By Michael Gardiner
1492 is a landmark year in the minds of most American children. It was, after all, the year that Italian-born explorer Christopher Columbus “discovered” America sailing under the flag of the Spanish “Catholic Monarchs,” Ferdinand and Isabella. For Jewish American children, though, 1492 ought to be an important year for another reason. It was the beginning of one of the darker periods in our history.
For the better part of a thousand years, Spain had been a home to Jews. While the precise circumstances of the origin of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula have been lost in time there is at least some evidence of Jewish presence on the peninsula dating to pre-Roman times. By the Fourth Century of the Common Era the Decrees of the Council of Elvira specifically address Christian behavior toward Jews in Hispania. The life of Jews in Rome’s Western provinces was comparatively good.
But it was not until the Muslim conquest of Iberia in 711 that the Jews in Iberia truly began to flower. The Golden Age of Sephardim came with the reign of Abd al-Rahman III (882-942), the Caliph of Cordoba and, in particular, his Jewish councilor, Hasdai ibn Shaprut (882-942). Hasdai’s influence with the Caliph led in both direct and indirect ways to a better life for Jews both on and off the peninsula.
But the Golden Age declined as the Reconquista–the Christian re-conquest of Islamic Iberia–progressed. By the time Ferdinand and Isabella retook Grenada, completing the Reconquista–the die was cast. On July 30, 1492 the Jewish community–some 200,000 strong–faced the choice of conversion or exile. Many chose the latter.
Of those who did, quite a few found their way to Italy, where they joined the Italikim, one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, most of whom had been in Italy since the destruction of the Second Temple and some as far back as the 2nd Century B.C.E. While the Italian Jews had not enjoyed the heights achieved by the Sephardim in Iberia, neither had they suffered the lows. Rather, they found themselves largely confined to ghettos in cities in Rome, Venice and Girona or largely Italian towns such as Pitigliano in Tuscany (known as “the little Jerusalem”) but otherwise largely left in peace.
Jewish Italian cuisine was shaped by the foodstuffs left to them: small bony fish, disfavored vegetables such as artichokes, fennel, and zucchini. Jewish Italians “had to make the most out of what they had,” observed food historian Cara De Silva, “literally using parts of food that other people would probably throw away.” As famed Italian cookbook author Pellegrino Artusi wrote in La Scienza e L’Arte di Mangiar Bene (Firenze, 1910, Salvatore Landi Editore):
Forty years ago one could hardly see eggplant and fennel on the Florentine market; they were considered vile foods of the Jews; the latter offering evidence here, as in more important issues, of having, better than Christians, a flair for discovering good things.
Well known Italian dishes–such as caponata, fennel gratin, fritto misto, carciofi alla Guidia (artichokes Jewish style)–all trace their histories to Jews. Indeed, it may well have been Jews who championed the use of the tomato and, as Edda Servi Machlin suggested in her remarkable book The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews (Giro Press, 1981), even the ubiquitous pizza may trace its roots to Jewish influence (as the similarity of the words “pizza” and “pita” might suggest).
One dish that undoubtedly has Jewish origins is fried stuffed zucchini (or squash) blossoms. Mine is a slightly lighter, un-fried version. Traditionally, the blossoms are stuffed with a mixture of cheeses. Some combination amongst ricotta, mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano is common. Instead, I chose to lace goat cheese with julienned basil and pair it with a sweet pea sauce. If you can find male blossoms rather than females, get them (if only for the more attractive presentation the stems offer).
Goat Cheese Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms | Sweet Pea Sauce
For the Zucchini Blossoms:
16 zucchini (or squash) blossoms (3 per person plus several extra to guard against breakage and tearing)
Freshly ground black pepper
2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
For the Goat Cheese Filling:
10 ounces goat cheese
10 fresh basil leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for bushing the blossoms
2-3 more tablespoons olive oil for the pan (or, better yet, a silicone baking mat, e.g. Silpat)
For the Sweet Pea Sauce:
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 large (or 3 medium) shallots, finely chopped
2 cups chicken stock (plus 1 cup for thinning, as necessary)
1 cup dry white wine (such as Sauvignon Blanc or Albariño)
1 sprig fresh dill
1 ½ cups freshly shelled peas (or, if you must, frozen)
For the garnish:
4 tablespoons tomato sauce
- Prepare the squash blossoms. Preheat the oven to 375° Fahrenheit. Carefully inspect blossoms for insects, taking care not to get the blossoms wet or break the delicate petals. Snap off the pistils inside flowers using your fingertips. If the blossoms are male (they have stems rather than little baby zucchinis at the end, cut the stems to about 1-2 inches.
- Make the filling. Julienne the basil leaves (cut them into long threads by rolling them up and slicing them). Mix the basil with the goat cheese, seasoning with the salt and pepper. Roll the cheese mixture a series of 2-3 tablespoon balls.
- Stuff the blossoms. Put a ball of cheese inside each blossom. Arrange the stuffed blossoms on a hotel pan or cookie sheet that is either lined with a silicon (e.g. Slipat brand) mat or brushed with the olive oil, and arrange on baking sheet. Brush blossoms with the olive oil, and season with Kosher salt.
- Make the sweet pea sauce. Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the dill, wine and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, until the stock is reduced by half, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt. Add the peas, bring the stock back to a simmer, and cook until tender but still bright green, about 4 minutes. Working in batches, puree the mixture in a blender, food processor (or, better yet, a high speed blender such as a Vitamix). Pass the pureed pea mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl set over ice. Thin the sauce with chicken stock (working 1 tablespoon at a time) until the sauce is just thicker than heavy cream. Stir the sauce with the added stock to generally determine the texture and then whisk just before using.
- Cook the blossoms. Cook the stuffed blossoms for 7 to 10 minutes, until the petals just collapse onto the filling and they sizzle and slightly brown around the edges.
- Plate the dish. Spoon two tablespoons of the sweet pea sauce in a pool at the center of the plate. Arrange three blossoms on the pool of sauce projecting into the plate (if using male blossoms the stems should project further outward). Garnish the top center of each set of blossoms with the tomato sauce.