When chef April Bloomfield revived the historic Tosca Cafe back in 2013, she brought along the then chef de cuisine from The John Dory, Josh Even, to helm the kitchen. Together they worked on a classic Italian-inspired menu, using California's finest produce.
One of the mainstays on the menu is the fritto, which rotates seasonally to utilize only the freshest produce. In spring, the kitchen will fry up squash blossoms, and in summer you can expect anchovies. As fall approaches, cauliflower is on the menu. The one thing that remains the same: the crispy, crunchy polenta-based batter, which you can now make at home with the recipe below.
Tosca's Cauliflower Fritto
(Serves 6-8 people)
For the puttanesca:
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup garlic cloves, sliced lengthwise (2mm thick)
2 oz salt-cured anchovy fillets, drained of their excess oil
1 tsp pequin chili or red chili flake, ground finely
1 ¼ oz taggiasca olives, pitted and coursely chopped
½ oz lilliput capers, rinsed of their salt or brine
1 ½ cups Early Girl tomatoes, blanched, peeled and seeded and pureed
For the polenta batter:
½ cup semi-fine polenta (white or yellow)
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup cornstarch
½ tbsp baking powder
½ tsp kosher salt
4 cups soda water, chilled
1 egg yolk
1 large head cauliflower, cut rustically into large bite-size florets (should yield about 8 cups of cauliflower florets)
2 large red onions, sliced on a mandolin crosswise about 4mm thick
4 cups buttermilk
2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups semi-fine polenta
For the puttanesca:
- Heat the olive oil in a 2-quart sauce pot over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and toast until golden brown. Be careful not to let the garlic get too dark or it will turn bitter.
- Add the anchovies, give a good stir and let sizzle for a minute until anchovies begin to dissolve. Keep an eye on the garlic to ensure it does not get any darker as the anchovies cook.
- Add chili and let bloom for a few seconds, then add the whole Early Girl tomatoes and stir to combine.
- Continue to cook over medium-low heat for 5-10 minutes, or until mixture becomes fairly dry.
- Add the chopped olives, capers and pureed Early Girl tomatoes and let cook for another 10-15 more minutes, until the flavors have married and the sauce has thickened slightly.
- Set aside at room temperature, or chill and store in a sealed container in the refrigerator if making the sauce a day or two in advance.
For the polenta batter:
- Combine all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl and stir to combine.
- Add the egg yolk and slowly add the soda water, a little bit at a time, all the while whisking fairly vigorously to remove any clumps. Add enough water so that you have something approximating a slightly loose pancake batter. Test by dipping a piece of cauliflower into the batter. The batter should coat the cauliflower lightly. You do not want a thick layer of batter.
To fry and serve:
- In a deep pot, heat the peanut oil to 350F. Use a candy thermometer for accuracy.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the buttermilk and sliced red onions. Separate the onion slices into individual rings. The onions can be used immediately, or soak in the buttermilk for up to an hour before frying.
- Combine the all purpose flour and polenta in a baking dish.
- Place the puttanesca back in the 2 quart sauce pot and reheat over medium heat, being careful not to scorch the bottom. Keep hot until you are ready to serve.
- Give the fritto batter a good whisk and drop in the cauliflower florets.
- Using a spider (shallow strainer) remove the cauliflower from the batter. Allow some of the batter to fall away and carefully place the battered florets in the fryer oil. Use the spider to give the florets a little stir in the oil so that they don't stick to the bottom of the pot or to each other.
- While the cauliflower is frying, but working quickly, remove the onion rings from the buttermilk and dredge in the dry polenta-flour mixture. Remove and place the rings in the pot of peanut oil alongside the cauliflower. Again, stir carefully with the spider.
- Allow the cauliflower and onions to fry until they are golden in color. This should take 3-5 minutes.
- Once golden, use the spider to remove the vegetables from the pot and gently dry in a baking dish lined with paper towels.
- Season to taste with the kosher salt and serve in a large platter, or in individual serving bowls. Serve the hot puttanesca in a bowl alongside the fried vegetables.