FIT TO BE FRIED
Eli Jameson writes that cooking is just like defending a besieged castle: sometimes, it’s done best with boiling oil
Pity the carnivore in love with the vegetarian. All of a sudden one of his most cherished loves – all things meaty and on a plate – is called into question by the new love in his (or occasionally her) life. Can a relationship last when two parties disagree on something as fundamental as whether or not the children’s song ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ is cause for hunger pangs? Or if tempeh is actually yummy, or something sent up to torture us from the depths of hell?
Samuel Jackson’s hit man in Pulp Fiction summed up the dilemma perfectly when he chowed down on one of his more hapless victims’ fast food order: ‘That is a tasty burger! Me, I can’t usually eat ‘em ‘cause my girlfriend’s a vegetarian. Which pretty much makes me a vegetarian.’
Now my wife is a vegetarian, but nowhere near as doctrinaire as Jackson’s movie girlfriend – the most flack I ever cop for frying up a load of bacon and slapping it on some toasted bread with good mayonnaise is caused by health concerns, rather than moral ones (‘are you sure one packet is meant to be eaten by just one person?’). Still, though, I know men whose vegetarian partners would leave them if they found out they regularly went to steakhouses for lunch. One friend’s vegetarian girlfriend even uses meat as a weapon: if things are going well, and she’s happy with the way she’s being treated, beef is on the menu. If not, the poor man is sent packing to the salad bar.
Since we set up housekeeping together a few years ago, I’ve had to figure out ways to cook dishes that satisfy both my wife’s moral code (apparently pancetta is not allowed, even if it’s pretty much dissolved in the final product) and my love of rich food. And in truth, cutting out meat has made me a better cook in a lot of ways: I’m much more conscious of the quality of ingredients, and have learned that vegetables have more of a role than as a creative garnish to a really good piece of meat. No longer do I believe a meal is balanced if it has been sprinkled with parsley.
In terms of technique, this newfound emphasis on cooking with things that grow on the ground rather than run around on it has taught me a renewed love for deep-frying. Perhaps it’s an atavistic masculine thing: if I can’t cook manly things like ribeye steaks, at least I can cook in a manly (i.e., dangerous) way that involves high temperatures and the potential for serious injury. Sort of like the way some guys cloak their creativity by expressing it through the medium of power tools. And unlike those wimps, I don’t even wear safety goggles.
Back in the days before I left my butcher for my wife, I still enjoyed the whole frying process – but never to the point where I would put a bench-top Fry-o-lator at the top of my Christmas list. But with a vegetarian to keep happy, deep frying preserves domestic harmony while also horrifying the health police. It’s also a great way to handle leftovers: golf balls of the previous night’s mushroom risotto can be coated in an egg and parmasean mix and fried in olive oil for a particularly decadent take on the Sicilian classic arancini.
But two of my favourite deep-fried treats involve that late-summer treat, the zucchini flower, and that winter delight, the artichoke heart. The former is my go-to, make-ahead starter course whenever the things come up in the local farmers market (good food retailers like the David Jones Food Hall also stock them – keep an eye out when the time is right); the latter, a fun way to bang and clatter around the kitchen and wind up with something that is, almost literally, heart-stoppingly good.
STUFFED, BEER-BATTERED, DEEP-FRIED ZUCCHINI FLOWERS
Three flowers makes for a good first-course serving; my supplier sells in packets of ten, so we generally tend to have five per person at my house. Waste not, want not, right? The goal here is to make the lightly-battered, delicate zucchini flower the perfect vehicle for an incredibly rich packet of warm, melted cheese and herbs.
• 12 zucchini flowers, preferably with zucchini stems attached
• 150 grams mozzarella cheese
• 150 grams fresh parmagiano reggiano or grana padano
• 1 bunch chives, finely chopped
• 150 grams flour
• 200 ml beer
• Cayenne pepper
• Good sea salt
• Black pepper
• Olive oil
• Lemon (optional)
1. First, make the batter: a good flour-based batter needs at least half an hour to rest and come together. In a wide bowl (you’ll be dipping in here later) mix the beer and the flour together, adding a dash of cayenne pepper, salt, and fresh-ground black pepper. What you’re looking for is a lightish consistency, not a heavy, gloppy batter.
2. Then, make the stuffing. Mix up the two cheeses, most of the chives, and some salt and pepper in a bowl (taste to make sure the balance is to your liking). Take the zucchini flowers and, being careful not to tear the leaves, open from the top and with your little finger or a small spoon pop out the stamen from inside the flower. Fill with stuffing, and twist shut, laying aside on a plate. These can sit in the fridge until you are ready to cook.
3. Get a good, heavy-bottomed pan out and fill with a centimetre’s worth of olive oil, and a good whack of butter to boot. Allow this to get quite hot – test it by dripping some batter into it; if it doesn’t immediately set to sizzling, the oil is too cold. Working in batches, dip the flowers into the batter using a turning motion that works with the direction in which you closed them, to help keep them sealed during frying. Place in the oil, and, turning occasionally, fry until golden brown. Set aside on paper towel, sprinkling with salt, until all the flowers are cooked. Place three on each plate, sprinkle with some of the leftover chives, and a squeeze of lemon juice (optional). Serve immediately.
ARTICHOKE HEART FRITTERS
Adapted from Julie Rosso and Sheila Lukins’ New Basics Cookbook, this recipe hails from Chicago’s celebrated Gordon Restaurant. Apparently this was a classic from the day the eatery opened in 1976, and the whole thing does have a bit of a wonderfully haut-1970s feel to it.
For the béarnaise sauce:
• 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
• 2 tablespoons dry white wine
• 1 tablespoon chopped eschallots
• 1 teaspoon dried tarragon leaves
• 125g room-temperature unsalted butter (for this sort of sauce, it pays to buy some good-quality butter, like Lurpak)
• 3 egg yolks
• Salt and pepper
For the fritters:
• 1 cup flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 cup milk
• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon olive oil
• 3 cups corn or peanut oil
• 10 artichoke hearts, halved, rinsed, and dried
1. Make a batter by mixing the flour, baking powder, salt and pepper together in a bowl, and then combining with the milk, egg, and olive oil. Let this rest for at least a half-hour.
2. Knock up a quick béarnaise by boiling down the vinegar, wine, eschallots, and tarragon until reduced by half, and then allow to cool. Then, get some water to near-boiling in a double-boiler (or just use a steel bowl over a pot like I do), and in the top part, combine the vinegar mixture with the egg yolks, giving it a good whisk. Bit by bit, add the butter until the sauce thickens, season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
3. Working in batches, dip the artichokes in the batter and then fry in hot oil. Drain on paper towels, and serve on plates with a daub of béarnaise on each fritter.