Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Gardening and Squash Blossoms
With gardening, as with many things, my reach often exceeds my grasp. I envision a lush, loosely landscaped edible garden just outside my back door, yet the measly effort I end up expending generally leaves me with a half-assed, scraggly imposter. I don't have a brown thumb, exactly, more a lazy thumb with high hopes. I start out with the best of intentions, and I'm great at the obsessive reading and purchasing part of the garden. But once the miasma of humidity and mosquitoes descends on DC like a dust storm in Phoenix it's all I can do to provide a little water first thing in the morning.
I should mention that I do very well with hardy herbs that require little or no human intervention to thrive. I love a plant that demands little of me yet yields great rewards. I've found that sage, thyme, parsley, mint, oregano, marjoram, tarragon and parsley fit the bill in my garden boxes and pots. Most of them survive the winter here quite nicely, sprouting forth again in spring. I added a few new herbs this year, lemon verbena and sorrel, as well as cilantro, epazote and shiso which I'm growing from seed. I'll see if these are as easy to grow as the rest.
This year, my desire for vegetables that I can't easily acquire in a local store or farm stand led me to go beyond the herbs. I bought organic seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom and Johnny's and started them on my kitchen window seat in cow pots. I then bought Smart Pots and a raised bed planter to keep the plants up off the ground.
And so I find myself the caregiver of a tomatillo plant as well as four varieties of tomato. Only time will tell whether these plants are hardy enough to withstand the DC heat and my erratic attention. I suspect I will do a much better job with the fall plants that I've not yet had a chance to traumatize, such as Chinese broccoli, kale and lettuce.
My father-in-law's garden in Western Massachusetts, on the other hand, benefits from the heroic efforts he and his friend, Susan, have been lavishing on the terraced, hillside beds running up to the woods behind the house. When we visited last weekend, we dined on squash, zucchini and lettuce from the garden thanks to their efforts. They also gave us some lettuce and squash and squash blossoms to take home with us.
Squash blossoms are just the sort of thing that brought me to gardening. If you try to buy them in a farm market the price is ridiculous. Yet, if you have just a few backyard plants, or your father-in-law does, you have more than you know what to do with. They are irresistible with their saffron hued, trumpet like flare and subtle, yet delicious flavor.
Yesterday, I spent a chunk of the afternoon thinking about what I'd make with the squash blossoms, never considering that I could have spent some of that time taking care of my lagging San Marzano tomatoes. One of the most popular preparations is to stuff them with a mixture of ricotta cheese and herbs, then bread and deep fry the blossoms. While I love them this way, I don't deep fry. Sara Jenkins has a recipe in her Olives and Oranges in which the stuffed blossoms are simmered in tomato sauce, and though this sounds delicious, it just didn't speak to me yesterday. Plus, I had no ricotta cheese. And, as we'd had eggs a couple of nights earlier, I also crossed a frittata off my mental list.
Finally, I decided on risotto to accompany the rockfish I'd bought earlier in the day, but rather than use rice, I thought farro would make a hearty complement to the squash and fish. As I had a load of blossoms and only a few little sprouts of baby squash, I added some shelled peas to the mix. I used a basic risotto style to cook the dish, though I have found with farro that it is better to add most of the stock at once rather than in the cupfuls as you would with a regular risotto.
Farro and Squash Blossom Risotto (or Farrotto)
(serves 3 - 4 as a side dish)
1 - 2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 fat shallot or 2 smaller ones, minced
1 nice sized clove of garlic, minced (I had some green garlic so used that this time)
1 small zucchini or yellow summer squash, diced small (or two if you'd rather omit the peas)
1 cup semi-pearled, or perlato, farro
1/3 cup dry white wine
3 cups homemade or no or low sodium chicken stock or broth
1/2 cup shelled peas, from about a quarter of a pound fresh peas in the shell
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
about 2 ounces of squash blossoms, cut in a chiffonade, reserve a pinch or two for garnish
1/4 cup basil cut in a chiffonade, reserve a pinch or two for garnish
1/2 cup shredded or shaved Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, reserve a pinch or two for garnish
salt and pepper to taste
1. In a sauce pan, bring stock to a simmer.
2. Heat a small Dutch oven or high sided skillet (not non-stick!) over medium heat and add the oil.
3. Cook the shallot for a couple of minutes over medium heat until it starts to soften and become translucent. Add a pinch of salt and a grind or two of black pepper and mix. Add the garlic and zucchini or squash and cook another minute or two, stirring often.
4. Add the farro and stir to let all the farro get a little coated with the oil.
5. Add the wine and raise heat so that the wine simmers in the pan. Mix.
6. When the wine has cooked off, add 1 cup of the stock to the farro pan. Add another pinch of salt and grind of pepper. Make sure the stock comes to a high simmer - not quite a boil, but a good bit of bubbling. Stir often until the stock cooks down and the pan is almost dry. Then add the rest of the stock and let it bubble, stirring often, until about two thirds of the liquid cooks down. At this point, add the peas and stir again. This step should take about 20 minutes.
7. When the liquid is just a think coating on the pan, lower the heat to low, and swirl in the butter.
8. When the butter is fully incorporated, add the squash blossoms and basil and mix gently.
9. Add the cheese and continue to mix gently. Taste and add more salt and pepper to taste, if you like.
10. Arrange in serving bowl with the remainder of the squash blossoms, basil and cheese on top.