Friday, October 28, 2011

Fear of Frying

I've been told I'm a pretty good cook. I like to challenge myself with complicated recipes and techniques, and I sometimes even succeed! But there's one thing I can't do.

They say fried food is bad for you, but boy is it tasty. Who doesn't love fried chicken? And fried fish? As a little girl, I loved the wonderful but rare occasions where my Mom would make doughnuts - she'd fill the cast iron frying pan with vegetable oil and fry up nutmeg-scented rings of dough until they were brown and crispy and delicious, drained on a paper towel-lined rack and then tossed with confectioners sugar in a brown paper bag.

The only time I tried it, my doughnuts came out burned on the outside and raw on the inside. Perhaps you have to practice to get the feel of it just right.

Of course in order to do that you go through a lot of oil. And I think that's what my problem is. There is something about me - something stingy and fearful - that prevents me from being able to empty half a bottle of oil into a pan.

I keep thinking - "So what do I do with it when I'm done?" and I think of all that oil. You can't pour it down the drain, but what do you do with it? Do you put it in a jar and then in the trashcan? Isn't that a waste? Can you strain and re-use it?

As an attempt to be more efficient with oil, I once tried frying in a small sauce pan, so that an inch depth of oil was a smaller quantity than the same depth in my big pan. But such a small quantity and pan made it hard to manage the cooking temperature.

I know there are home fryer appliances you can buy. But that seems like an extravagance for a cooking technique that I really shouldn't be using too often. If I had a home fryer, would I start to eat more unhealthy fried foods?

So I don't fry. But every once in a while, I like to pan-fry something.

I can get the pleasure of fried food with chicken cutlets. Also known as chicken schnitzel in Vienna, chicken katsu in Japan, and poulet pane a l'anglaise in France, these are pieces of boneless chicken that are tenderized and pounded flat, then dredged in flour, egg and fresh breadcrumbs, and then pan-fried in a small amount of oil.

Chicken schnitzel is a variation on the classic Weinerschnitzel, which is made with boneless scallops of veal. You can also make the dish with slices of pork loin.

Popular all over Europe, the dish may have originated in Milan, Italy. In the 19th century it migrated to South and Central America along with other aspects of colonial culture. In Mexico, thinly sliced beef breaded and fried is called Milanesa, and is a popular ingredient for torta sandwiches. Japanese chicken katsu - and tonkatsu, made with pork - was probably introduced by Portuguese traders in the 19th century. In the US, the technique was adapted for Texas tastes, thus "chicken-fried steak."

My recipe originally came from Pierre Franey, whose "60 Minute Gourmet" cookbooks were my first guides as a grown-up cook. But I haven't consulted the book in years - the recipe is committed to memory.

Chicken schnitzel

Supreme de Volaille pane a l'Anglaise - Chicken katsu - Chicken schnitzel - Pollo alla milanese

Boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Flour - about 1/4 cup
Salt, pepper, paprika, to taste
1 egg
1 cup fresh white breadcrumbs* or Japanese panko
1/2 cup vegetable oil

Make breadcrumbs first. Take a few slices of while bread and whirl it up in a blender or food processor to break it up. It's a good use for stale bread, although your crumbs will be softer with fresh bread. for a quick shortcut try Japanese panko. Whatever you do, don't buy packaged "Italian breadcrumbs." Those are just gross.

Prepare the chicken - Boneless chicken breasts usually come as half-breasts that are oval and about 1 1/2" thick. I cut these in half lengthwise. Put a layer of clear plastic wrap on your cutting board, lay the piece of chicken on it, and cover with another piece of plastic wrap.

Pound the chicken until the connective tissue breaks up a little and flattens out. Flip it over and pound it on the other side. There are special  mallets sold for this, with toothed surfaces. You can also use the back of the blade of a heavy chef's knife or cleaver. You could even use a regular hammer (clean it first!) what you're going for here is a uniformly flat, thin piece of meat.

Pour 1/2 cup of vegetable oil into a large frying pan or cast-iron skillet, and heat to medium-high on the stove.

While it's heating, set up your asembly line.

1) Spread a cup of flour on a plate. You can add salt and pepper (or any other seasonings you like) to the flour, or you can season the meat directly. I like to add a shake of paprika.

2) Break the egg into a shallow bowl, add a tablespoon or so of water or milk, and beat it

3) Put the bread-crumbs in another shallow bowl.

4) A plate or rack lined with paper towels.

Dredge a piece of meat in the flour on both sides. Shake of the excess and dip into the egg mixture. Then dredge it in the bread crumbs, making sure the crumbs adhere to both sides. Slip the schnitzel gently into the hot oil and let it sizzle. After 2 - 3 minutes, turn and cook the other size. Repeat in stages, then take out and drain on the towels.

A large frying pan can cook two to three nice-sized schnitzels. You don't want to pack them in too tightly. Keep an eye on the temperature of the oil - you don't want it to get too hot, but you don't want it to cool down. You can test the temperature by dropping a few breadcrumbs in and see how quickly they brown up.

Soon enough, you'll have a platter of golden brown crispy chicken cutlets. Or schnitzel. Or milanese. Garnish the platter with lemon wedges and a sprinkle of parsley. It's the kind of dish that kids love, and that looks good enough on the plate for company.

Who says you're afraid of frying?


21 Wits said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

There is something about me - something stingy and fearful - that prevents me from being able to empty half a bottle of oil into a pan.

I know just what you mean! I can only use large quantities when I make salad dressing. (Partly because it's olive oil that I buy...I'm shy of the corn oil, etc.)

Hamish Mack said...

I'm a bit of a Wizard with beef schnitzel. The secret ingredient is curry powder in the breadcrumbs and the egg. But it IS NOT healthy cooking!

Anonymous said...

Mmmmmmm... schnitzel!
I don't want to make a mess of the kitchen (and it would -- we have no exhaust ventilation) so can I just come to your house?

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

A couple of times a year, I go on a falafel binge, so I'm frying for the better part of a week. I use my heavy cast iron Dutch oven for my frying purposes- it has great heat retention, and the sides are high enough that I don't have to worry about splatters.

I also tend to go on a one week fried eggplant bender.