Point and shoot a camera from any spot at the annual Whitland Avenue Fourth of July Parade, and even the most inept photographer will produce a portrait so quintessentially all-American it could be mistaken for a Norman Rockwell print.
One of the most participatory components of the eventwhich includes members of the Nashville Symphony and singer/actress Nan Gurley performing patriotic anthems, a reading of the Declaration of Independence and a parade of decorated bicycles, wagons, strollers and babiesis the potluck lunch. Everyone is asked to bring either picnic food or a dessert portioned to serve 12; the spread is displayed on long tables set up beneath an awning, and everyone grabs a plate and helps themselves.
Some cooking enthusiasts like to compete in the food contest, offering up their dishes for judging by local chefs and restaurateurs. I have been honored to serve as Chief Justice for the last several years and hand out the coveted red and blue ribbons from the podium. This year, my panel included Dana Kopp Franklin, food writer for The Rage; Dan and Ellen Einstein, owners of Sweet 16 Bakery in East Nashville; and coffee mogul Bob Bernstein and his new bride, Irma Paz of Las Paletas Mexican popsicles.
Though the Parade is USA through and through, the foods in the competition have become increasingly more culturally diverse in flavor. Two years ago, the winner in the Picnic Food category was Ruth Chen's Kung Pao Chicken. Though the classic Hunan dish probably doesn't make its way to very many American picnic tables, it was so delicious that it earned its blue ribbon in a unanimous opinion.
This year, there were Asian-, Mediterranean- and Spanish-influenced creations, sitting harmoniously alongside the ubiquitous black bean salads and squash casseroles. The top prize in the Picnic Food category went to a dish that got its inspiration in Tuscany, by way of Whitland Avenue. (Congratulations to Roger Connor, who was pinned with the blue ribbon in the dessert field for his gorgeous Irish Truffle.)
Jackie Schrago spent the first two weeks of June in an apartment in Tuscany with six close friends. Because they cooked every day, they spent a good amount of time in local markets, where Schrago became particularly intrigued by the pretty zucchini squash blossoms. She found a recipe that would showcase the vegetable, gave it a test run in the Tuscany kitchen, then reproduced it here as best she could. Since squash blossoms aren't available in local markets or produce stands, she asked a gardening friend to pick some very young zucchini with flowers attached; she advises doing this in the morning or evening, when the blossoms are closed. Supplement the baby zucchini with adolescents, about 5 to 6 inches long, and no more than 1 inch in diameter. The recipe, Fiori di Zucca Ripieni (zucchini blossoms stuffed with tomatoes and Parmesan), follows.
1/2 pound acini de pepe or orzo pasta, very small beads
2 C. minced fresh tomatoes (4-5 ripe large roma tomatoes, if possible)
1 C. minced onion
5-6 cloves of minced garlic
1 C. chopped Italian parsley
1/2 C. chopped cilantro
1/2 C. grated Parmesan
Prepare pasta in salted water, cooking only three-quarters of the time indicated on the package. Once drained, pour 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil over it to keep it from sticking. Sauté onion for 2-3 minutes in olive oil, then add garlic and sauté for another minute. (Don't cook too long, it loses flavor.) Mix all together.
6-8 larger zucchini, quartered lengthwise
6 cloves minced garlic
2 T. olive oil
Salt to taste
Steam the larger zucchini in the Tuscan style: place oil in three-quart covered saucepan; add zucchini, garlic and salt, then toss to lightly coat zucchini. Heat over medium heat 5-7 minutes. Allow the vegetables to sweat in their own juice (don't add any water).
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously coat a glass baking dish with 3-4 tablespoons olive oil. Place most of the stuffing in the dish. Arrange the steamed larger zucchini pieces lengthwise. Gently stuff each zucchini flower, twist slightly to close, and place at the top or alongside the larger zucchini. Pour another 3-4 tablespoons olive oil over entire dish. Bake 15 minutes or until done. Serves 8.