We could be in the tropics at the moment with heat that rises to 35 degrees during the day followed swiftly by a monsoon-style storm at night….and I’ve even noticed some ominous bites appearing on exposed flesh early evening. That was understandable whilst we were weekending on the Italian coast but very strange to have these same hot sultry nights on our return home to mountainous northern Italy. Apart from anything else there are a lot of hot and very confused sheep around!
So with all this extreme weather I could feel a lighter more Asian-style supper dish coming on and one in particular I wanted to make was from my time in Indonesia. It was a dish of fragrant banana leaf packages baked in the ashes of an open fire. I remember opening the packages, folding back the leaves and this heavenly aroma of ginger, garlic and basil escaping and mingling with the heady smell of frangipani, the sound of frogs croaking in the rice fields and the rhythmic beating of the gamelan………well, it was paradise!
Banana trees of course don’t grow here in Italy – although I spotted a member of their family growing along the coast – that symbol of tropical flowers, the stunning bird-of-paradise flower. Inedible obviously, but not to the sunbirds who feed from what looks like the open beak of the flower.
My local fruttivendolo, resourceful as ever, rose to the challenge and produced the ideal substitute for banana leaves – an inviting tray of zucchini flowers which as well as being feather-light are perfect for stuffing. I’ve eaten wonderful zucchini flowers stuffed with all sorts of different Italian fillings but I wanted and needed something extra light.
In Indonesia the filling was made with tofu and although tofu isn’t a food that comes naturally to Italians it has now crept onto supermarket shelves, into new fusion restaurants and onto the shopping lists of a growing Italian vegan population. Because of its lightness, softness and blandness it can be incorporated into many traditional dishes like ravioli, cannelloni, pasta sauces, puddings etc.
SLIGHTLY TROPICAL ZUCCHINI FLOWERS
For 2 as a main course or 6 as a starter
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 25 minutes
1 x 250g block firm tofu
2 spring onions, fine chopped
2 tsp finely grated ginger
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
½ red chilli, seeds removed & minced
2 Tbsp finely chopped basil
Juice of 1 lime
1 Tbsp soya sauce (optional – use pinch of salt if preferred)
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp olive oil
Preheat oven to 180C/350F
Mix together all the above ingredients – actually I put everything into my small food processor. As you can see the mixture ends up resembling a sort of crumbly herb ricotta.
Take one of the zucchini flowers – handle carefully they’re fragile – and gently pull apart the petals.
Stuff carefully, pushing down with a finger, then bring the petals back together and twist.
Lay all your stuffed flowers in a baking dish, drizzle with a little more olive oil and bake for about 25-30 minutes.
Serve warm with a salad