The Joys of Summer: Squash Blossoms

Squash blossoms, one of the great local, seasonal treats, have begun to show up at farmers’ markets. They have a subtle, round, fresh flavour that calls for a simple treatment. Our favourite way to enjoy these little bundles is to stuff them with a bit of mild, savoury cheese, and crisp them up in a bath of hot oil. This recipe is adapted from Alice Waters.

Start by procuring your blossoms. Choose ones that seem plump and fresh-looking – no slimy darkened bits. Ideally, they should have bright orange petals. As a light appetizer, count on 3 or 4 per person.

When you’re ready to prep them (this can be done a couple of hours before cooking) begin by gently separating the petals. Reach inside, and pluck out the stamen – the spike emanating from the centre of the flower. Stuff each blossom with a piece of fontina cheese – about 1 inch long by 1/4 inch square – and a few crumbs of finely chopped garlic and parsley.

Heat your oil – we used a two-to-one mix of canola and extra virgin olive oils – to 375’F. In a bowl, whisk together 2 eggs, a glug of milk, and a generous pinch of salt. In another bowl, have two cups of finely ground cornmeal (a.k.a. semolina) at the ready.

Dip the blossoms in the egg mixture, then roll them around in the cornmeal. Repeat until you have the appropriate number for your deep frying vessel (in our case, this was eight blossoms).

Place the blossoms in the fryer one by one. They will float like doughnuts, so after maybe a minute and a half, flip them over and fry them on the other side. They will come out looking suspiciously like chicken wings:

Drain them on paper towels, and serve them piping hot with a wedge of lemon on the side. They go very nicely with sparkling wine.

Bonus tip: as the NY Times suggests, bringing your deep fryer outside is a great idea.

C is for Chicken, Cooked Under a Rock

Edward Gorey might have appreciated the various indignities inflicted upon our poor dinner hen. Spatchcocked, submerged in brine, and placed atop burning coals, weighted down with a heavy stone. Shudder. He might also have appreciated the end product: pollo al mattone.

We started with a fine little free range bird – a fryer (around 3 lbs) rather than a larger roaster – from The Friendly Butcher.

She spent a few hours in this brine, from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home – but definitely would have benefited from a few more hours – maybe 6 or 8 in total.

Here is – should we name her? Do let’s. In deference to her roots, something Italian, by way of a backyard grill in New Jersey. Maybe… Carlotta? Okay. Carlotta it is. Carlotta Mattone.

Right. Having dried, oiled, and sprinkled the hapless hen with some paprika, we’re off to the BBQ, where we have lit a chimney full of lump hardwood coals and strewn them across one half of the grill. Having heated and lightly oiled the grill rack, we place the chicken thereupon, breast-side down and facing bravely toward – but not on – the side with the coals. And the coup de grace: a 5-lb patio stone, of roughly the same dimensions as the bird, wrapped in a double thickness of heavy-duty aluminum foil.

Judging by the time stamps on the photos, we grilled the bird (lid closed) for 12 minutes, rotated it 90′, waited another 12 minutes, then flipped her over for a final 10 minutes of cooking.

Almost there - we're aiming for 165'.

Done like dinner.

And here it is, having rested for 15 minutes or so (so much better warm than it is piping hot) and anointed with olive oil.

She drove a Trans Am, but ended up a Firebird.

Friday Night Lights

Yesterday’s dinner for two nomnivores was better than it had any right to be, so it gets blogged.

The first course was something that we’ve actually never cooked before: sardines. Living deep inland, we tend to avoid those fish that depend most on freshness: the small, oily ones. Unfortunately, these are the same ones that have a magical confluence of culinary virtues – they’re super tasty, cheap, healthy, sustainable, and quick and easy to cook.

What led us to take a chance on these lovely little guys?

1. We’ve learned that Toronto gets most of its fresh fish delivered on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so Friday is a good bet.
2. The weather was good enough to cook outside – a key concern, if you don’t want your house to smell for days, and if you do want your fish to have that grill-kissed flavour.
3. There was a big pile of sardines at the fishmonger (in this case, Domenic’s at the St. Lawrence Market), and they looked impeccably shiny and fresh.

The staff at Domenic’s took pains to gut and scale the six little fish – a fiddly job that took the better part of 10 minutes.

The dish came together thusly:

The coals were lit.

Some good, dense, day-old Italian bread was repurposed into croutes: brushed on both sides with olive oil, broiled in the toaster oven, and sprinkled with sea salt.

We improvised a salad of diced ripe tomatoes and roasted red peppers, chopped scallions, balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

We beheaded the sardines, and used a cool trick to debone them: laying them spine-up on the cutting board, with their belly flaps splayed out, run an index finger down the length of the spine with medium pressure. You’ll feel a subtle, zipper-like effect. Turning the fish over, grab the spine at the “neck” end, and press down against the flesh with your other hand as you pull up on the spine. Once you reach the tail, lop it off with a flick of your knife. Flip the fish over, gently pull out the dorsal fin, and you’re done. Dress the fish with a little olive oil and some sea salt.

The fish were grilled for about 90 seconds a side, and plated with the salad, croutes, and some chopped parsley and basil. We haven’t tasted fish like this since our long-ago trip to Istanbul – electrically fresh, somehow both rich and light, and elevated by the scent of olive oil and charcoal.

Contented sighs and a couple of glasses of wine later – Segura Viudas cava with a drop of Orange Bitters – it was on to the main course: grilled skirt steak with a fricassee of fava beans and chanterelle mushrooms.

I can’t pretend this is an easy, weeknight-dinner option, but if you have time to marinate the steak and deal with the multi-step business of shelling fava beans, the payoff is huge.

The steak – you DO know about skirt steak being cheap, crazy-flavourful and tender, right? – was cut into rectangular serving sizes and marinated in dijon mustard, worcestershire sauce, minced onion and black pepper.

Meanwhile, the favas: take a few pounds of them (this will yield a cup and a half or so), string them by snapping off the stem-end and pulling, and pop out the beans. Blanch them for one minute in a big pot of boiling salted water (lots of water means the temperature won’t drop when you throw the beans into it), and shock them in an ice bath. Finally(!) remove their leathery skins by nicking the edge of the skin with your thumbnail and, pinching between your thumb and index finger, pop the beany goodness into a bowl.

When your grill is ready, take the steak out of the fridge (skirt steak is so thin that it’s best not to let it come up to room temp before grilling) and fire it for about 2 minutes a side over a very hot grill.

While the steak is resting, assemble the fricassee (a fancy word for a saute with a lot of fluid). Saute your sliced chanterelles, add the favas, gloss the pan with a half-cup of rich veal stock (or some demi-glace), and taste for seasoning.

The finished product

30 minutes over 3 Days–two loaves of bread and a pizza. No need to knead by hand!

My friends who don’t cook often look askance at me when I say cooking from scratch doesn’t take that much time when you’re in practice. The more often you make a recipe the faster it goes; and the larger your stock in the pantry is, the less time you spend running to the grocery store.

I used my favorite pain à l’ancienne recipe because the dough can last a couple of days in the fridge. It takes ten minutes to mix, and the baking can be done while you’re doing something else. An extra day in the fridge enhances the nutty taste of the bread.

Day one I made bread. Day two we made old school pizza. Day three I regretted not reserving dough for a third loaf. Please, learn from my mistakes.

Roll out the dough thinly (a quarter inch, but a little thicker on the sides) and let rest for ten minutes. Brush with olive oil.

We topped our pizza with canned artichokes, sautéd pancetta, a little fresh mozzarella, parmesan scraped together from leftovers, and a few capers.

The trick to authentic pizza is go easy on the sauce, the toppings and the cheese. Less=More; More=Less

We baked the pizza at 500 degrees fahrenheit until it was browned and the crust was done. If your pizza browns too quickly, just put a sheet of foil over it.
Truth be told it would have been better if we had used a pizza stone, or if we had poked a hole or two in the crust, but it was still crispy, tender, and if I do say so myself, delicious. The total time was less than it would have taken to order out, about 35 minutes. I think it would be a lot of fun to do with kids.