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Published: Tuesday, 10/29/2013 - Updated: 8 months ago

Chewing the fat: Deep-fried and good for you

BY MARK BITTMAN
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
Deep-Fried garlic cloves and green olives. Deep-Fried garlic cloves and green olives.
NEW YORK TIMES Enlarge

Fried food is probably not on anyone’s lists of healthy eats, but you have to start with this: Fat is good for you.

The long-lived people of Crete might not drink a glass of olive oil a day, but they consume three times as much as we do, and that’s probably more desirable than our misguided notion that the less fat you eat, the better.

There are differences among fats, of course, but with trans-fats in full retreat and lard and butter making comebacks, the whole fat-eating thing is starting to make some sense. Of course, the key word is moderation. You can eat fat as long as it’s high quality and you don’t eat it to the exclusion of plants.

That’s one reason you shouldn’t reject deep-frying at home. The second reason is that you know you love it. (I do, and probably average a session twice a month.) The third is that it can be fast and easy. The fourth is that you can deep-fry plants. And anything else.

Frying is thought of as messy, but this can be mitigated by the simplest of measures: using a pot that is heavy, broad and deep, like a well-made stockpot. Choose this, add a fair amount of oil, and the process is simplified and neat.

Which oil? How much? Since most deep-frying is done at around 350°, this notion that olive oil is inappropriate for frying is nonsense; it smokes at 375° (and smoking isn’t the end of the story, either). So olive oil — especially “pure,” which is a step below extra virgin and in theory less expensive — is a fine option, especially for something in which you’d like its flavor, which could include any of the recipes here.

Unless, that is, you’re seasoning tempura with soy sauce, in which case you might choose peanut oil, which is as flavorful as olive oil, but obviously different. The third excellent option is grapeseed oil, which is as close to neutral as you can find.

None of these is as inexpensive as vegetable oil, or soy, or corn, or Wesson. And if you don’t have problems with chemical extraction, you might choose one of them; they are, after all, what is used for nearly all commercial deep-frying. If, however, you can afford it and you want the best possible frying experience, use one of those three mentioned above, or at least a cold-pressed neutral oil like safflower or sunflower.

Money is an issue, since on the face of it, frying isn’t cheap. When it comes to the “how much” question, I’d say two quarts. That’s not a fixed number, and 48 ounces (1½ quarts, or 6 cups) is probably enough in most cases. Sometimes you can get away with a quart or even less.

But more is generally better, and you can reuse the oil quite a few times for deep-frying, stir-frying, or sautéing, as long as you strain out most solids — and you need not be fanatic about this; a quick run through a strainer is fine — and keep it in the refrigerator. (You might consider keeping oil you’re not using in the near future in the refrigerator anyway; rancidity comes from heat and light, and it’s nasty. If you have an old bottle of oil sitting around in your kitchen, smell it; you’ll probably throw it away.)

The goal of frying is to crisp the outside perfectly and cook the inside just enough, while keeping the whole package from absorbing more than a bit of oil. Most of this happens magically, as long as you follow the rules, which I’ll get to in a second. There are three or four levels of protection you can give the interior, and all of them become satisfying crusts — again, as long as everything goes right.

The first layer of protection is the stuff itself: You allow the outside of the food you’re cooking to become the crisp part. (That’s like a french fry, or falafel or “naked” fried chicken.) Then there’s the second layer: a light dusting of cornmeal, flour or the like. (I like this with fried squid or fried chicken, especially when seasoned heavily with black pepper.) Then a fluffy coating, like tempura or a doughy, pancake-like batter (the latter, it seems to me, is often — perhaps usually — overkill). And finally, the old flour, egg, and bread crumb treatment, which is, well, yum.

They’re all pretty much appropriate for anything. You choose the food you want to fry, you choose the coating, you follow these general instructions and it’ll work.

Start by putting at least 2 inches of oil in a heavy and deep pot. Less than 2 inches and you may not be deep-frying; it’ll work, but you might have to turn the food more often, it might stick to the bottom a bit and it might cook less evenly.

Turn the heat to medium or medium-high and go about your business. Part of that business might be finding a thermometer, because you want that oil to be between 350° and 365° in almost every instance. The heavy pot will help keep that temperature stable.

You don’t have to have a thermometer, though, because there are a couple of other ways to know when the oil is ready. It’s just about right when a pinch of flour sizzles without burning immediately; that’s not super-accurate, but if you then add a single piece of food and it first sinks a bit and then immediately rises to the top, the oil is perfect. If it sits on the bottom like a flounder, the oil isn’t hot enough; if it doesn’t sink at all, the oil is too hot. The oil is also too hot if it’s smoking.

Add your food in batches and don’t crowd; you do not want the temperature to plummet, nor do you want the pieces of food nestling against one another. (Although it’s fine if they bump.) You may or may not have to turn the pieces, but that’s easy, because they’ll be floating and they won’t stick. Remove them with a slotted spoon, tongs, or spider; you’ll know when they’re done, because the color will be evenly gorgeous.

Fried Zucchini

4 medium zucchini, about 2 pounds

3 eggs

Salt

Black pepper

1 cup all-purpose flour

3 cups bread crumbs, preferably fresh

Neutral oil, like canola or grapeseed, for deep-frying

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley leaves for garnish

2 lemons, quartered, for serving

Trim stem ends from zucchini and cut either crosswise into slices about ½-inch thick or into french-fry-like sticks. Heat the oven to 200°. Beat eggs with salt and pepper in a shallow bowl or pie plate. Set up an assembly line of a plate of flour, the plate of eggs, and a plate of bread crumbs. Have a baking sheet ready, and several rectangles of wax or parchment paper.

Coat a zucchini piece in the flour, dip in the egg, and coat in the bread crumbs. You want a thin, even layer of each coating; shake off any excess. Put coated zucchini on baking sheet in a single layer, top with wax or parchment paper and repeat with remaining slices. Chill for at least 10 minutes or up to 3 hours.

Put a large heavy skillet or a deep broad saucepan over medium heat and pour in enough oil to come up the sides at least ½ inch. While the oil heats, line a plate with paper towels. The oil is ready when a pinch of flour sizzles immediately.

Put a few zucchini pieces in the oil without crowding. When the bottoms brown, after 2 to 3 minutes, turn and cook the other side for 2 to 3 minutes, adjusting heat to keep oil sputtering without smoking or burning zucchini. As each piece is done, put it on the paper towels to drain, turning to blot it on both sides if needed. Transfer to an ovenproof platter and keep warm in oven while you finish cooking. Add and heat up oil as necessary.

Garnish with parsley and serve with lemon wedges.

Yield: 4 servings

Vegetable Tempura

Neutral oil, such as canola or grapeseed, for deep-frying

½ cup flour, plus more for dredging

2 egg yolks

24 or more vegetable pieces: slices of sweet potato or squash, strips of bell pepper, slices of onion, broccoli florets, as you like

Salt and black pepper

1 lemon, cut into quarters, optional

Soy sauce, optional

Heat 2 or 3 inches (more is better) of oil in a deep fryer or deep saucepan. The oil is ready when it reaches 350° or when a pinch of flour sizzles immediately. Combine 1 cup water and 1 cup ice; let sit for a minute, then measure 1 cup water from this. Beat lightly with the flour and egg yolks; the batter should be lumpy.

Dredge the vegetables very lightly in the flour, tapping to remove excess. Then dip them in the batter and immediately put in the oil. You can cook 6 to 8 pieces at a time, depending on the size of your pan. Cook 1 to 2 minutes, no more. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve immediately, with lemon wedges and soy sauce if you like.

Yield: 4 servings

Falafel

1¾ cups dried chickpeas or 1 cup dried chickpeas, plus ¾ cup dried split fava beans

2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed

½ onion, quartered

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon ground cumin

Scant teaspoon cayenne, or to taste; or mild chili powder to taste

½ cup chopped fresh parsley or cilantro leaves

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, or more to taste

Neutral oil, such as grapeseed or canola, for deep-frying

Cook's note: This recipe requires the beans to be soaked for 24 hours before using.

Put beans into a large bowl and cover with water by 3 to 4 inches — they will triple in volume as they soak. Soak for 24 hours, checking once or twice to see if you need to add water to keep the beans covered.

Drain beans well and transfer to a food processor with all the remaining ingredients except the oil; pulse until minced but not puréed; add water tablespoon by tablespoon if necessary to allow the machine to do its work, but keep the mixture as dry as possible. (Too much water and your falafel will fall apart. If that happens, add more ground beans.) Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, cayenne, or a little more lemon juice as needed.

Put at least 2 to 3 inches of oil (more is better) into a large deep saucepan (the narrower the pan, the less oil you need; but the more oil you use, the more you can cook at one time). Turn heat to medium-high and heat oil to about 350°. (A pinch of batter will sizzle immediately; a piece of falafel will sink halfway to the bottom, then rise.)

Scoop out heaping tablespoons of the mixture and shape it into balls or small patties. Fry in batches, without crowding, until nicely browned, turning as necessary; total cooking time per batch will be less than 5 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Yield: 6 servings



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