Friday, June 15, 2012

Afternoon Repast at Sap's, 6.15.2012

I met R at Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine for a late afternoon chow-down. We were both feeling a little puckish from not having eaten all day. We started with S-S3, Num Tok Gai, the Isaan-related cousin of laap/larb/lab. It’s seasoned with lime juice, garlic, fish sauce, and mint, with a nutty textural edge provided by roasted rice powder. Accompanied by a salad on the side, it is a tart, spicy starter that’s perfect for a sweltering summer day.

Next came S-P5, Gaeng Kua Supparod Goong, the mild red curry accentuated by fresh pineapple chunks, bathing perfectly cooked sweet shrimp. The sweetness of the fruit is a nice foil for the tartness of the salad. Delicious.

I decided to try a noodle dish that I have never had before, S-P5, Yum Guay Teaw Gai, and we chose sen yai wide, flat rice noodles over the bean thread noodles. The noodles and chicken are mixed with a sauce of lemongrass, roasted chile paste, lime juice, honey, and it gets topped with
Toasted peanuts and fried onion. I added a little fish sauce and chile paste, and the combo was incredible.

The clincher was S-P46 on the specials menu at the front, Nuer Ob. Meltingly-tender braised beef is swimming in a dark rich sauce made from onions, tomatoes, fish sauce, and palm sugar, and it comes with a zippy green chile and garlic sauce to top it with. The meat literally melts in your mouth, with an assertive, sinfully rich sauce. This is a fantastic dish.

R’s mouth was as little fried from the chile heat, so we decided to share a bowl of the strawberry sorbet and the coconut ice cream; a perfect way to soothe singed taste buds. The strawberry was lush with fresh strawberry flavor, and perfectly balanced. The coconut was rich and creamy, and just sweet enough. It rivaled the best coconut ice cream I’ve had on the streets of Thailand. Good stuff. Broken record I know, but yet another great meal at Sap’s.

Mick Vann ©


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dinner at Rancho Winslow, 6.14.2012

 As the garden tomatoes continue to multiply, we decided that a big batch of gazpacho would be a good way to use up some. The recipe is posted below, and the garnish is chunks of ripe avocado, cilantro, and some garlicky croutons I made from  some leftover onion buns. Di had seconds, and Di rarely gets seconds of anything.In this heat, a cold batch of rich tomato soup hits the spot nicely.

Princess Di likes it chunky!

The batch, post-chill, ready for the bowl.....

The store had some nice looking green beans, and CBoy and Di had brought back some fish from their coastal excursion. Rather than saute all of it, I lubed up a baking pan with olive oil and butter, poured in some white wine and lime juice, and seasoned the filets of redfish and speckled trout with paprika, S&P, and onion powder. They went into the oven and I whipped up a variant of a piccatta sauce, using red onions, capers, white wine, chicken stock, reduced it down, and mounted it with butter. Plated with the green beans, it was a real nice repast. Cannot beat fresh fish from the Gulf. Good eats....

Basic Gazpacho

Chill all ingredients first to make it easier to chill before service. You can peel and seed the tomatoes if you insist, but why bother.

2 pounds vine-ripened tomatoes, chopped
2 cups tomato juice or V8
1 - 1½ cups cucumber, peeled, seeded, chopped
½ cup red onion, minced
3-5 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 large jalapeño, de-ribbed and seeded, minced
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1½ tablespoons lime juice
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Spanish paprika
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt
2 tablespoons basil or cilantro, chiffonade
Avocado, diced
Scallion, minced
Croutons toasted in garlic-flavored olive oil

Combine all ingredients and chill thoroughly.  You can add 1 teaspoon cumin for a more Latino flavor. Poached shrimp, scallops, or crab make a nice addition. 2 ounces of frosty Tito’s or Sobieski Vodka per bowl transform it into a nice cocktail.

Mick Vann ©

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Chen Z Hot Pot and Noodle Bar

Went again the other day and focused on the appetizer side of the menu, something they do particularly well. They bring out a plate of sunomono pickled vegetables as a lagniappe to get you started.

We tried some of their Red Chile Wontons with peanut sauce (add a little soy and chile paste and suck those bad boys down).

The Grilled Lamb Skewers are fantastic, fire-grilled and covered in a thick paste of cumin, garlic, and chile; this is North Chinese grub worthy of any crowded street vendor up there.

The potstickers are great: hand-rolled skins, plump porky filling, crispy golden-brown butts.  Even if they are small, you get 15 of them to an order, so the ratio of dough goodness is escalated. Regrets for not taking a photo of them, but we got a little excited, since we are potsticker fanatics, and the mind just went blank; they were devoured by the time I remembered to shoot.

For noodles, we went for the Chen Z original (it's a broth version) featuring the hand-shaved noodles. Rich and beefy, we loved it.

We also had the wok-fired Chen Z mixed meat noodles, subbing the chow fun wide, flat rice noodles for the ones that normally come with it. Best noodle dish of the visit.

If you're gonna do hot pot, we think the tomato broth is the most complex and flavorful...wanted to love the ma-la spicy chile and Sichuan peppercorn broth but found it one-dimensional. Tomato is on the bottom of the foto.

Look for the review coming soon in The Chronicle.
Mick Vann ©

Monday, June 11, 2012

My Left Knee: Surgery and Hospital Food

Every time an upper level low pressure area was racing across the country from west to east my knee would flare up and remind me it connected my thigh and calf, at times causing me unbearable pain. Most folks don’t think about their knees, they just want them to work like they should, when they need them to work. Most of you step, walk, squat, and jump without a care. On our frequent trips to the Valley to set up a new restaurant we were consulting on, my knee would be killing me after the 6-hour drive each way, and this was cruising uber comfy in a ‘Sclade. I would limp around the whole time I was down there. It got so bad that I would pack Lefty in pillows to pad the knee during the drives. Just standing up became painful, much less actually moving.

It was first injured playing football in high school; a tear of the medial meniscus cartilage. I spent every Thursday of every week of the entire 15-game championship season (Texas 4-A State Champs, 1968; Go Raiders!) getting it injected inside the joint with searing Xylocaine, and then getting it drained of multiple syringes full of synovial goo, using a needle the size of a garden hose. That was followed by a healthy dose of steroids straight into the joint. Every Thursday after practice, every week, all fall long.

It got so bad later on in college that the flap of torn cartilage would cause my knee to lock-up (professionally explained to me as “like a towel stuck into a drawer when you want to move a dresser”), producing intense pain and literally stopping me in my tracks. It once dropped me in the middle of oncoming traffic on the Drag at UT when I was shuffling across the street against the light. The longer it went on, they said, the more damage was being done, and the better the chances were of developing arthritis later on. I had the first procedure in 1970. Back then, in those pre-laparoscopy days, it meant two sizable incisions, and suffering in a hip-to-ankle cast for six weeks. Once healed, it was pretty much “good as new”.

After working in the restaurant business for years, Lefty once again got angry and resentful. As a chef you are on your feet for 10 and 12-hour shifts, briskly lunging, walking and spinning in tight little circles endlessly at your cooking station on the line, while trying to maintain balance on wet floors; ditto for bartending. Waiting tables adds a heavy tray of plates, the need for perfect balance, and quickly walking many miles nightly. Manage a restaurant and you combine all of these into one Herculean task guaranteed to erode knees. Knees and restaurants do not make good friends. The second operation on the Lefty came in 1983 or so, Johnny Genung did a laparoscopic procedure to do some surface polishing and removal of scar tissue. I was back working 60 hour chef shifts after four days of rest.

After several decades in the resto biz I turned to plants, a previous avocation. I did several years of landscape design and installation on the side with my own company; it’s another industry that is very unforgiving on knees. Not only is the knee’s role in using a shovel bad for the joint, but so is carrying heavy pots of plants and countless wheelbarrow loads of materials across uneven terrain and sideways along slopes, and kneeling while planting. Knees and landscaping; a bad combo. 

After a stab with a knee brace, and then resorting to a cane and a handicapped permit, I finally broke down and decided to confirm what I already knew was in my future. I went to see old restaurant customer and orthopedic surgeon Johnny Genung, who, after xrays, showed me that my left knee was bone-on-bone. The cartilage was gone and one bone was wearing a sizable groove in the other. “No wonder it hurts”, he said, “it’s just plain worn out.”  The combo of football, restaurants, and landscaping had been the perfect storm for a knee shot to hell.  A surgery date was set, all of the research was done and questions asked, preliminary lab work was performed, attended the class for pre-surgery hip and knee replacement patients, and I was ready for the install of a new prosthetic knee. I was getting ready to be assimilated by the Borg. “All resistance is futile”.
My leg was pre-scrubbed with anti-microbial solution the night before and again that morning, and I took what would be my last morning constitutional for some time to come (foreshadowing alert). I wanted to be as empty as possible when I got there, and hadn’t been allowed anything to eat or drink past midnight.

Here is a shot of the knee pre-surgery. The last scar-less foto of Lefty.

I showed up at Seton Hospital on 35th at 6 am for my 8 am surgery appointment, and was ushered into the chilly catacombs of the surgical wing, issued the requisite backless gown and TED hose (that kept me from getting a deep vein thrombosis), non-slip booties, an IV and a shot to pre-zonk me, with a bewildering array of folks telling me what was going on and asking me questions. I don’t remember much after that, except noting that the surgeon, the imitable Archie Whittemore, marked his initials with permanent marker in huge letters on the correct knee to be replaced; I wanted to make sure they installed the new knee on the correct leg.

I woke up in recovery to them trying to install an IV in the other elbow. I have a reputation as a difficult stick when it comes to getting my blood. I would have made a lousy junkie had I ever been so inclined. There was a growing crowd of anesthesiologists, phlebotomists, vein-puncturists, or whatever they were, discussing the best available vein to tap into, and before I knew it, there were 8 or 9 milling around in the group, and they had 2 different imaging machines looking at my circulatory structure. I was the sensation of recovery. I zonked out again, and they found the vein. I vaguely remember them telling me we were off to my room, being in an elevator and then a hallway, with out-of-focus fluorescent lights whizzing by overhead, then getting the inflating boots placed on my lower legs, and the CPM machine that involuntarily moves my leg while I lay there. All else is a haze.

The "good arm" I.V., the one that didn't have the allergic reaction to latex:

There were friends (R, and Jules and Di) that dropped by to bring me my stuff, but I don’t remember what we talked about, or them getting me a drink of water or chewing on ice pellets, or the TV being on, or much of anything else for the remainder of that day or night. I do recall telling them that my betissibles and my nether region seemed awfully hot and sweaty and that I wanted some baby powder from my toiletries to give me that “fresh” feeling down there. They politely turned away so I could apply the powder with some degree of dignity and when I reached down, I discovered a one-foot cube of green surgical towels crammed between my legs and tightly up in my crotch, against my junk. This seems like something the nurse might have known was there and could have removed. At least there was a good reason to be sensing that clammy feeling, and it was easily remedied. I powdered anyway.

Me, a "FALL RISK" ??? I beg to differ......

Friday dawned with extreme hunger. I had been thinking for many hours about the breakfast that I had pre-selected the night before with the “food service coordinator”. I had been through several tubs of jello in the interim, along with some orange juice, ginger ale, graham crackers and peanut butter, and it definitely did not satiate my aching cavernous maw, which had been running on empty for the last 36 hours or so.

The first meal arrived with a modicum of fanfare. OJ, coffee, milk (which I detest), hash browns, scrambled eggs with green peppers and cheese (“Denver Scramble”), and fruit salad; if I had not been starving, it probably wouldn’t have tasted as good as it did.

I screwed up when giving my lunch order, thinking I had ordered turkey and dressing. I blame it on the little magic button that dripped happy morphine juice into my I.V. I should have known they wouldn’t give me something that would plug you up like dressing does; opiates are notorious for causing constipation. What I got instead was an overly-bready whole wheat, turkey and cheese sandwich (scant turkey and cheese), with chicken and rice soup, a crisp green salad, apple crisp, and ice tea. If satisfied the cravings temporarily.

Here’s a shot of the incision a day after the surgery.

The left arm IV was hurting bad. It was the difficult poke from the recovery room, and now I knew what it was for. A drain on the side of my new left knee siphoned blood drainage down a tube, into a unit that looked like a 10” round reverse Oreo (white discs on each side, dark stuff in the middle), with a tube from that going into my arm. As weird as this sounds, they were taking drainage from my knee, pumping it through “a filter” (the Oreo), and then sticking it back into my body via the hole in my arm. Gotta be honest; it kinda creeped me out. A lot. By the way, I had not refused a transfusion if required, so maybe this is standard operating procedure. Weird.

My board, which kept me updated daily with all kinds of useless information:

That afternoon there were threats of catheterizing me if I didn’t pee. I countered that I could pee just fine if they would only let me go to the bathroom a few steps away; peeing in a bottle while laying down was just not calling my bladder into action. I was cruising the halls 100+ yards at a time with my walker (I did it the first time the same day of surgery); I didn’t see what the problem was. When the orderly came in to give me the heads-up about an impending catheter, I told him to just make sure I don’t fall while I walkered to the restroom 10 feet away, and he said sure. What he didn’t know was that I was expressly forbidden from doing just that by my evil therapist. I got in there, the gates opened up, I peed for about 5 minutes straight, the catheter was averted, and the therapist was none-the-wiser about my bathroom subterfuge.

That evening’s dinner was actually excellent; the best of my stay. Slices of tender, juicy pork loin slathered with onion gravy, fresh vegetable medly, crispy roasted new potatoes, fresh ripe strawberries with whipped cream, OJ, served with iced tea. I almost felt redeemed. There was a guy in my pre-surgery class that was attending the class at Seton, but was actually having the surgery at St. David’s. “They are supposed to have much better food over there”, he told me.

The next morning brought “Breakfast Burrito”, which was actually scrambled eggs with tortilla points, bacon, oatmeal, fresh fruit plate, OJ, and coffee. The much ballyhooed salsa never materialized.

Saturday’s lunch was the worst meal of the stay. A skinless, dry, tough, under-seasoned chicken breast, matched with peas and pearl onions, roasted new potatoes, a dry semi-leavened brownie, grape juice, and iced tea.

I was much more inspired by the excellent chicken with beech mushrooms that I persuaded R to bring me from Asia Café that afternoon (with hot chile-ma la oil!!!!).

Saturday’s kitchen again disappointed with a roast beef sandwich (actually slices, with a whole wheat roll standing at attention next to it), undercooked potatoes swimming in a quasi-pasty cream sauce that were supposedly “scalloped”, and a dry pear crisp (the raisins were a special request meant to help overcome the opiates’ lure on my lower intestinal tract).

Breakfast the next morning brought the ubiquitous scrambled eggs, BACON!, oatmeal, poppy seed muffins, OJ, and coffee.


My IV’s were removed and the one on the left side looked VERY angry. “Looks like you have a Latex allergy”, said the nurse. “You should have told them not to use Tagaderm.”I replied that had I known I had a Latex allergy, they would have been the first to know about it. It would later blister-up, looking like I had decided to brand my arm with a 4-inch red hot tile.

It was day four and I still had not had a bowel movement. The knee pain was managed efficiently, both by the morphine button that I got when the epidural-like block wore off the afternoon of surgery (it was supposed to last until the next morning; do I get a price reduction on the cost I wonder?), and by the dose of two Norco pills every 4 to 5 hours, doubled when a solo pill proved ineffective. When I got home I was scooting around on the walker pretty good, and well past ready to escape Seton, bowel movement or not. On the morning of day 4 I successfully made my escape to the opulent Rancho Winslow for several weeks of convalescence.

The last shot of the knee before escape from Seton Hospital:

Cut to the morning of day six, when the trumpets sounded, I got a funny feelin’, and little poop angels descended to coax the first post-operative action from my posterior. Halleluiah! I was taking daily doses of Metamucil, had doubled those, was eating as much fiber as possible, and finally resorted to dried prunes and slippery elm herbal cleanse tablets; nine prunes on the day before. Word to the wise. If you are on opiates for pain, plan ahead, eat accordingly, and be one with your digestive tract and your poop fairies.

A note on the 5-star accommodations at Rancho Winslow:  I could not be more comfortable if I were being pampered at the Ritz. The bed is comfy, the house air-conditioned, the grub excellent, the dogs all tail-waggy and grinning (although Toby, a huge lummox of a chocolate lab, has a distinctly disagreeable wet dog eau) and the friendship and helpfulness bar none. Chris even got up at 5 am to take me to the hospital on surgery day. A special shout out to Di and Jules for all their help in assisting me with ungainly chores, like tugging on those accursed TED compression stockings that I have to wear for the next three weeks, and carrying my chair from room to room. And to R for all her help and visits. Chris and Di offered the convalescent stay to me when they heard a date was set. I didn’t even have to beg (but I sure would have).

Mick Vann © 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

My Left Knee: It's The STITCHES BITCHES!

When all your friends tell you that getting the stitches out would be a “piece of cake”, and “a cakewalk”, and that you worrying about it revealed in no uncertain terms what a whining pussy you really are. Both R and Jules wanted to do it at home, telling me that “they’re gonna just slide right out…you won’t even feel it”. Same thing the home health nurses told me. “Nothing to worry about” they said. With their rebukes in mind, I accepted my fate and went out to Northwestern Siberia (AKA “Cedar Park”; why would anyone choose to live way the hell out here?) for my first post-op appointment, 3 weeks after surgery, as scheduled.

Dr. Whittemore looked at me and said, “I wondered what happened to you”. “Here as scheduled,” said I. He checked out the knee and said that the incision looked fantastic. “Lemme get a stitch kit and we’ll slide those out of there”, he said. I relayed my apprehension, to which he said, “It’ll be no problem. You won’t even feel it.”

He snipped the top string that was protruding from my skin.

The he took the forceps and started wrapping the protruding bottom string around as he rotated the instrument, tightening the string inside the incision. As it got tighter, the pain began. “These could have come out a week ago”, he said. “Some folks just heal faster than others”. Lucky me.

Over the next 25 MINUTES, and after the string broke on five separate occasions, and after he had to get some rather large, frightening-looking locking hemostats (they looked closer to pliers than a medical instrument) he finally coaxed the last tidbit of the accursed string from inside my knee. Through the process, I could feel every tiny millimeter resisting all efforts to give up the ghost. Turns out that string really liked living inside my knee, and had no intention of surrendering without a valiant fight. “It’s usually not that difficult”, said Whittemore, with no trace of irony in his voice.

* Does this look like it didn't hurt like hell? Notice the internal stitch pulling at each internal spot of tissue. OUCH!........I had a death grip on the edge of the bench.

Suffice it to say that it hurt like hell, just as I knew it would, proving (to me anyway) that all my well-meaning friends are either idiots or liars. I can safely say that removing the stitches was the most painful part of the entire knee replacement. The nurse outside asked if that was me yelling in there, to which I replied: “Worst stitch removal EVER”. She called me a whiner.

On the way home on Research, right at the Duval overpass, as I was in the far right lane, a large SUV decided slam into the vehicle in front of it violently, causing the SUV to flip on its side and slide down the center wall with its left tires hooked over the top of the wall. As metal, dust, and sparks flew, it clipped one of those massive light poles, which proceeded to fall directly towards me and my pickup. I slipped right up next to the opposite wall and watched in slow motion as the pole fell across Research, blocking the entire road except for the width of my truck. I stopped and watched as crowds ran to the aid of the SUV driver, and wondered what good I would be hobbling around. As I drove off, I was the ONLY vehicle moving on Research. So I guess it’s one of those closed door-open window deals, or lemons and lemonade, or something like that. All’s I know is that the stitches thing hurt like a mofo, but I was REALLY glad I didn’t get crushed under a huge light pole a few minutes later.

Mick Vann ©   

Sap’s on Saturday, 6-9-2012

I was desperate for a Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine fix after being out of the saddle for over 3 weeks, and the knee was up to a little travel, so buddy Art and I dropped in to sample some killer Thai fare. We started with a couple of crunchy Sap Rolls (S-A1), crispy, flaky fried tubes of rice paper stuffed with transparent mung bean noodles, shredded green cabbage, cloud ear fungus, and bamboo shoots, served with a sweet-sour honey plum sauce. I also added a bit of the green chile garlic sauce that comes with the Nuer Ob, which spiced it up nicely.

That got the buds going, so we next opted for Tom Khlong Gai (S-NS15), the tom yum on steroids that we love so much. We delete the noodles and get it with rice on the side instead. It starts with a rich chicken stock to which is added fire-grilled slices of galangal, shallots, and garlic, for a roasted aromatics flavor. Then it gets fresh bamboo shoots, lemongrass, makroot leaves, lime juice, and Thai basil. Right before service it gets thin slices of chicken, and the top is swirling with roasted dried Thai chiles and some cilantro. It is probably their spiciest soup, and always a tough call between it, and their superlative Tom Kha (S-P11) coconut cream-galangal, and the complex Guay Teaw Tom Yum Moo (S-NS14).

For a curry we selected the Yellow Curry with Beef, Gaeng Garee Nuea (S-P3). The word “garee” is an Indian Tamil word from which the English word “curry” is derived. Any Thai dish that has the word garee in it will contain curry powder, a Thai variant of the Indian spice blend, containing coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, red pepper, and many other dried spices, in a chicken broth with slices of tender beef, coconut milk, potato, onion, a touch of palm sugar, fish sauce, and other ingredients. It’s a great way to soothe the taste buds after the spicy soup. Bangkok, for example, has a large Indian population doing business next to Chinatown, dealing primarily in the textile trade (and the best place to eat fried curry puffs on the street). It’s easy to see how this dish was imported and then adapted by Thai cooks to make it their own.

I’m a sucker for Noodle Lord (S-G5) when it comes to noodle time. It’s an adaptation of a street food dish that uses the ingredients wrapped inside a sheet of steamed rice noodle, and rolled up like an enchilada. It then gets a topping of sweet soy, fish sauce, chile, and fried garlic, before you eat it sloppily using a bamboo skewer. I like to add ground pork, which blends perfectly with the heaping bowl full of wide, flat sen yai noodles, shitake mushroom slices, cloud ear fungus, sprouts, bamboo shoots, and fried strips of dry-spiced tofu. The bowl gets dressed with a blend of sweet soy-fish sauce-nahm prik roasted chile, and then topped with cilantro and fried garlic bits. A light toss of serranos in vinegar from the condiment rack and it’s ready to go.

We also chose Pla Sarm Rod (S-P40), which is a pound of tilapia filets lightly fried and coated with “3 flavor sauce”. When the effete TV foodies speak of “caramelized fish sauce”, this is what they are talking about, a sauce made from palm sugar and fish sauce cooked down to an almost syrup-like consistency, and the sweetness balanced perfectly with a bit of fruity, sour tamarind. It gets some braised onion slices, a dab of chile, and Thai basil. This is a fantastic, balanced dish!

We sampled all of the great ice creams (sorry, no pics as it was just a taste) they are serving now, and were blown away by all, especially the strawberry and the coconut. A much appreciated and needed Thai food fix after being cooped up from knee replacement surgery…I was jonesing BAD! I left Sap’s a very happy satiated dude.

Mick Vann ©  

Monday, June 4, 2012

Maters Roasted Off

So last week Diane decided to roast-off a bunch of tomatoes. They have 10 tomato plants, most of which are a new hybrid of Celebrity named BHN Rodeo 602, promising to produce 30-pounds per plant. Their promise is no stretch of the imagination. It is a fantastic new hybrid for the hot south and highly recommended. Chris has brought in at least 10 or 12-pounds daily, and the other day had a 50-pound bucket, saying there were that many more that would be ready in a couple of days. The Winslow’s have ‘maters comin’ out their wazoo.

So anyway, Diane took a whole tray of very ripe, sweet tomatoes, sliced them into wedges, along with some onions from the garden, drizzled them with olive oil, garlic, fresh basil, thyme, and parsley, and roasted them at low temp for a couple of hours. The tomato water in the pan was ambrosial.

Before roasting.....

...and after.

Last night she sautéed a pan of thick-sliced mushrooms in butter and garlic, and when they cooked down a tad, added the roasted tomatoes to heat them back up. She had put a pan of herb and paprika sprinkled chicken in the oven and roasted them to a golden perfection. A pasta pot was heated, and she boiled off some spaghetti, and when drained, tossed it with the mushroom-tomato mixture. After a liberal sprinkling of parmesan, and a couple of big spoonfuls of the juice and schmaltz from the chicken roasting pan drizzled over the top, we sat down to watch the season finale of Game of Thrones, eating a delicious meal of tomato-riffic sketti and succulent roast chicken in high style. Yum yum.

 Tossed and ready.....

Note limpid pools of chicken juice topped with a transparent layer of golden schmaltz!

Good eats!

Mick Vann ©     

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 ©