Two of my favorite TV chefs - Ina Garten and Mario Batali - say the best way to cook is go to your local Farmers' Market and get inspiration from what's fresh and in season. Mario frequently points out on his show that Italians feel they're entitled to have only the best ingredients. So for the past three weekends, Brandon & I have been going to a nearby Farmers' Market, and although I haven't had the best of luck with other markets this one turned out to be a foodie bonanza.
There were great bargains, including bunches of fresh herbs for only a buck and big, beautiful, red onions for $1.50. We also saw produce you'd never find in a regular supermarket like fresh garlic and English peas, garbanzo beans still on their stems, and a nice selection of organic fruits and veggies, including mushrooms.
We'd just arrived at the market Sunday morning when something bright and yellow caught my eye as we passed the vendor I usually buy onions and garlic from. An Asian woman who runs the stall was holding a bouquet of squash blossoms and talking to a man. "These went fast," she told him. "We put out a whole box of them 15 minutes ago, and now this is the only one left."
A few years back, squash blossoms seemed to be the It girl of the culinary world. Restaurants were serving them for a pretty penny, and magazines ran articles touting their tasty versatility not to mention nutritional value. They even made a guest appearance on an episode of "The Sopranos" when Tony requested them for Meadow's graduation party. I'd always wanted to try the pretty blossoms, but didn't have the faintest idea what to do with them. Still, I was electrified by the challenge.
I hovered and began to circle my prey.
As soon as was polite, I pounced. "How much for the squash blossoms?"I asked, willing to splurge on the delicacy. I walked away with a dozen blossoms for $2. My head was swimming with possibilities. I could stuff them; I vaguely remembered reading somewhere that the natural shape of the flowers made them ideal vessels for stuffing. Or, I could saute them, maybe fry them up like tempura... I couldn't wait to go home and search the 'Net for recipes.
Later, once I'd finally settled on a dish and planned out the rest of the menu, I invited my parents to dinner.
Throughout the day, whenever I wasn't doing the dishes, breastfeeding or playing with Emi on the floor, I took the opportunity to cook.
Preparation for my Italian feast began early in the morning. While Brandon fed Emi her breakfast of peas, potatoes and applesauce, I made the filling for my stuffed squash blossoms, which I planned to batter and fry closer to dinnertime. The recipe I found online didn't specify what kind of mushroom to use in the filling, but I happened to have dried porcinis leftover from another dish.
With the filling prepared and chilling in the fridge, I set about cleaning my beautiful bouquet of veggies. Squash blossoms have a orange, crumbly, furry stamen inside the flowers and I wasn't sure whether to leave them in or not. I Googled how to clean squash blossoms and out they came, along with the pointy leaves at the base of each flower.
The blossoms had to be handled very carefully because it's important to maintain the integrity of the trumpet-like shape. Since Emi was napping, I decided to go ahead and stuff the flowers, too. Carefully, I peeled open the petals, which were slightly wilted after three days. Then, using a tiny baby spoon, I scooped dollops of ricotta cheese, mushrooms, garlic and basil into each flower and closed the petals.
Several hours later - after a quick workout at the gym while Emi's gong gong babysat - I was back in the kitchen, mixing the batter and putting the final touches on my tomato risotto and roasted portobello mushrooms. (Note: I'd never tried any of Emeril Lagasse's recipes before, and was surprised to find the King of Bam's risotto lacking in flavor, so I added some white wine and chicken bouillon to the cooking broth and it ended up being pretty tasty. Also, I'm not a big fan of creamy sauces so I omitted the heavy cream.)
The batter was easy to whip together. I halved the recipe since I only had 12 flowers, but I added a little extra beer than the recipe called for because I wanted a light, thin coating, similar to tempura. I also only let the batter chill for 15 minutes, instead of 30. I don't have a really good reason for cutting the time in half, except I was impatient - and hungry.
Frying was the trickiest part. I was skeptical that 1/2 inch of oil would be enough to properly cook the flowers. I also worried the filling would seep out and ruin the dish. As it turned out, I needn't have worried. I was able to cook all the flowers in two batches, and it only took about 10 minutes from start to finish.
"Can I try one?" Brandon asked, as I plated the blossoms and sprinkled them with a pinch of kosher salt.
"Not until I take a picture."
My first attempt at making squash blossoms was a culinary triumph! They were perfect. Light and crunchy on the outside, the filling oozing with plenty of cheesy, garlicky goodness inside, and surrounding it all, a bright, fresh, zucchini-like flavor.
Dinner was a hit, and even Brandon had to admit I no longer screw up a recipe the first time I make it.
"You're turning into a real, gourmet chef," he said, eyeing the last squash blossom.