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Fragile beauty

With their delicate flavor, squash blossoms are an inspiration to the cook.

May 28, 2003|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

ONLY a cook could love flowers that have no scent, no long stems, no glamour and, worst of all, no vase life. But somehow I always feel like the winner when everyone else at my farmers market is staggering under huge bunches of lilacs and peonies and I'm heading home with a few small bags of perfect squash blossoms.

Zucchini flowers are as gorgeous as a bunch of lilacs or branch of dogwood, but they have potential that the most extravagant arrangements in a vase lack. They taste good, in a dozen or more ways. You can deep-fry them, braise them, bake them or saute them; you can toss them into linguine or tuck them into a quesadilla. And when you eat them, you get a flavor and texture somewhere just past Boston lettuce and right before full-fledged zucchini.

Unlike other edible flowers, such as marigolds and pansies, which always strike me as effete, squash blossoms are serious food. I grew up eating them in a Mexican neighborhood in Arizona where everyone treated them the way the English do fish: reflexively batter them and fry them. The taste haunted me for years until I discovered blossoms in my market and tried cooking them myself. Even plain they were a revelation; stuffed with cheese and then fried they were even better. And the lasting lesson was that just about anything in the Mexican larder communicates with zucchini blossoms, from chiles to chorizo, from tortillas to tomatillos.

I've had them many times in France and in Italy in late spring and early summer, but I was never inspired to try them in pasta until I tasted them in Sicily this month, in a special of linguine with tuna and fiore di zucca. The combination was dazzlingly simple but completely unlike pasta in the United States, which to my taste starts out ordinary and turns dull; there, every bite called for concentration to appreciate how the flavors and textures played off one another.

It was more surprising, and inspiring, to come across squash blossoms in Australia recently. At one restaurant, I had them stuffed with crab, poached and teamed with tomato confit; at another, they were simply baked with Taleggio cheese as part of an antipasto platter.

Squash blossoms are unlikely candidates for specials in this country, largely because the supply is more erratic than the demand. Gardeners, of course, have access to all they can eat, and more; they can just walk out and snip a few off their prolific plants. Otherwise, farmers markets always have them from spring through fall because professional zucchini growers always have more crop than takers. (Given how notoriously prolific summer squash are, the blossoms are a great argument for eating your young.) This is the first year I've spotted them in some specialty markets as well.

The only problem is that the blossoms are about as hardy as mayflies. They really should be cooked the day you buy them, although you can keep them for an additional 24 hours wrapped in damp paper towels in an airtight plastic bag or container in the refrigerator. The blooms attached to baby zucchini are a little more durable, but not by much.

And those babies are a clue to the most important detail about squash flowers: The blooms off embryonic squash are females, which are meatier and tastier than the males. The "boy" blossoms have only a skinny stalk dangling off them. The males pollinate; the females replicate.

The males, unfortunately, are the ones that tend to turn up most often in farmers markets (not a coincidence: They're no loss to the overall crop). They are not as easy to stuff, and they tend to have less meaty flesh at the base of the blossom. Most often, they are blossoms picked from zucchini plants, although all varieties of squash produce edible flowers.

Elizabeth Schneider, the nation's most dogged vegetable detective, details all this and more in a chapter of her recent book, "Vegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini."

She also offers the definitive answer to whether you need to remove the blossoms' innards -- the pistil and stamen -- before cooking them. Some cookbooks say yes, some disagree; most dither. I've never had any adverse reaction either way. But she simply advises: "I see no reason to do this unless you don't like the slight crunch."

Schneider also is the exception on the issue of washing the blossoms. Most books say they are too delicate. She says yes, if only to remove any insects. Her advice is to dunk them in water and dry them on a towel, but you can just run them under cold water. They do need to be completely dry before you cook them, especially if you're frying, unless you want to experience a miniature Vesuvius on the stove from the sudden collision of cold water and hot oil.

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