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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Blossoms

Living in  Austria was a cultural odyssey. After a brief stint in Northern Virginia, my family was shipped back to Europe and stationed in Vienna, Austria. Unlike most of the places we lived overseas (behind concrete on walls on American army bases), Vienna was a different animal. We moved smack dab into the middle of the city. No walls. No uniforms.  As a kid, it was an unfamiliar and strange cultural immersion. My father often spoke Russian, my friends were German, and our nanny was Czek. Hell, even my favorite cartoons were broadcast in German. Sensory overload. I struggled with the steep learning curve, but managed to keep up with everybody. My oasis was school. Because of our Army ties, I attended the Vienna American International School, a school designed to accommodate families with military, United Nations, or Foreign Embassy connections. All in all, it is was a fairly normal English speaking American school nestled on the outskirts of the city near tranquil parks and the Vienna Woods. Pretty basic stuff. Classes. Lunch Break. Recess. While I was happy to be around kids like me, nothing topped recess. That said, we had two very opposing options for recess. On alternating days, weather permitting, we'd either line up in single file for a march over to the ragged dirt-covered embankment overlooking the soccer field to play on the rusty jungle gyms or we'd carefully cross bustling Salmanndorferstrasse for a gentle hike up the tree-lined slope at the base of the Vienna Woods to play in the meadows that unfolded at the top of the hill.  It was a no brainer for me. I abhorred the embankment days and adored the hill days.

In early spring, when everything was damp and new, I couldn't wait to climb the wet slippery hill. It was worth every single slight bruise or muddy smudge, clinging to mossy tree trunks and large rocks, to reach the clearing at the the top of the hill for a glimpse of the undulating multicolored sea of lavender, blue, yellow, and white spring flowers bending in the breeze. It certainly beat the crap out of eating dirt on the jungle gym. Recess. In typical childhood fashion, it was a free-for-all on top of the hill. The girls would skip off to do girl things while the boys huddled around for games of tag or kickball. And Me? I'd brush through the soft meadow, curl down into a nest, flop onto my back with naive abandon, stare at the empty sky, and eat the flowers.

I guess it stuck.

Fried Squash Blossoms with Summer Squash Salad.
It's weird, squash blossoms seem to be everywhere. In years past, everyone told me they were simply too much trouble to harvest. Not this year. While they're plentiful, the early bird gets the blossoms. In recent weeks, local chefs have scampered down to the farmers market very early to snatch up the bounty. Every last blossom. Finally,I got with the program, joined the fray, and scored a few baskets of gorgeous feathery Jessamine County squash blossoms.

A simple fresh bite of summer.
Minor prep. Big payoff.
Starting with the blossoms, I snipped the stamens from the center of each male flower. Traditionally, the blossoms are stuffed with goat cheese, ricotta, or fresh mozzarella. I'm a rule breaker, so I brought a bit of Tuscany to Kentucky and stuffed the blossoms with Dad's Favorite Asiago Sun-dried Tomato Cheese Spread. Yep. After carefully scooping a spoonful of the cheese into each blossom, I gave the ends a quick twist, covered them with plastic wrap, and slid them into the refrigerator to chill.

Squash ribbons.
I'm a huge fan of raw squash ribbons.  In fact, I rarely cook yellow squash or zucchini anymore. When sliced thinly, they're delicate, tender, and incredibly sweet. Normally, I simply use a vegetable peeler to make the ribbons. Because I wanted somewhat more uniform slices, I used a mandolin to shave 3 large Casey County zucchini and yellow squash into ribbons, feathered them into a mixing bowl, and set them aside.

Tempura batter.
Really, any kind of batter would have worked beautifully. Personally, I prefer a  light tempura batter to allow the squeaky freshness of the blossoms to poke through the coating. I'd rather taste the flower than a deep fried thick batter.

Using a heavy stock pot, I warmed 2 cups of vegetable oil over a medium flame.  While the oil heated up, I mixed 1 cup of all purpose Weisenberger Mill unbleached white flour with 1 1/2 cups sparkling water (Pellagrino) and 1 teaspoon salt.

When the oil reached 350 degrees (I used a candy thermometer), I swiped the stuffed blossoms into the batter, let most of the batter drip back into the bowl, and gingerly dropped them into the hot oil. Within 2 minutes, they were lightly browned and crisp. I scooped the fried blossoms onto a clean dish towel to drain and set them aside.

I pulled the chilled squash ribbons from the refrigerator and twirled them onto a large serving platter. After splashing them with fresh lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil, I nestled the fried blossoms over the ribbons and tumbled sliced Henkle's Herbs and Heirlooms cherry tomatoes to the side. After a light dusting of flaked sea salt and cracked black pepper, I finished with a restrained scattering of fresh basil.

Bare summer vegetables flaunting a full frontal. Irresistible. Fresh.
While the delicate lemon-kissed ribbons provided bright snappy crispness, the cheese-filled blossoms added sexy deep fried shattering crunch. Perfect. Funny, the cheese didn't drip or ooze like traditional stuffed blossoms. It melted into the petals and infused them with an intense concentrated cheese flavor that crackled like lighter-than-air fancy cheese puffs.

A happy accidental win.

Fabulous.






1 comment:

Susan said...

Sounds delicious and looks beautiful!