Eight Forty-Eight presents the second installment of Fear of Frying – the series explores various kitchen phobias and how to get over them. For this installment, Nina Barrett busts out the hot oil. She'll be tackling the challenge that gave the series its name.
I don’t come from a family of frequent fryers. My mom got frying-phobia from Weight Watchers. I got it around the age of 10, when my sister’s attempt to fry Wiener Schnitzel brought the Putnam, Conn. fire department racing to the rescue. And my 21-year-old son, George Booker, scorched his hand so badly making tempura a few weeks ago that he wound up in the emergency room—under serious sedation.
You may ask: What would make a person with such a traumatic track record even think of frying again at home? Maybe a luscious magazine photo of arancini: Italian rice balls, deep-fried to a crispy golden brown and oozing gooey gobs of melted mozzarella. Can’t get those at the Kentucky Fried Chicken drive-thru!
So on a recent afternoon, George and I decided that a little arancini therapy would help us overcome our fear of frying.
“Tunnel into ball, and insert cheese,” I read aloud.
"The more cheese, the better!" George replied.
"This is fun!" I exclaimed.
"Yeah, nuthin’ like shoving cheese into balls made of risotto and bacon and fennel!" my son replied.
"Sure," you say; it’s always fun—till someone burns down the house. So just to be on the safe side, I decided to notify the Evanston Fire Department in advance. They sent over Captain Dale Fochs, who comes with 25 years of firefighting experience and paramedic training. He also comes prepared for the worst.
"Well, this is what we call turn-off gear. This is what we arrive to a fire scene in. We have the jacket you see here, the helmet, and I also have a pair of boots here and gloves and a pair of pants that are all fire-resistant. They’re made out of a material called Nomex, and Nomex is a material that doesn’t burn so well," Captain Fochs said.
It seems like a vote of confidence that even after we confessed our histories, Captain Fochs didn't ask us to get all dressed up in Nomex for what we planned to do. He did, however, eyeball our outfits to make sure we were wearing natural fibers, not nylon or acrylic, that could easily melt or burn.
"And sometimes I get people on the ambulance where they got burned because they had something that had like a puffy sleeve, something that’s dangling and hanging, and that can be a problem…" Captain Fochs warned.
Nor was he going to stand by pointing a fire extinguisher in our general direction, as I half-expected him to do. Actually, he warned us, this is not the best way to handle a home grease fire.
"The best thing to do is, you shut off the fire underneath the pot, and cover it with a lid. And then let it cool down. What happens too often is, people do those things, and then they don’t let it cool down, and then they open up the lid, thinking well it must be out by now, and it gets the oxygen it needs and then it flashes up again," Fochs said.
When I explained that we planned to drop cheese-filled rice balls into a pan of hot fat, he suggested that dropping things into hot fat, generally speaking, may not be the best technique.
"Now, have you thought of, when you put it in the oil, like using a spoon? So there’s no splashing? That way you won’t get burned again," Fochs said.
Before long, Captain Fochs rolled up his fire-resistant sleeves and is helped George roll the rice-balls in eggs and breadcrumbs. We forgot that when they’re not fighting fires, firemen spend a lot of time cooking for themselves.
"Okay, would you deep-fry at the firehouse?" I asked.
"Well, yes, we’ve made fried chicken and other things that involved oils. There was actually a time that we started the firehouse on fire, because we were cooking, and a fire came in, and the guy thought he was turning off the burner, and actually turned it up…That’s a little embarrassing, when you burn your own house, and I shouldn’t be telling tales," Fochs replied.
"But you’re saying, nobody’s perfect," I continued.
"Nobody’s perfect, absolutely," he assured me.
The moral of that story is: Don’t ever walk away from a pan full of hot oil. But vigilance won’t be an issue, as George kept a watchful eye on our deep-fat thermometer.
"We are at almost 300," he reported.
And Captain Fochs monitored our every move. He praised me for not placing the paper towel (for draining the cooked arancini) too close to the burner and reminded us to keep the handle of the frying pan turned in over the stovetop so we didn't bump it accidentally. That’s how George overturned the pan of tempura oil onto his hand.
"Is it at 360?" Fochs asked.
"It’s at 360!" George replied.
"Okay, here it goes!" I exclaim.
"Oh, look at that! Can’t get much better," George delighted.
The actual frying went very fast. It’s blessedly uneventful: Nothing spills, splatters or burns. The balls came out golden, crispy and oozing cheesy goodness; just like the magazine photo.
"Hey, that’s pretty good!" George remarked.
I agreed with a simple, "Mmmm."
"You can taste that bacon in there! Nice touch!" Fochs delighted.
So happily, Captain Fochs left with a Tupperware container of take-out arancini. George and I were left with the clean-up, eight cups of used frying oil and a house that smells like a greasy diner. But it’s still standing--and so are we--so it seems like a small price to pay for having finally fried—without having gotten fried.
Some tips on making arancini:
The luscious photo that made us want to make the arancini appeared in a special edition of Gourmet magazine called Gourmet Italian Kitchen: 80+ Classic Recipes, but you can also find it online at Epicurious.com. The suggested recipe was for Mushroom and Mozzarella Arancini using a risotto recipe you can also find on the site, but we just used a risotto I had made up from leftovers in the fridge, including bacon and fennel. Once you get the hang of making risotto, you can play with ingredients, but to me, the secret of the whole thing is the stock you use. Recipes usually call for store-bought, and that’s fine, but if you make your own, the flavor of the whole dish will be much richer and deeper.
Since for us, the anxiety in the process wasn’t about cooking so much as potentially setting fire to the kitchen or causing grievous injury to ourselves, I’m including some of the tips Captain Fochs gave us for proceeding safely. After twenty-five years as both a firefighter and paramedic with Evanston Fire & Life-Safety Services, where he is now the fire inspector and prevention officer, he would definitely prefer not to meet you in an ambulance:
1. Whenever you fry, you should be wearing natural-fiber clothes like cotton, wool, or linen that won’t melt, like Nylon and other man-made fabrics. Don’t wear clothes with dangling or baggy sleeves.
2. Make sure the countertops are clear of extraneous stuff, especially piles of magazines, newspapers, or other materials that can easily catch on fire.
3. Though some people feel comfortable with a fire extinguisher nearby, Captain Fochs says it’s not the best solution for controlling a grease fire, and it makes a big mess if you use it. Far better to simply place a lid on the pan, turn off the flame, and leave the pan covered for at least an hour before removing the lid, to give the oil a chance to cool down. (DON’T PEEK! If the oil hasn’t completely cooled, letting oxygen back into the pan may cause it to flare up again in your face.)
4. Get a good deep-fry thermometer and monitor the temperature of the oil carefully; if it starts to rise above 365, lower the heat (adding food to the hot oil will automatically lower the temperature somewhat).
5. Keep the handle of the pan turned in over the stovetop, so you don’t accidentally bump it and overturn the pan.
6. Use a slotted spoon to place the food gently in the oil and remove it, so you don’t splatter hot grease onto your hands and arms.
7. If you are draining the cooked food on paper towels, keep them a safe distance away from the flame.
8. Once the oil is heating up and throughout the cooking process, DON’T WALK AWAY FROM THE PAN at any time. Captain Fochs says many grease fires start because the cook takes a phone call, goes into another room to get something, or is distracted in some other way and just forgets that there’s a pan of very hot oil on the stove.
9. If all else fails, call 911.
10. On a happier note, since if you’ve followed the instructions you’re probably going to do just fine: eat the arancini while they’re freshly fried. You can re-heat them, but arancini are really all about that crispy golden crust and the melty mozzarella.
Music Button: Talking Heads, "Burning Down The House", from the CD Speaking in Tongues, (Warner Bros.)