Among the dishes that keep diners coming back for more, deep-fried foods are no small potatoes.
This article first appeared in the 1 May 2009 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
When people get a taste for something crispy, salty and deep-fried, their thoughts likely turn to going out. That’s the case even now, as more Americans say they’re generally curbing their restaurant visits. Why? Because fried foods remain the kind of item that’s simply much easier to order on a menu than to whip up (and clean up) at home.
Besides getting customers in the door, menuing fried foods may also help boost check averages. According to Chicago-based market-research firm Technomic, 67% of consumers will order add-ons such as appetizers or side dishes with a meal when the add-ons appeal to their cravings.
Taking this into consideration, many chefs are expanding their offerings beyond basic French fries and onion rings, giving the deep-fried treatment to new and surprising ingredients such as heritage okra and chickpea flour. They’re also experimenting with serving deep-fried items as entrées and desserts instead of just as appetizers. The results are delectable, simple and most of all craveable.
DEEP-FRIED VEGGIES: BEYOND POTATOES
Ask Chef de Cuisine Adam Biderman what is the most popular fried dish he serves at Atlanta’s Holeman & Finch Public House, and he answers without hesitation. “Fried okra,” he says. “Last year, pretty much every table had it.”
Although fried okra itself is hardly unfamiliar to the pub’s Southern diners, Biderman’s rendition—which is offered as a snack, an appetizer, or a side dish—stands out from the rest for a couple of reasons.
For starters, he sources only locally grown heritage varieties of okra that are drier, thinner, more tender and more colorful (in shades of purple, red and green) than commercial okra. He also slices the vegetables lengthwise instead of crosswise, leaving more surface area for crisping. Biderman prepares the slices to order, first dipping them in buttermilk and dredging them through a seasoned flour blend, then deep-frying them in vegetable oil.
To cut through the richness of the okra, he serves the dish with “pepper vinegar,” a tangy vinegar-, salt- and sugar-based liquid that is the same mixture used to pickle the restaurant’s string beans.
Zak Dolezal, executive chef of Duke’s Alehouse and Kitchen in Crystal Lake, Ill., also turns to produce for inspiring fried dishes. As with Biderman’s okra, the success of Dolezal’s tempura-battered green beans (available as a side dish or an appetizer) stems from quality ingredients.
Dolezal sources organic beans. He also mixes his tempura batter, comprising cornstarch, rice flour, all-purpose flour and cold beer (preferably ale), to order. “The batter has to stay super-cold,” he says.
To cook, he drops the raw, battered green beans into the fryer one by one to prevent them from sticking together as they fry. “You have to move pretty fast,” says Dolezal. “The beans can’t cook for too long. They still need that crunch.” The dish is served with a teriyaki-ginger dipping sauce on the side.
At L’Albatros Brasserie in Cleveland, Chef-owner Zack Bruell menus crispy breaded cauliflower with an entrée of braised pork shank and pork belly or alone as a side dish. Unlike tempura batter, the breading Bruell uses for the cauliflower is sturdy and holds up well, even when the vegetable pieces are coated before service.
“If you had to bread the cauliflower during service, it would be cumbersome,” Bruell says. “It’s a fairly fast preparation once it’s breaded.”
To prepare the cauliflower, he cuts florets into 1/3-inch slices and then dips them in flour, egg wash and a mixture of panko and Pecorino Romano cheese. Once the pieces are fried to a crisp golden brown, Bruell drains them on paper towels, seasons them with salt and gives them a final send-off with a mist of fennel gastrique made by simmering toasted fennel seeds with equal parts sugar and white-wine vinegar.
When serving fried items, that last hit of acid is important, Bruell says. “When you fry things, they can start to taste the same, and you lose the integrity of what’s being fried.” Adding acid “creates a balance that makes the flavors jump.”
In many restaurant kitchens, deep fryers also are being fired up for main dishes. On the lunch menu at Catalan Food & Wine in Houston, that’s true for chicken-fried venison.
“It’s a way to get people to eat more venison,” says Chef Chris Shepherd. “People eat anything chicken-fried.” Served with lady cream peas, mustard greens and red-eye gravy, the entrée is generously sized, even though each portion uses only about 4 ounces of meat. “It’s big food,” Shepherd says of the fried dish. “On the plate it looks like 12 ounces.”
To prepare, he pounds pieces of New Zealand venison flat and then dredges them first in milk, next in flour and finally again in milk before dropping them in the fryer. Then the meat is fried until it’s crisp on the outside and medium-rare inside.
Asian-style fried chicken has quickly become a bestseller at the three Boston-area locations of Wagamama, a London-based concept. For its chicken katsu curry, panko-breaded chicken breast is deep-fried then simmered in a light curry sauce. The bright sauce, infused with star anise, garlic, cinnamon and turmeric, is what makes the dish “particularly addictive,” says the restaurant’s U.S. development chef Barnaby Godden.
DEEP-FRIED, ITALIAN STYLE
Still other chefs are gathering deep-fried inspiration in Italian-style starches and doughs. At A Voce in New York City, Chef Missy Robbins offers panelle, a Sicilian chickpea fritter, as a side dish. She cooks chickpea flour in water and olive oil until thick and then spreads the mixture on sheet pans to cool. Next, she cuts the base into pieces, deep-fries them and seasons them simply with salt and pepper. At The Bristol in Chicago, Chef Chris Pandel serves a similar chickpea fritter with grilled sardines.
Sondra Bernstein, chef-owner of The Girl & The Fig in Sonoma, Calif., gleaned a couple of fried recipes from Italy as well for her newest restaurant, Estate. On a recent trip, she was served gnocchi fritti instead of bread alongside an antipasti plate at a mom-and-pop restaurant in Emilia Romagna. The gnocchi, made from a simple dough of flour, milk, yeast, salt and water, were cut into squares and deep-fried until they puffed in the center.
“It was really authentic,” Bernstein says. “We weren’t at a fancy top-chef restaurant. It was comfort food.” Bernstein now is working on her own version to replace the grissini she serves with a selection of antipasti at Estate.
The restaurant’s other deep-fried Italian option is zeppole, a doughnut-like Italian dessert (made with butter, eggs, sugar, milk, yeast and water) that Bernstein offers in a linen-lined bowl with fruit preserves and a hazelnut-chocolate spread.
Will these or any of the other new fried dishes on the menu be enough to ignite customer cravings? Bernstein thinks they just might. “Even though people talk about health, we all like a little bit of fried food,” she says.
Oil temperature is important when it comes to frying. Higher heat allows for quicker pickups, but low temperatures are more desirable when frying large or dense foods. For this reason, every Wagamama location maintains two fryers; one set at 330F and one set at 365F. The cooler fryer is used for larger pieces of meat, such as whole chicken breasts for chicken katsu curry. The hotter fryer cooks Wagamama’s fried side dishes, such ebi katsu, breaded shrimp served with a sweet-spicy garlic-chile sauce.
OFF THE SIDELINES
Most people think of French fries as side attractions, served with burgers or as part of steak frites. But as chefs seek approachable, bottom-line-friendly menu ideas, many are repositioning fries as hearty appetizers.
“We do straightforward, home-style dishes,” says Chef Zak Dolezal of Duke’s Alehouse and Kitchen in Crystal Lake, Ill. Smothered in cheese and a choice of either barbecued pork or grilled chicken, his Knife and Fork Fries are satisfying and familiar. “Everyone can order it, and it’s a cheaper item on the menu,” says Dolezal. Here are a few more ways chefs are elevating simple fries: