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Fragile beauty

Special to The Times

ONLY a cook could love flowers that have no scent, no long stems, no glamour and, worst of all, no vase life. But somehow I always feel like the winner when everyone else at my farmers market is staggering under huge bunches of lilacs and peonies and I’m heading home with a few small bags of perfect squash blossoms.

Zucchini flowers are as gorgeous as a bunch of lilacs or branch of dogwood, but they have potential that the most extravagant arrangements in a vase lack. They taste good, in a dozen or more ways. You can deep-fry them, braise them, bake them or saute them; you can toss them into linguine or tuck them into a quesadilla. And when you eat them, you get a flavor and texture somewhere just past Boston lettuce and right before full-fledged zucchini.

Unlike other edible flowers, such as marigolds and pansies, which always strike me as effete, squash blossoms are serious food. I grew up eating them in a Mexican neighborhood in Arizona where everyone treated them the way the English do fish: reflexively batter them and fry them. The taste haunted me for years until I discovered blossoms in my market and tried cooking them myself. Even plain they were a revelation; stuffed with cheese and then fried they were even better. And the lasting lesson was that just about anything in the Mexican larder communicates with zucchini blossoms, from chiles to chorizo, from tortillas to tomatillos.

I’ve had them many times in France and in Italy in late spring and early summer, but I was never inspired to try them in pasta until I tasted them in Sicily this month, in a special of linguine with tuna and fiore di zucca. The combination was dazzlingly simple but completely unlike pasta in the United States, which to my taste starts out ordinary and turns dull; there, every bite called for concentration to appreciate how the flavors and textures played off one another.

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It was more surprising, and inspiring, to come across squash blossoms in Australia recently. At one restaurant, I had them stuffed with crab, poached and teamed with tomato confit; at another, they were simply baked with Taleggio cheese as part of an antipasto platter.

Squash blossoms are unlikely candidates for specials in this country, largely because the supply is more erratic than the demand. Gardeners, of course, have access to all they can eat, and more; they can just walk out and snip a few off their prolific plants. Otherwise, farmers markets always have them from spring through fall because professional zucchini growers always have more crop than takers. (Given how notoriously prolific summer squash are, the blossoms are a great argument for eating your young.) This is the first year I’ve spotted them in some specialty markets as well.

The only problem is that the blossoms are about as hardy as mayflies. They really should be cooked the day you buy them, although you can keep them for an additional 24 hours wrapped in damp paper towels in an airtight plastic bag or container in the refrigerator. The blooms attached to baby zucchini are a little more durable, but not by much.

And those babies are a clue to the most important detail about squash flowers: The blooms off embryonic squash are females, which are meatier and tastier than the males. The “boy” blossoms have only a skinny stalk dangling off them. The males pollinate; the females replicate.

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The males, unfortunately, are the ones that tend to turn up most often in farmers markets (not a coincidence: They’re no loss to the overall crop). They are not as easy to stuff, and they tend to have less meaty flesh at the base of the blossom. Most often, they are blossoms picked from zucchini plants, although all varieties of squash produce edible flowers.

Elizabeth Schneider, the nation’s most dogged vegetable detective, details all this and more in a chapter of her recent book, “Vegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini.”

She also offers the definitive answer to whether you need to remove the blossoms’ innards -- the pistil and stamen -- before cooking them. Some cookbooks say yes, some disagree; most dither. I’ve never had any adverse reaction either way. But she simply advises: “I see no reason to do this unless you don’t like the slight crunch.”

Schneider also is the exception on the issue of washing the blossoms. Most books say they are too delicate. She says yes, if only to remove any insects. Her advice is to dunk them in water and dry them on a towel, but you can just run them under cold water. They do need to be completely dry before you cook them, especially if you’re frying, unless you want to experience a miniature Vesuvius on the stove from the sudden collision of cold water and hot oil.

Squash blossoms seem to have a distinct California connection, which is why they get good space in both Jeremiah Tower’s and Judy Rodgers’ latest cookbooks. Tower offers half a dozen ways to eat the flowers, including in risotto, in blue-corn enchiladas, stuffed with chopped olives or eggplant and broiled with a filling of corn and morels, both flavors that are super-complementary especially with a little marjoram. He also proposes packing them with goat cheese and layering them between pasta sheets covered in tomato sauce.

Rodgers takes the corn idea further by adding mozzarella to the filling before battering and frying blossoms to serve as part of a fritto misto. In the same way, some Mexican recipes virtually substitute squash blossoms for poblano peppers in a more delicate take on chiles rellenos.

When the blossoms are fried, especially with a batter of something intense like chickpea flour, I don’t think they need anything more besides salt. But Tower suggests salsa or ancho chile mayonnaise as gilding for these lilies of the vegetable garden.

Baking and broiling are the easiest ways to transform squash blossoms. They need just enough heat and time to tenderize the petals and cook the base. Schneider mentions Alain Ducasse’s trick: Fan them out in a gratin dish, cover them with olive oil and Parmesan and bake them -- it’s like queso fundido, in flowery French style.

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But when they’re sauteed, they can be served as a side dish, if you bought them by the dozens, or added to pasta with lots of garlic and hot pepper flakes. They also can be used whole as a garnish for zucchini soup, or diced as a filling for an omelet or an enhancement for scrambled eggs.

Stuffing them is easy too. Depending on how tight the blossoms are, you can either wiggle them open with your fingers or slit them open with a paring knife (overlap the petals and they will come back together as they cook). Then you just slide in the filling: a little cheese, a spoonful of crab meat, a bit of refried beans.

Twisting the ends and letting the blossoms sit awhile before braising or steaming will keep them sealed even if you braise or poach them.

One of the very best ways to eat squash blossoms is in a quesadilla, though. Just lay them into a flour tortilla with good cheese and roasted poblanos or pickled jalapenos and bake or grill until the cheese melts and the petals soften.

The first bite will convince you that these are the only fresh flowers that are at their best wilted.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Squash blossoms baked with Taleggio and almonds

Total time: 25 minutes

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Servings: 4 to 6

1/3 cup sliced almonds

12 squash blossoms

4 ounces Taleggio, rind removed

2 tablespoons melted butter

Freshly ground white pepper

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lay the almonds in a baking dish and toast 4 to 5 minutes, just until golden brown. Remove and cool.

2. Rinse and dry the blossoms. Remove the pistils if you want. Cut the cheese into slivers about half an inch across and 2 inches long, or to size to fit into the blossoms. Carefully open the blossoms and slide the cheese in. Add about 1 1/2 teaspoons of almonds into each blossom.

3. Butter a glass baking dish large enough to hold all the blossoms in a single layer. Arrange the blossoms in it. Drizzle with the remaining butter, particularly around the stem ends. Season with pepper to taste. Bake until the cheese is melting and the blossoms are soft, 15 minutes. Serve hot.

Each of 6 servings: 128 calories; 119 mg. sodium; 29 mg. cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 1 gram fiber.

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Crab-stuffed squash blossoms

Time: 1 hour

Servings: 4 to 6

Note: You can substitute 1 1/2 pounds fresh tomatillos for the tomatoes for a more mellow sauce; husk, boil and puree them before proceeding. Use blossoms with baby zucchini attached if you can; they will cook in the same time.

12 large squash blossoms

1/2 pound jumbo or regular lump crab meat

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiana-Reggiano cheese

3 tablespoons fine dry bread crumbs

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Few dashes hot red pepper sauce

Salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

1 egg

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 small jalapeno, seeded and minced

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano, crumbled

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1. Rinse and dry the blossoms. Remove the pistils if you like. Combine the crab, cheese, bread crumbs, Dijon mustard and hot sauce in a bowl and toss until mixed. Season well with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the egg until blended. Carefully open the blossoms and spoon enough crab in to fill two-thirds of the way up (about 1 1/2 tablespoons). Twist the ends of the blossoms to seal and lay on a baking sheet lined with wax paper. Cover with a second sheet of wax paper and chill 30 minutes.

2. Heat the oil in a large, wide skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and jalapeno and cook until softened but not browned, about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the oregano and cumin, then the tomatoes. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the flavors blend, about 30 minutes.

3. If the sauce is very thick, thin it with a little water and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in the cilantro. Raise the heat slightly and carefully lay the blossoms into the pan. Cover and simmer 10 minutes, or until the crab firms up and the blossoms soften. Cool slightly before serving.

Each of 6 servings: 141 calories; 409 mg. sodium; 67 mg. cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams protein; 3 grams fiber.

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Linguine with tuna and squash blossoms

Total time: 20 minutes

Servings: 4 to 6

Note: Use the best olive oil, chicken stock, tuna and pasta you can find. Look for the tuna at Italian markets.

14 large squash blossoms

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

Salt

1 (7-ounce) jar Italian tuna packed in olive oil, drained

1/2 cup chicken stock

1 pound linguine

1. Rinse the blossoms and pat dry. Remove the pistils if you like. Slice crosswise into thin strips (if blossoms are particularly large, slice lengthwise first). Set aside strips from 2 blossoms for garnish.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil.

3. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and pepper flakes and cook until softened but not browned. Stir in the blossoms and season well with salt. Flake the tuna into the pan. Cook, stirring, until the blossoms are softened, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the stock and continue cooking 5 minutes. Keep warm while cooking the pasta.

4. Add salt to the boiling water, then add the linguine and cook until al dente, according to package directions. Drain well, then immediately transfer to the skillet. Toss until all ingredients are mixed. Serve at once.

Each of 6 servings: 358 calories; 325 mg. sodium; 12 mg. cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 42 grams carbohydrates; 18 grams protein; 2 grams fiber.

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Fried squash blossoms

Total time: 30 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: Superfine cornmeal can be substituted for the chickpea flour.

12 squash blossoms

1 cup chickpea flour, preferably Italian

1 teaspoon curry powder

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Salt

3/4 cup cold water

Peanut or vegetable oil, for deep frying

1. Rinse the squash blossoms and pat as dry as possible. Remove the pistils if you like.

2. Combine the chickpea flour, curry powder and cayenne pepper in a large bowl. Add 1 teaspoon of salt and whisk to blend. Add the water and whisk until completely smooth. Let stand 15 minutes.

3. Pour the oil to a depth of 3 inches into a Dutch oven or large, heavy, deep pot. Heat to 375 degrees.

4. Holding each blossom by the stem end, dredge through the chickpea batter to coat completely, draining off the excess. Carefully lay into the hot oil and fry until crisp and golden brown on all sides, turning once, about 1 minute total. Drain on paper towels. Salt and serve hot.

Each serving: 200 calories; 582 mg. sodium; 0 cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1 gram fiber.


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