Say ‘grazie’ for ricotta-filled Italian delights

Shavuot begins exactly seven weeks after Passover and brings with it centuries of food traditions.

Because some say milk and cheese symbolize the purity of the Torah, it is the festival when dairy foods are normally served. The holiday also celebrates the spring harvest, a time when a new crop of fresh vegetables and fruits begin to appear.

This year I am inspired to prepare a few of my favorite Italian dishes, which I discovered on one of our trips to Italy. We usually spend two to three months a year there, renting a house and shopping at the local open markets where we find wonderful treasures of fresh vegetables along with a selection of wonderful cheeses, like aged Parmesan and fresh ricotta. There are probably more Italian recipes that contain dairy products than in any other country.

For a fun first course, serve fresh fava beans, which you can find in your open farmer’s market. No recipe necessary, just boil the shelled fava beans, remove the outer skin, toss them in olive oil with diced pecorino cheese, season with salt and pepper and spoon the mixture into small cappuccino cups.

Follow with an Onion-Anchovie Pizza, which features an easy-to-make pizza dough. Roll it out very thin and top with a rich and savory mixture of slow-cooked sweet onions and garlic.

Garnish with pungent anchovies, Parmesan cheese and drizzle with olive oil. Simply bake for 30 minutes in a hot oven, cut into wedges and serve.

When we are cooking in Italy we can’t resist buying zucchini squash blossoms at the marketplace. They make a delicious taste treat for the holiday and are now available. They take a little effort, but are worth it. Fill with a ricotta cheese mixture and when baked they puff up like little pillows.

Risotto is the carrier for almost any ingredient, but spring vegetables are the perfect combination. To be truly delicious it should be made just before serving. It takes exactly 18 minutes to cook and you must stir constantly, while adding broth. Invite your guests to join you in the kitchen, offer them a glass of wine and a chance to stir the risotto.

Individual ricotta cheese souffles are a wonderful dessert. Mix the cheese, egg yolks and lemon zest several hours before the guests arrive. Then after dinner, fold the egg white meringue into the mixture, fill the souffle molds and bake. No one minds waiting a few extra minutes to taste these warm, light and flavorful desserts.

Enjoy Shavuot with your family and friends, and Buon Appetito.

Fresh Fava Beans With Pecorino Cheese
3 pounds fresh, young fava beans (about 2 cups)
1 cup diced pecorino cheese
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Shell fava beans and discard the pods. Parboil the fava beans in boiling water, about five minutes. Cool and pop them out of their skins.

Just before serving, spoon the fava beans and pecorino into a bowl. Drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste. Spoon into serving bowls or cups.

Makes six to eight servings.

Onion-Anchovy Pizza
Pizza dough (recipe follows)
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds (3 or 4 large) onions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 2-ounce can anchovy fillets, drained
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Prepare the pizza dough, cover with a towel and set aside.

In a large skillet, heat 4 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the onions and garlic. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and cook on low heat for 20 minutes. Stir occasionally to avoid sticking. Do not allow onions to brown. Makes about three cups.

Divide pizza dough in four equal parts and roll one part in a round circle. Brush a round pizza baking dish with olive oil and sprinkle with cornmeal. Place the onion mixture on the pizza round. Garnish with anchovies in a circular pattern. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over the top (optional). Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Repeat with remaining dough.

Makes four pizzas.

Pizza Dough
2 packages active dry yeast
Pinch of sugar
1 1/4 cups warm water (110-115 F)
1/4 cup olive oil
3 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt

Dissolve the yeast with the sugar in 1/2 cup of the water and set aside until foamy.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining 3/4 cup water, the olive oil and yeast mixture.

Stir in the flour and salt and stir in 1 cup at a time, until the dough begins to come together into a rough ball. Spoon onto a floured board and knead until smooth and elastic.

Place the dough in an oiled bowl, oil its top, cover, and set in a warm place for about 15 minutes, or use immediately.

Ricotta Filled Zucchini Squash Blossoms
20 squash blossoms, with tiny zucchini attached, when available
1 pound fresh ricotta cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 egg yolks or whole eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Carefully open blossoms wide and remove the pistils (fuzzy yellow floret) from inside the center of the zucchini blossoms and discard. Set aside.

To prepare the stuffing: In a large bowl, beat the ricotta, Parmesan, eggs, and salt until smooth. Taste for seasoning; the mixture should be highly seasoned. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

To fill the blossoms: Spoon the filling into a large pastry bag, or a small spoon will do. Fill the blossoms about three quarters full and gently squeeze and twist the petals, over the filling, together at the top.

Brush two 8-by-10-inch baking dishes with olive oil and arrange the stuffed zucchini flowers in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the blossoms with salt, pepper and olive oil. Cover with aluminum foil and bake until cheese is puffy and the juices that run from the blossoms begin to bubble.