Though used in abundance by Native Americans, the zucchini owes its culinary fame to the Italians and Greeks. Spanish conquistadors fresh from the New World introduced the plant to Italy in the 16th Century. Unaware of zucchini’s nutritional and flavor value, the Italians welcomed the plant to their gardens, hoping to cultivate the gorgeously yellow fiori di zucca, or squash blossoms, that bloom each summer. The slender squash that grew from the heart of the flower was, in their opinion, nothing more than a byproduct of the flowering process.
At some point, however, one curious Italian thought to taste this member of the cucurbita, or squash family, and the Mediterranean culinary breadth instantly expanded. Today, zucchini, or summer squash, appears regularly in most Western European and American cuisines as a simple side, as a main ingredient in pastas and antipasti, and even in sweet dishes.
The beautiful zucchini flowers, which bloom from both male and female zucchini plants, are extremely delicate, lasting only a day or so once picked. Perhaps inspired by their luck with the squash themselves, Italians soon began cooking with the fiori as well. The most common Italian preparation of the squash blossom may be the most ideal way to enjoy this summer specialty. Stuffed with soft cheese (think ricotta or fresh mozzarella) then battered and fried, a delicate platter of crispy-then-soft zucchini blossoms is a thrill to eat.