A quick scan of virtually any full-service casual restaurant menu will reveal items that are bite-sized and deep-fried. There are three basic reasons for this. First, dining consumers are drawn to foods that they cannot easily prepare at home, where very little deep frying occurs. Second, the number of full-service restaurants that are expanding the offering of shareable items on their menus continues to grow. And finally, the vast majority of dining consumers simply find fried foods highly craveable.
A few of the items in the deep-fried category that are generating the most excitement and experiencing the widest array of innovative flavor treatments are hushpuppies, rice balls and croquettes. On the menu, some chefs take culinary license and call a dish a fritter when it is actually a croquette.
One factor driving growth is the economical ingredients that go into these dishes: corn meal, potatoes, rice and white sauce. They also fit perfectly with the snacking and sharing trends in full-service dining. The preparations are not labor intensive, and deep frying makes for quick cooking on the line.
As the following examples show, creating a signature dish needn’t be complicated: Incorporate a unique ingredient or two into the base recipe, and pair it with a creative sauce or condiment.
Cornmeal Comfort: Hushpuppies
The practice of adding flavorful ingredients to hushpuppy batter has elevated this comfort classic from side-dish status to sharing-plate favorite.
The hushpuppies at The Southern in Chicago are prepared with white cornmeal, scallion and piquillo pepper, and served with a housemade rémoulade.
At nearby Parson’s Chicken & Fish, chef Hunter Moore punches up his puppies with bits of country ham and chopped scallion, lightens the batter by folding in cream cheese, and serves them with a harissa aïoli.
The Shrimp and Bacon Hushpuppies at Back Forty in New York get an Asian bump with the addition of kaffir lime and rice wine, and chile vinaigrette for dipping.
A wide variety of additions could be made to create a signature hushpuppy:
> Country ham, bacon, spicy country sausage, chorizo
> Bell pepper, jalapeño, Peppadew
> Charred or smoked corn kernels
> Shredded sharp cheddar, Parmesan, pepper jack, smoked Gouda
Blue Crab Beignets offer more crunch than crab cakes and come with an Old Bay aïoli at The Pullman Kitchen in New York.
Arancini Redux: Rice Balls
While the classic arancini remains popular on Italian menus, several chefs in Chicago are taking the fried rice ball concept in new directions.
At Latin restaurant La Sirena Clandestina, chef John Manion serves a tropically tinged Coconut Lime Arancini, plated in a pool of black bean purée and topped with a malagueta chile relish.
Carriage House chef Mark Steuer flavors his Carolina Gold Rice Balls with pimento cheese, serves them atop sweet potato purée, and crowns them with a smoked pork-neck gravy and shredded pickled cabbage.
And in an over-the-top indulgent twist, chef Zoe Schor of Ada Street stuffs her arancini with braised beef short rib and three cheeses, then serves them with a spicy red pepper coulis.
The opportunities to create a unique rice ball are as numerous as there are varieties of flavored rice. Additional ingredients further the differentiation.
Asian fried rice
Red beans and rice
Andouille, tasso, linguica
Braised beef, pork, lamb
Lobster, shrimp, crab
Octopus or squid
Sharp and semi-soft cheeses
Croquettes and Fritters
By definition a croquette is a deep fried ball of meat, vegetables or cheese bound with either mashed potato or a thick béchamel white sauce. But as mentioned, one chef’s croquette is another chef’s fritter. For example, several chefs are taking brandade, the classic French dish of salt cod blended with potato and olive oil, rolling the mixture into small balls and deep frying them for a delicious sharing plate.
While the menu at Dusek’s in Chicago calls them Brandade Fritters, nearby Homestead on the Roof describes them as Crispy Brandade Fries, and New York’s Estela lists them as Salted Cod and Potato Croquettes.
But rather than getting hung up on semantics, let’s consider the following highly flavorful examples of fried items based on potato or béchamel.
For his Gooey Spicy Ham and Cheese Fritters, chef Ian Coogan at ABC Cocina in New York fries panko-breaded morsels of chopped Serrano ham blended with cheddar and manchego and serves them with creamy Fresno pepper salsa.
The cleverly named Blue Crab Beignets served at The Pullman Kitchen in New York contain a creamy core of crab, mascarpone, scallion and Old Bay.
Meanwhile, the Moroccan Eggplant Fritters at 3 Square Café in Venice, Calif., feature a lightly breaded mash of roasted eggplant, garlic and tahini, accompanied by a lemon Greek yogurt sauce.
The Chicken and Waffle Croquettes at Mud Hen Tavern in Los Angeles are a play on the famous Southern dish.
The Fried Oxtail Croquettes at La Carne in New York’s Eataly blend spoon-tender beef with béchamel, carrots and celery, and are topped with a celery seed aïoli.
The menu at chef Paul Fehribach’s Big Jones in Chicago describes his Potato and Goat Cheese Croquettes as “Breaded Potato Balls,” served on a bed of baby lettuce and drizzled with anchovy dressing.
And the playful Chicken and Waffle Croquettes at chef Susan Feniger’s Mud Hen Tavern in Los Angeles feature scoops of creamy shredded chicken dipped in waffle batter, fried and served in a pool of spicy maple syrup with a sprinkle of crunchy bacon.
Whatever you call them, croquettes can make a relatively simple and profitable new menu item. All of the ingredient additions listed for hushpuppies and rice balls work equally well in a croquette, and the following condiment suggestions only scratch the surface of flavors that suit all three dishes.
Lemon and dill
Kale and walnut pesto
Roasted poblano coulis