In mid-summer, big yellow flowers are the first sign that you’ll soon be knee deep in squash and zucchini. You can eat the blossoms from summer and winter squash.
The plants produce both male and female flowers. The male flowers are usually more numerous, closer to the main stem of the plant, and do not bear fruit. You can tell them apart because they have pollen-bearing stamen and are usually smaller than the female flowers. The female flowers tend to grow on the vines or farther from the main plant, and are usually bigger. There is a little proto-squash at the base of the female flower, which will develop if it’s pollinated. Their lady part (that needs to be dusted with pollen to be fertilized to make squash) is called a pistil.
The blossoms start to open around 8:30 in the morning. They close up again in the late morning, so timing is important when harvesting. Don't pick the female flowers unless you want to thin your squash harvest. Pick the male flowers, but leave 1 or 2 males for the bees to do their job. To ensure a higher yield of squash, you can pollinate the female flowers with the stamens from the males. It may seem a little kinky, but you're just doing what the bees do anyway. Speaking of bees, watch out for them. They usually fly away as soon as you disturb their flower, but they’re not happy about it.
Pick the flowers when they are fully open. Next, gently rinse any bugs out of them, and store in cold water in the fridge. Adding salt to the water helps to draw the bugs out. Watch out for bees! If you don’t have enough blossoms to gather for a recipe in one day, collect the blooms each day for several days until you have enough. You can store them in the fridge in water until you’re ready to use them.
I had my first experience cooking with squash blossoms while living in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico many years ago with my ex’s family. I learned to make Sopa de Flor de Calabaza (Squash Blossom Soup) from Juanita, who worked for the household for many years before she passed away. She cooked, cleaned, and did laundry and ironing for the family. A tiny, ancient Mayan woman, she had forgotten how old she was. She always wore an huipil (the traditional white cotton dress with bright flowers embroidered along the edges) and kept her floor-length gray hair pulled back in a tight bun, which accentuated her round, mahogany face.
I loved Juanita. She spoke no English, and her broken Spanish was difficult to understand through her thick Mayan accent. But she and I didn't need a lot of words to communicate. She taught me how to cook several dishes in that miniscule, suffocatingly hot kitchen where the yellow tiles dripped condensation from the stove. She would walk to the Mercado (open air market) in her little plastic flip flops and pick up fresh ingredients for whatever she was going to prepare that day. She always watched a telenovela (the Mexican version of soap operas) on a tiny TV in the corner of the kitchen while she worked. At night when it was bearable to be outside in the tropical heat, she and I would sit alone together on the front porch in the breeze that had moved inland, silent and happy.
Here is her recipe. It brings back good memories, and I say a little prayer to Juanita whenever I make it.
Sopa de Flor de Calabaza
1 white onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, diced
3 Poblano chiles, chopped (or another variety if you like)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 small zucchini, chopped
3 corn tortillas
2 fresh sprigs oregano, or 1 teaspoon dried
6 cups chicken broth
3 or 4 pieces cooked, shredded chicken, choice of thigh, drumstick or breast
4 cups squash blossoms, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup cream
Salt and pepper to taste
You can boil 7 cups of water with uncooked chicken, salt and pepper and oregano to use in the recipe, or prepare or buy the broth and chicken ahead of time.
Sauté onion, garlic and chiles in butter. Adjust the number and types of chiles according to how hot you like it. Poblanos aren't very spicy. You can always add a splash of hot sauce later if it isn't spicy enough. Add zucchini. Chop the tortillas into little bits and add with the broth, they will disintegrate and thicken the soup when cooked. Combine everything together and bring to a boil. Add chopped blossoms, and boil for a little while longer. Turn off heat and stir in the cream. Serve with tortilla chips.