As many of you know, I spent this winter teaching at various cooking schools around the US, sharing traditional Tuscan dishes and talking about life in Italy. Although my menus don’t typically contain a lot of fried food, when I look back on what we cooked this winter, it seems we did a lot of frying. At classes for Christmas in Texas we made my grandmother’s panzerotti, fried chestnut ravioli rolled in sugar. For a special Tuscan dinner in February, there was salvia fritta, fried sage leaves stuffed with anchovy. To celebrate the feast of St. Joseph at my mom’s church in March, I labored over fritelle di San Giuseppe, rice balls flavored with orange zest, a traditional Tuscan treat.
What struck me in all those instances was the reaction of the local cooks and chefs: they were nervous about frying. They wanted to bring out special equipment like electric fryers and special thermometers for monitoring the oil. They expected it to be difficult and messy. I spent the winter helping both amateurs and professionals see how simple and easy frying can be.
Italians are always ready to toss a skillet on the stove top with some oil to fry up some little goodie. There are often piles of tiny fish at the fishmonger, too small to do anything with but toss them in flour and fry. Summer brings too many zucchini blossoms that are wonderful dipped in a simple batter and fried. Baby artichokes from the garden, fat porcini mushrooms from the woods, tender lamb chops from the butcher or winter squash cut into bright orange strips – they’re all fodder for the hot oil. Heat some oil in a skillet, mix a light batter, dip and fry the pieces until golden brown and then drain on butchers’ paper. It’s a simple and age-old process, and no special equipment is needed. Even though frying might not be the healthiest of cooking techniques, it truly turns everything into a crunchy joyful pleasure.
In America we often make things in the kitchen more difficult than they need to be. That carefree feeling in bringing forth food from the kitchen is elusive but an excess of equipment won’t save us.