Friday, March 6, 2009
Fear of Frying
Now and I again I yield to popular demand and do a fry-up supper. I'm definitely not one of these people who shun fried food because "it's bad for you." I personally think any food that's made without love or imagination is no good for you anyway, and that includes badly-made salads. I absolutely adore fried food when it's done right. Over the years I've taught myself through trial and countless errors to overcome my fear of frying. The only reason I don't cook this way very often is because cleaning up is such a drag, and the smell in the house drives me crazy the following day, no matter what I do to dispell it.
My frying pan of choice is a cast iron chicken fryer by Wagner that's 10 inches across and 3 inches high. I paid about $25 for it 15 years ago and it will probably outlive my children's grandchildren, if they look after it as lovingly as I do. One crucial step many people skip is getting the pan hot (but not smoking) before pouring in the oil. My theory is that heat causes the surface molecules of the cast iron to expand, creating a sealed, non-stick surface. It doesn't matter whether you're deep frying or sautéeing, or whether you use an expensive Staub or Le Creuset pan or something much cheaper like a Lodge or a Wagner. If you add the oil before the pan is properly hot, food will stick. It's as simple as that. The other important thing to remember when frying anything is that the oil in the pan must be very hot, but not smoking, before putting the food in. I'm too ornery to mess around with thermometers, but I always test oil temperature by putting in a few drops of the batter into the hot oil. If it puffs up quickly, I'm ready to rock and roll.
Over the years I've fiddled with many recipes for batter, some of them absurdly complicated. I eventually came up with my own and it's fool-proof. It gives meat, fish or vegetables the ethereal lightness and crunch you find in Japanese tempura. And it's dead easy to throw together. Do not make this batter ahead of time because the yeast in the beer, which is the rising agent in this batter, goes flat. And flat means boring, in batterspeak.
1 cup flour (or 2/3 c. flour and 1/3 c. cornmeal)
1 teaspoon salt
a good pinch of cayenne powder and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup COLD beer (and I mean damn cold)
This gives you enough batter to make fried chicken or fish-and-chips for 4 hungry people. Prepare what you want to cook and pat dry with paper towels. Patting the food dry before dunking it in the batter is important, unless you think getting splattered with boiling oil is exciting. It isn't; it fucking hurts. Get the pan hot, pour in enough oil to cover what you're cooking, and then get the oil hot. Throw the batter together while the oil in the pan is getting up to heat: put the dry ingredients in a large bowl, add the cold beer, and whisk lightly until smooth. That's it, and if you have any leftover beer, for Pete's sake, don't waste it, drink it! Dip the fish/chicken/whatever in the batter to lightly coat it and carefully lower into the hot oil using tongs, unless you have asbestos fingers like me. You'll hear a satisfying sizzly-swooshy noise as the food makes contact with the oil, and you'll see the batter puff up almost instantly - if your oil is at the correct temperature. Watch food like a hawk when frying, and ignore the urge to fiddle with it. You don't want to puncture that thin outer shell and end up with greasy, soggy food. When one side has turned golden, carefully turn it over. When it's a gone beautiful golden brown all throughout, take it out with tongs or a slotted spoon, drain it on a wire rack, and cook the next batch. At this point I usually call out to the troops and tell them to get to the dinner table prontissimo because if there's anything that makes me truly grumpy at meal times, it's when people let my food get cold.
This was our fish-and-chips dinner the other night, or what was left of it by the time I remembered to take a picture. I used about 800 grams of catfish fillets, and the "chips" were not potatoes but courgette (zucchini) wedges that were dipped in the same batter as the fish and fried in the same pan. You can serve this with ketchup or lemon wedges. I like to make an evil dipping sauce of mayonnaise, lemon, garlic, chopped scallions, Tabasco and a slug of Kikkoman soy sauce.
It makes for total silence at the table. There are never any leftovers.