'SQUASH blossoms bring back a lot of memories for me," says Gilbert Pilgram, former upstairs chef and current general manager of Chez Panisse.
"Growing up in Mexico, we would see great bouquets of them in the markets, and my mother used them in all sorts of dishes. They're very abundant there, so we used them by the boatload. Not like here, where they're more difficult to find, and sold in small quantities. In Mexico, they're even used as decoration in churches, they're so plentiful."
While some may balk at the concept of eating fist-sized flowers, squash blossoms possess a delicate, zucchini-like flavor and add a splash of summer to any number of dishes, including risotto, pizza, pasta and salads.
In Mexico, the blossoms are known as flor de calabaza, which technically refers to pumpkin -- although the flowers may be harvested from any variety of small squash, zucchini being the most prevalent. While pumpkin blossoms are commonly used because of their larger size, the flowers from other hard winter squash can be too bitter for eating.
Mexican culinary authority Diana Kennedy notes that in Mexico, the flor de calabaza are normally used in casseroles, soups and as a filling for quesadillas. She likes to saut a little garlic and white onion, then layer the tortilla with julienned blossoms and charred, peeled, julienned poblano chilis garnished with fresh, chopped epazote (an herb found at farmers' markets and specialty food stores). Chicago chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless adds a mild, white, melting cheese such as Monterey Jack or quesillo to his quesadillas.
Bayless' squash blossom soup is a sunny combination of chicken stock and a touch of cream, blended with sauted squash blossoms, a little garlic and onion. Some reserved blossoms are julienned and scattered onto the soup as a garnish. Pilgram prefers his soup minus the cream, and simply opts for chicken stock, mirepoix and chopped blossoms, foregoing the blender treatment. "The key," he says, "is to use as many blossoms as possible, so that the soup is positively pregnant with flavor."
In Italy, squash blossoms are usually stuffed with a mild cheese such as fresh mozzarella, chvre or ricotta, dipped in batter and deep-fried. Prepared in this manner, they make a delicious appetizer or accompaniment to an al fresco meal of poultry or salad.
Chef Russell Moore of Chez Panisse says squash blossoms are never prepared the same way twice at the Berkeley restaurant. "We can't ever decide which way we like them best," he says. "So we end up doing 500 different things!
"I like to grill them, then chop them and serve them with grilled corn cut off the cob and diced summer squash as an accompaniment to roast chicken or pork. We'll also make ricotta gnocchi, stuff the blossoms with them, poach them and make a little sauce of butter and a touch of water. My whole thing with squash blossoms is unless I can really taste them in a dish, why bother?"
My favorite way to serve squash blossoms comes from a recipe by David Tanis, himself a former Chez Panisse cook. Saut some chopped garlic and scallions in unsalted butter, then add thin slices of summer squash, fresh corn kernels and just enough chicken stock to make a light sauce. Saut until just cooked through, throw in a handful of julienned squash blossoms and basil until wilted, and season to taste, adding more butter if necessary to enrich the sauce. Toss with cooked fresh fettucine. It's a spectacularly simple recipe that practically shouts summer.
Squash blossoms are readily available at farmers' markets and specialty food stores from early June throughout the summer, but they only last for a day on or off the plant and should be used right away. Look for fresh, unwilted flowers -- avoid those that look soggy or withered.
The easiest thing to do is grow your own, even if you don't have a backyard. I grow summer squash in a half-wine barrel every year, and harvest the blossoms as needed. According to chef Jerry
Traunfeld, author of "The Herbfarm Cookbook" (Scribner, $40), you will need to continuously harvest the fruit, because the plant wants to expend its energy into growing seed-producing fruit rather than sending out blossoms.
You can harvest either male or female blossoms, although if you also want to grow squash to eat, try not to harvest the fruit-bearing females, which bloom from the end of the baby squash. The males grow from a long stem, but be sure to leave some on the plant so they can continue to pollinate it. There is no flavor difference between the genders, but the female flowers attached to baby squash do make for a nice plate presentation.
To prepare the blossoms, check inside for any insects. Cut off the green stems and strip away the stringy inner sepals, leaving the base and stamen intact. If you're stuffing the blossoms, you may find a pastry bag helpful, although I just use a narrow teaspoon. If you can't use the blossoms right away, store them on a moist paper towel in an airtight container for up to one day.
However you choose to prepare them, these sunny, golden blossoms are a fleeting seasonal treat worth trying.
FRIED SQUASH BLOSSOMS WITH REDWOOD HILL CHEVRE
This recipe is an adaptation from one used at Chez Panisse. The masa harina, available at any grocery store, makes for a more crisp, delicate batter than all-purpose flour or cornmeal.
1/4 cup finely chopped mixed herbs, such as chives, tarragon, or chervil
1 1/2 teaspoons finely minced shallots
12 fresh open squash blossoms
1 cup fresh chvre, such as Redwood Hill (you will have some left over)
Large pinch salt
1/4 cup milk
1 cup masa harina
Two large pinches salt
Pinch freshly ground white pepper
In a small bowl, mix together the herbs, shallot, chvre and salt.
Open up the individual blossoms wide enough to insert a teaspoonful of cheese mixture. Do not overfill or fried blossoms will be soggy. Twist the ends of the blossom together gently.
In a medium bowl, beat 2 eggs together with 1/4 cup milk. In a separate medium bowl, mix together masa harina, salt, and pepper. Dip each blossom into the egg mixture and then roll quickly and evenly in the masa harina mixture, gently shaking off excess. Refrigerate for a few minutes.
Pour 1 inch of oil into a small shallow saucepan or skillet. Heat oil to 350 degrees. Deep-fry the blossoms in batches until they begin to turn light golden brown. Drain on baking rack set over paper towels, and serve immediately.
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