In a dark bar, the old-timers sit, sheltered by peeling wallpaper and shag carpeting, warm in the glow of the jukebox, which belts a Merle Haggard tune. On the other end of the spectrum: the crystalline beauty of winter woods or the perfect symmetry of a Rilke poem. I've always liked the world both ways: low-brow and high-brow. Beauty lurks in old neon and in the sonata; beauty glows in the coals of an oil-drum fire and lights the heart with a wilderness sunrise. I've explored the gutters and the branches, but nothing delights me more than the perfect marriage of degeneracy and elegance. Which brings me to the subject at hand: deep-fried flowers.
Deep-frying a flower seems vaguely wicked, which is perhaps why I like the idea. The table is strewn with summer's finest. I saw these lilies vital and alive in the summer sun, and I plucked the dandelions as they glowed neon in summer dusk. The heliotrope balls of chive flowers are studies in delicate symmetry, and the curving garlic scapes are alien in their allure, like swans. Silk nasturtium petals fan gold and orange on the top of the heap, and upon close inspection, squash blossoms have a beauty that defies description. Nearby, our FryDaddy percolates, and the delicate perfume of blossoms is obscured by the rising aroma of hot oil.
As something of a scavenger, I like the idea of eating flowers: In most gardens, tonight's dinner ingredients would be relegated to a purely decorative role, but with the help of my trusty FryDaddy, we'll be taking the flowers for all that they're worth. I suppose I should point out that we'd probably get more nutrients out of the flowers if we ate them raw, but that wouldn't be nearly as much fun.
My friends GH and Kamari are here for the experiment. The squash flowers, garlic scapes and kale flowers are from Kamari's prolific garden, and GH has whipped up a batch of beer batter: equal parts flour and Ninkasi IPA, finished with salt, cayenne and a dash of dried mustard. In terms of beer, PBR or the Beast would be more appropriate for a budget eating experiment: Ninkasi isn't cheap. But I'm willing to turn a blind eye to the excess. It's not on my dime. Besides, in my experience everything is better with Ninkasi IPA, and I'm betting flowers are no exception.
After a brief but spirited argument about who will captain the FryDaddy, GH acquiesces. "I'll take over in a little while," I promise, retreating to the cool shadows of the front porch, where I knot garlic scapes. Inside, the FryDaddy hisses satanically as GH adds the first batch of battered flowers.
GH is one of my favorite people to cook with because he likes to experiment and he's completely without pretense. He has none of the condescending smugness of a professional, but he nevertheless puts some serious thought into the culinary process. For example, he thinks nothing of brining a cow tongue for seven days. Every time we hang out, he fills me in on his latest finding: Today his mini dissertation is on beer batter. The secret? Let it sit at room temperature for at least an hour before you turn on your fryer. He clearly knows what he's talking about. He hands the first plate of fried kale flowers out the kitchen window to the front porch, where Kamari, Rich and our friend Celeste sit around the table of our summer "dining room." The flowers are delicious, encrusted in golden brown lace; Celeste's yogurt dill dipping sauce provides a tangy counter-note. I have never seen kale disappear so fast in my life. Next up are the garlic scapes, a crowd favorite. The knotted garlic stems and buds are substantial and spicy. To mix things up, I dip one in hoisin sauce, an innovation I'd recommend to anyone trying this at home.
"Do you want me to man the fryer for a while?" I ask GH. But I know the answer already. Judging by the gleeful glow in his dark eyes, he's hit his stride. In fact, he doesn't bother to answer -- just grins and shakes his head. I suspect his mouth is full.
To add heft to the meal, GH fries up a batch of battered oyster mushrooms, as well as garden vegetables: radish medallions, baby zucchini medallions, baby turnip fries and radish greens. The results are predictably delicious: Kamari points out that fried oyster mushrooms would be a good stand-in for the fish in fish and chips, and the tiny radish greens hold their shape perfectly in the fryer. That said, flowers are the order of the day: We eat beer-battered nasturtiums (piquant and crunchy), day lily buds and blossoms (mild at first, with a pleasingly spicy finish and a surprising lavender aftertaste) and onion chive flowers (pillowy and chewy, with a flavor and aroma like onion rings, but better). The batter is light and crispy, and all of the batches are bereft of that sogginess that kills a good deep-fried dinner.
All evening, I wait in suspense for the dandelion heads. This spring I had good luck eliminating the bitterness of dandelion greens, but the flowers themselves seem more of a challenge. I have vague childhood memories of the biting bitterness of dandelion flowers, and I'm having a hard time imagining them as a food. If anything is going to fail tonight, dandelions are my bet.
The giant squash blossoms are the meal's crowning glory. Cantaloupe gold in color and stuffed with fresh dill, the blossoms are perfect receptacles for beer batter. Fried, every delicate fold holds fluffy dough, and the finished texture is akin to pastry from Valhalla. The flavor: a garden, flash-fried.
At this point, though we are stuffed, I can't help but inquire, "What happened to the dandelions?"
"You ate them," GH says. I think back, but I can't recollect anything remotely bitter. The forgiving grace of beer batter is evidently transformative. As night subsumes the summer hills, I wallow in my food coma and thank my lucky stars for the good things in life: those both classy, and klassy with a k.
Note: GH's additional tips for perfect frying: Use a sufficient quantity of oil and don't try to fry too many items at once.
- 1 part flour
- 1 part beer
- Dash of cayenne
- Dash of mustard powder
- Salt to taste
In a large bowl, mix flour and beer. Add spices and salt. Let ingredients sit at room temperature for at least one hour before you begin heating your oil.
Dill Yogurt Sauce
- 1 cup of whole yogurt
- 4 sprigs of fresh dill (chopped)
- Dash of paprika
- Dash of chile powder
- Dash of red pepper flakes
- Dash of lime juice
- Garlic salt, salt and pepper to taste
Add ingredients to bowl and stir.