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June 30, 2008

Fiori di Zucca

Zucchini Blossoms from Brown's Cove Farm Dominic Armato

One of the things I've come to love about our temporary home here in Baltimore is that I'm spoiled by not one but now two weekly farmers' markets. We've been hitting the always impressive Baltimore market under the highway on Sundays since our arrival last summer, and with the recent addition of the Harbor East market on Saturdays, just a couple of blocks from home, I have access to great produce straight through the weekend. I have a full report on the new Harbor East market coming shortly, but in the meantime I couldn't wait to share my favorite find thus far.

For the past three weeks, the Brown's Cove Farm stall has had piles of stunning zucchini blossoms, and what could be more perfect farmers' market fare? They're delicate and sweet with a flavor that walks the line between vegetal and floral, and they just scream summer. The trouble with zucchini blossoms, however, is that they're ultra perishable. If they're picked Saturday morning, they're already wilting by Saturday evening, and they've lost all of their life by Sunday brunch. So when the vibrant orange of their petals caught my eye last Saturday, I went a little nutty and bought about five dozen of them. I had no idea what I was going to do with them, but that didn't matter. You don't pass on an opportunity like that.

A while back, I was perusing one of Wanda Tornabene's cookbooks, and I came across her recipe for Frittelle di Fiori di Zucca -- Italian fried zucchini blossoms. What struck me at first was that she used an unusually heavy batter for this purpose, made with yeast and allowed to rise for an hour before frying. My interest was already piqued, but then I read this passage...

"With absolute confidence I can boast that my Frittelle di Fiori di Zucca are the best in the world."

...and I figured I'd better lock that one away for future reference. So naturally, the first thing I did upon returning home with my bounty was to fire up some simple, traditional Italian-style fried zucchini blossoms alla Tornabene.

Fried Zucchini Blossoms Dominic Armato
I don't know that I'm qualified to accurately place Signora Tornabene's frittelle in the world pantheon of fried zucchini blossoms, but I will say that I found them exceptionally delicious. While most versions I've had tried to keep the batter as light as possible, Tornabene's is rather goopy going on, and while light and crispy once fried, it makes for a fully-armored blossom. The genius, as it turns out, is that the blossom is protected from the oil and almost liquefies while cooking, so the crispy batter shell gives way to a downright creamy vegetable filling. Despite the heavier batter, I found that I actually got a better taste of the blossoms themselves... and this got me to thinking. Zucchini blossoms are so ethereal and so difficult to come by in quantity that you're almost always limited to tiny little tastes. I thought it would be great to make a recipe that took a whole pile of blossoms and concentrated the flavor somehow so that you could get a bite of them that actually packed a bit of a wallop. It didn't take me long to settle on ravioli as the vehicle for a concentrated zucchini blossom mixture, and I ditched my stuffed blossom dinner plan in favor of turning the blossoms into the stuffing themselves.

The result was a pasta that isn't practical unless you can get the blossoms cheaply and in quantity, but if you come upon a trove of them, this may now be my favorite way to treat them. It's a very elegant dish with a quick and easy last-minute prep, which would make it great for a dinner party. The fried blossoms on top make for a beautiful presentation and I like the contrast of the crispy fried petals against the stewed filling, but they're hardly essential and you can streamline the recipe by omitting them altogether, or tossing some raw petals into the saffron butter while you're warming it up. Though most establishments (even farmers' markets) like to push the popular female blossoms that look ohsocute attached to the end of a baby squash, the ones you want are the males, which you can identify by the fact that they terminate in stems rather than vegetables. The difference in flavor is significant. When it comes to fresh pasta, I've been meaning to post a tutorial for a while and maybe this is the kick I need -- the manufacturing of the pasta dominates the recipe and I'd love to link to it rather than having to include it -- but everybody has their tricks, so if you have a preferred method, there's nothing special about the one I describe here. Do whatever you're comfortable with.

Dominic Armato

5 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 C. thinly sliced leeks
4 dozen large (3"+) zucchini blossoms
1/4 C. chicken stock
1/2 tsp. coarse salt
2 Tbsp. ricotta
1 C. all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
2 large eggs
1/4 C. unsalted butter
large pinch saffron threads
black pepper
grated pecorino
Zucchini Blossom Ravioli
with Saffron Butter
Serves 2 as an entree, 4 as a primo

First up, do a little chopping. Thinly slice the leeks, using only the white and light green parts, and roughly chop enough of the zucchini blossoms to yield 6 C., reserving the rest whole (you should have about a dozen left over).

To make the ravioli filling, start by heating 2 Tbsp. of the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high. Once the oil is hot but not smoking, add the leeks and cook, stirring constantly, until the leeks soften and turn translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Toss in the 6 C. of chopped zucchini blossoms and continue cooking and stirring until the blossoms start to soften, about another two minutes. Add the chicken stock and coarse salt and continue cooking down, stirring frequently, until the stock has cooked away. The mixture should still be quite moist, but you don't want anything more than a touch of excess liquid in the bottom of the pan. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and cool for a few minutes. Once it's no longer hot, gently stir in the ricotta, adjust the salt to taste and refrigerate the mixture until you're ready to stuff the ravioli.

To make the pasta dough, mound 1 C. of the flour in the middle of a large, smooth surface, make a well in the center and add the eggs and 1 Tbsp. of the olive oil. Using a fork, beat the eggs and slowly incorporate more and more of the surrounding flour, switching from the fork to your hands when it seems appropriate, until ithe flour has mostly been absorbed and you have a cohesive mass of dough. When you've incorporated enough flour that you can work the dough without it sticking to your hands, set the ball of dough aside, scrape the work surface clean, dust it with fresh flour and continue kneading the dough, adding more flour as necessary to reach the desired consistency. The exact amount you'll use will depend on the size of your eggs, the nature of your flour and the humidity, but you want to end up with a dough that's very firm and just barely tacky. To borrow Marcella Hazan's shorthand test of doneness, the moment you can stick your thumb into the middle without anything sticking to it, you've added enough flour. At this point, continue kneading the dough for a full ten minutes -- do NOT skip or shortchange this step, as this is how the pasta gains its density and bite. While kneading, lightly dust the work surface and your hands as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. Stretch the dough away from you using the palm of your right hand pressing into the work surface (if you're a righty), flip the dough over, rotate it 90° clockwise, fold it in half right to left, and repeat over and over again until it's been at least ten minutes, the dough fights you every step of the way and its surface is baby bottom smooth. Immediately wrap it tightly with plastic wrap and let it rest while you prepare to roll the ravioli, but don't let it sit for too long or your ravioli won't seal.

To roll out the pasta dough, clean and dust your work surface ever so lightly with a touch more flour, then slice off a quarter of the ball of dough and rewrap the portion you aren't yet using. Take the portion of the dough you're using and flatten it into a small packet about 1/2" thick, measuring about 4x2". Feed one of the short ends into a pasta roller at the thickest setting, lay the resulting strip on the board in front of you, fold the two ends into the center to reduce it to about a third of its size (it will now roughly match the original packet), poke it with your fingers to get the layers to stick together, then feed it back through the machine. Repeat this about 8-10 times until the packet is very firm and perfectly smooth. During this entire process, dust lightly with flour if you need to keep it from sticking to the machine. With ravioli dough, the trick is to add just enough flour to keep it from sticking to the machine, while remaining tacky enough to seal your ravioli. It's a delicate balance and takes a little practice, but you'll catch on quickly. Once the dough is perfectly smooth, don't fold it over again, but instead narrow the pasta rollers by one notch and feed the short end of the pasta sheet back through, stretching it out further. Feed it through a second time, then narrow the rollers one more notch. Repeat this process, sending the pasta sheet through the rollers twice before adjusting the thickness and slowly stretching the pasta out, until you have a long sheet of pasta and the rollers are one or two steps away from the thinnest setting. You don't want to use the last setting or two, or your pasta will be too thin. It depends on the machine, but use your best judgment if you haven't made ravioli before. By now, you'll have a very long (3-4') sheet of pasta that you want to lay out on the board and immediate fold into ravioli, before it can dry out and lose its tackiness.

Starting at one end of the sheet, put heaping tablespoon dollops of the filling in the center, spacing them just over 3" apart, until you reach the midpoint of the long sheet. Fold the remaining half of the pasta sheet back over the filling and, cupping your hand, press all around the dollops of filling to seal the layers of pasta, capturing as little air as possible (if you find it easier to slice the sheet of pasta in half rather than folding it over, there's no reason not to). Using a circle mold, cookie cutter, carefully trimmed soda can or other circular cutting implement, cut out the ravioli, pulling away and discarding the excess pasta dough. Transfer the ravioli to a tray covered with a kitchen towel, dusting them lightly with flour, squeezing the edges slightly to ensure they're sealed, and making sure they don't touch so they don't stick to each other. Repeat the whole process with the remaining dough until you've used up all of the filling. You should end up with about 15-16 large ravioli. You can cover them with plastic wrap and transfer them to the fridge if you aren't going to cook them immediately, but it's best not to let them sit for more than a couple of hours. If they do sit, be sure to flip them periodically so the pasta on the bottom doesn't become soggy.

When you're ready to cook the ravioli, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil (no pinches here -- make the water nice and salty!) and prepare the whole blossoms and saffron butter while it's coming to a boil. Take the remaining whole blossoms and if they aren't open, slice the petals down to the base. Heat the remaining 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a skillet over medium-high until hot but not smoking, and while the oil is coming to heat, dust the whole blossoms with flour, shaking to thoroughly remove any excess. Add the blossoms to the heated oil and fry, turning when appropriate, until they're lightly browned and crispy. Transfer them to a place lined with paper towels and reserve. Obviously, it's best to do this right before the ravioli are ready, but if that's a lot to juggle, they'll be quite tasty if they sit for a little while, if not quite as crisp.

To make the sauce, combine the butter and saffron in a large sauté pan that can accommodate all of the ravioli and heat over medium. Once the butter has completely melted, continue heating and stirring occasionally for just a minute, then reduce the heat to the lowest setting, just enough to keep the butter warm. If necessary, move it off the burner and keep it in a warm place. Salt the saffron butter to taste and set aside.

Once your pasta water has a nice rolling boil going, drop in the ravioli, give them a stir, and boil them for just a couple of minutes until the pasta is cooked and the filling is warmed through. Fresh ravioli cooks very quickly -- it'll only take a couple of minutes. Drain the ravioli thoroughly, transfer them to the skillet with the saffron butter and toss them to ensure they're coated all over, then plate them with a tiny bit of freshly ground black pepper and a light sprinkling of the grated pecorino, and top them with the fried blossoms. Spoon the excess saffron butter on and around the ravioli, and get 'em on the table.

This is one dish where you might want to consider keeping the grated cheese off the table. Anything more than the lightest dusting will bury the delicate flavor of the blossoms, and somebody will inevitably dump grated cheese all over the place and never know what the filling tastes like. I'm all for letting people manage their own cheese, but zucchini blossoms are so special and so delicate that this is an exceptional case where I like to exercise a little chefly discretion and dictate the cheese level.

June 25, 2008

More from Grace Garden

Peacock Chicken Dominic Armato
I know, I know, I emerge from a two week hiatus only to bring you more Grace Garden. With apologies, I'm trying to get caught up on all of the stuff I neglected while concentrating on Top Chef, and I'm also in the process of trying to migrate to a new server (much as I love embedding cryptic messages in the site's images, that whole fiasco a few weeks back was the final straw -- I'm moving). But in the interim, I've managed to bring my Grace Garden dish count up to 34, I have a bunch more to add to the favorites list, and I want to pimp these guys just a little more before moving on (awesome recipe for zucchini blossoms coming on Monday). So for those who haven't yet made the trek down to Odenton, or for those who have but still muster the strength not to order the same thing on subsequent trips, here are a few more favorites of the ones I've sampled since the first Grace Garden post.

Sichuan Beef Tongue, Tripe and Tendon Dominic Armato
I'm not sure if I'm helping or hurting by putting the Peacock Chicken photo up top, but the American preference for nondescript meat that magically appears under cellophane is one of the reasons chickens and pigs taste so much better in China, and it's about time we got over it. At any rate, I'm always amazed by how a great Sichuan meal can take the same five or six central ingredients -- chiles, Sichuan pepper, garlic, sesame, vinegar, ginger -- and create such a wide variety of dishes with them. The Peacock Chicken, an advance order dish, highlights Sichuan's cool and sweet (though no less fiery) side. The chicken is steamed and served cold, topped with a typical ma la sauce that turns up the sugar, vinegar and ginger. Though it's almost pure meat, it's a cool dish made refreshing by the heavy dose of vinegar, and it still has a nice kick -- perfect for summer evenings.

Cantonese Wok-Fried Quail Dominic Armato
Another Sichuan dish that will probably fall into the "challenging" category for some is a recent addition to the menu, the Sichuan Beef Tongue, Tripe and Tendon. It's another cold dish and a perfect example of how altering the balance of the traditional ma la seasonings can completely change the character of a dish. This one, though vinegary, is pushed further back towards the chile end of the spectrum, and the sauce bathes thin slivers of tongue, tripe and tendon, which are in turn topped with chopped peanuts and scallions. In addition to its fiery intensity, the toothsome tendon, spongy tripe and crunchy peanuts exemplify the importance of textural contrast to so many Sichuan dishes. I had it for the first time a little over a week ago, and I returned last night with the intention of insisting that Chef Li add it to the menu -- only to find he already had. Apparently it's a very labor intensive dish, but thanks to Mei's urging, it should now be available as a regular item. Good thing too... I think it's one of the best dishes I've had so far.

Smoke Tea Duck Dominic Armato
On the (slightly) more familiar front, this last visit also netted a simple and delicious preparation of one of my favorite critters. There isn't much meat on 'em, but quail hold many rewards for those who aren't shy to pick them up and gnaw away. The Cantonese Wok-Fried Quail are seasoned just enough to accentuate the sweet meat, and they sit in a light jus (if such a term can be applied to Chinese cookery) that only adds to their succulence when spooned over the top. It's a simple, no-frills dish that's a nice respite from the more typically saucy creations. Another dish that puts the focus on the fowl is the Smoke Tea Duck, which is similarly minimal but significantly more intense. An advance order nets you a whole duck with deep, lacquered skin that's completely infused with an intense, smoky flavor. Like the quail, it does just enough to accentuate the flavor of the bird without obscuring it. This is also near the top of my personal favorites list.

Braised Pork Belly with Mui-Choy Dominic Armato
My obsession with Chinese pork belly is no secret, so this one shouldn't come as any surprise. My Chinese dining in the States is pretty much an endless quest for the kind of intensely sweet melts-into-nothingness on your tongue pork belly like the kind I have in China. Chef Li's Braised Pork Belly with Mui-Choy isn't quite there. It's not his fault -- we just don't have the pigs for it. But it's as good as I've had stateside, and it makes me exceptionally happy. The pork belly is sliced and braised along with mui-choy, a Chinese mustard green that's been salted and lightly pickled to provide a little sourness to cut the lightly sweet soy-based sauce. Though it doesn't liquefy on the tongue, it's meltingly tender and may be my favorite pork dish at Grace Garden.

Taiwanese Style Fish Dominic Armato
A dish that inspires some mixed emotions, but not enough to keep it off my list of favorites, is the Taiwanese Style Fish. There is nothing subtle about this dish. You have small chunks of fish, an abundance of ground pork, scallions, bell peppers and some kind of pickled cabbage that are stir-fried in a spicy, sweet sauce with plenty of dried chiles and cilantro stems. The reason I say I have mixed emotions is because while I like the texture of the little fried chunks of fish, the potency of everything surrounding them doesn't exactly put them in the spotlight. I find myself taking another bite and wondering if this is really a fish dish or a pork dish. Then I find myself taking another bite and just not caring. It's an explosively tasty dish and nitpicking in such a manner is probably missing the forest for the trees. I dig it, and that's all that matters.

Curry Beef Stew, Hong Kong Style Dominic Armato
And I'll bring this update to a close with a dish that I probably never would have tried if it weren't for the fact that Chef Li insisted, and I'm glad he did. Both from the description and my first glance, it looked like a very typical beef, potato and onion curry based on your typical canned Madras curry powder. And it was. But three or four bites into it, what struck me was that it was an unusually delicious version thereof. Its strength wasn't in the flavor. The flavor was very nice -- a very mild, comforting and lightly sweet stew that even the most spicy-averse could handle. But that's not uncommon. What struck me, rather, was its wonderfully silky, collagen-laden texture that was achieved, no doubt, by the fatty cuts of connective tissue that comprised half of the meat in the dish. Let's be clear. This is not a dish for the boneless, skinless chicken breast crowd. But for the rest of us, beef you could sip through a straw, floating in an unctuous, curried beefy goo -- well, maybe it doesn't sound good to you, but it sure snuck up and won me over. If you can't quite bring yourself to squeeze it into your menu, I say get an order to take home. As the empty bowl currently sitting in my lap can attest, it reheats rather well.

Grace Garden
1690 Annapolis Rd.
Odenton, MD 21113
Mon - Thu 11:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat 11:00 AM - 10:30 PM
Sun Closed