One of the sights that has always drawn me to farmers markets is that of fresh cut flowers brimming over tall containers and spilling out of shoppers' bags. But did you know that not all the blooms for sale there are destined for dining-table décor? Edible squash blossoms are an old new favorite not only sold at the markets, but also served at the most elegant and modern restaurants in Charlotte.
In the Charlotte area, the primary supplier of fresh squash flowers is Tega Hills Farm in Tega Cay. About seven years ago, Mark and Mindy Robinson were already considering adding the flowers to their commercial crops when they were approached by chef Luca Annunziata of Passion8 Bistro in Fort Mill. "It was kind of a case of 'If you grow 'em, I'll buy 'em,'" Mindy Robinson recalls.
Although any kind of squash or pumpkin flowers will serve, Tega Hills grows those of the zucchini plant, that infamous overproducer that offers the largest blossoms for stuffing. In spite of the plant's prolific nature, selling the flowers offers a few challenges.
"It took us a while to figure out the packaging, " Robinson explains. "They have fine hairs and snag each other," so the flowers have to be individually wrapped in wax paper. They are also a particularly unstable commodity, as "they are basically dying from the minute you pick them." The blossoms are only useable for about three to four days after harvest, so the Robinsons pick them every day.
Once the farm began offering squash flowers, it took some time for their popularity to grow. "For the first year or two [Luca] was our primary customer," Robinson says, but "this year [chefs] were asking a month before they were ready."
One of those interested chefs was Paul Verica of Heritage Food & Drink in Waxhaw, who has been buying blossoms from Tega Hills since he was at the Club at Longview. Knowing his penchant for finding new ways to serve familiar ingredients, I expected he'd developed some new approach to this classic dish.
"Not really," he told me. "Some things are better left untouched." So, just like the "super classic" Italian dish he knew growing up in Philadelphia, he pretty much stuffs the blossoms with cheese and fries them up.
Well, maybe with a few Verica touches.
"We make the ricotta here, and mix it with Bosky Acres goat cheese," he says. He also fries the flowers his own way. "The tempura batter is a little different," he admits. Ingredients include "a couple different kinds of flours and some beer, and then we send it through an ISI charger," the whipped-cream canister you might see at your favorite coffee chain. This adds an airiness to the tempura batter that comes through in the final dish.
Squash blossoms have been on the Heritage menu for a couple of weeks, and Verica plans to continue serving them through the end of the month. You might also be lucky enough to find this summer treat offered again when you least expect it. To extend the season, Verica freezes the blossoms after stuffing them, and "a bag of 50 or 60 will get stuck in the back of the freezer. In the middle of winter, when we've got nothing but turnips and greens, it's nice to have them to pull out and play with."