This month I tackle: Zucchini Flowers.
Before moving to Italy I had never even heard of zucchini flowers (aka fiori di zucca), let alone seen one. Perhaps I missed them at the grocery store. Perhaps they were in a special aisle. Perhaps they were too implausible for me to comprehend. Or, more likely, I thought they were simply decorative and not edible and conveniently designed for stuffing with cheese. Had I known this, I assure you, I would have made every effort to find them. Luckily, once I moved to Italy, these decorative AND delicious treats became a reality and one that I looked forward to every late spring and summer.
These yellow and green flowers grow out of the side of the zucchini like enormous claws. When they’re in season, you can either buy the zucchinis with their flowers still intact or, at certain stores and markets, just the flowers. Since I cannot imagine getting through the quantity of zucchini required to yield the quantity of flowers I desire on a daily basis, I usually go for the pre-separated flowers. Quality-wise they are roughly the same and cost less without all the extra zucchini attached. Once you’ve found them, purchased them, and brought them home, the question is, of course, how to make these beautiful blossoms into a delicious dinner.
First things first: observe the awesomeness that is nature. Aren’t these flowers just amazing?
Left: view of the stamen inside the flower; Right: the stamens removed and set aside
Step 2: Take one of the flowers and open its petals. Notice how they are almost hinged and also how they expand and stretch (this will be helpful later). Now, take a look inside. You will see at the center of each flower a stamen, which will have some pollen on it. These need to be removed before cooking. Doing your best not rip the flowers skin, take your thumb and pointer finger and extract each stamen. If you do rip the flower’s skin, don’t worry, it’s not a deal breaker as the cheesy stuffing we are about to add can also act as glue.
Left: the ricotta, egg, basil, mix in the making; Right: stuffing the flowers with the cheese
Step 3: Put the now stamen-free flowers aside. Time to make the cheese stuffing mix. In a bowl, mix the following:
- 1 cup ricotta cheese (this is based on 10-14 flowers)
- 2 – 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese (freshly grated is always better)
- 2 tablespoons fresh basil, torn (about 2-3 “branches” if you’re working with the living thing)
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 egg
- salt and pepper
Note #2: Though many recipes suggest it, I choose to not coat the flowers in flour batter before frying. If the ingredients are fresh (and in season!!), I think they taste better uncoated. Besides, with some recipes you have to wait an hour for the batter! First rule in my kitchen is no waiting. We go with what we got! (I feel your judgment, “real” chefs.)
Step 4: Take your flowers and grab a spoon that is no larger than the blossom. Take the spoon and scoop some of the mix. Use one hand and prop the flower open while inserting the ricotta with the other. The quantity is up to you. Since I don’t fry them in batter, the cheese stuffing is really the main event. Hence my flowers end up looking like overstuffed sausages. But just a little ricotta and a deeper fried flower can also be delicious (and is technically the more “traditional” way). Rule #2 in my kitchen: when necessary, ignore tradition without shame or embarrassment. As you’re scooping, try to keep the stuffing from getting on the outside of the flower (which as you will see in the below photo, I failed to do in at least one instance). When you’re done, twist the top of the petals and seal each little flower into a bag of cheesy goodness and set aside. Repeat for all flowers.
Left: frying pan art; Right: the final product!Step 5: FRY THOSE SUCKAS!
This is pretty simple. I use olive oil and get the pan pretty hot. If you have a lid or a splatter-stopper (technical term), use it. Or at the very least, wear an apron. Slowly turn the flowers over until each side is a lovely brown. Pull them out and place them on some paper towels to soak up some of the excess oil.
Step 6: Enjoy!
I usually make these as either an appetizer or a side dish. When you fill them like I do, four per person is plenty. However you serve them, it’s win. They are such a crowd pleaser since, ya know, they’re flowers and they’re pretty and you eat them. At least that is what seems to be the draw for me.
What is in Season in Italy:
Spring: Fava beans, Carciofi (artichokes), Ciccoria (chickory), Asparagi (asparagus), Rucola (rocket or arugula)
Summer: Zuccini and Fiori di Zucca (zucchini flowers), Melanzane (eggplant), Peperoni (bell peppers)
Fall: Barbabietola (beets), Cavolfiore (cauliflower), Porri (leeks), Castagne (chestnuts)
Winter: Cavolo Nero (cabbage), Finocchio (fennel), Cavolini di Bruxelles (brussel sprouts), Cavolo Riccio (kale), Radicchio Rosso (red chicory)
*Note: some of these fall into multiple seasons