, the land, and the plants and animals that inhabit it.  The basil, pine nuts, garlic, and parmesean sauce which we call pesto is actually pesto alla genovese, originating in Liguria, where the city of Genova is found.

The south of Italy has provided a few different variations of pesto, making good use of the foods that grow in that sun-drenched part of the country.  From Calabria we have pesto alla calabrese, with roasted red peppers, eggplant, ricotta and just a bit of tomato.  Pesto alla siciliana leaves out the red peppers and the eggplant, giving greater emphasis to the tomato and ricotta while keeping the pine nuts common to the genovese version.  The Sicilian city of Trapani yeilds yet another version, pesto alla trapanese, with tomatoes, almonds, and pecorino cheese.

We based our version on the classic pesto alla siciliana recipe, but borrowed the almonds from the trapanese version and used ricotta salata along with fresh ricotta and parmesean for a more complex cheese flavor.

Ingredients
1 medium tomato
50 g. fresh ricotta
25 g. ricotta salata
25 g. parmesean
25 g. pine nuts
25 g. almonds
1 small bunch basil
½ clove garlic
1½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. olive oil
optional – 1 tsp. crushed red pepper

Cut tomato into small pieces and place them into a food processor.  Add the fresh ricotta. Cut the ricotta salata and parmesean into small pieces, and add the to the food processor.  Add the pine nuts and almonds, and then the basil.  Chop the garlic and add it as well, along with the salt, olive oil and crushed red pepper if desired.

Blend in the food processor until smooth.  Toss with short pasta cooked to al dente, and serve with a dusting of fresh grated parmesean on top.

Notes

  • We used a medium-sized locally grown beefsteak tomato.  You can experiment with different tomatoes, including cherry tomatoes.
  • Go out of your way to get good, fresh ricotta.  The tub at the supermarket should be a last option.  We used goat milk ricotta from Broder’s in south Minneapolis.
  • Ricotta salata is a hard Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk.  It is white in color and dense, somewhat similar to a feta.  You may have to look around to find it.  We purchased ours at our local Costco. If you come up short, just double the amount of parmesean.
  • We prefer pesto alla siciliana on short pasta.  For this meal, we opted for a pasta also made in the south of Italy, fusillata casareccia made by Pastificio G. Di Martino, which we picked up at our local Kowalski’s Market.  Any short pasta, such as penne, will do just fine.

Wine Pairing
We recommend a Nero d’Avola with pesto alla siciliana, as the Nero d’Avola is an indigenous Sicilian grape.  This is a well-balanced red wine with nice acidity that complements the pesto’s cheese and tomato base.  The wine has a fruit forward approach that makes it food-friendly, but it is also very pleasant to enjoy by itself.  We drank a 2008 Nero d’Avola from the producer Ajelllo.

Melanzane e Pomodorini

This is the third of 4 new posts on the Tomato, each an entry in the Washington Post’s 2011 Top Tomato recipe contest.  Our first entry, Pomodori al riso, and second entry, Panzanella, were previous posts.  We also entered our most popular post, Pasta fredda.

It’s late July and outside it hot – hazy skies, drastic dew-points, and soaring temperatures.  The heat was so intense this week that pavements buckled, power outages ensued and outdoor events were cancelled in Minneapolis.  Windows steamed up and pavements glistened in the humidity.  At night, the skies became tempestuous and wild.

Melanzane e pomodorini is just the dish for weather like this.  The artful combination of seasonal produce has the vibrant hues and intense flavors of a deep, hot summer.  Grilled eggplant provides an earthy, nutty taste, kept in balance by the juicy, tangy cherry tomatoes.  Finely diced garlic gives an edginess to the salad, olive oil adds depth and makes it glisten, and flat leaf parsley lends a hint of freshness, like a cool breeze arriving to break the heat.

Ingredients
1 large or 2 medium eggplants
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic
1 bunch of flat leaf Italian parsley
1/8 C. olive oil
Salt to taste

Cut the cherry tomatoes into small pieces and place in a salad bowl.  Chop the parsley and add it to the tomatoes.  Dice the garlic finely, and add it to the bowl.  Pour olive oil over the tomato mixture, and stir well.  Add salt to taste.  Set aside.

Slice the stem off the top of the eggplant and using a vegetable peeler or a sharp knife, peel the skin off of the eggplant.  Cut the eggplant into slices approximately 1/8 inch thick.  Arrange the eggplant slices onto a grill and cook over high heat, turning once until both sides are golden brown.  Watch the eggplant carefully; it will only take a few minutes per side to cook.  In absence of a grill, the eggplant can also be cooked in a skillet on a stove top.  If you opt for this method, simply place the eggplant directly onto a hot skillet.

Add the grilled eggplant to the bowl with tomato mixture and stir well.  The eggplant will absorb the olive oil and the juices of the tomatoes, turning a darker color and curling up in the process.  Allow the dish to sit for a few minutes, and serve at room temperature.

Panzanella

La panzanella is a rustic, summertime recipe from the Italian cucina povera, a style of cooking characterized by tantalizing dishes originally made by the poor and working classes from humble ingredients.  In the cucina povera, home-grown food is put to good use and no left-over is wasted.  True to that value, la panzanella was created as a way to use up bread gone stale.

Originally a Tuscan dish, la panzanella eventually spread to the Umbria, Marche and Lazio regions of central Italy, and as often happens variations emerged.  The original Tuscan recipe called for bread, red onion, basil, olive oil, wine vinegar and salt.  Tomatoes were soon added to the recipe, and over time la panzanella became known as a bread and tomato dish.

Today cucumbers are often included with the tomatoes, while not all recipes call for onions.  Finally, a notable difference exists in la panzanella as a salad with the bread broken into pieces, most common in Tuscany, in contrast to la panzanella as a whole piece of soaked bread with the tomatoes on top, sometimes referred to as la panzanella romana.

Although the bread remains whole in Stefano’s mom’s panzanella, for this post we opted for the salad version, using our home-made left over bread, tomatoes and cucumbers from the farmer’s market, red onion, and garden basil for a touch of color.

Ingredients
4 slices of stale bread
2 ripe tomatoes
1 medium cucumber
2 very thin slices of red onion
1 small bunch of basil
Water
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 tsp. salt
Olive oil

Lay the bread into a shallow pan and add cold water up to the top of the slices.  Drizzle one tablespoon of white wine vinegar over the bread, and let soak for 20 minutes.

Cut two very thin slices of red onion, and place them into a bowl of cold water to allow some of the strong flavor dissipate for 20 minutes.

In the meanwhile, cut the tomatoes and cucumber into cubes and place into a bowl.  Chop the basil and add it to the mix.  Toss with salt and mix.

Return to your bread, which will have soaked up the water and vinegar mixture.  Remove the crust, squeeze out the excess liquids, and crumble large pieces of bread into the bowl with the tomatoes, cucumbers and basil.

Drizzle olive oil over the salad, and stir well.  Refrigerate at least one hour, and serve chilled.

Wine Pairing
We drank a 2008 Italian Chardonnay by producer Giacomo Vico with the rustic and earthy panzanella.   This is a classic Chardonnay from the Langhe area of Piedmont, well-balanced with a yeasty, buttery flavor and a nice, clean finish.

Pomodori al riso

This is the first of 4 new posts on the Tomato, each an entry in the Washington Post’s 2011 Top Tomato recipe contest.  Our 5th entry, a previous post, can be viewed here.

Pomodori al riso
During the years when their garden was at its prime, Stefano’s parents grew more tomatoes than we knew what to do with.  One of our favorite summertime recipes is pomodori al riso, or rice-stuffed tomatoes, which we always make with pan-roasted potatoes.  The rice absorbs the summery flavors of tomato, basil, and Italian parsley for a dish that is meant to be served on a patio with a glass of chilled wine.

We had the pleasure of enjoying them with our friends Riccardo, Monica, their daughter Veronica and Riccardo’s mother Venisa, who is visiting from Italy and whose valuable advice has made this recipe even better.  The culinary knowledge of mothers and grandmothers of Italy is true treasure.

Ingredients
4 large, ripe but still firm tomatoes
1/2 c. Arborio rice
1 small bunch basil
1 small bunch flat leaf parsley
2 cloves garlic
4 anchovies (optional)
Salt
Black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
4-6 medium potatoes

With a sharp knife, slice the tops off of the tomatoes and set the tops aside.  Carefully remove the pulp of the tomato by cutting through the walls, and scooping out the fruit with a spoon.  Set the hollowed tomatoes aside.

  Preserve the pulp and  juices from each tomato.  Dice the solid parts into small pieces, and place it all into a bowl. Finely chop the basil and parsley, and add it to the tomatoes.  Cut the garlic and the anchovies into small pieces, and them to the tomato mixture.  Add the rice, along with two liberal dashes of salt.  Stir, and let marinate for 2-3 hours.

Preheat the oven to 400° F.  Peel the potatoes, cut them into uniformly sized small pieces, and distribute them evenly at the bottom of a medium baking pan.  Salt and pepper the potatoes well, drizzle olive oil over them, and stir.

Retrieve your hollowed tomatoes and lids.  Fill each tomato approximately 3/4 full with the rice-tomato mixture.  Do not over-fill, or the rice will be too dry.  Spoon all of the remaining liquid into the tomatoes.  Place the lids back on the tomatoes, and bake for approximately 1 hour.  Periodically stir the potatoes and check the firmness of the cooking rice.  Remove from oven and allow to cool before serving.

For the photo shoot, we over-filled this tomato. When cooking at home, only fill the tomato 3/4 full with rice.

Wine Pairing
We paired the pomodori al riso with a 2009 Dolcetto d’Alba di la Morra produced by Ascheri.  The Dolcetto grape is common to the Piedmont wine region, and Dolcetto from the Alba area is generally considered superior to other Dolcetto wines.  With its fruit and floral character and its mild acidity and tannins, it is a lighter dry red wine which can be served chilled.

Le Crostatine di Frutta

It’s the 4th of July, and we are ending our culinary celebration of Independence Day with Crostatine di Frutta, or fruit tarts.

The Italian pasticceria is delectable; delicate, not too sweet, as pleasing to look at as to eat.  Le Crostine di Frutta are off-spring of the classic Crostata di Frutta, a tried-and-true tart made with the biscuit-like pasta frolla crust covered with crema pasticcera, or home-made pastry cream, topped with fresh seasonal fruit and glistening with a gelatin glaze.

This recipe is from our sister-in-law and splendid cook, Valentina, who once wrote all of her family’s favorite recipes into a small little book for me.  It is my most treasured “cookbook” and each year I tell myself that I need to have the pages laminated so that they will endure.

We opted for individual tarts, which are easier to manage today as we are eating outside on the patio at the lake, with kids out-numbering adults nearly two to one.  For more formal events, nothing is more spectacular than an entire crostata, with the glossy fruit arranged in swirling patterns of color.

It’s said that one travels in order to get to know one’s own country better.  Stefano and I have lived in three different countries on two different continents.  I was born in the United States, and moved away for a decade.  Stefano was born abroad, and moved  to the United States a decade ago.

There is no perfect place, and our nation certainly has its flaws.  However, despite its imperfections the United States truly is a remarkable country, made up of generation after generation of peoples from all parts of the world, each coming to America in search of freedom of religion, democracy, political freedom, and pursuit of a better life, and in doing so making the fabric of our nation richer and stronger.

Happy Birthday to the United States of America!

Crostatine di Frutta
makes 12 tarts

Ingredients
*Individual pastry shells
Crema Pasticcera
3 egg yolks
3 heaping Tbls. flour
3 Tbls. sugar
3 cups milk
1/4 lemon
Fruit Topping
Seasonal soft fresh fruit:
raspberries
blueberries
strawberries
blackberries
peaches
kiwi
Gelatin topping
**2 bags of powdered gelatin glaze

Arrange your pastry shells on a large baking sheet.  Set aside.  Prepare the crema pasticcera by adding the egg yolks and sugar to a medium size pot.  Mix until homogenous.  Gradually add the milk, and then the flour, mixing continually.  Squeeze the juice out of the quartered lemon and insert a fork into it peel side down.  Place the pot onto the stove on low heat, and stir continually with the lemon-tipped fork until the mixture thickens into a creamy, pudding-like consistency.  Allow it to boil for two minutes, stirring continually, and then remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Wash your fruit and lay it out onto a clean dishcloth to dry.  Cut into small, uniform pieces any fruit that requires cutting, such as peaches, kiwi or strawberries.

Once the crema is warm but not hot, stir it well with a wire whisk while still in the pot in order to smooth out any agglomerations and to remove the film that will have formed on top, and then spoon the crema into the pastry shells until full.

Prepare the gelatin as per the directions on the package.  If it calls for liquid, use water.  Do not add lemon or orange juice, this will cloud the gelatin.  Set aside to cool.  We add a spoonful or two of sugar to sweeten it slightly.

Add the fruit on top of the cream, arranging it however suits your fancy.  When the gelatin is cool enough, spoon it generously over the fruit, covering as much of it as you can.

Allow the tarts to sit at room temperature until the gelatin solidifies some.  Remove them from the baking tray, which will have collected the gelatin spills, and transfer to a different serving platter.  Refrigerate at least 1-2 hours before serving.  These are best eaten same day.  They will keep for a few days in the refrigerator, but the pastry shells will absorb the moisture of the cream and gelatin, and will become quite soft.

*We buy large dessert-size sweet tart shells from Clearbrook Farms, which come in boxes of 12.  Locally, these can be purchased at Kowalski’s Markets, or at Lunds and Byerly’s stores.  Or, they can be ordered directly from Clearbrook Farms in packages of two boxes (24 shells).  Be sure to buy the 24 ct. 3.15″ Tart Shells, two boxes.

**We use Tortagel from the Italian producer Paneangeli and prefer powdered gelatin to gelatin sheets.  One brand available in local grocery stores is Dr. Oetker Powdered Gelatine.  However, any gelatin product will work just fine.

Caffè Freddo, and other related ideas

We confess.  Stefano and I sometimes find amusement in people’s coffee choices.

Inspired by the simple Italian espresso, American coffee shops have created a bewildering array of espresso-based drinks with italiano-sounding names and exorbitant prices.  These are truly inspired creations, topped high with whipped cream, drizzled with syrups, covered with sprinkles.  And people go for them.

But like most things Italian, less is more.  So when Stefano and I order a caffè from a coffee shop we opt for something more basic, often to the chagrin of the barista.

No, thank you, I don’t care for a shot of toffee nut syrup in my caffe latte.  Yes, I am sure that I don’t want to try the Caramel Macchiato.  No, I really will pass on the new Cinnamon Dolce Latte.  Really.  

So most of the time we don’t go to coffee shops. We make our own caffè here at home.  Nothing fancy – we don’t own one of those expensive espresso machines (that often take those expensive espresso pods).  With our collection of stovetop Bialetti Mokas, and our Illy espresso grounds, we are content and caffeinated.

In summertime in Rome, when the sun is already scorching at 9:00 in the morning and you want a coffee but cannot bear the thought of anything hot, you ask your barista for a caffè freddo, or chilled coffee.  Poured into tall, thin glasses, the espresso is dense, sweet and intensely flavored.  Or, if it is still morning, you might order a cappuccino freddo – a caffè freddo with milk.  The color of Bailey’s, cappuccino freddo is rich and creamy with a more mild coffee flavor.

Two things to note about caffè and cappuccino freddo:

First, no ice.  Italians don’t put ice in their sodas, much less in their coffee.  It dilutes the coffee and ruins everything.  No ice.

Second, in cappuccino freddo, use whole milk.  Yes, whole milk.  There are basically only two types of milk in Italy – whole milk, and partially skim milk. They began selling skim milk in the late 1990s, but it only came in pint-sized (half-liter) containers, like the milk cartons served at school lunches.  Stefano’s mom buys the partially skim milk only we come to visit.  Otherwise, she uses whole.  I am quite certain she has never bought skim milk.

Italians don’t drink a lot of milk; it’s for breakfast only.  And if you only drink a little milk at breakfast, you might as well drink whole milk.

You may choose to make your cappuccino freddo with 2%, or 1%, or even skim milk, but it is not the same at all as making it with whole milk.  Try it, you’ll see.  Don’t worry about the fat content.  Just avoid fats another way.

Caffè Freddo and Cappuccino Freddo
Ingredients
Espresso
Sugar
If desired, milk

Make a large pot of espresso.  Pour coffee into a glass container.  While the espresso is still hot, add one heaping teaspoon of sugar for each espresso serving made.  Stir well, until the sugar has dissolved.  Let it sit at room temperature to cool.  When cool, cover and transfer to refrigerator.  Leave the coffee in the refrigerator until well-chilled.  Pour and enjoy.  If you wish, add whole milk to the chilled coffee to make a cappuccino freddo.