I don’t cook with flowers much; I tend to find them either very bland (pansy, carnation) or too delicate to use as anything but a carefully placed garnishes (nasturtium, herb flowers like basil). But squash blossoms are a bit different. They’re easy to find during the summer and fall in farmers markets, they’re hardier and more flavorful than most flowers, and because they’re essentially a byproduct, they fit in nicely with my refrain of Use The Whole Plant.
Blossoms, or flowers, are the reproductive organs of plants, haha, gross. All fruits begin with flowers, though not all flowers become fruits. The basics: A flower is fertilized, which triggers the formation of a fruit, which is designed to be delicious and full of seeds so animals will eat the fruits and shit out the seeds somewhere else, thus allowing the plant to produce offspring. Many plants are capable of having sex with themselves in order to fertilize their flowers, but some plants have a harder time doing that than others.
There are a few different categories of flowers, relating to their gender. Monoecious plants have both male and female flowers on the same plant, which means it can fertilize itself. Dioecious plants have only one gender, male or female, and female plants must be fertilized by a separate male plant.
Within the monoecious category, we have a botanical difference between “perfect” and “imperfect” flowers. Perfect flowers have both male and female parts within the same flower; tomatoes and peppers are both perfect plants, botanically. This is one reason why tomatoes and peppers are very good choices for tiny shitty urban gardens; you don’t need to worry about pollination or, really, anything but sunlight and water. In both tomatoes and peppers, the fruit thrusts right through the center of the flower.
Squash is monoecious but imperfect, meaning it produces male flowers and female flowers, and while the plant can fertilize itself, that process still needs some external help. In many cases that’ll happen naturally thanks to bees or other small critters; if it doesn’t you can do it yourself with a Q-tip, though let me tell you, fertilizing a squash plant with a Q-tip feels VERY odd. Regardless, it is only the female plants that will actually bear fruit in squash plants. In squash (and, for example, in pears), the bit of the plant that will become the fruit is actually the stem just underneath the flower. That part of the stem will swell most grotesquely, leaving the female flower attached until it eventually falls off.*
So that’s how squash is made. But that leaves an awful lot of male flowers sitting on the vine. Squash plants produce many more male blossoms than female, and as with all males, the male blossoms are of limited use — a single male blossom can fertilize many female blossoms. The smarter cuisines around the world have figured out that the male squash blossoms can be safely picked without unnecessarily damaging the reproductive capabilities of the squash, and have further figured out that the squash blossom is exceedingly tasty. Because squash blossoms are generally rescued garbage, you should never pay very much for them: I know they’re flowers, but they’re not luxury items. Farmers markets tend to sell a container of twenty or twenty-five blossoms for about five bucks, which is a fine price.
Squash blossoms can come from most any kind of squash. During the summer, you’ll mostly see the ones from summer squash varieties like zucchini, and during the early fall you’ll see some from hardier squash like butternut and even pumpkin. (Pumpkin blossoms look basically the same as zucchini blossoms, maybe a little bigger.)
Unfortunately there is one very dominant recipe for cooking squash blossoms. Most people simply stuff it with cheese, batter it, and deep-fry it. There’s nothing really wrong with that recipe; I would never look down my nose at something that’s stuffed with cheese and fried. But that strategy treats the squash blossom as if its only attribute is its easily-stuffable shape; it assumes a squash blossom is nothing more than, like, a wonton wrapper. And that’s rude, because the squash blossom is a surprisingly flavorful ingredient — like very young, very fresh zucchini, with a distinct floral sweetness.
They can be eaten raw or cooked, though my favorite uses of the blossom are either raw or very minimally cooked, because I think that’s the best way to retain its flavor. Most recipes will tell you to prepare the squash in finicky ways, tearing off what remains of the stem, picking off the little leaves around the outside of the flower, and even digging your fingernails inside the blossom itself to pick out the pistil. These are all completely unnecessary steps. The entire thing is edible and there’s no need to prepare it at all.
Squash blossoms, like summer squash, have a subtle, versatile flavor, and can be used in basically any cuisine. They’re extremely common in Mexico, where they’re the star of my favorite quesadilla (squash blossoms, chiles, the Oaxacan string cheese called quesillo), and are used liberally in Italy and Greece. But there’s nothing stopping you from inserting them into Thai or Vietnamese or Spanish or Lebanese recipes; like tofu, they’ll take to pretty much any combination of flavors. Here are some of my favorites.
Squash Blossom Quesadilla
Shopping list: Large flour tortilla, squash blossoms, Oaxacan string cheese (if you can’t find it, mozzarella works very well), poblano peppers, epazote or cilantro
Put a dry cast iron pan (or a comal, the Mexican equivalent made of clay, but, like, if you have a comal there’s no way you need me to tell you how to make this quesadilla) over medium-high heat and let it get real hot. Put two whole poblano peppers on the pan and dry-roast for about a minute on each side until the skin is burnt and blackened. When thoroughly burnt, throw the peppers into a ziploc bag and seal. Wait about ten minutes for the moisture inside the pepper to do its work, then take out. The the stem should pull out with no effort, and you should be able to rub off the skins (under running water, if you’d like) with your thumbs. Discard the seeds as well, and slice into strips.
In the same cast iron pan, now over medium heat, place a tortilla. Quickly scatter some cheese on the entire tortilla. On one half of the cheese-covered tortilla, place peppers and about four squash blossoms, roughly torn if you want (I usually don’t), as well as a scattering of chopped cilantro or epazote. When the cheese is melted, fold the half of the tortilla with just cheese onto the half with all the other stuff, and press with a spatula. Flip a couple times, and when the tortilla has a few splotches of brown and is all toasty, take it out and slice into a few pieces. Serve with salsa if you want.
Pasta With Mushrooms And Squash Blossoms
Shopping list: Pasta of your choice (I like pappardelle for this), squash blossoms, maitake mushrooms, leeks, butter, parsley, basil, pecorino cheese, an egg, olive oil
A variation on this recipe, changed only slightly because it’s very good. First, cook some pasta. Don’t overcook it; we’ll be finishing the pasta in the pan, so undercooked is better than over.
Clean and slice the leeks finely and break the maitake — sometimes called hen-of-the-woods — mushrooms into pieces about the size of your thumb. (You can use other mushrooms if you want, but I like their firm texture and intense umami flavor.) In a heavy pot (enameled cast iron would be good for this) over medium-low heat, throw in about a tablespoon of butter and let it melt. Throw in the leeks, stir for a minute or two, then throw in the mushrooms. The thing about mushrooms is that you have to cook them for a lot longer than people think; for maitakes, you want them to be kind of crispy and browned.
Poach an egg. I don’t have any special strategy for this; I don’t add vinegar or use any cool tools, I just put a pot of water on the stove and crack an egg into it and then at some point take the egg out. Chop the herbs finely.
Once the mushrooms are cooked, get ready to do everything else all at once. Turn the heat up a bit, to medium. Throw in a handful of squash blossoms and stir quickly for about a minute, just to warm them up and get a little coating of butter on them. (If there’s no more butter in the pan, add more.) Then throw in the pasta and stir constantly to make sure it doesn’t stick. You want everything all mixed up. After a minute or two, season to taste with salt and pepper.
Pour this all onto a plate, top with the poached egg, and shave a whole bunch of pecorino over the top. Maybe a little more salt and pepper.
Shopping list: Summer squash, squash blossoms, rice, soy sauce, mirin, ginger, rice wine vinegar, sugar, garlic, scallions, Thai bird’s eye chile pepper, peanut oil, roasted peanuts (no salt, ideally)
Cook rice — whatever kind you you want, using whatever method you want.
Chop the garlic, scallions, chile, and, if using, fresh ginger. (If using frozen ginger, which, by the way, good strat, hold off for a sec.) Put a wok on the stove over low heat, add a tablespoon or so of peanut oil and let it heat up for a minute. Throw in the garlic, scallions, chile, and maybe ginger and stir; let cook until the whites of the scallions are translucent. Throw in a handful of peanuts and stir.
Mix up your sauce: soy, mirin, sugar, rice wine vinegar, and, if you’re using it, frozen ginger grated on a microplane. Adjust it: you don’t want it to be too salty, too sweet, or too sour.
Cut summer squash into smallish cubes. Turn the wok’s heat up to high and throw in the squash. Stir constantly for a few minutes to fry up the squash. Pour in the sauce and stir, then let it reduce for a minute or two. While it reduces, roughly tear a whole mess of squash blossoms and, right before you’re ready to cook, throw them in, give a quick stir, and season with salt (if needed; it may not need any). Don’t let the squash blossoms stay on the heat for more than a minute. Serve over rice.
That’s really a basic couple of recipes to kind of show what squash blossoms can do. There are many more; try topping your frittata, quiche, or (egg/potato-type) tortilla with whole blossoms before baking! Put them on a pizza! Stir-fry them with fish sauce and lime juice and serve with cilantro rice! They’re almost as versatile as summer squash, which is probably the most versatile vegetable I can think of; they work with spice, with cheese, with egg, with salt and herb and bread. Eat the blossom! Even if you don’t stuff and fry it.
*Correction: Dan was incorrect about some of his horticulture. He apologizes for the error and thanks brilliantmistake for correcting him in a much nicer tone than he possibly deserves.
Photo by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble