I was feeling sort of nostalgic today for the fried vegetables my grandmother used to make. They were almost always the start of our family’s six-hour Sunday dinners, laid out (along with a big wedge of provolone) on the table to pick on as we played cards and waited for the main event. Hmmm, they disappeared fast! There’s a saying in Italian: fritte son bone anche le scarpe, even shoes taste good when they’re fried. And it’s so true.
Fried vegetables are not at all hard to make, but they can be time consuming, as the various vegetables need to be peeled and cut up, then parboiled, and then fried. One way to cut down on this work is to use frozen vegetables, which respond very well to this treatment. And, in the US at least, the quality of frozen vegetables is often comparable, in some cases superior, to that of fresh ingredients (see below). Today we had artichoke hearts, cauliflower florets and asparagus, all of which come already parboiled and cut into pieces. All you need to do is let them defrost, then roll them in flour, dip them in a mixture of eggs beaten with finely chopped parsley, salt, pepper and just a bit of grated pecorino cheese. Shallow fry them gently in a mixture of olive and canola oils (or in a light olive oil) until they turn a light golden brown.
The oil should be about 1/2 inch (1 cm) or so deep, or enough to come about halfway up the pieces. Make sure that the oil is just hot enough so that it gently bubbles around the pieces as you place them into the pan. If the oil is not hot enough, the vegetables will turn out greasy; too hot and the egg batter will brown before the insides of the vegetable pieces are fully cooked. (It is a bit like making fried chicken, if you’ve done that.) You then drain the vegetables, either on a plate lined with paper towels or–my preferred method–on a cooling rack placed over a baking sheet to catch the oil and stray bits of batter. You’ll need to fry a few pieces at a time, as many as will fit comfortably in your frying pan without crowding. (If you crowd them, they will steam, and get soggy and greasy.) Keep your already fried vegetables warm in the oven while you are frying the rest.
Sprinkle the fried vegetables with salt and serve either hot or at room temperature. I promise, they’re addictive!
NOTE: The vegetables mentioned above were the ones that Angelina made most often. But other vegetables are also great fried like this, including broccoli, peppers and–my personal favorite–eggplant. In fact, this is the way you fry eggplant to make a parmigiana di melanzane, eggplant parmesan, or at least the way Angelina used to make it.
As mentioned, however sacrilegious it may seem, when I don’t have access to best quality fresh vegetables, I am a fan of using frozen vegetables for this dish, especially for the ones that require parboiling and cutting up, like cauliflower, artichoke, broccoli or even asparagus. (Vegetables like eggplant and peppers, of course, are another story.) Frankly, I find that, in the US at least, frozen vegetables can equally good, if not better, than ‘fresh’ vegetables that have been picked before they are ripe, shipped across country and force-ripened by gas or whatever other artificial means modern industry has devised, and then left to sit on a supermarket shelf for however long. Frozen vegetables are picked at their best and freezing preserves them that way. Of course, not all vegetables freeze well. Eggplant and peppers, and summer vegetables in general, are not very good frozen. Potatoes take on an ‘off’ flavor when frozen. But for many other vegetables, frozen are a viable and practical alternative.
Another way to fry vegetables is to substitute parmesan for the pecorino and, after the egg bath, cover the vegetables pieces in bread crumbs. It produces a more ‘refined’ dish–but I like this way better. It brings me back to my childhood.
If you have any of the egg mixture left over, by the way, don’t throw it out. Mix it with some breadcrumbs and pour into the pan like so much pancake batter and fry until golden brown. It’s the best part!
These fried vegetables are basically a kind of vegetarian fritto misto, as befits a modest country gal like Angelina. Italian cuisine abounds in fritti misti–the ‘fried course’ was once a standard part of a complete Italian dinner–and there are many regional versions of the fritto misto. My personal favorite, found in coastal areas all over Italy, is the fritto misto di mare. In Rome, they make a wonderful fritto misto alla romana with calf’s brains and artichokes. In Piemonte, they make an elaborate fritto misto with many different meats, crochette and vegetables. In Bologna, the gran fritto misto features bits of mortadella, cheese, semolina croquettes and even ‘fried cream’ (pastry cream enriched and thickened with egg yolk).