What’s the deal with squash blossoms?

Last weekend I was home at my parent’s house in New Jersey when my mother insisted on giving me a tour of her garden for the third time this season. Despite receiving regular garden photo updates through the lens of her flip phone, she said I had to come outside to see the squash blossoms that had formed on the yellow crookneck summer squashes. As I reached down to pick the largest and prettiest squash blossom, she grabbed my hand and in a panicked voice asked, “If you pick the blossom, will the squash die?” My first instinct was to respond with a simple “no” in a voice that implied she was being ridiculous and overreacting, but the truth was I had no idea. And so it dawned on me: what’s the deal with squash blossoms?

Mom’s yellow crookneck squash blossoms

Because squash blossoms are typically deep fried and prepared with a simple cheese and herb blend, I assumed that they killed their host vegetable considering the price tag that usually accompanies this standard dish. Upon further research (read: google searches), the hefty price tag is not due to its sacrificial nature, but rather the care needed to maintain the blossom after it is picked. The fruit will continue to grow when you pick its blossoms, as long as you aim for mostly male blossoms, as the female ones produce the fruit. The males are needed to pollenate the female blossoms so do not pick all of them. They are thicker and hairier than the females and are usually more fibrous.

As expected, it is best to consume the fruit as close to harvest as possible. When consumed the same day, eat raw in a salad lightly or bake with bread crumbs and seasoning. Squash blossoms are often deep fried because (besides the fact that most things are delicious when fried) the flower will wilt almost immediately and lose its vibrant color.

So go ahead and pick a few of those (male) squash blossoms and resist the urge to pick the females. My fresh ricotta recipe is great with squash blossoms as long as its completely drained and as dry as possible. Mix with herbs like basil and parsley and finish with sea salt and lemon juice for a delicious summer snack.

RECIPE: Fresh Ricotta Cheese

This recipe and process is so simple, I’m almost embarrassed to be devoting an entire post to explaining how to make ricotta cheese. With that said, fresh ricotta is so much better than the store-bought brands, that if I can change the life of just one cheese-lover with this post, it will all be worth it.

Fresh Ricotta Cheese

[yields about 2.5 cups]

- 1 gallon whole milk

- 1/3 cup distilled white vinegar

- salt, to taste

Method

1. Slowly heat whole milk over medium heat in large non-reactive pot. Use a wooden spoon to periodically check the bottom of the pot to make sure that the milk is not scalding. Add salt if desired.

2. Using a thermometer, heat milk until it reaches about 180 deg F. Turn off the heat and add white vinegar. Stir a couple of times to distribute acid then let it sit for one hour. Milk will begin to curdle.

Ricotta cheese curdles

Ricotta cheese curdles

3. After one hour, strain milk/cheese through a cheesecloth or fine mesh sieve using a slotted spoon. Cheesecloth is preferable if a dryer product is desirable since you can wring the product to drain all excess liquid.

Straining cheese through cheesecloth

Straining cheese through cheesecloth

4. Refrigerate cheese for up to one week.

NOTE:  Buttermilk or citric acid (or any form of acid) can be used instead of white vinegar but I have found that white vinegar provides the least amount of acidic flavor in the end product. If you are making the ricotta for a dessert application, citric acid may be desirable to obtain a particular flavor. Generally, use 1 quart of buttermilk or 1.5 teaspoons of citric acid per gallon of while milk.

Quick! Eat Here!

One of my favorite things in the world is a solid food market. I’m not talking about your everyday genteel farmer’s market, but a cheap assortment of street food with individual stalls that represent cuisines from around the world.

Until October 19th, you can experience a taste of New York’s best restaurants at affordable prices at Madison Square Eats in Madison Square Park’s Worth Square. Over 25 vendors have gathered in the square to offer a sampling of their menus at prices that typically range from $9-$16 ($16 for the Red Hook Lobster Pound’s Lobster Roll) for lunch entrees.
On a recent trip, I sampled the vegetable hummus wrap (not the technical name, but that’s essentially what it was) from Ilili. The pita was great but the inside was a bit dry in taste and flavor. One of my favorite things about Mediterranean food is the oozing of hummus and tahini which was nonexistent in this wrap. I hear the pressed chicken sandwich is the way to go at Ilili.

Vegetable Wrap at Ilili
Madison Square Eats

Despite the lackluster showing from Ilili, you can’t leave Madison Square eats without sampling the “balls” from Brooklyn’s Arancini Bros.  outpost. . You can’t do wrong with a fried risotto ball. They have interesting flavor combinations like white bean and escarole, nutella and banana, butternut squash and pine nuts, and what’s apparently their best- buffalo chicken and blue cheese. Below is a picture of the butternut squash and pine nut ball. Delicious!

Butternut Squash and Pine Nut Risotto Ball
Madison Square Eats

A lobster roll from the Red Hook Lobster Pound’s outpost is always a sure thing. Below is a picture from a visit to their location in Red Hook a couple of weeks ago.

Red Hook Lobster Pound
“Maine Style”

Please leave suggestion for other stalls to check out at Madison Square Eats in the comments below!

The Best Sandwich I’ve Ever Eaten

It happened. Last Wednesday I had the best sandwich I have ever eaten in my whole life. It was the Bristket Bollito with Salsa Verde from the Rosticceria counter at Eataly.

Brisket Bollito with Salsa Verde
Eataly
200 5th Avenue, NYC

I am usually not one to order a sandwich that is focused solely on meat but since I was at Eataly and since I was at the Rosticceria counter, I just had to. I am no brisket aficionado, but I have eaten enough of it to understand that this brisket was other-worldly. The fat was perfectly melted and evenly distributed throughout the meat. It had enough texture to remind you that you eating meat but was so tender you would allow your toothless baby a bite. Every sandwich from the Rosticceria is seasoned with only olive oil and coarse sea salt, making it the most perfect meat-centric sandwich preparation. The brisket sandwich comes with a healthy spooning of salsa verde which was your standard parsley and garlic spread. I would have forgotten about the salsa verde had I not taken the picture shown above.

In conclusion, go to Eataly during your lunch break on Wednesday and even more- go alone so you don’t have to share nor be distracted by frivolous conversation.

RECIPE: Asparagus Risotto

Summer is here and finding delicious recipes for all of your farmer’s market impulse purchases may be challenging. Risotto is the perfect dish to learn how to master because the combination of ingredients you can incorporate into a risotto are endless. It is best to use fibrous (or tough) vegetables like asparagus, mushrooms, artichokes, or kale so that they will retain their texture when cooked in a thick dish like risotto. If you use a vegetable like eggplant for example, it will not hold its shape and the texture of the dish will be too mushy. One of the many reasons I love making risotto is that it requires few ingredients, making this a cheap and deceivingly simple meal.

It’s simple because of the limited ingredients and cooking time (approx. 25 mins) but it requires constant stirring throughout the entire process. Because the cooking liquid is added in parts,stirring allows the starch in the arborio rice to gradually release and create the creamy texture that characterizes this dish. It’s a dish of love.

Asparagus Risotto

[yields 6 servings]

- 2 cups Arborio rice

- 6 cups vegetable or chicken stock (or broth)

- 1 large onion, small dice

- 3 garlic cloves, minced

- 3 tablespoons butter

- parmesan cheese, grated

- Asparagus, bunch

- Salt and Pepper, to taste

Method

1. Sweat garlic in 1 tablespoon of butter in a large sauce pan. Add the chopped onions and sweat until translucent. Season with salt. Add more butter if necessary.

2. Add arborio rice and toast with the butter, garlic and onions until a toasted armoma becomes evident.

3. Add 1/3 of the vegetable or chicken stock and stir with wooden spoon until 75% of the cooking liquid is absorbed. This should take 4-6 minutes over medium heat. Add the remaining stock in 2 parts using the same guidelines. Do not increase the heat above medium. The risotto needs time to cook and release its starches. If you hurry the process, the rice will not cook properly and turn out like conventional (and undercooked) rice.

4. When the texture of the risotto is nearly finished, add your par-cooked vegetables. The asparagus needs to be partially blanched (or boiled) before adding it to the risotto to ensure that it is fully cooked and palatable. For a more refined look, cut the asparagus on a bias into 2 inch pieces, like this:

5. Finish the dish with grated parmesan cheese and butter, if desired. Season with salt and pepper. Serve and enjoy!

BONUS Wine pairing suggestion: 2010 Francis Ford Coppola Diamond Sauvignon Blanc ($16)

 

 

The Music Festival Food Revolution

Long gone are the days of corn dogs, funnel cakes, and wheat thin samples (I still loved you, Bonnaroo ’10) at summer music festivals. Thanks to the artisan food revolution that has taken shape over the past few years, food is now considered by many to be as much of an art form as music. Many of the summer 2012 music festival websites feature food vendors right alongside the musical artists, almost as if they were co-headliners of the event. Just last month, Googa Mooga was held in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and attracted over 10,000 people. The high attendance level was not solely based on the music and food- this event was free of charge in a city where nothing is free. Nonetheless, the musical acts were easily trumped by the food vendors. Just as many people were clamoring to get a glimpse of April Bloomfield fabricate a whole pig as there were listening to The Roots perform their newest single, The Otherside. Included among the 73 food vendors were Blue Ribbon and their unmatched Fried Chicken, Alla Spina’s mortadella hotdogs with spicy pickled cucumbers and cabbage, and one my favorite hidden NYC gems: Num Pang’s Cambodian sandwich shop.

Veal Meatballs with Jasmine Rice, Basil, and Stewed Tomato Sandwich
Num Pang Sandwich Shop
Greenwich Village, NYC

At San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival in August, fried pork skin sandwiches (chicharrones) will be consumed with as much gusto as cheeseburgers at the 4505 Meats Stand. The Brass Knuckle will be serving their famous Snoop Dogg: a bacon-wrapped  hotdog with spicy ketchup furikaki, bonito flakes and slaw. Who says dried fish and hotdogs don’t go well together? The Bay Area’s best and most interesting food vendors will be jamming right alongside artists such as Metallica, Stevie Wonder, Fitz and the Tantrums, Skrillex, and Regina Spektor from August 10-12 at Golden Gate Park.

“Zilla Style” Hot Dog
4505 Meats
San Francisco, CA

These are of course just a few examples of food offerings at music festivals this summer. Check out the festival websites beforehand and be sure to plan out your meals to ensure you experience all of the food AND music this summer!

Click HERE for quick links to most of the 2012 Music Festivals.


Cook like a Pro: Summer’s Essential (and affordable) Cooking Tools

Ever wonder what to buy with that amazon gift card? Do you have a wedding coming up and need good gift registry ideas? Look no further-  I have identified the top five cooking tools needed to complete your summer kitchens along with links to a site that sells the item at a good price. This list is in order of importance.

 

1. Chef’s Knife

Most people overlook the importance of having a solid chef knife to rely on for all types of at-home cooking. This knife by Victorinox is a great value. Buying knives does not have to be a daunting task and more expensive doesn’t always mean better. Whatever knife you get, be sure to learn how to sharpen it! All knives will go dull after awhile and the steel (steel rod that is included in a lot of knife sets) does not sharpen the blade, but simply align the burrs.

Victorinox 10-inch Chef Knife with Black Fibrox Handle ($29.95)

http://www.amazon.com/Victorinox-47521-10-Inch-Fibrox-Handle/dp/B0000CF8YO/ref=sr_1_1?s=home-garden&ie=UTF8&qid=1339169756&sr=1-1

2. Whetstone (Sharpening Stone)

Caring about your knives means sharpening them. It’s a fact. The easiest way to sharpen your knives is to use a whetstone. This process is pretty simple but you need to make sure that you are doing it correctly or else you can ruin the edge of your knife. For the at-home cook, a good whetstone should be at least 250 grits. The units of grits indicates the fineness of the grain on the stone and therefore how sharp it will make your knife. It is best to start out with a lower unit of grits so that there is less chance of ruining your knife. Start out with a whetstone like this:

Kotobuki King 250+1000 ($30.00)

http://www.amazon.com/Kotobuki-King-1000-K-80-Combo/dp/B00200L90I/ref=sr_1_33?s=home-garden&ie=UTF8&qid=1339171112&sr=1-33

3. Grill Pan

If you live in a city, outdoor BBQs and poolside parties don’t happen as much as you’d like. To get the grill marks that are needed for any great burger or steak, treat yourself to a grill pan. This is a great alternatives to outdoor grilling and will make for a healthier alternative to sautéing vegetables since less fat is required in the pan. If you are looking to cook steaks, fish, or burgers, start out by using the grill pan in order to get the hashmarks then finish in the oven. This will ensure that the piece of meat does not dry out and the inside cooks to the appropriate temperature. To cook vegetables in a grill pan, simple spray with non-stick cooking oil and you’re all set to go. Finish the vegetables with olive oil, lemon, salt and freshly grated (good quality) parmesan cheese.

Lodge Logic Pre-Seasoned Square Grill Pan ($18.97)

http://www.amazon.com/Lodge-Logic-L8SGP3-Pre-Seasoned-Square/dp/B0000CF66W/ref=sr_1_1?s=home-garden&ie=UTF8&qid=1339172062&sr=1-1

4. Digital Instant-Read Thermometer

A food-safe thermometer is essential to any cook, whether you are a professional or at-home chef. Thermometers ensure that not only are meats cooked to the desired internal temperature, but they are safe for consumption. The summer is the perfect time of year to get yourself a thermometer to make sure that the steaks are cooked to your guests’ liking. Do not get embarrassed to temp your meats in front of friends- get embarrassed when you need to throw something back on the grill when it is not cooked properly. The appropriate internal temperatures for red meat (steaks/burgers) are as follows:

Medium Rare: 130-135 degrees

Medium: 140-145 degrees

Medium Well: 150-155 degrees

Taylor Commercial Waterproof Digital Thermometer ($12.00)

http://www.amazon.com/Taylor-9842-Commercial-Waterproof-Thermometer/dp/B00009WE45/ref=sr_1_3?s=home-garden&ie=UTF8&qid=1339172405&sr=1-3


5. Salt & Pepper Grinders

In my opinion, there is nothing tackier then salt and pepper poured out of a cardboard container. If you are going to have people over to your home for a BBQ this summer, please provide salt and pepper grinders. They are relatively inexpensive and go a long way. (Note: a salt GRINDER is superior to a salt shaker) If you buy a salt grinder, be sure to refill it using coarse salt.

Starfrit Salt and Pepper Grinder ($16.99)

http://www.amazon.com/Starfrit-Salt-and-Pepper-Grinder/dp/B001HX3BUK/ref=sr_1_25?s=home-garden&ie=UTF8&qid=1339173410&sr=1-25

What do you think of this list? Did I leave anything out? I’d love to hear your comments below!

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