Jewish Journal


May 17, 2007

Say ‘grazie’ for ricotta-filled Italian delights


Shavuot begins exactly seven weeks after Passover and brings with it centuries of food traditions.

Because some say milk and cheese symbolize the purity of the Torah, it is the festival when dairy foods are normally served. The holiday also celebrates the spring harvest, a time when a new crop of fresh vegetables and fruits begin to appear.

This year I am inspired to prepare a few of my favorite Italian dishes, which I discovered on one of our trips to Italy. We usually spend two to three months a year there, renting a house and shopping at the local open markets where we find wonderful treasures of fresh vegetables along with a selection of wonderful cheeses, like aged Parmesan and fresh ricotta. There are probably more Italian recipes that contain dairy products than in any other country.

For a fun first course, serve fresh fava beans, which you can find in your open farmer's market. No recipe necessary, just boil the shelled fava beans, remove the outer skin, toss them in olive oil with diced pecorino cheese, season with salt and pepper and spoon the mixture into small cappuccino cups.

Follow with an Onion-Anchovie Pizza, which features an easy-to-make pizza dough. Roll it out very thin and top with a rich and savory mixture of slow-cooked sweet onions and garlic.

Garnish with pungent anchovies, Parmesan cheese and drizzle with olive oil. Simply bake for 30 minutes in a hot oven, cut into wedges and serve.

When we are cooking in Italy we can't resist buying zucchini squash blossoms at the marketplace. They make a delicious taste treat for the holiday and are now available. They take a little effort, but are worth it. Fill with a ricotta cheese mixture and when baked they puff up like little pillows.

Risotto is the carrier for almost any ingredient, but spring vegetables are the perfect combination. To be truly delicious it should be made just before serving. It takes exactly 18 minutes to cook and you must stir constantly, while adding broth. Invite your guests to join you in the kitchen, offer them a glass of wine and a chance to stir the risotto.

Individual ricotta cheese souffles are a wonderful dessert. Mix the cheese, egg yolks and lemon zest several hours before the guests arrive. Then after dinner, fold the egg white meringue into the mixture, fill the souffle molds and bake. No one minds waiting a few extra minutes to taste these warm, light and flavorful desserts.

Enjoy Shavuot with your family and friends, and Buon Appetito.

Fresh Fava Beans With Pecorino Cheese
3 pounds fresh, young fava beans (about 2 cups)
1 cup diced pecorino cheese
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Shell fava beans and discard the pods. Parboil the fava beans in boiling water, about five minutes. Cool and pop them out of their skins.

Just before serving, spoon the fava beans and pecorino into a bowl. Drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste. Spoon into serving bowls or cups.

Makes six to eight servings.

Onion-Anchovy Pizza
Pizza dough (recipe follows)
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds (3 or 4 large) onions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 2-ounce can anchovy fillets, drained
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Prepare the pizza dough, cover with a towel and set aside.

In a large skillet, heat 4 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the onions and garlic. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and cook on low heat for 20 minutes. Stir occasionally to avoid sticking. Do not allow onions to brown. Makes about three cups.

Divide pizza dough in four equal parts and roll one part in a round circle. Brush a round pizza baking dish with olive oil and sprinkle with cornmeal. Place the onion mixture on the pizza round. Garnish with anchovies in a circular pattern. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over the top (optional). Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Repeat with remaining dough.

Makes four pizzas.

Pizza Dough
2 packages active dry yeast
Pinch of sugar
1 1/4 cups warm water (110-115 F)
1/4 cup olive oil
3 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt

Dissolve the yeast with the sugar in 1/2 cup of the water and set aside until foamy.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining 3/4 cup water, the olive oil and yeast mixture.

Stir in the flour and salt and stir in 1 cup at a time, until the dough begins to come together into a rough ball. Spoon onto a floured board and knead until smooth and elastic.

Place the dough in an oiled bowl, oil its top, cover, and set in a warm place for about 15 minutes, or use immediately.

Ricotta Filled Zucchini Squash Blossoms
20 squash blossoms, with tiny zucchini attached, when available
1 pound fresh ricotta cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 egg yolks or whole eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Carefully open blossoms wide and remove the pistils (fuzzy yellow floret) from inside the center of the zucchini blossoms and discard. Set aside.

To prepare the stuffing: In a large bowl, beat the ricotta, Parmesan, eggs, and salt until smooth. Taste for seasoning; the mixture should be highly seasoned. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

To fill the blossoms: Spoon the filling into a large pastry bag, or a small spoon will do. Fill the blossoms about three quarters full and gently squeeze and twist the petals, over the filling, together at the top.

Brush two 8-by-10-inch baking dishes with olive oil and arrange the stuffed zucchini flowers in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the blossoms with salt, pepper and olive oil. Cover with aluminum foil and bake until cheese is puffy and the juices that run from the blossoms begin to bubble. To serve, arrange two stuffed blossoms on each serving plate and spoon the sauce remaining in the baking dish on top.

Makes 10 servings.

Risotto With Spring Vegetables
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 1/2 cups Arborio rice
8 cups vegetable broth or water, heated
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
1 cup thinly sliced asparagus, tough bottoms discarded
1 cup diced zucchini
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup grated Parmesan
1/4 cup cream

In a large pot, heat 3 tablespoons of the butter and saute onion over medium heat until soft. Add rice and mix well with a wooden spoon, coating with butter mixture.

Add the broth or water 1/2 cup at a time, enough to cover the rice, stirring well after each addition. Wait until each addition of broth or water is almost completely absorbed before adding the next 1?2 cup. After 10 minutes, add peas, asparagus and zucchini and continue adding broth. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mix until the rice is just tender, 10 minutes.

Add 1/2 cup of the grated Parmesan, the remaining 3 tablespoons butter and cream.
Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Individual Ricotta Souffles
2 tablespoons unsalted butter for molds
14 ounces fresh, unsalted ricotta cheese
8 large eggs, separated
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon Sambuca or other anise-flavored liqueur
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Brush eight 6-ounce souffle molds with butter and place in the refrigerator.

In a large bowl, strain the ricotta (for a creamy consistency), by pressing it through a fine sieve or strainer. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, until well blended. Mix in the lemon zest and Sambuca. (At this point you can cover the mixture with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to 4 hours.)

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until foamy. Add 1/2 cup of the sugar and salt, and beat until stiff peaks form. Gently fold into the ricotta mixture. Dust the prepared molds evenly with the remaining sugar. Line an ovenproof pan that is large enough to hold the cups with a cloth. Place the prepared molds in the pan and carefully spoon the ricotta mixture into the molds. Fill one third of the pan with hot water and bake for 20 minutes, or until souffles are puffy and golden brown. Dust with confectioners' sugar and serve immediately.

Makes eight souffles.

Judy Zeidler is the author of "The Gourmet Jewish Cook" (Morrow, 1988) and "The 30-Minute Kosher Cook" (Morrow, 1999). "Judy's Kitchen" will soon to appear on Jewish Life Television. Her Web site is members.aol.com/jzkitchen.

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