Fried Bird

April 8, 2009

The light delectable tapas behind us, I felt the urge to offer some heartier fare.

Frying food, including chicken, is both an antiquated and timeless cooking method…going back to ancient cultures such as Egypt, Rome and Asia, even medieval Europe. For instance, Apicius mentions sweet and savory fritters in his classic Roman cooking text even though he does not detail the cooking methodology. This widespread early birth of fried food is no surprise, as dredging foods with flour and spices then frying tenderizes and enhances flavor.

In the 19th century, fried chicken emerged as a deeply rooted staple in the American South with many claiming that Scottish immigrants brought their tradition of deep fat frying chicken to these states. At the same time, the efficient cooking process was well adapted to the plantation life of African-American slaves, who were sometimes allowed to raise chickens…introducing seasonings and spices that were earlier absent in Scottish cuisine.

Whatever the origin, fried chicken often provokes strong emotions and opinions about technique.

Although not crucial, this recipe entails soaking the fowl in a brining solution before beginning the actual cooking process. Briefly (and inadequately), brining alters cellular structure so that more water than usual is retained while the meat is denatured. As the meat cooks, the heated proteins will begin to reduce tightly and exude juice at a lower rate, producing a more tender piece of meat. We hope.

When brining, be sure to use the appropriate container, such as glass or plastic. Aluminum is not a good choice because the salted water and enzymes in the meat combine, creating a chemical reaction with the aluminum which adversely affects flavor.

FRIED CHICKEN

1 free range, organic fryer chicken

Brine solution:
3/4 C honey
12 whole peppercorns
6 sprigs thyme
6 sprigs rosemary
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3/4 C lemon juice
1 part sea salt to 8 parts cold water, enough to cover chicken

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3 C all purpose flour
2 T garlic powder
2 T onion powder
2 T sweet paprika
2 t cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper

1 quart buttermilk
2 T hot chili sauce (Sriracha)

Peanut oil
6 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 bunch fresh sage
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

Prepare the brine solution by combining all ingredients and stirring well in a large heavy pot; bring to a boil for 5 minutes, then cool completely. In a large bowl or container, cover the chicken entirely with the cooled brine solution. Refrigerate, covered, for 4 to 8 hours. Rinse and pat dry. Cut into eight pieces and season with salt and pepper.

In a large shallow platter, mix the flour, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, and cayenne until well blended and then season with pepper. In another platter, combine the buttermilk and hot sauce with a small whisk.

Drain the chicken and pat it dry. Dredge the pieces, a few at a time, in the flour mixture, then dip them into the buttermilk; dredge them again in the seasoned flour. Set aside and let the chicken rest while you prepare the oil. If possible, let stand 1 hour on parchement paper.

Add about 3 inches of peanut oil to a large deep heavy pot. Add the thyme, rosemary, sage, and garlic to the cool oil and heat over medium-high heat until the oil registers 340 to 350 F. The herbs and garlic will perfume the oil with their flavor as the oil comes up to temperature. Skim the fried herbs out of the oil and set aside. Remove garlic and discard. Do not allow the garlic to burn.

Working in batches, carefully add the chicken pieces 3 or 4 at a time. Fry, turning the pieces once, until golden brown and cooked through, about 12 minutes for dark meat and 8 minutes for breasts. When the chicken is done, remove from pan and allow to drain on paper towels. Season some with salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Repeat with the remaining chicken pieces. When serving scatter the reserved fried herbs over the top. Serve hot or room temperature.

Serve with mashed potatoes (see Smashed Potatoes post) and green beans with finely diced garlic.

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