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Come fry with me

Fritto misto, the crisp and golden 'mixed fry' that's an Italian staple, is popping up at restaurants all over L.A. -- and it's perfect for a cocktail party.

December 07, 2005|Donna Deane | Times Staff Writer

WHAT'S your weakness? Maybe you love perfect thin-sliced onion rings, those seriously flavored, crisp-coated tangles. Maybe you're a tempura fan, delighting in the tender, buttery texture of a thin, lightly fried slice of winter squash in its delicate golden brown wrapping.

Delicious stuff, we grant you, but one crunchy classic is pulling ahead of the pack these days. L.A. chefs have lately been going head over heels for fritto misto -- "mixed fry" in Italian. You might think the ethereal combos would be tough to replicate at home, but they're surprisingly doable.

Today's fritto misto tends to be lighter then the traditional Italian preparation, and chefs are using a wider range of seasonal ingredients, tossing together flavors and textures with a free hand.

In his remarkably forgiving recipe, Chris Kidder of Literati II first dips blanched baby carrots, green beans, celery root, acorn squash, portabello mushrooms and even clusters of Concord grapes in buttermilk. "It adds a nice sour tang," he says, "and helps keep the crust crisper than regular milk."

He then dredges the ingredients in a combination of flour and semolina, a technique he learned from Judy Rodgers, with whom he worked at Zuni Cafe. The semolina gives the fritto a wonderful crispness that doesn't dissipate as it cools -- a real plus for the home cook who can't be sure of perfect timing the way a restaurant staff can.

At Hungry Cat in Hollywood, David Lentz also uses buttermilk for dipping, but only for seafood, which he then dredges in Wondra flour. The Wondra, he says, makes for a crisper crust. Vegetables are dredged directly in Wondra, then dipped in beer batter before frying.

"We try to change our assortment throughout the season, and we look for differenttextured things, different shapes," Kidder says. That's the key to a great contemporary fritto misto: improvisation.

Paper-thin slices of lemon as well as parsley leaves and smelt are among the surprises Lentz tucks into a mixed seafood fry that also incorporates squid, prawns, zucchini and eggplant.

Fritto misto, in many ways the Italian equivalent of fish and chips, also appears at Palmeri in Brentwood, where the combination of calamari, shrimp and scallops is the perfect nibble with an aperitivo.

It has even made an appearance at Valentino in Santa Monica, where owner Piero Selvaggio has offered bite-size tidbits of shrimp, scallops, zucchini, mushrooms and calamari in paper cones during cocktail receptions at special events.

"It's a lot of fun," he says. "We use it as part of a little snack at the beginning."

Selvaggio notes that fritto misto is a mainstay in every region of Italy, where it's offered with aioli or marinara sauce for dipping. Valentino's recipe is a traditional combination of seafood and vegetables, dipped in milk, dredged in flour and deep-fried in olive oil. A simple spicy marinara sauce accompanies. One you know the routine, this is an easy recipe and the results are fabulous, so we think it's a good guide.

"Speed is of the utmost importance in fritto misto," Selvaggio says. The seafood and vegetables should be prepared ahead and then, just before serving time, quickly battered, fried and whisked to the table.

To prepare the ingredients, cut vegetables and seafood into pieces small enough to cook through completely without burning on the outside. "The whole idea is everything in two bites," Selvaggio says.

Crisp or hard vegetables such as winter squash will take longer to cook and should be thinly sliced. Soft vegetables like zucchini or mushrooms will cook more quickly, so they can be left in larger pieces. Have the ingredients at room temperature before dredging them.

Heat the oil while you're preparing the ingredients. Dip them in milk or buttermilk, then flour or semolina or bread crumbs. Arrange the dredged vegetables and seafood on a tray so they are ready for frying.

For stove-top deep-frying, use a large pot and have a long thermometer handy. Careful temperature control is essential. If the oil is not hot enough, the fritto misto will be pale and greasy. If the oil is too hot, it will scorch and the food will not be cooked through.

It's tricky to deep-fry without a thermometer, but you can try to gauge the temperature by dropping a small cube of bread into the hot oil. When the oil is hot enough for frying, the bread should brown in a little less than a minute, but if it darkens or burns in that time, the oil's too hot.

A countertop fryer is a wonderful tool and the easiest route. Its thermostatic control maintains the temperature of the oil throughout the frying process.

Peanut oil is one of the best oils to use for frying because of its high smoke point. Pure olive oil, safflower oil, grape seed oil and corn oil are also good choices.

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