I was on the hunt for a cowboy hat in San Miguel de Allende’s outdoor market. As my friends and I weaved our way through the various stalls, we spied a woman sitting on the ground, her long full skirt topped with a display of squash blossoms. “Look, squash blossoms!” one friend said. As we were on a road trip through Central Mexico—three women in search of excellent Mexican food—I stopped and admired the squash blossoms. It was, after all, the first time I’d ever seen them fresh. “How would you eat them?” I asked my friend. She said her favorite way to cook them was deep fried, though when stuffed with cheese or tossed in a salad they were tasty as well. I was intrigued, but since we didn’t have access to a kitchen, I did not purchase any squash blossoms that day and continued on my quest for a hat.
It would be two years until I saw fresh squash blossoms again. This time I was in Union Square’s Greenmarket. As I made my way through the market, a basket lined with the bright orange flowers was like an exclamation point after the long passage of bins filled with produce green, yellow and red. While not quite as picturesque as being splayed out on a woman’s skirt, I didn’t hesitate to buy them, eager to finally try this summertime delicacy.
My first taste of squash blossoms was a surprise. I figured they would have a more sweetly floral flavor, much like rose petals. But instead they’re more savory, with a hint of the zucchini they would have become if not plucked from the ground. And when cooked, squash blossoms’ presence is more noted in its silky texture rather than an overpowering flavor—they are subtle, but delicious nonetheless.
Ever since then I’ve been intrigued by these fragile, fluffy flowers; at the farmer’s market here they are a true harbinger of summer—once they start arriving, corn, stone fruits and tomatoes can’t be too far behind. I find it’s better to buy them early in the morning as by afternoon they’ll be wilted and dehydrated, much like I am on a humid hot day. They don’t keep long, so after purchasing them I either dash home and whip something up or if it’s a work day, keep them in the refrigerator for a few hours and then have for them for dinner. I had read somewhere that you could store them for a few days with the stems stuck in a glass of water, but I found that not to be the case. And since they can be hard to find, you don’t want them to expire.
While I’m always a fool for anything fried, my favorite preparation with squash blossoms is in a quesadilla. Diana Kennedy has written about this dish, found all over Oaxaca. In true Oaxacan fashion, these quesadillas are made with fresh corn tortillas and Oaxacan cheese also known as asadero or quesillo. This stringy cheese has a mild flavor, and while it melts smoothly its thickness for some is a bit too chewy. If you don’t have access to quesillo, Monterrey jack or Muenster works just as well. And while I enjoy the flavor of grilled corn tortillas with the squash blossoms, being a Texan I still prefer to use flour tortillas for my quesadillas rather than corn.
Diana Kennedy insists they be sautéed with epazote—that quintessentially Mexican herb. It’s fairly easy to find it dried in Mexican grocers (or online at Penzey’s) and it’s also available fresh here in New York City at farmer’s markets in the summer. Plus it grows wild in many places, including Central Park. Epazote is like cilantro in that people either love it or hate it—there’s no middle ground with this herb. I, however, find its mintiness adds a certain brightness to a dish. And with tomatillos and green hot chiles such as jalapenos and serranos in season, my favorite topping for my quesadillas is a bright, fresh salsa verde.
I love the cowboy hat I eventually found in San Miguel that day, but even more, I welcome the introduction to what has become one of my favorite tastes of summer—squash blossoms. Though it took a while for me to finally get around to cooking them, whenever I do, I think of Mexico and that woman’s artful array of edible flowers spread out on her skirt. Squash blossoms—such a beautiful and exquisite treat!
1 poblano pepper
24 squash blossoms, stems and stamens removed.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 half medium-yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried epazote (can substitute with 1/4 cup fresh cilantro)
3 cups Oaxacan, Monterrey Jack or Muester cheese, grated
12 tortillas (can use either corn or flour)
6 tablespoons of butter
Salt and pepper to taste.
Put the poblano under the broiler for about 10 minutes, turning once until it blackens. Place in a plastic bag, close it and let it sit for about 20 minutes. After this time has passed, take poblano out of the bag, peel it (skin should shred off easily), remove stem and seeds and dice.
Gently wash squash blossoms (there might be bugs inside) and remove stems and stamens. Roughly chop.
Heat skillet to medium and add the olive oil. Add onions and diced poblano and cook for about 5 minutes or until onions are translucent.
Add garlic, epazote, squash blossoms and salt and pepper to taste and sauté for 10 minutes or until all the liquid from the flowers has evaporated. Remove from heat and set squash-blossom filling aside.
In a skillet heated to medium, melt a tablespoon of butter. Add a tortilla and cook it on one side until it puffs (about 30 seconds). Flip tortilla over and sprinkle over entire surface 1/4 cup of squash blossom filling and 1/2 cup of grated cheese.
Top with another tortilla, and after cheese has melted and the two tortillas stick together (a couple of minutes), flip quesadilla and cook for a couple of minutes more.
Repeat for the remainder of the filling and tortillas.
Yield: 6 quesadillas
Adapted by Lisa Fain from a Diana Kennedy recipe