Oh, the birds and the bees, you gotta love ’em, especially if you enjoy eating things like this week’s dish, Torchio Pasta with Squash Blossoms. After Jody’s rant last week about the tyranny of seasonality, we’re presenting another dish that is, well, seasonal. But move fast, the season for squash blossoms is here and gone in the blink of an eye and you’ll have to wait another year for the opportunity to enjoy their delicate flavor fried, stuffed or, as we do here, expressed in a light pasta sauce.
Squash blossoms come in two genders, male and female. It’s generally the male blossoms that pop up at farmers’ markets. The large, extravagant male flowers would seem to be an obvious choice over the much smaller females blossoms, but there’s a more important reason why it’s the males who are sold. Only females produce squash. The ovary of a female squash blossom, outside the actual flower, sitting at its base, grows into a squash. What farmer wants to pinch off the flowers that are going to give him his crop? The male flowers’ sole function, aside from all that preening and strutting and boasting about how size matters, is to fertilize the female. Bees, of course, are the brokers in this reproductive dance of the floral sexes. Until a couple of days ago I didn’t know how to tell the gals from the guys. Live and learn.
The giant manly flowers on the left are male. Each bloom is found at the end of a long narrow stem. The much smaller flowers on the right are female. You can see the baby squashes attached to the female blossoms. To our surprise one of the farmers who supplies Rialto came up with these. Of course, we think we know why he didn’t have qualms about picking them – they’re from the notoriously fecund zucchini vine (the male blossoms are summer squash). He’s probably busy at this very moment throttling other squashy innocents in their floral cradles. At the end of harvest season you can’t give zucchini away, but the blossoms with baby squash attached are a hot product.
Torchio are short, torch-shaped pasta. Originally we planned to prepare this dish with gigli, another short pasta, shaped like lilies*, but we couldn’t get any so we settled on torchio. Orecchiette would also have been a good choice. Whatever your selection of pasta, use a short one designed to trap bits of chunky sauce in its nooks and crannies. Enjoy. Ken
*Get it? Flower-shaped pasta with squash blossom sauce?
Torchio Pasta with Squash Blossoms
Makes 4 servings
This sauce cooks very quickly. If you have all of your ingredients ready the sauce will be finished by the time the pasta is done.
- 1 pound ripe tomatoes
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- ¼ cup minced shallots
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 ounce prosciutto sliced paper thin and cut into ⅛-inch julienne
- 4 ounces male squash blossoms, stamens removed, trimmed of spiny bits at the base and torn lengthwise into strips ½-inch wide*
- 2 tablespoons minced black olives, such as Nicoise or Taggia (nothing cured in oil or vinegar)
- ¼ cup torn herb leaves: basil, parsley, oregano
- ¾ pound torchio pasta (gigli or orecchiette are good substitutes)
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
*Leave female blossoms whole. Pinch off the baby squashes and slice crosswise into thin rounds. Remove any structures inside the flowers.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Prepare a bowl of ice water large enough to hold the tomatoes. Score a shallow cross in the base of each tomato. One at a time lower the tomatoes into the boiling water for 10 seconds, then transfer them to the ice water. Don’t let them linger in the boiling water. Your aim is to loosen the skin, not cook the flesh. Peel as soon as they’re cool enough to handle. The skins should come right off. Slice the peeled tomatoes and then chop into ½-inch dice. Set aside.
- Salt the boiling water. Add the pasta, stir until it returns to a boil, and then cook per the package instructions until al dente (probably around 10 minutes). While the past cooks, make the sauce as outlined in the next step up to the point where you add the pasta. When the pasta finishes cooking, reserve ½ cup pasta water, then drain the pasta.
- While the pasta is cooking, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and shallots (and sliced squash, if using), and cook 1 minute or until aromatic. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper and cook 3 minutes. Add the prosciutto, blossoms, olives and herbs. Toss once and remove from the heat. Add half the reserved pasta water, the remaining butter and the pasta. Return the pan to the heat, and toss for a minutes or so just until the sauce clings evenly to the pasta. If it feels too dry, add the remaining pasta water.
- Serve in warm bowls. Pass the cheese.
When you encounter an abundance of squash blossoms this is a recipe you need in your pocket. The season is so fleeting you want to use as many as you can while you can. Next week it might be all over. The dish is light on the sauce in order to let the flavor of the blossoms shine. If you want to add more squash blossoms, go ahead.
Brian Rae, chef de cuisine at Rialto, unexpectedly found these adorable female blossoms. I hadn’t expected to use baby squashes, but the opportunity to add a bit more squash flavor was too good to pass up. I sliced them very thin and them with the garlic in the beginning. If , as is likely, you find only male blossoms, use the full 4 ounces in the recipe exclusively for flowers. Don’t bother adding additional squash.
I was still in a contrarian frame of mind when I wrote this recipe so I resorted to butter instead of my usual evoo. The result was delicious. Butter has a unique ability to knit ingredients together into a seamless series of flavors, but I have to admit, it’s a bit richer than it would have been had I stuck to my normal olive oil. If anyone asks about the butter, just tell them it’s Tuscan.
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