Last year, as part of my first attempt at vegetable gardening at home, I planted a couple of seedlings of zucchini, hoping for a bountiful reward. To my dismay, the flood of zucchini that I was expecting never materialized. I know that such flooding happens -- to other people:
I was still cheerful two days later when I brought in the day's nineteen squash. And then thirty-three more over the next week...
Could they design an automobile engine that runs on zucchini?
It didn't help that other people were trying to give them to us. One day we came home from some errands to find a grocery sack of them hanging on our mailbox. The perpetrator, of course, was nowhere in sight.
“Wow,” we all said --“what a good idea!”
Garrison Keillor says July is the only time of year when country people lock our cars in the church parking lot, so people won't put squash on the front seat. I used to think that was a joke.
-- Barbara Kingsolver, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
A grocery sack filled with zucchini hanging on my mailbox sounds good to me. I am not sure what quantities Kingsolver and Keillor are talking about here, but I cannot think of a reason for turning down zucchini. So if you have extra, just let me know and I will be more than happy to relieve you of your burden.
Of course, version two of my vegetable garden has a few plants of zucchini. However, with a single exception (see below), they are still meditating on their future performance in terms of production. A harvest that grows exponentially by the week like the one described above does not seem to be lying in wait for me.
If they are in season when I visit my hometown of Perugia, my mother prepares zucchine for me, sliced and cooked in a pan. I like to sprinkle grated parmigiano over my portion of zucchini, a combination about which I will talk more in just a moment.
I love zucchini with their mother flower still attached, and when I see them at the Farmers' Market I place some in my basket. If you do the same, make sure you consume them before long, since the blossom -- ethereal, ephemeral element of the zucchini life cycle -- is quite perishable. I add blossoms to risotto, pasta sauces or zucchini frittata. However, the recent detection in my vegetable garden of a baby squash with the gossamer blossom -- one, single -- attached inspired me to explore a new path.
A few months ago, on a food blog that I visit regularly called Finding La Dolce Vita, I read about making parmigiano baskets. I stored the image somewhere in my memory and, from wherever it was parked, the image came back to the foreground while I was contemplating the product of my garden. In a recent column, I acknowledged my lack of artistic skills when it comes to food presentation. With that in mind, choosing to make something that is supposed to look pretty was a daring move. However, it is important to challenge the status quo, and so I tried.
To make the baskets, grated parmigiano can be melted in a frying pan or in the oven. I prefer to take the oven-route over the pan-route, and make more than one basket at a time. I would not try to make more than three or four at a time, as the post-baking phase is delicate and occurs within a narrow time frame. The preparation is not difficult, but it requires a bit of manual precision and undivided attention, so my recommendation is to make the baskets in advance, before you have other things going on in the kitchen.
Use freshly-grated parmigiano for best flavor. I have a colorful hand grater that I brought back from Italy last year, which is perfect for this task. Pour one tablespoon of parmigiano on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat and, with your fingers, spread it into an even layer, forming a circle of about three inches in diameter. Make two or three more circles, leaving some space between them. A short detour: I am not a gadget-freak, but I love my silicone mat, and in this case it works quite nicely, relieving me of the worry of melted parmigiano sticking on the substrate when I am trying to lift it up with a light hand.
Place the baking sheet in the oven preheated to 350 degrees F and set the timer to four minutes. The cheese should be bubbly and light golden. Bake a little longer if needed, but make sure the parmigiano does not over-bake, or it will taste bitter. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and allow to cool briefly. While still pliable, lift each circle of parmigiano with a spatula and form it into a basket shape over an upturned shot glass or espresso cup. If something happens and the pliable phase goes by before you can shape the cheese into a basket, leave it flat and serve it as parmigiano crisp. (Been there, done that). Once the baskets are cool, remove them from their support. Wipe the baking mat before preparing another batch of baskets.
Now that you have containers, you can fill them with various morsels -- for example, some cooked zucchini and their blossoms. Beyond the exclamations of visual pleasure, your guest will appreciate the texture and flavor of this combination.
Zucchini can be cooked in every way you can think of: baked, fried, grilled, stuffed, etc. You name it, it can be done with zucchini. At some point, you must choose one way, and choose I did: pan-cooked with garlic and herbs. Generously spray a frying pan with olive oil and warm it up. Finely chop one large or two small cloves of garlic and add to the warm oil. Turn down the heat and let the garlic become fragrant without trespassing into burnt territory (if that happens, throw away everything and start again from scratch). Add half a pound of baby zucchini, blossoms detached (where applicable), sliced crosswise (1/8-1/4-inch thick). If you need to supplement the baby zucchini with bigger ones to reach the weight, halve or quarter the latter lengthwise and then slice them, so the pieces of zucchini are all of similar size.
Add the zucchini to the garlic, turn up the heat to warm through, then turn it down again and cook gently, stirring every so often, until the zucchini are soft to your liking. Gently wash the blossoms, cut open and remove the pistils. If you also have male flowers (the ones without fruit), cut the stem and remove the stamen. Slice the blossoms lengthwise, add to the zucchini during the last couple of minutes and stir. After you turn off the heat, add salt, freshly-ground pepper and slivered basil leaves to taste. You can also try other herbs (dill, marjoram, mint, etc.), singly or in combination. Give a final stir, then place some of the zucchini in each basket, trying to make sure that pieces of blossoms end up on the top, for aesthetic purposes. Serve immediately and enjoy the contrast of textures (crisp baskets versus soft zucchini) and flavors (rich, nutty parmigiano versus mild herb-spiked zucchini).
Parmigiano Baskets with Zucchini and Blossoms
1/2 lb. zucchini, some with blossoms still attached
1 or 2 cloves of garlic
To make the baskets, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Pour 1 tablespoon of parmigiano on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat.
With your fingers, spread it into an even layer, forming a circle of about 3” in diameter.
Repeat 2-3 times, leaving some space between each circle.
Bake for 4 minutes, until the cheese is bubbly and light golden. Bake a little longer, if needed.
Remove the baking sheet from the oven and allow to cool briefly.
Lift each circle of parmigiano with a spatula and form it into a basket shape over an upturned shot glass or espresso cup.
Once cool, remove basket from its support and set aside.
Wipe the baking mat before preparing another batch of baskets.
To prepare the zucchini, generously spray with olive oil a frying pan and heat up.
Finely chop garlic clove(s) and add to the warm oil.
Turn down the heat and let the garlic become fragrant.
Detach blossoms from zucchini.
Wash zucchini and slice crosswise (1/8-1/4” thick).
Halve or quarter bigger zucchini lengthwise, if needed, before slicing, so the pieces of zucchini are all of similar size.
Add zucchini to the pan, turn up the heat to warm through, then turn down again and cook over gentle heat, stirring every so often, until the zucchini are soft to your liking.
Gently wash the blossoms, cut open and remove the pistils (assuming female flowers).
Slice the blossoms lengthwise and add to the zucchini during the last couple of minutes.
Turn off the heat, add salt, freshly-ground pepper and slivered basil leaves to taste and stir.
Spoon some of the cooked zucchini in each basket.
Serve and enjoy.