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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Spicing up the end of summer with blossoms and gumbo

Marc Bouchard

Someone asked me the other day if I cooked at home for my wife. Yes, in fact I save my best cooking for her. One of the dishes that I cook only for her is stuffed squash blossoms.

Some gardeners think the only thing worth eating are the zucchini and summer squash fruit. Credit the Italians for recognizing that its large, golden flowers make the perfect casing for a simple cheese filling. ...

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Someone asked me the other day if I cooked at home for my wife. Yes, in fact I save my best cooking for her. One of the dishes that I cook only for her is stuffed squash blossoms.

Some gardeners think the only thing worth eating are the zucchini and summer squash fruit. Credit the Italians for recognizing that its large, golden flowers make the perfect casing for a simple cheese filling.

It’s not complicated. You remove the bitter pistil (that yellow phallus in the heart of the flower) and replace it with a ricotta mix. Toss them in a light egg batter, pan-fry, then serve with tomato sauce.

Are they hard to make? No, but they are time-
consuming. But so delicate and so delicious!

STUFFED SQUASH
BLOSSOMS

8 freshly-picked summer
squash blossoms

1½ cups ricotta cheese

5 Tbsp. grated parmesan
cheese

1-2 tsp. minced fresh mint
leaves

1 pinch of grated nutmeg

3 large eggs

¼ cup milk

1 cup flour

¼-½ cup oil

Salt

Pepper

Any hot tomato sauce

Examine squash blossoms for any bugs or dirt. Carefully pinch and remove bulbous stamen in the center of the flower.

Combine ricotta with 2 Tbsp. of parmesan, mint and nutmeg, one egg and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Mix together, taste and adjust seasonings.

One at a time, take each blossom and carefully insert 2-3 tsp. of cheese mixture into the center. Do not overstuff. Don’t worry if you rip one of the flowers; the frying batter will seal it. (For maximum efficiency, instead of a spoon, use pastry bag to “pipe” cheese stuffing directly into the flower.)

In a shallow bowl, combine remaining two eggs and 3 Tbsp. of parmesan with milk and a healthy pinch of salt and pepper. Whisk until combined.

Place flour in another shallow bowl.

Pour oil in a large (10-12 inch) skillet. Warm over medium-high heat until hot enough for frying.

Take one blossom and roll in flour until lightly coated. Shake off any excess. Roll in egg-milk mixture until lightly coated. Return blossom to flour bowl and roll again to barely coat.

Gently lower blossom into hot oil. Repeat procedure with two more blossoms. Do not crowd the pan.

Fry until golden brown on one side, then carefully turn over with tongs to fry other side. When done, remove to a plate lined with paper towels, and cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm. Keep coating and frying blossoms until they are all done.

Serve two per person for a snack, or four for a dinner. Place a ladle of hot tomato sauce in the center of the plate, position blossoms on top of the sauce.

At this late stage, the peppers in my garden are just hitting their stride. I’ve got bell, jalapeno, Thai, cherry, plus some I haven’t even identified, just beginning to ripen.

Peppers are essential to New Orleans-style cooking, so I figured it was time to prepare my all-time favorite soup, gumbo.

For the uninitiated, gumbo is a rich, super-flavorful stew with a decidedly thickened broth. There are dozens of variations, including seafood, vegetable and game-based, but most often they combine three or more elements.

For real gumbo, you need three things:

n The Holy Trinity of Louisiana cooking: onions, celery and peppers.

n Lots of flavor. Strong spices like cayenne and paprika, a rich stock, some French herbs.

n A thickener. Some like okra, old-timers lean towards file powder (a Native American seasoning of ground sassafras bark), but the best is still a roux. In addition to adding a velvety texture, roux lends color and a nutty flavor.

Roux is an amalgam of a fat (oil, margarine, lard or butter) and flour. It sounds simple, but it takes practice to make a good one. Patience; don’t raise the heat and don’t rush it.

CHICKEN, SAUSAGE AND SHRIMP GUMBO

1½ lb. boneless, skinless
chicken, diced

1 lb. shelled, raw shrimp, any
size

4 Tbsp. Cajun seasoning
spice blend

¾ cup oil or margarine

¾ cup flour

1 cup diced onions

1 cup diced bell peppers

1 cup diced celery

Optional: 1-2 hot peppers,
diced or ¼ tsp. ground
cayenne pepper

2 tsp. thyme leaves

2 tsp. oregano leaves

1 bay leaf

2 tsp. paprika

4-5 cups chicken stock or
water

1 cup diced tomatoes

1⁄3 lb. Andouille, smoked
sausage or kielbasa, in
¼-in. thick slices

Salt

Pepper

Coat chicken cubes and shrimp with equal amounts of Cajun seasonings. Cover and refrigerate.

Make your roux: Warm oil in a cast iron Dutch Oven over medium-high heat. Stir in flour. It should turn into a smooth paste and begin to color. Drop heat to medium and cook, stirring regularly, until flour becomes dark brown. Timing will vary from 3-6 minutes. Stir diced onions, peppers and celery into the roux. Allow them to wilt, stirring, for four minutes. Add optional hot peppers, the herbs and spices, and cook for another 2-3 minutes.

Raise heat to high and add stock and tomatoes, stirring constantly. Once it thickens and begins to bubble, drop heat to a gentle simmer. Cook until vegetables are just tender. Add sausage, chicken and shrimp and cook just long enough for raw items to change color.

Turn off heat. Taste and adjust seasonings. Let soup rest for at least 30 minutes to allow flavors to blend.

Serve garnished with steamed rice, chopped scallions and hot sauce on the side.

Marc Bouchard, of Hudson, is executive chef at Stellina Restaurant in Watertown, Mass. Reach him c/o Encore, The Telegraph, 17 Executive Drive, Hudson, NH 03051.