I’m convinced that if food knows you’re afraid of it, it will, most of the time, rise (or is it sink?) to meet your expectations, and give you plenty of trouble. This is why, for example, you must be firm while rolling out a pie crust, even as you use a delicate touch, and why souffles are best made after 10 pm, with a generous glass of wine by your side.
I’ve feared a wide variety of foods in my time, but one by one, I have try-tried again, building up my nerve and feel for things, and I’ve eventually conquered most of them. Fried foods, though, have definitely still got my number. I feel a vague internal cowering even now as I think about searing bolts of grease splattering everywhere, and me screaming and running like a peasant in front of a hord of visigoths, trying to get away from the oily conflagration that could, in my mind, easily start out of nowhere in a split second, as soon as there’s more than about 2 Tbs. of hot oil involved.
I’ve never actually had any mishap remotely resembling that (I’m much more liable to shave off my fingertip or set a cake ablaze), but it still scares me. Suffice it to say, I don’t do all that much serious frying.
Even less so because I’ve never had much cause to. I love the results enough to slave away over improving my bread, even my radicchio experience I’m willing to work at, but on the whole I don’t like fried food. I don’t like the taste, so why bother?
I know I’m kind of weird, with this. I know that my general dislike of fried chicken, fried fish, pakoras, tempura, even French fries puts me at odds with most of humanity. It’s not a problem with the fat content or anything, cream being pretty much my favorite food group. I just don’t care much for the flavor.
On the East Coast, come summer time, this is a pretty big problem. What could be more coastal and summery than sitting dockside eating fried clam or oyster sandwiches and drinking cold beer? Nothing. And there I was, the wet blanket who passed on the clam sandwich. Yes please for the beer though, thanks.
Then, as if taunting me just a little bit for my decision to head inland, after seven years Boston offered up a fried clam sandwich that I couldn’t resist, that I wanted seconds of. But it happened the day before we left. Timing.
The week before we left for Minnesota was Restaurant Week, so a wide swath of restaurants in town were offering special prix fixe menus at lunch and dinner. Joel and I have a soft spot for the Boston chef Barbara Lynch’s food, so we jumped at the opportunity to go out to dinner at one of her restaurants with some friends for a little restaurant week revelry.
After dinner, we met up with another one of our best friends who was coming from a concert. As we meandered down the street, she and I (in typical fashion) couldn’t help but poke our heads in through the open door of Ms. Lynch’s nearby cooking school, to spy on what was going on. Our spying being anything but subtle, the man who was standing inside asked us if we needed anything, and we promptly took the opportunity to do a little prying.
In our prying, we discovered that there had been no class there that evening, and the piles of dishes were the wreckage left after a pizza party for the waitstaff of the Butcher Shop and neighboring B&G Oysters. Did we want any pizza? No thank you, well actually, Megan did. As we continued our conversation, the guy we were talking to absolutely insisted that she and I go to B&G Oysters for lunch before the week ran out. They were offering a special fried clam sandwich, that week only.
In that instant we decided we’d go on Thursday. And so we did. And while muttering to myself about how I don’t actually like fried clam sandwiches, I ordered one. It arrived, a towering pile of golden nuggets on a toasty bun with just a smear of mayonnaise. And it was so dang good. How was this possible?! Did I actually like fried seafood?
Rather than oily, paper staining, slightly damp, squiggly bits of shellfish, these guys were unbelievably crisp. Their exteriors crackled like shattering ice, then the clams dissolved in your mouth. One was, admittedly, too heavy to leave you with any room for another, but if I’d had room I would have ordered one, three course fixe be damned.
I had a hankering for another last week. But last week, as you may know, I was in the MidWest – as I am every day now – and clams, while available, cost a pretty penny. I stood at the fish counter, pondering my desire to pay that much and spend the time to shuck, and then I noticed that there was a special on bay scallops. I’ve never had, nor heard of, a scallop sandwich, but I figured they couldn’t be that far off from clams or oysters in this context, so I decided to buy some.
At home, I tossed them in a spiced cornmeal mixture with visions of crispy golden crusts and thoughts of po’ boys dancing in my head. Then I screwed up my courage and let the oil rip. With the first half of the batch, I made the mistake I always seem to make when frying. I put the scallops in before the oil was hot enough, and the coating acted like a sponge, soaking up oil and making them soggy. But, the second half batch browned and crisped beautifully. So, word to the wise, use hot oil! Even though it may scare the pants off of you!
By virtue of the use of scallops, I found myself feeling like perhaps I was actually being quite sophisticated, and if sophistication calls for anything, it calls for arugula. And very ripe end of the season tomatoes. So, onto some toasted ciabatta those went.
Something about fried seafood also gives the impression that it is opening its arms wide saying, “slather me with mayo.” But, when you are being as sophisticated as scallops and arugula, just plain mayo may not cut it. So, I whipped up a quick salsa verde like sauce, all green and salty and herby with parsley, basil, anchovy, and capers, and I blended that into the mayo.
The sandwiches were a wild mess. Scallops popped out the sides, tomatoes squelched, and mayo dripped (only the arugula was well behaved, as it should be), but they were also a wild success. Incredibly delicious. I consider them a major step forward in, as well as an impetus to continue with, fighting my fear of frying.
- 1 pound bay scallops
- 1 cup cornmeal
- 2 tablespoons coarsely ground cornmeal
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed dried rosemary
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon aleppo pepper
- 1/2 cup peanut oil
- 4 big ciabatta rolls, split and toasted
- 1 ripe tomato, sliced
- salsa verde mayo (see below)
- In pie plate or other shallow dish, whisk together the cornmeals and all the seasonings.
- In a medium, deep frying pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat until it’s nice and hot (about 350F). Toss the scallops in the cornmeal mixture to coat them well. Then, add half of them to the pan. Fry them, flipping after 1-2 minutes, until they are golden and crisped on each side. Remove the scallops with a slotted spoon or spatula and put them on a paper towel lined plate. Fry with the remaining scallops the same way. (You could also fry them in a deep fryer if you have one, that would probably work even better.)
- Spread the toasted ciabatta rolls on both sides with the mayo. Fill the rolls with arugula, tomato slices, and scallops. Serve with plenty of napkins on the side.
- 1 handful Italian (flat leaf) parsley
- 1 handful basil leaves
- 1 large garlic clove, smashed and chopped
- 1 oil-packed anchovy fillet, chopped
- 2 teaspoons brined or salted capers (rinsed, if salted)
- 1 pinch salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 cup good quality mayo
- In a small food processor (or with a mortar and pestle) process together the parsley, basil, and garlic until pretty finely chopped. Add in the anchovy and process a little more. Add the capers, the olive oil, and the lemon juice and pulse a few times. Finally, add in the mayo and process until everything is blended together. Scrape into a bowl and use for the scallop sandwiches as well as any variety of other sandwiches (it’s darn good with porchetta).