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No fear of frying

by Brian Clarey

It happened because of okra. And it wasn’t even my okra — my sister in-law had bought some fresh okra and she wasn’t sure what to do with it. “You gotta fry it,” I said. She reminded me that she had given us her deep fryer years ago, and I reminded her that I wasn’t giving it back. “But you could saut’,” I offered. The problem with okra, I explained, is the slime. Okra is slimy, which makes it a great thickener for gumbo or stew, but when we’re talking straight-up boiled okra, it’s a little bit like eating snot. “Here’s what you do,” I said. “Put some cornmeal together with some breadcrumbs. Or if you want to get crazy, go and get yourself some panko.” Panko, or Japanese breadcrumbs, are made from crustless bread and are cut more coarsely than the American or Italian style. They are lighter and crunchier, and they give whatever they coat a great look. My sister in-law went off in search of some panko, and the next day I bought a batch of fresh okra and a couple gallons of fryer oil. And I picked up a bunch of other stuff that I thought might do well with a little swim in my Fry Daddy. This happens about once a year: I pick up a big-ass bottle of oil, pull the fryer from the back of a bottom cupboard and get to soaking pretty much anything and everything I can think to throw in there — a trick I learned during idle hours in the restaurant biz. I’ve deep-fried whole mushrooms, Cornish game hens, pepperoni slices (which turn into a kind of spicy chip), spinach, bananas, bread, polenta, bacon, broccoli, onion slices, hamburgers, a frozen pizza (folded in half) and, once, the thumb of my right hand. Some things fare better than others in the oil. This time around, I lined up the okra, some kale, corn on the cob, green onions and whole garlic heads. I also planned to make my own cheese sticks — more on that later. Had I been able to find them at my Harris Teeter, I would have bought won-ton wraps and made crab Rangoon. Alas, that experiment will have to wait for another day. I hustled the kids into the kitchen as the oil heated in the kettle, explained to them to stay away from the fryer and showed them the lingering skin discoloration on my right thumb as a warning. Then we started sizzling. I put in a load of kale to start off. Kale is a hearty, healthy green — though frying makes it less so on both counts. After introducing it to the fryer, kale becomes a light, crispy, wafer-thin snack food that can add texture and flavor to a dish, but we like it all by itself. It cooks quickly. While it drained, I prepped a head of garlic merely by chopping off the top of the bulb; I put it in the basket and dropped it. Pulled and drained, the garlic wasn’t quite what I expected — I guess I was thinking about what happens to garlic when you drop it in a crawfish boil. It was tougher than I thought it would be, more pungent. But my oldest son popped out the cloves and ate about half a dozen of them.

The green onion, too, were disappointing. I expected the green onion stalk to become crispy and stiff, and the onion bulb to soften a bit, but the whole thing, even after draining it, was a soft, droopy mess. Next time I will try leeks, and stick to roasting green onions under the broiler. Fried corn on the cob is nothing new, but my little girl likes corn, so I made her some. And then I moved on to the okra. I used Italian-style breadcrumbs, cut with a bit of straight cornmeal for flavor and texture. Nothing deep-fries like cornmeal. I ran the okra — whole, because I didn’t want to be chopping slimy okra all afternoon — through an egg wash and rolled each in the breadcrumb mixture. I fried six or seven at a time. The end result was delicious: deep-green okra inside a crispy coating, and the kids ate them as fast as I could pull them out of the fryer. (I had some issues, as I always do with this kind of thing, with the coating sticking to the okra. Perhaps a pro out there can help a brother out? E-mail me at editor@yesweekly.com.) Then it was time to fry cheese. For my cheese sticks, I simply bought packaged string cheese, cut each in half and battered them in the same way I did the okra, pressing in a bit to get the coating to stick. Then I flash-fried them, pulled them just as the cheese was beginning to seep out into the oil. These, too, went over well. And after this annual bout of deep-fried decadence, the Fry Daddy goes back into the low cupboard for another year — as soon as I can find some won ton.

Fried green onions, okra, corn on the cob, cheese sticks and kale. (photo by Brian Clarey)

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