D-Day passed quickly for me, too fast for a properly heartfelt essay on the art of deep frying. But so close is this magical technique to my soul that I decided to write it, unfashionably late and apropos of nothing. In fact, there is no day that is not right for deep-frying -- whether a wriggling trout, pulled from sparkling swift water in July, or a tumble of tater-tots on a depressing December Wednesday; diaphanous zucchini fritters in May, or (say) marrow poppers under the vanilla gloamings in the garden at 5 Ninth. I like to eat deep-fried foods all the time, and need only the flimsiest of pretexts to praise them.
Because, really, what can compare to frying? Jean Anthelm Brillat Savarin, no vulgarian, praised the technique to the skies in his immortal Physiology of Taste. "Fried foods," he wrote, "are are always welcome at any banquet. They are pleasing to the taste, preserve the fundamental flavors of foods, and may be eaten with the fingers, something that is always appreciated by the ladies." In addition, Brillat Savrin praised frying for its ability to transform foods, nearly at the speed of thought. "It takes no longer to fry a four pound chop," the great gastronome marvels, "than it does to boil an egg."
It's this magical quality of frying which, in my opinion, sets it above all other forms of cooking food. A plate of limp, cadaverous scallops or a ball of mashed up chickpeas doesn't excite anybody; on the contrary, they're more likely to inspire repulsion or even a kind of universal dread. But pop them into some hot oil, and before you know it, these inert bodies have metamorphosed into miniature suns, radiating pure excitement in every direction. This is what hot grease can do. Its festive pop and spatter fills every kitchen with glee; and through some miracle of chemistry, the hotter it is, the less greasy are its products. The medieval alchemists searched in vain for an element which could transform base metals into precious ones. But had the alchemists had a Fry Daddy, they would need have looked no further. It's a cauldron of magic; and like King Midas, everything it touches turns to gold.
I can hardly think of anything that's not suitable for immersion in deep fat frying. I mean, anything that wouldn't be good fried, probably isn't worth eating. (Strawberries come to mind.) The only real question is whether it should go in nude, like a donut, or clothed in a puffy breading, like fish filets. A matter of taste, perhaps. But the primary cause of concern for the novice friar is choosing the right oil, and heating to the right temperature. In today's advanced kitchens, it shouldn't be hard to judge oil temperature, but it is. Different oils have different smoking points, and those smoking points get lower and lower as the oil absorbs food flotsam. On the other hand, that food flotsam tends to make the oil tastier. Anyone who frequents ghetto Chinese restaurants -- and who among us doesn't? -- knows well the faint stench of long-vanished shrimp that clings to every egg roll and chicken wing. On the other hand, chicken that comes out of fresh oil is rarely even worth eating. Even the Yo Yo Ma of fried chicken, Mr. Charles Gabriel, who throws out all his oil after three batches of chicken have cooked in it, makes much better chicken in the third batch than in the first. At the legendary Dyer's restaurant in Memphis, hamburgers are simmered in the same grease, many times strained and topped off, that was used a century ago. These are just famous examples. Think about all the other things that leak into hot oil, like cheese, and carbonized bread crumbs, and the precious bodily fluids of various meat animals. Can they all be bad? To what written guide can a person turn to navigate these greasy seas?
No, the home cook has to attune himself or herself to the oil through impressionistic means. A slight shimmer in a certain light; the whiff of debris that is, although unsightly and inedible, still identifiably cooking rather than burning. These are the tools of the friar. But beyond these basic senses, deep-frying is the most idiotproof cooking task this side of a baked potato.
The key is the hot oil, which, as Brillat-Savarin observed a century and a half ago, produces a qualitative change over the food. It doesn't just cook it fast; it coats in a dazzling effect which protects even as it cooks, and whose happy effect looks even better than it works. "The whole merit of frying," he wrote, "is derived from the surprise....at the very moment of [the food's] immersion. By means of this surprise a sort of ceiling is formed over the object, which prevents the fat from penetrating it, and concentrates the juices inside, so that they undergo an internal cooking process which gives the dish all the flavor of which it is capable."
Deathless words! But somehow you still see people complaining that fried foods are "too greasy," and demanding instead their immolation over gas fires. Frying done well is not only the best and most entertaining, but also the healthiest of all the modes of cooking. When the "ceiling" is broken by the teeth, and the long-imprisoned tastes released in a sudden explosive rush, the simplest deep-fried pelmeni gives its own surprise back to the palate. The cook and his food are in perfect synchronicity: a kind of golden age of cooking.