Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Here I become yet another foodie enamored of squash blossoms



If there’s a single food that perfectly captures the fleeting feeling of summer, it would be squash blossoms, without a doubt. Some people might argue strawberries or some other fruit with a short growing season. But here’s what I say: Although strawberries are at their peak for just a few weeks in June, they’re still available at the grocery store in January. They might be tasteless and spongy and shipped from half a world away, but they’re there, on the shelf, year-round. Squash blossoms are never on any shelf, often not even at farmer’s markets. They’re just too delicate, these gossamer blooms that open eagerly in the morning to drink in the July sunshine and wilt by sunset.
I’ve read about fried squash blossoms for years, and despite the yammering about them from foodies, they seemed to be a delicacy not worth bothering with. The main ingredient was impossible to locate, and I was skeptical about how satisfying a fried flower could actually taste. Plus, there’s my closeted fear of frying things. I am not the most, say, graceful person on earth, and even though I love cooking, I seem to burn myself more often than would be considered normal. So putting me in charge of a pot filled with boiling-hot oil was a scenario that I could not envision ending well.
But then we planted our little four-by-four garden, and suddenly, bright yellow zucchini and squash blossoms were staring me in the face every time I stepped out the back door. By now our garden had morphed into a parking lot-abutting jungle that inspired awe-filled chuckles from our neighbors. The squash and zucchini plants had choked out all of our other veggies—carrots, beets, and lettuce—except for the pole beans. These were the most enthusiastic and hearty plants I’d ever encountered, shooting runners across our walkway and growing higher than my waist. If one of the climbing vines had reached out to tap me on the shoulder on my walk to the car, I don’t think I would have been too surprised.
Our first, ready-to-pick zucchini was this long, stout, phallic thing sticking out proudly over the wall of the raised bed. I cut it off with a pair of scissors, making gleeful squeaking sounds as I did it; I think I skipped into the house with the zucchini raised triumphantly over my head. I made Chloe sit on the couch and hold it in the air like a trophy so I could snap pictures of it with my camera phone. We grew food! I was astounded. We put a seed in dirt and a couple of months later, food came out. It was a miracle.
Here, I learn that Brian doesn’t like zucchini. Which I find odd, because to me, zucchini has very little actual flavor. It’s more a vehicle for other flavors. But he’s vindicated because Chloe doesn’t like it either. And we have more zucchini than I really know what to do with in a house where only one person will eat it in its natural state. So I start making those aforementioned zucchini breads in earnest, tripling my recipe again and again for multiple batches and freezing the loaves for later. My whole family loves zucchini bread, especially for breakfast. Chloe actually claims to be “hungry for zucchini bread,” which I can totally relate to.
And crowning the ends of all those lovely zucchinis that are filling our little garden? Zucchini flowers, in abundance. Sometimes there are flowers where no zucchini will ever bloom from the vine. So I’m ignoring them, ignoring them, ignoring them all summer, until an internet search for what the hell else to do with zucchini accidentally yielded recipes for fried zucchini blossoms. Some called for the blooms to be battered and fried alone, but I happen to have ricotta in the fridge and want to use it.
So I found a blog with gauzy and ethereal-looking pictures of a fabulously DIY life. The blog’s owner was a serenely beautiful hipster lady chef who had lovely, manicured fingernails and demanded that a free-range egg be used in her squash blossom recipe. Her instructions included step-by-step photos taken with an amazing camera. Here’s a photo of the blossoms strewn artfully on a sunlit, clutter-free counter. Here’s a photo of her pretty hand filling the blooms with ricotta. Here’s a photo of the zucchini blossoms stuffed and laid out in a neat row on a vintage platter. Naturally, I wanted to reach through the computer screen and slap this woman.
The real-life process for frying squash blossoms is not so angelic, but the taste was oh-so worth it. And here’s what I learned about frying: It’s pretty darn forgiving. After getting a dip in batter and a sizzle in the hot-oil Jacuzzi, my squash blossoms were delectable. Maybe they weren’t pretty enough to warrant a Pinterest board, but they were gone so fast, it really didn’t matter. I’ve made them twice now for different groups of people and each time they’ve vanished from the plate within minutes.
I harvested them from our own garden and doing so got dicey only once, when I accidentally disturbed a beetle who was hanging out in one of the blossoms. He flew out angrily and then buzzed me once in the head for good measure before flying off. I screeched and threw his little blossom condo into the parking lot while Chloe laughed hysterically at me from her orange Adirondack chair.
After that, it was all smooth sailing. And I burned my fingers only once. Here’s how it goes down.
Recipe: Fried and stuffed squash blossoms:
  1. Make the filling: Combine a cup of ricotta cheese, a half-cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese, one beaten egg, one clove of garlic that’s minced as finely as you can get it, just under ½ teaspoon of grated lemon zest, and a big pinch of kosher salt.
  2. If you’re harvesting the squash blossoms yourself, do it now. Take 8-12 squash blossoms and open up the flower petals. I’d tell you to be as delicate as you can because these suckers like to stick together, but I’ve ripped every one of my blossoms so far and they’ve come out fine.
  3. Heat the oil: Heat about 2 cups of vegetable oil in a wide saucepan.
  4. Using a piping bag, a zip-top bag with the corner snipped off, or even just a spoon, fill the open blossoms with the ricotta mixture until they’re about 2/3 filled. Twist or fold over the petals to close it.
  5. Make the batter: Mix 2/3 cup of whole-wheat flour (I like its nutty flavor) with one cup of seltzer and mix until the flour is just wet.
  6. Dip each of the stuffed blossoms into the batter to coat and drop them one by one into the hot oil. Move them around so they don’t stick together or to the bottom of the pan. (I think this is best done in two batches, frying them 5 or 6 at a time). Fry for three minutes.
  7. Remove them to a paper-towel lined sheet and sprinkle them with kosher salt.
  8. Lay claim to at least two of them for yourself immediately. They go fast.

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