You drop a dollop of dough into a skillet of hot oil. It sizzles and browns. A crust is formed around a moist interior, and a fritter is born.
Every culture seems to have some kind of fritter, be it European or African in origin, sweet or savory, plain or fancy, dusted with sugar or dipped in ketchup.
Middle Easterners fry chickpea-mush into falafel. The Spanish and Portuguese make bacalao balls from salt cod and mashed potatoes.
The French concoct beignets out of a sticky flour-and-egg paste that puffs up into something light and ethereal when fried in deep fat.
Fried and true, these and many other fritters have made the journey to the New World, where they have been smashed up with whatever is handy — okra, corn, eggplant, crab, conch, shrimp, salmon, bananas and apples — and fried into greasy little bites that make for wonderful appetizers, cocktail nibbles and breakfast treats.
I love 'em all.
And whether I'm eating a croqueta on the beach in Puerto Rico or cupping my greasy little palms around a fist-size acaraje (black-eyed pea cake) on the streets of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, they always remind me of home. I grew up gorging on the onion-flecked hush puppies that are a staple at Southern fish fries.
And I love to make salmon croquettes, a remnant of hard-scrabble times when fresh salmon was hard to come by and the canned stuff was cheap and plentiful.
When I started gathering recipes for this story, I was tempted to include fried pies, the Southern classic filled with peach, apple, pear, strawberry and the like and sometimes called “tarts.” But after a little research and some lively Facebook discourse, I came to realize that fried pies aren't fritters at all. Fried pies (and the empanadas, pastelitos, bunuelos and so forth that are found in Latino kitchens) are made from rolled pastry dough. They are purposeful and constructed, and they are downright elegant compared to fritters, which are sloppy and free form.
Athens cookbook author Rebecca Lang responded to my fritter jitters with a lovely recipe for Corn Fritters with Summer Salsa. More like a corn cake than a hush puppy-style fritter with corn kernels mixed in, Lang's salsa-fied fritters will be a wonderful way to use up the inevitable summer cornucopia of Silver Queen and heirloom tomatoes. They are a cinch to make and don't require vats of spattering oil, either.
On the sweet side, Atlanta author Virginia Willis turned me on to her French beignets. They are not the pillow-shaped confections of New Orleans, but the fried pastry puffs that the French make from pāte a choux, a sticky dough that's used for cream puffs and eclairs. Willis adds orange zest to the dough, rolls the warm beignets in sugar and more orange zest, and sprinkles them with powdered sugar before serving. I can't think of a more welcome coffee accompaniment.
In her book “Basic to Brilliant, Y'all,” Willis suggests filling the beignets with pastry cream for what I'd call the fried equivalent of a cream puff. Another idea: Add fruit and a dollop of ice cream or whipped cream and you'll have a dessert fit for company.
For me, nothing summons the tropics like savory fried fritters and sweet frothy cocktails. Therefore, no fritter fantasia would be complete without a Latino representative. Thank goodness, then, for Sandra Gutierrez's Crab Croquetas with Latin Tartar Sauce. Fluffed up with bechamel sauce, the croquettes are a multistep affair, but worth every mouthful. Send out a tray of these and a round of caipirinhas, and you'll have a fritter frenzy on your hands.