One of the best things about shopping at farmers markets is the potential to be surprised by the fleeting appearance of unusual and special produce rarely seen in supermarkets. And so it was one morning at the Davies Park Market, when I spotted several trays of bright yellow courgette flowers at one of the stalls we frequent. I have eaten courgette flowers at restaurants a few times, but had never seen them for sale in their raw, unadulterated purity. It is unlikely that you would ever find them at supermarkets because the short life span of the delicate flowers makes them unsuited to withstanding supermarket conditions and customer expectations of reasonable shelf life. The flowers deteriorate quickly, and in an ideal world I would cook with flowers plucked minutes ago from own vegetable garden. However, finding a tray of 20 bright and still-waxy flowers at the market is surely a close second, especially when some random planetary alignment had earlier made me buy a container of fresh goat cheese from the stall around the corner.
Courgettes are one of my favourite vegetables (and I should say that they are always the French courgettes to me, rather than zucchini, the Italian name for the same vegetable). I love their mild flavour and creamy-yet-crunchy texture. I eat them roasted, char-grilled, stewed in ratatouille, and sauteed with plenty of garlic as a simple pasta sauce. I had never cooked the flowers before, and wanted to find a simple recipe that showcased their fresh and delicate qualities. Most recipes will have you battering and deep-frying the flowers (as fiori di zucchini ripieni), and while this is an undeniably delicious way to go, deep frying is one of those methods that I leave for occasional indulgence at restaurants. Searching on the Internet I found a recipe for baked stuffed flowers that looks promising, but since baking is out of the question for me right now, I settled on a recipe for pan-fried flowers that I used as a general guide, substituting flavours that appealed to me and reflected what I had on hand. The result was a plate of tender-crisp courgettes attached to stuffed, flavour-packed flowers that would make a special nibble to serve with pre-dinner drinks, or, in my case, a luxurious lunch for one.
Courgette Flowers stuffed with Goat Cheese and Herbs
8-10 fresh courgette flowers with tiny courgettes attached (these are female flowers as male flowers do not have a courgette attached. Male flowers are just as tasty, but lack the cute-factor of the attached baby vegetable)
1 cup fresh goat cheese (or substitute ricotta or labneh, or for a richer version, try a very mild and creamy feta or mascarpone cheese)
3-4 Tbsp finely chopped fresh herbs (I used dill, parsley and a little purple basil)
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
2 Tbsp finely grated parmesan
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp cornflour
Squeeze of lemon, to serve
Place whatever cheese you are using into a bowl, add the herbs, lemon zest, parmesan and olive oil and mix together. Season with a hefty pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Taste, and add further salt, herbs, lemon and/or parmesan until you have achieved a satisfyingly punchy flavour. Set aside while you prepare the flowers.
Check that the flowers are clean, and if dirty, wipe carefully with a damp cloth taking care not to damage the flowers or get too much water on them. Taking one flower, gently prise open the petals to reveal the bulbous stigma at the base. Remove the stigma by pinching it off with your fingernails or cutting with a paring knife (the stigma isn’t inedible, but simply has a slightly bitter flavour and is best removed). This small operation also gives you the opportunity to ensure that the flower is free of bugs within. Then, using a teaspoon, gently deposit about two rounded teaspoonfuls of the cheese mixture into the centre of the flower. You can also use a piping bag to fill the flowers. Give the petals a little twist at the top to encase the mixture, and then repeat until each flower is stuffed and ready to be fried.
Place a heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat and add several tablespoons of olive oil until the bottom is coated with oil. Break the egg into a small bowl and beat with the cornflower and a pinch of salt. Once the pan has heated, quickly coat each flower with egg and place in the hot pan. Fry until lightly golden and then flip over onto the second side. Some of the cheese mixture will ooze out during this process.
Don’t worry if the baby courgettes receive minimal contact with the pan: they are already so tender that they require little more than heating through (however, if you would like to cook them more thoroughly, consider placing a single vertical cut along the length of the vegetable, taking care not to cut too close to the base of the flower).
Once the flower is lightly fried on both sides, remove to a plate, spritz with lemon and eat immediately.