August 02, 2010

Flower Power: Pasta with Zucchini Flowers, inspired by La Bella Italia

If I could pinpoint one thing that I love about Italy – one word that sums up the feeling I have there – it’s leisurely. Lunch is a two hour affair. One lingers over a coffee as long as a three course meal. Yet things move simultaneously fast and in slow motion. That exquisite first slither of pasta. A waiter rushing past to make sure the plates get to the table HOT. You are surrounded by an energy that centres on the plate. And because so much time is taken up in eating – eating deliberately and joyfully – there must be real satisfaction in it.

Our lunch at Trattoria Quattro Leoni in Florence was the perfect manifestation of all of that. Like many of the city’s best osterie and trattorie, it’s been around forever. Well, 1550, to be exact. My guess is that there are items on the menu that aren’t that far off from what a poor struggling Renaissance artist might have enjoyed those many years ago. 

Here's a visual tour of our lunch...

A mixed plate of Crostini misti of course featured beans and lardo

No surprise that I chose Antipasti toscano: affetati e crostini di fegato
(assorted cured meats and a delicious chicken liver crostini that is unquely Tuscan)

Penne al sugo alla toscana

Pici alla salsiccia e finocchietto
This was definitely the "winner".  Pici is a thick, hand rolled pasta - think spaghetti on steroids.  The gorgeous sauce had two types of sausage.

The place was renovated in 1995, but it still retains an air of authenticity. Who matters as much as’s what Quattro Leoni’s website says about the trattoria’s manager:

Stefano di Puccio is the actual manager of the Quattro Leoni. He is well known in the city not only for his past activity as a player of the Historical Florentine Soccer, but also for his inclination to cooking, his sincere hospitality and he is a very nice guy.
Football, hospitality, plus he’s a nice guy. What more could you want a pranzare?

Here’s another take on fabulous pici from Fabio Bongianni, complete with step by step photos of how to make your own pici. Pici Pachino, Porcini e Fiori di Zucca

While I didn’t make my own pasta today, I also took advantage of the market's bounty of zucchini flowers to create a wonderful pasta dish for lunch today, inspired by Ottolenghi. Sitting outside with friends, sipping wine and idling the afternoon away was almost as good as being in la bella Italia.

Torchietti with Zucchini
serves four as an appetiser portion

One of my guests is a vegan, and this pasta (made with dried semolina pasta) is perfect, with grated cheese optional for your other diners.

⅓ c olive oil, plus ¼ c
Flour, about ¼ c
6 baby zucchini
9-12 fresh zucchini flowers
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
½ c frozen edamame beans
6-8 large basil leaves, plus extra for garnish
¼ c chopped Italian parsley
2-3 sprigs fresh marjoram
250 g good quality dried pasta
Grated zest of one lemon
2 tbsp capers, rinsed and drained
Salt and pepper to taste
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano, optional

1. Trim and slice the zucchini lengthwise into thin slices. Dredge very lightly in the flour, shaking to remove excess flour. Set aside on a clean plate.

2. Prepare the zucchini flowers. Open the flowers gently and remove the pistils. Set aside.

3. In a medium skillet, heat ⅓ c olive oil over medium heat. Gently fry the zucchini until lightly browned, and turn to brown both sides. The zucchini will turn brown quickly. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl.

4. In the same pan, quickly fry the zucchini flowers until they are just wilted (they do need to be dredged in flour). Place in the same bowl with the zucchini slices, pour the sherry on top, stir and set aside.

5. Steam or blanch the edamame for a few minutes until they are barely tender, about 3 to 4 minutes. Drain and set aside.

6. Combine the basil, parsley and olive oil in a small food processor and blend to form a thick paste. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

7. Cook the pasta according to directions in salted boiling water. When the pasta is al dente, drain, and return it to the hot pan, shaking to dry slightly. Immediately add the basil/parsley sauce, and then add the zucchini, edamame, lemon zest and capers. Stir to combine and serve.