There are many explanations, but I like the theory that, at this time of the year, sheep and goats are still feeding their young, and milk products abound.
Dishes prepared with wheat, barley, honey, olives and other “first fruits” of the spring harvest are also customary.
Using many of these ingredients and updating the traditional Shavuot dairy dishes, this menu includes some of my favorite dishes, inspired by my new Italian cookbook, “Italy Cooks.”
When your guests sit down for the holiday meal, welcome everyone by sharing a platter, placed in the center of the table, containing a goat cheese and tomato appetizer. It is a great way to start the evening.
Cold tomato soup topped with mozzarella cheese is a refreshing perfect first course, as it can be prepared in advance, stored in the refrigerator and ladled into soup bowls when you are ready. I developed this recipe while we were renting a house in Italy, where we often picked tomatoes from the garden. Based on the famous Italian caprese salad, it is fresh, colorful and easy to prepare, especially if you have a tomato press. (This handy little Italian-made gadget separates the seeds and skins from the pulp, leaving a fresh tomato puree. The device is made of heavy red acrylic, with a stainless steel strainer and a strong suction cup on the bottom that attaches to any work surface. You can find it at most cookware stores.)
Zucchini squash blossoms are easily found in farmers’ markets at this time of the year. Stuff these delicate flowers with a ricotta mixture and bake in the oven. Serve with a classic marinara sauce. This light vegetable dish makes a perfect small course for a dinner that consists entirely of primi piatti (first plates).
Instead of the traditional farmers cheese-filled blintzes, prepare crepes filled with ricotta cheese and spinach, baked and served with a chunky, spicy tomato sauce. It is an Italian country crepe dish known as Crespelle con Ricotta e Spinaci. This recipe is most appealing with the filled crespelle (crepes) presented on a pool of tomato sauce. Think blintzes, with an Italian accent.
Fried Cheese is another dish that is perfect to serve during Shavuot. This one is so impressive in Italian restaurants, and easy to replicate at home. It’s just a mixture of mozzarella cheese, eggs, breadcrumbs and seasoning, cut into squares. The mozzarella squares should be soft and melted inside, so it’s important to fry them just moments before serving. Have the fresh tomato sauce prepared and ready to spoon onto the individual serving plates, place the fried cheese on top, and serve at once. (Recipe online.)
GOAT CHEESE AND TOMATO APPETIZER
8 ounces montrachet or other goat cheese
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup mascarpone (optional)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped basil
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil or more to taste
Classic Marinara Sauce (recipe follows)
Combine the montrachet, cream cheese, mascarpone, garlic, basil, salt and olive oil in the large bowl of an electric mixer. Mix until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add more olive oil if needed for smoother consistency. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.
When ready to serve, preheat broiler. Cover bottom of 12 small (3-inch) shallow custard cups or ramekins with Classic Marinara Sauce. Using an ice cream scoop, place a scoop of cheese mixture in the center of each custard cup or ramekin. Heat under the broiler for about 5 minutes, or until top is brown. Do not let the cheese mixture melt. Sprinkle with parsley and drizzle with a little olive oil.
Makes 12 servings.
FRIED CHEESE WITH CLASSIC MARINARA SAUCE
It is important to fry the mozzarella cheese cubes just before serving so they will be soft and melted on the inside. The sauce can be prepared in advance; simply spoon onto individual plates when serving.
1 pound mozzarella cheese, finely diced
1 1/4 cups dried bread crumbs
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons dry vermouth or brandy
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 parsley sprigs, stems removed
4 fresh basil leaves
1 cup flour
Vegetable oil for frying
Classic Marinara Sauce (see recipe)
In a double boiler, soften the mozzarella over hot water. Transfer the softened cheese to the large bowl of an electric mixer and beat in two of the eggs at medium speed. Add 1/4 cup of the bread crumbs, the oregano, half the garlic and the salt; mix well. Press the cheese mixture into a lightly oiled 5-by-7-inch glass dish. Cover and chill at least 1 hour, or until firm.
In a bowl, lightly beat the remaining four eggs. Blend in the vermouth. Set aside.
In a food processor or blender, blend the remaining 1 cup bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, parsley, basil and remaining garlic. Set aside.
Cut the cheese mixture into 1/2-inch cubes (about 15 pieces). Dip each into the flour, then the egg-vermouth mixture, and finally into the bread crumb mixture to coat evenly. Place on paper towels and chill 30 minutes in the refrigerator.
In a heavy skillet or deep fryer, heat 3 inches of oil until it registers 375 F on a deep-frying thermometer. Fry the cheese cubes, a few at a time, until evenly golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels. Serve at once with Classic Marinara Sauce.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
CLASSIC MARINARA SAUCE
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 small white onions, finely diced
1 can (1 pound, 12 ounces) whole plum tomatoes, with liquid
4 cups peeled, seeded and chopped fresh tomatoes
8 whole basil leaves, sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Minced parsley for garnish
Olive oil for drizzling
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook gently until browned. Add the onions and sauté until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the canned and fresh tomatoes, basil, and simmer until soft, about 5 minutes. Using a wire whisk or fork, mash the tomatoes. Simmer over low heat until the mixture thickens into a sauce, about 45 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Let cool. May cover with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days or in freezer for up to one month.
Makes about 4 cups.
CRESPELLE WITH RICOTTA AND SPINACH
24 Blini (recipe follows)
1 pound ricotta cheese
8 ounces spinach, steamed, squeezed dry and finely chopped
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
Salt to taste
Classic Marinara Sauce (see recipe)
Prepare Blini; cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
If ricotta is very soft, place in a strainer set over a medium bowl for 30 minutes to drain. Mix the drained ricotta, spinach, nutmeg and salt in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
To assemble, spread about 2 tablespoons of the ricotta-spinach filling over the entire surface of each crepe. Fold 2 inches of each side over the filling and roll up tight. Cut each roll into 4 pieces and place on the baking sheet. Bake at 350 F until heated through, about 5 minutes.
To serve, heat the Classic Marinara Sauce and spoon some in the center of each plate. Arrange 4 or 5 rolled crepes, cut side up, on top of the sauce.
Makes 12 servings.
2 egg yolks
1 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 3/4 cups flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
In bowl of an electric mixer, beat eggs and egg yolks. Blend in milk and cream. Add flour, salt, and oil; blend well. Pour into a fine-mesh strainer set over a large bowl and allow to slowly drip through. Or push batter through the strainer with a rubber spatula. Batter should be the consistency of heavy cream. If too thick, add a little more milk. It can be used immediately or covered with plastic wrap, refrigerated, and used the next day.
Brush a well-seasoned crepe pan with butter and heat. Pour in about 3 tablespoons batter; tilt and rotate the pan to distribute it evenly and thinly, pouring off any excess. The first crepe will be thicker than the rest. Cook until underside is lightly browned around the edges, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn and cook on other side 1 to 2 minutes. Repeat with remaining batter, stacking cooked crepes on a dish with a piece of wax paper between each one.
Makes about 12 crepes.
Cold Tomato Soup with Mozzerella
6 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and pureed (about 3 cups)
2 tablespoons sugar or to taste
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon salt or more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves
6 ounces soft mozzarella cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cups diced cucumbers, peeled (2 small cucumbers)
2 cups fresh corn kernels
Extra-virgin olive oil for garnish
Strain the pureed tomatoes into a glass bowl. Add the sugar, balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the basil and mix thoroughly.
Spoon an equal amount of mozzarella, cucumbers and corn kernels into the center of 6 shallow bowls and ladle some tomato mixture over each. Drizzle with olive oil and serve.
Makes 6 servings.
STUFFED SQUASH BLOSSOMS
20 to 24 squash blossoms with tiny zucchini attached
1 pound fresh ricotta cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 egg yolks or whole eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 pound gorgonzola cheese, cut in small cubes
1/2 cup olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Simple Zucchini Sauce (recipe follows)
Carefully open blossoms wide; remove the pistils — the fuzzy yellow floret — from inside the zucchini blossom and discard. Set blossoms aside.
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 (a small spoon will also work). Fill the clean blossoms about three-quarters full. Push a piece of gorgonzola into the center of the filling and gently squeeze the petals together over the top of the filling.
Brush two 8-by-10-inch baking dishes with olive oil and arrange the stuffed zucchini flowers in the dishes. Sprinkle the blossoms with additional salt, pepper and remaining olive oil. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in preheated 375 F oven until the cheese is puffy and the juices that run from the blossoms begin to bubble.
To serve, ladle Simple Zucchini Sauce into each serving plate and arrange two stuffed blossoms on top.
Makes 10 servings.
SIMPLE ZUCCHINI SAUCE
2 zucchini (16 ounces), cut in 1-inch chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
In a medium-size saucepan, place zucchini with water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer until soft. Reserve 3 to 4 tablespoons of the cooking liquid. Cool. Place zucchini in food processor with reserved liquid, olive oil, salt and pepper, and blend until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to serve. Just before serving, heat the sauce and serve with the squash blossoms.
Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Morrow, 1988) and “The International Deli Cookbook” (Chronicle, 1994). She teaches cooking classes through American Jewish University’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education. Her new cookbook, “Italy Cooks,” is based on 35 years of travel to Italy. Her Web site is judyzeidler.com.