Nipping the buds


by Ari LeVaux

Why do people plant so many zucchinis? A single plant can more than feed the average family and leave plenty leftover for giving away, which they will.

Usually it’s the overgrown, Greyhound-sized specimens that get offered. These baseball bats are great for some things, like stuffing, grilling, baking into chocolate zucchini mayo cake - or shredded and frozen, pre- measured, for future baking use.

The younger specimens - the veal, as it were – are best prepared with a delicate touch, and I’m going to tell you what I did with some AA battery-sized babies that were still attached to the flowers that bore them, robust petals radiating vibrant shades of orange.

Summer squash, winter squash, melons and cucumbers are all members of the cucurbit family, all of whose flowers are edible. If you want to score some at the farmers market, it’s best to arrive early, when the air is cool and the farmers haven’t yet sold out of this increasingly popular item – which will be in season through autumn. Early is best for harvesting your own, too, and get the blossoms into the fridge ASAP, as they wilt easily.

If you planted as many as one zucchini plant, you could stand to eat a few babies, like I did. And with any squash plant, even if you want to keep all the squash, you can always eat a few male flowers, so long as you leave enough on the plant to pollinate the ladies, which are the flowers that actually make the squash.

One way to tell the difference between the boys and the girls is to stick your finger in the flower; if you see some grains of yellow pollen, it’s a male. Just watch out for bees! When cooking male blossoms, you might want to remove the stamen – that’s the pillar with all the pollen at the tip in the center of the flower – which can taste bitter.

Squash blossoms are most often served batter-fried, which is a pity, because unless the chef has a gentle touch, the breading can obscure the floral, earthy, savory flavor of the blossoms. If you must deep-fry, go for the lightest tempura batter you can muster. Or, for a more culturally appropriate deep-fried flavor, use a thin cornmeal batter. Corn and squash are important crops among Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Pueblo and other Southwestern natives who’ve been eating squash blossoms for centuries.

One of my favorite ways to taste the finer flavors of my blossoms is a soup recipe from Food of the Southwest Indian Nations, by Lois Ellen Frank (Ten Speed Press). It takes about 15 minutes. Melt 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat. Add 1/2 cup chopped yellow onions, two (or more) cloves finely chopped garlic, and two bay leaves, and sauté until the onions are translucent.

Cut heat to low, season with salt and pepper, and add squash blossoms (use as many blossoms as you can find – the recipe calls for 60!). Sauté for three minutes. Add six cups chicken (or veggie) stock, increase heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve hot, garnished with chervil.

If you have blossoms from several different plants, this clear soup’s dazzling simplicity allows you to taste the differences in flavor among your various flowers. It’s also a great way to prepare those cradle-robbed zucchini with flowers attached, which will melt in your mouth like butter, while the flowers have a pleasing texture that’s more complex than the baby zukes.’

While subtlety is the strength of squash-blossom soup, total decadence is the name of the game in my special squash blossoms stuffed with creamy tomato soufflé.

OK, maybe soufflé is a bit of an exaggeration, but “creamy tomato scrambled eggs” sounds entirely too pedestrian for this stuffing, which takes squash blossoms to a whole other level.

Cut one strip of good quality thick-sliced bacon into about 15 mini-slices, and fry those bacon bits on medium. When the bacon grease starts flowing, add a medium ripe heirloom tomato (heirlooms tend to be low-acid and extremely flavorful) cut into 1-inch chunks. When the tomato chunks hit the bacon grease, you might want to have a lid at the ready to contain the grease, which will sputter and fly until the water released from the melting tomatoes overwhelms the grease, changing the action from frying to a sizzling simmer. At this point, add half a medium Walla Walla onion and two chopped cloves garlic, a bay leaf, and 2 tablespoons of St. Andre 3X crème (or brie, or some such rich cheese.)

At this point, the pan might be a little wet. Let it simmer, stirring often until the liquid is almost gone. Then turn the heat above medium and add two eggs, beaten. Stir once, just enough to mix everything together, and let it cook for a minute. Scramble briefly and then turn off the heat. The eggs might look wet, but with all of that steam and hot water they’ll be cooked, not gooey.

When the eggs have cooled, stuff them into rinsed male squash blossoms, stamens removed. Don’t overstuff. Twist the ends of the petals to hold the flowers closed.

Now heat some safflower, olive or sunflower oil in a pan on medium. Carefully add the flowers to the pan. When you hear it start to sizzle, ladle in at least a ¼ of chicken stock, put the lid on, and let it steam for 30 seconds, then kill the heat. After a minute, pull the lid off and serve.

You could also add more stock here, and turn it into more of a squash blossom dumpling soup. The blossoms will hold together if reasonable care is used, and the broth is excellent. The dumplings are addictive, with their fluffy bodies, glorious tomato sweetness, and a bouquet of flavors that somehow includes a distinct pine nut flavor.

After flying those floral skies, I’ll never go Greyhound again. •



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