Fried fish tastes goooood.
Fried flowers taste goooood.
Hey, sewer rat may taste good, but I wouldn’t know ‘cause I wouldn’t eat fried food.*
I know fried food has a bad rap, but it tastes so good. Would it be alright in moderation? Would it be alright when there are sparkling fresh little tiny fishes in the market and the zucchini flowers are prepubescently perfect?
Surely ,if god didn’t want us to eat some fried food now and then he never would have invented oil.
So, with complete joy, and not a shred of guilt, I’ll tell you our lunch story.
We buy fish on Wednesday because that’s when the fish man cometh to Umbertide.
We’re sandwiched between two seas: the Adriatic and the Mediterranean, both a mere 2 hour drive, and we only get fresh fish on Wednesdays. After 10 or 11 years of living here, you accept this as the way it should be.
We’ve been going to the same fish stall for 10 or 11 years, but in the past year, the owners seem to have passed the stall onto the next generation: a young woman and The White Boy.
The White Boy used to work in the butcher section of the EuroSpin grocery store. He got his name because he looked as if he spent most of his life living in very dark places where the sun did not shine. I fantasized he was in a rock band, or was a suave vampiro, but he also seem to spend an awful lot of time collecting enormous, vivid hickies, so its hard to say what he did to earn his pallor and love bites.
Well, lo and behold, The White Boy is now working at the fish stall and he’s turned into a royal pain of a hustler.
Me: “I’d like that orata.” My orata is 12 euro a kg.
White Boy: “But you would like this orata so much more.” White Boy’s orata is 25 euros a kg.
Me: “No. I want this orata.”
This goes on for another 2 or 3 minutes and we settle on the 18 euro a kg size orata.
Every week we have to go through an exchange like this. Yesterday it was how many sole I wanted to buy. I wanted two, I got three. And a handful of little whitebait fishies.
The zucchini flowers come from a new, young girl at the market, her stall is in the corner by the wacky Sicilians. She’s more expensive, but has beautiful quality vegetables. And she doesn’t try to hustle you. Win-win in my book.
The wacky Sicilians deserve a blog post all of their own. They’re something like a cross between the Marx Brothers and the crew from O’ Brother Where Art Thou. Yeah, I know, confuses me every time I buy vegetables from them.
By the time we get home from the market, it’s blinding hot and lunch time. Why! It’s a perfect time to start heating up bubbling oil!
OK. There is a downside to frying food: hot bubbling oil. For one thing, it’s costly. It’s also really hot, tends to splatter, and involves clean up. Right there we have found the incentive to not fry food on a regular basis, but only as a special treat. God does work in mysterious ways to keep us on the path to good health.
Properly frying food so that it is shatteringly crisp, not greasy and properly salted, is an art. It’s part dance as you glide from bowl to pot to strainer to plate; you need to move smoothly, gently...think ballet, not the twist. You need to be alert to the sound as the oil bubbles, the smell that tells you its time to turn the fish or the flower. (It’s a subtle light brown smell; you feel the first tingling of a burn odor that registers at the very back of your palate.)
As much as timing matters, so does fry sequence. The most delicate flavor goes in first, the strongest goes in last.
The oil also matters. I use a canola-sunflower mix for the flowers and the whitebait. The sole gets extra virgin olive oil.
The coating certainly matters.
You need to make the batter by feel, not by quantity of ingredients.
First step: whip an egg white into stiff peaks. If the egg is at room temperature, it will whip up very quickly.
In a small bowl, add some flour. Slowly, bit by bit, add some cold water. Whisk the mixture, dissolving all the lumps , until you have the smooth consistency of thick yogurt or sour cream. Very gently fold in the egg white and a tiny pinch of salt.
Flowers first. Wash the flowers and lightly coat with the batter.
In a deep, wide pan, heat the oil to 350F/180C. I use a thermometer. I’ve done this a thousand times and could probably tell the heat by holding my hand over the oil, but hell, I’ve got a nifty ray gun thermometer** and that’s far more fun and more accurate.
Shaking off the excess batter, slide the flowers into the hot oil. Turn the flowers gently when you see the beginnings of brownage. When you have a good crispy coating, but still pale blonde, remove the flowers, holding them upside down so any oil or steam will drain out of the flower and place them in a wire strainer.
Now, here is a fry tip that will change your life: don’t place the fried food directly on paper towels to soak up the grease. Instead use a wire strainer, with some paper towels below the strainer to soak up the mess. You get a much better drain all around the fried food, instead of just the part that’s touching the paper towel getting all soggy.
Saute the sole. Heat a very small amount of olive oil. Lightly coat the sole with flour and a pinch of salt. Over medium heat, saute the sole until the fins are crispy. Gently turn the sole and cook on the other side.
While you are doing this, crank the heat on the flower oil to about 375F/190C. Quickly, and gently return the flowers to the oil. This is the secret of the double fry that produces a shatteringly crisp crunch. This is a fast process: 15 seconds per side and back into the strainer. Lightly salt the flowers and if you are in the mood, sprinkle a little chile powder on them..they love to get dressed up in a little spice.
By now the sole and the flowers are done. Arrange them on a warm plate.
Coat the whitebait in the remaining batter and as much as it is possible, shake off the excess batter and add the fishies to the hot oil individually. It’s not easy because they are slippery little buggers that want to clump together, but try your best. 15 or 20 seconds per side and they are done. Drain in the strainer, add a bit of salt, give them a shake to distribute the salt and add them to the platter.
Sprinkle the platter with finely chopped parsley and zested lemon peel. Serve with wedges of lemon and a good, cold, crisp white wine.
Now, buon apetito..with no guilt, because you sure as hell are not doing this every day!
*Apologies to Jules & Vincent, of Pulp Fiction fame
** It’s not really a ray gun, this is a digital thermometer that you can buy at any scientific appliance outlet. Also makes an exceptionally entertaining cat toy, and you can check the surface temperature of just about anything..the floor, the inner ear of your husband....really, it’s a wonderful gadget.