Weekend Meditation: Fear of Frying

I was inspired a few weeks ago by a post over at Smitten Kitchen on what we are afraid to cook and why. What a great question! And what a great thing to take on. There’s nothing like the feeling of overcoming fear (baking bread, souffle, sushi), plunging right in and coming out the other side victorious. Kind of like a culinary Outward Bound.

What are you afraid to cook?

In my case, it was fried chicken.

OK, I expect a few snickers, especially from you southerners that were born frying chickens right there in your pretty little bassinets. Me, I was raised way up in the north, in a time when Shake’n’Bake ruled and there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken in every neighborhood. Since then, chicken and dumplings, eastern european-style: yes. Roasted whole chicken with herbs and pan sauce: yes. Fried chicken: no way. Too scary.

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Three things intimidate me about about fried chicken. Number one is the grease. A large vat of boiling fat is scary for a number of reasons. It’s messy and smelly and gets all over your kitchen. It’s dangerous. And it’s extraordinarily fattening.

And then there’s the fact that fried chicken is one of those things that some people do very well, with very little effort. They wake up after their afternoon nap, stretch a little, and wander into the kitchen. A few minutes later they wander back out with with a large platter of gorgeously crisp and golden fried chicken. They place it on the dining room table with one of those little shrugs that says ‘no big deal’ and you bite into a drumstick and it is a big deal: a very delicious, flavor exploding in your mouth, crunchy, chewy, moist big deal.

Finally, people have very big opinions about fried chicken. What it should or shouldn’t be fried in, what it should or shouldn’t be coated with. Given my Yankee background, I wasn’t sure if I was worthy of taking all that on. Some things should just be left to the experts. Right?

So challenged and inspired to overcome my life-long fear, yesterday I fried a chicken. And I’m here to say, like most fears, (almost) everything I was afraid of was true and (almost) none of it really mattered.

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Yes, the boiling hot peanut oil was a challenge (to the purists: sorry, but I didn’t have the time to track down lard) and required a bit more clean up than usual. And yes, the smell lingered in my house for a few days, which I didn’t particularly enjoy (small studio, no exhaust hood.)

But the results were incredibly delicious! I was amazed and delighted and so was my lucky neighbor who got pulled in as a taster. I may just try this again someday. It’s still a pretty unhealthy, caloric dish but every now and then, in between my usual roasted chicken and veg, I may just wake up from my afternoon nap, stretch a little, and wander into the kitchen...

Tender at the Bone Fried Chicken

After doing a little bit of internet research, I ended up borrowing heavily from Ruth Riechl’s fried chicken recipe in Tender at the Bone. Originally I wanted to be very authentic and go with the goddess of southern cooking, Miss Edna Lewis, but her recipe takes two days and I hadn’t planned out for that. As it was, Reichl’s chicken needed an overnight in the refrigerator but there were enough similarities between the two (spend some time in salt in the beginning, soak in buttermilk in the middle, fry in lard in the end) that I felt OK giving it a try.

My touches: exchanging peanut oil for lard and, as I was curiously out of cayenne pepper, I substituted smoked paprika which gave the chicken a nice, subtle hint of bacon.

21/2 to 3-pound chicken, cut up

3 T salt, approximately

3 cups of buttermilk

2 onions sliced thin

1 cup flour

3 tsp kosher salt

1/2 tsp smoked paprika

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup peanut oil

1/4 cup butter

Place the chicken in a baking dish and sprinkle heavily with the salt, turn over and repeat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for two hours. With a paper towel, wipe the salt off of the chicken and from the baking pan. (Reichl has you rinse the chicken.) Add the onions and pour on the buttermilk. Cover with the plastic wrap and return to the refrigerator overnight.

Place the flour, salt, paprika and pepper in a large plastic or paper bag, close tightly and shake to combine. Pick up one piece of the chicken at a time, holding it over the pan to drain for a few seconds before putting into the bag. Shake to coat the chicken in flour. Remove to a clean plate. Repeat until all the chicken has been floured.

Let sit for 1/2 hour to dry out a little and come to room temperature.

Heat the peanut oil and butter in a large cast iron skillet to 325 degrees. Add as many pieces that will fit, covering the pan to bring the heat back up. Remove cover when heat is back at 325 degrees and fry, turning once or twice, until golden, about 15 to 20 minutes. Test the chicken by removing from the pan and piercing the thigh with a knife. The juices should run clear.

If you need to work in batches, keep the fried chicken warm in a 200 degree oven.

Let the chicken rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. This makes a big difference in the juiciness. Serve with reckless joy!

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Bonus: Because I cut the onions into rings, I decided what the hell, I would try to make onion rings. Yum. Fearless.

Smitten Kitchen post

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Weekend Meditation

Dana Velden is a freelance food writer. She lives, eats, plays, and gets lost in Oakland, California where she is in the throes of raising her first tomato plant.

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