- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Zucchini blossoms. They’re beautiful. I want them — but how do I fix them? Is that you at the farmers market? We have to rely on the generosity of local farmers to share zucchini blossoms, because they are extremely perishable and don’t stand up to shipping. Any time you see a box of gorgeous,

orange zucchini blossoms, just buy them. Then look forward to a dramatic and delicately delicious summer appetizer that’s easy to make. They can be battered and deep-fried, or they can be stuffed and fried or sauteed.

If you happen to see zucchini blossoms that have a tiny infant zucchini attached, well, lucky you. Because that is the ultimate treat. Some cookbook authors advise, with a perfectly straight face, that we use only the male blossoms because the female blossoms should be left to develop into adult zucchini. (As if we need more zucchini of any sex.) I buy whatever is available and rejoice if I happen to find mama flowers because the attached infant zucchinis are a rare find.

Blossoms should be used within a few hours after they are picked. When you get them home, keep them in a cool spot with their stems in water or wrapped in damp paper towels. Check them over carefully for insects.

Experts disagree on washing. Some say to rinse before using. Some say to gently wipe them clean, if necessary. Before the flowers are stuffed, pinch out the pistil from each center.

Zucchini flowers seem delicate, but they are surprisingly sturdy. They easily accommodate stuffing and stay closed, more or less, without breaking during cooking. The amount of stuffing per flower will depend on the number and size of the flowers you have.

To stuff the blossoms, try different techniques. For a damp, cheesy filling, use a pastry bag, but an iced-tea spoon works just as well. For a lumpy filling, use your fingers.

Fry the filled flowers in mild olive oil or a mixture of half olive and half vegetable oil, such as canola, so that the delicate flavor of the blossoms isn’t overpowered. Not much oil is needed for only a few blossoms. A small, deep skillet (say, 8 inches in diameter), filled about 3/4 full of oil, is enough.

Italian cooks use a flour-and-water batter called pastella (to produce a thin, crackly coating that stays perfectly bonded and keeps the blossoms from absorbing any — well, not much — of the frying fat. This is also a good batter for frying zucchini strips and onion rings.

To make pastella, put 1 cup of water in a soup plate and gradually add flour (see recipe that follows), sifting it through a sieve and constantly beating the mixture with a fork until all the flour has been added. The batter should have a consistency ranging from sour cream to light cream. Start with a heavy coating, fry one blossom, then adjust the consistency to your liking.

The recipes that follow are from respected Italian cooks and cookbook authors. Each tweaks and fine-tunes the basic recipe.

Classic fried zucchini blossoms

This recipe is from “The Flavors of Tuscany,” by Nancy Harmon Jenkins (Broadway Books).

24 zucchini blossoms, with stems attached

About 1 cups mildly flavored olive oil or half olive oil and half vegetable oil

1 cup flour

Salt

Pick over the blossoms, discarding any that look spoiled or buggy. Rinse them lightly and quickly and drain in a colander. Pat dry.

In a small skillet, heat oil slowly over medium-high heat to frying temperature, about 360 degrees. While oil is heating, gradually whisk flour into 1 cup water to obtain a thin cream. Add a pinch of salt and whisk it in.

When ready to fry, take a blossom by its stem, dip it in the flour-and-water batter (or pastella, as it is called). Let the greater part of the batter drip back into the bowl, and drop the coated blossom in the hot oil to sizzle and fry until crisp and golden.

Proceed with the rest of the blossoms, frying them in batches and removing them with a slotted spoon when crisp.

Drain on a rack covered with paper towels. When all the blossoms are done, sprinkle with a bit more salt and serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Marcella’s zucchini blossom fans

This recipe is from “The Classic Italian Cookbook,” by Marcella Hazan (out of print).

12 to 14 zucchini blossoms

About ⅔ cup flour

Vegetable oil

Salt

Use the blossoms on the day you buy them. Keep them loosely wrapped in damp paper towels. Wash blossoms rapidly under cold running water and dry them gently on paper towels.

Check for insects and remove the pistil from the center of the flowers before using. If the stems are very long, cut them down to 1 inch in length. Cut the base of the blossom on one side and open the flower flat, without dividing it.

To make the batter, put 1 cup water in a soup plate and gradually add the flour, sifting it through a sieve and constantly beating the mixture with a fork until all the flour has been added. The batter should be the consistency of sour cream.

Pour enough oil into a small skillet to come 3/4 inch up the sides of the pan.

Heat the oil over high heat. When it is hot, dip the blossoms quickly in and out of the batter and slip them into the skillet. When they are golden brown on one side, turn them and cook to golden brown on the other side. Transfer to paper towels to drain, sprinkle with salt and serve promptly while still hot.

Makes 4 servings.

Cheese-stuffed zucchini blossoms

Cookbook author Susan Herrmann Loomis walks a first-time, or shall we say blossoming, cook through every step in this recipe, which is much easier than it looks. She uses mineral or seltzer water to give the batter zip. The short version? Clean, stuff, fry, enjoy.

8 good-sized zucchini blossoms, pistils removed, with a tiny zucchini attached, if possible

1 cup fresh ricotta cheese

1 large egg

cup ( ounce) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 small clove garlic, minced

Pinch freshly ground nutmeg

Sea salt

⅔ cup flour

1 cup carbonated mineral water or seltzer

Olive oil

Vegetable oil

Very gently wipe zucchini blossoms clean, if necessary. If a small zucchini is attached, slice it lengthwise in thirds like a fan, leaving it attached to the blossom.

Whisk together the ricotta, egg, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, garlic, nutmeg and a pinch of salt in a medium-sized bowl. Spoon or pipe the filling into the zucchini flowers, handling them gently. Each flower should have 2 generous tablespoons of filling.

Place flour in a large bowl and whisk in the water until smooth. Line a baking sheet with plain brown paper or paper towels.

Heat half and half olive and vegetable oils in a small, deep skillet to a temperature of 375 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, test the heat by dropping in a teaspoon of batter. It should float quickly to the surface and turn golden.

Dip one of the flowers in the batter, making sure it is evenly and thoroughly coated. If it has a small zucchini attached, make sure it is also coated.

Hold the flower over the bowl to let any excess batter drip off, then lower it gently into the oil and cook just until the batter is crisp and golden, probably no more than 4 minutes.

Fry no more than 2 flowers at a time. Use a slotted spoon to remove the flowers from the oil and transfer them to the prepared baking sheet.

Place baking sheet in 200-degree oven with the door slightly ajar to keep the finished flowers warm while you prepare the rest.

To serve, arrange 2 flowers on each of 4 small, warmed plates. Dust lightly with sea salt and serve. Makes 4 servings.

Sauteed meat-stuffed zucchini blossoms

This is a specialty of the Piedmont area of Italy. It can be made in advance and served at room temperature as a first course. The blossoms taste just as good at room temperature as they do hot — maybe better.

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

pound ground veal

pound ground pork

⅓ pound salami, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Small handful of fresh Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped

2 large eggs

cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Salt, freshly ground pepper

12 good-sized zucchini flowers

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Place 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the veal, pork, salami, garlic and parsley and stir briskly to blend. When the meats are fully cooked, about 5 minutes, transfer to a large mixing bowl and let cool completely. When meats are cool, add the eggs and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper. Mix to combine.

Gently stuff each zucchini flower with the meat mixture, closing the opening by pressing the tips of the petals together. Don’t worry if the flowers won’t stay closed. During cooking, the flowers will wilt and the petals can be easily wrapped around the filling before serving.

To cook, place remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and butter in a large saute pan over very low heat.

When butter is melted, set stuffed zucchini flowers in the pan and roll in the butter-oil mixture to coat on all sides. Cover and let cook about 15 minutes. Midway through the cooking, turn flowers over. Remove from the pan and serve either hot or at room temperature.

Makes 6 servings.

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