How many times have I made the following joke about my own palate: “my favorite flavor is fried.”
But it ain’t no joke, really. I LOVE fried…and in my cooking life have fried everything from Tuscan lamb chops to Mexican worms (though I confess I’ve never deep-fried a Mars bar).
Let’s get the definitions straight, from the beginning, because I am using a kind of shorthand here. When I say “fried,” what I really mean is “deep-fried.”
And when I say “deep-fried,” what I really mean iswith some kind of coating or batter dropped into deep oil (usually more than 1″ deep in the pan). You can “fry” things in shallow oil, but I call that “sautéeing” (which often leads to an oilier finished product than deep-frying does!). You can also drop uncoated in deep oil (as I do when pre-cooking shrimp for Cantonese stir-fries)–but I don’t really consider that deep-frying, either.
One mo’ once: DEEP-FRYING: FOOD WITH SOME KIND OF COATING OR BATTER DROPPED INTO DEEP OIL. Print it.
And why do I love it so? That ain’t so easy to answer…because every coated ingredient dropped into deep oil brings me an individual thrill. Each little fry baby has its own way of talking to me.
I can tell you this, however, in general: the Deep-Fried Police scare me no more than, say, the MSG Police, or any other ersatz nutritional force. I will never forget the brilliant study, about two decades ago, that measured deep oil in a fryer (let’s say three cups), dropped in a single piece of coated chicken, fried it, removed the chicken…then measured the oil again. Post-frying, the remaining oil weighed in at…three cups minus a 1/4 teaspoon.
This is worth giving yourself a deep-fried fright for your whole life?
Of course…how you deep-fry has much to do with this. When home cooks fry blind, without a deep-fry thermometer, and cook their precious nubbins at less than 325 degrees…yes. Thewill pick up oil and become greasy. But in the range from 325 to 375, your should remain as dry as a bone. My comfort zone is usually around 365…but I’ve been known to break the 375 ceiling, cranking up all the way to 395, if I want small pieces of to get real brown real fast without too much internal cooking.
So…without any further ado…the five fry items that I think gain the most particularity from their bubble time in the deep-fryer:
Oh my do I love fried shrimp…any kind of fried shrimp. Here’s how much I love fried shrimp: if I’m at the Acme Oyster Bar in New Orleans, having the time of my life… I will take a break every two dozen oysters or so…to get some Cajun fried shrimp as an intermezzo! What’s the deal? In general, I think, crustaceans pick up this crazy-good extra flavor when they’re deep-fried; it’s almost like an intensification of shell, even when shells are off. The principle works best with shrimp, because of the physical nature of the animal; somehow the size and density of lobster doesn’t yield the same satisfying effect. But…ssssshhhhrimp! Oh my. And then, a perfect fry adds wonderful complexity. Probably my favorite of all is shrimp tempura (which happens to also be my favorite tempura of all!): the delicacy of the light and lacy coating plays perfectly against the medium-textured shrimp. (TEMPURA COOKING NOTE: A Japanese chef once showed me how to dribble extra batter off of a single chopstick onto the just-placed-in oil tempura item, increasing the complications of the lace!)
Well, that’s kind of broad. But I’m sure ya know what I mean: fish filets, as in the main part of fish and chips. Another aesthetic principle is at play here, varying from the shrimp principle. I could shrimp cocktail all night…but simple fish filets, boiled fish filets, even sautéed fish filets, don’t have the intrinsic flavor/texture interest of plain shrimp. And this, I believe, is why fried fish filets have become such a global phenomenon; coated and fried fish is to the fish filet as a crispy piece of roast chicken (skin on) is to a boiled chicken breast. Frying fish filets adds an extra layer of bite and flavor that’s sorely needed! Of course, there are some fish that would be wasted in a deep-fried context; I’m a fanatic for Dover Sole, for example, and don’t think the resilient texture yielded by a simple sauté in browned butter can be improved. But flounder? Tilapia? Scrod? Cod, for god’s sakes?????? Bring ‘em on! Finally, there is the question of coating. Most people don’t know this, but I am a partner in a fish-and-chips restaurant in Reykjavik, Iceland–where our light, healthy batter has been a huge hit. So I’m for batter–unless it’s heavy and sodden. Yeah, sometimes I’ll be happy with crumb-coated fried fish, or cornmeal-coated fried fish–but my standard fried fish play, without doubt, is “batter up!”
I love clams…but they crazily change flavor on you, depending on the context in which they’re presented. I love raw clams; that’s one very specific flavor. I love clams oreganata, another kind of clam taste. Ditto my all-time clam fave, Linguine with White Clam Sauce, with so much emphasis on the briny brightness. And let me not forget the unique taste of my favorite quick New England dinner, Steamers, served with hot clam broth! Amazingly, none of these presentations features the kind of flavor you get from a platter of fried clams. For starters, it is very important that you use the right kinds of clams for proper fried clams: the same soft-shelled clams you’d use in a potful of steamers (these clams with the “pisser” have been a long-time specialty of Ipswich, Massachusetts…though semi-depleted beds have led to the rise of beds in southern Maine at Damariscotta). These clams have a fat belly, and a “rim” around the belly; I like a plate of fried clams that features both. The classic batter involves evaporated milk, flour and yellow cornmeal–giving rise to a finished product that’s light, crunchy, clammy and rather sweet. It’s a unique profile–well worth the trip to the Clam Box in Ipswich, Mass., my favorite fried-clam place in the world.
Ah, fried chicken. Do I even need to comment? Sure I do…because there are about 3 trillion types of fried chicken out there, most of them not in the first rank! In fact, of the 500 recipes in my Beard-Award-winning book “It’s ALL American Food,” not one got more testing attention from me than southern fried chicken; my staff and I estimate that we ran approximately 100 tests, switching up various factors, to get this thang just right. The most important factor, of course, is the type of exterior crunch; so much of the fried chickem I’m served has what I call “the helmet”–a single-sheeted exterior plane that seems almost painted on the outside of the chicken, rather than growing organically (metaphor!) from within. The really good stuff, on the other hand, seems to arise from the chicken itself, a logical extension; it is not a single sheet, but an ever-changing surface of crazy whirls, crisps, bumps, ridges, etc. The secret is simple: good fried chicken has no batter, just a shake-in-the-bag seasoned flour. But there is probably no fried- coating in the world–I’m talkin’ ’bout the COATING part–that is as seductive as a proper fried-chicken coating. Somehow the rise of chicken fat up to the surface seems to have an effect both on the texture, and on the fatty, golden-glow flavor. By the way…..in my opinion, the fast- chain in America that features the highest-quality item…is New Orleans-based Popeye’s which, all over the country, serves up some badass southern fried.
To the American South we go again, to round out my deep-oil quintet. Sure, I like all kinds of vegetables with a batter and a fry (I LOVE Indian pakoras, for example)! But nothing in the green kingdom is quite as special in deep oil regalia as is okra. For one thing, the subtle flavor of okra seems to get its best emphasis in this cooking treatment. Then there’s the texture thing. As we all know, okra has this “mucillaginous,” or gummy nature. Now, when that okra slime is oozing into a wet medium–like tomato sauce–the trail of ooze is unattractive to many. However, say I…encase that oozy thang in a crispy thang, and you have a textural duet that is much more appealing! Fried okra is a staple in the American south, where, in preparation, something wet precedes something dry before the cut pieces of okra are deep-fried. Leading “wet” ingredients are egg, and buttermilk (or both)! Leading “dry” ingredients for the coating are cornmeal, and flour (or both)!