The only edibles I grow are herbs because growing conditions in Colorado are challenging what with large hail, floods, drought, and critters. The past four years I’ve grown herbs only in tall planters where the rabbits can’t get them. But I was late to plant this year because we were travelling in June, so by the time I visited the garden center, the herbs were so picked over that the few containers left were combined on a shelf with the last of the sorry looking vegetables. One squash plant still looked healthy; it was labeled as a vining zucchini. That’s what my mother-in-law always grew in her prolific Illinois garden. Maybe nostalgic from our travels or just on a whim, I bought that zucchini along with the carefully selected basil, thyme, and rosemary.
The little squash had to struggle along in its tiny container, temporarily buried in the back of one of the big herb containers. In a week or so, I noticed two more seedlings had spouted in the tiny container. I knew from past experience the rabbits eat down the little seedlings as they poke up from the seed; today you notice the first bit of green still with dirt on it, tomorrow it’s gone, and the bunnies are getting fatter and fatter, so I didn’t dare transplant my zucchini to the garden, yet. Bob, my husband, built a three foot long cage of chicken wire so I could get the zucchini going out in the near empty garden. (I now plant only critter-proof flowers there, and ha! to critter-proof!) I separated the little seedlings from their big sister and put them all in the cage and added water. The little zucchinis grew and grew, and pretty quickly I realized they were mislabeled. They were not the trailing variety but instead the bush variety. That meant their leaves pushed at the top of the cage until the leaves were breaking instead of bending, so I had to let them loose. I was pretty sure they leaves were too big and tough for the bunnies by now. We watered the zucchini along with the lawn, and they grew nicely.
By the first week in August, the boy blossoms we starting to come along. (The boys are the blossoms on the long stems.) If you’re a gardener, you know all watered squash are prolific, so within a few days I couldn’t resist picking a few dozen blossoms for our lunch. Those two little seedlings had caught up to big sister and were not at all behind her in producing blossoms. It was during that close examination of bee-riddled blossoms that I discovered the first girl squashes, and those blooms were heavy not with green zucchini but with golden crook-neck or summer squash. I picked them, too, because more would be along tomorrow. Today, everyone goes in the pan, boys and girls alike!
I removed the stamens from the boy flowers because that’s what my mother-in-law did. She said the stamens were bitter though I know some people eat them and claim they are delicious. When I remember to try blossoms with stamens, I’ll let you know, but that day, all stamens were removed. I didn’t remember until after I’d rinsed the blossoms that my mother-in-law always removed the stamens before rinsing. Once you put water on those blossoms, the petals fold and you have to pry them apart to get to the stamens. Mind you, I had not done that task for twenty years, but I wouldn’t forget the next time! While I was cleaning blossoms, Bob, my chef* of a husband, was getting his mise-en-place ready.
Bob uses rice flour for delicate batters like this one, but ordinary flour works, too. He uses about one cup of flour to one egg and as much ice water as it takes to get the batter to the consistency of pancake batter. He adds a pinch of salt and pepper, too.
I leave the stems on the blossoms because it makes them easier to dip into the batter and to transfer to the frying pan. Bob uses canola oil to fry blossoms or squash. He fries until the bottom side is turning brown, at which point the blossoms are sturdy enough to turn over and the next batch can be dipped in batter and placed in the pan.
At his point, all we do is watch the blossoms fry. When we have squash, too, Bob slices them on a diagonal and batters and fries them, too. Frying does take time but the results are worth it (said she who only had to sit around to keep him company why he carefully watched the blossoms fry, turned them over, removed them to waiting paper towels—I did make sure to layer the next paper towels as soon as one layer of fried blossoms covered the last!) Bob gives the freshly fried blossoms a sprinkle of salt, and finally we’re ready to build squash blossom sandwiches. This feels like a special time, this preparing the fixings for squash blossom sandwiches! The last ones we ate, his mother made for us.
Now we use homemade bread; it’s not her loaf but it is a sturdy bread called shepherd’s loaf. I bring in a sprig of mint from the garden and fetch the fig balsamic vinegar. My mother-in-law used red wine vinegar, but we’re confident she would have approved of the fig balsamic substitution being sprinkled on the fried blossoms. Or plain is wonderful, too, which is how I eat them. The mint we break off and mince with our fingers, just a few tiny pieces to perk up the flavor as we eat. Pretty quickly we’re eating just fried blossoms, no bread, no vinegar, just because we like them. We’ve been known to dip them in creamy salad dressing or to set them aside and have them at dinner, because it’s easy to gorge on fried squash blossoms. The plants in the garden are busy making more blossoms and lots of summer squash. We cook them many ways, and I’ll convince my personal chef that the blossoms are almost done so that they must be fried one more time. Bob will do it for me because, like his mom, that’s the way he is. So two, maybe three times during squash blossom season I’ll bring in the blossoms. Then they will be gone! And if I’m lucky again next year to find a nice zucchini plant, I think I’ll bring it home, because now I’ve remembered the joy of squash blossom sandwiches.
Cynthia Felice in Colorado Springs
*Bob’s not a real chef, but anyone who has eaten at our house calls him one despite his protests.