Blooming inspiration

A grape flower in the act of pollination.
A grape flower in the act of pollination. Photo: David Reist

The out-of-this-world snap of a grapevine flower at the point of pollination below, taken by a colleague out here in December, has got me thinking about flowers. The detail in this act of pollination is amazing and to think this goes on 100 million times each year in December, just on our little vineyard and mostly without our knowledge, unless you have a decent macro lens, time and a steady hand.

So I got into some brain thinking. I don't have anything as impressive as the huge titan arum corpse flower that bloomed in Melbourne over the holidays, but I do have a whole lot of zucchini growing wild this year, with a heap of flowers and fruit.

And now that I know what the beautiful blossoms look like in detail, I want to eat them more. This is a common theme for me: see the food in its natural environment and I'm thinking what would it look like on the plate: a hare dashing out across the road (stew); a young lamb frolicking in the field (stew); an alpaca staring at me, endlessly staring, with that evil crooked-teeth grin; and a lovely flower in full bloom.

Zucchini flowers are great in risotto.
Zucchini flowers are great in risotto. 

I prefer the flowers to the zucchini but you need heaps of plants to get a decent feed at any one time. To stuff zucchini flowers, you have to pick them at the right time. As the fruit emerges, the bloom elongates and then, the next morning, will open fully: bam. But don't pick them then. Over the later part of the day they will close and sort of wrap themselves up in a neat package. Now you pick them, and all you have to do is gently unwrap the bloom, pull out the style (or is it stamen?), then spoon in a goat's cheese mixture. The flower will then rewrap itself, only now it has a tasty filling.

Same if you want to use them chopped up in a dish. You have to get them on the second morning of blooming, otherwise they'll wither or be eaten by diligent insects.

For me, since I prefer to deep-fry rather than fill zucchini flowers, a risotto of young zucchini with flowers is the perfect summer dish - subtle and healthy. You don't even need meat in it. Just kidding, of course you do. Finish it with crispy, fried pancetta lardons. Or, if that's a step too far, you can use the other summer fruit you should be getting now, tomatoes. Cut each tomato into quarters, carefully cut the skin off it and dice the rest, season and add at the last moment, like my pork addition.

Look for vialone nano rice, which has a more resilient structure than arborio.

On the subject of adding stock slowly and stirring, I read with interest Heston Blumenthal's thoughts. After exhaustive trials in his experimental kitchen, he couldn't tell the difference between risotto cooked with minimal interference - not stirring the dish and adding most of the stock in one hit - and risotto cooked by adding the stock a little at a time and stirring constantly. The main quality-control points are the variety, quality and age of the rice (acquerello is an aged rice), toasting the rice before adding liquid, using an acidifying agent to help create that creamy-yet-firm texture, and the quality of the stock and what you put in it.

So make sure you toast the rice in a little oil until it's just starting to colour, then add the acidifying agent (wine), then choose the technique. The rice should be cooked until it merges with the liquid - they become one but you still have visible grains.


>>Bryan Martin is a winemaker at Ravensworth and Clonakilla,

Risotto for two of zucchini, its flower and pancetta

100g pancetta diced quite thickly (or substitute ½ cup diced tomato)

splash of olive oil

12 small zucchini, up to 8cm long, diced

1 small onion, diced

1 cup vialone nano rice

½ cup dry white wine, zapped in microwave for one minute just before use

2 cups chicken stock

12 zucchini flowers, washed and chopped finely

40g butter

½ cup parmesan, finely grated

salt and pepper

If you are using pancetta, fry it in a little olive oil until crispy. Remove the meat, but leave behind the extra fat.

Fry half the diced zucchini in this bit of porky goodness, then remove and reserve.

Add the onion to the pan, lower the heat and cook until it starts to go translucent. Add the rice and continue to cook until you get the first flash of colour. Add the hot wine and cook down until it's almost evaporated.

Now add half the stock and leave uncovered on the low heat – just shake it every now and then to ensure it doesn't stick.

Once this has almost been absorbed (about 10 minutes) add the uncooked zucchini and the rest of the stock. Increase the heat a little and shake more often, or stir with a wooden spoon, but do so gently. After two or three minutes, add the cooked zucchini and the blossoms and stir to incorporate.

Once you get a creamy look, remove the risotto from the heat and let it stand while you heat the butter in a separate pan and cook it until it turns a golden colour and releases that nutty aroma that says, "Hello, I'm ready." Stir the butter, pancetta (or tomato) and cheese into the risotto.

Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary. It might not need salt, depending on the pancetta.