Friday, July 22, 2011

Squash Flowers, Volume 1: Battered and Fried

Fresh and crisp summer produce grown locally and with minimal chemical interference is the epitome of healthy eating. Well, you can’t get much more local than the zucchini blossoms I’ve been growing in a container (that used to be a small trash can) on the patio attached to our apartment. The healthy eating part might not survive the battering and frying.

I read a long time ago that zucchini could be grown for their flowers in a container (I later learned you can grow them for the fruit that way as well, and I might be harvesting two or three soon.) Last year, I had a great deal of dining success with my zucchini flowers, thanks to a recipe in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman for beer battered blossoms. I opted for the club soda variation to keep the flavor light and was on my way.

I like to pick the squash flowers in the morning when they are wide open, which makes them easier to clean and stuff. And clean them you must. Lots of little bugs love the inside of these blossoms, and, unless you really want the added protein, I highly recommend rinsing them away. It’s also better to remove the stamen from the male blossoms (the ones that are attached to thin stalks) and wash away the pollen. I don’t tend to harvest any female blossoms (the ones that are attached to what look like baby zucchini). I try to get them pollinated so I can raise a few zucchini, too. (The fewer questions you ask about that, the better.)

I’ll often clean and save flowers and keep them in the refrigerator. They last a few days and give me an opportunity to fry up a modest-sized batch at one time. Since I haven’t been able to grow or eat enough for a full batch of the batter from the cookbook, I make half a batch, which will probably make about 15 battered blossoms. I’ve also kept the batter in the refrigerator for about a day and it still makes good food, but it really is best right after it is mixed together.

The battering and frying part of the recipe has always worked extremely well. What didn’t go so well were attempts to stuff the blossoms before battering and frying them. Fillings like ricotta mixed with herbs or a sliver of mozzarella or Gruyere cheese were hard to get into the delicate flower without tearing it and they melted and leaked everywhere during frying making for empty blossoms and messy, messy frying medium.

I finally got the idea -and I’m really proud of this one – to stuff a single sage leaf (or half of one if the sage leaves are large and the zucchini flowers are small) in each flower. They don’t have the capacity to melt or leak, they’re easy to stuff into the flower, and if a bit of it sticks out while frying, it just becomes a fried sage leaf. Nothing wrong with that.

And the flavor the sage leaf adds is fantastic! The zucchini flowers have a subtle flavor on their own, reminiscent of the scent of summer squash. The sage is strongly present in all its herby, dusty glory, but still doesn’t overpower the light taste of the blossom. The golden brown and crispy coating doesn’t need my endorsement. You already know that’ll be good. Caloric, yes, and doubly so since I tend to serve it with an aioli (like this one) for a dipping sauce, but oh so delicious. Delicious!

Fried Squash Flowers with Fresh Sage
Based on a recipe in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman

Since I cut a 1-egg recipe in half, I give instructions here for using half of a beaten egg, which are relatively simple. Discard the unused egg or use it in another dish (as egg wash, scrambled eggs, etc.) within a day or two. Keep it refrigerated, of course.

10-15 zucchini or other squash flowers
canola or vegetable oil for deep frying
10-15 small to medium-sized sage leaves, or fewer large leaves (a leaf or half a leaf for each flower)
1 large egg
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
a few grinds of black pepper
½ teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup club soda or more if needed
additional salt (preferably kosher salt) for finishing

1. Carefully clean the flowers, especially the insides. Remove the flowers’ reproductive parts (you should be able to pull them off easily with your fingers). Drain well and pat very dry.

2. Insert one sage leaf or half of a large sage leaf in each flower. Gently twist the top of the flower petals closed over the leaf. Set aside.

3. Beat the egg and measure its volume. Pour half of the beaten egg into a bowl to use it in the batter. The large eggs I’ve been using are about 3-3 ½ tablespoons, so I’ve been using about 1 ½ tablespoons or a little more in the batter. Discard the remaining egg or reserve it for another use. Keep it covered and refrigerated for a day or two.

4. Add the flour, salt, pepper, baking powder and club soda to the egg in the bowl. Whisk together until all the dry ingredients are moistened. If the batter is very thick, stir in more club soda.

5. Pour about 2 inches of oil into a large skillet. I use cast iron. Warm on medium heat to 350 F or until a drop of the batter immediately sizzles in the oil.

6. When the oil is hot, begin to batter and fry the flowers. Hold the flower by the stem end and dip it into the batter. Drag it on the edge of the bowl to remove excess batter. Immediately (and carefully) place the battered flower in the hot oil. Repeat with a few more flowers at a time. Do not overcrowd the pan.

7. Fry the flowers at medium heat until they are golden brown on one side. If they seem to be browning too fast, reduce the heat. Carefully turn the flower in the oil and cook on the other side until brown. Remove from the oil and drain on a paper towel lined plate. Sprinkle with additional salt while still hot. Repeat the battering and frying until all the flowers are cooked. Serve with Garlic-Parsley Aioli or similar dipping sauce.

Makes 2-4 appetizer servings.

One year ago: Chilled Summer Squash Soup

Two years ago: Pain au Chocolate

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