The golden, orange tipped flowers attached to the end of each courgette (zucchini) are female. The slightly smaller flowers with long, firm stems that grow directly, shooting really, from the main stem of the plant – like the ones in the jug above – are male. Both can be eaten.
At this time of year, when the market stalls in Testaccio are heavy with crates of pale green, blossom tipped zucchini Romano and bunches of their delicate flowers, we often have courgette flowers in salad. Torn into green leaves, or even better, into thin shavings of courgette dressed with olive oil and salt. I like a couple of bright yellow flowers tucked into some warm piazza bianca with milky mozzarella. We often add them – right at the end with a handful of basil – to courgette carbonara or fusilli with buttery courgettes. They are lovely in summer minestrone.
But maybe the nicest and most delicious way to eat courgette flowers, is to grab them by the tail, dip them in batter and fry them in very hot oil until they are crisp and golden.
Until this summer I busied myself with salad and Carbonara and left the dipping and frying to others, most notably the pizzeria Nuovo Mondo on Via Amerigo Vespucci. Once a week, usually Friday or Sunday, we make our familiar pizza pilgrimage; walking past the piazza and Marcello’s flower stall, crossing Via Branca and passing the old Testaccio football club – which is now a depressing betting shop – before turning into via Amerigo Vespucci. Sometime we pit stop at Giolitti for an apertivo; campari for Vincenzo, prosecco for me, before taking a table in our favourite pizzeria. Having worked our way through the menu we’re pretty set in our ways now. Medium birra alla spina and capricciosa for me, and small birra alla spina and marinara for the small Sicilian. And while we wait for the vast, thin crusted pizzas to be dragged from the red hot bowels of the wood oven, while we watch the expert hands of the pizzaroli spinning and shaping, a mozzarella filled rice coquette; suppli for Vincenzo and a deep-fried courgette flower; fiori di zucca for me.
The fiori di zucca at Nuovo Mondo, like those served at most pizzeria and many trattoria in Rome, are stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy then dipped in batter and fried. They are quite delicious things usually served on a little white plate on top of a square of brown paper. They should be freshly fried, straight from the hot oil, so tongue scaldingly hot. You wait a few seconds and then grab the crisp golden cocoon with a paper napkin. You bite into the crisp batter which gives way to the soft forgiving flower petals – a nice contrast – and then finally a soft pool of anchovy infused mozzarella. For the fish and cheese together dubious among you I suggest you try these.
But as much as I adore the fiori di zucca at Nuovo Mondo and our other Roman haunts, the best fried courgette flowers I’ve ever eaten were in Puglia, during that hot, humid and delicious midnight feast at the Masseria. We were presented with a vast platter of golden cocoons, some were filled with mozzarella, other with ricotta I think, but the nicest were the simplest. The male flowers on long elegant stems just so, dipped in the lightest, batter and fried. Crisp and golden on the outside the batter puffed with pride, soft and forgiving within. The secret, the cook willingly – so willingly it was rather surprising after all the secret recipe moments – told us, was beaten egg whites folded into the flour, water and olive oil batter.
I blame Nuovo Mondo for my courgette flower frying procrastination, but then last week just before going to London, in the midst of much fried anchovy experimentation I decided it was time. In the absence of any real recipe or exact quantities, I anticipated lots of experimenting. But things were much simpler than expected. It turns out that my basic batter recipe – 200ml warm water, 100g plain flour and 2 tbsp of olive oil – with the addition of two stiffy beaten egg whites is a pretty damn marvelous courgette flower batter. Delicate and light. But not too light, you want some body and substance. I have repeated this tasty excercise twice more, just to make sure it wasn’t a fantastic fluke.
It’s really important you allow the batter a nice long rest – at least two hours in the fridge (I also add a couple of ice cubes) before folding in the beaten egg whites. Oh, and it’s important you beat the egg whites until they are so stiff you can invert the bowl over your head – my sous chef does this. Once you have added the egg white, dip and then fry the courgette flowers immediately.
On a practical note remember to wash the flowers very carefully, they will probably be providing a pretty home for lots of little insects. Dry them gently with a soft clean cloth and remove the pistils from female flowers, and stamens from the male flowers.
The male flower is perfect because the stem provides a tail with which you can hold to dip the flower in the batter and then lower it gently into the pan. Make sure you coat each flower generously with batter. Fry in small batches, allowing the batter covered flowers to bob around happily, you may need to nudge them with a wooden fork so they cook evenly. Once they are a beautiful golden colour, lift them out using a slotted spoon onto a plate lined with kitchen towel or brown paper. Sprinkle with little coarse salt and serve immediately.
If your eggs are large you will probably only need one.
Fried courgette flowers (fiori di zucca)
- 15 courgette flowers
- 200ml warm water
- 100g plain flour (I used Italian 00)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- pinch of salt
- 2 egg whites beaten until they form stiff peaks
- vegetable oil for frying
Wash the zucchini/courgette flowers carefully and remove the pistils from female flowers and stamens from the male flowers. Pat them dry with a soft, clean cloth.
Using a balloon whisk mix the warm water and flour and then add the olive oil, it will have the consistency of single cream. Leave to rest in the fridge for at least 2 hours – you can add a couple of icecubes.
Whisk the eggs whites until they form stiff peaks. The whites should be so stiff you should be able to invert the bowl over your head.
Using a metal spoon gently fold the whites into the batter. Add a pinch of salt.
Heat some vegetable oil to 160-180C in a deep-fat fryer or heavy-based saucepan (but no more than half full). Test the oil by dropping a little batter into the oil. If it browns after a minute or so then it’s ready.
Working in small batches dip the flowers in the batter and then gently lower them into a pan. Allow the batter covered flowers to bob around happily, you may need to nudge them with a fork so they cook evenly.
Once they are a beautiful golden colour, lift them our with a slotted spoon onto a plate lined with kitchen towel or brown paper. Sprinkle with little coarse salt and serve immediately with prosecco.