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 – Growing Basil and Making Pesto alla Genovese

Pesto alla Genovese with gnocchi in a bowl lined with prosciutto slices, held by blogger Kathryn Occhipinti, from Conversationalitalian.french Instagram post 2021.
Kathryn for learntravelitalian.com
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Learn Travel Italian.com

This summer I have had the usual bumper crop of fresh basil leaves from the basil plants in large pots that I keep in a sunny position in my garden and provide with an abundance of water.  The plants started to go to seed — make the green and white column of flowers at the end of each stalk — by mid June. So, I dutifully cut back my basil: at first just the flowers, then the stalks with the flowers, and then in mid July did a hard cut-back, taking both stalks and leaves, leaving about 50% of each plant. This will enable the basil plants in the pots to keep growing new stalks with new basil leaves, hopefully into August.

I’ve posted about growing basil before, of course, since basil  is such a wonderful Italian herb to have in the home garden, and is easily grown in pots and harvested throughout the summer. For a post on how to grow basil, visit Planting a lettuce patch and starting tomato and basil from seeds.  For tips on how to grow basil and an authentic Caprese Salad method, visit Your Italian-American Gardening Tips with Recipes: Basil (Basilico).

I have also blogged about making pesto before, which I love to do at least 2-3 times each summer when I have an abundance of fresh basil leaves.

There is truly nothing like the fresh aroma of newly crushed basil over a warm bowl of pasta. And best of all, my children love it!

If you are really curious about what pesto is and how it is made, read the reprinted blog below to learn “everything you always wanted to know” about making pesto from my blog Learn Italian!, where I post tips on how to learn advanced Italian and also share authentic Italian recipes. In this blog Pesto alla Genovese with Gnocchi: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Making Pesto! ,  I give a short history about my experiences trying to make basil,  the best  basil plant to use and the theory behind the method. I have included a video in the original blog about  how to use a marble mortar and wooden pestle — essential equipment — no food processors, please!

Finally, at the end of this blog I have reprinted the recipe with the proportion of basil, garlic and cheeses that I like. Try my method and modify the ratio of ingredients for your family! 

If you would like to see me making pesto live, watch this 1 minute video from my Instagram post on Conversationalitalian.french:

 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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

//www.instagram.com/embed.js


Pesto alla Genovese with Gnocchi: Everything You Always Wanted to Know!

Pesto alla Genovese is the famous bright green “pasta sauce” from the northern Italian region of Liguria, whose capital is the city of Genoa. My introduction to pesto, which was not a part of my southern Italian upbringing, was from one of those little glass jars I found in a grocery store in Peoria, Illinois. The jar had been labeled “pesto” by an Italian company. Back then, I was trying to learn to cook true Italian “regional” cooking and specifically to expand my sauce-making techniques beyond the ubiquitous and well-loved southern Italian red tomato sauce.  Read the full post here: Pasta alla Genovese.

 

 

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Italian Recipe: Kathryn’s Pesto alla Genovese
con Gnocchi

Ingredients and tools needed for making Pesto alla Genovese: Mortar and pestle as it is being used, olive oil, cheese, basil leaves
Pesto alla Genovese: Ingredients needed are shown as they are slowly ground together in a marble mortar with a wooden pestle.

Ingredients for Italian Recipe
Kathryn’s Pesto alla Genovese
(Serves 4)

Small leaves from 1 small sweet basil plant (Genovese basil is best!)
(about 3 cups of lightly packed leaves, rinsed, patted dry, stems removed)
1 to 2 small garlic cloves, peeled, halved lengthwise
(and bitter green center removed if present)
2 tablespoons Italian pine nuts
2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup freshly grated Romano cheese
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cups of extra virgin olive oil, from Liguria, if possible

If desired: Prosciutto to line the bowl of gnocchi and pesto dressing for serving.

Method for the Pesto 

Note: Before starting, set a large pot of well-salted water on the stove to boil, and cook your pasta  or gnocchi to “al dente” tenderness (“to the tooth). Time the pasta so it finishes cooking just before the pesto is complete. Keep in mind that fresh pasta and gnocchi will take far less time to cook than dried pasta.

  1. Put the garlic cloves into the mortar with a few grains of salt and begin to crush. Add the pine nuts and continue to crush into a smooth paste.
  2. Remove the garlic/pine nut mixture from the mortar to a small bowl.
  3. Put a few of the basil leaves and a few grains of salt into the mortar and begin to crush, using the method shown in the link to the video in this blog post.
  4. As the basil leaves become crushed and release their essential oils, add a few more. Continue to crush the leaves, adding a few at a time, until all are crushed fairly uniformly.
  5. Add whatever salt is left to the crushed basil leaves, the garlic/pine nut mixture, and then drizzle in a bit of olive oil. Combine.
  6. Add the cheeses and a bit more olive oil. Combine.
  7. Drizzle in the rest of the olive oil while continuously stirring the garlic/pine nut/ crushed basil/cheese mixture until a creamy dressing has formed.
  8. Reserve 1 to 2 tablespoons of pasta water and mix into the pesto to warm.
  9. Quickly drain the pasta and put the warm pasta into a large serving bowl.
  10. Dress with your pesto, mix to coat, and serve immediately!

 

  • If desired, as in the Instagram video above, line a large bowl with prosciutto and carefully added your pesto dressed gnocchi. Allow gnocchi to warm the prosciutto a bit, and then serve. This idea from John Coletta’, chef of Quartino Restaurant in Chicago, in his cook book titled: “250 True Italian Pasta Dishes.”

 

A large bowl lined with prosciutto slices and filled with gnocchi that have been tossed to coat with pesto dressing.
A large bowl lined with prosciutto slices and filled with gnocchi that have been tossed to coat with pesto dressing. This presentation is courtesy of John Coletta, chef of Quartino Restaurant in Chicago.

 

  • If you would like to preserve your pesto rather than use it right away, it can be frozen in small plastic containers. Top off with a small amount of olive oil. Leave a small amount of room in the container for the liquid to expand and then cover.

 

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 (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) – Basil (Basilico) and Parsley (Prezzemolo)

Basilico, Italian sweet basil from Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Italian Herb Basil – Basilico

Basilico Basil
Ornamental basil with leaves of different sizes and colors

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

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

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

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

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

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

If a basil stem with a few leaves is cut from the plant and placed in a glass of water on a sunny windowsill, roots will soon develop. In my house, a glass of water with basil on the windowsill means that summer has arrived! Later in the season, it will be necessary to cut back the plant hard, leaving only about 50% of the plant. I usually do this at least twice each summer, but the number of times basil can be cut back hard will depend on how early in the season you have planted your basil and how long the growing season is in your area. Be sure when you cut back you stay above the woody stem that forms gradually from the base of the plant. More and more of the main stem of the plant will become woody as the plant slowly dies off for fall. Cut back only enough to leave the green portion of the stem, and another shoot will develop and produce more basil leaves.

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

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

Caprese Salad

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

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Italian Herb Parsley – Prezzemolo

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

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

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

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

Prezzemolo Italian flat leaf parsley
Italian flat leaf parsley

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

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

Summer Squash with Parsley

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

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