Flash in the Pan 

Robbing the zucchini cradle

It’s a summertime tradition to be overrun with zucchini. Your neighbors and friends will soon be pushing them on you at every opportunity, and some of these green monsters will be the size of Greyhound buses. But smaller is better with summer squash in terms of flavor and texture. And the other day, I enjoyed my smallest zucchinis ever.

Robbing the cradle like never before, these premature zukes were smaller than their blossoms—which, while still attached, were gloriously in bloom, their robust petals beaming bright earth tones.

I acquired the blossoms from Steve, of Fields of Wrath, on an early-morning run to the Clark Fork Farmers Market.

The early morning market action has a different feel than the market’s final hours. The crowd is older, more on-task and not there for the schmoozing, people watching or lattes. These are the folks who want to get their produce while the morning chill still rules the air, and then get it into their fridge ASAP. With their early-morning surgical strikes, these wise shoppers get the market’s economic engine rolling, hours before the brunch and hangover crowd saunters in.

Early on in the squash blossom season, like now, farmers might be hesitant to pick very many, as they want to leave more on the plant to ensure future squash production. So arriving at the market early can make the difference in getting your hands on some or not.

Squash blossoms will be in season from now through autumn. And even if and when they become widely available at the markets, it still pays to pick them up early in the day. They’re so fragile they might wilt into mush by afternoon.

Most people who try squash blossoms eat them batter-fried. Unfortunately, unless this is done with a gentle touch, breading can obscure the delicate flavor of the blossoms, which Biga Pizza’s Bob Marshall describes as “floral, earthy and savory.” He likes to serve his blossoms on pizza, or stuffed with various ricotta-based fillings, or fried lightly with a cornmeal batter.

The cornmeal is a nice, culturally appropriate touch here, as corn and squash are two important crops among Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Pueblo and other native people who’ve been eating squash blossoms for centuries.

Summer squash, winter squash, melons and cucumbers are all members of the cucurbit family, which means their flowers are edible.

If you’re growing your own, the flowers are best picked early in the morning, when it’s cool, and quickly put in the fridge. Cucurbits have both male flowers, which make the pollen, and female flowers, which produce the actual squash. One way to tell the difference between the two is to stick your finger in a flower, and if it comes out yellow it’s a male. Just make sure to watch out for bees when checking!

Most people harvest the male flowers and leave the female flowers on the plant. When cooking with males, you might want to remove the stamen (that’s the pillar with all the pollen in the center of the flower), which can be bitter. As long as you leave just a few male flowers to pollinate the female, squash-producing flowers, the rest of the males are expendable.

But if you were crazy enough to plant more than one zucchini in your garden, you could probably stand to rob the cradle more often, like wrathful Steve did, and avoid drowning in tomorrow’s zucchini sea by nipping some female blossoms and eating them, young fruits attached. And if you prefer the flower to the fruit, then keep picking off the young blossom/fruits, so the plant will work overtime to produce more blossoms—which you can continue picking—in a fruitless attempt to mature.

Hoping for a pure, unadulterated understanding what those blossoms taste like, I fried them slowly in oil, with only a sprinkle of salt, until they became slightly brown and crispy on all sides. The tiny zuke-ends melted in my mouth, while the blossom ends had more of a crunch, with a light zucchini flavor and a complex bouquet of more subtle flavors.

Another great way to experience that delicate squash blossom flavor is in a clear soup, like the following recipe given in Food of the Southwest Indian Nations, by Lois Ellen Frank (Ten Speed Press).

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Add a 1/2 cup of chopped yellow onions, two cloves finely chopped garlic and sauté until translucent.

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

Many squash blossom recipes start out by frying the blossoms in butter, garlic and onions, and one of them ends there. It’s a simple way to taste the blossoms with minimal seasoning, and would be a good way to begin your own personal squash blossom research.


Ask Ari: Mixing up stir-fry

Q: When I make stir-fry, it always seems kind of boring, even though there is no shortage of veggies to use. Can you recommend a good seasonal stir-fry recipe, and tell me how to make it taste authentic. I’m getting frustrated.

—Fry Baby


A: I hear ya, Fry Baby. I’ve sampled plenty of stir-fries that are too busy for their own good, as if the very word “stir-fry” is an invitation to clean out whatever’s in your veggie drawer—just toss in everything, including the kitchen sink, add soy sauce, and serve with rice.

But a good stir-fry, like any good seasonal dish, should not only include what’s fresh, but also place those items on a pedestal. A bunch of chopped veggies haphazardly thrown together will not do this.

Here’s a variation on the classic beef with broccoli and oyster sauce.

First, there are a lot of different oyster sauces out there. If I can help it, I avoid the cheap stuff, as the difference in price per meal is minimal, and the difference in quality can be big.

Start with chopped bacon or oil in a pan, and whole cloves of fresh, new garlic. New garlic is special stuff, extra-fiery when raw, but it will quickly mellow and sweeten when cooked. Cook on low heat until the garlic turns translucent, and then add some red meat, cut into small pieces, and raise the heat. While the meat browns, add rounds from the broccoli stem, which take longer to cook. When the meat is browned add the broccoli florets. As soon as they start to cook, stir in some oyster sauce, chopped fresh garlic and a pour of sherry or mirin. Put a lid on the pan and let it all steam for a moment. Serve when the broccoli is neon-green.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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