Squash blossoms are in at my local Greenmarket, and I’ve finally managed to stuff and fry them successfully. The principle is simple enough: Poke a little strip of mozzarella and a piece of anchovy into the heart of each flower, coat them with a batter, and fry them in oil. But my past efforts never worked well. The cheese would ooze out, or the batter would slide off, or the flowers would collapse – or all of the above.
But they’re such a treat to eat when they’re done well! My palate can’t forget the scrumptious ones I had on my trip to Rome last year. It was a sidewalk lunch at a little trattoria on the Via Pastini. The combination of crunchy crust, soft interiors, vegetable sweetness, and hints of salt was addictive.
So when a particularly fresh batch of zucchini blossoms caught my eye in the market this week, I determined to try the dish again. This time I got it just right. I believe that was due to two important factors: the condition of the flowers and the contents of the batter.
For the flowers, notice how green these are – full-sized but still buds. Once I had teased the tips open, pinched out the pistils, and slid in the bits of mozzarella and anchovy, they were all very willing to twist back snugly around the filling. The bright yellow, fully opened flowers I’d ever tried to use before would never close properly. Therefore, lesson learned: You have to get them at that moment in their life cycle when they’re big enough to take a stuffing but still unopened and tight.
Incidentally, these are male flowers, which you can tell by the thin stems. Thick-stemmed flowers are females, whose stems are actually the burgeoning zucchini. Gardeners who want to eat the vegetables take only male flowers for cooking. Their thin stems make nice handles for dipping the flowers into batter.
The batters I’d used before, and not done well with, were simple flour-and-water mixes, sometimes with baking powder. Remembering the lovely crust on those flower fritters in Rome, I looked for a recipe in The Food of Rome and Lazio by Oretta Zanini de Vita. (She and her translator, Maureen Fant, are the same team that produced Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds, which I wrote about here last month.)
Sure enough, there was a recipe in the book for fiori fritti, and the batter was not the same as any others I’d seen for this dish. It started in the usual way, with flour, water, and salt. Then I had to stir in a little olive oil and leave it to sit for an hour. When I was ready to fry the flowers, I whipped two egg whites stiff and folded them into the batter. That was the magic ingredient. It made a soft, light, puffy coating, into which I twirled my stuffed flowers, holding them by the stub ends of the stems, and laid them in a shallow pool of hot olive oil.
I remembered afterward that I’d encountered a fritter batter with beaten egg whites before – as a coating for chiles rellenos in Diana Kennedy’s The Cuisines of Mexico – and had been delighted with it then. The Mexican recipe used the egg yolks too, for an even richer batter. However, the Roman version was just fine for the purpose here: that richer batter might have overwhelmed the delicate blossoms.
I didn’t closely follow the rest of the Roman recipe. It was for a much larger quantity of flowers, and it was easy enough to judge for myself how much filling was needed for the size flowers I was working with. Though the recipe didn’t specify olive oil for the frying, that’s what I used because I believe it gives the best flavor to any savory fried foods. Also, while it didn’t indicate a quantity for the oil – and I’ve seen some recipes that call for deep-frying – I used shallow oil so I could more easily control my delicate fritters. They cooked perfectly well that way. And they were excellent – a thin, crisp crust on the outside, meltingly tender within, and totally delicious.
Chalk up another triumph for culinary persistence and opportunistic shopping!