Ciao, pronto, prego, il conto, mi scusi, buon giorno, arrivederci, grazie – some useful words we used when we visited Italy earlier this month – it seems a distant memory now! Don’t ask me to string a sentence together but I can get by with simple words and hand gesticulations. John, on the other hand, can speak the language the way a 4-year old would so between us we managed to navigate the ports and eat our way to Italian gastronomic heaven! After visiting Venice, Ravenna, Catania, Amalfi and Pompei I am amazed at my vocabulary. Sometimes I would throw in some Spanish or French words because I couldn’t think of it in Italian and most people understood the jest of what I was trying to say. A simple gesture of ‘trying’ no matter how poorly the pronunciation was that seemed to please the locals which led to a smile and perhaps an extra glass of vino compliments of the proprietors. The places we visited were ports and as such we wanted to consume as much fresh fish and seafood, pasta too (of course!), as we could. Stuffed zucchini flowers were never on the menu (pout) so I decided that when I returned home I would make my own…for the very first time.
All summer squash varieties originated in the New World and the people of Central and South America have been eating squash for several thousand years, but the zucchini we know today is a variety of summer squash developed in Italy. Christopher Columbus originally brought seeds to the Mediterranean region and Africa. Near the end of the 19th century the summer squash appeared in an area near Milan where it was given the name zucchini (small squash) and in France it is known as a courgette. The flower is used in salads and in side dishes. In Greece and Italy it is commonly stuffed.
I purchased the zucchini flowers from Lieb’s Nursery. It’s a local nursery about 12 or so minutes from where we live. They recently decided to grow herbs and vegetables in soil that had been dormant for nearly 100 years. I was there 3 weeks prior to our trip abroad and the garden was just starting to blossom with some varieties of lettuce available. However, in 3 weeks their garden patch is flourishing. The zucchini blossoms were so fresh that bees were still inside! I gently shook the bag to help them on their merry way back to nature and not in my car!
Serves 4 as an antipasto
inspired by Food & Style
1 cup white flour
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3/4 cup warm water
1 large egg
1 cup fresh ricotta cheese
3 tablespoons finely chopped garden herbs (Italian parsley, basil, oregano, thyme and sage)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground pepper to taste
16 large or 20 small fresh zucchini flowers
1/2 cup olive oil for pan-frying (or enough oil to cover the pan generously)
For the batter –
Mix flour, salt and water in a large bowl. Set aside and let stand for 1 hour. Just before dipping the flowers into the batter whisk in the egg.
For the stuffing –
Mix the egg, ricotta, herbs, salt and pepper until well blended and set aside.
To stuff the flowers –
Make a slit lengthwise in each flower and remove the stamen (this is bitter to eat). Using a teaspoon, place a small amount of the stuffing at the base of each flower and twist the petals so that the stuffing is held safely inside the flower. You might want to gently squeeze the filling slightly upward so that the flowers stayed twisted at the top. Make sure the stuffing isn’t visible otherwise it will melt and ooze out into the oil and you’ll be left with an empty case. Place on a board or plate until ready to use.
|stuffed and ready to go!|
Heat a large heavy-bottom skillet to high heat. Add the oil. When the oil is hot, dip each flower in the batter and add to the pan. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes until golden. Turn the flowers and continue to sauté for 1 to 2 minutes until golden. Repeat until all flowers have been used, reducing the heat to medium-high when the pan is very hot so the oil doesn’t burn. Drain on paper towels, season with a bit of sea salt. Serve immediately.
The Culinary Chase’s Note: You can use any soft cheese that tickles your fancy. I used Greek feta cheese and mashed it with a fork and a bit of olive oil to soften it up (omitted the egg). Freshly chopped mint and basil were the herbs I used and everyone loved the flavor so use whatever herb(s) you like. You can prepare the flowers 15 minutes before cooking…any longer and they begin to weep. Don’t worry if you tear the flower as you can use the stuffing as a way to bind the petals together. If you are lucky as I was to get farm-fresh blossoms, keep a bit of the stem to help when dipping the flowers into the batter. The stems taste delicious so don’t worry about whether or not you should eat them. Enjoy!