While growing up in Southern Italy, I became an apprentice to my “Nonna” or grandmother, aka the “maestra” or master chef of the town. Although I learned how to prepare the peninsula’s finest cuisine, my focus was on the bounty from the “orto” or garden. I never liked some of the seafood delicacies that the cooks in the Campania region are so famous for. Among these are fried calamari.
Because my Nonna knew I didn’t like those rubbery circles that pretended to be crispy, she would go to her orto, pick fresh cauliflower and turn it into golden nuggets. She would then smile at me and say, “Ecco i tuoi calamaretti vegetariani” or “Here are your vegetarian fried calamari” – made exclusively for me!
This appetizer is fun to eat with a sweet pepper spread*.
Prep time: 25 to 30 minutes
Serves: 4 to 6
1 fresh cauliflower (about 1-½ to 1-¾ pounds), leaves discarded and florets cut into 2-inch pieces
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour, for coating cauliflower florets
2 to 3 large eggs
¾ teaspoon salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
2 cups vegetable oil, for frying
1. Rinse the cauliflower florets and put them in a 4-quart saucepot. Cover florets with cold water. Set saucepot on a stove burner and bring to a boil.
2. Add ½ teaspoon salt, and boil, uncovered, on medium heat until cauliflower florets are crunchy-tender when pierced with a fork, about 4 minutes.
3. Gently drain the cauliflower florets and set them aside in a glass or porcelain bowl to cool, uncovered, about 15 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, put flour in a shallow, 8 or 10-inch bowl and set aside.
5. In another shallow, 8 or 10-inch bowl, beat 2 eggs with ¾ teaspoon salt and black pepper; set aside.
6. When cauliflower florets are cool, coat them first with flour, shaking off excess, and then roll them with two forks in the beaten egg (heat the oil as you do this).
7. In an 8 or 10-inch skillet or a deep fryer of the same circumference, heat the oil on high setting. Test by dropping a tiny amount of beaten egg – if it sizzles and rises, the oil is ready.
8. Immediately lower heat to medium and fry the cauliflower in batches. This is a quick process (after a few seconds of frying, gently lift bottom of a floret to check if it is golden); turn once and fry other side until golden.
9. Drain fried cauliflower (Vegetarian Calamari) on a dinner plate lined with paper towels.
Serve immediately with sweet pepper spread.
Note: Vegetarian Calamari can be made early in the day and stored in a baking dish and covered with aluminum foil. Set on a counter until ready to serve.
At serving time, heat oven to 350˚F. Warm the Vegetarian Calamari, covered, about 20 to 25 minutes and serve warm.
*Suggested spreads: Peloponnese Sweet Pepper Spread®, found in gourmet supermarkets; and Zergüt Mild Ajvar® (made with sweet and hot peppers, eggplant, garlic and onions), found in Middle Eastern or International gourmet food stores. Both brands are reddish-orange in color.
Text & Photograph ©2011 Nancy DeLucia Real