When you travel, what’s the most memorable moment during your trip? For me, the unforgettable moments are inevitably associated with food. When I plan a trip, I spend most of time looking for local markets, street venders, wineries and restaurants. I enjoy exploring the food scene and immersing myself in different cultures. I find this kind of experience very inspiring for me as a chef instructor.
Last fall, I went to an E.V.O.O. tasting seminar at Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. The event was held by Extra Healthy Living. I quickly became friends with Natalia Ravida, the president of Ravida E.V.O.O. I have always believed that human beings are naturally drawn to like-minded people. Both Natalia and I enjoy cooking, we have similar taste for fashion, and most important of all, we’re both incredibly passionate about what we do! She invited me to visit her in Sicily the very first day we met at Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.
I couldn’t resist taking her up on her offer!
So, here I am, pulling my luggage in one hand, holding my five-year-old girl in the other hand, and standing in front of her door. After I rang the bell, Natalia and her son Alfredo came to greet us. Her house is a beautiful Liberty-style house. I almost couldn’t believe we were going to stay in such a wonderful place for a couple of days! There was a tranquil back yard full of exotic flowers. Roses, my favorite flowers, were blooming alone the pergola. There was a nice pool in the back. When we were swimming, pink flower petals dropped from the tree and floated on the water. It was so romantic! When I was in Natalia’s house, it was so peaceful that I felt time lingered. I was able to get away from the hustle bustle of Boston and find peace there. If there is any motto that should be applied when you travel to Sicily, it should be “Eat, drink and be merry.”
When you cook with foodies, the joy is doubled. That’s probably why Natalia and I enjoy cooking together so much. When Natalia and I planned the menu for each meal, I was impressed by how much attention she paid to seasonal ingredients. For Sicilians, “farm to table” is not a marketing term for restaurants and eateries. “Farm to table” is the norm of their daily lives. Why? Because they are less fortunate (or more fortunate, depending on how you look at it) to NOT have as many choices as Americans have when it comes to grocery shopping. Sicilians master cooking with local and seasonal ingredients because of necessity. They have great relationships with the local venders of produce and the fishmongers. Grocery shopping is an opportunity for people to socialize in the market. Italians are full of passion and they talk with their body language. Even just observing how they shop and talk was very interesting to me.
Here in Boston, even though the winter is very long and our local berry season is incredibly short, we see berries in supermarkets all year around. This also applies to much other seasonal produce as well, such as tomatoes, apples, etc. I believe that it is due to this fact that many people have lost their excitement to celebrate seasonal fruits. You can’t blame them. If strawberries are available in the supermarket all year around, why would anyone get excited seeing them? Nowadays, in the United States, we are used to seeing fruits that are not grown locally, and so the majority of Americans wouldn’t give the seasonality of fruit a second thought. Michael Pollan, however, raised an interesting question about this phenomenon in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. He writes, “Should we waste so much fuel energy transporting food? Should people learn how to celebrate the seasons with locally grown food?” According to Michael Pollan, the food system should be less about agribusiness and more about regional farmers and farmers markets. This would save a lot of money and energy when it comes to transporting foods a great distance.
While I often wonder if Michael Pollan’s vision will ever come true in United States, I saw it as everyday life for Sicilians. It is the norm there that people go to local markets to shop for locally grown ingredients. The produce was amazingly colorful and delicious. The seafood was superb. To my surprise, the price was so much more affordable than the organic ingredients we can purchase at Whole Foods. You may wonder, to what extent are Sicilians are sensitive to seasonal ingredients? Let me explain with an example. When we needed to use garlic and onions for cooking, Natalia said, I have some seasonal garlic. Her garlic looked completely different from the garlic we get in US. Then, she pointed to the onions in her baskets. There are onions of different colors: pink, purple, and yellow. She said the pink onions are at their best because it’s at the top of its season. Isn’t it amazing? Natalia paid such close attention to the ingredients we used day to day, such as these garlic and onions.
Zucchinis are seasonal during the summer in both Sicily and New England. What I found fascinating is how Sicilians use different part of the zucchini to create several different delicious dishes. One day, Natalia came home from the local market and surprised me with beautiful zucchini blossoms. I had never seen zucchini blossoms in United States. This dish is very simple to make. It’s crispy, colorful, and full of surprise. Any guest who tastes this dish will definitely be impressed. Here is the recipe of Natalia’s crispy zucchini blossoms. I hope you will love it as much as I do!
Ingredients for Crispy Zucchini Blossoms:
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup sparkling water
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus extra for seasoning
- 1 log sliced fresh mozzarella cheese, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil leaves
- 8 zucchini blossoms* see Chef’s Note
- Olive oil, for frying
Directions for Crispy Zucchini Blossoms:
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, water and salt until smooth. Set aside.
- Stuff mozzarella cheese and anchovies into each blossom. Close the blossoms and gently twist the petals to seal.
- In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, pour enough oil to fill the pan about a third of the way. Heat over medium heat until a deep-frying thermometer inserted in the oil reaches 350 degrees F. (If you don’t have a thermometer a cube of bread will brown in about 1 minute.) Dip the stuffed zucchini blossoms in the batter and allow any excess batter to drip off. Fry for 1 to 2 minutes, turning occasionally, until golden brown.
- Allow the cooked blossoms to drain on paper towels.
- Season with Sicilian sea salt
Chef’s Note: Baby bell peppers can be used as an alternative for zucchini blossoms. Cut off the tops and remove the seeds. Fill with the cheese and dip the cut end in flour before dipping in the batter.
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