On our recent trip to Tuscany I discovered myself right in the heart of my decades-long dream of gastronomical heaven. My first ever cookbook that I saved up pocket money and purchased at 13 years of age, was an Italian compilation of traditional Tuscan meals, deliciously decadent delights and photographs of places that I one day would travel to on the pilgrimage to my culinary Mecca. It only took another 21 years, but I finally arrived! Everywhere we went throughout Italy I was whisked away into a foodie fantasy as I roamed the fresh food markets savouring every smell, touch, taste and visual treat I could find, as my mind quickly ticked over the accumulation of recipes and dishes I could potentially create with these unbelievably vibrant, succulent and out-of-this-world-quality produce.
We rented a sweetly quintessential Tuscan villa for our family and my parents who joined us for a few weeks on the Italian leg of our European dream holiday. We were nestled in the Chianti hills, within walking distance from a quaint little village that was happily lost in the past, surrounded by views of vineyards, rolling green hills dotted with stone built farm houses, and the striking silhouette of San Gimignano on the horizon. Upon our arrival at our villa on the first evening we watched the most picturesque sunset I had ever seen. Perhaps it was due to the dreamy destination, but as the golden hues of the days end illuminated the rolling hills striped with vines and as the panoramic landscape around us became dotted with twinkling lights of nearby villages and family estates, I truly had to pinch myself that I was finally in the place of the photographs I had been flicking through in my cookbooks since I was so young.
Our centuries old villa had the most charming Tuscan kitchen you have ever seen. Ok ok, so I may or may not have booked this entire villa based solely and specifically on the kitchen photographs, but when we arrived it was even more magical and romantic in real life…painted tiles, wooden windows with vases of flowers poised in the corner, hanging pots and pans, drying garlic sitting in tiny pottery dishes on the kitchen bench, terracotta floors and whimsical white, soft curtains dancing delicately in the morning breeze. Being the middle of summer for us, lighting the ancient stone fireplace set dramatically in the middle of the kitchen wasn’t an option, but I certainly utilised the rest of the cooking facilities as we dined al fresco each evening under the bougainvillea creeping above over our patio, sipping our Aperol spritz and basking in the absolute joys of all of the appetising dishes I was able to create each night with the esculent produce I came upon during the day.
Throughout our time in Tuscany we would make day trips to explore the nearby cities and towns, everything ranging from Florence and Siena, to lovely Lucca and San Gimignano (a number of times, I think it was our favourite Tuscan town!), all the way up to the gastronomical capital of Bologna in the province of Emilia and its surrounding towns of Modena and Parma for all of their divine culinary delights. Everywhere we went we basked in the beauty of each town and its decadent history, but by far the highlights of my days were strolling the markets and enjoying every scrumptious mouthful of each satisfying meal. With such good quality and fresh produce on hand I cooked everything from fresh pasta, to homemade pizzas, handmade pesto gnocchi, summery salads and one of my favourite Italian dishes, pesce all’acqua pezze (fish in crazy water!). Meandering the markets I came across the biggest and boldest blooms of zucchini flowers I have ever seen. I could not let these go without a purchase to take home and stuff and fry to golden perfection.
Below is a classic Italian whole fish recipe that looks so impressive but is really very easy and simple to make. You can wow your guests without worrying or stressing behind the scenes in the kitchen, and while the fish is baking, quickly fry up the zucchini blossoms stuffed with a herbed ricotta filling. Serve in the middle of the table with a light green salad and you will be the hostess with the mostest! So set up your outdoor dining area, pour your guests a crisp, dry, white wine and blow them away with this simple but impressive Italian dish. You could even finish the evening with an Almond & Lemon Flourless Cake or a traditional Tiramisu.
Tenacious Mamas Pesce All’Acqua Pazza (Fish in Crazy Water!)
with Ricotta Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms
~ 2 whole fresh fish around 800g each – cleaned, scaled & gutted. I like to use snapper, bream or bass
~ 4 garlic cloves, crushed
~ 1 red chilly, finely diced
~ 1 cup dry white wine
~ 1 cup seafood stock
~ 500g baby Roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
~ 1/4 cup pitted olives, roughly chopped
~ 1 tablespoon baby capers
~ Parsley & basil for garnish
~ Lemon, quartered
For Ricotta Zucchini Blossoms
~ 1 cup plain flour
~ 3/4 cup lukewarm water or soda water
~ pinch of salt
~ 250g ricotta cheese
~ 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
~ 1 garlic clove, minced
~ 1 egg lightly beaten
~ a few tablespoons of finely diced herbs – parsley, basil, sage, thyme
~ salt & pepper
~ Olive oil for frying
~ Preheat oven to 200°c (400°F)
~ Score each side of the fish three times with a diagonal line, down to the bones and place head to tail in a large baking tray lined with parchment paper
~ Pour over wine and toss over garlic, chillies, tomatoes, olives and capers
~ Bake in oven for around 15-20 mins or until flesh is cooked but tender to touch and eyes are white
~ While fish is baking prepare zucchini blossoms: for the batter mix the flour, water and salt together and set aside
~ Mix ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, garlic, egg, herbs, s&p together
~ Slit the flowers lengthways and remove the stamen. Using a piping bag or spoon, place the stuffing at the base of each flower and twist the petals to remain closed
~ Heat a pan on med-high and add enough olive oil to shallow fry. Dip each flower in the batter ensuring it is coated all over and the place on hot pan to cook for 3 mins, or until golden.
~ Flip and cook on other side and then allow to drain on absorbent paper
~ Remove fish from oven when cooked and carefully transfer from baking tray to a nice serving dish. Pour over the juices and stock and top with cooked tomatoes, capers, olive and sprinkle over extra S&P and fresh herbs. Serve with lemon wedges
~ Transfer zucchini blossoms to a serving dish and place all platters in the middle of the table for people to serve themselves, Italian style! To serve the fish, slice a fillet per person from gill to tail, running knife along the bones to remove in one piece
Serve this meal with a simple fresh green salad (rocket, shaved parmesan, olive oil and balsamic vinegar for example) and a crisp, dry, white wine!
Buon Appetito! xxx