I have mentioned more than once on this blog that I have stayed the hell away from deep fat frying because it's messy, it involves large amounts of oil, and it leaves your house smelling like a fast food joint. I have said that it was not my idea of a good time in the kitchen.
But recently I've revised my anti-frying stance.
This probably began with a Mark Bittman column I'd read in the NY Times some time back disputing the usual reasons people give for not frying at home. The column began, "The cooking method people fear most is the one they love most: frying." It stayed in the back of mind.
Then recently, searching for something new to do with asparagus, I read about using pencil-thin asparagus in a piccolo fritto or "small fry" in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. I was intrigued but the instructions called for frying the food in four quarts of oil using a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature. This was way, WAY, WAY more of a production than I would ever be interested in.
But the idea had taken root and I looked through cookbooks to see what other people had to say on the subject. Marcella Hazan's cookbooks were the only ones I have that covered the subject in any depth and while she gives different guidelines in different places in her books about how much oil you need, one of the recipes in Marcella says... has a recipe for frying batter-dipped Belgian endive in half an inch of oil. A half inch of oil was something I could deal with.
In both Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and Marcella says... there are recipes for frying different vegetables using a flour and water batter called pastella. It is described as being a "think eggshell-like crust of matchless crispness" and "thin and deliciously brittle." I was totally sold.
I used my 10-inch cast iron frying pan and filled it about 1/2 inch deep with canola oil which worked out to about 2/3 of a cup of oil. I heated the oil and when the oil had begun to shimmer in the pan, I gently slipped my batter dipped asparagus spears into the oil.
Following Marcella's advice I was careful not to crowd the pan, not to add all the pieces at once (which may cause the temperature of the oil to drop) or take everything out at once (which may cause the temperature of the oil to get too hot).
When the asparagus spears became golden brown on the bottom I flipped them over to cook on the other side. As I took one piece of asparagus out I added another piece to the pan. I drained the asparagus on a wire rack which Marcella says keeps the food crisper. I salted the asparagus spears as soon as they came out of the oil. It was amazingly simple and was not any messier than making something like tomato sauce. In fact, it spattered much less than tomato sauce.
We spritzed the asparagus with lemon juice before eating them and they were... astonishingly good -- hot and crisp outside, perfectly cooked inside, not one bit greasy or heavy. Then, because I had batter left over, I made onion rings which were also light and crisp and perfectly cooked. I don't attribute this to my cooking abilities, but rather to the batter I was using and the fact that frying is pretty easy -- much easier than I expected.
I have done almost a complete 180 on the question of frying food. I'm a convert. Almost.
One downside is the lingering smell of fried food in the house. This would have been somewhat minimized if I'd had the exhaust fan on the entire time I was cooking but I was so engrossed in what I was doing that I didn't remember to turn it on until I was halfway through the frying. Next time I also plan to try using grapeseed oil and see if the odor is less heavy with that.
I suppose the other downside is how healthy -- or unhealthy -- it is to eat fried foods. In the Mark Bittman column, the food scientist Harold McGee is quoted as saying that only about as much fat is absorbed by food cooked this way as it is with food that is sauteed or stir-fried. I'd like to believe that.
Pastella batter recipe and instructions for frying From Marcella Says... by Marcella Hazan
Asparagus Fried in Pastella Batter
1 lb thin asparagus, trimmed
Oil for frying (corn oil or grapeseed oil preferred)
1 cup plus two tablespoons (approximately) all purpose flour
1 cup lukewarm water
1. Pour the water into a bowl, then slowly sift the flour into the bowl while stirring with the whisk. Stop adding flour as soon as a clean dry spoon dipped in the batter comes out with a thin coating.
2. Heat 1/2 inch of oil over medium heat. The oil is hot enough to use when a drop of batter floats immediately to the surface.
3. Drop the asparagus spears into the bowl of batter and then one-by-one fish them out with a fork and slip them into the oil. When the edges of the batter look golden, flip them over and cook them on the underside until golden, then remove them to the wire rack.
4. Salt immediately. Serve at once.
I made the pastella batter using the recipe in Essentials of Italian Cooking which called for 1 cup of water mixed with 2/3 cup of flour to achieve the consistency of sour cream, using more or less flour as needed. I used an entire cup of flour and the consistency was more heavy cream than sour cream. At that point I decided to go ahead and use it anyway and in reading over the recipe in Marcella says... I seemed to have arrived at the right consistency.
I gauged the readiness of the oil by watching until the oil surface looked shimmery and then dropping in a piece of asparagus to see if it sizzled. The sizzling is key.
I can't tell you how many this will serve. Mike and I made an entire meal out of this asparagus and the onion rings. I can tell you it disappeared in mere minutes.