In honor of Farmers Market Week next week, I vowed here to get out of my market rut and cook outside my comfort zone.
That's how I came to be picking up these beautiful squash blossoms on impulse at the Berkeley, Calif. Farmers market on Saturday.
Squash blossoms, or fiori di zucca as they are called in Italy, are my madeleines. I first ate them when I was an 8-year-old military kid -- OK, yes, a brat -- living in the steep Posillipo neighborhood of Naples, Italy. The concierge's wife, Signora Rossetti, kept a lush garden that rambled down the hillside; she would pluck the yellow blossoms and batter and fry them, handing them hot to us kids rollerskating in the alley outside her door.
I couldn't imagine anything more romantic than eating flowers, even ones from vegetables. The fact that these were fried was like getting vitamins made of chocolate.
Since then, I've had both excellent (ethereally crispy, tasting of squash) and lackluster (heavy and tasting of grease) versions in restaurants. I've had them stuffed with mozzarella, ricotta, and chevre. But, afraid of deep-frying, I've never had them at home.
These came from Catalan Farm of Hollister, Calif. They were fresh, as they had to be -- the petals were still proudly standing out. From my research later that day, I learned that there are both male and female squash blossoms, and that males are preferred. The males have long, thin stems, while the females are attached to a fruit, or have soft fleshy centers that will become one. The males are hairier, unsurprisingly.
Squash blossoms don't keep: I knew I had to cook them that night. And as I seem constitutionally unable to follow any one recipe, preferring to consult several and combine them by instinct while substituting whatever ingredients I have on hand, here's what I did. (Feel free to correct me.)
I first soaked the blossoms in water, carefully weighed down by a plate, to remove the pollen and any errant bugs. Then I hung them upside down to dry by their stems. I pulled off the spiny collar around the flower, and gently opened the blossoms to remove the pistil. I mashed some goat cheese with black pepper and carefully inserted a lump of it into the heart of the blossom, closing the petals around it. While heating up some organic canola oil in a deep pot (about an inch worth), I quickly made a batter of half beer (my husband had one open), half flour, and a generous pinch of salt, whisked together until smooth.
I rolled/dipped each blossom in the batter to coat it. Once the oil in the pot was shimmering and smoking, I lay two blossoms at a time in it, letting each side fry thoroughly before flipping them over with tongs. They cooled on top of paper towels to soak up the excess oil.
Now admittedly, when you're frying goat cheese in a beer batter, you could probably wrap it in toilet paper and it would be tasty. But much to my delight, these came out light and crispy, tasting distinctly of squash. Not exactly like my long-ago memory of Signora Rossetti's fiori, but delicious in their own right. And I never would have attempted this had I not seen them brightly beckoning me at the farmers market.
Next: I also bought fresh chickpeas, aka garbanzo beans, which I have never even seen before. What would you do with them? And have you tried to cook outside your comfort zone yet?
Cross-posted from Grist, where I am the deputy food editor.