Throughout the summer, Rosa, the most memorable of the market traders in Orvieto, sells me several large bunches of male courgette flowers. The market is Thursday morning, and the Thursday evening class is by and large ruined by the ritual of me deep-frying these flowers and feeding them to guests during the class. Of course they must have some wine with these, and then general levels of attentiveness and diligence decline rapidly.
The reason I serve these in the kitchen rather than attempting to make a first course of them is that I can only fry a few at a time. To attempt to fry and serve twenty portions would result in a large quantity of rather cold and soggy courgette flowers. They should be eaten as soon after frying as possible.
For every courgette grown, there are two flowers present on the plant: a male flower with no fruit, and a female flower attached to the courgette. Why we are not flooded with courgette flowers in this country escapes me. In Italy, courgettes are always sold with the flower attached, but these are almost always stuffed or chopped into risotti. The male flowers with their little spiky stalks lend themselves to being dipped in a light batter and being lowered gingerly by the stalk into hot oil. (Incidentally, other squash blossoms will do equally well.)
Prepare the flowers just before cooking. At the base of the flower where it is attached to the stalk, there are some spiky little leaves; remove these. If you wish to be incredibly fussy, also remove the stamens from the middle of the flowers as these have a saffron-like substance on them that can occasionally taste bitter. In my experience, only wilted flowers taste bitter, so extreme freshness avoids this tedious chore.
To make the batter, combine the egg, lager, bicarbonate, a pinch of salt and the flour in a bowl and whisk until barely mixed. Overwhisking will result in an uninteresting and heavy batter. (This, incidentally, is the principle behind the Japanese tempura.) Sprinkle more flour on to a plate, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
The best thing to fry in is a wok or a very stable large frying pan. You will need to have all your ingredients ready, as well as a tray with absorbent paper to briefly drain the flowers before eating; a pair of tongs to turn and remove the flowers from the oil, and a spider to clean the oil of any stray bits of batter between cooking. The oil used is not olive oil, but sunflower oil, and you will need a fairly large bottle. I add just a little olive oil when hot to give flavour. Heat to
Deep-frying is a potentially hazardous occupation, particularly in a wide, shallow frying pan. You only need 2 cm of oil in the pan. Do not have young children underfoot when doing this.
When the oil reaches the correct temperature, dust 8 courgette flowers by dredging them through the plate of seasoned flour. Holding them by their stalks, dunk quickly into the batter, drain slightly, then allow to float in the hot oil. After a minute or so, using the tongs, separate the flowers and attempt to turn them over. As the courgette flowers are often full of extremely hot air by this time, they tend to resist this, but persist. Continue cooking for another 2 minutes, then remove from the oil and place on the absorbent paper to drain slightly. Your guests will be descending like a pack of hyenas on this tray. Make them squeeze their own lemon over, and get on with the next batch, as this first one will disappear in seconds.
Between batches, remove any small particles of detached batter. These are delicious in their own right. A medium heat under the frying pan is the safest. It may take a minute or two for the oil to return to the correct temperature between batches, but this is preferable to burning the oil.
© 1996 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.