TV and fried food: stuffed courgette flowers and Nigella Lawson’s Tuscan fries

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It was not too long ago, although it seems a political lifetime away, that my boyfriend and I settled in front of the TV to watch the ITV EU referendum debate, accompanied by platefuls of crispy, deep-fried goodness. There has been plenty to keep anyone glued to the television lately: Brexit and Trump for the politically inclined; Euro 2016 for the sport-inclined (it’s football or something); and the final episodes of the latest series of Game of Thrones. I’m going to  admit that of this list I paid keenest attention to the EU membership referendum debates. Now that the referendum has passed, those politically inclined can continue watching Trump, the dissolution of the Labour shadow cabinet, and post-Brexit negotiations. Those disappointed by England’s defeat in the Euros could always switch their support over to Iceland, who are in their first major international tournament, or my own team, the Red Devils (not Manchester United…this totally confused my boyfriend when I first told him “I only really support the Red Devils”.) Or, you know, tennis, since Wimbledon began, although you could have missed the news, drowned out as it has been by politics, which has been in a state of what you might call ‘flux’. And if you watch Game of Thrones, well, I know less about that than I do about football.

Whatever takes your fancy, you may wish to eat while watching. There is something that feels so decadent eating off a tray on the sofa as an adult, especially when things are eaten with fingers, even more so when you have allowed yourself not the low-fat hummus and crudites but the good stuff, the actually fried stuff: onion rings, calamari, whitebait, aubergine tempura, fried chicken, Scotch eggs, even the humble crisp, all have benefitted by being submerged in hot oil until their water has evaporated and they have returned from this slightly dangerous baptism crisp-skinned and tinged with gold. While there is nothing wrong with a torn-open bag of Doritos’ finest (Cool Ranch if you know I’m coming over, please), if you want to up your game a bit, or perhaps combine a love of deep-fried food with seasonal eating, may I recommend the fried and battered courgette flower?

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Courgette blossoms, tenderly cossetted, before filling, dredging and frying

All right, so that possibly sounds like the most pretentious sentence ever written, but I bought some of these flowers, prevalent in spring and summer during courgette/zucchini growing time, stuffed it with cheese (and anchovy – I would characterise this as optional), battered it and fried it, as per Tessa Kiros’ recipe in her elegant Falling Cloudberries (her writing is lyrical, at times a little purple, but hugely evocative of mood, place, memory). The flower itself had a delicate, slightly milky freshness, the petal both tender and yet robust enough to chew; the batter crunched under my teeth; the mozzarella oozed in long and delectable melted strands. There is nothing exclusive about this kind of textural and taste pleasure. The only problem will, of course, be getting hold of the flowers themselves. In London, this may be, at most, a hassle rather than impossible: Wild Country Organics sells them at various farmers’ markets and Borough Market, as well as online. You can buy courgette flowers online via Farm Direct, Natoora and other specialist food sellers. They are not the absolute cheapest things to buy – they are seasonal and delicate so must be harvested and transported with care. For the recipe below you will need about two, maybe three, total, flowers per person, depending what you are serving them with, so if you want to try this but are also cost-conscious, this is the perfect dish to serve up for just you, or perhaps you and your partner or a close friend. The mozzarella and batter makes the tender blooms surprisingly filling. They are scattered with a final flutter of battered and fried sage leaves.

Tuscan fries, oil blotted
Tuscan fries, oil blotted

Nigella Lawson‘s Tuscan fries, from her book and show Nigellissima, which focused on Italian food Anglicised, or perhaps Nigella-ified, is perhaps, if not quite the opposite of the fried courgette flowers, an easy introduction to deep-frying; deep-frying for the cautious. The method is unorthodox: you fry chunks of potato, starting in cold oil, adding aromatics such as unpeeled garlic and herbs at the end. I used sage, because sage was called for in the battered courgette blossom recipe and I wanted to use up the packet: the fried herbs are perfectly crisp and dry at the end, crunchy and paper-thin and shattering delectably against the tongue. I actually much preferred these naked leaves to their battered cousins. Rosemary would also be very good here.

Frying the chips in cold oil, Nigella assures us, does not leave them greasy or soggy. I think mine browned a little too much – I should have turned the heat down a little – and they were slightly limp in the middle (they could have been cut a smidge finer, and I think I used the wrong variety of potato – see my notes below), but indeed they were no greasier or oilier than chips cooked in the more traditional two-part method. While you definitely, certainly, should not ever ever ever leave boiling oil unattended in the kitchen, you can certainly potter around the kitchen and prepare other parts of the meal when cooking the chips using this method, keeping the occasional close eye on them. I did let the oil used for frying cool and then strained and saved it for possible further use.

I wouldn’t advocate this meal for every night (masses of oil + TV means your hips, stomach, waistline and bum won’t lie) but, with a cool glass of prosecco, it’s the perfect, slightly classy-but-still-fried accompaniment to the political TV/sporting event/brutally bloody Middle Ages themed TV show your heart could desire watching.

Tuscan Fries
from Nigella Lawson’s Nigellissima

Notes: The recipe calls for waxy potatoes but then specifies Maris Piper; these are floury, although they are also all-rounders so can be used here. There is a similarly named waxy variety called ‘Maris Peer’ but I can’t confess to ever having seen them in the shops.

  • 1kg waxy potatoes
  • 1.5 litres corn oil or flavourless vegetable oil, to fry (I used corn oil)
  • Unpeeled cloves from one head of garlic, separated and centre removed
  • 8 sprigs rosemary, thyme, sage or other herbs of your choice
  • sea salt flakes – Maldon for me – to taste
  1. Cut the short ends off each potato (but don’t peel it) so that it can sit up vertically, and then slice it downwards into generous 1cm slices. Cut these slices into chips about 1cm thick, again erring generously. As you cut them, place them on a clean tea towel or paper towel-lined plate.
  2. Pour the oil into a wide, heavy-based pan – I used an enormous stockpot – and add the freshly cut potatoes. Place over a high heat and bring to a boil; this should take around five minutes. Keep a close watch on it and switch the heat off IMMEDIATELY if there is even the slightest bit of danger that it will boil over.
  3. Meanwhile, line a tray or platter with a double thickness of paper kitchen roll.
  4. Cook the chips without stirring for a further fifteen minutes. The oil should be bubbling vigorously, but if it gets too hot or bubbles too hard, reduce the heat a little (I didn’t do this in time and the exterior browned a bit too much for my liking). If you’re using a thermometer you should be cooking between 150-160C.
  5. At this point, you can very gently stir the chips with a pair of tongs, moving away any that have stuck to the bottom or sides of the pan. Add the unpeeled garlic cloves, stir gently again, and cook for a further 5-10 minutes. Keep a close eye on the garlic, fishing out the odd clove occasionally with a slotted spoon, and checking it doesn’t become too dark. Cut a chip in half to test that it is crisp on the outside and tender within. You may need up to five further minutes of cooking but if you do decide to go for this keep a very, very close eye on the chips to ensure they don’t burn.
  6. When the chips are a pale gold, but crisp, toss in the herbs and cook for a further minute, then remove from the heat and immediately scoop everything out of the oil. Using a slotted spoon or two is the easiest method. Move the cooked chips, garlic and herbs onto the platter lined with kitchen roll in a single layer. Once the excess oil has been absorbed, move to a serving platter and scatter with sea salt flakes to taste. Serve immediately.

Deep-fried, cheese-stuffed courgette/zucchini blossoms
From Tessa Kirros’ Falling Cloudberries

Notes: I cooked these in a large, wide, deep cast-iron frying pan.

The recipe specifies using anchovies. I have marked them optional for two reasons: omitting them makes this vegetarian-friendly, and two, the fishiness of the anchovies is more pronounced in this recipe than it is in others, and I didn’t find the taste particularly welcome. If you think you or your guests might feel the same way, just leave it out.

The recipe is quite easy to scale up or down: you will need a chunk of mozzarella cheese and half an anchovy, if using, per flower. I haven’t scaled the batter recipe up or down; the ingredients are not expensive in the quantities used, and if you really have too much, you could batter other things.

Step One of the recipe calls for opening up the flowers and removal of the inner stamens. I am sure there is good reason for this but there was barely the smallest stub of a stamen in my flowers and all I managed to do was tear a few petals. For this reason I’d consider this step optional – open up your flowers and check before rootling inside their delicate cavities.

  • 6 courgette flowers
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 100g plain flour
  • 125ml cold sparkling water
  • 60ml white wine
  • 3 small anchovies (optional), cut in half
  • 60g mozzarella, cut into six pieces
  • oil, for frying – light olive oil, sunflower, or corn oil. I used olive oil
  • 6 sage leaves
  1. Very carefully open up the courgette flowers and remove the stamens by twisting them away, trying to avoid tearing the petals. Place the blossoms in a bowl of cold water and swish them through with your hands to remove any dirt, grit or insects. Drain them carefully and place on a plate lined with paper kitchen towels, to dry. Use the paper towels to pat them dry and remove any remaining water.
  2. In a decently-sized, largish bowl, beat the egg yolks. Add the flour, sparkling water, and wine. Season with salt and whisk until smooth. In a separate, clean bowl, whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks, then carefully fold them into the batter.
  3. Fill each flower with an anchovy half (if using) and a chunk of mozzarella, then loosely twist the top of the flowers to prevent the filling from falling out.
  4. Pour about 3-4cm of oil and heat until hot enough to fry. Test it with a little splash of batter; oil should bubble around it and it should turn golden, but not brown, slowly. Prepare a plate and line with kitchen towel.
  5. Dip the flowers into the batter. The picture in Tessa’s cookbook shows a very light dipping of batter, almost tempura-like in its delicacy. I, on the other hand, really went for it with the batter. As long as it’s well-seasoned it will be delicious. Dip and dredge as generously or lightly as you want. Fry on both sides, in batches if necessary, until each side is golden and crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on the kitchen paper to blot away the excess oil.
  6. Dip the sage leaves in the batter and fry them quickly on both sides, about 30 seconds total, maybe a bit more or less depending on your oil. Add them to the kitchen towel.
  7. Serve immediately with wedges of lemon, scattering with salt.

 

 

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