Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Something from Nothing: Stuffed Pumpkin Blossoms

Tempura goat cheese and ricotta stuffed pumpkin blossoms
by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
  If you ever talk to someone who lived through the Great Depression, you may hear the phrase, spoken with respect,  "And my mama/daddy/grandma knew how to make something from nothing." The notion of creating treasure from someone else's trash can be found everywhere from art - Georgia's own folk artist Howard Finster, for instance, to restaurant and home kitchens. The something-from-nothing philosophy got my grandparents through the Depression, and it’s a principle in use today as cooks practice frugality in the kitchen. Farm to table, nose to tail, and now, blossom to fruit.

I thought about "something from nothing" a while back when my friend Jason Parrish invited me to see his pumpkin farm in south Douglas County. Up until a couple years ago, Parrish was in the financial services industry. His wife is a lawyer and they have two young sons. Like many families in these challenging economic times, Parrish is making something from next to nothing – a bag of seeds, some mulch, some water, (actually a lot of water in this very dry August), using his own labor and initiative to build a business.

Jason asked if I’d ever used pumpkin blossoms in cooking. He planted pumpkin seeds beginning in June, planning on a rolling harvest in autumn, and he had excess blossoms. I needed a botany lesson reboot:  pumpkins produce two kinds of blossoms, male and female. Only the female develops fruit, so after the male blossoms have done their duty of pollinating the females (with a little help from bees and other bugs), they aren't needed. In other words, pumpkins are like Elizabeth Taylor in her prime, taking the best of what's offered, mating-wise, and leaving the rest just hanging on the vine.

The female pumpkin blossom. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 The silver lining, or to stretch the Liz Taylor theme out, a diamond-encrusted lining, is that cooks can pick the pumpkin blossoms and stuff them with rich fillings, dip them in batter and fry them up for a crispy, creamy taste of summer.

A male pumpkin flower. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

After spending a very hot August morning in the pumpkin patch, I turned to Executive Chef Christina Curry of Epicurean Endeavors for advice on using the blossoms, based on her experience with zucchini flowers. She suggested a tempura batter and plans B and C for future blossom projects: dicing the fowers and using them in a fritter, or a quick high temp roast with olive oil, herbs, salt and pepper. "You are only limited by your imagination, so try some different combinations and decide which you like best," she wrote in her reply to my inquiring email.

On her advice, I created a lemony goat cheese filling, cutting the rich chevre with ricotta and flavoring the mixture with basil and chives from my herb garden. I created a tempura batter using rice flour, just the right light texture for the delicate blossoms.

Pumpkin blossoms by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

If you’re lucky enough to be able to purchase pumpkin or squash blossoms, plan to cook with them right away. If you’re picking the blossoms, make sure that they have not been treated with any kind of pesticide, and look for the blooms without the female bump behind the blossom. When you open up the male blooms, it’s quite clearly a male, just so you know. Keep them in a closed brown paper bag or zipper lock bag with a slightly damp paper towel. It’s best to pick pumpkin or squash blossoms early in the day, before they close up for their afternoon naps.To clean the blossoms, rinse them off very lightly with water, and check for signs of critters or mildew inside. Pinch and pull out the stamen.

Pumpkin blossoms by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

To fill the blossoms, I like to use a baby feeding spoon – another reason never to clean out the silverware drawer – those little guys are so handy. Scoop the filling into the flowers. When all the blossoms are stuffed, heat the oil in a pan, and have a paper towel-lined plate handy. Have the mayo ready and your diners on call. Mix the batter, dip the blossoms and fry. Drain on paper towels and serve.

Pumpkin blossoms waiting to be washed. By Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Tempura Battered, Goat Cheese -Stuffed Pumpkin Blossoms

 ½ cup ricotta (lowfat is fine)

½ cup goat cheese

1 teaspoon lemon zest (about a ½ lemon’s worth)

Pinch salt

A couple turns of freshly cracked black pepper

¼ cup loosely packed basil leaves, thinly sliced (chiffonade)
½ teaspoon chopped chives

Tempura Battered Pumpkin Blossoms

1/3 cup rice flour (look in the Latin foods section of the market)

1/3 cup all purpose flour

Pinch of salt

1 egg yolk

1 cup seltzer

One dozen fresh, organic pumpkin blossoms

Vegetable or canola oil for frying

Lemony mayo

½ cup mayonnaise mixed with juice of ½ lemon

1. Make the mayo first. Either Homemade, or jazz up good-quality storebought with a squeeze of lemon juice. Keep in refrigerator while cooking the pumpkin flowers.

2. Mix up the filling: In a medium bowl, combine ricotta, goat cheese, lemon zest, basil and chives. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

3. Using a baby feeding spoon and a fair amount of patience, place about a tablespoon of filling in each blossom. If the bloom is tightened, use a paring knife to cut a slit along the side. Fold the petals over the filling.

4. Set up a frying station. Fill a Dutch oven with 2 inches of canola oil and set over medium-high heat. In a medium bowl, stir together rice flour, all-purpose flour, salt and egg yolk. Whisk in seltzer. Adjust the batter consistency to your liking by adding either a bit more flour or a bit more seltzer – I like the batter on the thin side.

5. Oil is ready when a test dribble of batter bubbles to the surface. Using the stem as a hand-hold, dip each stuffed blossom in the batter then place gently into the bubbling oil. These cook very quickly – about 3 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels and serve with lemony mayo on the side.

Fried, stuffed pumpkin blossoms. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Many thanks to Jason for sharing the pumpkin flowers and the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and Christina Curry for culinary guidance.


Angela said...

Those look sooooo good, and I have blossoms a plenty right now--Stumbled...

Becka (The Elegant Eggplant) said...

These look DELICIOUS! So creative and beautiful too. Love it.

Anonymous said...

I adore squash blossoms. Something of an obsession. Yours look fabulous, Lucy!

Anonymous said...

Geez Louise -- those look amazing. Fried? Cheese!? I'm so there. I've just never had access to any blossoms to stuff. I feel so deprived!

Bell :) ..or... :(

Cookin' Canuck said...

What a beautifully written post! Stuffed and fried squash blossoms are one of my favorite summertime dishes and I love the light tempura batter you used on the delicate flowers.

lucy@acookandherbooks said...

Angela: Thanks for reading! Let me know how your flowers fry!

Becka: Thanks for visiting! They were beautiful and really easy.

Linda: A compliment from a connoisseur! Thank you! I've only had squash blossoms once before & I think mine were better.

Bell: Kind of a gourmet popper. You've got to try these!

Canuck: Thanks so much for the kind compliment and for visiting!

Deborah said...

I have always wanted to try squash blossoms, but never have. They look gorgeous!

Time for Good Food said...

How cool! I had no idea there were male and female blossoms. I love the tie-in to Depression era eating. My grandparents often told me that they ate pretty well. It just takes a little ingenuity!

Aimee@clever muffin said...

These look amazing! So pretty as well. I'd never heard of these before, but definitely want to give it a try.

Sara Hickman designs said...

At first when I saw this I was really sad. Aren't those supposed to be pumpkins! I am so happy to have learned they have both male and female flowers. BONUS!