Saturday, October 9, 2010

APPLE ORCHARDS, AND VINEYARDS, AND SQUASH BLOSSOMS - AT LAST!

Lest anyone think I'm so lucky as to still be in California on extended vacation, alas, that's not the case. I've been home for three busy weeks, but am enjoying reliving the memories as I cull through my vacation photos, slowly getting up these posts now that "real life" once again has the upper hand.

Tuesday of my vacation week was my first chance to see some of surrounding El Dorado County. Marilyn had lots of great places in store for us. And I had a great time in the kitchen that night - finally making stuffed squash blossoms for the first time!

We started our morning in Apple Hill, a series of loop roads off Route 50 between Placerville and Lake Tahoe, boasting some 50 orchards, Christmas tree farms, and vineyards at a 3000-foot elevation. First stop: High Hill Ranch, with a lovely pond and view, plus crafts booths, apple baked goods, a farm market where we scored apples and some terrific Asian pears, and free apple juice (yes, the free tastings continue). We also received complimentary tastings of apple wine and mulled cider, but they were a bit sweet for me.

On our way “out” of the loop from High Hill, Marilyn wanted to take us past Madrona Vineyards and, well, it was such a lovely sight that we decided to go on in for their wine tasting at 11:00 a.m.
Unlike Napa, where I went on my last trip to California and found most wineries charge you for tastings and a guided tour, in this area, the norm seems to be free tastings of 4-7 of each vineyard’s standard wines, with a potential charge for its “select” offerings, and the assurance that anything you pay for, you’ll recoup if you actually purchase wines on premises. When we stopped at Madrona, we were the only customers in the place, and the fireball of a gal who served us offered well more than the standard 5 tastes, along with samples of some of the food items they sell. A fun morning. And yes, we bought several bottles of wine.

Afterward we stopped at several more Apple Hill orchards before deciding we were ready for our picnic. Again, Marilyn knew the perfect spot – Boeger Winery, with more great wines, beautiful landscaping, and lovely picnic tables. Plus they sold figs and other produce grown on the estate. Too bad we’d already bought figs at Ferry Plaza. But we enjoyed our picnic. While walking the grounds and seeing figs hanging from the trees, we Midwesterners put 2 and 2 together and suddenly understood where fig leafs come from.

Back at Marilyn’s house later that afternoon, I had in mind to serve a platter of grilled veggies from our Ferry Plaza purchases, as well as the abundant squash in Marilyn’s garden. While the grill was hot, it made sense to go ahead and cook the beets for an appetizer I wanted to make later in the week, along with the salmon I planned for an easy salad supper the next night after our day trip to Tahoe. We had plenty of salmon, so I decided to use it to augment what otherwise would have been an all veggie meal, unsure whether it would have been considered “enough” by everyone at the dinner table, including Marilyn’s husband.
We brushed the veggies with olive oil in which I'd steeped garlic and fresh herbs from Marilyn's garden. Jeanette was kind enough to helm the grill while I tackled something I’d been salivating for all summer.

Blogger friend Chef Dennis of More Than a Mount Full has been making me crazy for months with his tantalizing photos and recipes for stuffed squash blossoms. I hadn’t had any luck finding squash blossoms to stuff myself all season, until I took a closer look at Marilyn’s vegetable garden. When I asked if I could use the blossoms, I think she thought I was crazy.
I was able to delicately remove about five blossoms – far fewer than Chef Dennis’s “standing weekly order” at his farmers market for five bunches. I wouldn’t have the opportunity to test out all his variations (including this dessert version, squash blossoms filled with cannoli cream!). But I would do my best to make these five little blossoms worth the effort.

These are delicate things to work with, at least my specimens. So I gently washed them and patted them dry with paper towel. Thanks to Dennis's post about "zucchini pops," I felt empowered to keep the blossoms attached to the baby squash, to the extent I could.
I based my filling on Dennis's standard recipe here, adjusting for quantity (since - did I mention? - I only had five), and adding a healthy dose of fresh basil, rosemary, and thyme from Marilyn's garden to his suggested cheese mixture of ricotta, mozzarella, and romano, working with cheeses I had available.
Side note: I used Marilyn's mezzaluna (the curved knife/shallowly indented wood chopping block thingie pictured above) on quite a few occasions that week, and found it to be a great tool for cutting small-leaf fresh herbs. Apparently my mom gave it to her sister awhile back, and I think I should put it on my xmas list now that Mom is asking for mine.

Using a ziplock bag with the corner snipped off, I piped the cheese-herb filling into my little blossoms as best I could. This is a job where you need two hands, if not more - holding the blossom open, and keeping the cheese mixture pressed into the tip of the plastic bag while you do your utmost not to tear or overfill the blossoms. Which means you have no extra hands available to photograph your efforts. However, Marilyn was kind enough to snap this one as I worked.
Following Dennis's recommendation, I refrigerated the filled blossoms while I whipped up his light batter of eggs, milk, flour, and - best of all - a little romano (or parm) and more fresh herbs. After dipping the chilled, filled squash blossoms in the batter, I fried them in olive oil in a shallow pan, turning after about 2 minutes.
Fried till golden, here's how they turned out. I must confess I'm not sure how much I could detect the innate flavor of the squash blossom in my first try at making (or eating) this dish. But the filling was excellent, and the cheese and herbs in the batter are a definite plus. We're talking delicately fried foods here, and I enjoyed the heck out of these. As cook and hostess, I usually let my guests eat all they want first. But since we had five squash blossoms and only four at the table that night, I asked (politely, I hope) if I could take the fifth. I don't know whether my family still thought I was crazy after making this dish for them or just appreciative of my efforts. But I was glad to have one more taste of these goodies.

Not that I let my dining companions go hungry, of course. Here's what else was on the dinner table that night - grilled veg platter and salmon topped with tomatoes and basil.
No one left the table hungry. Although (typical of the way I cook when actually presented with the opportunity to cook for others instead of just myself), we did have a lot of grilled veggies left. No problem. The next morning we would head to Tahoe, and the leftover veg would make a great omelette before we set out.

13 comments:

Chef Dennis said...

Your zucchini pops look incredible!! I hope everyone enjoyed them! Thanks so much for the mention, I really appreciate it! The rest of your meal looks so delcious, fresh vegetables are simply the best....I will be so sorry to see our season end this year.

Velva said...

First, cheers to you on making squash blossoms! I would love to do it too.

Your California trip was so fabulous. I have really been enjoying the photo journey through your vacation. I love it!

Aunty Belle said...

Eggy, I'se really enjoyin' yore trip pics an' commentary.

thar' ain't no such a thang as too many fried squash blossoms --I ate 'em ever' time they wuz on the menu when I was in Italy this summer. I think theirs must be all zucchini 'cause I never saw yeller squashes in the markets. But I cain't taste the difference a'tween them--all squashes have delicious blossoms when prepared t his way.

Whata fine time ya had wif' marilyn an' gang.

Jen said...

Wow, I would have loved to have been there for that meal. I am already lamenting the meager offering of veggies at the farmers market.

Ava said...

Good morning! Thank you for the tour! And the food looked wonderful! I'm definitely going to try the stuffed squash blossoms! Wow! They looked delicious and did all of the other food!

Kelly said...

Indeed a wonderful photo montage documenting your personal trip and your cooking adventures. Sorry, it did not work for me to join you on this trip. Wonderful to see you make the most of your visit!

Buzz Kill said...

How the hell were you able to cook that meal after drinking all of that wine? I did some Napa one-day trips many years ago and after 4 or 5 wineries, I was toast. This was before drunk driving was considered illegal. Bwahahaha

I like the squash blossoms. Very delicate. And I like that you cleaned the frying pan out for the photo-op. You and whoever took the picture of you piping the filling must be very close. Bwahahaha

LaDivaCucina said...

Well done, Eggy, well done! LOVE the idyllic orchard photos, so beautiful! I just love California! Also love that you went to the smaller wineries that seem less commercialized and the hosts friendlier. When I would go to the vinyards in Australia, we'd buy cases of wine for their efforts!

Those figs are DIVINE!!! All the food looks great, esp. the salmon with the tomatoes! And aren't those little blossoms so delicate and fussy but so worth it?

Love the photo of you and the gals, such a wonderful trip you had! So nice you have such great photos to remind you of it!

moi said...

There are wineries that charge for tastings? Whoa. That's just not right.

But I'd forgive 'em if they could hook me up with some figs that look like that. Man, ever since my great fig debacle of summer 2010, I've been dreaming of how to score next year.

Now, I have turned my obsessive nature to finding Italian plums . . .

intuitive eggplant said...

Dennis, thanks so much for your inspiration to tackle stuffed squash blossoms!

Velva, glad you're enjoying. More photos coming up - Tahoe was awesome!

Auntie, I envied your tales (and photos) from Italy. Happy to return the armchair travelin' favor.

Jen, the fall farmers market offerings aren't meager, just different - as I think you're already discovering. Can't wait to see what else you do with fall squash!

Ava, thanks for stopping by, and for sharing that great fall photo on your blog. I'm envious of all the color near you.

Kelly! Thanks for commenting! It would have been a blast if you could have joined us. We'll just have to cook up another trip.

Buzz, hehehehe. We only we went to two wineries that day. Oh, yeah, then there was that bottle we drank at lunch. Fortunately I wasn't driving, and we were pretty good about pacing ourselves. As to making dinner afterward, I couldn't wait to make those squash blossoms and zeroed in on them with all due focus (despite photographic efforts to the contrary) :)

Diva, as always, thanks for "getting" me - and sharing an international story in the process. I know you felt the same way I did about wanting to track down some squash blossoms to stuff.

Moi, I thought of your fig debacle of 2010 when I took that photo. Hope you get a chance to make that savory fig bread thingie I posted about sometime. And would love to hear what you do with Italian plums.

My Carolina Kitchen said...

What an absolutely lovely place to visit. I've never prepared squash blossoms, but boy are they beautiful. I'm going to keep an eye out for them next year.

Your salmon and gorgeous vegetable dinner looks amazing. Yummy dinner.
Sam

Dani said...

I love your food porn!

Alessandra said...

Oh, all that wonderful fruit and veggies... heaven!! and the fried zucchini with blossoms... and the figs... and nashi... yum!