Her love blossoms for zucchini flowers




Summer squash can be one dull vegetable. Leave it on the vine for just a moment too long and it swells up like a water balloon -- and doesn't taste much better. The field is dominated by zucchini and yellow squash, so mundane that horticulturists have barely bothered to give them specific names.

A well-chosen, properly sized zucchini can be delicious, but there's more than one reason that summer squash never receives the attention showered on other summer staples such as corn and tomatoes.

For all their prosaic qualities, these tender cucurbits have hidden qualities, nature's version of a free gift with purchase: the blossoms. One of the season's prettiest, most evanescent offerings, these bright yellow and orange flowers on delicate green stems seem to symbolize everything delicious about the season.

Summer and Winter Squash

Summer and winter squash all have edible blossoms, which can be used interchangeably, with some attention paid to size. They're in season from late spring through early fall, and can often be found at Italian and Latin American specialty markets, as well as at specialty grocery stores. The best place to find them is farmers markets, where they will likely be cheaper and fresher. They are highly perishable, so use them as soon as possible.

If you're picking them from your own garden, be sure to take the male, rather than the female blossoms -- only the latter actually grow into squash. But don't pick all your male blossoms, as they're needed for pollination. Male blossoms have thinner, more delicate stems, while female blossoms have tiny squash at the base. The Post-Gazette's Backyard Gardener Doug Oster recommends picking them in the morning, when most of the males will be open.

But all the things I love about the blossoms -- their brief life, their delicacy -- also mean that I rarely cook them myself. Stuffed squash blossoms are impressive and delicious, whether fried, steamed or baked, but they're also fussy and best made to order, too much work for a warm summer's day.

Then a friend served me for brunch a squash blossom fritatta, a gorgeous mass of yellows and greens, the flowers just a crowning touch to delicate zucchini layered with eggs, ricotta salata and oregano.

The next week, a Mexican recipe for squash blossoms sauteed with summer squash, tomatoes and chiles popped up in a Saveur e-mail newsletter. It was an easy weeknight dish with a fantastic mix of textures and colors.

I started flipping through my cookbooks. There were endless variations of baked, steamed or fried stuffed squash, but that was just the start. Rick Bayless stews squash blossoms. Diana Kennedy stuffs them into empanadas. Alice Waters, Barbara Lynch and Deborah Madison all stir them into summer risottos. Delicate blossoms can be eaten raw -- just slice them up and add them to a salad.

Most of these dishes married squash and its blossoms, which makes perfect sense. They're traditionally available together, and the blossoms are sure to pep up any recipe.

Despite all those easier recipes, much more suitable to my ordinary kitchen, I couldn't stop thinking about fried blossoms, particularly a version I'd had a few weeks earlier at Dinette in East Liberty. The batter was ethereal and crisp at the same time, while a garlicy pesto contrasted nicely with the delicate flavor of the blossoms.

Chef/owner Sonja Finn was kind enough to share the recipe, and I battered and fried a dozen blossoms on a Saturday evening, then slathered them with pesto. I forgot the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano I was supposed to sprinkle on top, but they still were delicious.

I won't necessarily be repeating the experiment until I get a kitchen with air conditioning and more counter space, but I'll never again pass up a basket full of squash blossoms. Summer is fleeting, and not always pleasant, but it sure does make for some good eating.


Zucchini Fritatta with Blossoms

PG tested

The recipe will serve 6 to 8, with other side dishes, but it can easily be devoured by 4 hungry people, so plan accordingly. If you'd rather not put a non-stick pan under the broiler, you can use cast-iron or an ordinary pan, but you might want to add a little extra oil before you pour in the egg mixture, and you should expect the frittata to stick a little.

-- China Millman

  • 7 whole large eggs
  • 3 large egg whites
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 5 ounces ricotta salata, finely crumbled (1 cup)
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, divided
  • 2 medium zucchini (1 to 1 1/4 pounds total), quartered lengthwise and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick pieces
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
  • 1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 ounce)
  • 6 large zucchini blossoms (optional), tough ends removed

Whisk together whole eggs, whites, milk, ricotta salata, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl.

Preheat broiler.

Heat oil in a 12-inch ovenproof nonstick skillet over moderate heat. Cook zucchini, stirring, until just tender, about 8 minutes. Add garlic, oregano, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Pour egg mixture over zucchini and cook over moderately high heat, lifting cooked egg around edges to let uncooked egg flow underneath, 3 to 5 minutes (top will still be moist).

Sprinkle top with Parmigiano-Reggiano and arrange blossoms (if using) evenly on top, pressing them in lightly.

Broil frittata 6 inches from heat until set, puffed, and golden brown, about 3 minutes.

Cool 5 minutes, then loosen with a spatula and slide onto a platter. Cut into wedges and serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 6 to 8.

-- Adapted from "The Gourmet Cookbook: More than 1000 Recipes" edited by Ruth Reichl (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)


Fried Squash Blossoms

PG tested

Be sure to have your breading station and a paper-towel lined baking sheet set up before your oil hits 350 degrees. While you can substitute canola oil, Sonja Finn recommends the superior flavor of extra-virgin olive oil. Ms. Finn also emphasized using the full 5 cups of flour, "so that [it] does not get clumpy."

-- China Millman

  • 24 squash blossoms
  • 3 cups low-fat buttermilk
  • 4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
  • 1 cup semolina flour
  • Kosher salt
  • 2 quarts extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Carefully open each squash blossom and clean out any dirt or bugs. Gently twist ends together to reform.

Set up a breading station with buttermilk in a shallow bowl and in another shallow bowl the semolina and all-purpose flour mixed.

Heat oil in a 6-quart (or larger) stockpot to 350 degrees. Check and maintain temperature with a candy thermometer.

One at a time, dip flowers into buttermilk, shake off excess, then into flour mixture, shake off excess and then lay them gently in the oil.

Fry 8 flowers at a time. After about 2 minutes use tongs to turn over each blossom. The side that was in the oil should be a light golden brown. Cook another couple minutes until blossoms are a light golden brown on both sides. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels. Season with salt. Fry other 2 batches.

Arrange blossoms on large plate. Drizzle with pistou (recipe below) and sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Pistou

  • 1 cup basil leaves
  • 1 clove peeled garlic
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt

In a food processor put garlic, basil and half the olive oil. Blend, adding additional olive oil until you achieve a consistency good for drizzling. You may end up using a little less or more than the 1/3 cup called for. Salt to taste.

-- From Sonja Finn, chef/owner of Dinette in East Liberty


Squash Blossom Saute

PG tested

Serve this with black beans and corn tortillas for a complete meal. If you don't want to track down epazote, fresh oregano makes a good substitute. I used 2 small tomatoes, one yellow, one red, for added color.

-- China Millman

  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1/4 small yellow onion, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 red jalapeno, stemmed, seeded, minced
  • 2 calabazitas (Mexican squash), summer squash, or zucchini, halved, seeded, thinly sliced crosswise
  • 1 ripe tomato, cored, minced
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh epazote
  • 20 squash blossoms, stemmed (both the epazote and blossoms are available from melissas.com)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, until soft, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and jalapeno and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add squash and cook, covered and stirring occasionally, until tender, about 3 minutes. Add tomato, and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Remove skillet from heat, and stir in epazote, squash blossoms, salt, and pepper; let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Serves 4.

-- Adapted from Saveur magazine, May 2011


China Millman: 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com .




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