Monday, 20 July 2009
How I lost my fear of fritto misto di mare; or, the genius of Doves Farm strikes again
Posted by Tania Kindersley.
As seems to be becoming traditional on a Monday, I veer between old lady grumpiness and the sunniness of a new week. Minuses: a sudden Sunday night mortality attack (we are all going to die, everyone we love is going to die, etc etc; occupational hazard of middle age and too much TS Eliot), start of the week brain freeze which means my writing day has not been productive at all, and the horror of the monthly paying of the credit cards. Pluses: England won the cricket in storming style, my garden is looking suddenly, unexpectedly ravishing (the tiny little purple geraniums and deep scarlet roses are in their pomp) and the sun has actually come out for the first time in days.
So I choose levity over gloom, and there will be no ranting, not today. Instead, I am going to give another plug to the wonderful Doves Farm operation, which certainly makes the world a better place. I have talked of their lovely gluten-free flour before, which led me to invent the little flatbreads which are still such a source of pride to me. Now I discover that it makes the most perfect frying batter. Fritto misto and tempura and those little deep-fried courgettes that you get in good Italian restaurants are some of my favourite things to eat when I go out, but I have never had any success with them at home. Looking up batter recipes has done nothing to dispel the dark sense of failure: all chefs have tremendous secret tricks to attain crispiness - ice cubes, beer, sparkling water, touch of bicarb - yet the more one reads, the more alarming the whole thing becomes. But my cussed streak does not allow me to give up altogether, so every so often I attempt something deep fried, and eat the resulting soggy mess with a melancholy fatalism.
Last week, I had an insistent yearning for fritto misto di mare. I had some delightful prawns and squid in the fridge, and I did not feel like risotto or fish soup, so out came the mixing bowl. I had my new favourite Doves Farm gluten free flour in the cupboard, so I just mixed it up with a bit of water, dunked the shellfish in it, cooked them, and presto - it was like being transported to one of those blue restaurants that sit on a beach somewhere so that you smell the salt from the sea as you eat.
To achieve this loveliness, this is what you do:
Take as many raw prawns and squid tubes as you want. I think that this dish is best cooked for two people only, because the frying must be done in small batches, and everything gets cold if you are making big quantities. So for the lucky two people, just judge how hungry you both are, and use the corresponding amounts. Cut the squid into rings; peel the prawns if you need to.
In a big bowl, put four or five tablespoons of Doves Farm Gluten-free flour, depending how generous you are being with the shellfish. I must stress that I have no fear of gluten, and regard food fads as tiring; I just love Doves Farm, saw one day that they had a flour out I had not tried before, and bought it without reading the label; that it turns out to make perfect batter is a great act of serendipity. Slowly add enough water to make a thick batter (I'm sorry I do not have exact measurements, but it is quite easy to do by sight). Then put all the shellfish in and swoosh it about with your hands. This is extremely messy but very satisfying. The point is to get everything really well covered with the gloopy batter, but not to allow stodgy clumps to cling to the inside of the rings of squid, which is why you need to use your fingers.
In a deep pan, put three to four inches of any plain cooking oil - I think sunflower is best, but you may have your own preference. Put it on a high heat and let it come up to frying temperature. People measure this in different ways, but a good test is to put in a small cube of bread and watch to see if it comes straight up to the surface. Once it is at optimum temperature, I turn it down to seven or eight - if you keep it at full blast the heat gathers quickly and everything may burn. Then take small handfuls of the prawns and squid, give them a bit of a shake to remove any extraneous batter, and throw them into the oil. The smallness of the handful is crucial: if you overcrowd the pan, the heat will plummet, nothing gets enough room to cook properly, and everything goes tragic and soggy. Let the shellfish fizz for a bit and give them a poke if they look like they need separating. Cook them for no more than two minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Then cook the next few batches until they are all done. Sprinkle with a good pinch of Malden Salt and a squeeze of lemon and serve on hot white plates. You will be in heaven.
So at last, after forty two earth years, I have discovered that the secret to Fritto Misto di Mare is: Doves Farm gluten-free flour for the batter, plenty of very hot oil, and cooking in very small, very quick batches. I am left with a sense of achievement out of all sane proportion. It's only a recipe. But perhaps it is the tiny triumphs that make the Sunday night mortality attacks bearable. At least I shall die knowing I made perfect fried fish.