My father, who was born in Italy and left it at the age of 5, never shook off the nation’s famous minimalism in the kitchen. When I was growing up, he cooked zucchini blossoms for me by doing very little to them: He lightly dipped them in beaten egg and Parmesan and then shallow-fried them in olive oil. That’s it.
This restraint is a beautiful thing. It creates a rich golden-yellow when flower meets yolk and makes tender petals crisp up to the most satisfying crunch.
There is a wonderful clarity to this way of cooking – it puts a glorious ingredient solely in the center, no distractions – but, unfortunately, it is not one that I have inherited from my father. My maximalist tendencies always get the better of me.
Yet even when abandoning that light touch, I try to stay true to the instinct that guided my dad: highlighting the vivid orange color of the flower and utilizing the paper-thin quality of the petals for an exceptionally brittle texture once they emerge from the oil.
It is the precious nature of zucchini blossoms that makes me so considerate when I cook them. In Britain, where I live, they are hard to come by. Both the female variety, with the small zucchini attached, and the larger male flower are available intermittently during the summer months and are very expensive. When I finally get my hands on a bunch of them, I must treat them with the utmost reverence.
This is in total contrast to the way I saw them cooked in Turkey a few years ago. My host took me at sunrise to a farm near Istanbul, where we picked the flowers while they were still open and ready to be stuffed. (Later on in the day, the hot sun causes them to close up again.)
The unbelievable glut of flowers was filled with rice, minced lamb and herbs and then piled up in a pot and cooked for over an hour. The resulting puffed-up pouches were absolutely delicious, but the flowers lost their color and any other identifying feature. They could, I dare say, have been replaced with grape leaves or cabbage.
Assuming most cooks would not have a field of zucchini blossoms at their disposal, I focused my two different treatments of this delightful ingredient on texture and color, just as my father used to. The stuffed flowers are coated with a crisp batter that contrasts perfectly with the melted cheese inside; the braised eggs are simply a wonderful array of yellows and oranges.
Crisp Zucchini Blossoms Stuffed With Goat Cheese
Yield: 4 appetizer servings
Time: 35 minutes
1 tablespoon ground sumac
1/4 cup ricotta
3 tablespoons soft goat cheese
1 teaspoon finely chopped oregano leaves
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
1 lemon, finely grated to get 1 tablespoon zest, then cut into wedges
Flaky sea salt and black pepper
8 zucchini blossoms
About 1 1/2 cups sunflower oil, for frying
Scant 1/2 cup all-purpose flour (plain flour)
1/8 teaspoon baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon ice-cold sparkling or soda water
In a medium bowl, cover 3/4 tablespoon of the sumac with 1 tablespoon of boiling water and leave to infuse for 5 minutes. Add both types of cheese, oregano, walnuts, lemon zest, 1/4 teaspoon salt and a generous grind of pepper. Mix well.
Fill the flowers by carefully opening them and either spooning or piping about a tablespoon of the ricotta mixture into each, gently pushing the filling all the way to the bottom of each blossom but being careful not to fill them too much; if you can get someone to hold the flower open for you, it would make it much easier. Gently twist the tips of the petals to secure the filling inside and set aside until you are ready to fry.
Pour enough oil into a medium (about 8-inch) nonstick frying pan so that the oil rises about 1 inch up the sides of the pan. Place on a high heat for 5 minutes and then turn the heat down a fraction.
Meanwhile, mix the flour and baking soda together in a medium bowl. Slowly pour in the sparkling water, whisking continuously to form a smooth batter.
When bubbles start to surface in the oil, test it by dropping some batter into the oil: if it sizzles, you are ready. (The oil should hover between 320 and 350 degrees Fahrenheit.)
Lower a zucchini blossom into the batter, turning to coat completely, before carefully placing in the hot oil. Repeat, cooking a few blossoms at a time, adjusting the temperature between batches so they take about 30 seconds on each side to turn a golden brown. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and then sprinkle with salt and the remaining 1/4 tablespoon sumac. Serve at once with the lemon wedges alongside.
Braised Eggs With Zucchini, Feta and Lemon
Yield: 3 servings
Time: 35 minutes
1/3 cup olive oil
3 small garlic cloves, crushed with the back of a knife
1 red chile pepper (such as serrano), roughly chopped (and deseeded if you do not like heat)
Flaky sea salt
1 1/3 pounds zucchini, thinly sliced on a mandoline
2 leaves rainbow chard (about 3 ounces), thinly sliced
2 tablespoons roughly chopped chives
2 tablespoons dill
1/3 cup roughly crumbled feta
6 zucchini blossoms, stemmed, halved lengthwise
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (or 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes)
Take one lemon and use a vegetable peeler to remove 4 strips of zest. Squeeze the lemon to get 1 tablespoon juice, then set aside.
Add the oil, garlic, chopped red chile pepper, lemon zest strips and 3/4 teaspoon salt to a large, preferably nonstick saute pan (for which you have a lid) set over medium heat. Gently fry for 3-5 minutes, stirring often, until the oil begins to bubble. (Turn the heat down to medium-low if the oil bubbles too quickly.) Decrease the heat to low, add the zucchini slices (not the blossoms) and continue to cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring often, until the zucchini slices are very tender and beginning to brown. Stir in the chard and cook for another few minutes, until wilted.
Drain the zucchini and chard over a saucepan to collect the oil, then return the vegetables to the sauté pan. Stir in the herbs, reserved lemon juice and feta. Create 6 hollows with the back of a spoon and carefully break an egg into each hollow (take care not to break the yolks). Lay the zucchini blossoms around the eggs and drizzle them with a teaspoon of the reserved frying oil. Cover the pan with the lid and cook for 4-5 minutes over medium-high heat, until the whites are almost set and the yolks are still runny (the eggs will continue cooking once uncovered and taken off the heat).
While the eggs cook, add the butter to the reserved oil and gently heat until beginning to brown and bubble, then drizzle over the eggs when they are done. Sprinkle with the Aleppo chile and a good pinch of salt and serve hot with juice from the remaining lemon squeezed on top.