Cooking with Zucchini Blossoms
Executive chef Joseph Schilling creates a variety of dishes using zucchini blossoms.
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Tony D'Imperio may have the solution to what some gardeners think of as The Zucchini Problem. No longer will prolific growers have to creep over to their neighbor's porch on dark summer nights to leave a bundle of the giant squashes. No longer will bakers, their counters crowded with zucchini, have to drop the "little squashes" into cakes, cookies, breads and even places a vegetable has no right to be.
The Tony Rule: Clip the problem in the bud.
Zucchini blossoms, the forerunner of the ever-burgeoning cylinders, are edible. More than edible, they're delicious in an Earth Mother kind of way. Now's the time to gather those blossoms while you may, and D'Imperio has a passel of ways to cook and eat them.
An Italian whose 350-seat suburban Pittsburgh restaurant bears his name, D'Imperio wanted to procure zucchini blossoms, and he found a local source.
Not to interrupt, but it's time to talk about sex. Zucchini blossoms are either male or female, and D'Imperio showed us some female blossoms with tiny baby zucchinis attached. These are delicacies. He says the "girls" are 45 cents each, or $45 for 100. It's $36 for 100 "boys."
"Everybody knows girls cost more," he says with a grin.
He should know. Daughter Cristina, 21, just finished her third year at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where she's studying English and medieval history. His son, Joe, 18, will attend Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "I might have talked him out of the restaurant business," says D'Imperio.
He sometimes wonders how he got involved in a business with tight profit margins and turnover that can reach 300 percent a year, though the former teacher puts a positive spin on it. Turnover, he says, "keeps us sharper, and it's satisfying to see how teaching and training develop skills."
In spite of a fickle public that always seems in search of the next big thing, he stays the course. "We stress slow-cooked comfort food," he says. "Certain standard dishes can't get any better, although the latest may be sea urchin roe in squid ink."
Not that he spurns the spin of innovation. He may spend 15 hours a day at the restaurant. "Sometimes there's a germ of an idea to come out of it," he says. And everything old, like zucchini blossoms, can become new again.
When the blossoms became available commercially, he and executive chef Joseph Schilling, who has been with him for 24 years, began to offer dishes with zucchini blossoms as specials. For the backyard gardener whose zucchini patch runneth over, it may seem strange to bring in produce from far-away California, but restaurateurs require a consistent supply.
Schilling, a certified executive chef, does the cooking; D'Imperio's patrons do the eating. Though the dishes don't blossom on the regular menu, zucchini blossoms are often featured. When we visited D'Imperio's for a one-on-one class in Zucchini Blossoms 101, the chef had prepared an amazing array of dishes: Risotto in Molded Zucchini Blossoms, Zucchini Blossom Charlotte, Zucchini Blossom Frittata, Zucchini Blossom Quesadilla and Souffle, cold Zucchini Soup plus several variations of coatings for Fried Zucchini Blossoms.
They're as easy as one, two, three: Wash blossoms and pat dry, then dredge in unsalted all-purpose flour. Dip in batter. Fry in extra-virgin olive oil. "We serve three as an appetizer with fresh lemon," Schilling says.
Batter can have flour with water or milk and olive oil; a Roman batter would contain grated Parmesan and chopped parsley. A Francese batter is made with whole egg, chopped parsley, Parmesan, salt and pepper. Some cooks add baking powder.
Everything looked good, but because we had only two-dozen blossoms, we settled on kitchen-testing the Zucchini Blossom Frittata and Spaghetti with Zucchini Blossoms — two simple dishes to make on a hot summer day.
Both were delicious, even to a vegetable-averse eater. Just as the recipe promised, the frittata was good hot for dinner and cold for lunch the next day. It's hard to go wrong with pasta in a simple sauce, and the spaghetti dish was also good.
D'Imperio was 10 when he emigrated from the Italian village of Montagano in Abruzzi e Molise (later divided into two provinces, making Tony a Molisano) to the United States with his father and his sister Carmella in 1954. In Clairton, Pa., his father found work doing odd jobs and working at a produce stand.
His mother and his sister Maria had joined other relatives in Clairton a year earlier. One day, his mother walked outside their home and she and a woman across the street spotted each other. "Don't I know you?" his mother asked. It turned out they had been girlhood friends in Montagano.
In that small village 2,000 feet above sea level, the D'Imperio family had farmed 40 hilly acres.
"It was subsistence farming," D'Imperio recalls. "People didn't have any money. You sold what you grew and traded a lot. Our big crops were wheat and corn. So we might trade a bushel of wheat to the shoemaker or the pharmacist. Nobody had cash. But we had olive trees and chestnuts from our tree. We had beautiful figs."
But they had neither refrigeration nor running water.
For school, the five children — two boys, three girls — might carry a piece of day-old bread or polenta with a little bacon. Their mother carefully packed the food in parchment, and it went into the book bag, but, D'Imperio says, the lunch "never made it to school."
The name "D'Imperio" means "of the emperor," though Tony talks as though his entry into the food business seemed beyond his control. "I didn't choose it — it chose me," he says flatly.
He studied math at California University of Pennsylvania, but when calculus and working 42 hours a week didn't mix, he switched to Spanish. He taught at a high school, where he says his last name "opened a lot of doors and was accorded a lot of respect," because Pete D'Imperio had coached football and taught there. Though they came from the same town, if they were kin at all, they were distant cousins.
A teacher by day, by night he waited tables. It was 1969. "I worked four nights a week and made more money than I did teaching," he says. His experience at The Pub "got me hooked."
In 1977, he opened D'Imperio's, and when another building became available in 1982, he purchased it, opening his present restaurant.
The restaurant owner, who grew up in a time of barter, says the comfort food of his youth was most anything you could find to eat, including zucchini blossoms. "It was a necessity. Now it's a $15 appetizer."
Still, at D'Imperio's, zucchini blossom specials are both a salute to his past and a treat for the present.
Where to find blossoms:
You could beg your neighbor to give you blossoms instead of full-grown zucchini.
Short of that, where can you get zucchini blossoms?
You might go to a farmers' markets, make friends with a zucchini grower and ask him or her to bring some zucchini blossoms next week. Paying in advance might not hurt.
Or an August crop could put you in the blossom business — the envy of neighbors.
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