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:

View this post on Instagram

One pan pasta with zucchini and garlic for Friday night. From now on I will be posting easy pasta dishes made in one pan, the Italian way, so stayed tuned! For summer we will use our fresh vegetables. To make delicious zucchini and pasta, first take 2-3 cloves of garlic and cut in slices. Start to brown in olive oil. Add freshly sliced zucchini and fry. Remove garlic when it turns brown. Remove zucchini when it is lightly browned. Toss with angel hair pasta or thin spaghetti. Add a bit more oil from the pan and Parmesan cheese and toss again. Enjoy this simple dish! #osnap @niafitalianamerican @rossellarago @real.food.for.infants.toddlers @chicagolanditalians @quartinochicago @osia_su #pastaandzucchini #spaghettiandzucchini #spaghettiandzucchine #spaghettiandzuchinnisquash #zucchinirecipes #zucchinipasta #zucchiniandpasta #pastaandzucchini #pastaandzucchinis #foodblogger #foodbloggersofinstagram #italianfood #italianfoodlover #italianfoodbloggers #italianfoodbloggers🍷🍕🇮🇹 #italianfoodblogger2 #italianfoodblogg #onepanmeal #onepanpasta #onepastachallenge #onepandinner #onepanpastarecipes #onepanpastarecipes @chicagolanditalians @chicagobuffets

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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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Garden update. Pulled these “new” potatoes a couple of weeks ago. Started them this spring from pieces of potatoes that had sprouted their eyes last winter. You can see my “starter piece” in the video and hear my photographer son sigh because he’d rather be taking videos of people or places! Anyway, they are called “new” because they are pulled before they can fully mature in the fall. Just pull as many potatoes as you need and leave the rest in the ground. Of course, new potatoes will be smaller than mature potatoes so just boil in a little salted water. They have so much flavor I am going to plant an entire plot next spring. Look out for my next video when I cook up a quick dinner with these beauties! #gardeningtip #italiangarden #newpotatoes #growingpotatoes #harvestingnewpotatoes #italiangardener @burpeehg @real.food.for.infants.toddlers @theitaliangardenproject #growyourownfood #growvegetables #growvegetablesathome #growyourownfood #growvegetablesnotlawns #growvegetablesnotgrass #vegetablesinpots #vegetablesincontainers

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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.

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Tomatoes starting to ripen in the garden (finalmente!). Too much rain this week so one ripe one split but was delicious anyway! San Marzano seedlings are smaller. Still have to wait. Zucchini growing like crazy (note to self: make some fried zucchini flowers) and beans have sprouted. Made a second planting of beans today in the few spaces left and staked the volunteer tomato plants from last year that are doing well. Hopefully this succession planting will give us beans into the late fall. In the background my volunteer Brussels sprout plant from last year flowered, made seeds and now is intent on growing. What a menagerie of plants but hopefully will yield delicious results soon! . @real.food.for.infants.toddlers @theitaliangardenproject @burpeehg @burpeegardening #gardeningtips #gardeninspiration #vegetablegarden #growingtomatoes #growingfood #growingfoodisfun @mygardenmanager @mygardenthismonth #growingzucchini #growingzucchinis #zucchiniflowers #growningbeans #growinggreenbeans #growinggreenbeansfromseeds #successionplanting #growfoodnotlawns #growfoodnotgrass #tomatoes🍅 #tomatoesofinstagram #italiangarden #italiangardens #italiangardenstyle #italianliving

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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.

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Salade du jour. Insalata mista. Salad of the day is a “mixed salad.” @theitaliangardenproject @niafitalianamerican first salad from my lettuce garden, with mixed greens, chive flowers and baby radishes. Learn more about how to set up a garden in the Midwest with my blog: https://conversationalitalian.wordpress.com/. Enjoy with brie cheese or the cheese of your choice! #mixedgreens #mixedgreensalad #salad #saladsofinstagram #salads #saladdujour #saladgardener #kitchengarden #kitchengardening #kitchengardens #growingradishesfromseed #growingradishes #growingradishesathome #chives #chiveflowers #frenchchicago #frenchiesofinstagram #foodblogger #foodbloggers #foodbloggersofinstagram #insalata #insalatamista #insalatamista🍃🌿 #frenchsalad #frenchsalads #briecheese #briesalade #briesalade #makemorefrenchfood #saladedujour

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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:

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Salade du jour = salad of the day. Insalata mista #Make a fresh baby spinach salad with strawberries and herbed goat cheese, red onions and almonds but leave out the sugary, artificially flavored dressing! Instead add extra virgin olive oil and mix salad greens, strawberries and onions. Put strawberries on top of leaves. Top with remainder of ingredients and drizzle with aged balsamic vinegar for a springtime treat! #springsalad #springsalads #springsaladseason #goatcheese #goatcheesesalad #goatcheeselover #goatcheeselovers #spinachsalad #babyspinach #babyspinachsalad #frenchfoodathome #frenchiesofinstagram #frenchies #healthylifestyle #healthyfood #healthyfoodie #strawberrysalad #strawberrysalad🍓 #strawberrysalads #berrysalad #berrysalad🍓#frenchsalad #frenchsalads #frenchsaladlovers #makemirefrenchfood #saladedujour #salade #insalatamista

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

 

 

Buon appetito!

Your Italian-American Gardening Tips: Zucchini,Tomatoes, Strawberries and more!

Curved pathway is lined with pots growing herbs with markers in each pot. This leads to the background of a raised garden growing lettuce in one plot and peas in the other. Further in the background are zucchini mounds marked with the type of zucchini being grown.

 

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

Ciao a tutti! It’s been another 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 my Instagram posts of my “Salads du jour” “Salads of the day”

As I have mentioned in my previous Your Italian-American Gardening Tips blog, from March 29, this year I plan to focus on tending to my new raised gardens.  In this blog we’ll check in on the lettuce seeds I planted in early spring, and then set up our zucchini, tomato, and strawberry beds.

And also… we will check out how our perennial herbs I planted last year made it through the winter.

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, tomatoes, zucchini, strawberries and herbs.  Please leave a comment if you want. I’d love to hear what you’ve learned about gardening!  

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!

When I last wrote, in March 2020, I demonstrated how a little plot of tilled soil can be used to spread lettuce seeds in rows.  Since that time, I’ve been watching the seeds as they have sprouted and started to mature.  It was a very rainy spring here in Chicagoland, so I did not have to water, except for the first few days after planting, to encourage the seeds to germinate.

As of this post, I have small radishes to harvest and also a variety of immature lettuces growing closely together.

Radish plants with small radishes growing in a row in a garden, with their identifying seed packet as a marker.
Radish seeds planted two months ago yield small, fully developed radishes.

2 months lettuce 2020-3

Radishes are one of the quickest vegetables to mature, and are not as harsh tasting if the weather remains cool.  They are also good to harvest young and small before they develop a more tough, woody texture.  I harvest radishes as I need them, pulling the entire plant out and choosing the largest to thin out the row and leave space for other plants to grow.

I scatter the radish bulbs in salads.  The radish greens are edible, but even young greens have a coarse texture that is not appealing in fresh salads.  Radish greens can be cooked on the stove-top in the same manner as other edible greens (olive oil and garlic if you are Italian) and I’ve even seen internet recipes for pesto, although I have not tried these.

Now that the lettuces have started to grow, I have been making my own “baby lettuce” salads, which I enjoy, while at the same time thinning out the rows so the lettuces can mature.  I especially like to eat these lettuces young, as in my area of the Midwest the weather tends to go from cold to very hot quickly.  Unfortunately, the heat will make lettuce “bolt,” which means a long flower stem will quickly grow and mature.  After this, the plant dies back.

Mixed green lettuce salad with chive flowers and radishes set out on a plant with brie cheese in the center.
Mixed green lettuce salad with chive flowers, radishes and brie cheese

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

This year I grew arugula ( also called roquette, or garden rocket), romaine lettuce and mixed lettuce greens.  I have yet to get romaine lettuce to fully mature (see reason above), but the young leaf makes a nice salad. Like most Italians, I like the bitter taste of arugula in salads, which technically is a mustard green. It is best eaten young,  because the hotter it gets outside and the larger the leaf, the more pungent and peppery the flavor. Spinach can also be grown easily from seed and is wonderful in salads, of course, and many years I also have young spinach leaves at this point as well.

Three rows of new greens in the garden, romaine lettuce, arugula and radishes.
Lettuce and arugula alongside radishes
Different types of young lettuce greens growing in a row with their identifying packet in the background
Mixed lettuce greens

 

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And how did the herbs overwinter? 

Overwintering herbs is always a challenge for me mainly because the heat and sunlight that herbs love are difficult to provide indoors. Rosemary, in particular is picky.  Rosemary likes a lot of sunlight and cool breezes; it needs heat, but does not like our heated homes. It grows wonderfully in the California bay area, where I’ve seen entire hedges of rosemary.  At home, this year I managed to find a corner close to, but not too close to a heat source, which was also by a large window, and this seemed to work fairly well. The plant survived, but looked a lot less happy then when it was growing outdoors this summer.

Also, as the winter progresses, I pinch off rosemary and bay leaves for cooking stews, leaving much less of a plant then when they started! Since there were only small herb plants this year at the nursery, and not much variety, I am glad my rosemary and bay plants survived indoors.

My potted herbs lead the pathway to my raised garden out back again this year.  I love having herbs right out my kitchen door, fresh and ready to use from spring to the first frost in the fall.  It takes only a morning of planting the annuals (and a little watering during dry spells) for a month’s long reward!

The rue, oregano and mint I planted outdoors last summer are perennials and loved our mild, rainy winter and have reappeared. Rue and oregano are already many times their original size! And the chives I planted about 10 years ago in a pot and have left outdoors in all types of weather, have predictably come up once again this year and are showing their lovely, spikes of purple flowers.

Small plant of rue with its identifying marker planted in 2019. Leaves have an unusual feathery appearance.
Original rue plant 2019
Large rue plant after one year of growth outdoors
Rue, May 2020
Close up of the leaves of a small oregano plant from 2019 with marker
Original oregano 2019
Large oregano plant one year later, May 2020
Oregano, May 202
Chives growing outdoors in a pot with spikes of purple flowers in May 2020
Chives flowering May 2020

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Planning Your Vegetable Garden

Before I plant my vegetable garden each year, I always draw a diagram that allows me to determine how much space I have for what I want to grow. Most times, I have more ambition than space! The drawing allows me to realize this.  I also (usually) check the seed packets and a gardening book to make sure the area I choose will give the plants the sunlight they require. I love the book Growing Fruit and Vegetables,by Richard Bird, but have also found lots of helpful advice on the Internet.

My raised garden with the lettuce patch is in a shady area of the yard, and in the more sunny raised garden next to it contains sugar snap peas for my spring greens.  I planted  zucchini along the side of the raised garden that gets the most sunlight.  Even here, I will probably not have enough space and will end up with vines growing on the lawn, but which looks a bit messy in a suburb, but it is the best I can do for now! I am going to try to train the vines to grow into a small area between the sunny part of the garden and the raised bed. We shall see…

Below is my “idea” of how my garden should look.  You will notice that I’ve made notes and “inter-planted” leeks and shallots between the rows of lettuce in the lettuce garden and seeds for an Italian turnip that is eaten like a broccholi rabe (cima di rapa) between the pea bushes.  The pots along the perimeter of the raised bed will start herbs from seed that I could not find in the nursery this year (more on these in later blogs).

Drawing of where lettuce, peas, zucchini, swiss chard and herb pots are to be planted
Lettuce and zucchini garden 2020

Oh, and I almost forgot the Swiss chard in the perimeter of the zucchini mounds. I’ve had good success in the past growing Swiss chard and cavolo nero (the so-called black Tuscan kale that has lately become so popular) from seed, with both plants producing stalks with large, colorful leaves that last through even in the hottest Illinois summers into the fall. These large, leafy greens have the added benefit of providing a natural “fence” that shelters the garden a bit from onlookers.  My plans for sorrel, cardoon and turnips had to be scratched for next year as I realized later that I will need a place to train my zucchini vines.

Because I like a large number and large variety of tomatoes and peppers, I built another raised garden in the sunniest part of the yard.  It is also a bit sheltered, just beside a fence, which will help protect the tomato plants from the fierce wind and thunderstorms we get in the Illinois summers. I also love strawberries and these fruits come up nicely each year in Illinois (although they are best when covered with sheets during episodes of frost), so I planted these in the middle of this raised garden.

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Planting Zucchini 

Zucchini grow wonderfully from seeds in the hot, humid summers of the Midwest. A few stray seeds have even been known to germinate in my compost heap!  I started growing zucchini in my home garden mainly for the zucchini flowers because zucchini flowers were not available at our local farmer’s market 10 years ago. They’ve become more popular now, but are often wilted in the heat of the market, and have to been cooked right away. So instead of purchasing them,  I’ve been growing zucchini for their flowers every year since I found out how easy it is to do.

There are only a few things to know about zucchini to ensure a large crop of zucchini to pick throughout the summer.

First, plant zucchini after the threat of frost is over in your region and the soil has warmed up.

Second,  zucchini love rich soil.  I always weed and then loosen the top soil and mix in cow manure. I know, not a fun job but put on your gardening jeans and long gardening gloves and use a shovel with a long handle!  Every time I do this I think of my Grandfather Occhipinti dragging my father along on the subway from Manhattan to their garden plot in Brooklyn, along with  bags of manure for their summer vegetable garden.  That must have been a sight (and a smell), no doubt!

Third, and maybe most important: there are both male and female zucchini plants. Bees must fertilize the female flower from the male flower for the female to mature into a zucchini.  (See blog from last year about zucchini).  For this reason, it is best to mound up the soil and plant the seeds around the mound, rather in a row.  The male and female vines will be close to each other for easy fertilization.

This year I found a company called Seeds from Italy that imports Franchi brand seeds from Italy and will mail the seed packets directly to your door. Below are the zucchini types I will try to grow.

Three seed packets with pictures of different types of zucchini.

Zucchini seeds from Italy

I am particularly excited about the zucchini variety that yields large flowers for making stuffed zucchini flowers called “le bizzarre. ” This will be my first year attempting to grow cucuzza, the popular very long, southern Italian gourd that grows in the summer and is eaten like a squash.  More about this particular squash can be found in my blog from last year, Your Italian-American Gardening Tips (with Recipes): Oregano (Origano) and Zucchini (Zucchina)

Unfortunately, I did not discover the flyer that came in the package with the cucuzza seeds until after I planted!  The flyer advised, ” Because the seeds are so hard, germination can take as long as four to six weeks. To speed germination, scarify the seeds before planting: the easiest way to scarify is to rub the seeds on coarse sand paper, just enough to weaken the seed coat without damaging the interior part of the seed. Then soak the seeds for 24 hours to further soften the seed coat… Germination of scarified seeds occurs in about 10-14 days.”  So, I will follow this process and replant at another sunny location in my yard, as advised, along a support by my fence for these vines that can grow 25 feet or longer. Even the best plans may need to be modified!

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 Planting Tomatoes

This past Memorial Day weekend,  I got lucky and coincidentally planted my nursery-bought tomatoes the day after a furious spring thunderstorm with hail.  It is possible to plant tomatoes earlier in Chicagoland, and many gardeners set Mother’s Day weekend as their target day for planting. This year was a bit cooler than most years in May. Also, because one year previously  my entire tomato crop was ruined by a hailstorm, and had to replanted just 3 days later, I always plant very late in May.

In general, tomatoes need to be planted after the last threat of frost is over.  They need a manured, fertile bed, lots of sun and lots of water. And with these three things the results will be so far superior than any store-bought tomato you will ever come across! I think it is the amazing flavor of a home-grown tomato that has kept Italian-American gardeners at it all these years more than any other vegetable.

Things I do:

I save my egg shells all winter, and then put them in a paper bad and crush them while inside the bag with a meat mallet. The calcium in the crushed egg shells is said to prevent bottom rot, and I’ve never had a case of this so it may be true. It may also create a sharp environment that slugs do not like to slide over, and I have not had a problem with slugs in the past either.  It is best to work the egg shells into the soil at the same time as the manure about a month before planting.  Calcium should leak out of the shells as they disintegrate over time, providing a steady source of this nutrient throughout the summer.

Marigolds are said to attract beneficial insects that prey on garden pests, so I plant marigolds in along the borders of my tomato patch. I’ve also read that if you sow marigolds as a cover crop and then plow them under before planting, they will repel harmful nematodes, such as roundworms, that like to feed on the greenery of growing vegetable plants.

Raised garden bed with tomatoes and their steaks. marigolds in the perimeter to keep away pests..
Just planted tomatoes and marigolds May 2020

Before planting a nursery-bought tomato plant, I pinch off any tomato flowers or tomatoes that may have started to form, to give the plant a chance to grow a bit before producing.

I plant the tomatoes as deeply as the first true leafy branch to encourage root growth. I set a tomato cage around the cherry tomatoes.  The rest have a steak set next to them so I can tie the stem loosely to give the plant support as it grows. There are other methods to support tomato plants, of course.

Watering  to get tomato plants through dry spells is essential.  It is best to water in the morning so the plants have water available during the hottest hours of the day.  Watering at night may also lead to mold formation.

Always check they information each particular tomato variety comes with. The “cordon variety” of tomato (not cherry tomatoes) will produce a side shoot (sucker) between the main stem and the fruit bearing stem.  If these are not trimmed off, the plant will  grow bushy and not produce much fruit. The best way to tell if you need to pinch off a side shoot is to watch the tomato plant as it grows.

So what happened to our San Marzano tomatoes that were planted from seed?

The good news is that almost all of the tomato seeds germinated nicely.  Their stems are spindly, so next year I will buy a grow light to help them to grow straight.

I transplanted the San Marzano seedlings into containers I had left over from last year.  When I first brought the transplanted seedlings outside, I left them in the shade as directed.  But, I think I brought them into the sunlight too quickly afterward, as the leaves started turning white around the edges, equivalent to a “plant sunburn,” according to my reading.  So the seedlings are back indoors to harden off for a bit.   There is a third raised garden with marigolds planted in the perimeter waiting for them.

transplanted San Marzano tomato seedlings in their small containers
San Marzano tomato transplants

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Planting Strawberries

There is really not much to know about planting strawberries, except that it is essential choose a variety that will grow nicely in your region and to use a berry fertilizer.  I like having a strawberry patch since my family loves strawberries and it seems like the ones in the grocery have become larger and larger and have less and less flavor as each year goes by.  Home-grown strawberries will be smaller, but taste more like the highly prized “fragole di bosco” or wild “strawberries of the woods” hand harvested in Italy.

There are many different varieties of strawberries that fruit at different times, some more continuously than others. It is best to go to a local nursery that you can trust with someone you can talk to before choosing your strawberries since, if properly planted they will come up again for many years.

There is a professional seed store I used to go to in Peoria, Kelly Seed and Hardware,  that sells just the root and shoot of a berry plant. The strawberries I bought from them over 10 years ago are still producing.  Soak the root in water for 24 hours and then plant the root underground, leaving the shoot above ground.

Or, just go to your local nursery and buy a strawberry plant that has already been started in a small container. Remove from container and plant at ground level, as you would any other container plant. The plants I bought for my new strawberry patch were the last flat of berries  at the nursery near me, so really no choice this year.  They are “ever bearing” type and the label says these berries produce fruit in June and then in the early fall.

Plant strawberries in a sunny location. My strawberries in Peoria like a bit of shade in the afternoon from companion-planting with asparagus. I will put a bit of straw under them when they start to produce berries to keep the fruit cleaner, although this is not absolutely necessary.  Water as you would any new transplant. The instructions on the strawberries I planted advised pinching off any strawberry flowers that develop for the first month. So, I will likely not have many (or any) berries this June, as I planted too late in the season.

Runners will develop after fruiting to create new plants. They can be removed once you have enough plants established and planted in another part of the garden if you wish.

After strawberries have fruited, my gardening book recommends cutting off the leaves and disposing of leaves and straw to prevent the spread of mold and diseases; although, I have to say I have not often (ever!) done this.

In the spring, when the plants start to come alive again, fertilize and cover with an old sheet to protect from frost when necessary. Below is my strawberry patch.  Since I planted late this year, I’m hoping for some berries this fall!

Raised garden bed with strawberries planted in the perimenter
Strawberries just planted May 2020

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Relaxing after a morning of gardening! Planted 3 types of authentic Italian zucchini and also Swiss chard in my garden next to the raised beds. Also some herbs I can’t find at the nursery are now starting from seeds in pots – borage, chervil, camomile, and sorrel. Borage is a uniqueherb loved by Romans. It makes both pink and blue fowers on the same plant. Can’t wait to float them in my wine the way the Romans did! Maybe I can make some Roman food with the leaves. I love the French Sorrel in my salads – tastes a bit like celery. If I can get it to grow in it’s pot I can transplant and it will come up easily every year in Illinois. Fresh Chervil is a must have for French cooking. And who doesn’t love the beautiful daisy flowers of camomile for their beauty and tea? Visit www.conversationalitalian.wordpress.com to follow my garden this year. More info and gardening tips on the blog! @theitaliangardenproject @niafitalianamerican @sons_of_italy #italiangarden #italiangardens #italiangardenstyle #frenchherbs #plantingherbs #plantingherbs☘️ #plantingherbseeds #frenchgarden #frenchgardenstyle #frenchgardenhousestyle #camomile #camomila #sorrel #borage #borageflowers #borageflowergarnish #borageflowertea #chervil #romancooking #romanscookingcorner #foodblogger @burpeehg @burpeegardening #italianzucchini #zucchiniflowers #zucchiniflowers🌼🌼🌼

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I hope you enjoyed reading about my gardening adventures so far this year.

Do you have a garden?  

Do you have a gardening story to share or any gardening tips? 

Please leave a comment!  I’d love to hear!

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Your Italian-American Gardening Tips: Planting a lettuce patch and starting tomato and basil from seeds

Raised garden now has tomatose and peppers growing. Marigolds in the corners.
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! After the (hopefully) last snow, spring has arrived in Chicagoland! Despite all the turmoil in the world right now, in the last week, tulips and daffodils have popped up again around my neighborhood. To me, the reappearance of these pastel-colored, flowering bulbs has a special significance. It means that it is time for me to clear out my garden beds and plant my lettuce patch!

As I have mentioned in previous blogs in “Your Italian Gardening Tips,” last year I had to start a new garden from scratch after I moved from Peoria to a new house in the Chicago suburbs. For me this is a large job, so at first I focused on growing herbs in pots and shared Italian summer recipes that use fresh basil, parsley, and oregano.

This year I plan to focus on tending to my new raised garden. I’ll share photos taken while I plant lettuce and then Italian summer vegetables later in the season. In this blog, I’ll describe how is easy it is to plant a lettuce patch in the springtime and I will start San Marzano tomatoes and Genovese basil from seed.

My hope is that you will enjoy the tips I’ve learned about gardening through the years 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, tomatoes and basil from seed.  Please leave a comment if you want. I’d love to hear what you’ve learned about gardening!  

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

Luckily,  planting a lettuce patch provides some outdoor activity while we are all home bound this spring. All lettuce seeds require to grow is a rectangular bed of soil, some sunshine and a rainy springtime. Even a rectangular tub with low sides can be filled with soil, placed near a sunny, cool spot, and watered regularly for a small “indoor garden.”

But first, I’d like to share some photos from when I built my raised garden beds last year. When I lived in Peoria, I had lots of help from friends who knew how to do carpentry work and as a result I had a large, raised garden along the entire perimeter of my backyard.  But, after I moved, a friend told me about an easy-to-assemble kit that can be bought at Home Depot. Slats are carved into the posts that come in the kit. The planks fit snugly into the slats to create the walls of the garden bed and no nails are required. Being not very handy with a hammer and nails, I was thrilled to hear this!

There are many  raised garden bed kits to choose from on the Home Depot website, of all shapes and sizes. The kit I choose is a Greenes Fence Unfinished Cedar Raised Garden Bed.  I bought two 4 ft. x 8 ft. x 10.5 ft. sets, which I assembled one at a time.  I also bought Vigoro WeedBlock Weed Barrier Landscape Fabric to line the bed with prior to filling it with soil, as I’ve found this black fabric helps tremendously to keep the weeds at bay.  The WeedBlock fabric keeps sunlight out, so weeds cannot grow,  but allows water to drain through to the roots of the plants.

Below are the photos I took as I was assembling my garden last year (with a little help from my son and a friend). In the last photo, taken about a month later,  topsoil has been added and the raised garden completed with “tops” set on the corner posts. Tomatoes and peppers are starting to grow.

One rectangular raised garden bed, showing the slats in the posts and the planks that comprise the sides.
The slats in the posts fit the planks that form the sides of the bed in this raised garden.
A second rectangular raised garden bed has been added to the first and filled with soil, doubling the space available for planting.
Second raised garden bed added to the first

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raised garden now has tomatose and peppers growing. Marigolds in the corners.
Tomato and pepper garden, with marigolds in the corners

 

 

I like to put marigolds along the borders of my vegetable garden.  This year I put groups of them in the corners. Marigolds are said to attract beneficial insects that prey on garden pests. I’ve also read that if you sow marigolds as a cover crop and then plow them under before planting, they will repel harmful nematodes, such as roundworms, that like to feed on the greenery of growing vegetable plants.

So, where is the lettuce patch, you ask? Well, after last year’s harvest, I have to admit I left the garden a bit messy.  But the posts and walls held up well over the winter. Today’s job was to finish clearing out the gardens and to plant the lettuce seeds. We will have to wait to see the lettuce grow! I plan to post the garden’s progress on my Instagram account,  Conversationalitalian.french.

Raised garden with one side cleared of leaves and the other side still to be cleared
Cleaning up a raised garden after winter
Raised garden cleared. Lettuce and sugar snap peas have been planted, but cannot be seen. Brussels sprouts plants along the center of the garden wall.
Lettuce and sugar snap peas planted

By the way, did you notice the Brussels sprout plants along the middle wall between the two gardens? I was shocked to see the stems from the Brussels sprouts that I had planted last year partially alive. They had tiny Brussels sprouts growing near the base of the stem and at the very top. So for now, I left these volunteer plants in place.

 

 

My daughter once called my method of gardening, “Survival of the Fittest” gardening. Sometimes, I think this is true. I don’t like to harm things that are already growing, and am hoping to see a few volunteer tomato and pepper plants from seeds left last year later in the season as well! But, to be honest, I am often distracted by different projects, leaving the poor garden vegetables to compete with the weeds or fen for themselves in the August heat.  I’ll try to do better this year so I have a few respectable photos to show.

Anyway, planting lettuce seeds is very easy.  Just make a shallow row with your spade and sprinkle the tiny seeds along the row.  Yes, there are instructions on the back of each seed packet about how to do this — the depth (important not too deep) and how far the seeds should be planted from each other (less important).  Lettuce seeds are so small, it is almost impossible to space them as described on the package. When the seeds sprout, any sprouts planted too closely can be pulled for your salad, and this will even up the spacing. So I simply sprinkle the seeds in a shallow groove, cover the seeds loosely with soil, water gently, and let them grow, as I know they will!

In the first bed I made 8 rows and planted radishes and different types of lettuces. In the second bed I planted 8 rows of sugar snap peas.  Peas love the cool weather and my family loves peas  so I am hoping these do well this season.

Below are  pictures of the lettuce seeds I planted today, with the row numbers labeled on each. I also planted radishes because they grow quickly and are great in salads and even as a snack. When I was in Paris a couple of years back, I saw a French couple eating them at a very nice restaurant as an appetizer. They spread a whole fresh radish with a bit of  butter and then gently bit into it. But, I have to say, I have not tried this myself. Maybe this year…

Packets of seeds include pictures of radishes, arugula, mixed greens, and romaine
Lettuce and radish seed packets, with rows numbered.

 

 

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 Growing San Marzano Tomatoes
and
Genovese Basil from Seed

 

At my latest visit to the local Home Depo this year, I was excited to find seeds for Genovese basil and San Marzano tomatoes. I also found a small kit called a “Jiffy Professional Greenhouse” that will allow me to start these seeds indoors with just a grow lamp. I have not tried growing either tomatoes or basil from seed before, but for me it is worth the extra work to have these special Italian varieties available for my Italian cooking this summer.

The kits are small, square plastic containers with rows of starter peat moss.

Jiffy Professional Greenhouse, small plastic square box with San Marzano tomato seeds on top
Jiffy Professional Greenhouse with San Marzano tomato seeds
San Marzano tomato seeds have been planted into expanded soil packets
San Marzano tomato seeds planted

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Simply fill with water to expand the peat moss, place 2-3 seeds in each, and cover. Place the beds on a small table with a grow lamp over-head.

When the seeds sprout, there are more instructions on the package about how to transfer them outdoors.  I can’t wait to see how mine do.  I could have as much as 36 plants of tomatoes and 36 more of basil.  Guess I will have to get started building another raised garden…

 

Conversational Italian for Travelers Just the Important Phrases
Conversational Italian for Travelers Just the Important Phrases (with Restaurant Vocabulary and Idiomatic Expressions) is YOUR traveling companion in Italy! All the Italian phrases you need to know to enjoy your trip to Italy are right here and fit right into your pocket or purse.

Available on Amazon.com and Learn Travel Italian.com

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Italian Herb Oregano – Origano

 

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

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

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

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

 

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 Italian Summer Squash – Zucchina e Cucuzza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cucuzza 

Image from www.specialtyproduce.com

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

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

 

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Zucchini with Tomatoes and Oregano

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

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

View this post on Instagram

That’s Italian! Zucchini and with tomatoes and fresh oregano (origano) from your garden – an easy-to-make and delicious vegetable side dish for summer. Even your kids will love this! Just sauté onions (don’t let brown) and zucchini with a pinch of salt a little olive oil. Add tomatoes, garlic, oregano and salt and pepper to taste. Delizioso! Delicious! #osnap #chicagogarden #chicagogardener #chicagoland #italyinamerica #italiangardens #italiangardenstyle #oregano #oreganoplant #summersquash ##origano🍃 #origanofresco🌿 #origanofresco #zucchinirecipes #zucchinis #zucchina #zucchiniplant #summersquash #howtocook #howtocookzucchini #italianfood @italynearme #howtocookvegetables #howtocookvegetablestew

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Ingredients: 

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

Method: 

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

Buon appetito!

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Italian Herb Basil – Basilico

 

Basilico Basil
Ornamental basil with leaves of different sizes and colors

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Caprese Salad

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

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Caprese Salad: Let’s use our fresh basil (basilico), heirloom tomatoes, and buffalo mozzarella with extra virgin olive oil to make this flavorful salad from the Italian island of Capri. The secret is very ripe tomatoes and a little sea salt to allow the tomato juices to escape and blend with the olive oil. Buon appetito! #osnap #chicagogardening #chicagogardener #chicagogarden #italyinamerica #italiangardenstyle #basil #basilico #basilico🌱 #basilsalad #tomatoandbasil #tomatobasil #basilandtomato #basilandtomatoes #freshbasilandtomatoes #buffalomozzarella #buffalomozzarellacheese #buffalomozzarellasalad @chicagolanditalians @niafitalianamerican @sons_of_italy #freshsummersalad #freshsummertomoatoes #italianfood #italiangardens #italianfood

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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.

 

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Great summer squash dish using your garden fresh French persil, Italian prezzemolo or parsley! Make a persillade from Provence region of France and add to a vegetable saute. Your kids will love eating their vegetables! Method: Chop parsley and then garlic finely. Mix together and chop again. Saute yellow squash and zucchini in olive oil. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Add persillade mixture. Violà! #chicagogardening #chicagogardener #chicagogarden #italyinamerica #italiangardenstyle #franceinamerica #franceinamerica🇫🇷🇺🇸 #osnap @niafitalianamerican @chicagolanditalians @sons_of_italy #herbgarden #herbs #herb #parsley #parsleypants #parsleyhealth #prezzemolo #prezzemoloevitale #persil #persillade #frenchcooking #frenchcookingathome #frenchcookingclass #frenchcountrycooking #cookingfresh #frenchprovincialcooking #cookingfrench #frenchherbs #italianherbs #frenchherbs #makemorefrenchfood

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