Squash Blossom Fever
by Kate Heyhoe
Food, like fashion, has its ins and outs. Clunky Doc Martins: out. Tall, tailored boots: in.
Squash blossoms are definitely "in." They're hip, they're hot, they're happening. Not that they weren't appreciated by those in the know before this, but it's as if they suddenly hired an agent to get their name out there. And it's working. They're seen in all the best restaurants, rubbing pistils and stamens with truffles, goat cheese, and caviar. Flip from network morning shows to cable stations, and they're absolutely blooming—willingly stuffed, twisted, battered, fried, and Emeril-ized.
Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of these golden gems. Some zucchini farmers are even breeding plants that are heavy on the blossom production, and light on the zuke, or forgoing the zucchini altogether and marketing just the blossoms.
Anyone who has ever grown zucchini or other summer squash knows that a single plant performs its own loaves-and-fishes act, sprouting yellow flowers and little squashlings on a daily basis. The small zucchini are the most tender, but if you miss plucking one of these babies in the first few days (or hours), it will quietly and steadily transform itself into a zucchini on steroids. Sit very, very still, and you can actually see them grow. One minute you're gazing at a slender little finger, and the next it's a walloping baseball bat.
Losing track of zucchini is easy. The enormous paddle-like leaves create garden jungles, making it difficult to spot the prey in the bush. Ditto for other summer squashes, although zucchini have a particular camouflage trait that yellow squash don't: The plant stems and stalks can be as thick, deeply green, and striated as the vegetable itself, making it hard to distinguish between what is plant and what is vegetable, especially when peering through the leafy jungle.
Back to the blossoms. Even if you're not wielding a green thumb, your farmer's market may be a source for fresh blossoms. But be warned: blossoms live about as long as mayflies—at worst a few hours, at best a few days, and only in ideal conditions. Cook them the day you pick them, or the day you pick them up. I have managed to store blossoms (picked in the morning) for as long as two days, but not without rinsing them, letting them air dry on the kitchen counter, then wrapping them in paper towels, carefully nesting them in a sealed plastic storage container, and refrigerating them in the crisper at a precise controlled 34 degrees. If you want to store blossoms, you must be willing to devote yourself to their care and handling completely. And if you clip your own blossoms, do so in the cool morning hours, when they've just opened up. Afternoon blossoms are closed and already on their way out.
If you grow your own zucchini, you may be lucky enough to find yourself with a seemingly unlimited supply of blossoms each morning. Leave the females (the ones with bulbous bases attached) alone, as these are the ones that make babies. After a baby has begun to grow, the female flowers are no longer critical so you can gently twist them off. You do need a few males for pollination (they have more slender stems), but most plants are overpopulated with male flowers, so it's okay to nab a few for nibbling.
The most fashionable way to serve squash blossoms is to lightly batter and fry them. I tried dredging them in tempura batter and then in coarse panko breadcrumbs before frying, but I don't recommend this method. The little darlings have a natural flavor and texture far too delicate for such overkill. If you want to fry them, a simple, lightly seasoned flour and water batter (without additional crumb coating) is best.
My husband has been experimenting with French intensive gardening: cram as many plants in the soil as you can, ignoring the recommended spacing, and water away. It works. With zucchini and summer squash, it almost works too well. Every morning I wind up with dozens of new golden flowers, petals open wide as if trumpeting their arrival.
I feel guilty not harvesting them, since they're such a delicacy and so in demand. But fried blossoms, tasty as they are, get a bit tiresome after a while. Even in the heat of summer, though, you can create extraordinary blossom dishes without resorting to hot, creamy squash blossom soup (a Mexican specialty) or oven-baked stuffed blossoms, all of which work fine in the cool mountains around San Miguel de Allende, but not in the Southern California desert.
Fortunately, squash blossoms have a natural affinity for cheese. Quesadillas made with tangy cheese, a few petals torn into strips, and if you have it, a bit of epazote, couldn't be classier, and with such a simple dish, the flavor of the blossoms shines through. Cook them like they do in central Mexico, using delicate corn tortillas rather than flour tortillas, for an even more perfect meld.
As mentioned, the delicate blossoms wilt quickly, so don't even think about freezing them for winter use. However, I did discover one way to capture the blossoms for non-seasonal enjoyment: in hush puppies. Stir some shredded blossoms into the batter (and while you're at, add some fresh summer corn kernels), shape into small fingers of dough, and deep fry. The hush puppy interiors are tender and moist, while the outsides are crisp and golden. When you've had your fill of the pups hot out of the fryer, let the rest cool, seal them well, and freeze. They'll last two months or more frozen. Pop the frozen bites into a preheated 300 degree F. oven, bake for a few minutes until hot and crisp, and enjoy.
Kate's Global Kitchen for September 2003:
9/05/03 Looks Can Be Deceiving: Specialty Fruit and Produce
9/12/03 Squash Blossom Fever
9/19/03 Eating Well: It's All in Who You Know
9/26/03 Lemons in Hiding
Copyright © 2003, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created September 2003