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Wednesday, July 23, 2008 01:35 pm

Feasting on flowers

Beautiful and tasty squash blossoms make for dandy frittatas

When I was growing up, everyone loved my mom's salad. Even kids used to beg her to bring it to potlucks. Friends invited to dinner would eagerly ask, "Are you making that salad?"

It was a kitchen-sink concoction: Iceberg lettuce, other seasonally appropriate vegetables, cheeses (including lots of Parmesan), shredded lunchmeats, hard-boiled eggs, and homemade croutons, tossed with a good Italian vinaigrette. What really blew everyone away, though, were the flowers. In early spring she'd throw in handfuls of violets. Later it might be violas or pansy petals; later still it was sage or chive blossoms. Some added flavor, others just visual appeal — but they all contributed an exotic note to Mom's salad.

Humanity has been eating flowers for millennia; the first written record of flowers as food was made in 140 B.C. The list of edible flowers is long — check out a chart of edible flowers, at www.homecooking.about.com/library/weekly/blflowers.htm — but remember that it's important to ensure that flowers intended for consumption haven't been sprayed with insecticides or other harmful chemicals.

Among the most common and delicious culinary flowers are squash blossoms. They're used in Spain and Italy, as well as in Central and South America and Mexico, where squash blossom appear not only as food but also stylized in decorative art. Preparations range from taco fillings to an elegant classic soup, crema de flores de calabaza, that belies claims that Mexican cuisine is unsophisticated. In Italy, squash blossoms are stuffed — sometimes with baby squashes still attached — with a tablespoon or so of herbed chèvre or ricotta, then baked. They need to be slightly wilted to make a neat package. Some recipes call for them to be blanched, but I think that method risks overcooking (it only takes seconds); they must then be drained, which is a hassle. Setting them in the sun for about 15 minutes after cutting usually wilts them enough. Brush the blossoms with olive oil and bake in a 350-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until the cheese is heated through. Serve as is or on a light tomato sauce.

Harvesting squash blossoms is easy (easiest of all, of course, is buying them at the farmers' market). All squashes — from zucchini to pumpkins and their relatives the melons and cucumbers (whose flowers are small and not generally eaten) — have both male and female flowers. They're easy to distinguish: The females have the fruits (baby squashes) attached to the bottom, a pistil emerges from the flower's center, and the bottoms are larger (some things are universal); the males are just attached to the stems. The males need to pollinate the females, but by late morning they'll have done their duty and can be picked, as can the females once the baby squashes have begun forming.

A few years ago we had an unexpected squash-blossom bonanza when pumpkin seeds sprouted from our compost pile and crawled outward in all directions. Harvesting a half-pound each day for weeks, I sautéed and froze some and tried out a bunch of recipes (including that wonderful Mexican soup). This was a favorite.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com

SQUASH-BLOSSOMFRITTATA

Frittatas are common in Italy and Spain (where they're called tortillas). The first cooking method below is traditional. It also — as I can personally attest — has tremendous potential to create a tremendous mess. Experienced frittata makers can undoubtedly pull it off, but I've never gotten to that point. The second is the easiest and the one I use most often. The third is a combination of the first two. It's slightly more involved than the second but is mess-proof and indistinguishable from traditional frittatas. I use it when making frittatas for guests.

10 to 12 blossoms from zucchini or other summer squashes

2 tablespoons butter, divided

Six large eggs

1/3 cup slivered scallion

1/2 cup slivered basil leaves or coarsely torn flat-leaf parsley

(or a combination), very loosely packed, divided

1/2 cup crumbled fresh goat cheese (chèvre) or feta

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Freshly grated Asiago or Parmesan cheese

for garnish, optional

Check the squash blossoms and remove any squash beetles or other bugs. (It's best to do this outside.) Cut off and discard the stems, leaving the small bulbous base. Tear off the sepals (the little green hairy spikes that protrude around the base) and discard them.

Cut or pull off the petals and set them aside. Cut the bases in half.

Heat a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add the squash-blossom bases and cook for a few minutes, stirring, until they are just tender. Add the petals and cook until they wilt, about 30 seconds. Remove the skillet from the stove, stir in the scallion, and let the mixture come to room temperature.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs until well combined, but don't overbeat. Stir in the cheese and half of the basil/parsley, reserving the rest. Add the cooled contents of the skillet and season to taste with the salt and pepper.

Wipe the skillet clean, add the remaining tablespoon of butter, and return the skillet to the stove over medium-high heat. When the butter is bubbling, swirl it to coat the bottom of the skillet and pour in the egg/squash-blossom mixture. Shake the pan gently. Complete the frittata in one of the following ways:

1. Stir the egg mixture for several minutes without touching the bottom of the skillet. When the bottom of the frittata has solidified, flip the pan over onto a plate, then slide the upside-down frittata back into the skillet. Repeat this process until the frittata is cooked through.

2. After the frittata has formed a solid mass on the underside, transfer the skillet to a broiler that has been turned to high heat. When the frittata has formed a solid "crust" on top, stir that cooked surface into the liquid egg mixture underneath and return the skillet to the broiler. Check every few minutes, folding the cooked top into the middle, which will thicken and eventually solidify. Continue until the frittata is cooked through. Remove the skillet from the broiler and let it stand 5 to 10 minutes. Flip the frittata upside down to serve.

3. Follow step 2 until the frittata's center is creamy and almost solidified, then flip it onto a plate or skillet of the same size and continue the process until the frittata is completely cooked through, as in step 1. This has the advantage of giving the frittata the traditional rounded edge shape without the mess and hassle of the first method.

Turn the frittata onto a large platter and cut it into wedges or squares. Garnish with grated cheese and the reserved herbs. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves two to six.

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