What’s your weakness? Maybe you love perfect thin-sliced onion rings, those seriously flavored, crisp-coated tangles. Maybe you’re a tempura fan, delighting in the tender, buttery texture of a thin, lightly fried slice of winter squash in its delicate golden brown wrapping.
Delicious stuff, we grant you, but one crunchy classic is pulling ahead of the pack these days. L.A. chefs have lately been going head over heels for fritto misto -- “mixed fry” in Italian. You might think the ethereal combos would be tough to replicate at home, but they’re surprisingly doable.
Today’s fritto misto tends to be lighter then the traditional Italian preparation, and chefs are using a wider range of seasonal ingredients, tossing together flavors and textures with a free hand.
In his remarkably forgiving recipe, Chris Kidder of Literati II first dips blanched baby carrots, green beans, celery root, acorn squash, portabello mushrooms and even clusters of Concord grapes in buttermilk. “It adds a nice sour tang,” he says, “and helps keep the crust crisper than regular milk.”
He then dredges the ingredients in a combination of flour and semolina, a technique he learned from Judy Rodgers, with whom he worked at Zuni Cafe. The semolina gives the fritto a wonderful crispness that doesn’t dissipate as it cools -- a real plus for the home cook who can’t be sure of perfect timing the way a restaurant staff can.
At Hungry Cat in Hollywood, David Lentz also uses buttermilk for dipping, but only for seafood, which he then dredges in Wondra flour. The Wondra, he says, makes for a crisper crust. Vegetables are dredged directly in Wondra, then dipped in beer batter before frying.
“We try to change our assortment throughout the season, and we look for differenttextured things, different shapes,” Kidder says. That’s the key to a great contemporary fritto misto: improvisation.
Paper-thin slices of lemon as well as parsley leaves and smelt are among the surprises Lentz tucks into a mixed seafood fry that also incorporates squid, prawns, zucchini and eggplant.
Fritto misto, in many ways the Italian equivalent of fish and chips, also appears at Palmeri in Brentwood, where the combination of calamari, shrimp and scallops is the perfect nibble with an aperitivo.
It has even made an appearance at Valentino in Santa Monica, where owner Piero Selvaggio has offered bite-size tidbits of shrimp, scallops, zucchini, mushrooms and calamari in paper cones during cocktail receptions at special events.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “We use it as part of a little snack at the beginning.”
Selvaggio notes that fritto misto is a mainstay in every region of Italy, where it’s offered with aioli or marinara sauce for dipping. Valentino’s recipe is a traditional combination of seafood and vegetables, dipped in milk, dredged in flour and deep-fried in olive oil. A simple spicy marinara sauce accompanies. One you know the routine, this is an easy recipe and the results are fabulous, so we think it’s a good guide.
“Speed is of the utmost importance in fritto misto,” Selvaggio says. The seafood and vegetables should be prepared ahead and then, just before serving time, quickly battered, fried and whisked to the table.
Spiced tomato sauce
In a food processor or blender, combine the tomatoes, lemon juice, horseradish, shallots, Worcestershire sauce, red wine vinegar, black pepper and salt. Pulse or blend briefly until the mixture is combined but still a bit chunky.
Remove and place in a bowl. Fold in the green onions and adjust the seasoning.
In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, vinegar and water. Set aside.
Finely chop the garlic and then smash with the side of a knife, smearing the garlic into the cutting board.
Place the egg yolks in a medium bowl. Place a damp towel on the counter in a ring; put the bowl in the ring and tighten the towel to keep the bowl from spinning as you add the oil.
With the bowl in place, whisk the egg yolks a bit. While whisking, add three drops of canola oil to the egg yolks. Once incorporated, slowly whisk in another three-fourths cup of the canola oil. The mixture will thicken a bit.
Whisk in one-fourth of the lemon juice, vinegar and water mixture. Alternating between the oils and the liquids, repeat this process until all the canola oil, olive oil and liquids have been added. The mixture should be smooth and creamy. Whisk in the garlic and salt. Cover and refrigerate.
Peel the celery root and cut it into 12 half-inch-thick wedges. Place in a small pot of lightly salted water and boil gently until knife-tender, about 3 to 4 minutes. Place on a towel to drain. Reserve the water to blanch the carrots and green beans.
Snip the tops of the carrots, keeping 1 inch of the stem intact. Rinse the carrots and rub with a clean kitchen towel to remove any dirt. Place in the pot of lightly salted water and boil gently until knife-tender, about 3 to 5 minutes. Place on a towel to drain. Reserve water for the green beans.
Clean and trim the green beans. Place in the water and cook until tender, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove and submerge the beans in ice water until chilled. Place on a towel to drain.
Peel the onion. Slice into rings one-eighth inch thick.
Rinse and dry the acorn squash half. With the skin on, slice cross sections one-eighth inch thick and carefully remove seeds and pulp.
Remove and discard the mushroom stems. Slice the mushrooms into quarter-inch strips, being careful not to break the strips.
Pour the oil into a large pot. Clip a thermometer onto the pot if possible. Heat the oil to 360 to 375 degrees, then reduce the heat to low to maintain the temperature.
Pour the buttermilk into a large bowl deep enough for the buttermilk to cover the vegetables. Add the vegetables and allow to sit for a minute, stirring to ensure even coating. You may have to do this step and the cooking of the vegetables in batches.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour and semolina.
Lift the vegetables from the buttermilk, allowing them to drain through your fingers, then place in a large bowl. Take a handful of the flour mixture and dust and toss the vegetables until they are evenly coated. This may take a few dustings and a little skill, moving the bowl around at the same time as you are adding the flour mixture.
Place the coated vegetables into the hot oil, using tongs if desired. Cook just what will easily fit in the pan. When you first add the vegetables, the temperature will drop, so increase the heat a bit. Cook until tender, about 3 to 4 minutes. The onion takes less time, so you may want to fry that separately.
Remove the vegetables from the oil when they are golden brown and drain on paper towels. Season with salt. Repeat until all the vegetables have been fried. Place fried vegetables on a baking sheet in a 200-degree oven to keep them warm while you’re frying.
Arrange the vegetables on a plate and serve with spiced tomato sauce and aioli for dipping.
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