About the Author:
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
An American chef and food and wine journalist, Marlena de Blasi has written five memoirs, a novel, and two books about the regional foods of Italy. She lives with her husband in the Umbrian hilltown of Orvieto. Her work has been translated into twenty-six languages.
The scent of them is enough to send up a short, sharp thrill in a hungry person. Seething hot beauties, they repose in a great unruly pile on the white linen. The yellow of the naked blossoms shows through the gilt sheaths of their crackling skin. Skin thin as Venetian glass, I think. But I'm far away from Venice. We live in Tuscany, now. As of this morning, we live in Tuscany. I say it breezily to myself as though it was all in a day's work. Yesterday Venice. Today, San Casciano dei Bagni. And six hours after arrival, here I am already in a kitchen. In the small, steamy kitchen of the local bar watching two white-hatted, pink-smocked cooks preparing antipasti for what seems to have become a village festival.
The gorgeous things they're cooking are zucchini blossoms, fat and velvety, almost as wide and long as lilies. And the frying dance is precise: drag a blossom quickly through the nearly liquid batter, let the excess drain back into the bowl, lay the blossom gently in the wide, low-hipped pot of hot, very hot shimmering oil. Another blossom and another. Twelve at a time in each of four pots. The blossoms are so light that, as a crust forms on one side, they bob about in the oil and turn themselves over and over until a skimmer is slid in to rescue them, to lay them for a moment on thick brown paper. The paper is then used as a sling to transport the blossoms to a linen-lined tray. One of the cooks fills a red glass bottle with warm, sea-salted water. She fits a metal sprayer onto the bottle and, holding it at arm's length, spritzes the gold blossoms with the salty water. The hot skins hiss and the perfume of them is whipped up and out into the moist June Tuscan breeze.
Pan-to-hand-to-mouth food, these are sustenance for the twelve-minute interval before supper, and so when the first hundred are ready, the cook, the one called Bice, hands me the tray and says 'vai,' 'go' without looking up. A kitchen directive from one colleague to another, from one chef to another, she says it with familiarity, as though we've worked together for years. But tonight I'm not the chef. I think I'm a guest or am I the hostess? I'm not at all sure how this festival got started but I'm happy it did.
Happy and still unwashed from the morning's journey, from the afternoon's work, I'm salty as the blossoms I offer to people, who take them without ceremony. The same familiarity is at work here as each one smiles or pats me on the shoulder, says grazie bella, thank you beauty, as if I'd been passing them hot, crisp flowers all my life. I like this. For one moment it occurs that I might run with the basket to some dim corner of the piazza to devour the remaining blossoms myself, eyes half-closed in a lusty swoon among the shadows. But I don't. Some people don't wait until I reach them but come to me, take a flower while sipping wine or talking over their shoulders. People are collecting about me now, rooks swooping in for the things until nothing is left, save errant crumbles, crunchy and still-warm, which I press onto my finger and suck.
Deep-Fried Flowers, Vegetables, and Herbs
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups beer
1/2 cup cold water
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
3 ice cubes
Peanut oil or extra virgin olive oil for frying
Zucchini blossoms, nasturtium flowers, and borage flowers, rinsed, dried, and stems trimmed
Celery leaves cut in branches, rinsed, and dried Whole sage leaves, rinsed and dried
Tiny spring onions or scallions, stems trimmed to about 4 inches in length, rinsed and dried
Warm sea-salted water in a sprayer
In a large bowl, beat together with a fork the flour, beer, water, and sea salt to form a thin batter. Let the batter rest for an hour or so, covered and at room temperature. Stir in the ice cubes and let the batter rest for an additional half-hour. Stir the batter again. It should now be smooth and have the texture of heavy cream. If it’s too thick, add cold water by the tablespoonful until the "heavy cream" texture is achieved.
Over a medium flame, heat the oil in a deep fryer or a heavy pan to a depth of 3". The more slowly the oil heats, the more evenly it will heat, helping you to avoid hot and cold spots and unevenly fried foods. Test the oil by dropping in a cube of bread. If it sizzles and turns golden in a few seconds, the oil is ready.
Drag the flowers, herbs, and spring onions through the batter, shaking off the excess. Place them into the hot oil and let them bob about for half a minute or so, allowing them to take on a good, dark crust. Turn them with tongs, to finish frying, then remove them with a slotted spoon to absorbent paper towels. Using a virgin plant sprayer, spray each batch immediately with warm sea-salted water and keep them in a 100-degree oven while you fry the next batch. Better, gather people around the stove and eat the things pan to hand to mouth. A very informal first course.
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