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Il Fritto Misto

Italy in the summer can be, well, sticky, with humidities rivaling those of a Turkish bath.

Under these conditions cooking becomes a problem. One possible solution is a fritto misto, mixed fried foods, which is wonderful with a tossed salad.

It is true that you have to heat the oil, which does get quite hot, but the preparation and cooking are quick, and as soon as you've finished cooking you can turn off the burner, cover the fry-pot, and worry about it once it has cooled. Moreover, since the kitchen windows are wide open the smell of frying is less likely to waft though the house (we're talking Italian homes without air conditioning here; if you have that luxury you'll have to use an exhaust fan). And finally, well cooked fried foods are light and refreshing.

The primary rule for frying is that the oil has to be of good quality, with a high smoke point, and quite fresh. What kind? Italians use sunflower seed, peanut, and corn oil, though the general consensus is that peanut oil works best. Surprisingly, olive oil is also quite good because it has a very high smoke point. Oil that's already been used tends to give off nasty flavors the second time around, so recycling is not a good idea. The oil should also be abundant, and it's best to fry the foods in several smaller batches rather than one large one, because you want the heat of the oil to sear the food and thus seal it. Too much food added at once will chill the oil, which will then be absorbed, making the food greasy and heavy. The temperature you want? Between 360 and 400 F (180-200 C). If you don't have a fat thermometer, toss a square of bread into the pot; if it rises to the surface crackling and frying, the oil's hot enough.

The foods to be fried should be chopped into pieces that are small enough that they will cook through completely without burning on the outside, and should be dipped in some sort of batter and dredged in bread crumbs, or at the very least be rolled in flour before they go into the fry pot.

Before we get to recipes, a couple of batters:

Artusi's Pastella per le Fritture, which is easy, quick, and still widely quoted more than a century after he first wrote it down.

Pastella per Fritti di Carne -- Batter for Frying Meats

Moisten two heaping teaspoons of flour with two teaspoons of oil, stir in two eggs, a pinch of salt, and mix well. Dredge the meat to be fried in the batter, roll it in bread crumbs, and you're ready to fry it.

Aromi per Panature: Flavored Breadcrumbs
Don't want to make a batter, or want more than a batter can offer? Use flavored breadcrumbs, dredging your food in lightly beaten egg and coating it well with the breadcrumbs. Flavored breadcrumbs also make nice gifts.

What to put into a fritto misto? Here are a few fritti from various parts of Italy:

Fritto Misto alla Piemontese
A hearty fritto with meats, offal lots of veggies, fruit, and semolina. Extremely elegant, and excellent for an important occasion.

Fritto Misto di Mare
A delicious mix of fried seafood, with something to suit everyone!

Frienno e Magnanno alla Napoletana
One of Naples's signature dishes, rich, elegant and sumptuous, with fish, meat, corquettes, veggies and more.

And here are a few fried dishes:

Fried Mozzarella, or Mozzarella Fritta
You might not think to fry a cheese that becomes stringy when hot, but with a crunchy breadcrumb coating it's delicious.

Olive all'Ascolana
Olives, stuffed with a zesty combination of meat and cheese, and fried. Perfect in a fritto misto.

Isernian Calzoni, or Calzoni Ripieni d'Isernia
Most calzoni are pizzas, folded over and baked. These are instead stuffed with a savory ricotta filling and fried.

Stuffed Cannoli, or Cannoli Farciti
Neapolitan savory cannoli, with a tasty pork-based filling.

Polenta Squares with Gorgonzola, or Crostoni al Gorgonzola
Polenta is remarkably versatile, and is an excellent base for crostini too. An excellent antipasto or party food.

Golden Fettuccine, or Fettuccine Dorate
This is a variation on a very simple, very traditional pasta dish that's also very quick to make. Tasty, too!

Tuna Croquettes, or Crocchette di Tonno
Tuna croquettes are a perfect lenten dish.

Meatballs for Cuscus, or Polpette per Cuscussù
Fried meatballs stuffed with vegetables, a traditional Italian Jewish accompaniment to cuscus that will also be nice in a fritto misto.

Buon Appetito!
Kyle Phillips

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