A Cook's Garden

The sex lives of squashes? Relax, it's just lunch!

Know what to look for before you start picking squash blossoms.
Know what to look for before you start picking squash blossoms. (Bigstock)
By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 29, 2010

A good man was hard to find this morning in the zucchini patch.

It's not that I can't distinguish male and female squashes, which have blossoms of both sexes on the same plant. The huge golden-yellow flowers look similar until you peer inside and find either a female pistil or a column of fused male stamens. But there's a much easier way to tell. Males are attached unceremoniously to long, slender stems. Females have a small bump between stem and flower base, containing the ovary. This bump will become a squash if the flower is pollinated.

I was also there at the right time of day. Squash blossoms open eagerly for the early-rising insects that pollinate them, most notably our native squash bee, so gold trumpets were open wide, as if sounding a mating call. I was on a mission: stuffed squash blossoms for lunch. Why males? Females are just as edible and stuffable. But for maximum squash production I leave the girls alone, along with just enough boys for the bees to gather pollen from and transfer it to the girls.

After hunting through the sprawling, scratchy-leaved vines I headed home with a basket of eight perfect male flowers, enough to feed two, along with bread and a big salad. I checked the petals in case I needed to brush off a bit of soil or knock out a few yellow-and-black-striped cucumber beetles. I trimmed the stems, leaving an inch for a little handle.

Stuffing and frying squash blossoms seems tricky, because they are fragile, but it's easy once you get the knack. I make a slurry of whole-wheat bread flour and water, the consistency of a thin pancake batter. I carefully insert a fat stick of cheese (the size of a finger joint) into each flower, which I dip in the batter. A twirling motion seals the flowers shut, keeping the cheese inside. I quickly fry these dripping packages in hot olive oil, in a cast-iron skillet, flipping them with a spatula so that they turn crisp and golden brown on both sides. The flowers puff slightly like little balloons.

After draining for a minute on paper towels, the blossoms must be eaten right away, with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, lest they turn soggy. No problem. They are irresistible.

I've tried a number of cheeses with this dish. Soft, mellow ones such as mozzarella, fontina, Havarti or Monterey Jack work best. My current favorite is raclette, but I should retest that assessment, at least once a week.

If male flowers remain scarce, female ones can be used, ovary and all. You'll prevent a few squashes from forming, but at this time in the summer, with zucchini piling up on the kitchen counter, a little squash birth control is a good thing. In case you need an excuse.

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of "The Garden Primer."

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