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Secrets to making fried food healthful

(ran ST, TP editions)

Think crisp, golden french fries or a crunchy batter around rings of sweet onion.

There is the delicate fried film that envelops anything tempura and feather-light fritters.

Those are commonly fried foods, but relatively few cooks have deep-fried a whole turkey. Indeed, with the mass paranoia over fats and cholesterol, many have given up all thought of fried food.

Others eat and enjoy _ and stay slim and healthy.

John Martin Taylor is one of those, and he shares not-so-secret guidelines for frying the right way _ the least fatty way _ in The Fearless Frying Cookbook (orkman; $10.95).

If the idea of food immersed in oil being anything but high-fat seems incredible, consider that deep frying is actually a "dry" cooking technique. The chemistry of it comes later. For now, accept that fried food is not supposed to be, and need not be, greasy. Done right, it adds very little fat to foods.

It also is fast.

Because deep frying offers the quickest, most direct heat transfer, it is on a par with microwaves for speed in cooking some foods. That turkey, for instance was done in 45 minutes, but deep-fry cooking times don't include the time it takes to heat the oil.

Taylor, known to the food world as Hoppin' John, based on his low-country roots and his bookstore of that name in Charleston, uses the turkey trick to call attention to the good side of frying.

"Justin Wilson says he was doing it back in the '30s," Taylor said while waiting for the 240,000-BTU burner to bring 5 gallons of oil to the required 365 degrees in a 10-gallon pot set up outside the London Grille. (His home unit is 140,000 BTUs.)

As it turned out, Taylor's deep-fried turkey was deliciously moist, evenly cooked and not a bit greasy. Actually, virtually all the fat from the skin had been rendered out into the cooking oil, and his 15-pound bird was fully cooked and golden-brown in 45 minutes, with a skin crisp enough to savor.

(He allows 3 to 4 minutes per pound for turkey, which rises when done, and heating the oil took nearly 30 minutes. If you must try this, do it outdoors and use a fireplace poker to lower and lift the bird.)

There is a lot of poorly fried food out there and many bad frying habits to unlearn.

You may have seen a fast-food cook lower a full basket of fries into hot oil kept "on call" all day. That is two rules broken and lots of fat likely absorbed.

The right way would be to heat the basket in the oil, then add food slowly to maintain temperature of at least 350 degrees. Lower that to 340 degrees, and foods start sopping up oil.

And don't reuse oil too often. The higher the temperature, the longer oil is heated, and the more often it is used, the more it deteriorates and the more easily it is absorbed into foods each time.

Learn to fry foods the right way, and there is no reason a healthy person can't enjoy favorite fried foods as a part of a varied _ and moderate _ diet.

To fry correctly, it helps to understand the process.

For this we turned to chemist, food scientist and cooking teacher Shirley Corriher, author of CookWise (Morrow; $28.50).

In simplest terms, the water in food turns to steam, the starches swell and proteins cook, sugars caramelize, and a crust is formed.

More technically, the sudden high heat turns moisture near the food's surface to steam. That's the sizzle.

As water in the food moves out to replace it, pressure keeps the oil out. Escaping steam cools the surface enough to prevent charring, while the center cooks.

"Some oil is absorbed," said Corriher, "but it is certainly minimized. It depends on the type of ingredient being fried and the type of oil you are using.

"For instance, mealy, wet potatoes _ like new potatoes or Maine potatoes _ absorb a lot more fat than the dry, starchy russets and a fried item like a fritter, if it has egg yolk in it, will absorb more fat than if it's made with egg white. Whites lighten and dry things out dramatically."

Tempura batters of egg white and starch are very effective at sealing out fat, she said.

Deep frying also is effective for rendering fat, Corriher noted.

"Most hospitals deep-fry bacon to remove more of the fat," she said.

Taylor, too, recommends russet Burbank (Idaho) potatoes for frying, and, to make them extra crisp, he suggests double frying.

Precook cut potatoes to pale gold in 350-degree oil and drain, then, before serving, brown them at 390 degrees.

That is one of the few exceptions to the 350- to 375-degree frying standard. Other exceptions, he notes, are nuts (275 degrees is enough) and small, oily fish. If you fry sardines, do it at 300 degrees.

Foods fried properly, says Taylor, will never be greasy or limp.

Remember, when deep-frying:

Use clean oil with a high smoke point, such as peanut, soy or corn oil. When choosing oil, consider the food you will be cooking and the quantity involved and choose an oil with a smoke point well over the required frying temperature. If the oil starts to smoke, replace it with fresh oil. If it is kept hot, smoking oil could burst into flames.

Approximate smoke points for some home-use oils: extra-virgin olive, 250 degrees; sunflower, 392; corn (refined), 410; pure olive, 410; peanut, 410; soybean, 410; canola/rapeseed, 437; safflower, 450.

Use a pot larger than the burner to reduce fire risk from splatters.

Fill the pot halfway with oil, leaving at least 3 inches to the rim.

Monitor temperature on a deep-fry or candy thermometer clipped inside the pot. (To gauge oil temperature without a thermometer, drop a cube of white bread into hot oil. It will fry golden brown in about 40 seconds at 375 degrees or in 1 minute at 350.)

Larger pieces of food need a lower frying temperature _ 350 to 365 degrees _ so that the center cooks before the outside is browned. Smaller, thinner pieces can be fried at higher temperatures, 375 to 390 degrees.

Keep foods uniform in size or thickness for even cooking.

Keep food surface as dry as possible. Water lowers oil temperature and speeds deterioration.

Use long tongs or a wire mesh skimmer to move food to or from oil. Slotted spoons hold oil.

Do not crowd the pot. Oil should bubble freely around each piece.

Drain fried foods over the pot, then on rack. Pat with paper towels to remove surface oil. Do not leave food on fat-soaked towels.

Hold food in the oven at the lowest setting while frying batches.

Between batches, skim particles from oil. Bring oil to temperature before adding more food.

If oil begins to smoke, discard it. Use fresh oil.

Do not move hot oil. Let it cool and strain into clean container through a coffee-filter-lined sieve. If discarding, cool fully and use empty milk or juice cartons.

And keep a fire extinguisher or baking soda handy, for safety.

Here are some of Taylor's other unusual fried foods.

Stuffed Prunes

24 large pitted prunes

\ cup rum or as needed

24 blanched white almonds

1 cup milk

1 cups all-purpose flour

2 large eggs

3 tablespoons sugar

Dash of salt

Peanut oil for deep frying

} cup grated semisweet chocolate

Six hours or more before serving, cover prunes with water in saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat; let stand 10 minutes. Drain water; add rum. Reserve at room temperature. When ready to proceed, place sieve over bowl and strain prunes, reserving rum. Place an almond inside each prune.

In medium bowl, mix milk, flour and eggs. Add 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 tablespoon reserved rum (adding more if necessary). Add salt; mix well. Pour oil to 3-inch depth in stockpot or Dutch oven. Heat on medium-high to 365 degrees. Line colander with crumpled paper towels and set near stove. Mix chocolate with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar; spread on wax-paper-lined baking sheet.

When oil reaches 365 degrees, drop 6 prunes into the batter. Use tongs to lift them from batter, letting excess drip off. Lower prunes into oil. Do not crowd pot. Keep oil between 350 and 365 degrees. Fry fritters to golden, 3-4 minutes. Transfer to prepared colander. Pat dry of excess oil. While hot, roll fritters in the chocolate. Cool on wax paper. Repeat with remaining prunes.

Makes 4-6 servings. Nutritional data per piece: 109 calories, 2 gm. protein, 17 gm. carbohydrates, 4 gm. fat, 19 mg. cholesterol, 23 mg. sodium.

Fried Dill Pickles

1{ cups all-purpose flour

\ teaspoon salt

Cayenne pepper, to taste

1 large egg, separated

{ cup flat beer (not chilled)

12 whole large dill pickles

Peanut oil for deep frying

About 1{ hours before serving, mix 1 cup of flour with salt and cayenne in large bowl. In a small bowl, mix egg yolk with beer; pour into well in center of flour and mix with wire whisk. Do not beat. Let stand 1 hour.

For frying, halve pickles lengthwise; pat dry. In Dutch oven or stockpot on medium-high heat, bring 3 inches of oil to 365 degrees. Place wire rack on baking sheet. Meanwhile, beat egg white to soft peaks; fold gently into batter. When oil hits 365 degrees, dust pickles with final {-cup flour, making sure to coat well. Shake off excess. Drop in batter in batches.

With tongs, carefully lower pickles into hot oil. Fry to even golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes each side. Drain on wire rack. Serve in napkin-lined baskets or have them passed with napkins while you fry the next batch.

Makes 8 servings, 3 pieces each. Nutritional data per serving: 141 calories, 4 gm. protein, 23 gm. carbohydrates, 4 gm. fat, 27 mg. cholesterol, 1.331 mg. sodium.

Fried Ice Cream

1 cup finely chopped pecans

1 quart vanilla ice cream

1 large egg

2 cups crushed vanilla wafers

Peanut oil for deep frying

Place nuts in shallow bowl. Line a baking sheet that will fit into freezer with wax paper. Divide ice cream into eight {-cup scoops and shape them into balls (see note). Roll each ball in the nuts to coat; place on prepared sheet. Freeze at least 3 hours, until very hard. To proceed, beat egg in shallow bowl; place crushed wafers in another. Roll each ice cream ball first in egg, then in wafers, to coat completely. Freeze again until very hard, about 3 hours more.

To serve, heat 3 inches of oil to 375 degrees in a deep stockpot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Place a wire rack on a baking sheet set near stove. When oil is ready, take ice cream balls from freezer and fry several at a time until coating is crisp, about 30 seconds. Transfer to wire rack to drain. Serve at once, with chocolate sauce or as desired.

Makes 8 servings. Nutritional data per serving: 334 calories, 5 gm. protein, 33 gm. carbohydrates, 22 gm. fat, 67 mg. cholesterol, 124 mg. sodium.

Deep-Fried Capers

Vegetable oil for frying

\ cup brine-cured capers

In 1{-quart heavy saucepan, heat 2 inches of oil to 350 degrees. Drain capers; pat dry. Do not rinse. Drop one caper in oil; when hot enough it will sizzle. With strainer, carefully lower remaining capers into oil. Fry for about 30 seconds as they rise to the surface and blossom open.

Remove with strainer; drain on paper towels. Capers will stay crisp up to 12 hours at room temperature. Serve with salmon (cured or poached), veal, egg dishes or salads.

Makes \ cup. Nutritional data per \ cup: 120 calories, 0 protein, 0 carbohydrates, 14 gm. fat, 0 cholesterol, 1,260 mg. sodium.

Source: Chef Monique Barbeau in In Julia's Kitchen With Master Chefs (Knopf; 1995) by Julia Child.