Amazing Fried Vegetables
ALMOST EVERYONE loves fried vegetables. Americans crave French fries as much as the British do their chips. Delhi streetside vendors sell vegetable fritters known as pakoras. In Tokyo they're called tempuras. The French love deep-fried souffle potatoes, Jamaicans nibble on shallow-fried plantain chips, and Italians savor pan-fried eggplant. Even for those of us who for health avoid fried foods, occasionally the taste of a perfectly cooked fried vegetable is irresistible.
Ever since cooks began frying food in hot oil they have been excited by the instant results crisp, flavorful surfaces and soft, moist interiors. The secret to light, healthy deep-frying lies in the quality, quantity, and temperature of the cooking oil. Foods fried correctly are neither greasy nor soggy. Of course, any fried food deep-, shallow-, or pan-fried is more fattening than food cooked without oil. But food cooked in just enough oil to rapidly sear the surface so the oil doesn't penetrate the food is often less fattening than food sauteed in generous amounts of butter or oil, or foods bathed in rich sauces or dairy products.
The Right Oil
No matter what your choice, you can quickly detect a quality oil by its aroma and flavor. Generally, the less refined the oil, the more vibrant its taste. But unrefined oils are less stable than refined, usually have lower smoking-points, and last less time. Refined oils, like the nut and vegetable oils found in supermarkets, are processed with solvents. Such oils contain additives that increase shelf life, reduce foaming, and make the oil look clear. The solvents also destroy many of the nutrients of the oil. But refined oils are popular for deep-frying because they can be heated to high temperatures.
Which oil I prefer depends on what sort of frying I'm doing. Corn oil, peanut oil, soybean oil, and avocado oil all have high smoking-points and are good choices for deep-frying. Rich, unrefined oils like pecan and walnut and extra-virgin olive oil are best used uncooked, so they're not used in frying. Oil keeps best in tinted glass, since light hastens spoilage. Once opened, bottles stored for longer than two weeks should be refrigerated.
No doubt my all-time favorite frying oil is ghee Indian clarified butter. It is easy to make and exceedingly delicious, especially when infused with flavors such as cloves, cumin, ginger, chilies, citrus zest, cinnamon, or sweet neem leaves. Ghee has for millennia been the favored frying median for Indian temple cooks, and once you try it, it may be yours as well. All you need to make ghee is sweet unsalted butter. In America, organic butter is sold by Organic Valley, and ready-made organic ghee by Purity Farms. Both products are available in larger natural food stores. Ghee keeps well in stainless steel containers or wide-mouth glass jars. Although ghee does not require refrigeration, I recommend making it in small quantities and storing containers over one week old in the refrigerator.
Technique and Temperature
The best vegetables for deep-frying without a protective shield of batter or crumbs are those with a fibrous flesh that seals quickly once the vegetable is submerged in oil. Potatoes remain the most widely fried vegetable, but other good choices include yams, beets, carrots, eggplant, plantains, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes.
If you don't have an electric fryer, you need to regulate the heat to keep the temperature constant. If you are a newcomer to deep-frying, a thermometer will be helpful. For most vegetable frying, you need to keep the temperature from 350 degrees to 380 degrees (365 degrees is the most common). The correct temperature depends on the size of the pieces to be cooked.
Remove small bits of food that float free in the oil during frying. Unless discarded periodically, they will burn and give the oil a bitter flavor.
A frugal cook often finds it wasteful to heat several cups of oil to use only one time. So, many cooks advocate reusing oil, frying again with it later. Others don't; they say the oil loses its flavor. No matter what your preference, use the least oil required for the frying task and avoid heating it to its smoking point. If you reuse oil, carefully strain it through a cheesecloth or coffee filter to remove fine food particles. Before reusing filtered oil, here's a way to neutralize its "off" flavors. Heat it to 360 degrees and fry both a piece of bread and the zest of half a lemon. When the bread turns brown, remove it and go on with your frying.
Srila Prabhupada's Instructions
I became attracted to the art of deep-frying the first day I assisted Srila Prabhupada in the kitchen, in 1967. One of the dishes he made was a rich slow-fried potato-stuffed pastry called aloo kachori. Until then, I had no idea that pastries could be slow-fried and still be greaseless.
Over the years, Prabhupada taught his cooks to make many fried vegetable dishes, and many of them can be found in the class textbook, Lord Krishna's Cuisine. If you are following the class, be sure to make the dish on page 11 and a few of his most often requested vegetables Cauliflower and Potato Surprise, Deep-Fried Stuffed Hot Green Chilies, and Bitter Melon Chips with Coconut.
Yamuna Devi is the author of the award-winning cookbooks Lord Krishna's Cuisine; The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking and Yamuna's Table. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post andVegetarian Times. You can write to her in care of Back to Godhead.
Plain Or Infused Homemade Ghee
(Makes about 1-¾ cup)
1 pound unsalted butter
Optional infusion ingredients:
2-3 tablespoons peppercorns, cloves, or cumin seeds
or 2 three-inch cinnamon sticks
or 1 ounce sliced fresh ginger
or 3 branches fresh neem leaves
Place the butter (and one of the optional infusion ingredients) in a large casserole and bring the butter to a boil. Reduce the heat to very low and simmer the butter undisturbed for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the gelatinous protein solids have settled on the bottom of the pan and turned from white to golden brown. The liquid (butterfat) will be nearly transparent, with a thin crust on the surface. Using a skimmer, remove the dry crust (and optional infusion ingredients) and set it aside.
If the solids at the bottom are darker than golden brown, the temperature was too high. The ghee will still be usable, but next time reduce the heat further or reduce the cooking time.
Remove the pan from the heat and, without disturbing the solids on the bottom, ladle off the clear ghee and pour it through a coffee filter or towel-lined sieve. When you have removed as much as possible with the ladle, pour the rest, stopping just short of the solids. Cool the ghee and cover it. It will keep well for several months. (Some cooks use the solids in sandwich spreads and moist vegetable dishes.)
Butter-Soft Eggplant Wedges
Serves – 8
This side-dish vegetable, which I learned from Srila Prabhupada in 1967, is elegant served with basmati rice. Serve it with a lemon wedge, zesty cooked tomato chutney, or a drizzle of herbed fresh chutney. Accompany it with a textured vegetable dish and salad or a light soup.
1 ½ tablespoons salt
1 ½ tablespoonv turmeric
3 tablespoons water
8-10 baby white eggplants or purple Japanese eggplants (about 1 ½ pounds) or 1 medium-sized globe eggplant
ghee, avocado oil, or light olive oil for frying
chopped cilantro or parsley for garnishing
Combine the salt, turmeric, and water in a shallow dish. Cut small eggplants in half, or larger ones into wedges roughly 2 ½ inches by 1 ½ inches by ½ inch. Coat the eggplant pieces with the turmeric mixture, set them aside for 15-30 minutes, and then drain them in a colander.
Pour ghee or oil to a depth of 1/3 in a large skillet and place the skillet over moderately high heat. Just before the ghee or oil reaches its smoking point, carefully add a layer of eggplant pieces. Fry them, turning them on all sides, until they turn a rich reddish-brown and are fork-tender. (The skin side of the eggplants cooks faster than the cut edges, and too much frying tends to toughen them.) Remove the eggplant pieces with a slotted spatula and drain them briefly on paper towels. Offer them to Krsna at once, piping hot and garnished with herbs.