Jewish Journal

Celebrate With First Fruits, Italian-Style

by Judy Zeidler

Posted on May. 20, 2009 at 7:03 pm

Shavuot, which begins exactly seven weeks after Passover, is a holiday that has a special association with two kinds of foods.

The first group is a combination of dairy dishes, such as noodle kugels, strudels, cheesecake and, of course, blintzes. Most of us remember these from our childhood. Laden with cream, butter and cheese, they may not appeal to us now as much as they did then.

The second group of foods, symbolic of the spring harvest of biblical times, includes wheat, barley, rice, honey, olives and the traditional “first fruits.”

Using many of these foods, I have planned an Italian-inspired menu for my family’s Shavuot dinner. These Shavuot recipes are designed for six, but may be doubled. They’re all light, easy to prepare and low in calories.

For our Shavuot celebration, we welcome our family with Smoked Salmon and Cheese-filled Panini garnished with a dill sauce, inspired by the panini we ate at one of our stops along the autostrada in Italy; these typical Northern Italian sandwiches are served with a small green salad topped with sunflower seeds.

Risotto made with arborio or carnaroli rice and several kinds of berries carries out the harvest theme. The first time I tasted this unusual dish was in a small ristorante in Pisa, and I was struck by the delicious combination of flavors. The rice is sautéed with onions, then simmered slowly as water or broth is added gradually along with the berries. Any leftovers can be shaped into latkes and fried for lunch or dinner the next day.

For the main course I prepare Halibut Fillets with Fennel Sauce, inspired by our friends, the Brovelli family, who own Il Sole, a hotel and Michelin restaurant on Lake Maggiore. When chef Davide Brovelli prepared this dish for us, it reminded me of the fish from the Sea of Galilee that I ate during our travels in Israel. Serve it with a fresh green vegetable for added color on the plate.

One of the nicest dairy desserts is Individual Ricotta Soufflés made in custard cups and served hot just out of the oven. This cheesecake soufflé-like dessert makes a wonderful finale for a special dinner and is easier to make than you think. I mix the cheese, egg yolks and lemon zest several hours before the family arrives. Then after dinner I fold the meringue into the egg yolk mixture, fill the soufflé molds and bake them. No one minds waiting — especially once they taste these flavorful steaming soufflés. The combination of sweet and tart flavors appeals to young and old.

Panini de Salmone Affumicatoe Formaggio (Smoked Salmon and Cheese Paniniwith Mustard-Dill Sauce)
1/2 cup Mustard-Dill Sauce (recipe follows)
6 slices smoked salmon
6 slices mozzarella cheese
12 slices sandwich bread

Prepare Mustard-Dill Sauce, cover with plastic wrap and chill.

Place sliced bread on a work board. Spread dill sauce on five slices of bread and top each with a slice of smoked salmon and a slice of cheese to cover. Cover with five remaining slices of bread.

Preheat your panini press or grill to medium heat.

Place the sandwiches in the panini press and close the lid. Grill the sandwich until the bread is toasty (golden brown) and the cheese is melted. Slice in quarters and serve immediately.

Makes six panini.

Mustard-Dill Sauce
3 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard
1 teaspoon powdered mustard
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon red or white vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh chopped (or snipped) dill

In a small, deep bowl, combine the Dijon-style mustard, powdered mustard, sugar and vinegar, blend well. With a wire whisk, slowly beat in the oil until it forms a thick mayonnaise. Stir in the chopped dill. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes about 1 cup.

Risotto al Frutti di Bosco(Risotto with Berries)
The berries produce a surprisingly savory dish; like fruit vinegar, they add flavor with just a hint of sweetness. Either fresh or frozen berries work beautifully in this dish.

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 onion, minced
1/2 cup strawberries, hulled and stems removed and sliced
1/2 cup whole raspberries, cut in half
1/2 cup blueberries
2 1/2 cups arborio rice
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
8 to 10 cups vegetable broth or water, heated
1/3 cup cream

In a heavy 4-quart pot, heat 4 tablespoons of the butter, add onion and sauté for two minutes, until it begins to soften, being careful not to brown.

Add rice, using a wooden spoon, stir for 1 minute making sure the grains are well coated. Begin to add the simmering broth, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring frequently. Wait until each addition is almost completely absorbed, about eight minutes.

Add the berries and continue cooking and adding broth until rice is tender but firm. Add remaining butter, Parmesan and cream and mix well.

Spoon into shallow bowls and serve immediately.

Makes six to eight servings.


Pesce con Salsa ai Finocchi(Davide’s Halibut Fillet with Fennel Sauce)
Davide Brovelli of Il Sole on Lago Maggiore prepared this for us one night. The anise liqueur and the fennel sauce were a perfect foil for the delicately prepared halibut. A tablespoon of ground fennel seeds added to the breadcrumbs is an alternative to the fennel flowers.

Fennel Sauce (recipe follows)
2 pounds halibut or sea bass, cut in cubes
1 cup anise liqueur
1 cup fennel flowers, bread crumbs or panko crumbs
Freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil for frying

Prepare the Fennel Sauce and keep warm.

Dip the halibut cubes into anise liqueur and then into fennel flowers and bread crumbs or panko crumbs. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, to taste.

In a nonstick frying pan, heat oil and brown halibut cubes. Arrange on serving plates and top with Fennel Sauce.

Makes six servings.


Fennel Sauce
1 head of fresh fennel, trimmed and thinly sliced
1/4 cup cream (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper

In a sauce pan add sliced fennel and enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer until tender, about 30 minutes, adding additional water if needed. Transfer to a blender or food processor with a little of the cooking liquid and blend until smooth. Add cream if desired. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Makes about 1 cup.


Piccoli Soufflé di Ricotta (Individual Ricotta Souffles)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter for molds
14 ounces fresh, unsalted ricotta cheese
6 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 F.

Brush eight 6-ounce soufflé 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 four hours before folding in the meringue.)

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 1/4 cup 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 six souffles.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Morrow, 1988) and “The International Deli Cookbook” (Chronicle, 1994). “Judy’s Kitchen” appears on Jewish Life Television. Her Web site is judyzeidler.com.


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