Your Italian-American Gardening Tips (with Recipes ) – Tomatoes, Zucchini, Italian Beans, Brussels Sprouts, Swiss Chard

Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! Now that we are in late August, I am happy to report my harvest of tomatoes, zucchini and Italian beans is in full swing.  I planted my tomatoes late this year, and if the weather holds up I hope to continue to harvest until late September.

My zucchini plants have run into a bit of trouble. But luckily, I found a wonderful website to help out, which I will share.  I will also include tips from the same website for tomato problems that manifest this time of year.

Also, looking to the fall, my volunteer Brussels sprouts plants have survived from last year and have started to make side sprouts! I planted Swiss chard in the border of my garden and the plants are struggling right now, but still have plenty of time to come into their own.

Some of you may have already seen the Instagram posts  of my garden and the dishes I’ve been making with my fresh tomatoes and zucchini.  I will post the links and include the recipes after the update on how each section of my garden is growing.

As I have mentioned in my previous Your Italian-American Gardening Tips blogs, this year I have been focusing on my raised gardens, and all the wonderful Italian vegetables that can be grown in the suburbs, even in a small space.

My hope is that you will enjoy the tips I’ve learned about gardening through many years of experience and be encouraged to start an Italian garden yourself — be it large or small, in a yard or on your porch, or even indoors in pots near a sunny window — after reading the blogs in this series “Your Italian Gardening Tips.”  

Check out my Instagram account, ConversationalItalian.French to see photos of my garden as it progresses.

Below are my insights on growing and harvesting lettuce, zucchini and their flowers and “new potatoes,” along with recipe ideas.  And an update on growing tomatoes is here also, with recipes soon to follow!  

And remember the Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books on Amazon.com and Learn Travel Italian.com if you want an easy, step-by-step way to learn the Italian of today. Free Cultural Notes, Italian Recipes, and Audio to help you practice your Italian are also found on Learn Travel Italian.com.

 

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The Continuing Saga of San Marzano Tomatoes

Summer 2020

If you’ve been following this blog series, you already know that year I tried growing several different varieties of tomatoes in several different places in my back yard in the Chicago suburbs.  For the first time, I obtained seeds for San Marzano tomatoes and started them indoors before transplanting them into a raised garden bed and two large pots.  Please see my previous blogs for more information about growing tomatoes from seed and the best conditions to plant tomatoes. 

So, how are  my San Marzano tomatoes doing?  I’m happy to report that my plants have flowered and I now have tomatoes that will soon ripen But, you’ll notice from the photo below that the tomato plants in the far west side of the bed have grown out nicely, although those on the eastern side, just a few feet away, have lagged behind.  I am not sure why. But  I believe the problem is the plants were too weak when I transplanted them into the bed and they were not hardened off properly to the harsh Midwest summer sunlight. Lesson learned. Next year I will buy a grow light for the seedlings so that my plants are strong enough when it comes time to transplant. (Note: the plants in the center are eggplant. San Marzano tomatoes are on the perimeter of the bed.)

raised garden bed shows San Marzano tomato plants in the perimeter, with the larger plants in the back of the image. Marigolds in the perimeter and eggplant plants in the center.
San Marzano Tomato plants growing in the perimeter of a raised garden with marigolds. (Eggplant plants in the center).

 

The San Marzano tomato plants in pots are producing tomatoes as well, and have grown up a bit, but the plants are still not as full as I would have liked. These tomato plants are in the shade about half the day, which could account for the lack of growth, although they are a bit larger than some in the raised garden bed. This should be encouraging for those who do not have much outdoor space but want to grow some fresh tomatoes.

San Marzano tomatoes growing in a terracotta pot outdoors.
San Marzano tomatoes growing in a terracotta pot outdoors.

 

The surprise for me was how well my volunteer tomato plants have done. I call them “volunteers” because they grew up in the lettuce and pea/green bean patch on their own, from seeds left in the ground after last years’ crop.  They started out late and originally were much smaller than the tomatoes I bought from the gardening store (not shown in this blog).  Yet they are now about as big and producing tomatoes, even in the raised bed that is in the shade for about half the day. If you look closely in the photo below, you can just barely make out the tomato plants with their spiral steak and orange string.

Volunteer tomato plants growing in the raised bed with the Italian beans
Volunteer tomato plants growing in the raised bed with the Italian beans

 

So far, I have been able to harvest heirloom and cherry tomato seedlings that I bought from the gardening store (not pictured) and these plants are still producing. The only problem I’ve had with any of my tomato plants so far was during a period of heavy rain, when a few split their skin, as I noted in the previous blog. I’ve also found a half-eaten tomato in my bed. Not sure what critter did this, but I have not seen any slugs, so am thinking it was birds or a small mammal. Usually the marigolds I plant in the perimeter and the egg shells I sprinkle around the plants keep detrimental insects and slugs away from my tomato plants.

Partially eaten tomato in raised garden bed
Critter partially ate my nice, ripe tomato!

 

Now, it is very hot and dry so I have been watering my garden about every other day.  I’ve read it is best to water in the morning so that the water can evaporate and mold does not set in and kill off the tomato leaves.  I found this blog  Troubleshooting Tomato Problems, on the website http://www.gardeners.com, with some very helpful tips and lots of pictures that I am keeping for future reference.

 

 

If you’ve tried growing tomatoes this summer, I’d love to hear what part of the world you live in and what your experience has been like.  Do you have any tips for handling tomato problems?

 

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Pasta with Fresh Tomato and Basil Sauce Recipe

Last year, I used my garden tomatoes to make a wonderful cold caprese salad and a hot tomato and zucchini side dish . This summer, I’ve been making one pan pasta dishes and posting them on Instagram.

The recipe for my favorite fresh tomato and basil “sauce” is below.  As I noted in the introduction on my Instagram post, when I first tasted angel hair pasta tossed with gently cooked tomatoes and fresh basil in Northern Italy, it was a revelation to me just how good a pasta dish can be.  I think this is the same dish that the Stanley Tucci character, Chef Primo makes for his girlfriend in the movie “Big Night.” After tasting this dish he says something like, “You see?  To eat food like this is to be close to God!”

Primo may be exaggerating… but in my mind, only a little bit. Try this simple method yourself at home, with just-picked, ripe tomatoes and basi and extra-virgin olive oil and I am sure you will agree!

If you’d like to watch me as I cook this one pan pasta dish, here is the link on Instagram:

 

 

Bow-Tie Pasta with Fresh Tomato and Basil Sauce

 

 

Ingredients: 

1/4 cup olive oil
3-4 cloves of garlic
4 garden-ripened tomatoes
1 bunch of freshly picked basil
1 lb. box bow-tie pasta
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Method: 

  1. Set a pot of water on the stove to boil  for the bow-tie pasta. When the water has boiled, add salt, cover and bring to a boil again. Uncover when boiling.
  2. Chop the tomatoes and prepare garlic by removing skin and crushing with a large knife. Have fresh basil picked and rinsed nearby.
  3. Add the pasta to the boiling water and then start to make the sauce.  You will have to keep an eye on the pasta while cooking the sauce, stirring and checking until the pasta is al-dente.
  4. Pour the olive oil into a large pan with high sides. Add the garlic to the olive oil and let cook a couple of minutes on medium heat to flavor the olive oil, but don’t let brown.
  5. Reduce the heat to low. Add the chopped tomatoes and their juices to the pan and cook very gently for just a few minutes, so tomatoes soften but hold their shape.
  6. Remove the garlic.
  7. Off heat, shred a few basil leaves and mix into the tomatoes in the pan .
  8. Drain the pasta and add to the tomato and basil sauce.  Mix gently and serve immediately, with freshly grated Parmesan cheese on the side.

 

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Another of my favorite one pan pasta dishes that uses fresh tomatoes, this time paired with eggplant, is called “Pasta alla Norma.”  I tried this dish when in Sicily last year and loved it so much I made it this summer. Click on the Instagram post for the method and to watch me cook!

 

View this post on Instagram

One pan pasta is penne with eggplant for Thursday night! This pasta dish is known as “Pasta alla Norma.” I had this dish in Sicily with the eggplant skin on, but I always peel the skin of the eggplants I buy in the US as the skin of eggplants here seems tough and bitter to me. Recipe: start with about 1/3 cup olive oil. Add 1 small chopped onion, 2 cloves of garlic, chopped, and 1 medium size eggplant peeled and chopped (about 2 cups chopped eggplant), couple of pinches of salt and pepper. White pepper is nice if you have it. Cook over medium heat until eggplant softens but do not let brown. Add 1 cup dry white wine and a few leaves of hand torn basil. Cook on high heat to reduce wine by half. Add 28 oz. chopped crushed canned tomatoes and cook over medium low heat to let flavors blend for 10-15 min. Cook pasta in salted water until al dente. Reserve one cup of pasta water. Drain pasta and add pasta and a bit of pasta water to sauce. Mix and add more pasta water if needed. Add about 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan. Mix again and serve with Parmesan on the side. Enjoy with crusty bread dipped in olive oil! #osnap #eggplant #pastaandeggplant #pastaandeggplantsauce #pastaandeggplants #onepanmeal #onepanmeals #onepanpasta #onepanpastachallenge #onepanpastarecipes #onepandinners #onepanrecipe #onepanrecipes #onepanmeal #eggplantandpasta #pastaallanorma @niaf @osia_su @real.food.for.infants.toddlers @chicagolanditalians @rossellarago

A post shared by Kathryn Occhipinti (@conversationalitalian.french) on

 

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The Zucchini Harvest and Zucchini Pests

As I’ve discussed in the fist blog in this series, “Zucchini, Tomatoes, Strawberries and More!” this spring I started zucchini from seed in my backyard in three separate mounds  I reserved the third mound in the back for the cucuzza plant, a very long gourd that matures in the summer and is eaten like a zucchini. I’ve already written about cucuzza in last year’s blog: Oregano and Zucchini.

In the blog earlier this month, Zucchini Flowers, New Potatoes, and Tomatoes, I showed this image below of how far the plants had come along by July 31st.

 

The three zucchini mounds are no longer visible, covered in zucchini plants that are flowering
Zucchini plants flowering on July 3

 

I have harvested many zucchini, despite pilfering many, many zucchini flowers for my favorite hot appetizer in the summer, fried zucchini flowers.  If you are interested, the method is in my previous blog.   The bees have been happily pollinating my zucchini flowers all summer, flitting from one plant to the next, which is necessary to fertilize the flowers and grow zucchini. Unfortunately, I recently discovered that another pest was hard at work to destroy my zucchini plants, even though they looked very healthy.

To make a long story short, squash vines are hollow, and the the base of a zucchini plant is the  perfect place for the squash-vine borer to lay eggs. The eggs then hatch into larvae that live inside the vine and eventually destroy the main stem and kill the entire plant. Below is a close-up photo of what one of my main zucchini vine looks like because of this pest.  Other vines have turned brown and dried up completely.

Luckily, several zucchini plants did survive and are not growing healthy vines and producing flowers outside the garden bed, as in the photo that follows. And since all the eggs have hatched by now, this pest should not be providing any more problems.

Next year I will have to check for the tell-tale signs of eggs and remove the larvae before it can do any damage.  For more information on how to control this pest, check out this blog Squash vine borer from the very helpful website, http://www.gardeners.com.

Zucchini with evidence of squash vine borer. The vine has turned brown and dried out and has brownish debree.
Zucchini with evidence of squash vine borer

 

Late summer zucchini plants have healthy, large, leaves, but are growing outside of the garden.
Late summer zucchini plants growing outside the garden

 

Meanwhile, the cucuzza zucchini, known for their exceptionally long vines and long gourds, have predictably grown out of their original garden mound.  I’ve trained them to grow behind the mound into a bit of space I have by the raised garden bed.  I assume they will continue to grow along the raised garden bed and onto the grass in a month’s time!

Cucuzza vine growing in back of original mound, along raised garden bed
Cucuzza vine growing in back of original mound, along raised garden bed

 

If you’ve tried growing zucchini this summer, I’d love to hear what part of the world you live in and what your experience has been like.  Do you have any tips for handling tomato problems?

 

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Pasta with Fresh Tomatoes and Zucchini  Recipe

Last summer, I posted a one pan pasta dish with tomatoes and zucchini on Instagram.  The method is similar to the one pan pasta dish Angel Hair Pasta with Fried Zucchini  that I posted in my last blog.  The addition of fresh tomatoes and basil adds another dimension to the flavor of the zucchini. And remember, freshly grated Parmesan cheese is essential to this dish! Watch me on Instagram and then try the recipe yourself!

Bow-Tie Pasta with Zucchini, Tomatoes and Basil 

 

 

Ingredients: 

1/4 cup olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 -3 medium-sized zucchini
4 garden-ripened  plum tomatoes
1 bunch of freshly picked basil
1 lb. box bow-tie pasta
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Method: 

  1. Set a pot of water on the stove to boil  for the bow-tie pasta. When the water has boiled, add salt, cover and bring to a boil again. Uncover when boiling.
  2. Pour the olive oil into a large pan with high sides. Add the chopped garlic to the olive oil and then the zucchini. Cook over medium heat, stirring, so the vegetables soften but don’t burn.
  3. Add the tomatoes and a few leaves of hand -torn basil. Salt to taste.
  4. Cover pan and cook vegetables to further soften.  Add a few laddles of pasta water as needed so vegetables do not dry out.
  5. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook pasta while the sauce finishes cooking.
  6. Drain the pasta (reserving pasta water) and add to the tomato and basil sauce.  Mix gently.
  7. Add pasta water as needed. Add the Parmesan cheese.
  8. Serve immediately, with freshly grated Parmesan cheese on the side.

 

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Italian Beans

I’ve posted about planting Italian beans on Instagram, and from the image above of the bean plants growning with the tomatoes in my raised bed you can see how nicely they’ve grown. Beans need to be planted when the soil is warm, in mid summer, and this was perfect for me since the spring peas and broccoli rabe in my partially shaded garden bed had died out and I had the space.  I planted two types, Roma and Borlotto.  And had my first harvest of the Roma beans last week.

I read that the beans will keep producing as long as they are picked.  I am looked forward to fresh green beans at least once a week.  I like to cook my Roma beans with… you guessed it — olive oil, a little chopped onion, pinch of garlic and some fresh tomatoes on the stove top. There is also a tradition of cooking these beans for a very long time until they melt in your mouth, but I think I will reserve this method for the store-bought beans. I am sure the Borlotto beans will be wonderful on their own or with… pasta, of course!

First harvest Roma beans in a collander
First harvest Roma beans
Borlotto beans still growing
Borlotto beans still growing in the garden

 

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Volunteer Brussels Sprouts

 

Looking ahead to fall, it seems that one of my volunteer Brussels sprouts plant has grown up nicely in the corner of my garden, and is making new sprouts along the stem.  These sprouts are wonderful when homegrown, as one can wait until the first frost and then harvest when they are sweet. I was happy to have this plant survive last year’s winter and re-grow, as this year there were no Brussels sprouts seedlings to be found in the gardening shop in my neighborhood.

Brussels Sprouts plant
“Volunteer” Brussels Sprouts plant growing happily in a corner of a raised garden bed

 

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Swiss Chard 

Finally, the Swiss chard seeds I planted in the perimeter of my zucchini patch (remember the chart I drew at the beginning of the season?) have been struggling.  Next year, they will certainly have their own bed, as they in this location they have been crushed and light-deprived due to the zucchini growing way outside their mounds.  I also like to grow the cavolo nero (Italian “black cabbage”or kale) that has become so popular in restaurants recently, but was not able to find the seeds this year.  We will see if the Swiss chard is able to take off once the zucchini die back.  In the past, I’ve kept these plants well into the fall.

 

Swiss Chard seedling dwarfed by a cucuzza zucchini plant.
Swiss Chard seedling dwarfed by a cucuzza zucchini plant.

 

 

 

For more (many more!) ideas about how to use those fresh tomatoes this summer, visit my Instagram at Conversationalitalian.french

 

Your Italian-American Gardening Tips (with Recipes ) – Zucchini Flowers, New Potatoes, and Tomatoes

The author in her kitchen holding a bowl of fried zucchini flowers ad fried zucchini rounds
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! Now that it is early August I am happy to report I am starting to harvest my favorite Italian vegetables: zucchini with their flowers and tomatoes. And I’ve harvested the last of my “new potatoes” and used them to make an easy Monday night dinner.

Some of you may have already seen the Instagram posts  of my garden and the dishes I’ve been making with my fresh lettuce and vegetables.  I will post the links and include the recipes after the update on how each section of my garden is growing.

As I have mentioned in my previous Your Italian-American Gardening Tips blogs, this year I have been focusing on my raised gardens, and all the wonderful Italian vegetables we can grow, even in a small space.

My hope is that you will enjoy the tips I’ve learned about gardening through many years of experience and be encouraged to start an Italian garden yourself — be it large or small, in a yard or on your porch, or even indoors in pots near a sunny window — after reading the blogs in this series “Your Italian Gardening Tips.”  

Check out my Instagram account, ConversationalItalian.French to see photos of my garden as it progresses.

Below are my insights on growing and harvesting lettuce, zucchini and their flowers and “new potatoes,” along with recipe ideas.  And an update on growing tomatoes is here also, with recipes soon to follow!  

And remember the Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books on Amazon.com and Learn Travel Italian.com if you want an easy, step-by-step way to learn the Italian of today. Free Cultural Notes, Italian Recipes, and Audio to help you practice your Italian are also found on Learn Travel Italian.com.

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Planting a Lettuce Patch…

and Harvesting – Part 3!

When I last wrote, on June 21, 2020, my blog “Four Salads for Summer Days” focused on the lettuce patch that I had started from seed this spring.  Just a quick update on the lettuce before we proceed with my report on the new vegetables…

Now that the hot days of summer are upon us, the lettuce has “bolted” or “gone to seed.” This means that a long stem grows up from the center of the lettuce — very quickly, I might add, usually in a couple of days — and if not cut down will continue to form flowers, after which point the plant dies.

This year,  I planted my lettuce in the raised bed that gets sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon, which I believe helped lengthen the life of the plants.  Also, I discovered that if I cut the center stem from the lettuce near its base, but leave the plant in the ground, the plant’s core will re-grow and provide new lettuce leaves to harvest!  So, I have been enjoying lettuce well into the writing of this blog, early August, despite 90+ degree temperatures.  Romaine lettuce is said to be more “heat tolerant” than other varieties, and this is what has survived, along with two varieties of red leaf lettuce.

Below are photos from the lettuce patch in late July.

Romaine lettuce going to seed
Romaine lettuce with central stalk going to seed.
Regrowing curly leaf lettuce
Curly leaf lettuce is regrowing alongside the Romaine lettuce going to seed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Center stalks cut off lettuce going to seed
Lettuce going to seed, some with center stalks cut off

I even had enough Romaine lettuce to make a special July 4th Salad with watermelon, feta cheese, and balsamic vinegar.

 

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Harvesting Zucchini Flowers

Last May, in my blog “Zucchini, Tomatoes, Strawberries and More!” I reported on how to plant zucchini seeds in mounds for successful fertilization to maximize a zucchini crop.  I planted three types of Italian zucchini seeds in three separate mounds.  I reserved the third mound in the back for the cucuzza plant, a very long gourd that matures in the summer and is eaten like a zucchini. I’ve already written about cucuzza in last year’s blog: Oregano and Zucchini.

Actually, I planted too many zucchini seeds in each mound this year, because I wanted to be sure to have enough zucchini flowers to harvest for my post on fried zucchini flowers!  Check out the images below to see how they have grown in the short time from mid June to early July.

Three mounds of soil with young zucchini plants growning
Zucchini mounds June 10, with cucuzza in the back on the right
Larger zucchini plants
Zucchini mounds end of June 22. Notice the cucuzza, back right, take a longer time to germinate and grow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The three zucchini mounds are no longer visible, covered in zucchini plants that are flowering
Zucchini plants flowering on July 3

 

So, by July 3 I had zucchini flowers on the plant in the front mound, which was planted with seeds from Italy called “le bizzarre zucchino,”  said to be prized for the flower more than the zucchini.  I waited a few more weeks to allow some to be pollinated and start to make zucchinis.  By that time, my other zucchini plant had also started to flower. Then I clipped a good number of zucchini flowers to make fried, stuffed flowers.

 

large yellow zucchini flower open and two more closed
“Le bizzarre” Zucchino flowers end of July

Clip zucchini flowers when they are closed (usually early morning and late afternoon/evening). Take a bit of the stem along with the flower to make it easier to work with them. Ants and bees sometimes get trapped if they are caught sipping nectar when the flowers close in the latter part of the day, so be careful! My favorite are the flowers that have a small zucchini growing off the base of the flower. They are easy to hold and provide two treats! Check out my method below. These are delicious with any one of three different types of stuffing, or none at all.

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Fried Zucchini Flower Appetizers

The author in her kitchen holding a bowl of fried zucchini flowers ad fried zucchini rounds
Fried zucchini flowers and Fried Zucchini

Ingredients: 

For the stuffing:   

1/4 cup breadcrumbs,  1-2 anchovy fillets, fresh, finely chopped parsley
-or-
mozzarella cheese, cut into small cubes, anchovy fillets
-or-
mozzarella cheese cut into small cubes

For the batter:
1 cup of  cold water
3/4 cup of flower + 1/4 cup more as needed

Method: 

  1. First, prepare a simple batter of water and flour.  This is called “la pastella” in Italian, and is used to obtain a thin, crisp crust for frying vegetables. The secret to the best crust is to let the batter sit for 1 hour so the gluten in the flour has time to “relax,” although this is not absolutely necessary.
  2. I like to get started with 1 cup of cold water and 3/4 cups of flower.  I sift the flower into the water gradually while whisking gently to combine. The final batter should not be too thin or too thick, something like pancake batter.  If the batter is too thin, I gradually add more flour, but no more than an additional 1/4 cup.  Let the batter rest 1 hour while preparing the zucchini, and during this time it will thicken a bit as well.
bowl with flour in a sifter above water, ready to be mixed into the water
Making a simple flour and water batter (la pastella)

 

 

  1. Next, prepare the zucchini flower stuffing if desired.  The flowers can also be fried without stuffing, and I usually don’t attempt to stuff the smaller flowers.  A favorite stuffing is 1/4 cup of breadcrumbs with an anchovy and some chopped parsley, fried briefly in olive oil until lightly brown.  Mozzarella cubes are also delicious when stuffed into a zucchini flower and melt during frying, with or without a small bit of anchovy fillet.

  2. Finally, prepare, stuff and fry the zucchini flowers.  Gently rinse each flower and trim off the greenery at the base.  Gently open each flower and reach inside to remove the stamen (the long, powdery protrusion with yellow pollen) to allow more room for the stuffing. Also, the stamen can be bitter with some varieties of zucchini.  Add a bit of stuffing and then twist gently to close the tip of the flower.

 

tray of zucchini flowers lined up waiting to be stuffed. One flower is being opened just before stuffing is put in.
Stuffing zucchini  flowers with mozzarella, anchovies, or breadcrumb mixture

 

 

  1. Fry the zucchini flowers in a large pan of oil over medium high heat.  Adjust the heat as you are frying so that the flowers sizzle as they cook but do not allow the oil to become too hot and burn the batter.  Turn once or twice so all sides fry evenly. Generally, when the batter takes on a light golden color it is cooked.  If the mozzarella melts it may start to seep out of the flower, and this is also a sign to remove the flower from the oil.

  2. Remove each fried zucchini flower with a slotted spoon to a plate covered with a paper towel.  After the oil has drained a bit, and while still hot, remove to another plate and sprinkle with salt.

  3. If you do have some zucchinis available to fry, you can cut them in mounds or strips and fry these in the same batter, in the same way, drain, and salt.

8.  Serve hot and enjoy as the perfect summer appetizer before an Italian meal!

 

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Angel Hair Pasta with Fried Zucchini

This is a favorite family zucchini dish my mother recently remembered from her childhood.  So simple to make, with just zucchini, olive oil and garlic, and so delicious! It is a great way to use some of the many zucchini that should follow the zucchini flowers.  Watch this method in real time by clicking the link from my Instagram account:

 

Ingredients: 

2-3 cloves of garlic, sliced
1-2 zucchini, sliced cross-wise
olive oil for frying
1 lb. thin spaghetti or angel hair pasta
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Method: 

  1. Set a pot of water on the stove to boil  for the thin spaghetti or angel hair pasta.
  2. Cover the bottom of a large frying pan with olive oil and heat over medium heat.
  3. Add the garlic to the olive oil and let cook a couple of minutes to flavor the olive oil, but don’t let brown.
  4. Add the zucchini to the olive oil a little at a time, so as not to crowd the pan, and fry over medium to medium-high heat, turning once or twice. At first it will seem like the zucchini are not cooking much, but they will then start to lose water, shrink, and finally turn a light brown. Remove with a slotted spoon to a serving bowl.
  5. Remove the garlic when it turns brown and continue to fry zucchini.
  6. When almost all the zucchini has been fried, cook the pasta.
  7. Add the cooked pasta to the bowl with the fried zucchini.  Add a bit of the oil from the frying pan and mix to coat.
  8. Add freshly grated Parmesan cheese to taste, and mix again. Enjoy!

 

 

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Pulling New Potatoes

This  past spring, I found several potatoes in the back of my cupboard that had started to grow eyes, so I tried something new.  I cut up the potatoes so each piece had an eye and buried  the pieces in large pots outdoors, with the eyes facing upward.  I was hoping to grow some “new potatoes,”  which are simply potatoes that are pulled to eat before they flower and become mature in the fall.  They are, of course, smaller than the  mature potatoes but have an exceptionally good flavor. 

I have to say, the potatoes grew nicely in the pots through the spring and even into the early summer without any help at all from me.  Below is the Instagram video I created when I pulled the last of the “new potatoes” for a Monday night pork chop dinner.  If you look closely you can still see the chunk of “old potato” that I started with. 

They were so delicious that night for dinner that next year I plan to plant many more to have a continual harvest through the springtime.

 

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Monday Night Pork Chops with New Potatoes

and Radish Greens

Below is an Instagram link to a simple dinner I made in two frying pans.  Pork chops in olive oil with garlic and rosemary (my favorite way to make them) in one pan and radish greens in olive oil and garlic for the second pan. The bitter radish greens went beautifully with the pork chops. The new potatoes were so flavorful all they needed was a quick boil in water. 

 

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And, Finally,  Growing and Harvesting Tomatoes!

I think every Italian gardener cherishes the appearance of the first ripening tomato more than any other vegetable they are growing.  I was very careful this year to follow proper procedures while planting my tomatoes, especially the San Marzano tomatoes I had grown from seed.  Please see my previous blogs for more information about growing tomatoes from seed and the best conditions to plant tomatoes. 

Once planted, it is a good idea to steak tomato plants, making sure to tie the main stem loosely as it grows. For cherry tomato plants I use a tomato cage, as they tend to have more greenery, but this year I also put a steak in the middle of the cage as the plants became larger in an attempt to tie up the branches and lift them off the ground.

As the tomato plants grew, I followed protocol and pinched off the side shoots, or “suckers” that grow between the main stem and the main branches on many types of tomato plants. ( This included all I had planted this year except the cherry tomato plants.) Pinching off side shoots should allow my plants to direct their energy into producing more tomatoes.  In previous years, I was always concerned that I would mistakenly pinch back a flowering branch, so I created this video to show how to find those “useless” side shoots that create greenery instead of tomatoes.

Tomatoes need full sun and lots of water to thrive — but not too much water! I planted a variety of different tomatoes I had bought from the nursery in a raised garden, and my San Marzano tomatoes in a raised garden and in pots.  All did well, and I was careful to water on the many July days we’ve had this summer that were 90+ degrees.  But just as my nursery tomatoes started to ripen, down came heavy rain.  For several days on end. The very first tomatoes had a split in the skin, an unavoidable problem, but they were delicious just the same.  Below are some images of my early ripened tomatoes.

For my next post in August, I will be focusing on “one pan pasta” dishes with the tomato as the star of the dish.

For now, use your fresh tomatoes to make a wonderful cold caprese salad or a hot tomato and zucchini side dish from recipes I posted last year.  But above all, enjoy your summer and your garden!

Large bowl of sliced tomatoes layered with slices of mozzarella and basil leaves
Tomato, basil and buffalo mozzarella or “Caprese” salad

 

For more (many more!) ideas about how to use those fresh vegetables this summer, visit my Instagram at Conversationalitalian.french

 

Your Italian-American Gardening Tips (with Recipes) – Oregano (Origano) and Zucchini (Zucchina)

Italian-American Gardening tips - herb oregano
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! This week I will share about how to grow the herb oregano and it’s perfect Italian companion zucchini for one of my favorite Italian side-dishes, a simple “stew” of zucchini and tomatoes with onions and oregano.  Even children who don’t like summer squash will love this dish! 

As I’ve mentioned before, this summer I’ve had to start a new garden from scratch now that I have moved to the Chicago suburbs from Peoria. So I thought I would take a few photos and share some of what I’ve come to know about gardening with this series “Your Italian Gardening Tips.” 

For as long as I can remember, both sides of my Italian family have established summer vegetable gardens here in America.  My grandfather was a master gardener, and used knowledge he brought over from Sicily to create his perfect garden in a very small patch of land in Brooklyn, New York.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was busy in the kitchen cooking our favorite meals with the fresh fruits and vegetables that my grandfather grew. She passed down the simple but delicious method for stewing zucchini with tomatoes and oregano to our family here in America.  After reading about how to grow oregano and zucchini,  you can watch me it in action as I cook the dish by clicking the Instagram link if you want!

Check out my Instagram account, ConversationalItalian.French to see photos of my garden as it progresses.

Below are my insights on growing oregano and zucchini.  Please leave a comment if you want. I’d love to hear what you’ve learned about gardening!  

And remember Conversational Italian for Travelers: Just the Important Phrases on Amazon.com and Learn Travel Italian.com if you need a compact, lightweight pocket guidebook to take on your next trip to Italy! Free Cultural Notes, Italian Recipes, and Audio to help you practice your Italian are also found on Learn Travel Italian.com.

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Italian Herb Oregano – Origano

 

Italian-American Gardening tips - herb oregano
Oregano – just getting started growing in my garden

Oregano is a perennial, bush-like plant that is commonly used in tomato salads or combined with zucchini and tomatoes for a vegetable side dish (contorno). In the United States, oregano became popular after World War II, when it was brought back from Italy by American soldiers and became a common addition to tomato sauces in Italian-American households.

Oregano will come up each spring if planted directly in the garden, usually growing a bit larger each year.  Oregano likes sun, but can also grow in partial shade. Trim frequently with kitchen scissors and dry or keep the leaves fresh in the refrigerator on the stalk. Significant amounts of oregano can be harvested early in summer and the plant will regrow. Allow to flower late in the summer.  The plant is cold hardy and can survive a fall or spring frost, but will die back in the winter.  Remove any remaining dead branches in the spring and the plant will grow for another season.

To harvest oregano, cut off the stem with its leaves.  Then, use a small knife or your fingers to run down the length of the stem and remove the small leaves. Discard the stem. To dry,, bundle and hang from the stems upside down.  When dry, remove the leaves from the stems and store in an air-tight container away from heat.

 

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 Italian Summer Squash – Zucchina e Cucuzza

Zucchina is one zucchini in Italian
Two zucchini plants growing side by side in the garden.

Zucchini in English, or zucchina/zucchine in Italian is a summer squash, also known as a marrow.  The immature form of a marrow is called a courgette. The smaller courgettes, which have more flesh and less seeds than the mature summer squash, are used widely in Italian cooking. Zucchini is popular fried, stewed, and even hollowed out and stuffed, and usually served as an appetizer or a side dish.  The zucchini flowers are edible and are often stuffed and fried as an appetizer.

Zucchini can be planted after the last threat of frost is over. Zucchini like well-manured, moist soil and can even grow on a compost heap (from personal experience)! Create a mound of soil and plant 4-6 seeds around the mound so the plants will grow next to one another.  This will encourage pollination by bees, who can easily fly from one flower to the next.

Male zucchini plant
Male zucchini flower on a long stalk from my garden

Zucchini plants come in male and female varieties, although they look identical and have almost identical flowers. However, only the female plant will produce a zucchini, which grows from the base of the female flower itself.  Male flowers will grow on a long, slender stalk.  When the pollen is transferred from the male to the female flower, the zucchini at the base of the female flower will enlarge as the flower slowly becomes smaller and finally dies off.  Some gardeners transfer the pollen from the male to the female flower on the tip of a Q-tip, hoping to ensure a large crop of zucchini fruit, but usually this is not necessary if enough seeds are planted.

For the most flavorful zucchini, harvest when 5-6″ long by cutting them off at the stem. Refrigerate with the short stem intact until ready to use. Be careful to check daily, or a giant zucchini may appear unexpectedly in the garden and most of the flesh will be replaced by seeds! Frequent harvesting will also encourage more female flowers to emerge and in turn this will produce more fruit.

Zucchini leaves are susceptible to fungus, and may turn brownish, but the plant should continue to produce fruit. Slugs and other insects may bore into the stem and cause the leaves to wilt and die. Sprinkling crushed egg shells on the soil may discourage slugs, who don’t like to slide over the shells. Planting zucchini in a different location each year will help to avoid the spread of these diseases to your crop next year.

To cook zucchini, simply cut off the stem and the opposite end and then cut the entire vegetable cross-wise into rounds or lengthwise into sticks or strips.

 

Cucuzza 

Image from www.specialtyproduce.com

A famous long, thin, light green squash that is harvested in the summer from southern Italy and Sicily is known as “cucuzza.”  Cucuzza (pronounced “goo-gooz” in  Sicilian dialect) typically grows from 1 to 3 feet. Unlike a true summer squash, the skin from this squash must be peeled before cooking.  There is a well-known Sicilian proverb that states, “Cucinala come vuoi, sempre cucuzza è!” meaning, “However you cook it, it’s still just squash!” 

Cucuzza is also used as an endearing term for a young girl in a 1950’s Italian novelty song sung by Louis Prima called, “My Cucuzza.”  He sings about the vegetable, Cucuza grows in Italy down on the farm.  It’s something like zucchini flavored with Italian charm… I call my girl cucuzza because she’s as sweet as can be.”  To hear the song sung by Louis Prima in it’s entirety, click this My Cucuzza link.

 

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Zucchini with Tomatoes and Oregano

Stewed zucchini, tomatoes and oregano
Stewed zucchini and tomatoes with fresh oregano and a slice of crusty Italian bread.

Watch the method in time elapse photography as I cook this dish on my Instagram channel by clicking here:

 

Ingredients: 

olive oil, 1 onion, 3 medium-size Zucchini, 6 plum tomatoes, fresh oregano, salt

Method: 

  1. Coarsely chop the onion, zucchini and tomatoes. (See the video for the method to chop these vegetables.)
  2. Pour olive oil into a large frying pan with high sides or a pot large enough to accommodate all the vegetables, heat briefly, and then add the onions and a pinch of salt.
  3. When the onions have softened, and turned clear, add the zucchini. Cover and let zucchini cook on medium heat to soften, stirring occasionally. Do not let zucchini or onions brown.
  4. When zucchini ha softened, add the chopped tomatoes and salt to taste with a few grinds of pepper. Cover and cook over medium heat. If needed, add a little water.
  5. When the tomatoes have softened, add the oregano and cook until the herb has softened.
  6. When all vegetables have softened, but are not mushy, they are done!  The finished vegetable dish should have a little bit of “juice” and can be served in a separate small bowl if wanted.
  7. Serve with Italian bread to “sop up” the juices.

Buon appetito!

 

 

Your Italian-American Gardening Tips (with Recipes) – Basil (Basilico) and Parsley (Prezzemolo)

Basilico, Italian sweet basil from Italy
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! Summer to the Italian-Americans I know means a garden of herbs and vegetables —of  fragrant basil, parsley and pungent tomatoes allowed to ripen in the sun—at the very least!

This summer, I’ve had to start a new garden from scratch now that I have moved to the Chicago suburbs from Peoria. So I thought I would take a few photos and share some of what I’ve come to know about gardening with this series “Your Italian Gardening Tips.” 

For as long as I can remember, both sides of my Italian family have established summer vegetable gardens here in America.  My grandfather was a master gardener, and used knowledge he brought over from Sicily to create his perfect garden in a very small patch of land in Brooklyn, New York.  As a small child, I knew that my fondest memories of summer would begin as I opened the large, decorative, black iron gate to enter what to me was a miraculous place – my grandparent’s a two story attached brick building that had my grandfather’s grape vines growing happily along the only free side.  Out back, there was a small cement landing where the family gathered amid large decorative clay pots of herbs, with a pergola for the ripened grapes to hang from and provide shade, of course!

The rest of my grandfather’s yard was dedicated to all kinds of  vegetables, perfectly staked  in neat rows so that no space was lost on his small plot of land.  I loved picking the fragrant basil, perfectly red, vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh, soft  purple figs to take home. Yes, my grandfather even managed to keep fig trees alive during the cold NYC winters by bundling the branches up a pail and covering them with blankets, just so we could enjoy baskets of fresh figs for the summer.  And enjoy them we did!

Check out my Instagram account, ConversationalItalian.French to see photos of my garden as it progresses.

Below are my insights on growing Basil and Parsley.  Please leave a comment if you want. I’d love to hear what you’ve learned about growing or using these herbs!  

And remember Conversational Italian for Travelers: Just the Important Phrases on Amazon.com and Learn Travel Italian.com if you need a compact, lightweight pocket guidebook to take on your next trip to Italy! Free Cultural Notes, Italian Recipes, and Audio to help you practice your Italian are also found on Learn Travel Italian.com.

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Italian Herb Basil – Basilico

 

Basilico Basil
Ornamental basil with leaves of different sizes and colors

Basil is an annual plant whose leaves are valued for their use in flavoring Italian tomato sauces and in appetizers with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella.

Two of the most famous Italian appetizers are Capresi Salad, from the island of Capri (tomato, mozzarella, basil) and Panzanella Salad (bread, tomato, basil). Fresh basil from the region of Liguria (nearby Genoa) is ground slowly with olive oil, garlic, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese with a marble mortar and pestle to make the famous Pesto Genovese.  To read more about this basil sauce, click on my blog Pesto Genovese Meets American Aquaponic Farming in Chicago

There are many types of basil that can be found growing in Italy and other countries. Italian flat leaf “sweet” basil is most often used in Italian cooking, and the basil from Liguria is said to be the most aromatic and have the most complex flavor.

Basil must be grown from seed each year. Do not sow outdoors, as basil plants are very sensitive to frost. Sow indoors and plant outdoors only when the last threat of frost is over for your region. Basil grows well in containers, but will need bright sunshine, at least in the morning, and almost daily watering; if exposed to sunlight all day, the leaves may wilt, but additional water the plant will quickly recover.

 

Basilico, Italian sweet basil from Italy
Italian “sweet” basil with a broad leaf for cooking

When small, white flowers appears in mid to late summer, pinch back the stem, removing all the flowers, and harvest of the leaves can continue. Otherwise, the plant will go to seed and die.

If a basil stem with a few leaves is cut from the plant and placed in a glass of water on a sunny windowsill, roots will soon develop. When a good root ball has formed, the basil stem can be planted in a small pot of soil and will develop into a larger plant. This is a good way to keep fresh basil available during the winter months.

To harvest basil, pinch off several leaves or pinch off the stem from the top of the plant. Wash the leaves, pat dry, and shred by hand to add to tomato sauces or salads. Southern Italians love the cool flavor of fresh basil, and will top a plate of spaghetti and tomato sauce with freshly torn basil as summertime treat.

To dry basil, harvest the entire plant and either hand upside down from the stem or place in a paper bag. When the leaves have dried, they can be removed. Store leaves whole for best flavor, or crumble. Place in an air-tight container in a cool, dry place.

 

Caprese Salad

Check out my Instagram post if you’d like to see the method for the easy-to-make and delicious Caprese salad, which is said to originate from the island of Capri. The ingredients are the key to this “salad”:  fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes,  soft buffalo mozzarella (from the water buffalo raised in the countryside near Capri, in the Campagna region) and fresh basil leaves.  A touch of sea-salt to bring the juices out of the tomatoes that provide the acid for the “vinaigrette” and a drizzle of your favorite extra-virgin olive oil makes an exquisite summertime treat!

 

 

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Italian Herb Parsley – Prezzemolo

 

Prezzemolo Italian parsley
Italian flat leaf parsley growing in an Italian clay pot

Parsley is a biennial plant whose leaves are valued for their use in flavoring sauces, stews, and salads. Finely chopped parsley is also used in combination with basil and lemon zest in the south of Italy, and is called “gremolata,” which is used in sauces and to top meat dishes. Italian flat leaf parsley is used for cooing; curly leaf parsley is used as a garnish.

Parsley is a hardy plant that will survive into the winter months. If planted in the spring, the plant will grow through the summer and even into the fall and winter, when the temperature falls. Since parsley is a biennial, it will bloom again the next spring, but the second year it will go to seed and die at the end of the season. Replant the third year and the cycle starts again! Parsley needs frequent watering. Pinch off flowers if the plant starts to go to seed too early in the summer.

To harvest parsley, cut the stem with kitchen scissors. Save the fresh stems to bundle with kitchen twine and put in sauces and stews for flavoring. The stems can be saved in the refrigerator for a week, frozen, or dried.

 

Prezzemolo Italian flat leaf parsley
Italian flat leaf parsley

 

Remove the leaves from the stem by running the side of a large knife along the stem. Then lay the leaves out on a chopping board and chop coarsely with a large kitchen knife. Or, for finer chopped parsley bundle together before chopping.

To dry parsley, harvest the entire plant, bundle the stems together, and hand upside down. Or place in a paper bag. When the leaves have dried, they can be removed, crumbled, and stored in an air-tight container.

 

Summer Squash with Parsley

Check out my Instagram post if you’d like to see the method for this easy-to-make side dish that combines fresh parsley with zucchini and yellow summer squash.  A quick saute in a bit of olive oil and the addition of  finely chopped fresh parsley and garlic at the end (called a persillade in French cooking) makes a colorful and delectable side dish for any summertime meal.

 

 

Catnip and gray cat
My cat Gracie protecting her favorite herb!