These edible flowers have a texture that's soft and delicate when raw or steamed, crisp and toothsome when fried — and especially delectable when encasing dollops of soft, white cheese.
Gather Ye Squash Blossoms While Ye May
T. Susan Chang for NPR
I don't mean to be churlish, but I often find that the joy of edible flowers mostly comes upfront, when you see their lovely, unexpected colors on your plate. "We're beautiful and safe to eat," they seem to cry. Yet I find their allure sometimes falls short. Cucumbery borage has a fishy aftertaste. Nasturtiums expertly hide insects, and violets are so vanishingly subtle they practically aren't there. Just because you can eat something doesn't always mean you should.
Jumbo-size zucchini blossoms seem to promise more of the same. On the vine, they unfurl like a Kleenex crumpling in reverse. For a few brief days of pollination, bees wander around the vast yellow blooms like shoppers at Kmart. Then the Kleenex crumples again, its base shielding a small green torpedo that rapidly advances toward blimpdom. Before you can say "ratatouille," a fleet of foot-long submersibles has collected beneath the massing heart-shaped leaves. They dare you to dispose of them in the compost or any other way you can think of. ("The only time we lock our cars around here is during zucchini season," remarks my uncle in rural Vermont, in a nod to local wisdom.)
Zucchini blossoms, though, haven't got the polleny, not-quite-foodlike flavor profile of many flowers. They're mild and squashy, with a texture that's soft and delicate when raw or steamed, crisp and toothsome when fried. They're produced in crazy, profligate profusion. And if nothing else, plucking those blossoms during their brief summer window is a highly effective form of zucchini birth control.
The zucchini is a New World vegetable. I like to imagine it was some exasperated grandmother in pre-colonial Mexico who first stripped the overly prolific zucchini plant of its blossoms and dropped them in hot oil, because what doesn't taste good dropped in hot oil? But I really have no idea.
What I do know is that as good as a fried zucchini blossom is, it's even better if you stuff it with some kind of soft white cheese — ricotta, mozzarella, goat cheese. When the blossom, lovingly twisted shut, hits the hot oil, several magical things happen at once — the cheese begins to soften, picking up the flavors of whatever herbs you've added as it warms. The outside of the flower rapidly crisps, like a fine layer of pastry. And if you've got a little squashlet attached to the end of the flower? Well, now it's a tasty and tender little cooked squashlet, with the pristine, vegetal flavor we so miss when it gets to be the size of a baseball bat. As Jamie Oliver says in his recipe: bloody delicious.
No question, zucchini blossoms are an ingenious and elegant packaging material — tastier than wonton wrappers, prettier than parchment, way less crazy-making than phyllo. And they fry up into crumbly golden shells. On the other hand, who among us doesn't find deep-frying guilt-inducing and messy? So I'm including a couple of other recipes using techniques — baking and poaching — that won't send you to the confessional unless you just can't stop eating them. It's a real risk, but there, I'm afraid, you're on your own.
The only thing is this: zucchini blossoms are nearly as fragile as the Kleenex they resemble. Before and after they open, they're easy to tear, soft and ever so delicate. They're at their most manageable when they've just finished opening, when, in accordance with some mysterious directive, each petal unfurls to its tip. If they haven't yet arrived at the climactic moment, tease them open with a chopstick. Then you can squeeze in your soft white cheese filling using a plastic bag with a hole cut in the corner.
Now I have a blushing confession to make: not a single zucchini blossom was harmed in the writing of this article. Well, I bought a zucchini plant at the nursery a month ago. But then, as you'll recall if you live on the East Coast, came week upon week of celestial lectures on the subject of rain. I left the garden to its own weedy devices and forgot about the zucchini plant, leaving the poor little guy in the shed to wither and die while I played card games with the kids.
Fortunately, I had a number of fine pumpkin and buttercup squash plants, the fruits of a more industrious spring. These, it turns out, are thoroughly interchangeable with zucchini blossoms; I defy anyone to tell the difference in a blind taste test. They busted out in yellow bloom just in time, making these recipes possible.
I had just arrived at the last recipe and my last blossom — a whorled bubble of a squash blossom, just past its prime and already twirling shut on the end — when I noticed it was emitting a curious, intermittent buzz. Cautiously, I teased the twisted, tissue-thin petals apart with my chopstick — and discovered a very small, very confused honeybee, supercooled from three hours in the fridge and completely covered in pollen.
We stepped outside and I gingerly released him, holding the petals open by the very tips of my fingers. Undaunted by his adventure, he took wing, making what I can only describe as a beeline for the garden. There he would attend an August banquet of flowers, each more delicious than the last. If an insect can have an expression, his was one of rapture. And — just for once — I knew how he felt.