In Canada, where true locavores risk scurvy, and the supermarket next door stocks grapes in springtime and asparagus for Christmas, it is difficult for even the enlightened urban consumer to acquire a decent grasp of what’s in season, what is local, and a good thing to eat. But amidst the confusion of so much produce in perpetual supply, there are a scant few items that never lie about their date and place. Right now that’s the zucchini.
Not the marrow itself, which shows up bloated and leather-skinned all year long, but rather the bright orange flowers that precede it. Male ones, on prickly stalks, and females, thrust out from the plant by their swollen ovaries (the zucchini). The flowers share an aversion to modern air travel that ranks with my own. So when you do spot them at your local greengrocer, odds are better than even that they grew up in the neighbourhood—and that wherever that may be, summer there just peaked.
I came across my first batch very recently in my local Chinatown, where I had parked alongside three elderly women sitting cross-legged on a threadbare blanket, sharing the space with the fresh greens they were hawking. Their orange flowers caught my eye immediately. They were top quality, which is to say picked in the key morning hours after the evaporation of the morning dew, wide open and ready for stuffing. I bought the lot—about 60—for $4.
The French are fond of the courgette blossom, and notably, the Mexicans are too—but no one treasures it quite like the Italians, who revere it almost as much as they do smoking-hot olive oil for deep-frying. So that night I put the two together in a typical way: gently open flowers; remove stamens and pistils; wash; drain; stuff full of ricotta flecked with minced fresh herbs; dredge in a simple batter of flour and soda water; deep-fry until bronze and crisp and serve on a pool of light tomato sauce. Nature’s ravioli: they went over rather well.
A few days later I decided to give it another go. Alas, my single-toothed Chinese women had taken the day off, but I tracked some down in Rosedale, a posh, handsome Toronto neighbourhood whose residents sadly do not know enough about food to be convinced of its quality unless it is fiendishly expensive: the preferred local greengrocer was obligingly selling zucchini flowers at a 1,310 per cent premium of $6.99 for eight.
This time I went the simple route, eschewing a filling and dredging them in a classic Italian pastella batter made with still water in place of the sparkling. It proved relatively dense so I reverted to the soda mix for another go-round with a stuffing of fresh mozzarella di bufala and anchovy. But since fresh mozzarella is not so very fresh even at the best Canadian cheesemongers, the cheese tasted mildly vulcanized. The ricotta and herbs was unequivocally the best.
And with that judgment, the time seemed right to give up home cooking and check in instead with a professional. So I ventured down to my preferred Italian local, Buca, to see what chef Rob Gentile was up to with the seasonal treat. Good thinking, it turned out.
Dinner began with a crisp and ephemerally light thin-crust pizza littered with zucchini blossoms and dressed with alternating soft clumps of sweet, fresh ricotta and shaved ribbons of the salty aged variety, all sprinkled with Sicilian lemon-infused olive oil. Gentile’s deep-fried blossoms were stuffed with buffalo ricotta spiked with lemon zest and mint, the light batter encasing each like a crispy sarcophagus, that upon puncture released a burst of zucchini-flavoured steam. Next, linguine tossed with sweet prawn broth, torn zucchini flowers, discs of baby zucchini no bigger than okra, and lightly cured peeled cherry tomatoes—a splendid dish.
I hope but doubt that your local is doing as fine a job. So if you instead opt to cook some at home, remember to keep it simple and light, for while the zucchini blossom is a product of high summer, it is not ripe like the others, but subtly flavoured, with far more in common with the delicate flavours of spring. All the same it does not bow out until mid-September, so there’s plenty of time for practice.