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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.


Hey, Dominic-- great post. And delicious-sounding recipe. I've never played with zucchini blossoms; now you have me wanting a plateful of 'em. My farmer's market (Ft. Greene, Brooklyn) is kinda small, but maybe given the season, they'll have some this saturday.

What I'm reallllllly looking forward to is tomatoland, and it's coming up! One thing our market does very well is put out generous tasting samples of all the heirlooms--and one guy carries about 15 kinds. Screw truffles--gimme some green zebras, black russians, brandywines. Mmmm. FYI, the July issue of Gourmet has two tomato recipes I want to jump into--a tomato bread pudding, and a tomato terrine.

There are one or two farms near us that sell the zucchini blossoms on the day they are picked -- and because Rhode Island, where I live, is such an Italian state, there are very traditional ways of preparing the blossoms -- stuffed, with cheese, breadcrumbs and herbs, dipped in batter and fried. And yes, they are absolutely delicious.

Hey, Ted!

Oh, man, I know how you feel. For the past two months, every time I've wanted to do something with tomatoes, I have to force myself to leave it on the back burner, telling myself to hang in there for just a few more months :-)

We have a great heirloom tomato vendor at the big Baltimore market as well. I actually had all of the photos ready to do a huge heirloom tomato post last summer, but things got crazy, I got a little sidetracked and by the time I was ready to write it up the season was mostly over. So I decided to hold off until this year. My memory's a little fuzzy, though, so I'll just have to hold another tasting.

Brutal :-)

Lydia... man, I'd love to have a reliable source like that. I'm kind of hoping that the Brown's Cove stand will fill that need for the rest of the summer. Now I just have to fight off whoever reads about them here. I'm at a decided disadvantage when it comes to farmers' markets. Rising early isn't my strong point :-)

I need to try stuffing some more. The ones I've had and made have been great, but I always come away feeling like the blossoms get lost in all the cheese. But foods don't survive that long in Italy unless they're clean and pure and indescribably delicious, so I presume my issue has been with the versions I've tasted and not with the concept in general. Fortunately it looks like I'll have the opportunity to explore them a bit this summer.

I'm with Lydia. I remember the first time I had stuffed and fried blossums (in Positano, as it happened). One of those wonderful moments in eating that. I've yet to find a great farmer's market in the DC area that I can get to with my work schedule during the week, and the weekend one's have a certain zoo quality. Maybe I'll make the road trip to Charm City...

This recipe sounds absolutely delicious. I'm a great fan of zucchini blossoms, and would have already tried this out since I've been on a pasta-making binge lately, but I don't have plants in my garden to raid, and as you mention, there's also the issue of quantity. I'll be sure to check in my local markets when I get off the road in August -- sleep well, SD, that's not Baltimore.

My tomato plants (a few heirlooms & a cherry tomato plant) have been a bit off course this year, but seem to be starting to come around. I originally blamed this on some very cool weather early in the season; however, I've also been hearing rumors of a decline in the honeybee population impacting pollination. I'm expecting a later-than-normal harvest this year.

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