Roman Style Fried Zucchini Flowers
Every year for his birthday, Charles asks me to make him a special dinner. He spends a lot of time planning his menu. Should he have lobster, spaghetti with clams, steak? He has a hard time deciding. But all that is just a lot of talk. He always comes back to three of his favorites: bucatini all’Amatriciana, a blueberry tart, and Roman style fried zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies.
Zucchini flowers may seem terribly exotic, but for Italian cooks, they are another delicious way to use up a portion of a plant that might otherwise go to waste. Zucchini, and other summer squash blossoms I should add, produce two kinds of flowers. The “female” flower has a short stem that looks like and will grow into a vegetable, while the large and showy male flowers have a longer narrow stem. The flavor is delicate but in addition to stuffing they make a colorful addition to pasta, risotto and many other Italian dishes. My mother used to grow zucchini and she would use the non-fruiting flowers to make a frittata or mix them into a batter for zeppole.
Charles discovered the mozzarella and anchovy stuffed ones on our first trip to Rome in 1970 and has been crazy about them ever since. You can buy the flowers at some specialty stores, individually wrapped in cellophane and sold for exorbitant prices, but luckily several vendors at the Union Square Greenmarket have them this time of the year. I bought a box of about a dozen large, fresh flowers for $5.
Prepare the flowers just before frying. Look them over carefully to be sure there are no insects hiding inside. Wipe them gently with a damp cloth if needed. You don’t want to wet the flowers or they will get soggy. For the anchovy and mozzarella stuffing, blot the pieces well so that they don’t leak moisture. Handling the flowers gently, place a piece of each inside, then pinch the flower closed. The batter is a mixture of all purpose flour, cornstarch, salt, and baking powder for leavening. Just before frying, add ice cold club soda or seltzer (or acqua minerale gassata, in keeping with the Italian). Mix very briefly — it should be lumpy. Too much mixing will make the batter tough. Dip the flowers in the batter, drain off the excess, and fry in hot oil, turning once until crisp and lightly golden.
Drain the flowers briefly on a wire rack. If placed on paper towels to drain, they will quickly become soggy. Serve them immediately. Be careful since the filling is blazing hot! Rush to the Greenmarket to buy another box.
Roman Style Stuffed Zucchini Flowers
12 zucchini or other squash flowers
4 ounces fresh mozzarella, patted dry
6 anchovy fillets, halved and patted dry
2/3 cup all purpose flour
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
About 3/4 cup very cold sparkling water or club soda
Peanut or vegetable oil for deep frying
Gently wipe the flowers with a damp paper towel. Open the flowers and tuck a piece of mozzarella and a piece of anchovy down into the center. Pinch the flowers closed.
In a shallow bowl, stir together the dry ingredients. Just before using, gradually stir the club soda into the dry ingredients make a mixture about as thick as pancake batter. Don’t stir it too much, it’s okay if there are some lumps.
Preheat about 1 inch of oil in a large deep frying pan until the temperature reads 370°F on a deep frying thermometer and a few drops of the batter added to the pan sizzle and cook quickly. Place a wire rack over a plate.
Hold a flower by the open end to keep it from opening. Dip the flower in the batter turning to coat all sides. Carefully slip the flower into the hot oil without splashing. Add additional flowers without crowding the pan. Fry the flowers until crisp on both sides, about 2 minutes. Remove the flowers with a slotted spoon and drain them on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining flowers. Serve hot.