Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Stuffed and Fried Zucchini Blossoms

I could not make up my mind. I was so thrilled to wake up to zucchini blossoms ready for picking - I wanted to do everything you said. Ciao Chow Linda stuffs them with mozzarella and a little anchovy (creamy-salty - I'm hooked). Barbara from Dish 'n That said gorgonzola (pungent rich, earthy cheese paired with a blossom - yes, I'll have a few of those). Pat from Mille Fiori Favoriti sent me to Marcella Hazan who simply fried them - and I am a sucker for simplicity where the ingredient shines.

In the end, I took everyone's advice but substituted the cheeses I had at hand. I stuffed them with ricotta and freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (a few turns in the grater for the mixture and a little chunk just for me). And you all advised fried. And fried it was.

I left the blossoms out for the afternoon (hoping most critters would make their exit). You can soak them in cold water in the sink. The zucchini blossoms are stronger than you think although you don't want to roughhouse with them too much. I did tear one (but stuffed and ate it anyway). I opened up the zucchini blossoms and with small scissors I cut away the piston. After doing that, I wiped them clean with a damp paper towel.
Stuffing Mixture - for 8 small-medium zucchini blossoms
1 cup whole milk ricotta
1/4 cup freshy grated Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese
1 egg
Pinch of salt (I used a preserved lemon salt because I could) - sea salt, or Kosher salt
1 tablespoon Earth Balance butter
1 baby zucchini minced
1 garlic clove minced
1/3 cup seltzer water or club soda
1/4 cup flour (I used the "00" flour given graciously to me from The Sausage Debauchery. I wanted to keep the coating light and it was.
A pinch of salt if using seltzer
Canola and olive oil for frying

Mix the club soda and flour and watch it foam. The club soda (or seltzer) also helps to keep the coating light..
Whip ricotta, egg, Parmigiano and salt till creamy. In a small skillet melt your butter. Lightly saute your baby zucchini and garlic. 30-45 seconds is all you need. Fold it into the ricotta mixture. Allow some of the butter to drip into the batter!

Many sites advise using a pastry bag and piping the mixture into the blossom. I used a very small spoon. Really small. Tiny. In fact, I have no idea as to how that tiny spoon made its way into my kitchen. Use a small meauring spoon.
In a small-medium skillet, add a combination of canola oil and olive until it is about 1-1/2 inches deep. The canola oil keeps it just a wee bit lighter and lowers the flash point. Heat the oil on medium high. It is ready when you put a drop of the flour-club soda mixture in and it instantly sizzles.

Dip your stuffed zucchini into the flour/club soda mixture and let all excess drip back into the bowl. Fry your stuffed zucchini 45 seconds to one minute per side. My daughter likes them crisp and browned all over. I like just the tips browned to a crisp. Next time I make these I will need to ask who likes their blossoms rare, medium rare or well-done! Drain on paper towels.

The fried blossom was mellow and sweet. The creamy filling was just a wee bit pungent. A delicate contrast. We lapped them up like candy. All asked for more. My family is ready to plant a zucchini field just for more blossoms.
The only problem was ....
I had mixture leftover. Which I could have saved for some more blossoms (but you know I need to try the mozzarella/anchovy mixture and the gorgonzola ones and just fry some plain). And am thinking burrata would be an indulgent stuffing. So what to do with the ricotta mixture?

I took out my puff pastry shells that have been in the freezer for a while. Baked them. Sauteed a few minced portabella mushrooms. Added the leftover ricotta mixture and lightly cooked it to cook the egg. When the puff pastry was ready, I stuffed the warm puff pastry with the now "ricotta-mushroom" mixture and that was our second appetizer.
The only problem was....
I had used up the mixture but now had some extra puff pastry shells. So, I went back to the fridge where I had 8 ounces of ricotta cheese left. I added 1/4 cup of confectioner's sugar and 1 teaspoon of vanilla to make a cannoli mixture. I sliced the puff pastry in half and added the cannoli mixture in the middle and on top. I added berries everywhere until they fell on to the plate. I dusted with way too much confectioners sugar. And ...
... had nothing leftover.
My blog is a journey with food as a catalyst. Food sustains life. It fuels relationships. It is healing, reaching for the stars, celebratory and present at all milestones - the supremely happy ones and the challenging ones.
Food ties me to my heritage, to those who've left the world and is a way of reaching to those who will come in the future - even when I am gone. What Grandma gave me has been given to my children. It is a way of introducing them to each other. When we as strangers share with each other, we offer something of ourselves. And in the process, we are not strangers anymore.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Following Bloggers Out of the Box

Summer savory, summer sweet. I saw this on Stacey's blog of Stacey's Snacks and instantly coveted it. I was kicking myself for not thinking "outside the box."

I adore this - sweet, ripe, juices-dripping-down-the-sides-melon paired with salty, savory prosciutto. It's my "go-to," my "classic," my instant transportation to Italy. I never thought of it on skewers. I never thought about it as ka-bobs. As I hunker down into my theatre life, I am proposing: "What about 12th Night by Shakespeare set in the 1960's? A tale of a young girl building a bonfire to beckon the fairies to come to her and help cure her ailing mother?" What if? And while the "what-ifs" rattle my brain theatrically, they have closed off the food portion of my brain. Apparently my brain only permits me think outside the box on one subject at a time.

So, I turn to bloggers for inspiration, recipes and new journeys. Stacey had the grandest dressing - shallots and basil and please do visit her. Her melon-prosciutto- mozzarella/basil skewers are a string quartet of color and taste. A dance in the summer sun. Find the recipe here.
Having been fortunate enough to have won a giveaway of Saporoso Balsamic Vinegar from Gera at Sweet Foods, I was like a little kid hopping around deciding how I should christen the bottle. The small cherry-tomato size mozzarella balls were rolled in a simple marinade of a touch of olive oil and a touch of my new Saporoso Balsamic with a whole bunch of basil cut into it. This special balsamic was so thickly rich, in deep-hued sweet-purple-red that just a few drops flavored eighteen mozzarella balls. Thank-you, Gera!

I could barely keep them on the plate long enough to photograph them. All right, Kirsten did give her prosciutto to Matthew (we sometimes do wonder where she came from) before she realized I had made her up her own skewers of melon and mozzarella balls without the prosciutto! (Ancient proverb: "do not waste prosciutto!") Gone in sixty seconds.
And then there was this goat cheese tart from Ciao Chow Linda. Savory, tangy, creamy and offset with tender spring asparagus and sweet baby tomatoes. Her delectable recipe is here.

I browned it too much. I hurried, I rushed as is my design in the busy summer.

But in the end, no one cared. All was eaten. My mother and sister left with the recipe. I intend to do this again when the zucchini is in. And again in the fall with mushrooms....
In these elfin days of exhaustion, I love going to blogs. I love not having to think of something new when I am dancing as fast as I can with my elves at work - mending, amending, editing and doing this aerobics thing I do when I direct children. (Or so my daughter says - methinks I embarrased her just a a tad in her elfin days).
My worker-bee elves perform Friday. And then the elf life fades away to teen thespians and lesser-known stories from the Village of the Brothers Grimm. Who knows what cooking avenues will be unleashed when I come home from working with the teens? And if I remain in my box, I know there are bloggers who will drag me out. And between you and me, after Friday - I will miss the elves. All 33 of them.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Day of the Almond Gateau

An almond gateau. A spongy cookie-crust of almonds stuffed with a light chocolatey cream. After a week with 33 elves, I needed that. Nevermind that it was made in honor of my husband by my baker-daughter elf for Father's Day. I was more in need of it than he was!Tuesday I came home and did something I never do - I napped! I was wondering if I was starting to get too old to work with elves. Until my two 18-year old directing interns told me they went home and napped every afternoon after a morning with the elves! Vindicated.

My daughter was enchanted by a photo in a baking book. (Perfect Baking). We did some substitutions but the gateau was a sweet end to the week, a sweet offering to her father and a grand refortication for me as I prepare to face the elves tomorrow.
My daughter can be a worker-bee elf. She can also get mad at her creations and threaten to throw them out if they do not behave. (That's an Italian gene - Aunt Fay routinely threatened to throw out the Leg of Lamb for Easter if people did not arrive on time. She would only serve it rare.) Happily, the gateau behaved and was not threatened with the trash can.
4 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup ground almonds
5-1/2 tablespoons flour
butter for greasing
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup sliced almonds - for presentation
confectioner's sugar - for presentation
Chocolate Cream Filling
3-1/2 oz semi-sweet chocolate
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
10 oz heavy cream
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Whisk eggs and sugar together till light and foamy (about 10 minutes). Fold in ground almonds and flour. Pour into two lightly greased 7-inch cake pans. Sprinkle 1/2 cup almonds over 1 cake and bake for 15-20 minutes. They should be springy when you touch them and the edges will pull away from the sides. Let cool in pans.
Filling: Melt chocolate in double boiler. Remove from heat and stir in butter. Let cool. Meanwhile, whip cream until it just holds it shape and fold into the chocolate mixture. Cool.
Put the cake (without the extra almonds) on a plate. Spread chocolate filling over it and let it sit in the fridge for 30 minutes to one hour. Place almond topped cake on top of filling and put in fridge for one hour. Put extra almonds on top of cake and dust with confectioner's sugar and serve.

The chocolate oozed beautifully (if you like oozing chocolate). Although it does look like it's teasing her - sticking its tongue out - daring us to throw it away if it didn't behave. But we had tasted the chocolate filling. It could do no wrong. Impossibly light for a filling containing heavy cream and just lightly-chocolated. We could easily have just had just the filling for dessert! (But the crunchy, spongey almond gateau complements the chocolate perfectly.)

Elves are workers. They do what they're told. And so are my elves, Enthuhsiastic and talented with no needs for breaks or lunch. When the time "off" comes, the staff is surrounded by elves - begging for attention. When you mention one must stand at the "corner of the table" to be seen in the scene, four hands go up and you are told, "My grandmother lives on a corner." "My dog eats the corner garden." And you are now in for 10 minutes of "corner" stories.
When lined up in the theatre aisles for an exercise, I explained their casting and how the day would go. They stood patiently and looked at me and nodded in all the right places. When all was figured out, I told them they may now sit down. And they did. En masse. In the aisles.
I looked up from my script and there they were - on the floor. In the aisles next to the seats. They take direction well.

And my proud 5'11" baker-elf. Who is coming to terms with her baking and not threatening her cakes anymore.

And so ended my first Father's Day without my Dad. But he was shining his light on us. On his grandchildren and on the gateau. He would have loved it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Stuffed, baked peaches and lemon pasta for a summer of simplicity

I started work with the elves today. My home is in need of some elves. New windows and siding means all the pictures are down and the furniture is crowded in the middle of all our rooms. I type with elbows in a tucked-in-wing fashion surrounded by things I have been meaning to go through for four years. The "boys" in the home were gone all weekend doing the MS 150 Bicycle fundraiser. Some organization is called for. My life needs to be cloaked in simplicity. As Minnesota slows into lazy, hazy days of summer, my work gears up.

No oranges or apples may cross my doorway. It is the season of stone fruits. I walk into the grocer and the sweet aroma of peaches swirls around my head. And I buy and I buy and I buy. Which means I could devour and still have some leftover for baking.
Only there's no time to bake. I am prepping for my 32 elves. Organizing schedules, curriculum, editing the summer plays. Getting my ducks in a row because if you work with kids in theatre, the first day is destined to be baptism by fire. It's a truism. (And it was.)

In La Cucina, the Regional Cooking of Italy, I spied many simple recipes. I didn't exactly follow it because that would be too simple. I have devised my own version of simple. I routinely cut sugar and when serving to bike-a-thon adventurers, I decided to not send them on the road laced with grappa.

The MS 150 route actually wound its way near our home. 3 miles from the finish line, they were looking strong. I think it was the stuffed peaches. They biked 150 miles in two days. They went by - fast!
Baked-Stuffed Peaches - serves 4
4 peaches
2 tbs butter
1/2 cup sliced almonds toasted
4 amaretti cookies - crushed (can use small almond biscottis if cannot find amarettis)
1/4 cup honey
Garnishes: yogurt or creme fraiche or whippe cream or ice cream; berries
Baked-Stuffed Peaches Preparation
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Foil and spray a baking pan. Halve peaches. Cut out pit and scoop a little pulp out for a delineated indentation. I can't believe I just wrote "delineated indentation." Throwing simplicty out the window already! Put on prepared baking sheet. In a small, dry skillet, toast your almonds - for just a minute. Put in bowl and add butter to same skillet and melt. Crush amaretti cookies and put in bowl with almonds. Cover all with melted butter. Stir. Add honey and mix well. Fill peaches with honey-nut mixture. Bake just two minutes for medium peaches and 3 minutes if peaches are large. Remove from oven. Add a dollop of something creamy. The "boys" added berries. Serve and savor how simple summer fruit can be.
This is a wonder of a cookbook. I have used this all winter - it completes my circle of cooking by giving me a framework for discoveries of ingredients in new combinations. It shows me why my grandmother specialized in certain foods. And it is fascinating that an enitre cuisine developed out of foraging. Of what was local and fresh. From necessity to feasts of flavors. From peasant food to cuisine.
And as pleasant as it would be to live on stone fruits, I need to find ten minutes to cook. To lose my elves, my stage directions, my piles of "things I am sure I will need some day" and enter a zone of aromas, simmer-sounds and almost-instant gratification.

(Elves and the Shoemaker logo by Lakeshore Players)
The Shoemaker's elves do not cook. My 32 elves (ages 7-10) who I met today managed to lose two sweatshirts in fifteen minutes (without leaving their seats), asked if they could skip "break time" (needed more by the staff than the students) to do more creative dramatics and somehow morphed into 33 elves. Which meant a new role needed to be written immediately after returning home. In my effort to clear my work room, I broke a desk (it happens). Luckily, I have a dumpster sitting in front of my home.
They're out of season I believe, but my local grocer has some lovely Meyer lemons. Minnesota never does follow the crowd. Check out our politics. We had a wrestler for governor! It was the lemon's sheen that drew me in. Some people flock to diamonds. I like fruit with sheen. The aroma made me buy a few.

And my garden is filled with arugula, tarragon, watercress and basil. I took some of everything. I especially wanted the spicy herbs. I was interested in the lightness of Amanda Hesser's Lemony-herb Pasta from Cooking for Mr. Latte. Of course, I doubled the lemon, doubled the herbs and reduced the chicken broth further to have an intense sauce that did not drown the pasta in broth - it just sort of lightly danced around it. I also got dinner on the table in less than fifteen minutes. I was Super-Elf!
Lemon-Herb Fettuccine
1 lb. fettuccine
2 cups chicken broth
2 Meyer lemons
3 cloves garlic
3/4 cup chopped favorite herbs (I did pick the spicier ones)
Freshly-shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano
Cook pasta according to package directions. Put chicken broth in medium sauce pan. Zest two Meyer lemons (regular lemons are fine) and add to the broth. Also add the juice of the two lemons and the garlic. Simmer and reduce to 3/4 of cup. Reserve 1/4 cup pasta water (I didn't need it). When pasta is drained, add sauce to the noodles and carefully mix to incorporate all. Add pasta water by tablespoons if some noodles are dry. Add 1/2 the herbs and mix. Add the other half of the herbs and mix. Serve. Pass freshly-grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano separately.

Even if you are not awash in high-energy elves as I am, we can all use a "Summertime and the living is easy" break. These recipes provided that.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Stirring Springtime Risotto

You can make a lot of decisions while stirring the springtime risotto.

For instance: "Claudia Haas, Director" - no more! After a wonderfully electrifying week with rehearsals, tech/dress, preview and opening of the Lakeshore Players Ten-Minute Play Festival, I am done directing. I am also letting the Festival go. I created the Festival 6 years ago. It grew legs and moved out on its own. It's now part of the season at Lakeshore Players. A sell-out. Time to let it live its life. Next year, I will buy a ticket, sit anonymously in the back and enjoy.
As I stirred the risotto this weekend I thought. Pondered. I don't want to direct other people's plays anymore. I will only direct my own. And will spend the bulk of my time creating them. No more "jack of all trades." "Mistress Playwright" only from now on.

The sweet, spring peas appeared at the Farmer's Market. It's a sure sign I will make risotto. It is a promise that for this luxurious dish - I will not skimp. Only the best ingredients. After all, sweet peas do not make an appearance every day in Minnesota.
Springtime Risotto Ingredients - serves 6 to 8 as a side dish
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (although virgin is just fine for this)
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 2 cups arborio rice
  • 5-6 cups best quality chicken broth (is using canned, Swanson's organic is much more flavorful than their regular)
  • 2 cups peas - fresh or frozen; if frozen use small organic ones - they are sweeter
  • 1 cup freshly shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano (go for the imported)
I was feeling indulgent so I stirred in 2 tablespoons of Parmigiano-Reggiano butter at the end. I also don't season with salt and pepper. You decide.
Warm your chicken broth (just till simmering). Grate your cheese. Briefly cook your peas in a bit of water. Don't let them get mushy. You want the creamy risotto with just a slight chew of the rice kernel. The sweetness of the peas with each bite. Shred your Parmigiano-Reggiano for the earthy, nutty taste. The dish is a festival of flavors.

Heat your olive oil. Briefly saute your minced shallot (20-30 seconds). Add your rice and stir to cover each kernel with olive oil. Then ladle in your first 1/2 cup of chicken broth. Stir. Till absorbed.

Ladle in some more and stir. Now you do not have to stir constantly for 30-40 minutes straight. Stir in the broth and stay close. As soon as the broth is absorbed, you will need to add more. But while stirring the risotto, I made some Chicken Dijon and panna cotta with rhubarb compote. I checked e-mails. I decided to stop directing.

All while adding new broth and stirring it in.

When the rice has given up its starch and made the transformation into being surrounded by creamy goodness, you will remove it from the heat and add the peas. It will take anywhere from 30-40 minutes. Do not rush it. Luxuriate in the process. Watch it unfold. It's theatre. It's an emerging butterfly.

The amazement: luxurious risotto from hard kernels.

Add your Parmigiano-Reggiano and stir well.

If using, add your two tablespoons of Parmigiano-Reggiano butter or plain butter. Serve immediately.

Intoxicating comfort on a plate. Make a life decision.

Savor what's good.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Spring Soiree with Buitoni

"It is only when you start to garden, that you realize something important happense every day. - Geoffrey B. Charlesworth.
I found this quote from My French Kitchen. It spoke to me. It's always fun to find a new blog that speaks to you!

As my yard turned pretty in pink and white, my thoughts turned to a spring soiree. As pretentious as that sounds!

Spring blooms are fleeting. All the more reason to savor. Do you notice that I always have an excuse to eat? "The tulips are up! Celebrate! Let's feast!"

And feast we did. The appetizers can be found here. And here. I had some carnivores and a vegetarian over. Having been inspired by Marie at Proud Italian Cook to make gremolata last week, I decided to do the gremolata again - but over grilled chicken. Not all guests loved fish. (Don't you love a challenge? A vegetarian, a non-fish eater, a diabetic and one allergic to goat cheese - which I served - hence the variety.)
If I was Laura Schenone, I would have made my ravioli. But my Easter attempts were less than stellar. So Buitoni made them for me. Buitoni's tortellini has long been a mainstay in my home. One of the first dishes my kids learned to make when they were in grade school was with tortellini. In the winter: Add Buitoni tortellini to a rich chicken broth. Swirl in some spinach and serve (with freshly grated Parmesan of course). In the summer, take out Mom's pesto. Bring to room temperature. Boil tortellini, top with pesto and serve.

As part of the Tastemaker Program at Foodbuzz, I was given a coupon to try Buitoni's Riserva's pastas - specifically Quattro Formaggi Agnolotti. Soft, billowy pockets stuffed with whipped ricotta, fontina, Parmesan, Grana Padano and a touch of roasted garlic of course. I had my vegetarian entre! I bought four of them (to serve 7).
I paired it with a young wine - a Veridicchio - crisp with an acid finish, it would offset the gentle, mellow flavors of the Agnolotti. And complement the pesto and vegetables I served it with. It also was a slightly tart accompaniment to the gremolata. Verdicchio is also highly affordable for a crowd. Most bottles run in the $10 dollar range.

For the red wine offering, I went with a Malbec. I have fallen in love with this mellow Argentinian red wine. Malbec is very smooth - almost buttery. Deep enough to pair with cheeses, pasta and chicken and the wine is fruity but dry as a young Bordeaux.
This recipe is an approximation from a class I took years ago. I play with the vegetables, sometimes add feta cheese, sometimes add shrimp and sometimes add sun-dried tomatoes. For the dinner, I stayed with the non-fussy pesto and just added string beans and carrots.

I par-boiled 2 cups of string beans (haricot verts would be grand here) and cooked 5 carrots (sliced into fat matchsticks) in 1/8 cup of olive oil for six minutes.

Large half moons of soft pasta stuffed with cloud-light cheeses. Who needs a sauce? I gently boiled the plump Agnolotti - you can see how they are generously stuffed. I do appreciate actually tasting the stuffing in stuffed pastas instead of guessing what the small blob is.

Tossed all with pesto. (I do the pesto to taste - start with about 4 cups of packed basil, add 1/4 - 1/2 cup of virgin olive oil - I like my pesto on the creamy side. Then add 1/4 cup (or more) freshly shredded Parmesan, 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts or walnuts, and 2-5 cloves of garlic. Toss in blender and blend. In August, I make a ton of them - cover each small container with a thin layer of olive oil and freeze. When I need one, I pop it out of the freezer and onto my counter and let it come to room temperature. I never heat it. My mother freezes pesto in ice cube trays and pops it into red sauces all winter.
Many thanks to Foodbuzz and Buitoni for giving me a chance to sample their new luxurious pasta! It took center stage which is always a strong place to be!
The wines also paired well with the Gremolata. We talked of cabbages and kings and theatrical things. Revelations, job losses, plays, surgery, the past, the present and the future. That is what food does best. When you break bread together you share. As you pass the ending treats, you open. The night comes to a close but the windows stay open.