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 ) – Four Salads for Summer Days

Mixed green lettuce salad with chive flowers and radishes set out on a plant with brie cheese in the center.
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! It’s been almost one month since my last gardening blog, and over these last weeks I’ve been thinning out my lettuce patch and enjoying delicious, fresh salads almost every day of the week.

Some of you may have already seen the Instagram posts of my “Insalata del giorno” / “Salade du jour,” or “Salad of the day.” Today I’m going to collect all of the salad ideas I’ve been sharing on Instagram, and a couple more, to share with you in this blog.

As I have mentioned in my previous Your Italian-American Gardening Tips blog, from May 26, this year I have been focusing on my raised gardens.  In this blog we’ll check in on the lettuce patch I planted in early spring and see how it has been doing after the few episodic heat waves we’ve had here in Chicagoland.

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 lettuce, along with some salad recipe ideas.  Please leave a comment if you want and let me know what your favorite salad combination is!

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 2!

When I last wrote, on May 26, 2020, I already had small radishes to harvest and also a variety of baby lettuces growing closely together in rows. I started the lettuce this past spring by seeding rows directly outdoors, and chose my raised garden that is in shade for part of the day so the lettuce would have some relief from the afternoon soon as the days got hotter. Lettuce loves the cool weather and did well this year with the temperature and amount of rain (lots) here in my part of Illinois.

I’ve continued to thin out the lettuce rows by harvesting a few early lettuce greens each day,  and the space left has quickly filled in as the remaining lettuces have grown. The bonus I get from this method of direct seeding and gradual thinning is fresh baby lettuce for my salads at lunchtime!

All varieties of lettuce have continued to do well.  Romaine lettuce is one of the most heat tolerant types, and  a few of my larger heads of romaine lettuce have been maturing nicely and are now forming the “core” or “heart” in the center.

Below are photos of the lettuce patch in late May and in mid-June.

Different types of young lettuce greens growing in a row with their identifying packet in the background
Mixed lettuce greens May 2020

 

Two rows of mixed lettuce greens that have grown since May 2020,
Mixed lettuce greens June                                                                            2020

 

Mixed lettuce greens and Romaine lettuce
Rows background to foreground: radishes, Romaine lettuce, mixed lettuce greens

My radishes have already started to go to seed, though.  In the background of the last photo you can see that long stalks have formed on my radish greens and there are far fewer leaves growing off the plant than usual. When I started to notice this happen, I quickly harvested my other two rows of radishes (not shown here), and was able to save the leafy greens. They are bitter but very good sauteed in garlic and olive oil, as I mentioned in my last blog. I’ve stored the radishes with their greens intact in my refrigerator for now, where they should keep for several weeks.. I plan to keep this last row in the photograph in the ground for now.

In the place of my radish rows, I’ve planted shallots and a few red onions, which are handy to have for cooking and can be kept in the ground through the heat of summer into the late fall.

Unfortunately, my rows of arugula also quickly went to seed when we had a short heat wave. Arugula (also called roquette) is technically an herb of the mustard family, with leaves that resemble lettuce. As I’ve mentioned before, I love to toss these pungent, peppery leaves into my salad. But this year, it was not meant to be for very long! Check out the long stalks with white flowers in the photo below. I will let it seed the garden this year, as I’ve had a second growth of arugula in the past with this method when the cooler weather takes over again.

Arugula plants growing in a row with long stalks tipped with white flowers after it has gone to seed
Arugula gone to seed, with long stalks and white flowers

 

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Four Salads for Summer Days

It’s salad time with chive flowers!

In last month’s gardening blog, I shared a photo of my salad of baby mixed greens, chive flowers and radishes.  Below is the Instagram link that I later published, which lists all the ingredients and basic method for making a salad.

 

For this salad of early greens, I used what I had at the time in my garden: mixed greens, chives flowers for an onion flavor, and radishes.  By the way, all parts of the chive plant are edible, including the flower, which makes a colorful addition to salads. I always discard the stalk the flower is growing on, though, as it is too hard to eat.

Adding a bit of cheese to salad is something I learned long ago on a trip to France, and I couldn’t resist adding some fresh brie I had on hand on top of the salad greens. Off camera, both were delicious with a bit of crusty bread!

Since my first salad of the year, I’ve enjoyed creating many more salads. It has been fun for me to make a sort of  salade composée  (a salad in which the ingredients are arranged on an individual plate rather than being tossed in one big bowl) for Instagram photos, like the one above. But, of course. the flavor of the salad is what really counts.

 

So, how does one go about creating a flavorful salad?  I like to follow a few rules.  

Some of these rules may seem obvious, but I always like to start from the beginning when approaching any topic.

 

  • For me, the first rule, which should be evident from my past two blogs, is to always start with fresh greens.

Having my own small lettuce patch has made such a big difference in the quality of my salads. The freshest greens are just beyond my kitchen door, growing steadily until the instant I pluck them for my salad, instead of slowly wilting in my refrigerator “crisper” drawer. Also, I make salads more often as it is now much easier since  the major ingredient is readily available.

To prepare salad greens: rinse salad greens thoroughly in cold water, as dirt tends to stick in between the leaves.  Then spin all the water particles off with a salad spinner. This will allow the salad oil to cling to the leaves, rather than run off into a pool of water at the bottom of the plate or bowl. If not using the salad right away, refrigerate to keep the leaves crisp and cool and compose the salad just before serving.

 

  • The second rule I follow is to always choose a good quality oil, and this is most often extra-virgin olive oil.  (As a corollary to this, I never eat twice at a restaurant that will serve me a salad made with flavorless cooking oil.) I also keep walnut oil on hand for when I make a salad with walnuts, but this is a very delicate oil that is expensive and will loose flavor quickly once open, so it is not nearly as useful as extra-virgin olive oil.  

Extra-virgin olive oils come from many different regions of Italy, and have many different flavors and intensities. That said, of course, always choose your favorite olive oil when making a salad, since the flavor of the oil will definitely come through in a salad with fresh greens.

A word of caution when choosing extra-virgin olive oil: always read the ingredients on the label, as not all extra-virgin olive oils are first press or cold press (which bring out the most flavor) and many companies will combine Italian olive oil with olive oils from one or even several other countries.  True extra-virgin olive oil is not a blended oil.

Also, try to avoid buying older olive oils that are “on sale” because  this usually means that they have been on the shelf for longer then they should be —  maybe 6 months… or even 1 year or more! Unlike wine, olive oil looses flavor with exposure to air and so the freshest olive oil is the best tasting olive oil. It is likely that much of the original flavor of the olive oil put on “special sale” will have been lost at the time of  this special promotion, especially if the oil is in a bottle that does not have a covering or dark glass to protect it from the light.

 

  • The third key ingredient is the vinegar, and I choose my vinegar based on the style of salad I am making.

For Italian salads, a simple drizzle of red wine vinegar along with the extra virgin olive oil  and a quick mix to coat the leaves will usually suffice. Balsamic vinegar has become very popular in America, but is less common in green salads than red wine vinegar in Italy, and is usually reserved for the appetizer “prosciutto e melone” or a special dessert.

American “Italian dressing” in the bottle with a strong garlic flavor and an assortment of pungent herbs is not found in Italy. And only fresh salad greens are served in Italy (at least at the restaurants I’ve eaten at), so the lettuce leaves are not drowned in a lot of dressing, would hide their delicate flavor and make the lettuce leaf limp.

I love a good French vinaigrette, which is simply a more formal ratio of vinegar to olive oil with the addition of salt, pepper, and if desired fresh herbs and a touch of mustard.  My favorite ratio of vinegar to oil is 1 Tb. vinegar for each 6 Tb/ olive oil.  If you like less vinegar, use 1/2 Tb. (1 1/2 tsps).  If you like more, use 2 Tb. vinegar.

What about that orange “French Dressing” sold in supermarkets? I have yet to find a French cook who promotes this type of dressing as French!

 

  • Finally, I like to add interest to my  fresh green salad with ingredients that add flavor, texture and a bit of crunchiness.

Over the years, I learned the value of adding a bit of cheese to a salad to add flavor, and I especially like the Gorgonzola or goat cheese-baby spinach combination. Any cheese eaten with or along side a fresh green salad with a bit of bread, is wonderful in my opinion!

Nuts are commonly added to salads now-a-days, such as walnuts or almonds, for crunch and flavor. I love homemade croutons as well (see below for a 2 step “how to make garlic croutons” below).

It is fun to add spring fruit such as strawberries, and later raspberries, to salad as well; after a long winter without either fruit or fresh salad greens, it just seems right to put them together in one dish! Also, I love a cool watermelon and feta salad in the late summer, but that is for another blog…

Many brightly colored raw vegetables add both flavor and interest as well as a bit of crunch to a salad.  I love carrots, peppers, radishes and celery. Red onions, or a more mild onion flavor such as that found in chives and chive flowers or scallions (green onions) add an expected salad flavor,  and onions also add color and texture.

And, of course, tomatoes are an important component in salads when they are in season and vine-ripened. Cherry tomatoes in particular are the perfect size for a mixed salad. The salads mentioned below do not include tomatoes, as they were not in season at the time of this writing.

See my blogs from last year for salad recipes that feature tomatoes, such as Caprese salad and Panzanella Salad.

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Insalata Mista

Almost every restaurant in Italy that serves dinner will have an “insalata mista” listed on the menu. The name literally means “mixed salad,” and it signifies that the chef will include the fresh ingredients of the day, “mixed” gently and served simply.

For my “insalata mista” pictured below, I choose baby romaine lettuce from my garden, with a few of my mixed lettuce greens for color, along with carrots, red peppers and radishes.  Red onions would also have been a good addition.

I couldn’t resist making some large garlic croutons  for the side by cutting up crusty Italian bread into large rectangles and drizzling on a mixture of  extra-virgin olive oil and crushed garlic. I cooked them at 350° until lightly brown, but not too long, or the tiny garlic pieces will burn. Remember to turn them once while they are in the oven so each side can brown. In Italy, slices of bread are often brushed with olive oil and rubbed with a fresh clove of  garlic to be served as is or as the base of a bruschetta (pronounced broo-sket-ta).

plate of salad with mixed greens and small pieces of carrots, radishes and red peppers in the center, and large garlic croutons in the periphery
Insalata mista with garlic croutons

 

 

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Mixed Green Salad

with Gorgonzola Cheese

and Raspberries

 

Pictured below are mixed greens with gorgonzola cheese sprinkled throughout, crushed bits of walnut, and raspberries. Salad greens are tossed with extra-virgin olive oil and a bit of balsamic vinegar.  Balsamic vinegar is drizzled on raspberries. A salad with Italian ingredients and a bit of a French flair since the walnuts and raspberries are included.  Here is a chance to use your walnut oil before it becomes stale!

Mixed salad greens with gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and raspberries
Mixed salad greens with gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and raspberries

 

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Spinach Salad with

Goat Cheese

and Strawberries

 

There are many versions of spinach salad, some of which use strawberries, probably because both ingredients are available at about the same time late spring, as I mentioned above. And they taste delicious together. I love this combination.

The pungent flavor of goat cheese is (in my mind) also connected with springtime, and I enjoy the combination of spinach and goat cheese.

I added red onion for contrasting flavor and for a bit of crunch I added almonds to the spinach salad below.

Instead of a sugary, strawberry-flavored dressing often found with this type of salad, I used extra-virgin olive oil and a bit of aged balsamic vinegar, which goes well with fruit and holds up nicely with the fairly strong flavor of spinach.  The Instagram post is below:

 

 

For more (many more!) salad ideas this spring and summer, visit my Instagram at Conversationalitalian.french

 

 

Buon appetito!