Friday, July 21, 2006

Fun with Squash Blossoms

Sometimes you do things in the kitchen that make you wonder at yourself. In my college days I remember being very taken by a Francis Bacon painting of meat and his remarks in the gallery catalogue about how contemplating the food on our plate was to study the magnificent violence of life. I spent college in the company of vegans, and since I had joined the cause of cruelty-free food but found I could not repress my omnivorous tendencies, I was quite persuaded by Bacon's idea that instead of avoiding brutality we could confront it. Since this vision included recommencing eating ham and eggs, I was doubly persuaded. Several joyful non-vegan years later, I came across Bacon's description of stealing images from other artists - "rather like people who eat from other people's plates" - and I knew I'd hopped onto the right lunch-truck. An artist with shades of that famed sausage-stealer Helen Keller is the artist for me.

And so it was that yesterday I found myself in my kitchen with a pair of tweezers in one hand, a delicate squash blossom in the other. As I peeled open the tendrils of the blossom's petals, which were veined and entwined like the fingers of a neurotic, I thought about how fleshly and even ominous flowers can be, and remembered that what Francis Bacon did for sides of beef, Georgia O'Keefe did for posies. I reached my tweezers inside and grabbed the fleshy pistil growing out of the base of the blossom. My steel angles pinching the yellow-bobbled organ, I twisted and pulled - it took a surprising amount of force. Soon I had eleven de-sexed blossoms, their remnant parts piled beside them. Eleven: the sorry inverse of a baker's dozen. I thought I had asked for a "dozen" but some distortion somewhere - of brain or tongue - resulted in eleven. Maybe the blossoms themselves, freakish orange carapaces, conspired against me; in any case, my evening of inverted, distorted and accidentally rude cooking had begun.

Having severed the flowers from their pistils, I proceeded to intrude on their now-roomier chambers with a prosthetic in the form of a piping nozzle. I had mixed together a cup of fresh chevre, some minced summer garlic, a handful of fresh herbs - tarragon, thyme and chives - and an eggcup-full of red spring onion, cut into minute dice. A little salt, a little black pepper, then I loaded it into an icing bag. Squash blossoms are narrow, with long cavities, and no spoon I owned would have done the job without splitting them open. Besides, I find piping so agreeable. The extruded chevre filled up the blossoms, I twisted the flowers shut again and lodged them in the fridge so that they could chill and firm until our guests arrived.

B, who had watched the squash blossom massacre of the innocents with a jaundiced eye, was set to work shucking corn. She is from the farm country of Western Massachusetts, and is a snob about sweet corn. She will only eat it in season, and only on the day that it is picked. She was excited about this batch from our farm share, and was chattering away about kernel size and color as she shucked, musing on the differences between varieties with curious womanly names like "Silver Queen" and "Calico Belle" . . . then I heard her laugh. I turned, and she held up a pale ear, its silk still hanging from the kernels. There, attached to the base of the big ear, was another, miniature ear, valiant in its somewhat obscene deformity. "There's your number twelve," B said, smiling puckishly.

Another puckish smile soon arrived. Max is four and three quarters, and possessed of a devilish sideways grin - there's something magically Danny Kaye about him. He is also fond of concocting in the kitchen, and tonight he wanted to devise his own cocktail, a pink one with maraschino cherries. Sadly, I had no cherries in the house, but together we rummaged around in the sideboard and unearthed some grenadine and an unopened packet of colourful cocktail sticks. While the rest of us made ourselves a delightfully dizzy drink of half sake, half plum wine and a lot of ice, Max and one of his mommies, Patty, set about perking up his lemonade to his taste. Some grenadine, some ice, a little mint that Max harvested from the garden, and one of the plastic cocktail sticks. "Look Maxie," I heard Patty say. "It's a frog." The remainder of the adult crew started carrying things out to the garden. "It's not a frog," I heard Max's little voice assert behind me, "They're humans."

I stuck my head back into the kitchen to find that the unplanned theme of the evening was continuing apace. Patty held up the green cocktail stick, observing, "Yes, copulating humans." I dropped my dish of tomatoes and seized the exhibit. Close inspection revealed that it was indeed a detailed and garishly green plastic representation of a gentleman and a lady having some acrobatic fun together. Patty and I reviewed the box and it turned out to contain many - impressively varied - versions of the same. B and I tried to remember who had given us these, and how many years ago, and whether we had paid sufficient attention to them and/or had an appropriately gratifying response at the time? Had they always looked like palm trees and giraffes to us? Did some forgotten wag of a friend leave and never return, sad that their gift had fallen flat?

Shoving the cocktail sticks back into the depths of the sideboard, where I'm sure they will bide their time until I have forgotten about them again, I began frying our blossoms. First they bathed luxuriantly in egg and milk, then I dredged them in some seasoned masa harina, which several recipes had assured me would give a crisper blossom than flour or cornmeal. A quick, rolling dip into the hot oil, a short rest on paper towels, and the eleven little delicacies were borne to the table. These were the first squash blossoms I had made, and they browned and crisped most compliantly. Accompanied by the corn, Patty’s homemade pickles and a salad made of her tomatoes and basil, it was a light and charming meal, positively G rated in its bucolic pleasures. Biting the blossom open revealed a flutter of yellow and the creamy white cheese, dashed through with the purple and green hints of onion and herbs. There was a bit of a Helen Kellerish tussle over the uneven numbers - eleven does not divide nicely - but the corn was abundant and filled all the corners, so no one went hungry. We finished the meal with a strawberry and rhubarb pie, while Max treated us to a vigorous rendition of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" on the piano, producing curious and delightful chords that not even Danny Kaye could have extracted from the instrument, his little legs a-swinging.


Blogger Urban Forager said...

Several years ago, when I still retained a little bit of my college Italian (which I never studied to any sort of excess in the first place), I found myself acting as a translator between my dad and my grandfather's cousins in Tuscany. I might not have been equal to any complex verbal exchange, but luckily, most of what Dad said to Gennarina was along the lines of "My grandmother used to make [fill in the fabulous, time-consuming rustic delicacy]." And most of Gennarina's part of the conversation with Dad consisted of "Oh, yes! I'll make that tomorrow." The next day, we ate a three-hour meal that began with fried squash blossoms. Mmmmmmm.

12:45 pm  

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