Yet again, I am at a dinner party and asked what my favourite food is. I take a deep breath and try, as ever, to conjure from the ether a scintillating response. None come. My most recent acquaintance probes harder; “well . . . can’t you at least tell me what ‘sort of food’ you like to cook?”
When people find out that you cook, they seem instantaneously to want to categorise you. Are you a Pastry Chef? You are a girl, so you probably bake cakes, don’t you? It is true, I love to bake, and have mixed success in this area. Indeed there are some baked items that I am famous for (well, at least amongst a very select few), and there are some things that I pride myself on having invented or improved upon . . . until I am told otherwise, of course.
There are recipes that I have been given over the years that just work. A rare find in fact. One, and only one, I admit to unashamedly stealing, which at the time caused the originators chef a sort of pride infused amusement. But the recipe has long since been updated and reincarnated, and the chef it once belonged to is currently serving serious time. So I don’t feel too bad. I also secretly like to think that this particular recipe’s connection with someone more than a little on the dark side, has somehow added depth to it’s already wicked and bitter dark chocolate self. Plus, I later found out, he in fact nicked it from someone else.
I try to answer honestly, and yet always seem to give a different answer. I can’t bear pretentiousness and try so hard to avoid the obvious. It would be so easy to say “Oh . . . I do love truffles and foie gras, and I won’t eat anything other than Poilâne Bread with sweet French Farmhouse butter”. But it is rubbish, I much prefer a burnt Pagnotta and English salty butter, and though it might placate my interviewer, I just can’t bring myself to say it.
I see the disappointment when my response is honest. It is pizza. “Seriously? Pizza”? Yes, I respond; “Why? Have you had a good one recently in Singapore?” And then the conversation begins. Pizza is not just pizza. The difference between a seriously good pizza and the kind you buy in the freezer section of the supermarket is incomparable.
And there it is. I start sounding all pretentious again. But it is true. I have only had one serious Pizza in Singapore made for me by Osvaldo Forlino at Osvaldo’s before he left to set up No Menu with his family. I have not been back to Osvaldo’s (now renamed L’Angolo) and he doesn’t make pizza at No Menu. I cannot begrudge him this . . . his wife and daughters have conjured an Italian menu virtually impossible to find fault with, in a truly charming shophouse setting.
Mario Batali does a pretty damn good one at The Marina Bay Sands, but these days you wait twenty minutes for the table you booked, twenty minutes for a menu, and then get told it might take forty five minutes to arrive! A wood- fired oven can cook a pizza in less than 3 minutes, and the more I think about this the more annoyed I get, though it is hard to fault with Nancy Silverton’s pizza dough recipe which they use. But I use the same recipe at home, and have done for years, and I can have my pizza in a lot less time.
But I digress. The truth is; I wish I had a slightly more exciting answer for next time than ‘pizza’.
And then, this summer, there it was. “You’ll never guess what it is in Grumpy’s garden”! I was greeted with this shouted query on our arrival at my parents’ home in the rolling English Somerset countryside. “He has been saving them . . . Your favourites . . . Courgette flowers”.
It is true. They are indeed my absolute favourite thing in the world (well, as well as hot crusty bread and cold, hard butter; artichokes in all their forms; white asparagus with blood orange hollandaise; Butterscotch Angel Delight; Burnt Caramel ice cream from Island Creamery sprinkled with Maldon Sea Salt and cheese in pretty much all forms and . . . well obviously . . . pizza). Why, oh why can I never think of these things when confronted by foodie interrogators?
Courgette flowers are special. They are only around for a few weeks of the year, and though very easy to grow, (in fact often a discarded or ignored by-product of growing courgettes) they are incredibly fragile and delicate in texture and flavour.
They are my perfect answer. They are rare and difficult to find, so not your average response, yet utterly unpretentious as easy to grow and often absolutely free . . . unless of course, you live in Singapore.
I have just been given a small box of these perfect, delicate blooms. In England, for me, they trumpet the first sign of Summer, though Spring is barely in evidence I understand. I am standing in a cold storage container unit on Singapore’s west coast and I daren’t ask where they come from. I squirrel away my tiny stash of guilty pleasures knowing they have probably clocked up more airmiles than my husband.
But now . . . what to do with them? I bought some freshly made ravioli at Marylebone’s farmer’s market last summer, billed as ‘Ricotta and Zucchini Flower’. Pretentious. But I couldn’t resist. Sadly they were a little disappointing; you certainly couldn’t taste the courgette flower and the ricotta was bland and grainy. I couldn’t even really manage to revive the rather flaccid rectangles with a wonderful (though rather wasted) nutty Olive Oil and a heavy hand with the S &P.
Having got my bounty home I decided to stick to my mantra: “if you have great ingredients; don’t mess with them”. Well, sort of. I have, I hope, at least partly learnt my lesson from an aborted attempt at fritters last year. I had made a light batter using my father’s delicious home made cider (using ingredients from the same region; ‘terroir’ and all that) and was rather smug about what I felt sure the result would be. I was wrong. The cider turned bitter in the heat, and totally overpowered the taste of the flowers. I swallowed. My flowers, and my pride.
This time I would try to keep it simple. No fancy batter or pretentious stuffing ingredients. Just heaven.
¼ cup plain flour
1/3 cup soda water
large pinch of salt and good grind of pepper
ideally use ‘Galbani’ ricotta; it holds together really well
1 tsp sea salt flakes
½ tsp lemon juice
1 TBSP grated parmesan
a few grinds of fresh black pepper
To make the stuffing simply combine all the ingredients well and then use a small spoon to help distribute the stuffing evenly into the very core of the trumpet. You only need about a teaspoonful in each, taking care not to bruise the flower as you work. Gently bring the feathery ends to a close and place on greaseproof paper in the fridge until you are ready to cook them.
To make the batter; place the flour in a bowl and make a well in the centre. Crack the egg into the well. Using a fork, begin to mix the egg into the flour and dribble in the soda water to help loosen the mixture as you go. Once the mixture is a uniform, thick cream consistency (no lumps!), slowly pour in the rest of the soda water, stirring all the time. Set it to one side.
Take a large, non stick frying pan and place three or four TBSPs of canola or vegetable oil, and one TBSP of olive oil into the pan. The oil should cover the base of the pan well but not be at all deep. Bring the pan up to a medium heat and splatter in some batter to check that it is ready – the batter should gently go golden and bubble a little – not spit too much or burn. When ready, generously dip your flowers in the batter, ensuring they are completely submerged before removing and placing in the frying pan. A little excess batter is welcome – don’t try to shake off all the excess drips! Turn after about 30 seconds or when the underside has become the desired colour and cook the other side.
Remove, and drain on paper towel. Sprinkle with Maldon Sea Salt and eat immediately, ideally with a cold glass of white wine or a light beer.