Fried Artichoke & Zucchini

The appetizer section of menus has been taking a beating in the many Chicago restaurants I visit every day in my role as chief restaurant critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. I see customers moving away from expensive appetizers (and, believe me, the price of apps have gone through the roof) and moving directly to an entree (or possibly an inexpensive house salad before the entree). But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Appetizers are not on menus simply to boost the check average. An appetizer, as the name implies, is a small serving of food meant to stimulate the appetite. Antipasto in Italian. Hors d’oeuvre in French. Antojito in Spanish. Anyway you pronounce or spell it, the reason appetizers are the lead item on most menus is that it sets the pace for the rest of the meal. And, to that extent, it becomes your calling card. Serving a bad appetizer or two can throw cold water on everything to follow, and that will leave a bad taste in your customers’ mouths. Step up to the plate and make some magic with the appetizer portion of your menu.

Here, by focusing on zucchini and artichokes, I am only scratching the surface of the pantry of possibilities; however, by extension, you can take some of the ideas and methods included in the recipes that follow and put them to use in other applications. And, by yet another extension, take the accompaniments — dipping sauces, garnishes ­­— I am suggesting and put those into play with those appetizers that you might be featuring on your menu right now.

Allow me to whet your appetite with this very easy-to-do recipe for fried zucchini. The zucchini is cut lengthwise for this recipe. However, you can use the same method of coating and frying should you want to cut the zucchini into coins instead of strips. It boils down to simply a matter of how you wish to plate and present the dish.

Zucchini Fritti
Yield: about 4 servings (scale up in direct proportion)

1½ cups Parmesan
1½ cups Panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
½ teaspoon salt
2 extra-large eggs
3 medium-size zucchini, washed, trimmed (but not skinned), cut into 3 inch-long by about ½ inch-wide strips

In a mixing bowl, combine the Parmesan, Panko and salt. In another bowl, whisk the eggs. Dip the zucchini in the egg to coat, allowing the excess to drip back into the bowl. Coat the zucchini on both sides with the Panko, pressing so that the Panko sticks.

Deep-fry the zucchini strips (in batches if necessary) until they are golden brown (about 3 minutes at 375 F). Drain on paper toweling. Can be made ahead and held for up to one hour. Serve with garlic dipping sauce on the side (recipe below).

Aioli Dipping Sauce for Fried Zucchini

A classic aioli is made with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and egg yolks, which by any other name is close to fresh-made mayonnaise. So in my version of aioli I take the easy way out by using bottled mayonnaise with no loss of flavor or overall goodness.

2 cups real mayonnaise
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 large garlic cloves, pushed through a garlic press
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (about 1/3 cup)
Sea salt

Put the mayonnaise in a mixing bowl. Whisk in the lemon juice, garlic and olive oil. Add salt to taste. Refrigerate (covered) for 2 hours to let the flavors develop.
Makes just over 2 cups. Scale up in direct proportion.

Batter-Fried Artichokes

It’s not easy to work with artichokes but, in the end, delicious trumps hard work.
Whether to use fresh artichokes and go through the process of paring and trimming the artichoke, or to use canned artichoke hearts or frozen artichokes hearts is up to you (my choice, unless I am stuffing the artichoke, is to go with frozen artichoke hearts). Whatever choice you make, give this appetizer a try, you just might be surprised how well your customers take to these golden, crispy, chunks of delicious pleasure.

Deep-fried artichokes can be as simple as dredging the hearts (halve the larger hearts to allow for even cooking) in flour and dropping them in the fryer. Drain and serve with wedges of fresh lemon.

Or, to make matters a bit more interesting, you can use this recipe, one that gives the artichokes a tastier, crispier chew.

Crispy Artichoke Hearts

1 pound artichoke hearts. If frozen, thaw. If canned, drain. (Pat dry in both cases)
2 large eggs
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
2 teaspoons dried oregano

Cut the larger hearts in half lengthwise. In a small bowl, beat the eggs lightly.
In a separate bowl combine the flour, cornmeal, Parmesan and oregano.
Dip the artichoke halves in the egg, allowing the excess to drain back into the bowl, then into the flour mixture, turning to coat all over.

Deep-fry in batches (about 4 minutes until golden and crisp) Drain onto paper towels. Serve with a Dijon-dill dipping sauce (recipe follows) on the side. Or, if you want to take the easy (yet delicious) route, use a bottled ranch dressing.

Put the dipping sauce in a small ramekin in the center of a large plate. Arrange the fried artichoke hearts around the ramekin. Sprinkle with finely chopped parsley (optional).

It is hard to gauge a serving portion, because of the varying size of the artichoke hearts. I can tell you that when I make this recipe for friends and family the artichokes disappear rather fast. However, the recipe is so simple it doesn’t take long to whip up another batch.

Dijon-Dill Dipping sauce

1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon snipped fresh dill
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Combine the mayonnaise, mustard and dill. Whisk in the lemon juice.