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The Art of Frying

A stranger approached the Abbey, or so the story goes, and hammered on the old oaken door. As the sound of his knocking reverberated through the interior and died away, footsteps could be heard approaching. The ancient portal creaked open, revealing a figure dressed in a long brown habit and clutching a skillet in his gnarled old hand. "Are you the Friar?" the stranger asked. "No," the figure replied. "I'm the chip-monk.

" *____________* Wok this way, please Frying is one of the most basic forms of cooking and yet, surprisingly, it's the one that seems to go wrong the most often. Cooks who have no problem handling a wok, still manage to make a mess of things when it comes to the humble frying pan. There are generally two reasons for this.

One is that the pan is often either too hot or too cold. The other is that the food is pretty much left to its own devices and either burns or fails to cook through. So here's the number one tip: Frying is not a passive activity. Slapping something into the skillet and stirring occasionally is not the way to go. You need to agitate the food on an almost continuous basis, just as you would if cooking in a wok. To fry successfully - that is, without absorbing too much fat - you must cook at a high temperature.

In fact, the fat in your pan should be smoking when the food goes in but it should not be on the heat. Two things will happen. There will be an instant sealing of the food which will reduce moisture loss and inhibit fat absorption, plus the pan will cool down slightly while still maintaining a cooking temperature. You need to do two things: reduce the stove temperature to about half that which you used to heat the pan up - and keep the food moving. You can do that by shaking the pan, tossing the food in it or simply using a spatula. That's all there is to it.

Just imagine you're using a flat wok. Does this apply to omelets? Yes it does. They will cook quickly and well using this method. They will also burn easily if left so you need to work at continuously drawing the cooked mixture to the center of the pan and tipping the runny stuff towards the edge, returning the pan to the heat only when it's obvious that cooking has stopped. Just remember to always treat food in the frying pan as if it's at boot camp. It can rest occasionally, but no longer than is necessary to reheat the pan it's cooking in.

Deep fat frying Apart from French fries - or 'chips' as the French chefs call them - just about anything deep fried needs to have some kind of covering to protect it. This is usually either batter or breadcrumbs. Both are simple to do, but have somehow been made more complicated with the passing of time and the elevation of chefs to celebrity status. These days breadcrumbs are easy. Just buy a packet of one-step breadcrumbs from your supermarket and follow the instructions on the pack. Too easy? Okay, just once and for the fun of it, find some stale bread, reduce it to crumbs in a food processor (about half a loaf should do it), line it up with a plate of flour and a bowl of beaten egg.

Now coat the food in the flour, dip it in the beaten egg and coat it in the breadcrumbs making sure to use one hand for the dry and the other for the wet ingredients. When you've had enough of that, try it my way :) Keep it simple Batter is nothing more than flour to which a liquid has been added and air has been introduced through sustained beating. And that's it. You don't believe me? Sydney's famous fish restaurant, Doyle's, is renowned for the crisp, light batter in which it's fish are cooked.

It consists of just three ingredients: flour, water and elbow grease. The secret of a light batter is to beat in as much air as possible - which is one of the reasons that chilled soda water or beer work so well. They are already full of gas which remains trapped in the mixture as it expands on cooking.

There are no hard and fast rules about quantities. Simply beat enough liquid into the flour to give you the consistency you want. I like my batter mix to coat the back of a dessert spoon when dipped into it and immediately removed. To coat, lightly dust the fish with flour and pat it in between your hands before dipping the fish into the batter. Hold the fillet at one end, drain off any excess liquid and transfer immediately into the fryer. Too little heat spells defeat Once again the trick is to get the fat really hot before doing any cooking.

And I do mean hot. Like, smoking hot. The top temperature your fryer permits in other words. (If you cook using an open pan and basket please be very careful with this, fat fires are not a pretty sight). Yes, I know there are cute little diagrams on the side of your cooker telling you what temperature to use for fish, what for chicken and so on. Ignore them.

First heat your fat to the maximum, then add the food, then turn the dial back to the temperature suggested by your product manufacturer. How do you know when the food is done? It floats to the surface of the fat. Take it out, drain it thoroughly, and remember that it will continue to cook for quite some time afterwards. Which is why chicken can be held until everything else is ready, while fish needs to be served almost immediately.

And if you haven't bought your deep fat fryer yet, take a tip from me and use the same type I do (as do all other chefs I know). It's made of stainless steel, pulls to bits for easy cleaning, lets you easily see what's going on and just happens to be one of the safest options available. You can see an illustration of one of the available models at Amazon.

com. Just click here. Of course, you'll need to be connected to the internet for the link to work. Follow the simple guidelines above, use really fresh ingredients and you will have nothing but success after success. That really is all there is to it.

Michael Sheridan is an acknowledged authority and published writer on cooking matters. His website at http://www.thecoolcook.com contains a wealth of information, hints, tips and recipes for busy home cooks.

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