The temperature outside is hot, the kitchen even hotter, and what do I do? Deep fry a batch of fish fritters, that’s what. These bite-size nibbles made with whitebait – the immature fish of anchovies, sardines and other species – can be described as little mouthfuls of happiness, especially when enjoyed with ice cold beer on a scorching summer day. Known as neonata, gianchetti, bianchetti, and cicinielli, just to name a few, they’re a delicacy that comes prepared in a variety of ways in Liguria and southern Italy. To source them locally is not an easy thing, and the frozen ones at the fishmonger come all the way from China. It is interesting to note that they were labeled as pesce ghiaccio (ice fish) and caught from a freshwater source so I can’t say how they measure up – for better or for worse – against those fished from italian seas.
“La pastella non deve essere ne troppo densa ne troppo liquida.”
The batter should be neither too thick nor too liquid. I didn’t know anything about the fritters until watching an episode of Benvenuti a Tavola: Nord vs. Sud, so that goes to show how much more there is to learn about this country’s cuisine. In this segment the chef is showing the dishwasher how to properly mix and cook the cicinielli. After she takes one bite she declares that they are simply erotic! The episode is currently online at the following link, with the fritter scene beginning around 30:10 – http://www.nowvideo.co/video/2jooen2y5ofyv
I wasn’t thoroughly pleased with the way my fritters turned out because the whitebait was too big and difficult to scoop up. Smaller, itty-bitty ones would’ve worked better. Preparing the batter is simple:
1½ cups all-purpose flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 heaping teaspoon dried herbs (oregano, parsley or dill), couple grinds of black pepper, 1/3 cube of fresh cake yeast (or 1 tsp. active dry yeast), 1¼ cups warm water, and 1/2 pound whitebait, defrosted and drained.
Mix the flour, salt, herbs and pepper in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add 1/2 cup of the water and the yeast; allow yeast to dissolve. When the yeast has dissolved, add the remaining water and mix well (the batter will be lumpy), adding more water or flour as necessary to achieve a consistency that is neither too thick nor too thin. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside until doubled in volume.
When the batter has doubled, stir in the whitebait. Drop spoonfuls (I used a soup spoon) in very hot oil and fry until lightly browned and done in the center. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with sea salt. I’ve seen these as an accompaniment to puntarelle alla romana – a fresh chicory salad dressed in anchovies, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice – and I’m liking that idea. Interestingly enough, I discovered that whitebait is a pizza topping in Japan. It looks good! Cicinielli pizza experiment coming soon…