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Flash in the Pan

Sizing up squash blossoms

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Squash blossoms, breaded and deep-fried, are insanely delicious—which isn't saying much. After all, you could deep-fry a breaded rat's ass with tasty results. So it's a shame that tempura-style is so often the focus when the conversation turns to squash blossoms. I think they're better cooked in a way that highlights, rather than hides, their delicate, floral, squashy flavor.

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Beyond the flavor, squash blossoms are beautiful, with an appealing mystique. A squash blossom necklace of turquoise and silver is the cornerstone of many an American Indian jewelry collection. Nearly every life stage of the squash is eaten, including the seeds, the immature fruit (aka summer squash), the mature fruit (winter squash), the young shoots and the blossoms. The hard shells are used as vessels and decoration.

Adding to the blossoms' allure, at least in my book, is the fact that they're as fleeting as summer, and one of the few foods that can't be preserved. That all but ensures any squash blossom you eat will be local during their brief window of availability, which lasts from July through early September.

If you expect to go blossom hunting at the farmers' market, arrive early. They're usually a popular item and quickly sell out. Plus, you want to get them home and cool before the day heats up. By the same token, if you're deflowering your own plants, it's best to do so early in the morning and keep the blossoms in the fridge until you're ready to use them.

Squash blossoms come in both male and female forms, and only female flowers produce squash, while male flowers produce pollen to fertilize the female flowers. Thus, by picking only male blossoms—the ones with the pollen-covered stamen inside—you won't be robbing the cradle on your own squash crop, provided you leave a few males per patch to pollinate the females. When preparing male blossoms to eat, make sure to remove the stamen, which is edible but bitter. And always take a peek inside, because there might be a bee doing its business. The stem near the flower is edible, so leave about an inch attached.

Squash blossoms look and taste great in the following soup recipe: Melt 1 tablespoon unsalted butter in a pan on medium heat. Add 1 onion and 2 cloves garlic, both finely chopped, and sauté until the onions become translucent. Decrease heat to low, add 1 teaspoon salt and a half teaspoon pepper, and as many squash blossoms (male or female, with or without babies attached) as you can. Sauté for 3 minutes, stirring often to prevent burning. Add 6 cups chicken stock, bring to a boil over high heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve hot, garnished with chervil.

This simple recipe, which I got from a gorgeous book called Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations by Lois Ellen Frank, is perhaps the most elegant way I know of letting the delicate squash blossom flavor shine without being upstaged by strong flavors or smothered in batter.

But if you're determined to batter-fry your blossoms, make a batter from 1/2 cup water, 1 beaten egg, 1 cup of flour, and 1/2 cup heavy cream. Whisk together with a fork, slowly adding water until it's thin enough to dip a flower into. Let it stand for an hour. Dredge the blossoms in the batter, and fry them in hot oil (ideally safflower or grapeseed, which won't smoke as easily as olive oil) until golden brown.

Here's a mellow celery sauce that makes a nice accompaniment to batter-fried blossoms: Boil 2 cups chopped celery for 20 minutes in salted water. Drain, puree in a food processor, and cook 10 minutes with 1 tablespoon of butter, 1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg, a pinch of ground black pepper and salt to taste.

Meanwhile, if you leave several blossoms in the leftover batter overnight, it makes great pancakes. After a night in the batter, the blossom flavor permeates, and maple syrup on top adds the sweetness one would expect from a flower. Highly recommended.

Stuffing squash flowers is another popular way to overwhelm their delicate flavor. Chevre, with or without herbs or apricot jam, is really good. So is avocado mashed with curry powder, roasted garlic and chopped tomatoes (this leftover stuffing makes an outstanding omelet). After stuffing the blossoms, twist the tips of the petals together, as if putting the finishing touches on a "hand-rolled cigarette," as one chef I know puts it.

You can wilt your stuffed flowers in the oven for 2 minutes at 350 degrees. Or you can bread and fry them, which gives the stuffed blossoms a more solid form and helps hold the stuffing in. Another breading option, perhaps more culturally appropriate to the southwest is cornmeal: Dredge blossoms, stuffed or unstuffed, in beaten egg, roll in cornmeal, and fry as above.

If you want the easiest preparation, simplest presentation and most unobstructed squash-blossom flavor, fry some blossoms, unbreaded and unstuffed, slowly in butter or extra-virgin olive oil until they're brown on all sides and crispy. Arrange artfully on a plate, and drizzle with balsamic vinegar, preferably aged. Eat them on the deck, patio or porch during a lazy evening, while sipping a cool drink and watching summer slip away into the sunset.

Ask Ari: Easy eats

Q: Dear Ari,

Thanks to the economy, I've started cooking at a rather late age. I eat almost no carbs, and I cook only omelets and bacon, cheeseburgers and chicken, all of which I make in quantity, store, and heat up. Any suggestions of simple recipes for other foods?

—Hungry for advice

A: I'm a fan of simple recipes, because I firmly believe that if you use good quality ingredients, it doesn't take much to make them taste good—it's more about getting out of the way and letting the ingredients shine. A good piece of steak doesn't need much more than salt and pepper, especially if paired with a nice salad with a tangy vinaigrette to balance the richness of the meat. And red wine, of course.

In addition to seeking out new meals, you also might want to consider preparing fancy condiments out of fresh, locally available ingredients. Pickled peppers, hot sauce, fruit chutneys, salsa, mustard, barbecue sauce, even ketchup, if made with love, can wait in your fridge, ready to improve the next simple dish you whip out.

So here's a homework assignment: Invest a little time and money experimenting with different pre-prepared or store-bought condiments. Figure out which ones work best with your favorite meals, then tell me what you come up with. I'll tell you how to make those condiments yourself, only better, and with as many local ingredients as possible.

As for a simple main dish, you ruled out carbs but mentioned meat and chicken. What about fish? Salmon is in season right now, but any fish will do for this plan: Squeeze a lime and pour some soy sauce on it, marinate for 20 minutes, then broil.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

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