A Cook's Garden
They Look Good Enough to Eat
Thursday, August 21, 2008
There are moments you can savor only as a gardener-cook, and picking zucchini blossoms for Sunday breakfast is one of them. When I went out on a recent sunny August morning, dew was sparkling on the golden petals. By afternoon they would be closed and starting to wilt, but now the huge, upward-facing cups were wide open to the sun's rays. Harvested early, they would stay open all day if kept cool, but it was still best to eat them while fresh and crisp. Hence breakfast.
Zucchini and other squash plants bear male and female flowers. A male is held upright on a long, slender stem; a female has a tiny squash at the base. I usually choose the males for cooking, leaving the others to produce fruits, but this time I picked both because the planting would soon be ripped out to make way for a crop of overwintering onions.
I first tasted squash blossom fritters in Rome, years ago, and have been working to perfect them ever since. I simply drop a cube of cheese into the base of an open flower, which I swirl in a thin batter of flour and water, then fry in olive oil until crispy.
The first step is to make sure the flowers are clean and evict any wildlife. On Sunday, my blossoms were full of bees when harvested, but those had flown, leaving only a few ants and striped cucumber beetles to be brushed off. Next I removed the flowers' reproductive parts: a single pillar for the males, a shorter, bulbous mass for the females. These are difficult to pinch out without tearing the petals, so this time I asked my husband to search his toolbox. He found the perfect instrument: a pair of needle-nose pliers with blades bent at the tips. The organs, as golden and no doubt as carotene-rich as the blossoms themselves, are fine to eat raw or cooked and can be saved for a garnish, but removing them creates a more secure pocket for cheese. I use a firm cheese, such as cheddar or Monterey Jack, that will melt just enough during frying but not ooze out before the job's done.
A shallow bowl is the best vessel for swishing the flower in the batter. The male stem makes a good handle, but so does the little squash on the female, if left on, and it will cook right along with the flower. Twirling the flower while you're rolling it in the batter helps to close it up and seal in the cheese, but it takes care and patience. Holding the petal tips closed with the other hand is a help, especially when transferring the batter-coated flower to the pan of sizzling oil. After that delicate move, you're home free. The fritters crisp up in minutes and can be easily flipped over to brown the other side, then salted and drained on a paper towel. With a bowl of fresh blueberries to follow, there is no better way to start a day.