Gather Ye Squash Blossoms While Ye May

I don't mean to be churlish, but I often find that the joy of edible flowers mostly comes upfront, when you see their lovely, unexpected colors on your plate. "We're beautiful and safe to eat," they seem to cry. Yet I find their allure sometimes falls short. Cucumbery borage has a fishy aftertaste. Nasturtiums expertly hide insects, and violets are so vanishingly subtle they practically aren't there. Just because you can eat something doesn't always mean you should.

Jumbo-size zucchini blossoms seem to promise more of the same. On the vine, they unfurl like a Kleenex crumpling in reverse. For a few brief days of pollination, bees wander around the vast yellow blooms like shoppers at Kmart. Then the Kleenex crumples again, its base shielding a small green torpedo that rapidly advances toward blimpdom. Before you can say "ratatouille," a fleet of foot-long submersibles has collected beneath the massing heart-shaped leaves. They dare you to dispose of them in the compost or any other way you can think of. ("The only time we lock our cars around here is during zucchini season," remarks my uncle in rural Vermont, in a nod to local wisdom.)

Zucchini blossoms, though, haven't got the polleny, not-quite-foodlike flavor profile of many flowers. They're mild and squashy, with a texture that's soft and delicate when raw or steamed, crisp and toothsome when fried. They're produced in crazy, profligate profusion. And if nothing else, plucking those blossoms during their brief summer window is a highly effective form of zucchini birth control.

The zucchini is a New World vegetable. I like to imagine it was some exasperated grandmother in pre-colonial Mexico who first stripped the overly prolific zucchini plant of its blossoms and dropped them in hot oil, because what doesn't taste good dropped in hot oil? But I really have no idea.

About The Author

T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer and a former Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also is the regular cookbook reviewer for The Boston Globe, and her articles on cooking, gardening and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications. You can find more information at her Web site, tsusanchang.com.

What I do know is that as good as a fried zucchini blossom is, it's even better if you stuff it with some kind of soft white cheese — ricotta, mozzarella, goat cheese. When the blossom, lovingly twisted shut, hits the hot oil, several magical things happen at once — the cheese begins to soften, picking up the flavors of whatever herbs you've added as it warms. The outside of the flower rapidly crisps, like a fine layer of pastry. And if you've got a little squashlet attached to the end of the flower? Well, now it's a tasty and tender little cooked squashlet, with the pristine, vegetal flavor we so miss when it gets to be the size of a baseball bat. As Jamie Oliver says in his recipe: bloody delicious.

No question, zucchini blossoms are an ingenious and elegant packaging material — tastier than wonton wrappers, prettier than parchment, way less crazy-making than phyllo. And they fry up into crumbly golden shells. On the other hand, who among us doesn't find deep-frying guilt-inducing and messy? So I'm including a couple of other recipes using techniques — baking and poaching — that won't send you to the confessional unless you just can't stop eating them. It's a real risk, but there, I'm afraid, you're on your own.

The only thing is this: zucchini blossoms are nearly as fragile as the Kleenex they resemble. Before and after they open, they're easy to tear, soft and ever so delicate. They're at their most manageable when they've just finished opening, when, in accordance with some mysterious directive, each petal unfurls to its tip. If they haven't yet arrived at the climactic moment, tease them open with a chopstick. Then you can squeeze in your soft white cheese filling using a plastic bag with a hole cut in the corner.

Now I have a blushing confession to make: not a single zucchini blossom was harmed in the writing of this article. Well, I bought a zucchini plant at the nursery a month ago. But then, as you'll recall if you live on the East Coast, came week upon week of celestial lectures on the subject of rain. I left the garden to its own weedy devices and forgot about the zucchini plant, leaving the poor little guy in the shed to wither and die while I played card games with the kids.

Fortunately, I had a number of fine pumpkin and buttercup squash plants, the fruits of a more industrious spring. These, it turns out, are thoroughly interchangeable with zucchini blossoms; I defy anyone to tell the difference in a blind taste test. They busted out in yellow bloom just in time, making these recipes possible.

I had just arrived at the last recipe and my last blossom — a whorled bubble of a squash blossom, just past its prime and already twirling shut on the end — when I noticed it was emitting a curious, intermittent buzz. Cautiously, I teased the twisted, tissue-thin petals apart with my chopstick — and discovered a very small, very confused honeybee, supercooled from three hours in the fridge and completely covered in pollen.

We stepped outside and I gingerly released him, holding the petals open by the very tips of my fingers. Undaunted by his adventure, he took wing, making what I can only describe as a beeline for the garden. There he would attend an August banquet of flowers, each more delicious than the last. If an insect can have an expression, his was one of rapture. And — just for once — I knew how he felt.

Crispy Zucchini Flowers Stuffed With Ricotta And Mint

This recipe is adapted from Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life, by Jamie Oliver (Hyperion 2007). Don't worry if you can't get zucchini flowers with the zucchini still attached. Squashless flowers taste great too, even if they're not quite as filling. Although Oliver recommends using 4 inches of oil, I've found 2 to be sufficient (especially if you don't have zucchini attached to the flowers).

Crispy Zucchini Flowers Stuffed With Ricotta And Mint i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Crispy Zucchini Flowers Stuffed With Ricotta And Mint
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 servings

7 ounces good-quality crumbly ricotta cheese

1/4 of a nutmeg, finely grated, or a pinch of ground nutmeg

Small handful of freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Grated zest of 1 lemon

Small bunch of fresh mint, leaves picked and finely chopped

1 to 2 fresh red chilies (small bird's eye chilies or 1/2 of a red, ripe jalapeno), halved, deseeded and finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 3/4 cups self-rising flour, plus a little extra for dusting

1 1/2 cups white wine or sparkling water

8 zucchini flowers, with zucchini still attached if possible

Vegetable oil

Small piece of potato, peeled (optional)

Sprigs of parsley (optional)

2 lemons, halved

Beat the ricotta in a bowl with the nutmeg, Parmesan, lemon zest and most of the chopped mint and chili. Season to taste.

To make a lovely light batter, put the flour into a mixing bowl with a good pinch of salt. Pour in the white wine and whisk until thick and smooth. At this point the consistency of the batter should be like heavy cream or, if you dip your finger in, it should stick to your finger and nicely coat it. If it's too thin, add a bit more flour; if it's too thick, add a little more wine.

Open the zucchini flowers gently, keeping them attached to the zucchini, and snip off the pointed stamen inside because it tastes bitter. Give the flowers a gentle rinse if you like.

Spoon the ricotta into the corner of a plastic sandwich or Ziploc bag. Snip 1/2 inch off the corner and use this as a makeshift piping bag to gently squeeze the filling into each flower, until just full. Carefully press the flowers back together around the mixture to seal it in. Then put the flowers to one side. (Any leftover ricotta can be smeared on hot crostini as a snack.)

Now for the deep-frying: Have tongs or a spider ready for lifting the flowers out of the oil, and a plate with a double layer of paper towels on it for draining. Pour the oil into a deep-fat fryer or deep saucepan so it's about 2 inches deep. Heat it up to 350F or, if using a saucepan, put in your piece of potato. As soon as the potato turns golden, floats to the surface and starts to sizzle, the oil is just about the right temperature. Remove the potato from the pan.

One by one, dip the zucchini with their ricotta-stuffed flowers into the batter, making sure they're completely covered, and gently let any excess drip off. Carefully release them, away from you, into the hot oil. Quickly batter another one or two flowers and any small zucchini (or parsley) leaves if you have any, but don't crowd the pan too much or they'll stick together. Fry until golden and crisp all over, then lift them out of the oil and drain on the paper towels. Remove to a plate or board and sprinkle with a good pinch of salt and the remaining chili and mint. Serve with half a lemon to squeeze over.

Poached Squash Blossoms With Ricotta And Sage Butter

Poached blossoms are a tender and delicate alternative to fried ones. If you poach them in good vegetable broth, they pick up so much flavor that you don't feel like you're missing out on a decadent fry-fest. The ricotta filling is remarkably easy to work if you use the plastic bag method. This recipe is adapted from A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen by Jack Bishop (Houghton Mifflin 2004).

Poached Squash Blossoms With Ricotta And Sage Butter i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Poached Squash Blossoms With Ricotta And Sage Butter
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 main-course servings

1 cup good quality, crumbly ricotta cheese

1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

1 large egg

1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley leaves

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

12 large squash blossoms

2 cups vegetable broth

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

1 tablespoon minced fresh sage leaves

Combine the cheeses, egg, parsley, flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt and several grindings of pepper in a small bowl.

Rinse the squash blossoms and inspect them for insects, shaking the blossoms to remove the insects and excess water. Trim and discard the green stem but do not trim anything from the base of the blossoms, or the filling will leak out through any holes. Gently spoon a heaping tablespoon of the cheese filling into each blossom. Or spoon the ricotta into the corner of a plastic sandwich or Ziploc bag. Snip 1/2 inch off the corner and use it as a makeshift piping bag to gently squeeze the filling into each flower, until just full.

Meanwhile, bring the broth to a boil in a large saute pan. Reduce the heat and carefully add the squash blossoms in a single layer, twisting the ends of each blossom shut just before it goes into the pan to enclose the filling. Adjust the heat so the broth is simmering gently (if it boils, the blossoms will tear open). Cover the pan and cook, checking occasionally to make sure the broth is still barely simmering, until the filling has set, about 7 minutes.

While the blossoms are poaching, melt the butter in a small skillet. Add the sage and cook over medium-low heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Keep the sage butter warm.

Use a slotted spoon to lift the cooked squash blossoms from the pan, draining the blossoms well by letting excess liquid fall back into the pan. Transfer to individual plates or a large platter. Drizzle the warm sage butter over the blossoms, season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Zucchini Blossoms Stuffed With Goat Cheese And Basil

Baked zucchini blossoms with a drizzle of oil are a little more luscious than poached ones. They shrink in the high heat of the oven, so be prepared for a slightly less picturesque, though no less delicious, presentation. Adapted from Vegetable Harvest by Patricia Wells (Morrow 2007).

Zucchini Blossoms Stuffed With Goat Cheese And Basil i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Zucchini Blossoms Stuffed With Goat Cheese And Basil
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 to 6 servings as a side dish

8 ounces fresh young goat's milk cheese

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, cut into chiffonade

12 zucchini blossoms

Salt

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Place the cheese on a large, flat plate. Sprinkle with the basil and mash with a fork until the mixture is evenly blended.

With a sharp knife, carefully cut through one side of a zucchini blossom to slightly open it up. Spoon the cheese into the corner of a plastic sandwich or Ziploc bag. Snip 1/2 inch off the corner, and use this as a makeshift piping bag to gently squeeze the filling into each flower, until just full. Carefully close the blossom. Repeat for the remaining blossoms and arrange them like spokes on a wheel in a round baking dish just large enough to accommodate them. Season lightly with salt. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of oil. Cover with aluminum foil.

Place in the center of the oven and bake until golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven. Drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of oil. Serve immediately.

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