Monday, April 28, 2008

Move Over, Colonel, There's a New Chick in Town

For many years, I resisted the siren song of my Southern upbringing and never even considered frying a chicken. "A greasy mess in my kitchen! The smell for days on end!" I would protest. For some reason, I guess I felt that quality fried chicken was easy to obtain and therefore I had no need to create it in my own home. I feel this way about barbecue pulled pork, also. I live in the beating heart, the very epicenter of Georgia barbecue. I'm not saying it's the world's best barbecue, because frankly I don't know or care, but I will say give me Wallace's Barbecue Super Salad with pork and blue cheese dresssing on the side any day of the week. And make it snappy, miss.

Back to fried chicken. I come from fried poultry people. My mother would fry chicken at least once every other week when I was living at home. She cooked it several different ways, but mostly she would dip chicken pieces in seasoned flour and shallow fry in her treasured, black-as-tar cast iron skillet. The chicken was usually served with fresh snap beans and potato salad (summer version) or baked macaroni and cheese (winter version). This is such a singular memory of my nesting years that when I went away to college, I would request fried chicken for supper when I came home for a visit and fresh laundry.

Mom gave up frying chicken a few years ago, on a healthy cooking bend which means the sacred cast iron skillet rarely gets a greasy workout these days. Mom and Dad's waistlines are certainly trimmer now, but honestly, folks, don't you at least miss the crunch of chicken skin and the squirt of juice from that first bite of a just-fried-and-dried thigh (my poultry limb of choice)?

I guess I'd managed to forget about fried chicken for a few years, occasionally ordering it at meat-and-threes and finding satisfaction there. Until a few weeks ago, after church, knowing our fridge and pantry were nearly empty and not feeling up to the after-church restaurant crowds, we went to one of those fast-food chicken places and got a bucket to go. The price was certainly right. For under $15 we got one whole chicken (should we decide to reassemble it) and three sides (cat's-head biscuits, slaw and reconstituted mashed potatoes with regurgitated gravy) and a gallon of the sweetest iced tea known to man. The kids loved it. My dear husband loved it. I actually enjoyed the guilty pleasure of eating something that was fried in someone else's kitchen. But I discovered the practical reason for the generous iced tea portion: the chicken crust was salty enough for hunters to employ to attract deer. And I thought to myself, why have I been such a snob, lo these many years? Why not just give in and sacrifice your kitchen for just once, silly girl, and show your children what a fried chicken is supposed to taste like.

And so I did. I consulted many regional books on my shelves. Edna Lewis, Scott Peacock, Damon Lee Fowler, James Villas, John T. Edge, Fanny Flagg. And, of course, my tried and true, America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, which I relied on quite heavily for details. My message board friends delivered a primer, "Carolina's Fried Chicken," written by a doubtless apron-wrapped mama who spent many years perfecting her chicken technique.

Here's what I did:

1. Procured a whole chicken and butchered the thing into 10 pieces. I'm not ready for Top Chef by any means. It took me at least 10 minutes to break down the bird, but I saved $2 by going with the whole chicken versus the parts at the store. I cut each breast into two pieces, which yielded 10 pieces.

2. Soaked the chicken pieces in buttermilk for two hours. ATK recommends a buttermilk brine, and I think I will do that next time, just to bump up the flavor a bit.

3. Mixed all-purpose flour with salt, fresh cracked black pepper and a pinch of cayenne. I went light on the pepper because of my daughter who has a histomy fit when she sees even a speck of black pepper on her food. And I wasn't sure how much the frying would disguise the pepper flecks. I shook the buttermilk ever so gently from each piece of chicken before dipping it in the flour and setting it aside to dry while the oil heated.

4. Got out my All-Clad stainless Dutch oven and poured in an inch or so of canola oil and set the heat to a medium flame. I don't own a deep fry thermometer and I never worked in fast food, so I had to rely on my limited frying skills to determine when the oil was ready. After about five minutes, I dropped in a piece of batter and when it bubbled up rather than sinking, I knew it was time for the chicken parts.

5. It took at least 15 minutes, covered, for the first pieces to cook to a deep mahogany. While the first batch rested in a warm oven on a grid-lined sheet pan. The best part so far: my house smelled like fried chicken. Any stranger coming to my door would know that a real cook lived here.

That's pretty much it. We ate like stevedores and still have leftovers for a few days. The clean-up was kind of yucky, but I was careful to pour the expired oil into disposable cups and used cans and throw it away. It's been two days now and, I must say, through the extensive use of air cleaners and detergents, my house smells fresh. And I can't wait to fry my next chicken.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Slaw & Order

Every cook needs a good potluck dish. Just like some folks memorize the pizza delivery number, I've memorized the ratios for my favorite potluck dish, a filling, vamped-up salad with the intriguing name of Chicken Slaw. Never before have I heard those two words together, but they do indeed make a rustic, crunchy, flavorful main dish salad. Shredded cabbage is tossed with pieces of chicken, two kinds of cheese and finished with a Dijon vinaigrette. The result will be the hit of any event you take it to.

Through the years, I've ad-libbed the recipe, but here's my official version with variations noted:

Chicken Slaw
2 cups shredded purple cabbage (1/2 small head)
2 cups shredded green cabbage (1/2 small head), I usually use all green
2 cups poached, shredded chicken
1 1/2 cups (6 oz.) shredded cheddar cheese (medium or sharp is what I have on hand)
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
2 large green onions shredded in the food processor with the cabbage
Handful of Italian flat-leaf parsley shredded in the food processor, aussi
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tbsp. raspberry vinegar (or white wine vinegar, in a pinch)
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard, country style is ok
1 clove garlic, or more to taste
1/4 tsp. lemon pepper
5 slices bacon, cooked to crisp then crumbled (not essential, but a worthy addition)

1. In a very large bowl, combine cabbage, chicken, cheeses, green onions and parsley; toss to mix.
2. In small saucepan, off the heat, combine with the whisk the remaining ingredients. Whisk vigorously to emulsify the ingredients. Over the heat, bring to a slight boil, whisking constantly.
3. Pour dressing over slaw mixture, tossing well to coat. Add bacon, if using.
4. The yield is at least 8 generous servings. You'll probably have some leftovers. It's ok on the second day, but past that, the wateriness really affects the texture of the cheese.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Thursday Night Menu

Tonight's Menu
Sesame seed-crusted albacore tuna steaks with golden teriyaki sauce
Sauteed Swiss chard with garlic (from the CSA)
Couscous with fresh leeks (also from the CSA)
Banana Chocolate Cake or Key Lime Pie
The teriyaki is called Golden sauce because it gives fish and chicken the most gorgeous glow, a kiss of the Magic Hour's light. After you admire how lovely the protein looks, you eat it and taste the intensity of the fresh ginger and garlic. I make up a large portion of the sauce and keep it in a glass jar in the fridge for up to a week. After that, you may want to put it in the freezer, where it will turn sludgy, but not actually freeze. Just opening the jar of freshly-made teriyaki is heaven; proof that garlic and ginger were meant to be together.

Golden Teriyaki Sauce

1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
Combine all ingredients. Keep in glass jar in refrigerator or freezer. Use as marinade for chicken or salmon or steak or vegetables. Put on ice cream. (just kidding about the last part)

Afterschool Special

One of the perks of the job title "stay at home mom" is being close to my kitchen so that I can bake during the day. I can leave the butter and eggs on the counter in the morning, and after feeding the baby lunch, whip up a little something sweet, a smackerel as Pooh says, for big sis when she comes home from school. Darling daughter lives on Fluffernutters, hot dogs and air, and the occasional piece of this cake. She will eat it after school, for breakfast, and as a snack before bedtime. It's the perfect partner for a glass of milk, with its Hostess-like moist texture (without the cottony mouthfeel). Adults go for it, too, I guess because of the melty chocolate chips.

This cake is based on one from America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, one of my absolute fave cookbooks (again with the ring-bound thing). I've made similar cakes that use sour cream, which I don't usually keep on hand, so I'm pleased that this version with whole milk can be made with ingredients in my pantry and a few black nanners from the freezer. The ATK cake is made with an electric mixer, but whenever I fire up the Kitchenaid, helpful kidoodles come running. I've discovered that stirring the cake by hand yields a perfect cake and a calm mommy and a cleaner kitchen.

Banana Chocolate Cake

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/4 cups sugar
8 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
2 eggs, at room temperature
2 large ripe bananas, peeled & mashed to equal one cup
1/2 cup milk, room temperature (I always have whole milk on hand.)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup mini chocolate chip morsels

1. Heat oven to 350. Use butter wrapper to lightly grease a 9-inch square cake pan. (I use a Pampered Chef stoneware pan, with excellent results.) Stir together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.

2. With a sturdy wire whisk, beat together sugar and butter together until well-combined. Beat in eggs, followed by bananas, milk and vanilla.

3. Stir flour mixture into egg mixture. Pour half of the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle mini chocolate chips over batter. Spread remaining batter over chips. Bake 55 to 60 minutes. (I use convection and it's always spot-on, 55 minutes.) Cake is done when a toothpick inserted in center comes clean or a very clean finger can gently press the center of the cake and the cake pops back up.

4. Let cake cool and then serve in generous squares to happy kids.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bookstore Score

Recently travelled to Nashville, Tenn., and visited a terrific independent bookstore, Davis-Kidd Booksellers at the Mall at Green Hills. After settling my girls in with I Spy and American Girls, I scoured the cookbook, fiction and general non-fiction sections plus the outstanding remainder selection and came away with some excellent finds:

1. "All-American Dessert Book" by Nancy Baggett. Very clear, concise recipes and nice photographs. $12.99.

2. "BHG New Baking Book." I'm a sucker for ring-bound books. Besides, it was $8.50. I tried a recipe for Peanut Butter-Chocolate Pudding Cake that tasted ok, but looked like a New York street in need of repair. I'm still spelunking for hidden treasure here.

3. "Cornbread Gospels" by Crescent Dragonwagon. I treasure Dairy Hollow House Soup and Bread, so I'm looking forward to digging out the golden nuggets in this.

4. "BHG Fast-Fix Family Food." OK, it's got more than a few processed ingredients, but I was lured in the by the flashy graphics and promises of kid-friendly food. It's enjoyable to peruse, and maybe my 9 year old will like it better than the Rachael Ray Cooking Rocks! book, which I find to be perfectly anoying.

5. "The Splendid Table" by Lynne Rosetto Kosper. For $12.99. Lovely and transporting. There's an almond pasta that sounds doable for my crew. Even if I don't cook from it, I'm enjoying the read.

6. Ann Patchett's itsy-bitsy inspirational title "What Now?" I've been a fan since "Patron Saint of Liars" and I thought "Truth & Beauty" was just about a perfect memoir.

7. Lee Smith's "On Agate Hill." While the girls were being sweet in the store, I read the author's essay in the back of the book about how she wrote this book after the sudden death of her son. Just reading the anguish of a mom burying her child and trying to make sense of that made me want to read the fiction that came out of the experience.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Everything Goes Better with Bacon

If I had to choose the perfect vegetable, I think I would vote for broccoli. It's available year-round, very nutritious and versatile, plus it has the ability to get lost in my vegetable bin and emerge a week (or two) later, none the worse for wear, ready for a dinnertime spin.

I usually steam broccoli and serve it smothered with cheese sauce, which makes it perfectly palatable for the youngest diners. I've even perfected my broccoli chopping technique, which took some work considering that the bottom of the broccoli head is quite different from the top. After rinsing the broccoli head, I hold it by the stem, with the florets on the cutting board. Using my ultra-sharp chef's knife, I cut the florets off, working my way around the head, until there's just a broccoli stump remaining. I then cut the stalk off at the base, just where it's beginning to branch, leaving two pieces: solid stalk, and branchy part. The solid stalk is peeled, then sliced into thin coins. The branchy part can be tricky, but I usually peel it the best I can, squaring up the sides, and then slicing it into squarish coins.

When steaming the broccoli, I put just an inch or so of water in the bottom of a pot, turn the heat up to high, then layer the broccoli stalks on bottom and tender florets on top. When steam comes up through the florets, I put a lid on the pot and turn off the heat. Let it steam off the heat for about 10 minutes or possibly more, but be careful not to let it go too long or you'll end up with mushy veg in a particular shade appropriate for camouflage. A simple cheesy sauce, butter, flour, milk and shredded sharp cheddar cheese, is the number one accompaniment for the little ones, but I like my green stuff simply seasoned and dressed with a squirt of lemon juice.

Casting about for more ideas for broccoli, I remembered a somewhat old-fashioned sweet and sour salad that includes bacon, raisins and sunflower seeds. In this house, we believe quite strongly that bacon makes everything better, so I knew this salad would at least get some interest. I checked an online recipe network and found the good old standby, one that used equal amounts of sugar and mayo. I tried it out and now understand why wonder diabetes is rampant in this country. A little recipe tinkering was definitely in order. At my husband's suggestion, the chunks of onion were pulverized in the blender, making for a more pleasant texture and certainly more child-friendly side dish.

Here it is:

Broccoli Salad for a New Generation
2 broccoli crowns, florets trimmed, stalk trimmed & cut into coins
6 slices bacon, chopped and cooked 'til crisp
a handful sunflower seeds
a handful dried raisins or cranberries
1 cup good-quality mayo, full fat or go home
6 green onions, chopped in 1-inch long pieces
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. white wine vinegar

In a lovely serving bowl, put trimmed broccoli pieces, sunflower seeds, bacon and raisins. In a food processor, blitz the onions, mayo, sugar and vinegar together. Season to taste, remembering that the salad has salty bacon and sunflower seeds. Pour dressing over salad sparingly. Serve immediately to happy family.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Dinner's in the Oven: Pork Chops

My, a house smells good when there's pork in the oven, like in my house and in my oven tonight. The pork chops were first browned in the skillet, then the potatoes and carrots and onions were sauteed and finished with white wine and chicken broth before all were mixed together and tucked in the oven for a late afternoon cocooning.

I have made this one-dish dinner for several years, sometimes with pork, sometimes with boneless chicken breasts, with pork being my family's favorite. The first incarnation of this recipe was on a grocery store recipe card - you know the racks of mealtime suggestions when you enter the store. The one-dish simplicity of skillet pork chops was its top selling point, but, sadly, the toughness of the chops in the original recipe meant some tweaking was in order.

The switch from stove-top to oven braising did the trick, and while this may take a bit longer, it also adds some flexibility to the recipe that was not present before. You can buy bone-in or boneless chops, either will melt to tenderness while in the oven. I prepare the meal earlier in the day and leave it in the oven at 250 or 300, occasionally checking the pan and adding water or stock if it looks a bit dry. Cooking earlier works for me because I'm at home, and chaos truly descends on my house at 5 p.m. when my children begin to feel a bit peckish (as Pooh says).

So, after lunch, I brown the pork, chop the vegetables and slip the covered pan into the oven. I pick up the kids in the afternoon, they play outside, and when Daddy comes home, we set the table and pull this very easy dinner out of the oven. To quote many a food writer, all you really need with this dish is a loaf of crusty bread and a nice green salad. I'm from the double-the-starch, double-the pleasure school, so I would probably add buttered, cooked rice to soak up the lovely gravy. A green vegetable would not be out of place, perhaps steamed broccoli or frozen green peas sauteed in butter with a teensy bit of onion.

Oven Braised Pork Chops with Potatoes and Carrots

1 tablespoon. vegetable oil
4 pork chops, with or without bones, no more than 3/4 inch thick
1/4 cup of flour
salt and pepper
6 small red potatoes, peeled and quartered
3 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup or more low-salt chicken broth
Bay leaf, if desired
additional salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat oven to 350. In a pie plate, mix together flour and salt and pepper. Place a 10 inch skillet with lid on the heat and add 1 tablespoon vegetable oil to pan.

2. While oil is heating, dredge pork chops in seasoned flour. When oil starts to look swirly, place the chops in skillet. Brown chops on both sides, about three minutes each side, until golden brown. Set chops on plate and add vegetables to skillet.

3. Cook vegetables until caramelly brown, stirring occasionally. When vegetables are cooked, add white wine and reduce by half. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil.

4. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning. Add bay leaf, if desired. Return chops to pan, cover pan and place in oven. Reduce heat to 300 and cook for at least one hour, checking occasionally. Add water or broth as needed, if pan gets too dry. If using the bay leaf, be sure to retrieve it from the sauce before serving.

Text and images copyright Lucy Mercer, 2008.