Thursday, June 27, 2013

Fried Zucchini Blossoms--Welcome Summer

Always curious of new foods, I have been dreaming of trying zucchini flowers for a long time. In Italy in this season they are sold in any regular food markets, packed in plastic boxes to protect the delicate blossoms. In my area even the most fancy food stores never carry them and at certain farmers markets you can have them sometimes as a special order.

Desperate to find out what this delicacy is about, early this spring I bought two small zucchini plants and grew them in my yard. Two weeks ago, almost exactly with the arrival of the summer, they started to bloom. At first, just three to four flowers on each plant, but recently they have been blooming boldly, enough finally to make the whole dish from them.

Zucchini blossoms are indeed very delicate. Early in the morning they open they flowers, to close them later in the day, and to fade away for good already the next day.

There are many recipes for zucchini blossoms in French and mostly in Italian cuisine--pastas, risottos, stuffed and fried. But since I had no experience with them whatsoever for my first step I chose the simplest dish for fried zucchini blossom in wine batter, which I found in an Italian culinary magazine .

Last week on a perfect sunny day I prepared a vegetarian lunch and as one of the dishes I served my first zucchini blossoms. And I became a great lover of them. They were similar to artichokes, delicate but intriguing in taste, and I cannot wait to try the next dish with them.

Fried Zucchini Blossoms

12-16 large zucchini blossoms,
1/3 cup all purpose flour.
1/4 cup sparkling water,
1/4 white wine, preferably sparkling
1 tbsp sunflower oil,
1/2 cup olive oil for frying,
salt and pepper to taste.

1. Wash gently zucchini blossoms in cold water, shake off gently excess water and let them dry on a paper towel.
2. In a medium bowl mix water and wine. Using a whisker or hand mixer add gradually flour and beat until it makes a smooth batter. Pour in sunflower oil, and season with salt and pepper. Try the thickness of the batter--it should be as thick as heavy whipping cream. If it is too liquid add an extra tbsp or two of flour.
3. Let the batter to rest in a refrigerator for about 30 minutes.
4. Heat the olive oil in a medium heavy duty frying pan. Dip each blossom in the batter holding it by the stem so the batter coats evenly the whole flower. Place them one after another in hot oil

5. Fry them on a medium high heat for about 3 minutes, until each of them becomes slightly gold, then turn them, one by one, and fry on the other side.

6. Place fried blossom on the paper towel to absorb the extra oil and serve immediately, still warm.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Asparagus and Tomato Salad

First asparagus season always comes in very early spring. At that time, asparagus is often imported from warmer countries or states, fresh and inexpensive. It is one of my favorite vegetables so I typically serve it almost every day either for lunch or dinner in tarts, pastas, and risottos. But somehow this year, before I enjoyed it to full, the first asparagus season had been already over.

Last week, at my local farmers market, it appeared again, which means that the second, local, asparagus season has arrived. Because the weather is much warmer, and I often prepare cold dishes or grilled meats, I decided to make an asparagus salad, which is great for lunch or dinner.

When it comes to asparagus I have only one secret. Just like I never cook beets in the water I also never cook asparagus. First, I fry it briefly in a drop of oil and then add water and cook until the water evaporates. This way almost all the nutrition remains in the asparagus and it is cooked but still crisp and green. I add the rest of the ingredients and in no time the salad is ready.

Asparagus and Tomato Salad

A bunch of green asparagus,
a pint of cherry tomatoes,
half a medium red onion,
shredded Parmesan cheese,
juice from half a lemon,
extra virgin olive oil.

1. Cut off about 1/4 of asparagus from the bottom end and discard. Cut the rest in inch-long sticks.
2. Wash cherry tomatoes, cut them in halves, and place in a medium bowl.
3. Cut the red onion in half, slice it very finely, and add to tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Pour in lemon juice and a tbsp of olive oil.
4. In a heavy-duty frying pan heat a tbsp of olive oil. Add chopped asparagus, mix and fry for 1-2 minutes turning constantly so it does not turn brown. Add a bit of water (about 1/4 of a cup) and cook on a medium heat stirring once in while, until the water evaporates and asparagus is softer but still crispy.
5. Transfer hot asparagus to the bowl with tomatoes and onion. Mix well all the ingredients. Add shredded Parmesan cheese and mix again gently. Serve in room temperature.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Herb Soufflé--Fluffy and Aromatic

June is probably the best month to pick up herbs. They are already strong but still green and fresh. Last year, I planted many herbs in my herb garden but this year they have truly picked up and grown. I cannot get enough of them, so I put them in almost all dishes I prepare. Inspired by the herb season, I decided to make a herb soufflé.

Despite some bad fame they acquired for being capricious, soufflés are not particularly difficult to make, especially if you are familiar with making a béchamel sauce. But it is difficult to maintain its fluffiness. It looks high and raised still in the oven. Unfortunately, almost immediately after we take it out, it starts to "sit down". I made several soufflés but, in spite of certain experience I gained with it over the years, I have never managed to get it to the table perfectly inflated. But even though it falls down a bit it still tastes good.

I made this herb soufflé using my old cheese soufflé recipe, and just added some chopped herbs. And although any extra ingredients make soufflé fall even easier they did not change its consistency. Any herbs can be added to a herb soufflé, even just chives, but if you have oregano, thyme, and marjoram available, they really bring a lot of flavor to the soufflé

Herb Soufflé
(Makes 6 portions)

3/4 cup milk,
2 tbsp flour,
2 tbsp unsalted butter,
4 medium eggs,
2 tbsp Dijon mustard,
1/2 cup grated Gruyère cheese, plus extra 1 tbsp for the topping,
1 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese,
1/2 cup fresh, finely chopped herbs of your choice (chive, basil, thyme, marjoram, oregano)
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg,
salt and pepper to taste.

1. Grease with butter six small ramekins or one medium and dust them with grated Parmesan cheese.
2. Melt butter in a medium saucepan and stir in the flour and the mustard. Cook for a minute. Remove from the heat and add gradually milk whisking until smooth. Bring it to the boil and cook briefly until the sauce thickens.
3. Cool a little bit for 5 minutes.
4. Preheat oven to 350F.
5. Separate eggs. Add egg yolks to the sauce one at a time, then stir in with chopped herbs and Gruyère cheese.

6. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper.
7. Whisk the egg whites until soft peak. Fold one spoon into the sauce, then add the sauce to the whites. Mix gently.

8. Pour the mixture into 3/4 of the ramekins height. Sprinkle with a tbsp of cheese. Run a knife around the ramekins to obtain that hut look after baking, and put them in the hot oven.

9. Bake for 20-25 minutes.

Serve immediately accompanied by salads.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Baby Romaine Salad with Roasted Beets

This simple salad has recently become one of my favorites. It is easy and delicious, especially if you, like me, are a beets lover. Although still light it is more substantial than just lettuce. I have already tasted it during my first BBQ of this season and everyone loved it asking for details on how to prepare it.

It is hard to say where the secret of this salad lays as the whole blend of ingredients makes it taste so special.

Roasted beets, which add special sweetness to it, are for sure very important to its taste. I do not cook beets anymore except soups, as they lose some nutrients and much of their natural juice in the water. Most often I roast them wrapped in aluminium foil.

But recently I bought fresh baby beets at my local market and roasted them, as I do with baby potatoes, cut in pieces and rubbed with oil. I did not even have to peel them, only the bigger ones, then cut in small quarters. I do not salt them before roasting as they tend to lose their juice then. Roasting beets directly on a baking sheet is faster than in foil, and they also get slightly crispy this way.

To make this salad I layered baby Romaine leaves, covered them with roasted beets, drizzled with dressing, and sprinkled with toasted hazelnuts and crumbled goat cheese.

I do not know what I am going to discover next week, but if you ask me right now, there is no better salad than this for lunch, with a piece of bread and prosciutto, or grilled meat for dinner.

Baby Romaine Salad with Roasted Beets

4 oz baby Romaine leaves,
6-8 baby beets, or 4 young medium beets,
1/3 cup (about 3oz) fresh goat cheese,
1/4 cup roasted and crushed hazelnuts,
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar,
2 tbsp lemon juice,
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil,
salt and pepper to taste.

1. Preheat oven to 375F.
2. If using baby beets, just cut the green parts out and cut the beets into small quarters. Bigger beets you need to peel off using a vegetable peeler, cut them in half and then into half moons, half-inch thick.

Place them on a baking sheet and drizzle with a tbsp of olive oil. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until tender and slightly roasted on top. Remove them from the oven, sprinkle with sea salt and let them cool.
3. To make the dressing, mix olive oil, salt, pepper, lemon juice and balsamic vinegar.
4. Spread baby Romaine on a shallow serving plate. Put roasted beets on top and drizzle with dressing.
5. Scatter crumbled goat cheese and toasted walnuts on top. Let it infuse for 10 minutes and serve.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Parsnip in Spicy Cashew Sauce

Parsnip is often confused with parsley roots. Although they look very much alike there is one huge difference between them. Parsley leaves called flat leaves or Italian parsley are edible and are popular in many cuisines as a fresh garnish, salad ingredient, or a dry herb. Parsnip leaves are toxic and cause a reaction similar to that provoked by poison ivy. Therefore you can buy bunches of parsley root with leaves but parsnip is always sold without them, which would help you to distinguish them at the first glance.

I am familiar with parsley root, which is very popular in Polish cuisine, where it is added to many dishes for its strong flavor. Parsnip is much milder. It is sweeter than carrot but has a slightly earthy taste. It has also many important nutritional values. First of all, parsnip is an excellent source of dietary fiber. It is also rich in vitamins C, B, folic acid, and minerals such as iron, calcium, copper as well as many antioxidants which give parsnip anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.

I have already tried a couple of parsnip recipes but none of them was worth sharing, until last week when I made a spicy parsnip dish. The sweetness of parsnip sometimes is a little bit overwhelming, but in this particular dish it nicely neutralizes the spiciness of the sauce made of Indian spices and chili. Rather fast and easy, it also turned out to be a wonderful vegetarian and quite a nutritious dish.

Parsnip in Spicy Cashew Sauce
(Serves four)

2 lbs of parsnip peeled and cut into cubes,
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped,
4 garlic cloves,
1 medium onion cut in four,
2-inch piece of ginger root, peeled off and sliced,
2 jalapeno peppers or two hot green peppers,
1/2 cup toasted, ground cashews,
3 tbsp vegetable oil,
1 tbsp cumin seeds,
1 tbsp. coriander seeds,
1tsp turmeric,
salt and pepper,
juice from one lime,
coriander leaves to serve.

1. Place onion, garlic, ginger and jalapenos in a blender. Add about 1/3 cup water and blend all the ingredients until a smooth paste forms.
2. Heat the oil in a large heavy duty frying pan. Add cumin seeds and toast them for about 30 seconds, until they get darker and fragrant. Add coriander seeds, turmeric, and ground cashews, and mix all the ingredients.
3. Pour in the jalapeno paste and fry until water evaporates.

4. Add tomatoes and parsnip to the sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Pour in about a cup of water, mix and let it simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes until parsnip is tender. Add extra water if parsnip is still hard. If sauce is too watery at the end boil it quickly until the liquid evaporates and sauce thickens.
5. Add lime juice to the dish and cook for another minute. Before serving, sprinkle with fresh, chopped coriander leaves.
Serve with flat breads.