Deep Fried Day

(Author’s Note: I’ll be moving my food writing from the group blog back to my own blog now that the summer is over and I’m trying to keep my writing regular)

Beginning the summer after my freshmen year of college, I have hosted an annual deep-fried day. Having heard of delicious deep-fried twinkies and snickers from the Texas State Fair, I insisted that I could do the same, and for the past 3 years, I have worked on my technique. As of yesterday, I think it finally paid off.

The theme for our weekly potluck this past week was “deep-fried food” to continue my tradition. Sensing that others might be tired of this, I presented this as an opportunity to think of other things we might deep fry, traditional or not. It worked out perfectly, with falafel, goat-cheese wontons, fried cheese in a salad, and sweet potato fries as good options. What worked best about it, though, was that all of these required different sauces and ingredients to accompany the deep-fried bits. Our dessert, though, was twinkie, oreo, and snicker-ful.

Given the improvement that we’ve managed over the years, I thought I might put together a few thoughts on deep frying. I tried to organize them, but the topics overlapped too much, so it’s just paragraphs.

You can use just a regular pot to do it and use a canola or vegetable oil for it. You can buy a deep fryer, but it isn’t necessary as long as you’re careful. As far as the size of the pot, I have been using something about 8 inches. Bigger takes a lot more oil, and smaller doesn’t give you enough space (though don’t worry about that too much as I will explain soon.
Have a thermometer with you and try to keep the heat between 350 and 375. You can be on the 350 for things that need to cook through but won’t soak too much grease (falafel) but hotter on the things that will soak it up (oreos). On my slow electric burner, I can get to 375 below medium, so you don’t need to crank the heat too much.

What will happen, though, is that when you put things in the oil, the temperature will drop. Thus, my strategy for deep frying has been to keep the heat just below medium until I get to the desired temperature. Immediately after adding things to fry, I turn the heat up a little, then watch the thermometer. When I start approaching the original temperature, I bring the heat back down.

As far as adding things to the pot, always do batches so you know how long things have been in the oil. If you try to stream items in and pull them in and out over time, you can’t maintain a steady temperature. Similarly, try to keep the batches small (that’s why an 8 inch pot works) so that the temperature doesn’t drop too much.

As far as adding and removing things, dumping in with a slotted spoon (even plastic) should work just fine. I tried to move things in and out with chopsticks before, but gripping battered food will coat the chopsticks in a layer of fried batter quickly. As far as other equipment goes, have lots of paper towels around and try to pat dry things immediately after coming out of the pot. Things cool very quickly, so don’t be too afraid about burning yourself on the food.

For the batter, pancake mix works just fine. It should just barely be thick enough to coat things. Make sure all surfaces of the food are covered, but don’t worry too much about getting a thick coat; as soon as it hits the oil, it’ll puff up and harden.

Go slow with it. You can only eat so much fried food, but you’ll feel better about it if you spread it over a few hours. Or maybe even days. As long as the oil doesn’t get too hot and go rancid, you can reuse it a few times.

And to be intentionally didactic, make sure you do it safely. A pot of oil can ruin your day quick. Keep the lid nearby in case you need to cover the pot at any point. Don’t put water/ice/water-based stuff into the oil, or else it might begin to sputter.

You can google around to look for things to deep fry (pretty much everything), but here are a few things I or my friends have done. Most are successes, but failures are notable too

  • twinkies – they work fine even if you don’t freeze them. Batter and top with powdered sugar.
  • oreos
  • PB & J sandwiches – battered. It’s delicious
  • Snickers – I’ve only done frozen before, but I think that’s the way to do it
  • Onions & mushrooms – great with BBQ sauce
  • gummy worms – these disintegrated quick, but liquified gummy worms are delicious
  • ice cream – haven’t done, but I hear it’s delicious. These take preparation
  • falafel – good as a meal on its own. Pair with traditional things
  • sweet potato fries
  • goat cheese
  • fried wontons

Chinese Buffets

My family doesn’t go out to eat much. My mom was almost always willing to cook, with the notable exception being after “Money Day” when she, as treasurer for the high school band boosters, ran kids through stations to pay for yearly expenses. Other than that, we generally avoid fast food and have tons of leftovers to tide us through slower days. As such, we never really developed a pattern or preference for any particular places, though we tended towards Chinese restaurants.

The most exciting place in recent memory is a Chinese buffet opened about 5 minutes from our house. Rave reviews from my parents, especially my mom who tends to describe most places as “okay”, have taken me there twice, most recently last night with my family. This place has managed to stand out above other Chinese buffets by offering sushi. Although they don’t have the most original rolls, the quality is decent, and we’re not particularly discerning about it, either.

The sushi does present a slight problem in that it throws off the system. Past experience with Chinese buffets has developed into a strategy, which is simply known as “beating the buffet”: eat more than what you would typically pay for an equivalent amount of food not at a buffet. Obviously, you want to go to the buffet to fill up. The next most important thing is to eat mostly foods that are worth a lot compared to how filling they are. For example, seafood, such as crab legs, and sushi are good targets. Although sushi does have quite a bit of rice, it’s well-compensated by how expensive sushi is. The sucker foods, however, are things like white rice and soups. Those are a poor investment of stomach space. My dad is particularly good about focusing on the important things: he’ll warm up with maybe a wonton soup (heavy on the wontons), then transition into a plate of crab legs, followed by a plate of crawfish and shrimp. After leaving the shattered remains of many shells, he’ll move onto the usual items, being all variety of fried meats and other entree, then finish out with fruit.

The last part of the strategy is the willingness to be a little shameless. The restaurant will pressure you into leaving soon, either by bringing out the check, cutting off your water and refills unless you ask, and constantly taking away plates and asking if you’re done. You can eat more if you stay longer. Therefore, stay longer and don’t worry about them, especially if you think you’ll get a second wind. And don’t worry about tipping too much. Maybe I’m just a bad person, but I don’t tip much at Chinese restaurants. It’s not expected.

Admittedly, I’m not quite as tough as my dad is when it comes to beating the buffet, but I try. Last night, I started with wonton soup, sushi, and shrimp. I moved onto a plate of entrees, taking just a little from every option, then had one more plate with the items I determined were the best. Then was the dessert plate and some soft serve. Success.

During the dinner conversation, I mentioned how convenient it was to have this place in Katy and not to have to drive out to our old mainstay in Sugarland. My mom complained about the quality there, which caught me off-guard. Chinese buffets are not known for quality. Quality is for real restaurants; buffets are for volume. The seafood is good, not great. The important thing is that you can get a lot of it. Caution about the jello, too. Chinese jello has a lot more gelatin than what you might get in Kraft Jell-O, so it’s hard and not very sweet. Frankly, I think it’s gross but get suckered for it every time.

I have determined that the only way to come away from a Chinese buffet is with a mild stomachache. If you didn’t work hard to beat the buffet by overeating, somewhere along the way, the fried food or mild food poisoning should finish you off. Fortunately, I have come to associate that feeling with generally good things. Thinking back, my family has always had a Chinese buffet that we could go to. In Toronto, it was Buffet King. In Houston, we had Happy Panda/China Bear (new ownership apparently was somewhat satisfied with the name, but not entirely) until the new place. I’m willing to bet that we eat Chinese buffet more often than Chinese sitdown with the lazy susan and communal dishes. It just doesn’t seem worth it to pay more for more seafood.

The Best Things I Shouldn’t Eat

In case you haven’t heard the latest frenzy, KFC has just added the “Double Down” to its menu. My understanding of it is that they took a bacon and cheese sandwich and replaced the bread with fried chicken. For the health-conscious, KFC has also added an option for grilled chicken instead. There are a couple reasons why this particular item is so interesting to me.

First, the nutritional facts, as usual, are completely surprising to me. According to their website, it has 540 calories, 32 grams of fat, and 1380 mg of sodium. For comparison, the Big Mac has 590 calories, 34 grams of fat, and 1070 mg of sodium. Granted, KFC is likely only revealing the most favorable nutritional facts, and the measurements are likely contestable as well, but who would’ve thought you’d come away so clean on something so utterly devoid of healthy appearances?

Second, this seems to continue America’s fascination with an improved sandwich, mostly by playing around with the sandwiching material. Tracy Jordan similarly came up with the idea of replacing bread with meat.

Finally, I really want to try it. Sure, it sounds pretty disgusting. Sure, it’s probably a gimmick. Sure, my body would probably appreciate getting punched in the gut instead. It’s a lot like rubbernecking, I think.

I’d like to say that I’m generally better than this, but in truth, my attempts to develop a refined palate are mostly held back by what I’ll call the “Paula Deen School of Thought” in that the best thing for me to eat is what tastes good. In light of this realization, I’ve put together a list of what I consider a few major players in this field, roughly categorized as well.

Gotta Go Get It Now

I admittedly don’t eat out very much. Thanks to the hard work of my mom, I grew up mostly on tasty home-cooked meals. Even so, fast food restaurants and shops have some great offerings that you have to hate to love, including:

KFC’s Mashed Potato Bowl – this one I credit to my good friend Austin. Take it one step further and get macaroni and cheese on the side, and mix that in too. You can’t beat the convenience of everything in one bowl

Krispy Kreme Original Glazed Donuts – you will never, ever find that taste just like these ones. Crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, toxic and addictive at the same time. They come mainly in dozens, and frankly, a dozen of them sounds like way too much. Even 6 sounds like a lot. But after you eat 5, the 6th one is still just as good.

But There’s A Better Alternative!

Most of the best food is made out of the best ingredients. Frankly, that’s the definition of what a good ingredient is. The items in this list, however, are clearly not the best of their category, and maybe that’s why they’re so good.

Kraft Mac & Cheese – when I think of macaroni & cheese, this is what I think of. It’s just good. I can’t imagine how real cheese could taste better than the cheese powder mixed in with margarine and milk. This particular one has actually been highly controversial among my friends, but the tipping point for me is that this was an important part in my childhood. Growing up, I ate sandwiches for lunch at school probably 90% of the time. That means that I have an obsession with sandwiches, but even that only goes so far. It was the rare day when my mom would change things up, and my sisters and I might get mac & cheese for lunch instead. I guess the glory days live on.

Chef Boyardee Ravioli – you know when you go to an Italian restaurant, you’re always disappointed when you get just 5 ravioli. And in the end, they usually don’t taste that special anyways. There’s something magical about the pasta and tomato sauce substitute they use in canned ravioli.

Twinkies – I don’t think there’s anything else that Hostess could possibly do to make twinkies less of a food. They just replaced every real ingredient with something else that happens to have the essence of tastiness. My occasional desire for twinkies is actually more from its cultural status than actually liking it, but I think that’s okay, too.

Chips Ahoy Candy Blasts – homemade cookies are great. There are few domestic joys as great as being offered a freshly-baked cookie, and appreciation knows no bounds when you take the cookie off the plate. Even so, Chips Ahoy has managed to capture an important sector of cookie desire, mainly being the convenient and guiltless variety.

Best of the Brandless

So far, all of the tasty, awful foods mentioned have been specific creations, but here are a few generics

Onion Rings – I have tried on twice to make onion rings, and I don’t think I quite have the art down. What it has shown me, though, is that disgustingly-good is an emergent property. Oil? Pretty gross. Onions? Okay, but not notable. Pancake batter? Maybe with syrup. Frying onions coated in pancake batter? Pure magic.

Soft Serve Ice Cream – Ice cream is an obsession in my family, and the dining halls on-campus dangerously all have soft-serve machines. I think I’ve built up some willpower, but some days, I just know it’s going to be a soft-serve day.

Tater Tots – Arguably a Ore-Ida creation, but the Safeway freezer aisle should be enough proof that it’s a pretty easy market to get into. Tater tots are interesting to me, because I actually don’t particularly like potato chips, home fries, or french fries. When I think about what tater tots taste like, that’s a hard question, too. I think it’s just the perfect balance of the crunchy outside and soft inside that gets me.

Killer Combos

Some things are best eaten in pairs.

Doritos + Mountain Dew – I stereotype this combination as the classic computer geek food. Whether it’s playing video games in a basement, coding with the green text on black background, or surfing the web late at night, it works.

Wendy’s Chocolate Frosty + French Fries – I don’t know who I first heard this from, but when I did, I knew I had to try it. I’m certain I’ve had it no more than 2 times in my life, but I would rate them as solid culinary experiences. Clearly, the next step should be to combine the chocolate frosty with tater tots.

Looking over that list, most of those sound pretty gross right now. That’s probably for the best.

Dining Super Bowl Style

If my cooking blog hasn’t made it apparent, you should know that I really like food. I’m not much into truly fine-dining, and I don’t think I have any in-depth knowledge of particular cuisines or cooking techniques, but thanks to 2 sisters and a mom, I really enjoy being in the kitchen and watching The Food Network.

On truly American holidays, though, one must return to truly American cuisine. This past weekend was the Super Bowl, and I had the privilege of determining the menu to serve ~25 people. Here’s what I came up with:

  • 10 2-liters of assorted beverage
  • 6 bags of chips
  • 1 jar salsa, 1 jar queso
  • 6 Pizzas
  • 40 Pizza rolls
  • 60 Chicken wings
  • 2 bags of cookies
  • 1 Veggie Platter

When I was initially creating the list, I considered trying to find classier stuff to eat, but I quickly realized that a Super Bowl party with cauliflower quiche and sparkling apple cider simply would be as good as a bag of Doritos and a can of diet soda. When we left the grocery store with our cart-full, I realized that it was difficult to believe that anything we had bought could actually be called food. Anyways, for the most part, it went pretty well, I think, though there are some lessons in this. Let’s take an item-by-item breakdown:

Drinks

This I was particularly worried about. I found 2 answers about portions, which said about 2 2-liters per 5 people. I discovered that 1 2-liter is apparently equal to about 5.6 cans of soda, which was taken into account in buying. The breakdown went 2 bottles of coke, 2 bottles of sprite, 2 bottles of diet coke, 2 bottles of lemonade, 1 bottle of fanta, and 1 bottle of mountain dew. The coke ran out, but we had leftovers of the sprite, diet coke, and lemonade, meaning that we probably roughly had enough to drink.

Chips

6 was definitely low-balling. 2 bags of tortilla chips and 2 jars of dip was definitely the wrong ratio, but moreover, the chips went quick. The ratio I found was I think around 1 bag per 4 people. Instead, I’m going to vote that 1 bag per 3 people is the correct way to go. Besides, that gives more variety.

Pizzas

As far as dinner plans go, people only seemed interested in either a) burritos or b) pizza. Because we didn’t put in our pizza order a week before, it seemed better to not worry about delivery issues and breaking the bank, so we got frozen pizzas instead, which were extra-cheap for the Super Bowl sales. I found a few recommendations for how much to get, but ended up buying a little less since I figured that people would be full of other snacks. In retrospect, I probably should have stayed at the recommendation, being roughly 1 pizza for every 3 people.

The bigger difficulty I had, however, was that our dorm oven isn’t particularly big. It also only has 1 rack. A little overlap on the corner allowed 2 pizzas onto the 1 rack, but that’s still pretty slow. So if you’re not well-equipped, I think delivery pizza might be a better option in any case.

Pizza Rolls and Chicken Wings

I was trying to think of good, somewhat substantive junk food to eat, and that’s what I came up with. Both are very easy to pop in the oven frozen to cook, and they both went fairly quickly. The wings I got were actually of the boneless variety, but were still fine. As far as pizza rolls go, I don’t think you can get much further from real food than pizza bites. Let’s go down the ladder of foods that it evolved from:

  • Real food. Real food has a recipe.
  • Pizza. This might be an urban legend, but I believe that pizza was originally just something made at the end of the day to use up extra ingredients, which is believable.
  • American Pizza. In the land of convenience, we took the art out of it and reduced it to the key ingredients: dough, tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings (mostly meat). A friend once mentioned seeing someone use ketchup instead of tomato sauce. That doesn’t sound tasty.
  • Frozen Pizza. It’s too difficult to make real pizza, so we have them package up all the bits, and we just throw it in the oven.
  • Chicken tenders. Too difficult to prepare the chicken. Just bread it and deep fry.
  • Chicken nuggets. Mix the chicken in with something starchy and bread it, and freeze it. Comes in nice bite-size chunks that can be eaten with fingers.

And so frozen pizza + chicken nuggets = pizza rolls. So probably not real food, but it’s okay: they’re still delicious.

2 bags of cookies

I figured we should have something sweet to balance out all of the salty. These ran out fairly early as well, so I think I would double the amount of sweet to bring along.

1 Veggie Platter

This was my token attempt to ensure that not everything we were eating would shorten our lives. I think it failed, because the ranch dip it came with was pretty good as well.

So that was that. It was educational in terms of figuring out how much people eat and will certainly help with future party-planning. I think the #1 lesson, though, is that in these things, don’t lowball. Real food is expensive. Fortunately, nothing we bought was expensive. I don’t think anyone would’ve complained about an extra bag or two of chips to stash away for a later snack, so here’s the rule I’ll be running with from now on:

Determine how much food to get. Get 25% more than that.