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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Blossoms

Living in  Austria was a cultural odyssey. After a brief stint in Northern Virginia, my family was shipped back to Europe and stationed in Vienna, Austria. Unlike most of the places we lived overseas (behind concrete on walls on American army bases), Vienna was a different animal. We moved smack dab into the middle of the city. No walls. No uniforms.  As a kid, it was an unfamiliar and strange cultural immersion. My father often spoke Russian, my friends were German, and our nanny was Czek. Hell, even my favorite cartoons were broadcast in German. Sensory overload. I struggled with the steep learning curve, but managed to keep up with everybody. My oasis was school. Because of our Army ties, I attended the Vienna American International School, a school designed to accommodate families with military, United Nations, or Foreign Embassy connections. All in all, it is was a fairly normal English speaking American school nestled on the outskirts of the city near tranquil parks and the Vienna Woods. Pretty basic stuff. Classes. Lunch Break. Recess. While I was happy to be around kids like me, nothing topped recess. That said, we had two very opposing options for recess. On alternating days, weather permitting, we'd either line up in single file for a march over to the ragged dirt-covered embankment overlooking the soccer field to play on the rusty jungle gyms or we'd carefully cross bustling Salmanndorferstrasse for a gentle hike up the tree-lined slope at the base of the Vienna Woods to play in the meadows that unfolded at the top of the hill.  It was a no brainer for me. I abhorred the embankment days and adored the hill days.

In early spring, when everything was damp and new, I couldn't wait to climb the wet slippery hill. It was worth every single slight bruise or muddy smudge, clinging to mossy tree trunks and large rocks, to reach the clearing at the the top of the hill for a glimpse of the undulating multicolored sea of lavender, blue, yellow, and white spring flowers bending in the breeze. It certainly beat the crap out of eating dirt on the jungle gym. Recess. In typical childhood fashion, it was a free-for-all on top of the hill. The girls would skip off to do girl things while the boys huddled around for games of tag or kickball. And Me? I'd brush through the soft meadow, curl down into a nest, flop onto my back with naive abandon, stare at the empty sky, and eat the flowers.

I guess it stuck.

Fried Squash Blossoms with Summer Squash Salad.
It's weird, squash blossoms seem to be everywhere. In years past, everyone told me they were simply too much trouble to harvest. Not this year. While they're plentiful, the early bird gets the blossoms. In recent weeks, local chefs have scampered down to the farmers market very early to snatch up the bounty. Every last blossom. Finally,I got with the program, joined the fray, and scored a few baskets of gorgeous feathery Jessamine County squash blossoms.

A simple fresh bite of summer.
Minor prep. Big payoff.
Starting with the blossoms, I snipped the stamens from the center of each male flower. Traditionally, the blossoms are stuffed with goat cheese, ricotta, or fresh mozzarella. I'm a rule breaker, so I brought a bit of Tuscany to Kentucky and stuffed the blossoms with Dad's Favorite Asiago Sun-dried Tomato Cheese Spread. Yep. After carefully scooping a spoonful of the cheese into each blossom, I gave the ends a quick twist, covered them with plastic wrap, and slid them into the refrigerator to chill.

Squash ribbons.
I'm a huge fan of raw squash ribbons.  In fact, I rarely cook yellow squash or zucchini anymore. When sliced thinly, they're delicate, tender, and incredibly sweet. Normally, I simply use a vegetable peeler to make the ribbons. Because I wanted somewhat more uniform slices, I used a mandolin to shave 3 large Casey County zucchini and yellow squash into ribbons, feathered them into a mixing bowl, and set them aside.

Tempura batter.
Really, any kind of batter would have worked beautifully. Personally, I prefer a  light tempura batter to allow the squeaky freshness of the blossoms to poke through the coating. I'd rather taste the flower than a deep fried thick batter.

Using a heavy stock pot, I warmed 2 cups of vegetable oil over a medium flame.  While the oil heated up, I mixed 1 cup of all purpose Weisenberger Mill unbleached white flour with 1 1/2 cups sparkling water (Pellagrino) and 1 teaspoon salt.

When the oil reached 350 degrees (I used a candy thermometer), I swiped the stuffed blossoms into the batter, let most of the batter drip back into the bowl, and gingerly dropped them into the hot oil. Within 2 minutes, they were lightly browned and crisp. I scooped the fried blossoms onto a clean dish towel to drain and set them aside.

I pulled the chilled squash ribbons from the refrigerator and twirled them onto a large serving platter. After splashing them with fresh lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil, I nestled the fried blossoms over the ribbons and tumbled sliced Henkle's Herbs and Heirlooms cherry tomatoes to the side. After a light dusting of flaked sea salt and cracked black pepper, I finished with a restrained scattering of fresh basil.

Bare summer vegetables flaunting a full frontal. Irresistible. Fresh.
While the delicate lemon-kissed ribbons provided bright snappy crispness, the cheese-filled blossoms added sexy deep fried shattering crunch. Perfect. Funny, the cheese didn't drip or ooze like traditional stuffed blossoms. It melted into the petals and infused them with an intense concentrated cheese flavor that crackled like lighter-than-air fancy cheese puffs.

A happy accidental win.

Fabulous.






Friday, June 13, 2014

Eat Your Peas

I was never a fussy eater. I'd eat anything that anyone shoved in front of me. I was the he'll-eat-anything-kid. And I did. "Can I have your pickle?"  "You really don't want your tomato?" "I'll take your corn." Hell, I didn't care. I was too happy to be proud or embarrassed. Aside from 7-Eleven Slurppies and barbecued potato chips, I lived for vegetables. Vegetables of any kind. Growing up in Europe and Africa, Frau Olga spoiled me with her Czechoslovakian/Hungarian/Austrian take on vegetables while Ababa pushed my naive buttons with her exotic Ethiopian spin. Long before we settled onto my grandparent's farm in Western Kentucky to enjoy the bounty of fresh vegetables from their enormous garden, most of my vegetables came from frozen TV dinners. You see, my father jumped on the frozen TV bandwagon. Totally smitten with them, he fell for the concept hook, line, and sinker.  They weren't swank or fancy, but for a single military father, they were convenient and quick. As seen on TV, we even ate them directly from the wobbly compartmental aluminum trays. Americana. Living the dream in a living commercial. I adored frozen TV dinners. What wasn't to love? Just like those multi-pack waxed-paper lined individually boxed cereal sets, the selection seemed infinite. Lined up and stacked in the freezer like books in a library, we had choices. For a kid, that was fairly heady. Although I wasn't picky, I gravitated toward the frozen blocks that offered little fruit pie triangles and peas. I understood what happened to TV dinners in the oven. I might not have been able to figure out basic mathematical equations in school or diagram sentences on a chalk board in front of my classmates, but I knew that when a frozen dinner bubbled away long enough in an oven, the sticky pie fillings would eventually spill over into the peas and mix with the buttered instant mashed potatoes. Savory and sweet. Heaven. Thanks to Swanson and Banquet, I fell in love with peas. Pea boy.

One summer, midway through my unfortunate stint in summer school (see above) between the fourth and fifth grades, I stopped eating peas. Thinking back, I'm not sure why. Out of the blue, I simply stopped. Nobody understood my folly. I said no to the peas and no to my military father. Bad move. So, for weeks, on frozen pea nights  (in true Leave It To Beaver fashion), I had to sit at the table for hours and stare at my aluminum tray until I finished my peas. I was stubborn. Knowing bedtime would eventually rear its ugly head, I never finished them. Ever. In reality, I might have missed the eschewed peas, but my little game was fun in a weird sort of way. Without fanfare, my resolve weakened. Other desires (paper routes, dolls, slurppies, backyard clubhouses, and puppies) seemed like more important battles to mount. After a few stubborn weeks, my rebellion waned, I once again embraced my frozen peas, and I never looked back

To this day, I'm still a pea fanatic. And, I'm still not picky. Canned, frozen, split, dried, pureed, or mashed, I love them all. In my little world, all peas are created equal. That said, fresh English garden peas are game changers. They can be elusive, though. Over the years, I don't recall ever seeing them at our local farmers' market. I'm sure that if I had seen any, I would have melted like a frozen dinner. Recently, that changed. Even though I've learned to expect the unexpected when I browse the farmers' market, I was shocked  when I stumbled across a  basket of fresh English peas (shell out peas) from Stonehedge Farm. They were dainty, small, and delicate. Mistaken for snap peas, I almost overlooked them. When I realized what they were, I melted.
Pea puddle.

Game on.
Petits Pois a la Francaise (Sauteed Peas and Lettuce).
Except for shelling a few pounds of fresh peas, I'm not sure anything could be simpler than this emerald green take on early summer peas.

Snap. Tear. Scoop. Repeat. Shelling peas has a natural rhythm and flow. Snap the end, tear the string down the side, and scoop the peas into a bowl. Like snapping green beans in a rocking chair on a warm summer day, shelling peas can be wonderfully relaxing.

 After ripping open a paper bag filled with 2 1/2 pounds of fresh English peas, I easily and methodically dispatched the shells.

I cranked a heavy cast iron skillet over a medium flame and added 2 tablespoons of butter. When the butter started to sizzle, I added tiny round slivers of Paw Paw Plantation green onions. Just before the butter browned, I tumbled 2 cups of shelled peas into the butter and sauteed them for 4 minutes before splashing  them white wine to create puffs of steam to soften the peas. After seasoning the peas with sea salt and cracked white pepper, I added an additional 2 tablespoons of butter, let the butter melt into the peas, and pulled the skillet from the flame before tossing  them with loosely torn leaves of Elmwood Stock Farm butterhead lettuce and red leaf lettuce.

Before the lettuces completely wilted from the heat, I scooped the peas into a small bowl and finished with snipped chives.

Here's the deal. Fresh peas pop. Not only did these peas pop, they exploded. Tender and sweet, they retained a slight bite back quality that reminded me I was eating something special, real, and farm fresh. The real deal. And lettuce? Yep. Layers. Flavors. Textures. Nestled into the tiny pea bombs, the slightly wilted lettuces added a soft wet crunch that countered the intense buttery sweetness of the garden fresh peas. Balance.

Summer peas with lettuce.

Simple.
Fresh.
Perfect.