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Deep-fried turkey is not as unhealthy as you think

  • fried_turkey.jpg

    Developed by Louisiana Cajun chefs, deep-fried turkey has taken America by storm and is healthier than you think. (iStock)

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    James Villas is the author of Southern Fried. (Jason Wyche)

  • halfmoonpievillas.jpg

    Spicy half-moon pies are made with fresh or dried fruits and cooked to a crispy goodness. (Jason Wyche)

With Thanksgiving approaching, you may be considering deep-frying your turkey or serving fried potatoes or any number of fried, fatty foods.  

But isn't serving fried food akin to the devil these days --tantamount to setting up your loved ones for a slow and painful death?

“Fried food is simply the most delicious food in the world.”

- Author James Villas 

After all, the newest food-to-fear study is out and acrylamide may cause cancer. Chips and fries are public enemies one and two. Found in fried and well-done foods, acrylamide is a naturally occurring compound created when a sugar and an amino acid called asparagine combine at high, prolonged temperatures.

The FDA recommends frying potatoes -- and just about anything else – only to light golden brown. But that merely reduces acrylamide. Avoiding fried foods is the only effective way to eliminate it.

That’s heresy to James “There Is Nothing That Bacon Can’t Improve” Villas. 

“Fried food is simply the most delicious food in the world,” says the Southern food authority and author. “We Southerners excel at it.” In his newest book, Southern Fried (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), he writes: “I frankly lose patience with overzealous fanatics who would have me and the rest of humanity nourish ourselves on nothing but grilled tofu, steamed sea bass and sushi.”

Recipe: Cajun Deep-Fried Whole Turkey

Recipe: Tar Heel Glazed Sweet Potatoes

Recipe: Half-Moon Fried Apple Pies

Fried foods are multiplatform, cross-cultural crowd-pleasers: Belgian Pommes Frites, Italian “Mozzarella en Carrozza” (deep-fried mozzarella and bread), Chinese Spring Rolls, German Schnitzel, Japanese Tempura, Middle Eastern Falafel, Russian Chicken Kiev, Canadian “Poutine” (fries with brown gravy and cheese curds), Indian Samosas, Mexican Chimichangas. And then there’s the king: Southern fried chicken.

Except at Thanksgiving, says Villas. That’s when you “perk up that table” with Deep-Fried Cajun Turkey, “one of the most delicious things God ever created.”

Spicy Blistered Virginia Goobers make the perfect pre-dinner snack, but “only with North Carolina or Virginia nuts.” Butter-Fried Oysters are an excellent starter that’s “done in two minutes.” Since Villas can’t fathom anyone disliking fried oysters, there’s no discussion about alternatives. Tar Heel Glazed Sweet Potatoes with Pecans are “so much more interesting” than sweet potato pie, as are Texas-Fried Soda Biscuits -- flour, baking soda, lard, buttermilk and Tabasco -- a rural Texas staple, instead of rolls. Finish off with Half Moon Fried Apple Pies.

Before you clutch your heart, understand that food fried in the right oil and at the right temperature is light, crispy and nearly grease-free. The high heat immediately seals the outside, preventing oil from seeping in and moisture from leeching out. The heat turns the moisture into steam, cooking food from the inside out.

New York-based nutritionist Debbie Ginsburg says high-temperature frying with high smoke-point oils is the safest way to fry. While she stresses eating fried food only in moderation, she says that fat’s role is sometimes underemphasized. 

Fat is vital to cell function, hormone production, body temperature, skin and hair health, and energy production, she says. We also need dietary fats to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K. 

“If you’re getting enough vitamin D but your diet lacks sufficient fat, your body won’t absorb it,” Ginsburg explains. Change the oil frequently, she says, as repeated use lowers the oil’s smoke point, the temperature at which oil begins to smoke and oxidize or break down.

Oils with high smoke points include peanut (440 degrees), canola (400 degrees), clarified butter (450 degrees) -- called “ghee” in Indian cuisine and in specialty food shops -- and rice bran oil (490 degrees.

Cooking temperature should range between 350 degrees and 375 degrees. Villas recommends maintaining 365 degrees by cooking only a few pieces at a time. Overloading the fryer reduces oil temperature. Go below 325 degrees and food absorbs grease like a sponge. 

Soggy, over-battered food, fried in poor-quality, unchanged oil is what many people think of as ”Southern food,” says Villas. “My mother wouldn’t have given food like that to Beauregard. And he wouldn’t have eaten it.” Beauregard was Villas’ dog.

Health alerts like the one on acrylamide are significant, and there’s more analysis coming, as the compound was only discovered in 2002. Who knows? Future research may reveal frying to be healthier than boiling, broiling or baking.

That’s unlikely, but then again, take dark-chocolate covered almonds. Back then: unhealthy, fat- and sugar-filled calorie missiles. Now: antioxidant-packed powerhouses that boost cardiovascular health.

Never say never.