The Birds & the Bees of Zucchini Flowers... or... Everything you always wanted to know about Zucchini Flowers (but were afraid to ask)

It's that time year when zucchini blossoms are everywhere here in Italy... and they happen to show up frequently in my cooking classes and private dinners... ;-)  But there is more to the humble zucchini blossom that meets the eye! For instance, did you know that there are both male and female flowers on each zucchini plant, and that each serves a different purpose in the culinary world?

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Let's begin with the female - she is easy to recognize as she can be found on a short stem close to the center of the plant literally 'birthing' the zucchini.  In fact, they are frequently sold with their little zucchini offspring attached.  The flower is bulbous near to the stem and the stigma inside is composed of tiny 'fingers' to catch pollen from the males.  The females tend to be softer and wither rather quickly after harvest, so I use them to toss in pasta dishes and frittatas. 

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Our friend the male zucchini blossom, on the other hand, stands at attention (hee hee) on a long slender stem.  Inside you will find a single stamen, which one could correlate with a part of the human anatomy (ahem).  The male flowers tend to remain, umm, firmer (insert joke here)... so I use them for stuffing and deep frying as they can better take the heat.

Here is my recipe for Fiori di Zucca Fritti (Fried Zucchini Blossoms)

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Mozzarella (a type made for pizza – drier than traditional buffalo mozzarella)
Salted anchovies (de-spined, rinsed and cut into small pieces)
All-pupose flour
1 ice cold beer (I use a mild tasting beer like Peroni)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (sometimes I cut the oil with organic sunflower seed oil to cut down on the cost)
 
CzirVDO2i0Hud8g3Ld0dFkamMA30iM-Qh9MXtDq1s0_BCu78UtQuk3x57iuOsWfo14-FSARpIdqA2TQnf7tmxIgmAy3eIjB18Oo-MkU8QdsS9TqHxENOYREugORYmicuM4RWT-hYrkh79A2LAly1lBopopNK7W2sutGN1cRZWYzdlv1DvD2z2s72pNRaU_dQtVXTMDrouwVa7WQRq-99l5uwqsq4hKCarefully remove the stamens from the zucchini flowers. 
Then stuff each flower with a piece of mozzarella and a piece of anchovy and twist to close.  
Whisk the beer into the flour, should be like pancake batter.
Pass each flower in the batter.
Drop into hot oil to fry, will be done after 2-3 minutes, when the bubbles start to slow down.
Drain on paper towels and salt while hot.


100th Rave Reviews on TripAdvisor!

I'm proud to announce that we have just received our 100th outstanding review on TripAdvisor!  Thanks to my partners and travellers to Umbria for making each experience unique and fun! Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 16.02.26

 


Farmers' Markets in Umbria: Back to the Future!

Bruschettina-1One of the biggest culture shocks I experienced when I moved to Umbria from Seattle was something completely unexpected  - there were no farmers' markets!  Now, whilst living in Seattle, I was a central part of the booming farmers' market industry there - I had a very popular stand called Bruschettina, lines down the block, I even had an employee - the farmers' markets were my life.... So imagine my shock (and dismay and horror) when I moved to a place where, honestly, in America we think we are modelling our markets after, that is barren, so to speak. 

Understand that other than bananas and citrus, I had not bought a piece of produce in a supermarket in years.  I was dying on the inside...  The 'markets' here were what I oh-so- lovingly deemed Socks and Underwear Markets.  Basically a bunch of stalls selling knock off clothing and plastic crap.  Deep within the rows of socks and underwear, there might be a fruit/veg stand, but you know if they are selling bananas (and they always are) that most likely nothing is local and forget about organic.

When I moved from Foligno to Cannara I had the absolute fortune of discovering Ada.  Ada is mentioned frequently on my blog as she was my 'savior.'  She and her family have a small farm here and she sells her produce 2 days a week in our town.  So that solved my produce predicament, but I was still driving all over the hinterlands to buy meat, cheese, grains etc...

Now, I always joke that Italy follows in the footsteps of the United States (right or wrong), only 20 years later.  When the American style big box stores and supermarkets came in, small farmers in the area went out, as did the markets.  Slowly but surely, Italy is again following the fashion (better late than never) and catching on to the Farmers' Market trend.  What really kills me is when I see Farmers' Market written in English - I just want to scream - don't you know this is your lost tradition?!?!  Anyway....

In the past few years, a national group called Campagna Amica has been introducing markets showcasing local products all over Italy... and I am so happy!  The first time I went to one I felt all the memories of the Seattle markets rush back because many of the producers in these Campagna Amica markets are already my friends/ trusted producers - now finally all together!

If you are visiting Umbria, please take the time to visit and support one of these local markets, granted they are not the immense banquets of Provence, but it's a start in getting back to our future.

Weekly (not socks & underwear) Markets in Umbria

  • Santa Maria degli Angeli (Assisi) - Monday
  • Todi - Monday
  • Spoleto - Tuesday 
  • Città di Castello - Tuesday
  • Perugia (Pian di Massiano) - Thursday
  • Foligno - Friday
  • Gubbio - Saturday
  • Umbertide - Saturday

Most of the markets run from 8:00 - 12:00/13:00.  Perugia also holds an organic market once a month and of course, Ada is in Cannara on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

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My New Food & Wine Tours in Umbria for 2015!

See Umbria through the eyes of a Chef with
Jennifer from Life Italian Style!


A professional chef since 1998 by way of Philadelphia and Seattle, Jennifer is now a private chef and leader of active Food & Wine tours in the heart of Umbria. She works closely with the local, artisan producers she has met over the years and keeps her ears open at the markets, always ready to learn a new traditional recipe from an Italian Nonna to share with you!


Custom Food & Wine Tours
Single or multiple day tours available for guided exploration of the best local artisan producers in Umbria!


Private Chef in Umbria
A classic Umbrian dinner prepared directly in guest villa, using only the best local and seasonal ingredients. Umbrian DOC wines included. “Pizza Night” available for those staying in villas with a pizza oven. Please enquire for Cooking Classes as well!


Cycling Tour of the Umbrian Valley
Tour along country roads with a professional Italian guide through the beautiful vineyard and olive grove covered hills of the Umbrian Valley, stopping in small villages along the way. A full Umbrian Picnic lunch in the countryside completes the day!
Hiking and Walking Tours also available.


Horseback Riding & Winery Lunch
A 45 minute tour on horseback (no experience necessary) through the vineyards of the Terre Margaritelli winery in the countryside of Torgiano (just outside of Perugia), followed by a tour of the winery, wine tasting and lunch.

Nature Abounds in the Valnerina
We begin our day with a visit to a local pecorino cheese maker to see the production of various sheep’s milk cheeses.  This is followed by a visit to a local family which specializes in saffron production. We will then take a walk through the forest with them to forage for edible and medicinal herbs. Afterwards we enjoy a lunch with a guided tasting of local sheep & goat cheeses as well as delicacies prepared with foraged greens.

Farm to Table Tour
Our first stop is at a unique stone flour mill and wood-fired oven bakery. We learn about breadmaking beginning with grain!  We then move up to a local farm where a local family raises animals for salumi making, meat and cheese production. We will make cheese and pasta with Nonna Rita before indulging in a traditional farm lunch.
*Wild Asparagus hunting in the Spring
*Truffle hunting available in June and July

The Artisans of Perugia
We begin at the base of the historic town with a visit to the weekly farmers’ market. Then we will move up into the center to discover the lost art of weaving jaquard and silks on 17th century looms. We then stroll through the city stopping in artisanal bottegas along the ways before enjoying lunch in an enoteca known for its exclusive use of Umbrian products.

Meat Lover’s Tour
A tour of a local farm which raises prize-winning Chianina (native white cow of Italy), Cinta Senese pigs, sheep, birds, and crops. Included is a brief demonstration of butchery & salumi making. We then move on to the Terre Margaritelli for a lunch of grilled meats from the farm accompanied by a wine tasting & tour.

Wine and Chocolate Tour
We will first visit an artisanal chocolate producer to see how some of their specialties are produced.  From there we will move on to the Terre Margaritelli winery for a tour of the winery and full wine tasting lunch.

Umbrian Cooking Class & Lunch
Cooking classes are held in the rural village of Cannara, located in the heart of Umbria between Asissi and Spello or directly in guest villa. They are based around the best local ingredients in season, and includes making antipasto, primo, secondo and dolce followed by a lunch (eating what we just made, of course!)


Please contact Jennifer directly
at lifeitalianstyle@gmail.com
for booking and information!

 


 


The Year of the Summer Truffle

Wait!  Aren't summer truffles usually considered to be the lesser truffle?  Well, usually, yes.  Summer IMG_8540 black truffles are always around - they don't taste like much, tend to be dry and kind of woody, and they are cheap (or, cheaper, than their winter cousins).  These are the truffles that get thrown into all of those salse tartufate, or truffle "sauces" that one sees around.

But that was then, and this is 2013, the year I am proclaiming "The Year of the Summer Truffle!"  If you have been following Umbrians or tourists in Umbria on any social media platform from about October 2012 - June 2013, you probably nocticed a common thread amongst posts:  RAIN.  So. Much. Rain.  And that rain did a lot of damage to property, crops, tourism, everything.  But it seems to have done something good as well:  the truffles this year are AMAZING!

I recently toured a group through a little farm in the hills above Cannara, and novice truffle hunter, Filippo, age 11, was there showing off his early morning find - a giant black truffle!  When we grated* some off for our pasta (investigative work is hard!), we discovered not the usual big, loose white veined summer truffle, but a dark beauty with tiny, tight, barely visible veins - like a winter truffle!  And the taste - a delicious fruity nuttiness - very unexpected.  If the summer truffles are this good now, I can only hope this fall will produce a bounty of black gold as well!

*Note that I said grated, not shaved.  Black truffles, unlike their white cousins, are rarely served shaved.  This is because their texture, even in their finest moments, can be a little woody.   The correct way to serve black truffles is grated and cooked with olive oil, garlic, and parsley, as the cooking process helps to bring out the flavor.  Then, for appearances, you can shave a few on top.  If someone serves you a heaping plate of tagliatelle with only uncooked shaved black truffles, know that this is INCORRECT.  Only white truffles can be eaten in this manner.

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Al Mare... or 'Down the Shore...Italian Style

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(For those not familiar with Philadelphian dialect, 'down the shore means at the beach.)

I've been writing about my time in Italy for almost 8 years now, and somehow it seems that I have never written about my absolute favorite part of Italian life, going to the beach! Here is my quick guide to navigating the shores of the boot:

1.  Which coast?
I haven't been to all of the beaches in all of the regions yet, but I have hit quite a few... and my conclusion is that, being an East Coast girl myself, I also prefer the beaches on the East Coast of Italy.  The main reason is that they cost less (at least those within a 2 1/2 hour drive of central Umbria)- the chic beaches on the Tyrrhenian Sea (Tuscany and the Amalfi area can cost more than double of those on the Adriatic).

CONTINUE READING...

Continue reading "Al Mare... or 'Down the Shore...Italian Style" »


Thanks + Giving

Well, I've said it before and I will say it again:  Thanksgiving is actually more fun in Italy than it is in the states.  I think it is because Italians get even more excited than we do about the thought of a giant roasted, stuffed turkey (as a rule, turkeys do not get roasted whole here).  In the past I've done all or most of the cooking (especially when I held our annual Thanksgiving at my ex-restaurant Basiliko'). This year I had a pot-luck  at Palazzo delle Signorine in Cannara with a mix of American and Italian guests - and it turned out to be the best Thanksgiving yet! (I even convinced an Italian friend to take a stab at making Green Bean Casserole - which was a hit, of course, and made Hot Turkey Sandwiches for the post-party stragglers... I will conceal the identity of the person who ate THREE!)

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(more photos on the Life Italian Style Facebook page - like it!)

So in the spirit of the holiday season, I just wanted to take a moment to THANK all of the people who GAVE support to Life Italian Style this year:  tourists and travellers, tour operators, my partners, friends old and new, and especially the writers and bloggers who have been so kind as to mention me in their contributions.  I hope I was able to GIVE back to all of you a memorable (and delicious) experience in Umbria!

GRAZIE MILLE! to the following writers:

Adventurous Kate: The Ultimate Umbrian Feast

Legal Nomads: Photoessay - Umbria in Three Days

Landing Standing: Tradition: The Secret to Umbrian Cuisine

Solo Traveler: Solo Travelers Celebrate - and think Umbria

Hipmunk: Terre Margaritelli in Umbria: Food, Wine & Romance

The Looptail/Gadventures: 5 Lesser-Known Places to Visit in Umbria

Come for the Wine: Wines of Italy Series - Terre Margaritelli

Brigolante: Italy Roundtable: Zen and the Art of Making Gnocchi

Vindulge: Makin' Gnocchi - The Recipe

Vindulge & IWINETC: Terre Margaritelli Winery - Umbrian Hospitality

Messina Hof: Terre Margaritelli Winery

 


The Secret Garden of Umbria

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I have a secret place….

And this place has a secret garden….

I don’t remember how I found it…. 

I think I was driving around with friends….

I go there to pick black figs…

I play the magic chimes with a spoon….

I sit in the stone chair….

I listen to the wind blow through the wooden pipe…

I admire the strange statues…

I breathe in the perfume of the mentuccia….

I won’t tell you where it is…

Just… that it’s somewhere in Umbria….

 

Photos here on Flickr


Sotto Sopra

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In English we say that we are “putting up” when we talk about preserving fruits & vegetables, but in Italy, many things are “put under,” or sotto, such as sotto sale (under salt), sott'aceto (under vinegar), sott’olio (under oil), and sotto spirito (under alcohol, usually brandy).  Now, I’ll be the first to admit it:  I don’t really like to jar or can or put things up or down or whatever you want to call it!

Every spring I get big romantic ideas about putting up (or under) each and every vegetable separately… and then summer comes along.  Its just not a good time.  I don’t know about you, but when I’m sweltering through a 2 month 100° (40°) heatwave, the last thing I want to do is boil big vats of stuff on my stove, heating up the house even more than I thought possible.  Not to mention, summer is tourist season – I’m busy cooking for other people (although I’m seriously considering a summer cooking class specializing in torture, I mean jarring, to help me achieve all of my jarred veggie goals….).

So, like always, I wait until the last possible second, praying for at the very least a break in the scorching temperatures…But there is no pleasant respite and now its crunch time.  Ada, my vegetable lady, warns me that these are absolutely the last tomatoes she will have for making sauce, and I can see the figs literally falling off of the trees – their brief moment of perfection is passing quickly.

Begrudgingly, I get to work (because in the winter, there is nothing better than starting a hearty meal with bright vinegary summer vegetables, and I’ll be sorry later if I don’t do this…)… Nooo, I did not meticulously preserve every vegetable as originally intended, but I did manage to do a few of my favorites:  carciofi sott’olio (artichokes under oil -obviously my spring ambition plan started here), nocino (green walnut liquor), salsa di pomodoro (tomato sauce), melanzane sott’olio (eggplant under oil), peperoni in agrodolce (peppers in a sweet and sour brine), peperoncini farciti (tuna-stuffed hot peppers under oil), and a few flavors of jam.

And, wouldn’t you know it, just as I was turning over that last jar of jam (see some photos here on Flickr), a storm blew away the summer and brought in cool autumn breezes…. (oooohh...I'm shaking my fist in the air...)

 

N.B.  as I publish this, summer seems to have returned – I hope that doesn’t mean that I have to start jarring again!

 


Sagra-landia

Here's a copy of the guest post I did for Silvia Ceriegi of Trippando!

It’s that time of year again, when small towns in Umbria (and the rest of Italy) literally explode with festivals. Some are music festivals, some are art festivals, some are religious festivals, but my favorites are the food festivals, le sagre.

 So how do you find a sagra?

While you are taking a stroll through town, look around! Posters are usually plastered all over the walls of piazzas boasting the lastest party.

How do you know which ones are good?

I judge a sagra based on organizzation, activities, and general atmosphere, but the golden rule is this: I go “dove si mangia bene,” in other words, where you eat well. Now, there are hundreds of sagras around – some are obviously for kids, like the Sagra della Nutella, some have nothing to do with anything – like the Sagra della Tequila (I’m not making that up!) and some are just plain out of season – like the Sagra della Ciliegia (cherry) which tends to go on a month before cherries are in season (where are they getting their cherries, I wonder???).

So how do you choose? Let common sense be your guide: are you in Norcia in the fall/winter season? Then you can bet that if there is a mushroom or truffle sagra a) you’re in the right place, in the right season, and b) its a local product, so c) it must be good! Still not sure? Grab an older citizen of the town you are in, point to a poster and ask “si mangia bene?” If they nod yes, you are good to go… if they nod no, no worries, people here tend to be full of opinions about food, so they will surely point you in the right direction!

How do they work?

Every sagra is different, and sometimes it can be confusing even to Italians…but most work like this:

1. Bring a pen – you will need it

 2. Look for a long line in front of a booth with a sign Cassa – this is usually where you order and pay.

3. Get a menu – usually there is a table somewhere in front of the cassa with menus scattered around on it. Here is where your pen comes in – check the boxes next to each item that you want to order – its usually 1 menu per table so if you want more than one of something, just fill in the box with a number.

4. Find a table – after you’ve waited in line and ordered and paid, the real challenge awaits – finding a table! We usually split up, so while one person is ordering the food, the other goes hunting for a good spot.

Here’s a little tip: if you see a sweet little old lady sitting by herself at a long empty table, don’t even bother to ask if there is space available as she has been sent on a mission by the younger members of her family to guard their places (usually about 2 tables worth). If you even look twice at those empty seats, that sweet little old lady will practically jump on the table and shoot flames out of her eyes at you to defend her spot!… just keep looking…

5. Once you have a seat, look for a server. The servers are always local volunteers and tend to range in age from 5-15, and then 80+. They will then take your reciept and disappear until the food is ready. Don’t be surprised if dessert comes out with your antipasti, or they just bring everything all together – that’s just the way it is!

And then???

Just when you feel like you are about to explode from eating and drinking, the band starts up and everyone hits the dancefloor! This will explain some of the “outfits” you may have seen as the dress code tends to go from summer casual shorts and t-shirts to clubbing-all-night gear to elegant gala ensembles. Those better dressed individuals will be strutting there stuff all night long, dancing to everything from old italian folk tunes to YMCA – don’t be afraid to join in!

My personal favorites….

Here’s my shortlist of what I consider to be the best sagras in the central Umbrian Valley:

1. Sagra della Porchetta in Costano: this is a whole hog sagra – you can eat everything: roasted ear and foot, braised tripe, liver, salumi, the list goes on… 

2. Sagra della Lumaca in Cantalupo: this little snail sagra stays near and dear to my heart as it was the first sagra I ever went to in Italy and still continues to be my favorite – my husband and I even had them cook their famous roasted snails at our wedding!

3. Festa della Cipolla in Cannara: this is the big daddy of sagras, and all to celebrate the humble onion! This sagra has everthing: a market which winds through the town, art shows, multiple concerts every night, the onion disco pub, and 6 different stands where you can eat – my favorite is La Taverna del Castello – they make the best onion parmigiana around… and don’t forget the onion cream-filled doughnuts for dessert!