Friends, my fear of deep-frying is now a thing of the past. I can now make all the shrimp tempura and beignets that I want without worrying that I will burst into flames. It all started when I felt the need to go back to the basics of cooking — start from the beginning. With a test kitchen format, I constantly question the way things are done or cooked. How do I streamline a recipe without sacrificing taste? How do I minimize the dishes to be washed without sacrificing the focus on the food? And how the heck do I use a deep fryer? !
So I decided to enroll in the Culinary Arts Program of the University of Richmond for their Winter-Spring schedule. The first course was called “Tools of the Trade.” I really thought all we were going to discuss were kitchen utensils and equipment. How can you talk about all this stuff for 6 hours? It turned out, much to my glee, that the utensil portion took only 1 and ½ hours and shifted to lessons in knife skills, which I think I could use a refresher on. Anyway, we proceeded to chop mirepoix and debone a chicken to be used for the stock that would be needed for the different cooking methods we were going to learn the next day.
And so the next day came. The stock was already made (thank goodness) so the chef-instructor went ahead and talked about different cooking methods. My eyes zeroed in on the deep-frying notes on the hand-outs. I raised my hand and said “I’m scared of deep-frying, I have always felt I needed a mask for this! Are you going to show us how to do it properly?” He said “Absolutely!” So I waited patiently as he discussed roasting, which was also interesting, but I wanted to learn about the frying. Finally, he said (and these were not his exact words) “Deep frying has really gotten a bad rap about all the fat it introduces into the food, but if done correctly your food is not as greasy as you think it is. At the right temperature, the frying simply seals your food in a crust and lets the moisture within the food steam-cook itself. The problem with most deep-frying methods is that they tell you to get the oil to 350°F, but this is not hot enough. You have to get the oil to 380°F because as you drop your food into the oil, it is going to lower the temperature and you want to keep it at 360°F and above.” He also said that olive oil should be reserved only when its distinct flavor needed to come through with the food; It is expensive and has a low smoking point (375°F) which makes it impractical to use for deep frying. Canola oil is best for deep-frying because it has a higher smoking point (400°F), a mild flavor and is cheap.
As the class broke up into 4 groups of four we were taxed with several cooking assignments. We were to make vegetable soup thickened by a roux, roast chicken legs at 450°F, deep-fry some breaded shrimp, and pan-sauté a chicken breast, plus make an herb sauce for it. I helped with slicing the chicken for the pan sauté and the prep work for the soup. After that was done, I asked the group if they would mind if I did the frying of the breaded shrimp. Nobody seemed to mind, so I proceeded to flour and bread the large shelled crustaceans.
There was a gallon of shimmering oil in a pot on the stove top where two groups had successfully finished their deep-fry. An attached thermometer registered 360 °F; my instructor told me to wait till it got to 380°F. I was starting to get cold feet. “Come on, Veronica, think of all the fried chicken recipes you always wanted to try!” I told myself. When it reached the desired temperature, I took a deep breath and dropped a couple of shrimp into the pot of hot oil using the spider. The oil started to boil furiously but looked like I had it all in control. Yehey! I turned out beautiful golden brown crusty shrimp and they were not greasy at all. On my way home that night, I had visions of myself looking for my Japanese cookbook with that tempura recipe that I’ve been longing to make. I also made a mental note to buy a box of Café Dumond beignet mix from the supermarket. Fresh beignets with my coffee…how cool is that?!
I planned to make the tempura Saturday night and the beignets on Sunday morning. That Saturday, I forgot to buy the cooking oil when I went for my weekly groceries. I only remembered that important ingredient for deep-frying when I went to buy my thermometer. How could I possibly forget? How could I deep-fry when I don’t have enough oil to actually call it a deep-fry? At first, I thought it was a sign that I should not be messing around with this method of cooking. But I know that if I give in to these “signs” every time I forget something then I probably will never cook again since I am notorious for forgetting to procure important ingredients all the time. So I went back to the supermarket to get my 5 quarts of canola oil.
My tempura recipe did not come from my Japanese tome. Instead, I went for the beer batter tempura from The Cook’s Book by Jill Norman. It was simple enough and did not require making the tempura sauce–only a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of lime afterwards.
I poured almost 8 cups of oil into a 4-quart saucepan. The thermometer was hanging from the side of the pot, the bottom not touching the base of the pan. As the oil started to get hot, I heard little popping sounds coming from the shimmering oil. And, do you all know why? I had to wash the thermometer at the last minute, so of course it was not thoroughly dry when I attached it to the pan. Little drops of water in hot oil–a big NO-NO. I know, I really should be banned from the kitchen. The oil eventually stopped popping as the temperature approached 380 °F. I battered up 8 pieces of shrimp, and used the spider to drop it into the oil. Immediately, I knew I had done something stupid. The shrimp clumped up together and I had this huge ball of frying shrimp tempura! I guess it’s obvious I’m still an amateur at this. Anyway, I made sure that I dropped the succeeding battered shrimp individually LIKE the RECIPE STATED. It was a good thing the tempura turned out very good; crispy outside, juicy inside and not greasy. Hurrah for my first attempt! Disposing the oil was a big pain. Since the container for the oil was not yet empty, I had to give up one of my favorite plastic containers to hold the used oil to be disposed off later in the trash (Do not rid of huge amount of oil in the garbage disposal, your county will not like it.). Of course I had to wait for the oil to totally cool down before transferring the used oil. I cannot reuse this oil for the beignets. Ideally, I could have made the beignets first and then reused the oil for the tempura since the former fries pretty cleanly and would not gunk up the oil as much. This time, I washed my thermometer ahead of time so it would be clean and dry for use with the beignets the next day.
I decided to make my beignets from scratch. I found this recipe from a blog called New Orleans Cuisine and the recipe looked close to the real thing. My first encounter with beignets was at Café Beignet in New Orleans . I remembered it distinctly because the “hungry” hubby did not understand why I wanted to eat fried dough, especially near dinnertime. But I said the name beignet (pronounced bin-yay) was so cute that I wanted to know what it tasted like. I asked him if he wanted any, but he said NO. So I ordered 6 pieces – which was a good thing because the hubby-who-said-no ate 2 pieces and wanted more if I did not keep the bag away from him. (Notice a recurring theme over here…we always fight over food!)
Anyway, back to my beignet-making. I made my dough the night before (Saturday) and was awake bright and early Sunday to roll it out and shape it into beignets. The deep-frying this time went more smoothly. I did overcook and undercook some of the beignets, but I finally got the hang of the timing after the first 4 casualties. Beignets cook pretty fast; once the color turns golden brown on one side, flip them to let the other sides brown. Lay them on a paper-lined baking sheet. Then sprinkle powdered sugar liberally on them.
I have been dreaming of this moment for years; having nice hot beignets with my morning coffee–that first bite into a slightly-crusty outer layer sweetened perfectly by delicate powdered sugar to the soft tender core releasing the aroma of freshly-made bread tickling your nostrils. Simply delicious!
Though the beignets are best eaten when they are freshly made, you could wrap them in foil and leave them at room temperature for a day or two. You can reheat in a toaster-oven at 350°F for 8 to 10 minutes.
This indeed was a milestone weekend because I finally got to cook shrimp tempura and beignets, two foods that I was not able to make before because I had a fear of a lot of hot oil. This really opened a lot of other cooking opportunities for me: fried chicken, katsudon and the best of them all deep-fried pork belly confit!
I went through a gallon of canola oil this weekend. I think my pot was too big and with a minimum of 2-3 inches of oil, I had to use a lot. I might need to get a 3-quart, straight-edged saucepan, which should be appropriate for most of my deep-frying requirements.
So, what should I be working on next? At the end of the class last week, I raised my hand again and said, “I have one more fear – caramel!” The instructor grinned and said, “Funny you should say that; we will be tackling that next week!” Stay tuned!