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World Chefs-For Southerner James Villas, fried is where the heart is

By Dorene Internicola

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Veteran food writer James Villas likes to say he was raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a cast-iron skillet in his hand.

In "Southern Fried: More than 150 recipes for crab cakes, fried chicken, hush puppies and more," Villas, who was food and wine editor of Town & Country magazine for 27 years, pays homage to the cuisine he learned at his mother's knee.

"There's no food that people love more than fried food," said Villas, "and we Southerners do it right: beautiful and dry and crispy and wonderful."

Villas is the author of some 17 cookbooks, including the James Beard award-winning "Pig: King of the Southern Table."

The 75-year-old spoke from his home in East Hampton, Long Island, about the do's and don'ts of frying, why it is close to a religion in the South, and how Southern comfort foods are turning up in the swankiest New York restaurants.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: The style of cooking that typifies Southern cuisine like nothing else is fried food ... The type of food that we're condemned for, the type of food that people say is going to cause the end of the earth, but the type of food that we love the most and that we were all raised on.

Q: Why is Southern fried food vilified?

A: There's so much bad fried food. But we in the South were raised being taught how to fry food correctly: how to deal with oil, how to deal with high smoking points, how to deal with lard and bacon grease. We learned from the very beginning. That's why frying is such a religion in the South.

Q: How did the South come to specialize in fried food?

A: I think probably the original reason is historical: 350 years, or however long ago, we were not a rich nation, and it was the easiest and cheapest way to produce food. There's nothing easier than getting a big pot of lard and dropping food in.

Q: Are restaurant chefs rediscovering fried foods?

A: Fried food is becoming very trendy. It's everywhere, partly because Southern cuisine has just taken over this country. Major chefs are learning about fried okra, hush puppies (cornbread balls), fritters, and rings and balls and croquettes and donuts and hashes.

Q: What are some common misconceptions surrounding fried food?

A: Most common is that fried food is heavy, greasy, soggy, and unhealthy. It is, if it's not done properly.

Q: What do people commonly do wrong?

A: Everybody today is trying to find a reason to use olive oil. Well, that's one of the fats you do not use to fry foods with. You want a good peanut oil, canola, soybean, corn, or safflower. It has to have a very high smoking point. Generally if you fry anything at 365 degrees F (185 degrees C) or above, you'll have virtually no absorption of fat and grease, maybe a teaspoon at most. That's the reason fried food is so crusty on the outside and wonderfully moist on the inside. And that's why frying is also a very quick style of cooking, or should be.

Q: What's in your pantry?

A: A million things: Tabasco sauce, and you've got to have buttermilk if you do a lot of fried foods. That's very Southern. And onions, green peppers and parsley: That's the holy trinity ... One of the greatest things to cook with is lard. Lard produces the lightest food in the world. There is nothing like chicken that has been fried in lard, with just a little bacon grease. You talk about good.

Fried Chicken Drumettes Parmesan (makes four or five servings)

12 to 15 chicken wings

1 cup all-purpose flour

1⁄2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon paprika

1⁄2 teaspoon dry mustard

1⁄4 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 cup milk

Peanut oil for deep frying

To prepare the chicken wings, remove and discard the tips, separate the first and second joints with a sharp knife, and set the pieces aside.

In a shallow baking dish, combine the flour, cheese, paprika, mustard, oregano, and salt and pepper and stir till well blended.

Dip the chicken pieces in the milk, dredge in the flour mixture, tapping off excess flour, and place on a plate.

In a deep fryer, electric frypan, or Dutch oven, heat about 2 inches of oil to 365°F on a deep-fat thermometer. Fry the chicken pieces in batches for 8 minutes, turn with tongs, fry till golden brown, 6 to 8 minutes longer, and drain on paper towels.

Serve the drumettes hot or at room temperature.

If the wings are especially meaty, they may require a minute or so longer in the fat, but be careful not to fry them so much that the interiors dry out. Feel free to experiment with various herbs and spices in this recipe.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Jan Paschal)

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