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Table Talk: Squash blossoms

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Throughout the summer, almost every small produce market and grocery store in Rome has packages of fiori di zucca — zucchini flowers. Their delicate orange blossoms are usually around four inches long and slender, petals scrunched together. When crushed, they give off the crisp smell of fresh leaves.

In Vermont, squash blossoms are harder to find. The ideal time to eat the flowers is just when they have opened slightly, when the squash is still just a bulge at the base of the blossom. And while the flowers are delicious stuffed, fried or on salads, they are just not as filling as the squash will eventually become if left to itself. So it’s no wonder that most Vermont farmers leave the blossom on the plant until the squash has developed more.

At the farmers’ market in Middlebury last Wednesday, the air was unusually chilly. All of the vendors were bundled up, and people shopping hurried about their business more quickly than usual. People seemed in general agreement that the end of Wednesday farmers’ markets couldn’t be coming at a better time, although the Saturday markets still had another two weeks (Saturday markets run until this weekend, Oct. 24, after which they will be moving into American Flatbread on a more sporadic schedule).

On my way through the market, I spotted a plastic bag of small squash blossoms. The woman selling them seemed amused by my excitement at the bag of flowers, all different sizes attached to tiny yellow pattypans.

“You only see those after the frost,” she said.

The flowers made me miss Nonna and her family in Rome, so I bought them.

Nonna Flora isn’t really my grandmother. She is my grandfather’s cousin and has her own large family. But in true Southern Italian form, she and her relatives welcomed me and my cousin Maddy into their homes in the summer of 2008, when I was down to my last few hundred Euro after almost a month of traveling.

Even though Nonna had just gotten out of the hospital, she cooked big lunches for anyone in the family who stopped by around one in the afternoon. Usually it was her daughter Carmela, who lived next door, and Carmela’s 17-year-old son Paolo. And for a while, Maddy and I ate with them, too.

It was always two courses: the primo, usually meat, and the secondo, usually pasta. One afternoon Nonna brought out zucchini blossoms, stuffed, battered and pan-fried, as the primo. They were crispy, the filling creamy: Nonna had stuffed them with mozzarella and anchovies. She laughed when we said we had never seen them before, then slid more onto our plates after we had inhaled the first batch.

When I finally got around to cooking my zucchini flowers, I didn’t have ricotta or anchovies. I didn’t have the makings for many of the variant stuffings, some combination of prosciutto or other meat, squash, onion, garlic or cheese.

But I did have Twig Farm Washed Rind cheese (yum!), so I stuffed each tiny flower with small pieces of that. The batter Nonna had used was a simple flour and milk one, but since the blossoms were my dinner, I added egg for extra protein.

My blossoms were not nearly as good as Nonna’s were. I was not in Nonna’s apartment kitchen at the peak of the summer heat, shutters opened to reveal laundry lines stretching across the space between buildings, pasta water bubbling on the stove and Italian television news murmuring from the small TV in the corner.

But they still tasted delicious.

Stuffed zucchini flowers

Zucchini flowers
White flour
Water or milk
Olive oil for frying

Your choice for the stuffing, but try anchovies with small pieces of mozzarella or ricotta.

1. Remove the pistil or stamen from the flowers and clean them well (making sure not to tear the flowers)
2. Gently open each flower and add a small piece of anchovy and a slightly larger piece of mozarella (or a spoonful of ricotta), filling about halfway to prevent overflow when cooking.
3. Mix flour and water or milk into a batter thick enough to stick to the flowers — this may require some experimenting.
4. Heat a couple teaspoons of oil in a pan on medium and pan-fry each coated flower until it is lightly browned and crispy on all sides. Drain on a paper towel.

Andrea does reporting and online media for the Addison Independent. You can find her on Twitter here or see other Table Talk entries here. Feel free to weigh in on this post or suggest future topics, either in the comments section below or at andreas [at] addisonindependent.com.

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