While interning with my pastry teacher, Claire Legas, at Cafe Cacao in Berkeley, I learned just how tedious pastry making can be. Thankfully, I didn’t have to learn this firsthand. Claire had worked as a pastry cook at the French Laundry, and would regale me with stories of severe boredom, such as the time she had to peel hundreds of cherry tomatoes. Too delicate to blanch, they had to be peeled slowly, one by one, while standing in the walk-in refrigerator. They were used as a garnish on a cherry tomato panna cotta. (Heaven forbid the guests would have to actually masticate their own food, Claire said, rolling her eyes.)
I hoped that in my career as a baker I would never have to experience such tedium as peeling hundreds of cherry tomatoes.
A few months later, I got a job at a fancy SF restaurant that I like to call Pome (names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent). In the early fall, we featured a concord grape sorbet, served with lace cookies, champagne gelées, and garnished with concord grapes. Peeled concord grapes.
You can guess who the grape peeler was that day.
After the grape incident, I swore I would never willingly participate in (or force others to participate in) such a painstaking process.
But the other day I found squash blossoms at Rainbow. Inspired by some fresh shallots, with their greens still attached, I decided to stuff the blossoms with goat cheese, sauteed shallot, zucchini and sweet corn. While most squash blossoms end up deep fried, I consulted Jerry Traunfeld’s Herbfarm Cookbook for a method in which the blossoms are blanched and shocked, then stuffed, brushed with olive oil, and baked. The process preserves their bright colors and leaves you with a light and delicate dish. I would serve the blossoms with arugula and warmed cherry tomatoes. I couldn’t wait.
Unfortunately, wait I did. Once the blossoms had been shaken out, one by one, then blanched and plunged into an ice water bath, the stubborn things were nearly impossible to open without tearing. Thankfully, even the ones that ripped stuck together once stuffed, and the rest of the process was cake; a brushing of olive oil, a quick baking, and the blossoms were ready to be arranged on their arugula beds and doused with shiny (still skin-clad) cherry tomatoes. I stuffed half of the blossoms this way, and they made quite a fancy presentation (though naturally not French Laundry-worthy as they had to be chewed).
Other ways I imagine serving squash blossoms are:
- atop a pizza slathered with fresh pesto, mozzarella, red onion and rounds of summer squash
- in a summer squash risotto
- on zucchini, corn and chèvre tacos with avocado-tomatillo salsa
- atop this zucchini-tomato tart
- baked into a zucchini frittata, or slivered and sprinkled over this skillet quiche
Since I couldn’t face stuffing the other half of the blossoms, I thought, ‘Sod it,’ (ok, ‘sod’ wasn’t the word I actually thought), ‘I’ll just toss the rest together with some spaghetti.’ This made a delicious, if slightly less pretty, meal. Both variations tasted excellent, and I’ve included the pasta version below, for those adverse to tedium.
Squash Blossoms Stuffed with Zucchini, Sweet Corn, and chèvre
Serves 4 – 6 as a first course
Jerry Traunfeld goes into extensive detail on the harvesting and preparing of squash blossoms in his book. Suffice it to say that these blossoms are somewhat ephemeral and should be harvested in the morning and prepared soon thereafter, within the same day. Check the insides for bugs before blanching the flowers. Male blossoms grow directly from the stalks and have a stamen inside the flower, which should be removed before stuffing the blossoms. Females bear fruit; if your blossoms have tiny zucchini attached to them, you can leave them on and have a baby squash with your blossom. Be patient when working the flowers, and leave time to pry open and stuff them gently. (That sounded kinda dirty, didn’t it?) Figure 3-4 blossoms per person for an appetizer.
For the blossoms:
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for brushing the blossoms
1 large fresh or cured shallot or spring onion, diced
2 medium zucchini, diced
1/4 teaspoon salt
kernels from 1 ear of corn
4 ounces fresh chèvre (goat cheese)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
16 – 18 squash blossoms, free of bugs, stamen snapped off of males (see headnote)
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for the arugula
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
salt and pepper
1-2 cups baby arugula
Make the filling:
Heat the oil in a wide skillet over a medium flame. When the oil shimmers, add the shallot. Cook for about 10 minutes, until translucent and tender. Add the zucchini and salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 minutes. Add the corn and cook for 1 minute longer. In a medium bowl, stir together the cooked veggies with the chèvre and basil. Set aside.
Prepare the blossoms:
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Prepare a medium bowl full of ice water. Drop the blossoms into the boiling water a few at a time and cook for 10 seconds. Lift them out and drop them into the ice water.
Preheat the oven to 350º. Brush a baking sheet with olive oil.
With the blossoms still submerged (the petals are easier to separate under water), carefully open up one of the blossoms and drape the petals over your hand, then lift it out of the water, tilting it to drain. Place 1 tablespoon of the chèvre mixture inside the blossom, then close the petals around it, and place it on the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining blossoms. (The blossoms can be covered and refrigerated for up to 8 hours at this point.)
Brush the blossoms with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with a few pinches of salt. Bake in the oven for 5-7 minutes, until heated through.
Meanwhile, warm 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cherry tomatoes and cook, tossing, until warm and beginning to release some of their juices, a few minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Toss the arugula in a medium bowl with a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, and salt and pepper.
When the blossoms are hot, divide the arugula among 4 – 6 plates. Top with 3-4 blossoms, then spoon the warm cherry tomatoes over the blossoms. Serve with a knife and fork.
Variation: Spaghetti with Chèvre, Zucchini, Corn and Squash Blossoms
Makes 4 entree-sized servings
Prepare the blossoms, chèvre mixture and tomatoes as above (you can probably use the blossoms un-blanched). Sliver the blossoms. Toss the chèvre mixture with 12 ounces of cooked spaghetti and a little extra olive oil, then gently toss in the tomatoes and squash blossoms. Plate and top with a good grating of parmesan and black pepper.