These days the sun rises on roses, but the best flower show is in the vegetable garden. Squash blossoms open for business at dawn, their huge, golden trumpets proclaiming a fresh pollen supply for bees. As the morning goes on, the pollen’s quality declines a bit, the bees turn groggy, and the flowers start to close their doors. Around noon, they fold up for the day.
A single plant bears both male and female flowers, joined in procreation as bees burrow in the pollen and carry it from boy to girl. Peer into the flowers’ centers to see male or female parts, but a flower’s gender is clear with just a quick glance. A male has a long, slender stem, but a female has a thick base that enlarges to form an ovary. When pollination occurs, the ovary swells to an obvious baby bump and soon grows into a recognizable squash.
The flowers are prized in the kitchen, especially by cooks who have access to a garden and can be there when it counts, just like a bee. If picked very early when wide open and then refrigerated, the flowers probably will remain open for the evening meal.
The most popular way to cook squash blossoms is to stuff them, and the more open they are, the easier this is to do. It’s hard to open a closed flower without damaging it, and you want to leave it intact to hold the stuffing. Flowers of both sexes are delicious, but it makes sense to choose males because only a few are needed for pollination and females are best left in the garden to bear fruit.
The usual stuffing consists of cheese — from soft goat cheese to a semisoft Monterey Jack to a firmer raclette — but it’s fun to sneak in something extra, such as an anchovy, a tiny shrimp, a fat clove of roasted garlic or a bit of jalapeno pepper. After stuffing the blossoms, you batter-fry them and eat them immediately with coarse salt and pepper. I twirl them in a thin slurry of whole-wheat flour and water, twisting them to close the tips, and fry them on both sides in olive oil. It’s easy with a little practice.
Lately, I’ve been branching out into other, even simpler uses for these gorgeous flowers. They magically keep their vivid gold color and don’t entirely shrivel up when cooked or dressed with vinaigrette, unlike some edible flowers. I especially like them cut into chiffonade (thin ribbons) and strewn into a soup. The classic one is creamy, with chicken broth, green chiles, potatoes, corn and chunks of the squash itself. But you might also try a black bean soup as a dark background for the flowers’ brightness, along with strips of roasted red peppers.
Why stop there? Let’s slip them into tacos, garnish salads with them, toss them into pasta. Tuck them into a sandwich along with slightly warm fontina cheese. Scatter them on a pizza.
This summer I’m going to try a version of chef Waldy Malouf’s dessert blintzes, in which fresh ricotta and honey are stuffed into squash blossoms instead of into pancakes. Brushed with a little butter, warmed in the oven and topped with sour cream, they could be a breakfast worth getting up for at first light.