A young newlywed couple from Russia came to Bethany for an extended stay. Alexi, the groom, was delighted to discover that an old friend and former mentor from Russia was unexpectedly going to be near enough to spend some time with him while he was in the States. He immediately extended an invitation to him and his friends for dinner – a real, Russian meal that he himself would prepare for them.
The day of the planned dinner Alexi felt ill and was unable to do any cooking. With his permission I prepared a meal that I thought would be close to what he would have made, and I felt one of the dishes should be stuffed cabbage. I prepared them as I remembered my Ukrainian mother always preparing them.
By dinnertime Alexi was well enough to join his guests and no mention was made of his not feeling well earlier. Everyone enjoyed dinner and Maestro Serge was particularly taken with the stuffed cabbage. “This,” he said to me, “is authentic.” Then he added, “A real Russian can always discern whether or not the Russian food he has been served was prepared by a real Russian.”
Beautiful zucchini and yellow summer squash continue to come in from the gardens every day, and while they do it would be a shame not to have a nice stuffed zucchini boat meal before the season slips by. This is what last night’s convent cook thought as she prepared to make our dinner. She wanted to do something a little different from what we usually do and she turned out a meal that brought applause from the entire sisterhood even though we have had quite a few zucchini meals this summer. Using a combination of sweet and hot Italian sausage and a generous mixture of favorite Italian cheeses she succeeded in satisfying even the most discriminating pallet that evening.
The two things, I think, that put this dish over the top was the combination of cheeses (she used Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino, Asiago and Gorgonzola) any of which give a distinctive taste, and then the generous use of fresh garden herbs like basil, oregano and Italian parsley.
Blanch the zucchini in a large pot of boiling water, 7 minutes, then place in cold water 5 minutes. Cut zucchini in half lengthwise, then scoop out all but ¼ inch of flesh. Brown the sausage in a small skillet, breaking the pieces into small bits, 5 to 6 minutes, then remove the meat from the skillet.
In the same skillet, on medium heat, add the onion and sauté until soft. Add garlic and sauté 1 additional minute (add a little bit of olive oil if the pan is dry). Add the meat back to the skillet along with the cream cheese, zucchini pulp and bread crumbs and stir until the cheese has melted. Taste and add salt and pepper or other seasonings as desired; fresh basil, oregano and parsley are nice.
Place the zucchini boats on a small sheet pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper, then fill with the meat mixture. Top with tomato halves and grated cheese.
Place in oven and bake 25-30 minutes until the cheese melts and starts to brown. Garnish with basil.
I’ve had the great joy of working side-by-side with an Italian chef over these last few weeks. The other Sisters who have lived and worked at Via Sacra have also had the tremendous privilege of learning from her. Chef Laura has been so generous with her time and energy as we try to absorb all that we can about Italian cooking. Below is one of her recipes that she taught me this past week and I went home and made it for the villa. These crepes are so delicious and light! Chef Laura serves this as a first course at her restaurant, but we enjoyed it as a light supper served with a fruit salad and a tossed green salad on the side.
All Chef Laura’s recipes are in her head, so I tried to reproduce it here by just observing her. If the quantities seem a little off, just adjust them to your liking! We can still get squash blossoms in the market this time of year in Italy. If you have any zucchini plants in your garden, just pluck the blossoms off and you are all set!
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Crepes filled with Zucchini Puree and Topped with Squash Blossoms
Make the filling: Over low heat, melt your butter in a saucepan and add the zucchini and red onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until both vegetables are very soft. Continue cooking until most all of the moisture is removed (the zucchini will let off a lot of water while it cooks). While the zucchini mixture is cooking, prepare the crepes.
Make the crepes: In a blender, combine all the crepe ingredients above and blend until smooth. Let rest about 5 min.
Heat a lightly oiled Teflon frying pan (omelet size pan) over medium heat. Pour or ladle the batter into the pan, using approximately 1/4 cup for each crepe. Tilt the pan with a circular motion so that the batter coats the surface evenly. Cook the crepe for about 2 minutes, until the bottom is light brown. Loosen with a spatula, turn and cook the other side for 1 minute. Remove to a plate, put a square of wax paper on top and repeat until all the batter is used up. This recipe should make 8 crepes.
Remove the filling from the heat and mash with a potato masher. Let cool slightly and add the cream cheese and stir until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. This mixture should be the consistency of pesto or a little thicker.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. (or broiler)
To assemble, in one quadrant of your crepe place a heaping tablespoon of the filling and spread to fill that quadrant. Fold the crepe into quarters and place into oblong serving ramekins (2 per person) or a casserole dish. Repeat, until all the crepes are filled.
Dot each crepe with butter and lay the squash blossoms over them to cover the crepes. Again, dot butter over the squash blossoms and sprinkle the grated cheese over the entire crepe.
Place the crepes in the oven and bake until the cheese is melted and golden, about 5 min. If you prefer, you can also broil them at this step.
Remove from the oven and serve.
The other night, we made this tasty soup at the Convent in the form of a stew, with pieces of chicken thighs cooked into it, and chunks of sweet potato left intact. We loved the flavor so much that we thought we’d create our own recipe in a meatless rendition, something to relish during Lent. The result was wonderful! You can taste each subtle flavor: roasted peanuts, sweet potatoes, coriander, ginger, and tomato – a very odd collection! But when put together, a velvety and beautiful soup is born.
It’s very simple to throw together and with a little bread, cheese, and salad, you have a complete meal. Enjoy!
Our Lenten journey has begun. The church has been dressed in violet and our promises to God for these forty days have been made. The chants for the season speak of hope, transformation and a return to God. In the monastery, it is traditional to simplify life, not only in our work but also in our attitudes and our eating. Many monastic houses fast from meat during Lent – a simple soup and bread for lunch and dinner are the norm. As we harvest the last of our winter squash from our garden, this simple yet hearty soup is the perfect beginning to this special season of the church year.
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Vegetable and Lentil Soup from a Monastery Kitchen
Melt the butter and olive oil in a heavy bottomed stock pot. Add the diced leeks, celery, carrots, parsnips, butternut squash and a small amount of the dill and parsley and sauté until golden and the vegetables are beginning to soften, stirring occasionally. Adjust the heat so the vegetables are sauteing, but not burning.
Add the lentils and continue to sauté for a few more minutes.
Add 6 cups of hot chicken or vegetable stock and freshly ground pepper (to taste)
Cook for about 8 min. over medium heat, simmer, but do not boil.
Add the diced zucchini and continue simmering until the lentils are cooked and the vegetables are softened, about 15 min.
Remove from heat and add the baby spinach, the herbs and the lemon zest and juice and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. If desired, serve with grated parmesan cheese.