By Barbara Kobsar
Summer is the time to sing praises to the great cucurbit family. These vine-y annual plants, indigenous to the Americas, all produce large white or yellow flowers, which, when left on the plant to mature, grow into an amazing array of squashes, gourds, cucumbers, and melons.
Anyone with a zucchini vine in their yard knows that plucking off a few zucchini in the bud can mean there is something unusual to bring to the summer table. Lacking my own vines, I visit our farmers’ markets to find fresh squash blossoms, but I take home limited quantities, since the blossoms’ shelf life is fleeting, on or off the squash plant.
A Squash Blossom Science Lesson
Squash blossoms are harvested from any variety of small squash, but my shopping experiences usually turn up zucchini blossoms. It is the male blossoms that are used for cooking. All blossoms resemble one another except for size, but there’s more than meets the eye.
Helen Krayenhoff, co-owner of Oakland-based Kassenhoff Growers, says that home gardeners often ask this question: Why do my baby squashes turn yellow, shrivel up and die? Krayenhoff explains that these are actually unpollinated fruit of the female flowers, and they will only turn into mature squash if properly pollinated.
So what’s a gardener to do?
“Just schmush a male and female flower together,” Krayenhoff says. “Pick a male flower and gently rub the pollen from the center of the flower on the center of the female flower. Leave some on the plant so other pollinators can do their job.”
According to Joe Eaton, a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, natural pollination is available when the bees are buzzing, and there’s even one called the squash bee. “It’s a native solitary bee that specializes in squashes, gourds, and pumpkins, and is responsible for the pollination of most of the California crops of these plants,” he says. The squash bee originated in Mexico and followed the plants as cultivation spread north. Both sexes are medium-sized and hairy on body and legs; males have tan hair on thorax and abdomen, females are kind of tawny colored and robust. They’re up bright and early to collect pollen before sunrise.
Squash Blossoms in the Kitchen
Once I carefully carry my squash blossoms home, I’m ready to get down to business. Number one is to check inside each blossom for insects. Once those are banished, I cut off the green stems and strip away the stringy inner sepals, leaving the base and stamen intact.
I love to accentuate the squash blossoms’ delicate zucchini-like flavor in soups, quesadillas, risottos, and salads. The flavor is easily lost with too much garlic or onion added to the dish, so a simple sauté of minced scallions, sliced summer squash, and corn with a big handful of sliced squash blossoms tossed in near the end of cooking is perfect.
The Whole Squash
Summer squash are ubiquitous, and much easier to come by than squash blossoms. Well-meaning neighbors hand out bagsful from their gardens—but that’s a good thing. Unique shapes and sizes make summer squash appealing and exceptionally versatile in the kitchen. Mild flavors of summer squash benefit from the company of a grill and by combination with other warm-weather crops like peppers, tomatoes, corn, basil, and dill.
Summer squash are picked before reaching full maturity—usually two to seven days after flowering. At this point they offer up the thin skin, soft seeds, and high moisture content I’m looking for.
Slender, green zucchini (aka Italian squash or courgette) is the most prolific and best-known of the summer squash family. Crookneck squash stand out in the crowd with their bulbous blossom end that narrows at the neck. During peak season I lean toward buying the deep-yellow golden zucchini and English squash (a paler, thicker version of the Italian variety). Scallop squash make up an interesting group of white, light green, dark green, or sunny yellow disks with scalloped edges. A big favorite is the dark green scallopini squash. A cross between a zucchini and a scallop squash, it looks as if you could spin it like a top.
Summer squash varieties with nonedible skin, such as opo and chayote, offer a refreshing flavor blend of squash and cucumber. They do well in a quick stir-fry with other summer vegetables and chicken.
Cooking with Summer Squash
By Barbara Llewellyn Catering and Event Planning
Squash Blossom Poppers
Makes 12 poppers
For the stuffed blossoms
- 12 unopened squash blossoms
- ½ cup cream cheese, room temperature
- ½ cup goat cheese, room temperature
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- 2 teaspoon each: chopped chive, parsley, thyme, dill
- ½ teaspoon ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
For the batter
- ½ cup milk
- ½ cup flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 egg whites beaten to soft peaks
- Zest of 1 lemon
- Chopped parsley
Mix cheeses, cream, herbs and salt and pepper together with a whisk until creamy. Add cheese mixture to a pastry bag and pipe about 1/2 tablespoon of the cheese mixture into each blossom. Push in blossom tips with finger to seal.
Heat oil in a deep fryer to 350°. In a small bowl, mix flour, milk, and salt. Gently fold this into the beaten egg whites. Dip each filled blossom into batter and fry in the hot oil for 2 minutes or until golden. Drain on paper towels.
Sprinkle with lemon zest and parsley and serve warm.
Squash Blossom Risotto
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 cup chopped yellow onion
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound risotto
- 1 pound assorted summer squash: ½ pound grated, ½ pound diced
- 5 cups chicken stock
- ½ cup white wine
- 2 teaspoons chopped garlic
- ½ cup Parmesan cheese
- 6 squash blossoms
Bring chicken stock to a boil. Grate ½ pound of squash into a bowl (use large grate) add 2 squash blossoms and pour heated stock over. Cover and steep 15-20 minutes. Strain stock into sauce pan and gently reheat squash-infused stock. Over medium heat, in a heavy sauté pan, heat olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter. Add chopped onions and sauté until translucent (approx. 3 minutes). Add salt and pepper. Add half of diced squash and sauté 3 minutes. Add garlic. Stir in risotto. Sauté for 2 minutes. Add white wine and stir. Add stock, one cup at a time and stir until each cup of liquid is incorporated. In a separate sauté pan, heat oil and add remaining diced squash, sauté for 3-5 minutes.
When risotto is ready, add 1 tablespoon butter and Parmesan cheese. Spoon risotto into 4 bowls. Garnish with sautéed squash, extra squash blossoms (perhaps your Squash Blossom Poppers), and grated Parmesan.
Spiced Chocolate Zucchini Cupcakes
Makes 20 cupcakes
- 12 tablespoons (1½ stick or ¾ cup) butter
- 2 cups sugar
- 3 eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon grated orange zest
- 2 cups grated raw zucchini
- 2¾ cups all purpose flour
- ½ cup unsweetened cocoa
- 2½ teaspoons baking powder
- 1½ teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon ground mustard
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ cup milk
- 1 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat the oven to 350°. Line a cupcake pan for 20 cupcakes.
Cream the butter or shortening and slowly add the sugar, beating until smooth. Beat in the eggs and mix thoroughly. Stir in the vanilla, orange zest, and grated zucchini and blend well. (Batter may look curdled at this point. It will smooth out later.)
Stir together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda salt and cinnamon, and sift onto a piece of waxed paper. Add the sifted dry ingredients to the zucchini mixture along with the milk and beat until thoroughly mixed. Stir in the walnuts.
Pour the batter into the prepared cupcake pans. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center of a cupcake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cupcakes cool completely before icing and decorating with candied zucchini slices and crystalized squash blossoms.
Dark Chocolate Frosting
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 split vanilla bean
- ½ pound unsweetened dark chocolate
- ½ pound butter
Boil cream, sugar, vanilla for 6 minutes. Remove from heat and add chocolate, butter. Whisk smoothly and strain out vanilla bean.
Candied Zucchini Slices
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup sugar
- Zucchini slices (thinly sliced)
Bring above ingredients to a boil for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low and drop thinly sliced zucchini slices into simmering simple syrup. Simmer for 2-3 minutes until zucchini becomes translucent. Remove with a slotted spoon, placing slices onto parchment paper to air dry.
Crystallized Squash Blossoms
With a very small paint brush, brush all surfaces of flowers with egg white. Toss flowers in superfine sugar and air dry until crisp.
Barbara Llewellyn Catering & Event Planning
Recipe photos by Cheryl Angelina Koehler