Your Italian-American Gardening Tips – Growing Tomatoes and Making Caprese and Panzanella Salads

Large bowl of just-picked tomatoes of various sizes and colors in the shade.
Kathryn for learntravelitalian.com
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Learn Travel Italian.com

All Italian gardeners I know spend the summer diligently watering and weeding in eager anticipation of their favorite crop — the tomato. For most of us, the tomato is the reason we create a garden at all. Yes, it is wonderful to grow eggplants, zucchini, and peppers so that these vegetables are a short walk from our kitchen when we need them.  But for those who love fresh tomatoes, there is nothing like a warm, juicy tomato pulled fresh from the vine after ripening in the sun. Tomatoes are a fruit, and those left to ripen to their full potential will have a complex balance of acidity and sweetness. Each variety will have its own subtle variation in flavor.  It is impossible to describe the feeling eating such a delicious fruit brings to one who has only eaten commercially grown store-bought tomatoes, except to say that for many of us it is close to heaven.  

Since I live around the corner from a family-run nursery, I am lucky to find over 20 varieties of tomato plants every spring that are ready to plant. Each of these is listed as determinate (the tomato plant will stop growing after it reaches a certain size) and indeterminate (the tomato plant will not stop growing and will need side stems, a.k.a. “suckers” pruned).  In a previous blog, Your Italian-American Gardening Tips (with Recipes) – Tomatoes, Zucchini… I discussed how to grow tomatoes and gave several tips about what to do if you should run into difficulties.  In a You-Tube Video, I posted about how to prune suckers from an indeterminate tomato plant. Growing Tomato Plants: Pinching off side stems.

Let’s talk a bit more about tomatoes for the end of the summer season this year!

 

“What is the purpose of growing different types of tomatoes?” you may ask. In one of my Instagram posts, I share a picture of the tomatoes I grew this year and list the uses for each.

Four bowls that contain various types of tomatoes and peppers
Recent harvest of different varieties of tomatoes, including plum, pear, and cherry tomatoes. Italian peppers also included in the photo.

In short, we all know that medium to large tomatoes, the largest of which are called “Beefsteak” are great for cutting into slices or wedges and eating on sandwiches, in salads, or just by themselves. Some people like to add a sprinkle of salt or a drizzle of olive oil to their plate of tomato wedges to create the perfect summertime snack. Dried oregano can be added to wedges of tomatoes along with olive oil for a “tomato salad,” with or without red onion.  These tomatoes come in many shades of red, as well as pink, yellow, and even “zebra” yellow and green. The different colored varieties add visual interest to a salad and those other than the bright red tend to have less acidity.

Plum tomatoes are fleshier than other tomatoes and have less juice. These are the tomatoes that undergo processing to create tomato paste. San Marzano plum tomatoes from the region around Naples are the most sought-after plum tomatoes.

Cherry tomatoes are a favorite of mine because they ripen early and produce tomatoes all through the summer and into the fall. They are a great snack for eating out of hand and are wonderful to add to lettuce salads as they are already bite-size and will not loose their juices and soften the lettuce. Grape tomatoes are slightly larger than cherry tomatoes.  This year I had cherry tomato plants that produced red, yellow and brown tomatoes. All were delicious!

 

 For tips on how to create an authentic Caprese Salad with tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil and extra-virgin olive oil, visit Your Italian-American Gardening Tips with Recipes: Basil (Basilico).  Be creative! 

 

Caprese salad in a large serving bowl made with alternating red and yellow tomatoes, basil and mozzarella.
Caprese salad in a large serving bowl made with alternating red and yellow sliced tomatoes, basil and mozzarella.

 

Caprese salad made with alternating red and yellow tomatoes, basil and mozzarella.
Caprese salad made with alternating red and yellow cherry tomatoes, basil and mozzarella.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What about Panzanella salad?” you may ask.
Isn’t this another wonderful Italian tomato salad I can create with my fresh tomatoes?

I have also blogged about making Panzanella salad before, and included tomatoes in this salad, in the blog for my learn Travel Italian website entitled, Caprese and Panzanella Salads with Fresh Tomatoes and Basil.   Here is an image from that blog of my initial idea of what this salad should be like:

Bowl of Panzanella salad with bread, tomatoes, basil and mozzarella.
Bowl of Panzanella salad with bread, tomatoes, basil and mozzarella.

I recently updated that blog to include a little known fact (at least to me). The original Panzanella salad did not include tomatoes!  Here is a photo I posted on Instagram of the Panzanella salad I made after I learned of a recipe from the great writer of the Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio, from the 1300s.

Plate of cucumbers, red onions, reconstituted bread and basil for Panzanella salad
Panzanella Salad made in the 1300s according to Giovanni Boccaccio: Stale bread (softened), cucumber, red onion, basil and mixed greens.

My family did not make Panzanella salad when I was growing up.  As an adult, I had tried this salad in in restaurants and thought it a nice change from the usual Caprese salad, so I added it to my post.  Caprese and Panzanella salads, I thought, were the two important Italian tomato dishes.  Recently, I learned from a blog by Emiko Davies titled  “Bronzino’s Panzanella,” that Panzanella salad is indeed a popular and traditional Italian salad in Tuscany, mentioned by the writer Bronzino himself in a poem, prior to the appearance of tomatoes in Italy. 

We can assume that Panzanella salad started out as a way to use up old bread, as stale Tuscan bread lends itself well to being softened with a sprinkle of water. A little red onion, perhaps some basil, and olive oil and red wine vinegar might have been all an Italian housewife had available to lend some flavor her bread salad.  According to the recipe provided by Bronzino, cucumbers and even some arugula could be added to magically turn the bounty of summer into a crunchy and refreshing summer treat.

Serendipitously, I had been growing Armenian cucumbers in my garden for the very first time this year, when I came across Davies’ blog. When I read about Bronzino’s version of Panzanella salad, I made it myself and posted the result on Instagram on Conversationalitalian.french.   

Panzanella salad made Bronzino’s way, with cucumbers, was truly a revelation. The seeds of the Armenian cucumber were easy to remove from the center of the vegetable, and without the skin this variety of cucumber was light, crunchy, and flavorful. There are no real proportions to this salad; use as much reconstituted bread as you like and as much cucumber and other ingredients as you have on hand.  Now THAT’s Italian!

Below is my method for making Panzanella salad with cucumbers, originally posted on Instagram on  Conversationalitalian.french.   and the method for making Panzanella salad with tomatoes, originally posted on blog.learntravelitalian.com. 

Try Panzanella salad both ways.  I ‘m sure you won’t be disappointed!


 

Today’s Panzanella Salad with Tomatoes

Tomato and bread Panzanella salad
Italian Panzanella salad with halved cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, fresh torn basil and bread

Ingredients
(Serves 1-4)

 

Dry Italian bread, cubed, or large croutons
Sprinkle the dried Italian bread with water to soften
(see comments about the proper bread to use below*)

1-2 large, vine-ripened tomato, cut into small wedges
or several cherry tomatoes, halved
sprinkle lightly with sea salt

1/2 red onion, sliced thinly into crescents

Extra-virgin Italian olive oil
Italian red wine vinegar

Large, freshly picked basil leaves, hand torn

Mozzarella, preferably soft, cubed or small bocconcini (optional)

Method

 

In a large dish, combine small wedges of fresh tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes and dry Italian bread (as pre-processed as above) and red onions.

Drizzle on extra virgin Italian olive oil and red wine vinegar and combine.  Make sure the bread has softened enough to be edible. If not, you may want to let the ingredients sit for a bit before finishing the salad.

Then add the optional mozzarella and torn basil leaves.

Mix gently.

Taste and drizzle with extra olive oil and vinegar if needed.

Mix again gently to combine all and enjoy!

*About the bread for any Panzanella salad: be sure to use a crusty loaf of  good* Italian bread that is at least two days old and has dried out and hardened. Bread that has become stale naturally will need to be sprinkled with water to soften a bit prior to making this salad. Place the bread in a small bowl and sprinkle it with water the morning before you are planning to make the salad. The end result should not leave the bread mushy; the bread should spring back to life after the water is added if you are truly working with real Italian bread. If the crust is still too hard, it can be removed. Remember that the bread will continue to soften when it is combined with the vinegar and tomato juice when you make the salad.

If you want to make Panzanella salad with fresh Italian bread, you can always cut it into slices and dry it out in the oven just enough to be crunchy, or even add a bit of olive oil and brown it a bit to make croutons.

 

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Traditional Cucumber Panzanella Salad

 

Plate of cucumbers, red onions, reconstituted bread and basil for Panzanella salad
Panzanella Salad made in the 1300s according to Giovanni Boccaccio: Stale bread (softened), cucumber, red onion, basil and mixed greens.

 

 

 

Visit www.learntravelitalian.com for more of my Italian and Italian-American recipes, cultural notes and  advanced Italian language blog posts updated monthly. Click on the link “our blog” in the upper right hand corner to reach blog.Learn Travel Italian.com.

Your Italian American Gardening Tips: Spring Greens – Healthy and Delicious Recipes for the Season

Joshua McFadden Cavolo Nero Salad; cavolo nero greens topped with large bread crumbs and Peccorino-Romano cheese in the middle of a ceramic plate rimmed by flowers.
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! A lot has happened in my garden since my last “Your Italian-American Gardening Tips” blog in early April. I’ve been posting photos periodically on my Instagram ConversationalItalian.French to demonstrate the progression of fresh vegetables available during the springtime in Chicagoland. I also post videos on Instagram of seasonal Italian and French dishes using with what’s available in the kitchen garden.  For our blog today, it’s time for a recap of cool weather vegetables and for a report on which warm weather-loving Italian vegetables I’ve planted this year for summertime harvest.

Recap: the seeds I planted in early spring have really taken off and the harvest of cool spring greens has been going on for about 2 weeks now! The cool weather in Chicago lasted throughout April and into the very last week of May, which is wonderful for the Italian lettuces, spinach, cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) and broccoli rabe (Italian: rapini)  that I am growing. Hearty greens don’t mind a bit of frost, and even though we had several nights of frost May they were not stunted by the bit of extra cold. And by May 15, the arugula and broccoli rabe had matured and were ready for harvest. See below for how to prepare broccoli rabe the Italian way as a side dish for dinner.

My overwintered leeks have picked up growing where they left off last fall and now are grocery-store size. I harvested several to make “pot-au-feu” (see below) and planted new sets I bought from the garden store in their place. I should have an almost continuous harvest of these fragrant oniony vegetables available throughout the year. All other members of the onion family are growing nicely with the cool weather, including my overwintered chives (now flowering), and newly planted green onions and shallots.

The potatoes I planted in the first days of spring struggled a bit with frost-bite, but their leaves seemed to have recovered. Those planted later were saved this difficulty as they are just now starting to show their first leaves.  I’m hoping “new” potatoes will be available for harvest by mid June and for weeks after.

The strawberries in the raised garden between the potato beds are going strong, covering almost every inch of their box and flowering nicely, also getting ready for a June harvest.

As I have mentioned in my  Your Italian-American Gardening Tips blogs, for the last two years, my focus has been on how to grow Italian vegetables 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.

In this blog I’ll describe when to harvest springtime greens that love the cool weather, and provide some ideas for how to use them in simple dishes you can make at home.

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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Another Recipe with Leeks!

Pot-au-feu: Classic French Dinner

 

In my April post, I provided some tips about growing and cooking leeks, and provided an Instagram post of a salmon, leek and cream dish that I think is the perfect combination of flavors.  With my leeks now grocery-store size and available to harvest by mid May, I made a classic French dish called “Pot-au-feu,” which means “Pot on the fire,” that pairs veal shank with fragrant leeks, fennel bulbs, carrots and parsnips.

The veal broth created by cooking the veal shank with spring vegetables makes a traditional and  flavorful starter for this spring-time meal. Vermicelli noodles are often cut into shorter pieces, cooked, and then added to the soup for a bit of texture. 

The leeks, fennel, carrots, and parsnips are cooked in the broth after the veal is done to until just tender and make a wonderful accompaniment for the veal as the main course. Most Italians love a fragrant broth, as well as fennel, and I was glad I gave this simple dish a try. Watch me make Pot-au-feu on Instagram below by clicking on the image and then try your own. Your family will love the flavorful broth created while cooking the veal and this perfect springtime meal. (Ingredients listed on Instagram.)

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Italian Lettuces and Greens Growing Strong

 

What a difference a few weeks makes! Check out the image of my raised garden bed below on May 15, where I planted spinach and lettuces from Seeds from Italy early last April. (“Seeds from Italy” is the name of an American distributor of seeds from authentic Italian producers. Check out their website!) 

Arugula: Both common and “wild” varieties of arugula were ready to harvest by May 15, and other lettuces and spinach followed shortly after. I enjoyed the “wild arugula” leaves that I planted for the first time this year. The wild arugula variety has leaves that are smaller and more tender then the common variety, so they are easier to mix into a salad. Both Italian varieties of arugula have the same peppery flavor.

Cavolo Nero: The cavolo nero (a Tuscan kale, called “black cabbage” in Italian) seeds I planted in their own row just outside the garden bed are growing nicely and I’ve already thinned them out a bit, which created the opportunity for a kale and citrus salad. See the link to my Instagram post below.

Broccoli rabe: As mentioned earlier, the broccoli rabe seeds I planted from Seeds of Italy took off and grew nicely all spring, and were ready to harvest by May 15. Broccoli rabe is actually a type of turnip that is grown for the greens rather than the root. Turnips and broccoli are in the same family, called the Brassicaceae family, so it is not surprising they can look similar.

Broccoli rabe (cime di rapa or rapini in Italian) looks like a leafy green with several small ” broccoli-like clusters at the tip of their stalks.  Broccoli rabe should be harvested when the center stalk with the cluster of broccoli-like clusters becomes taller than the leafy portion of the plant. After this stalk elongates, it can take only a day or two for the plant to “go to seed” by forming small yellow flowers from the green clusters. I sewed a second set of seeds, in late May when I had harvested about half of my broccoli rabe, although these may not germinate or reach full maturity before the heat of summer sets in.

Below is an Instagram post of how to cook broccoli rabe. It is usually sautéed in a large pan with olive oil, garlic, and 1 or 2 hot peppers, and with or without a bit of sausage. A large bunch will cook down significantly, just like spinach. I like to trim the stems off, although they are edible. Orecchiette pasta can be added for a classic pasta dish.

Romanesco broccoli: The romanesco broccoli I planted started to perk up by the end of May, as did my Swiss Chard. 

Onions: Shallot sets and green onion sets from the garden shop in my neighborhood complete my lettuce beds this year. As I’ve mentioned, it is easy to grow  all relatives of the onion family in Chicagoland. My chives came up again in their own pot nearby, as expected early in spring, as they have been doing for over 10 years!

 

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See below for an image of my garden beds with the greens and onions this year just after planting and in mid May.  Between the garden beds are lavender that I planted last year as part of my herb garden. A row of sedum was planted by the previous owners of my house, and comes up reliably every year, so I have kept it in place as a border. 

Leeks growing in the center of a raised garden bed; in the distance another raised garden bed and additional land for leafy greens. Seeds have just been planted.
Italian garden beds for lettuce, onions, and leafy greens, after seeds were planted. The leeks overwintered from last summer.

 

 

 

 

Raised garden bed with rows of spinach, arugula, leeks in the foreground and lettuces and onion sets in the back. Broccoli rabe growing in the ground behind the beds.
Raised bed in the foreground, left to right: 2 rows of spinach, 1 row of common arugula, 1 row of wild arugula, leeks. Raised bed in the back: mixed lettuces and onion sets. Semicircle plot: broccoli rabe to the right.

 

 

 

 

Broccoli rabe growing in the semicircular plot behind the raised garden beds, ready to start harvesting. Large, saw-tooth type leaves are growing in a cluster.
Broccoli rabe growing in the semicircular plot behind the raised garden beds, ready to start harvesting.

 

 

 

 

Broccoli rabe close up, ready to harvest before the yellow flowers develop and the plant goes to seed.
Broccoli rabe close up, ready to harvest before the yellow flowers develop and the plant goes to seed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Broccoli rabe gone to seed; the stalk has elongated and the leaves are shriveled and small. Small bright yellow flowers sit atop the stalk.
Broccoli rabe gone to seed.

Just one week later, the temperatures reached 90° and this lasted for 3 days in a row. All broccoli rabe went to seed. The delicious leaves seem to shrink and most of the plant is just a long stem with yellow flowers on top.  The season was fairly long, but ended suddenly. 

 

 

 

 

 

Salads, Salads, and More Salads

 

Last year, I provided a method for how to create salads with the lettuces I grew in my garden and described how to make a classic vinaigrette in my blog  Four Salads for Summer Days.  I also showed methods for making herbed and garlic croutons. Check out this blog for the following salads: 

  1. Mixed baby greens, chive flowers and radishes (with Bree cheese and crackers) — a great salad for spring, using what’s available in the kitchen garden!

     2. Insalata mista (Typical Italian salad of mixed lettuces, carrots, tomatoes and radishes) with garlic croutons 

     3. Mixed greens, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts, and raspberries

     4. Spinach salad with goat cheese and strawberries — spinach and strawberries are usually available at about the               time in early summer.

 

Even with all the varieties of greens I had planted in my garden this year, I decided in early spring to follow the advice of my grandmother on how to make a nutritious salad and harvest dandelions freely growing around my property.  Dandelions are called “dente di leone” in Italian, and their saw-toothed leaves and bright yellow flowers are unmistakable. They come up on their own reliably in early spring every year (to the chagrin of those in the American suburbs who like a tidy lawn) and are a good source of Vitamins A, C, K and even minerals like iron and calcium. The stems always grow out from one central root, so be careful to watch for this root if harvesting ( especially before they flower), in order to make sure you are picking the correct weed! The smaller dandelion leaves are the most tender; when using the larger leaves, remove the thick rib along the back. Inspect both sides of the leaves for dirt and rinse very well and leave in the refrigerator; rinse again before using. 

 

Dandelion ready to flower. Dente di leone in Italian. The image shows all stalks growing toward a central root.
Dandelion ready to flower. “Dente di leone” in Italian. All stalks grow from a central root.

Italians love dandelion greens with a simple dressing of red wine vinegar, pinches of salt and pepper and finely chopped garlic. The garlic is an important ingredient, as it counters the bitterness of the dandelion. The finely chopped garlic sold in the grocery store in jars and kept in the refrigerator is best for this type of salad dressing, as it is softer and less sharp than freshly chopped garlic. Chives and parsley are also available at the same time as dandelions in spring and can be freshly chopped and added to the salad dressing at the end. The ratio: 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar to 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.  See below.

 

Dandelion salad with a simple red wine and chive vinaigrette arranged on a plate in a starburst pattern like a composed salad, served with a breadstick.
Dandelion salad with a simple red wine and chive vinaigrette served with a breadstick.

A warm bacon dressing can also be used on dandelion greens, just as with spinach or frisèe. A thick slice of pancetta cut into rectangles and cooked slowly over medium heat makes delicious lardoons, as pictured below.  For a traditional vinaigrette that goes on this type of salad, sauté a chopped shallot in the rendered fat from the pancetta until it softens. Remove the shallot and 1 Tbsp. of rendered fat into a bowl and add 2 Tbsps of red wine vinegar and a pinch of mustard, salt and pepper.

Dandelion salad Lyonnaise style with pancetta lardons; poached egg in center of greens with bacon bits and croutons in the periphery
Dandelion salad Lyonnaise style with pancetta lardons

For a salad made with fresh baby cavolo nero greens, check out my Instagram post below. The dressing I used was taken from the cook book “Six Seasons,” by Joshua McFadden, the chef who trained in Italy and started the kale craze from his Brooklyn restaurant.  He writes in his cook book “This is the kale salad that started it all.” Make your own large breadcrumbs with a good loaf of bread dried out in the oven at 200 or 250 degrees for about 20 – 30 min to sop up the delicious dressing. It is worth it! 

For the Joshua McFadden dressing: 1/2 garlic clove, smashed, 1/4 cup finely grated Peccorino-Romano cheese, 1/8 tsp hot dried chile peppers, pinches of salt and coarsely grated pepper, “large glug” (2-3 Tbsp) olive oil and juice from one lemon. Whisk all together all ingredients.

Chiffonade (roll up and cut into thin strips) cavolo nero, toss in dressing, and top with more grated cheese and breadcrumbs. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Joshua McFadden Cavolo Nero Salad; cavolo nero greens topped with large bread crumbs and Peccorino-Romano cheese in the middle of a ceramic plate rimmed by flowers.
Joshua McFadden Cavolo Nero Salad

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Cooking Broccoli Rabe the Italian Way

Broccoli rabe traditionally needs only a quick sauté in olive oil, garlic and small red chile peppers. The olive oil and garlic work counter the bitterness of the broccoli rabe and the chile peppers add an extra bit of zest, but can be omitted for those who cannot tolerate spicy-hot food. Red bell peppers cut into small pieces are a good substitute, although not traditional.

I created a video while I was cooking up some broccoli rabe as a side dish to show how much of the vegetable you need for just 2 people. Quite a bit, really! The broccoli rabe really cooks down.  I added a bit of Italian sausage and could have also added Orecchiette pasta at the end for a traditional pasta dish and a satisfying meal. In fact, my children ask me to make broccoli rabe in the spring time and all summer long! 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Strawberries and Asparagus have come to life!

 

Check out the difference in last year’s strawberry bed after the first fertilization in early spring and the second fertilization in mid May below. The strawberry crowns I planted earlier this year have struggled a bit, as there was not much rain this spring to help their roots grow, but are coming into their own slowly in the same raised beds as the asparagus.  Too bad I will have to wait at least another year to harvest my asparagus! 

 

Raised garden bed with overwintered strawberries, now with green leaves
Strawberries spring 2021, overwintered with both green and brown leaves. The small plant with new red stalks and green leaves peeking out in the center is overwintered rhubarb.
Strawberry bed from 2020 with rhubarb growing in the center. The strawberry plants have taken over the bed.
Strawberry bed from 2020 with rhubarb growing in the center. 

 

Second year asparagus with first year strawberries in the perimeter
Second year asparagus with first year strawberries in the perimeter.

 

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This Year’s Peas and Then…

Tomatoes, Peppers and Eggplant

 

Peas did not come up as quickly as I would have liked this year. I think this was due to the lack of rain. We had the driest April and May months on record in Chicagoland. But luckily, I have plenty of space in my raised garden beds this year, so they are free to grow as long as they like. I reserved the far bed (#4) for my late  tomatoes with large fruits and tall stalks and my cherry tomatoes, both of which take up a lot of space.  Plumb tomatoes and early tomatoes are in the next two beds over (#2 and #3), along with eggplant, arranged in spots where peas did not come up. Not ideal, but they are adequately spaced.  Hot and sweet peppers are in bed #1.   

 

Four new raised garden beds planted with peas
Four new raised garden beds planted with peas
Four raised garden beds with tomatoes, eggplants and peppers from background to foreground. Peas growing in the beds in the foreground.
Four raised garden beds with tomatoes, eggplants and peppers from background to foreground. Peas growing in the beds in the foreground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Please write and let me know what you are planting in your garden this year.
I’d love to hear how your garden grows!
Until the next blog, follow my Instagram account, Conversationalitalian.french
for recipe ideas from my garden to yours!

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 this 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 garden 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 garden 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 first 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 fried 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 at the same time to destroy my zucchini plants, even though they outwardly 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, I will certainly create an additional raised garden for them, 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” 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