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Originally published Saturday, July 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Gardeners, eat your squash blossoms

Yardsmart: Maureen Gilmer, a horticulturist, offers gardening tips. This week's topic is on squash blossoms.

Scripps Howard News Service

Pride at the first giant zucchini is a rite of passage for all new gardeners. But there's often a letdown when they discover that the monsters don't taste the same as their tender young siblings. These overripe squash become fibrous-fleshed, and the center is filled with large seeds that must be removed before cooking.

Truth is, the smaller the zucchini, the better it is in the kitchen. The flesh is soft and sweet, the seeds still so immature they are barely noticeable. For the gourmet, baby zucchini the size of your finger are considered a delicacy that costs far more per ounce than the larger fruits.

In cultures where life is a bit more challenging, every form of food is utilized to its greatest extent. There, another crop is derived from the zucchini plant. It's relatively unknown to beginning gardeners and most Americans, yet its origins tell a fascinating botanical tale.

Zucchini is a squash, a group of plants closely related to pumpkins and gourds. Zucchini is the fastest-growing of all, and is grouped with the summer squashes, which flower and fruit in a matter of days. Winter squashes, which include pumpkins, mature slowly and develop a hard shell that makes them ideal for long-term winter storage. Gourds are similar but inedible. All of them reproduce by the pollination of large orange flowers that mature into fruit.

Zucchini, as with all summer squashes, bear two kinds of flowers on the same plant. The female flowers contain the ovary that will develop into the zucchini fruit itself. For every female flower, there are at least three male flowers produced on the same plant, these bearing only the pollen-making organs. Bees do the job of carrying pollen from the male to female flowers.

Once the female flower has faded and begins to form fruit, the role of the male flowers is over. As a result, a large zucchini plant may end up with lots of excess male flowers. These large male flowers are edible. These blooms can be prepared in a variety of delicious dishes.

In the case of winter squashes that don't mature until very late, blossoms offer a food crop early in the season. This is valuable for farmers, who may have little to feed their families until the main crops mature.

In Asia, for example, the flowers are fried in batter for a crunchy tempura-like snack. In Italy, they are stuffed and baked for savory packets. Native Americans even made squash-blossom soup.

A very simple dish for fresh male squash blossoms is a quesadilla made on the comal, a large flat grill set over charcoal. Quesadillas can be made on virtually any kind of flat surface, from a frying pan to a pancake grill.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, cooks use large burrito-style flour tortillas for this fresh-from-the-garden dish.

First, cut the stems from your harvested blossoms. Then spread six or eight of them out in a single layer over half the tortilla's surface. On top of this lay thin strings of mozzarella or Mexican Oaxaca cheese. Fold the tortilla over and let it heat gradually, then flip over. When the cheese is fully melted and the blossoms have collapsed, the quesadilla is ready. Serve with black mole sauce for a truly exceptional summer taste treat.

Nothing compares with zucchini for giving the new gardener a hassle-free early harvest. But resist the temptation to grow giants. Tender baby squash and male flowers mean you can start eating out of the garden earlier than you ever imagined.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist. Her blog, the MoZone, offers ideas for cash-strapped families. Read the blog at www.MoPlants.com/blog. E-mail her at mogilmer@yahoo.com. Also, join her online for the Garden Party social networking at Learn2grow.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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