Chicken Obsession


Fried Chicken from Ad Hoc

One of my favorite traditions growing up was my Mother preparing our “favorite foods” for dinner on the occasion of our birthdays. Mine was predictable, and did not vary, at least in my memory, from year to year; fried chicken and artichokes with melted butter. Fried chicken remains one of my favorite comfort foods, and I have run the gamut from KFC Crispy Strips to Hooters wings and nearly everything in between. Fried chicken is one of those situational foods that seem to taste best under specific circumstances. For example, Hooters medium-hot wings somehow tasted the very best when enjoyed somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, usually in the company of a large group of loud and rowdy sports fans. Attempts to recreate this taste sensation at home fall short, no matter how accurate the recipe.
Of late, I have been in hot pursuit of the perfect recipe for fried chicken, reprising all the childhood memories of those special dinners. I have tried the “secret” combination of herbs and spices, ostensibly a la KFC, via the Internet, and derived from a package of Italian dressing mix combined with a package of tomato soup mix. I have tried Martha Stewart’s recommendations, which included an overnight soak in buttermilk and a four part dipping process with a half-hour drying period in the refrigerator. I ponder the ability of most home cooks to find the space for a full sheet pan of breaded chicken parts set on racks in a single layer in order to achieve the most succulent adhesion of breading to chicken skin. I must honestly note, that this breading, though so crisp it shattered to the touch, did not magically adhere to the skin, and in fact left the skin flaccid and soggy beneath the crunchy coating. Next, I went over current and back issues of Cook’s Illustrated, searching for Christopher Kimball’s infinite wisdom on this particular piece of Americana. This time, a complex brine was called for, extending the preparation time by an additional two days; one to prepare the brine and let its seasonings meld, and the second for brining the chicken pieces themselves. Again, this was followed by dipping in seasoned flour, again in beaten egg, and finally in a breading mixture of flour, panko and seasonings. This chicken, though delicious, was some how wrong, I believe as a result of the recipe’s complexity. I cannot begin to imagine a farm wife whipping up this little specialty after a long day’s work, especially if slaughtering and cleaning the chicken itself was also on the agenda.
Finally, I found the much publicized and printed recipe from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc, recently featured in Bon Appetit magazine. Equal in complexity to Kimball’s recipe, it included brining, using both egg and buttermilk in the process, not to mention a myriad of spices I seldom attribute to fried chicken, including Spanish smoked pimenton and nutmeg.  This chicken also had to “rest” before frying, of course in the thermal safety of the refrigerator, lest a stray bacterium ruin the entire experience. After frying, eating, and the two hours it took to wash all of the bowls, pans, and utensils and wipe the remains of the breading off of every surface in the kitchen, I was still left strangely dissatisfied. I actually considered my original place-based premise, and momentarily plotted a path to the restaurant itself. However, after careful research, this plan was discarded, as the name “Ad Hoc” implies; there was no set schedule as to when the chicken would even be on the menu!
I got a little closer to the results I was looking for when I tried a recipe for buffalo chicken fingers from Cooking Light. By using boneless and skinless chicken tenders, the entire skin issue was eliminated. The strips were marinated for an hour in a mixture of buttermilk and Tabasco sauce, and then dipped once in the breading. Salt and pepper were the only savory enhancements. Lo and behold, the chicken was crunchy on the outside, juicy on the inside, just spicy enough to make you want more, and tasted unequivocally of the chicken itself, rather than the seasonings. This recipe was manageable on a weeknight, though not necessarily historic.
Finally, I succumbed to nostalgia and produced the closest replica that I could of my mother’s fried chicken. Instead of using buttermilk, she dredged each piece of skin-on chicken in a mixture of Bisquick and Lawry’s seasoned salt mixed together in a plastic bag. This made it easy to shake the pieces in the breading before transferring directly to a pan full of bubbling peanut oil. The chicken pieces were fried until crisp and browned on both sides. The leg and thigh pieces were cooked first, so that they could finish cooking through in the warming oven while the wings and boned-out breast pieces cooked. The fat was drained off the crispy bits of breading in the bottom of the pan, and flour was added to make a roux. Milk was then stirred in to finish the gravy, which was served on the side over buttery mashed potatoes. Accompanied by the traditional steamed artichoke with melted butter, this meal satisfied every craving that had been plaguing me throughout the process.
And the truth at the heart of this chicken obsession? The best fried chicken is the one that reminds you of those special nights at home surrounded by special people. It was not about gourmet seasonings, nor complex recipes, nor the perfect means of manipulating the flavors and textures of this seemingly simple dish. It was mostly about the authenticity of the foods we have come to love over the years, and the people who prepared and shared them.


Post by Julia Conway on June 28th, 2009