Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mick and CBoy's Fried Chicken

Fried Chicken

CBoy had been raving about the fried chicken recipe that I had sent him several months back, after being disappointed with an upscale fried chicken dinner at a local spot known for big taste (and prices to match). He had grown up with his mom cooking a fried chicken dinner every Sunday, so the dish had a great deal of sentimental culinary meaning for him, and he craved that old school pan-fried chicken flavor of his youth. He cooked my recipe and declared it to be the best fried chicken he has ever eaten.

Like Chris, I had outstanding fried chicken meals in my memory banks to refer back to. There were crispy yard birds at my grandmother’s house in rural East Texas, pan fried birds cooked by the Owens’ at the Southern Dinette on East 11th, some superlative fried chicken at assorted House Family Reunions in Leona through the decades, and who could forget the amazing fried chicken that Zelma Mathews used to fix up for the monthly staff potluck lunches through the years at Jeffrey’s and Clarksville Café, on the corner of West Lynn and 12th.

Zelma had earned the title “The Queen of Clarksville”, an elderly, headstrong Black woman that lived directly across the street from the restaurants. We looked in on her often, and cooked whatever she wanted when she felt a little peckish and didn’t want to heat up her kitchen (she had a fondness for sautéed redfish, a chicken breast with no sauce, or grilled pork tenderloin). But once a month she would arrange an army of cast iron skillets on Chef Raymond’s stove in the Jeffrey’s kitchen, heat up the oil, get out her big paper bag of seasoned flour, and commence to frying up a mess of amazing chicken, often for a crowd of 30 or more. It was a taxing all-morning affair for her, and nobody appreciated it more than we did. Everyone would bring a covered dish (I would always fix a big mess of bacony collard greens, her favorite dish), and Zelma was treated like the feisty, no-nonsense, sharp-tongued, dry-witted royalty that she was. That was some killer yardbird.

So Chris wanted a recipe for fried chicken, and here’s what I sent him:

Mick’s Fried Chicken
You can also use 2 whole 2 to 2½-pound chickens that have been cut into 8 pieces each instead of buying pre-cut chicken parts. The breasts need to be further cut in half so that the two pieces are of roughly equal mass, leaving a total of 5 pieces per half, or 10 pieces per bird. An 11-inch wide cast iron Dutch oven is preferable to a straight-sided sauté pan. Its weight and mass cause the oil to hold temperature better. You can omit the brining step, but the chicken will be much juicer if it is brined first. You can fry in vegetable oil, but the mix of lard and clarified butter will be much more flavorful. You can also add some bacon fat to vegetable oil to punch up the cooking oil taste. Chris’ better half Diane expressly forbade the use of flavorful oil, hand writing a big “NOT!” on my printed-out recipe. “As much as Chris loves fried chicken and all the other things that he shouldn’t be eating, using that oil would probably be the death of him,” she said.

Brining mix:
½ cup Kosher or sea salt (do not use iodized salt for brining)
2 quarts cold water

1¼ cups buttermilk
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
½ teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon cayenne

4-5 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken parts (breasts, backs, thighs, legs, and wings, or a mix, with breasts cut in half), trimmed of any excess fat

Breading Mix:             (feel free to increase the volume of this mix if doing  a big bird)
2 cups unbleached flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
¾ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne

Frying Oil:
1½ cups lard
1 cup clarified butter
¼ cup finely sieved bacon fat
(chicken or duck fat may be substituted for any of the oils)

1. Make the brine: Stir kosher salt into cold water until dissolved. Place chicken parts in a non-reactive bowl or pot; add enough brine to cover completely. Refrigerate 8 to 12 hours. Completely drain the brined chicken.

1. In a large bowl, whisk together buttermilk, salt, black pepper, paprika, and cayenne pepper and mix well. Add the chicken to a large zip lock bag and pour the marinade over the chicken. Place the bag in a pan so that if it leaks or gets accidentally punctured it will be contained. Marinate in refrigerator for several hours.

2. Place oven rack in the middle position and preheat oven to 160°.
Place the marinated chicken on a rack or in a colander and allow to drain thoroughly, discarding the marinade.

3. In another large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder,
salt, pepper, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper. Using one piece of chicken
at a time, dredge in the flour mixture, shaking off the excess. If the dredging mix gets too clumpy during the frying process, sift through a sieve periodically to remove clumps.

4. In an 11-inch Dutch oven or straight-sided sauté pan, heat oil over medium heat until it reaches 355-360°F. Using tongs, slip some of the chicken pieces, skin side down, into the heated fat. Do not overcrowd the pan or the cooking fat will cool. When turning chicken pieces always turn them away from you, so that oil can’t splash on your body. Fry in batches to maintain oil heat at the proper temp. Regulate the fat so it just bubbles, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes on each side, until the chicken is golden brown and cooked-through. If unsure about doneness, remove a piece and pierce the thickest part of the meat with the end of a sharp knife: if juices run clear it is done, if they are pink, cook a little longer. Drain thoroughly on a wire rack and then on crumpled paper towels, and keep warm in the oven until all chicken is fried. Allow chicken to rest 5-minutes before serving.

To clarify butter, place butter over very low heat until the water cooks off, solids form at the bottom, and foam appears on the surface. Skim foam off of the top, slowly angle the container, and very slowly and carefully pour off the clarified butter so that you get none of the white milk solids from the bottom of the pan in the clarified butter.

Suggested Sides:
Use some of the leftover frying fat and flour, a little more flour than fat, whisk together to make a light roux with the consistency of light cake frosting. Whisk into a heated mix of ½ chicken stock and ½ half-and-half to make cream chicken gravy, seasoned with cracked black pepper. Serve gravy over mashed potatoes and turnips that have been cooked in some chicken stock and water (half and half mixture) and garlic, and then mashed with a little butter and black pepper. Sauté some parboiled fresh green beans with butter or bacon. Hot cat-head biscuits with butter and honey round out the meal.

Last night we made the fried chicken, accompanied by some roasted new potatoes and slices of homegrown Cherokee heritage tomatoes. The spuds were sprayed with olive oil, and sprinkled with sea salt, garlic powder, ground black pepper, paprika, and parsley. I threw together a quick batch of aioli, using mayonnaise, fresh minced garlic, and a little dab of Creole mustard, the perfect match for the spuds and the tomatoes.

The parts ready for frying. Note Diane's "NOT" written in the frying oil section of the recipe.

CBoy frying the bird.....

Sliced Cherokees, ready for some aioli.....

Roasted spuds, ditto with the aioli.....

THIS is what fried chicken looks like!

Like Chris said, it may have been the best damn fried chicken I have ever eaten. The flesh was silky, tender, and moist, and loaded with big yardbird flavor. The crust was superb: light, crunchy, spicy, and golden brown.  A perfect marriage of poultry and breading, it was the kind of fried chicken that would have made Zelma proud; fried chicken that she would have eaten with respect.

Mick Vann ©



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