Posts Tagged ‘basil’

Passing Pleasures: Squash Blossoms

There are a lot of edible flowers, but no flower expresses the joy of summer as well as the resplendent squash blossom. The sheer exuberance of them in the garden on a July morning lifts the heart of anyone who sees them, and they are a delicious edible. They’re fragile, and your best chance of getting good ones is to grow them yourself. I like the flowers of winter squash and pumpkins best for eating. They are huge gold trumpets six or seven inches long. You can use the smaller flowers of zucchinis, but you’ll need almost twice as many. There are lots of ways to cook them, but my favorite method is to stuff them with a delicate ricotta and basil filling.
I pick only the male flowers, making sure to leave at least one male blossom in the squash patch every day for pollination purposes. You can also use the female flowers, which have embryonic little squash between the stem and the flower, but of course you won’t get as many squash if you pick females. These flowers are wildly attractive to bees, so check for bees inside before you pick the flower, and give them a chance to escape safely out in the garden. I rinse them well and place them trumpet-down on a dish towel to drain. Some sources tell you to pick out the stamens or pistol, but I don’t think this is necessary. Just get them clean and fairly dry. Then carefully pull or snip off the six long green sepals that stick up from the base outside the petals. These have a coarse texture and detract from the delicacy of the finished dish. The blooms need to be cooked the day they are picked. To keep them from morning to evening, wrap them gently in the damp towel that they drained on, put the bundle in a plastic bag, and refrigerate until dinnertime. It’s better to use them for lunch, though.

Stuffed Squash Blossoms
A dozen large squash blossoms or 20-24 small ones, rinsed and drained, stems trimmed off level with the base of the flower
1 pound of very fresh ricotta
1/2 cup very finely grated best quality Parmesan, loosely packed
6 large sprigs of basil, leaves picked off the stem and torn (NOT cut) into large chunks
White part of one large or 2 small scallions, very finely minced.
Long chive leaves, twice as many as the number of blossoms
5 tablespoons butter
Make sure the ricotta is very fresh and free of bitterness. In a bowl, mix it with the Parmesan, minced scallion, and half the torn basil leaves. Taste the filling and add a little salt if needed, but don’t overpower the delicate flavors. Using your fingers and working very gently, fill each blossom with the cheese mixture. You will need to work a little down into each trumpet, but don’t tear them by pushing too hard. Fill each trumpet about halfway, and don’t overstuff. Now hold two long chive leaves together and tie a square knot at the end of each trumpet, and trim the ends to about 1″ long. I admit that this is a bit fiddly and not completely necessary, but the tied bundles look so attractive that I strongly recommend it. Now heat a skillet over medium heat, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter, and put in the filled blossoms. You will need to turn them about three times to get the blossoms cooked on all sides. Work very carefully with a small spatula and your fingers, so as not to tear them. Let them get slightly browned in spots but not darkened all over. The cooking usually takes me about 15 minutes. Then put them on plates, melt the remaining two tablespoons of butter in the pan and drizzle a little over each plateful, and scatter with the remaining torn basil leaves. Serve with a good baguette, and eat with gratitude for the pleasures of the season.

The Joys of Summer: Simple Lunches

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There are few things I love more than leisurely weekend lunches eaten on our back patio, with good food and sweet surroundings. I don’t like to fuss in the kitchen for these meals, though, and in this season there’s no reason to. With tomatoes and basil in the yard or at the farmers market, a bottle of olive oil, and a good loaf of sourdough bread, you’re set.

First, catch your tomatoes. Meaty beefsteak types are delicious here, but you can use any really flavorful tomato, including ripe sweet Sungold or Green Grape cherry tomatoes. If you have bland and blah tomatoes, do something else with them; this demands great tomato flavor. If you don’t bake your own bread, get a good loaf of crusty sourdough or a crusty baguette; in our area the baguettes from Sage Bakehouse are hard to beat. Make your basil into pesto according to your favorite recipe or use my own favorite below. During the summer, I usually have some pesto handy, and it will keep a day or two without much loss of flavor, making this truly fast food. It’s also good for a mixed group of omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans.

You’ll need (at a minimum) half a big beefsteak tomato or one regular tomato or at least a dozen cherry tomatoes per person. When you’re ready to eat, slice the tomatoes and spread them out on a plate. A lot of juice will probably run out on the cutting board. Make sure to pour it onto the plate. Juice is half the point here. Drizzle with pesto and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Drizzle on a little of your best olive oil. Slice the bread and toast or grill it. Bring the tomatoes and bread to the table on two separate plates, with a small plate for each person. The lucky eaters will need a spoon to scoop tomatoes and juice onto their crusty bread. They will also need to be sufficiently at ease to shamelessly rub their bread into the delicious juices on the tomato plate. Have plenty of napkins handy.
For more on pesto, click here! Continue reading

The Greens of Spring: Green Herb Pasta

One of the great pleasures of gardening is commemorating each new emergence in spring, and in  food gardening, one tends to commemorate them by eating them. Here, the herbs that are springing up everywhere make a pasta dish that is wonderfully tasty and varies every time you make it. If this doesn’t inspire you to plant your own herbs, probably nothing will.
My instructions will be relatively brief, so if you aren’t familiar with pasta-making, consult a good Italian cookbook such as The Splendid Table by Lynn Rosseto Kaspar. This is one of the few times when I use a food processor to start pasta dough.
This amount serves at least six as a first course, four as a main course, or two real pasta-pigs with lots of leftovers to take to work for lunches.

First, gather your herbs. Aim for a generous bunch. About half should be parsley. For the other half, see what’s springing up outside and decide what you plan to serve with the pasta. I like a good big handful each of chives and cutting celery leaves, the leaves of one small twig of rosemary (more if you plan to serve the noodles with lamb,) a few leaves of arugula, and about a tablespoon of thyme leaves. Later in the season, basil or marjoram might figure prominently. In the winter, green onions (green part only) and chervil might predominate, with some winter savory for oomph. You get the general feel of the thing.
Chop all the herbs coarsely. Put three cups of flour in the food processor, add the herbs, and process until they’re well distributed and finely chopped. Have five very good eggs handy. Add them one at a time, processing for at least 30 seconds after each one. Probably you will only need four of the eggs. When the “crumbs” in the processor bowl just start to come together into a dough, stop and finish by hand. Sorry about the work, but it’s much better that way. Turn out onto a lightly floured cutting board and knead until the dough comes together, adding a little water if necessary, or more flour if that’s what’s needed to make a nonsticky dough. Now knead for ten minutes, until smooth and elastic. Dust the dough ball with a little flour, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit half an hour.
When the dough has rested, roll it into sheets and cut into noodles by your favorite method. If you roll pasta by hand, you will go to Heaven. But if you use your handy machine, either powered or hand-cranked, you will eat fresh pasta a lot more often, and that’s a kind of heaven too. Take your pick.
Either way, when the noodles are ready, you can pack them in plastic bags and store in the refrigerator for two days, or in the freezer for a month. When ready to proceed, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil, and dump in the noodles. As soon as the water returns to a boil, start testing them for doneness. The cooking should take about a minute, but may take longer if you let the dough dry out a lot after rolling.  Be very careful not to overcook. You do want then al dente
Drain the noodles and toss with a good-sized knob of butter or a half cup of heavy cream or both (note to self: stop revealing your spirit of wretched excess) and about a cup of the best Parmesan you can find, grated. Grind a little black pepper over the top, garnish with a little more grated Parmesan, and serve.
If you’d like to add some herbed shrimp to the plate, click here