"all things must pass"
george harrison (passed, 2001)
Festa di San Pietro e Paolo 2002 minus two (days). A Thursday evening. Rome got cheated out of a weekday holiday this year since June 29 falls on a Saturday. The streets seem rather quiet for late June in Rome as bob goes foraging for dinner. Porta Pia appears to be a popular (in the sense of "common people") neighborhood in the evening, absent all the white collar lunch crowd that makes midday so lively. The terrific fast-serve great-food lunch place at the beginning of via Nomentana (Primafila, number 7) that brought white collar bob back for dinner reverts to a normal restaurant pizzeria in the evening. For lunch it is bustling with activity, supplying choices of nearly every vegetable on the market deliciously prepared, some pasta salads, cheeses, fruit, some dead animal/fish dishes and a few super-quick fresh hot pastas on demand. A killer chocolate cake next to the register. At dinner it is still almost empty at 8:30pm. Plan B, find the risotto from last summer a couple blocks away. Al Padavano ("Venetian, Roman and seafood specialties", via Bergamo 50-52-52A). Also nearly empty. But the target risotto listed on their permanent all-season menu is still there and this is the season for zucchini flowers. Yes, they have it.
This summer bob hit the street with a cheap just-on-the-market first day purchase Motorola cell phone to plug into the Italian communication network. More important than arriving with luggage. Which rejoined bob after a short trip from Paris to Copenhagen two days later. Followed by a quick trip to Elba, including boat ride with swimming and relativity talks. Etc. Finally bob stabilizes back in Rome and calls everybody on the short list. Without much immediate success. Everybody is busy with their own lives, which complicate with age. The old days have passed. bob eats alone, again.
So Mario (the simpatico waiter), how is this risotto put together? Easy. The short story is that it is a small variation on risotto alla milanese (that means "with saffron" in this context). You do a standard recipe (see below) while making a "soffrito" of finely chopped zucchini flowers in butter or oil, and just before the rice is done, you add in the soffrito and get them acquainted while still on the burner. Then remove, add parmigiano. Done. The hard part is finding the zucchini flowers in the US. Good luck. If you score, this recipe is terrific stuff. If not, well, ignorance is bliss...?
We've never seen this anywhere else in Italy and only one US cookbook was found with a recipe, but somewhat more complicated. [Simply Tuscan by Pino Luongo]. For even less cash, bob gets the recipe, the dish, a quarter liter of house white wine (mistake, since when combined with the current heat wave, it induces excess sweat gland activity), bread, water and a regrettably large portion of heavy eggplant parmesan. 20.50 Euro, about 20 bucks. bob leaves a 2 Euro tip, that's about 4 thousand lire, unthinkably large in lira for Italian tipping norms, but these little coins seem so insignificant. And bob is happy about the food find.
The next day bob spends 30 minutes in line at his bank at the university. It's the last day to exchange lire for euro, and bob was stuck with 105 thousand lire from the previous summer, the changeover having occurred in his absence. With an Italian bankcard in his possession for years now, waiting in line at the bank was a distant memory, but one which was ready to repeat itself with out of the ordinary bank activities like this one. This euro thing is great. With current near parity between dollars and euros, price translation is unnecessary. Armed with 50 bucks from the dead currency, a few extra meals are financed.
Saturday, the Festa arrives, and Rome Gay Pride Day supplies the party. A big parade from Piazza della Repubblica (near Stazioni Termini, the main train station) to the famous Bocca della Verita (mouth of Truth). A dancing horned devil-dressed spokesperson shouts on the loudspeaker from a truck float: "They say we are against Nature!... Well, then ... better (to be) against Nature!" Met with cheers from the dancing masses in tow. They sure know how to have a good time. Too bad the world is still such an intolerant place.
Evening arrives. Bob's call for a social encounter never comes so he heads off for the open air free films at the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and Piazza Farnese all clustered together in the heart of old Rome without dinner. Arriving closest to the first, minutes before the film starts just after 9 o'clock. A classic film of short black and white episodes from the early 1960s with Vittorio Gassman (1922-2000) and Ugo Tognazzi directed by Dino Risi. I Mostri (1963). Perfect little doses of Italian comedy. The call finally comes (cell phone of course) and the family arrives just after the halfway point intermission traditional in Italian cinema. We wander over to Piazza Navona where Gassmann is visible on the far end but in color this time. Bob manages to get a tartufo nero at Bar Tre Scalini. Known throughout the world except by Romans. Not exactly the dinner he had in mind but tasty nonetheless.
What a wonderful evening for street social life hardly imaginable back in the States. Isabella (4) and Sofia (6) are having their first late Roman evening on the town. While waiting for Dad to arrive with the car near midnight, they discover an air vent which balloons up their pink dresses, and remain fascinated for the longest time.
So we gave 10 away to marybeth without whose encouragement we would not have undertaken this search which met immediate success, leaving 30 for fried zucchini flowers and risotto. The fried zucchini flowers we did in advance so we would not be slaving over the stove when our guests arrived, and reheated them in the oven as an appetizer when they finally did show up. Not quite like in a pizzeria in Italy but then the cooks are not socializing with the clients there either.
The only authentic recipe we had in our cooking library was a couple sentences long in Roma in Bocca, slightly mistranslated into english. Basically remove the pistils, carefully open and stuff each flower with a piece of anchovy and a cube of mozzarella cheese, then prepare a thick batter with flour, water and salt, dip them in and fry in lots of very hot oil. For the actual quantities, marcella at least had the batter described but did not bother to stuff the flowers. She says gradually add water to the flour until it reaches the consistency of sour cream, not very precise. We used a cup of flower and about 3/4 cup water and managed to do about 8 flowers with it, then repeated for another 8, trying to glob as much batter on as possible since in the frying stage the coating seems to thin out dramatically. marcella says salt the flowers immediately after pulling them out of the oil, but we just put some salt into the batter. The fine salt grains did not seem to want to stick anyway when we did a test shake over the finished product.
And marcella is also more explicit about the flower prep: don't soak the flowers, but very gently and quickly rinse them and then pat them dry with paper towels, and leave about an inch of stem to help with dipping and dropping into the hot oil. We forgot to remove the pistils but they were not noticeable in the finished product. We cut a medium mozzarella ball lengthwise into 1 cm square cross-section strips for the stuffing, and nixed the anchovies that we are not terribly fond of. It seemed to take forever for them to turn golden brown (maybe 15 minutes) as she suggested they should be before removal, but we were patient. Eventually they came around. We were able to do about 6 at a time in our 6 quart nonstick rice pot filled about 3/4 inch deep with vegetable oil.
We saved one wrapped flower to put in the freezer to see how long it would last. Those flowers that lost their stems in the prep process plus the rest were reserved for the risotto. About 13 all together if our count is right. We cut off the green bases and removed the pistils, and then cut them lengthwise into 3 strips. We coursely chopped half of them and left the rest intact, adding them at 3 stages during the rice cooking as suggested above, leaving the whole ones towards the end. ani dumped in our usual quantity of veggie broth paste before bob could stop her, but the dark brown addition did not diminish the bright yellow color of the saffron, and probably improved the taste. Which was good. Unfortunately the digital camera was accidentally set for a minimovie, which has terrible resolution, so a useful photo of the colorful finished dish doesn't exist. The original Roman restaurant dish will have to do.
A year after our first encounter with Federica's mom Luisa in which she surprised us with an unforgettable Sunday evening Abruzzese feast thrown together in a few hours after returning to Montesilvano (Pescara) from the weekend in their country home in Torre de' Passeri, we get to do a cooking workshop with her again on a Sunday but this time out at the country home. On the agenda: handmade ravioli and light fiori di zucca. Light? Well, in most pizzeria's where fiori di zucca are traditionally served as an appetizer, they are encased in a heavy crust of deep fried batter. Probably not very healthy.
Luisa teaches us a more healthy alternative.
She took one medium bowl in which she beat two eggs with a touch of salt. And a plate on which she put some flour with some grated parmigiano mixed. And heated about 1/4 inch of vegetable oil in a frying pan. Then we cut the end stem off each flower, and cut the flower lengthwise to open it up, removing the pistil. We coated the flower with egg and then each side with the flour-cheese mixture and then fried it in the pan until just golden. Then we removed it to drain on a paper towel on a plate. Very simple. Minimal crust. Mostly just zucchini flower. Delightful. Check out the illustrations.
We also took advantage of the availability of fiori di zucca in the June Roman supermarkets to experiment with a few zucchini and flower pasta and risotto dishes. Doesn't take much imagination once you have the flowers in hand. The results are always appetizing to taste and photograph.