I’ve written pieces like this over the years, and they follow a pattern: I get a craving to fry some food, I figure out a batter — it’s often not the same one as the last time — I do it, and I think, “Why don’t I do this more often?”
It’s not difficult: Fried food you do yourself is almost always superior to anything you buy elsewhere. And it is more fun than almost any other form of cooking. But it’s definitely its own style.
Inevitably, when I’m frying, I never fail to think of an evening in 1984. My friend Andrea was staying over. I’d gone to a supermarket that tried to demonstrate to its shoppers that it had everything: I came home with calves’ brains, artichokes, and chanterelles, I kid you not. We spent an hour frying those up individually — these were coated only with flour — sprinkling them with salt and lemon, and eating them while we drank white wine. I never had more fun.
There are downsides. Cleanup is a drag; there is inevitable spatter; decent oil isn’t cheap. The biggest disincentive to fry is that most people don’t practice: They don’t learn to get good at it. Once that happens, you can fry almost anything and the results are phenomenal. And yet …. see the headline. It applies to many people.
But frying is easy.
I’m not going to turn this into a primer; those exist in at least three How to Cook Everything books. But I am going to talk about my latest experience, why I loved it so much, and how it can set an example.
I had eggplant; I had haddock; I had onion; I had cooked millet. These things have little in common; you could stir them all together and have a sort of fried millet dish that would’ve excited no one. Instead, I set a medium pot of oil to heat. I used peanut, though any will do: The keys are freshness and, if possible, not chemically extracted — that is, cold-pressed. That’s expensive, I grant you, and since 99.9 percent of the fried food you get everywhere else uses chemically extracted oil …. Well, your decision.
I set the heat to medium; I’m not in a hurry and I don’t want to overheat the oil. This can be a leisurely process; there is no urgency.
While that was happening, I cut up the fish into serving pieces; that takes maybe a minute; likewise the eggplant. I took a thick slice off a big white onion; as I was cooking for myself, that was enough. I pressed millet into balls; because it had been overcooked in the first place, it was quite starchy and that was enough; it needed no binder.
Then it was time for batter. I craved something thick. Often I fry with just flour or flour-egg-flour (or flour-egg-flour-egg, which is different), or cornmeal, or flour-egg-breadcrumbs, or another combination. I was, however, in the mood for batter and yet I had no eggs.
So I mixed flour and cornstarch in equal quantities to make a cup or so, added a teaspoon of baking powder, some salt, and ice water to make a thick but slightly drippy batter — tempura without egg, really. There are reasons for each of these decisions, but combinations would’ve been fine also: You can make a perfectly suitable batter with flour and water.
At this point, I was ready to test the oil, which had been heating for about 15 minutes. If it’s smoking you know it’s too hot. If it looks thin and shimmery you’re in the ballpark. A good thermometer like a ThermoPop helps, and 350 degrees is almost always right, though sometimes 330 or 375 is better (and really it’s all ballpark).
I just dropped in a few grains of millet; if your food sinks halfway and then bounces to the top, it’s perfect. If it sinks and stays there, the oil is too cold; if it doesn’t sink at all, it’s too hot. But if it’s too hot, and it’s not smoking, and the stuff isn’t browning too fast, it’s not too hot, and it’s going to cool off fast as you put stuff in it, so that’s not too big a deal. Once you start frying, your job is to regulate the heat so the food fries steadily, bubbles merrily away, and browns gradually. That part is super easy and fun.
I fried the millet balls without batter. When they were finished, I dipped them in mayo and munched immediately; they were as good as the best french fries and way better than most. Then, I battered my thick onion slice and laid it in there; I added one or two pieces of eggplant. As I said, I was cooking only for myself so I was using a small-ish (4-quart?) pot. When the onion was done — about 5 minutes total, turning once or twice — I held it over the pot with tongs, then put it on a plate — no paper towels etc. were necessary: If the frying is done well and you let the oil drip off the food when you take it out, it’s not oil-soaked.
I continued adding and removing eggplant pieces until I was ready to add the fish, which is the fastest-cooking thing of all. The whole process, from the first piece of onion to removing the last piece of fish, was about 15 minutes, and the onion, which had quite a bit of mass and a super-hot interior, was still hot when I started eating; my “sauce” was lemon (and salt, of course). Everything was crisp beyond belief and perfectly cooked: Frying keeps food moist even if you do overcook inside, which is unlikely to happen before the exterior browns.
The particulars: The onion was tender, still flavorful, and juicy; it wasn’t just the dried-out crunch of most onion rings, but a real fried vegetable. The eggplant, creamy, with that crisp exterior, almost like a croquette. The fish I can’t say enough about: The flavor was outstanding, and the flesh was firm, with the crunchy crust. I ate it with my hands.
I saved the oil in case I wanted to do a repeat performance the next night. What was amazing to me is that the leftovers — there was no onion, but a couple of millet balls, some eggplant, and some fish — were all crisp, not soggy, and flavorful, even cold. What could be better?