April 2008

Posted on April 30, 2008 in Archives

April 30, 2008:
Today I’ve got an article on royal red shrimp in the Washington Post. You’ll have to register to be able to read it online, but it’s free. I blogged about royal reds March 10 and April 4 (see below) as well. It’s fitting that it’s running on what would have been my mother’s 88th birthday. She died young and I inherited her vast collection of cookbooks. It’s unbelievable that she never got to read any of my food writing, because I didn’t fall into this career until after she had died. This page is getting mighty long, so I’m going to wait till tomorrow to write more about my mother and ducks, which I will be cooking tonight.
April 24, 2008: Getting ready to party, and a Quail Tagine with Preserved Lemons and Olives
The front page of today’s Washington Post’s Express, which is available free at most bus and metro stops throughout the city, as well as throughout most of DC’s busy shopping districts, featured a cover photo of Kate Pierson of the band, the B-52s, who have been friends of mine for 30+ years. They’re playing here this weekend and I have a house full of old friends coming to celebrate Kate’s birthday after they play on Saturday night. I’ve been put in charge of the cakes. Here’s the band in a promotional photo by Pieter M Van Hattem. I can’t wait to see everyone. I’ve written about many of us here, but Armistead Wellford will be coming as well, and I haven’t seen “Army” in a decade or more.
Quail Tagine
I’ve been wanting to make a tagine, so I bought some quail and decided to use them in a fairly classic tagine with preserved lemons instead of the usual chicken. Most of the chickens that are available today aren’t worth cooking, and Paula Wolfert, the great authority on the cooking of Morocco, always suggests that you brine your birds and marinate them as well before putting them in a tagine. Quail are so delicious all the time, and I like to leave them whole — however messy a meal they make — and cook them just as though I were cooking a cut-up bird. I find that the birds plump up nicely and absorb lots of the intricate flavors of the exotic seasonings.In Paula’s seminal Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (Harper & Row, 1973), she noted that in the city of Tetuán alone, there are 50 ways to prepare chicken. I’m sure she’d approve of this version with quail.
6 whole quail, about 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 pounds in total weight
one bunch fresh cilantro with stems
1/2 cup preserved lemon, seeds removed and chopped
1 piece of fresh ginger, about 2″by 1″, peeled and chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
4 cloves of garlic, peeled, cut in half, tough ends and green shoots removed
1 average jalapeño, stemmed, seeded, and deribbed
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or about 20 grinds of the mill
1 teaspoon ground cumin
pinch of saffron threads
1 tablespoon freshly ground cinnamon, preferably from true cinnamon from Sri Lanka
1/4 cup plus two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 average onion, about 8 ounces, chopped, about 1-1/2 cups
1 cup chopped celery, 2 to 3 stalks, trimmed
1/2 bell pepper, chopped, about 1/2 cup
1 cup chicken stock
16 mixed deli olives in oil, including both green and reddish-brown, drained, about 1/2 cup
Wash the quail, drain, and set aside.
Cut 1/2 cup of cilanto stems and place them in a food processor. Reserve the leaves for garnish and a salad. Add the preserved lemon, ginger, garlic, jalapeño, salt, pepper, cumin, saffron, and cinnamon to the processor and pulse until you have a paste. Add 1/4 cup of the oil and continue to pulse until the mixture is somewhat creamy and evenly ground.
Place the quail in a nonreactive dish and cover with the mixture, spreading it all over the quail and pushing it up into their body cavities as well. I use my hands. Set aside to marinate for 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350o.
In a tagine or in a deep, heavy casserole dish that you can put both on top of the stove and in the oven, place the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and heat over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, and pepper, and cook until the vegetables are wilted, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a boil, then add the quail and the olives. You can pit the olives if you must, but for a casual family dinner such as ours tonight, it isn’t necessary (as long as you remind everyone that there are pits.) We ate the quail with our hands.
Immediately cover the tagine with its lid or, if using a casserole, place the lid slightly askew so that steam can escape. Place in the oven and cook for 45 minutes. Turn off the oven, remove the lid of the pot, and return the dish to the oven to mellow for a few minutes. I place the crusty bread that I serve with the dish in the oven during this resting period.
Serve the tagine over couscous or rice, or, as I did, over red rice (see March 10, 2008). Garnish with cilantro leaves.
Follow with a green salad heavy on herbs, especially mint and cilantro.
Serves 2-3.
April 21, 2008 Spring Onions and Rain
We spent another long weekend out on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, gardening with our friends Chuck and Bruce. Mostly we were pulling up everything still thriving in the old vegetable garden and moving it to new beds. Everyone has his own benchmark for the spring. For many, ít’s all about certain flowers or tree buds. I’ve written earlier this month about asparagus and royal red shrimp, two harbingers of spring for me. But when I pull up the scallions in preparation to plant new summer crops, I know that the season has arrived for sure.
Scallions, also known as spring onions, are one of the world’s most beloved vegetables. I can’t think of a cuisine that doesn’t offer them up as integral parts of salads, soups, sautés or stir-fries. But when they are truly freshly dug in the spring, they deserve to be featured themselves as a vegetable. You can grill larger ones like the calçots of Catalonia, you can blanch them then toss them with butter or olive oil, you can pickle them in a little sugared vinegar, or you can sauté small sliced rounds of larger ones in olive oil and add, with some white wine, other blanched spring vegetables such as green peas and favas to serve as a side dish. Of course, you can also add them to salads, or make a salad that features them, or pair them with any number of traditional dishes.
Perhaps easiest of all is to toss them (with fresh asparagus if you have it) with olive oil, salt, pepper, and broil them whole about 6 to 8 inches from the heat, tossing the pan occasionally and letting the vegetables char slightly. Place in a serving dish and pass as an appetizer with heavy paper napkins.
After several days of hoeing and tilling and transplanting and mulching, the rains came. And came. My tulips are getting beat to a pulp. I bet we’ve had 2 inches in the past 24 hours. Amazing. I hope everywhere that has suffered from drought the past few years is getting some of this!
April 15, 2008: French Fries
Over the weekend, I made burgers and fries one evening before the weather turned cool again. I don’t make either of them very often, but when I do, I do it right. I cook the meat on the grill, which has a side burner where I make the fries in advance and then put them in a warmed oven while I prepare the burgers. Of course, I make homemade mayonnaise, and this time I made it in my big, heavy mortar with 75% grapeseed oil, 25% extra virgin olive oil made exclusively from arbequina olives, 2 egg yolks, a little lemon juice, salt, and cayenne.
In France, French fries (pommes frites) aren’t the only fried potatoes: there are also straw potatoes, matchsticks, Pont Neuf, waffled potatoes, souffléed potatoes, birds’ nests, and various pre-cooked potato croquettes and fritters. If you follow my instructions for French fries to a tee, you won’t be disappointed.
This is the recipe that I published in The Fearless Frying Cookbook.
When I lived in Paris, there was a bistro a block from my apartment that served the best pommes frites I’ve ever eaten. It was a neighborhood hangout, full of working class men, gallery owners, students, and an occasional tourist. I remember it as always being open, though I often arrived too late for the roast chicken, the house specialty, which was always simply prepared with the finest poulet de Bresse. The chicken, like the steak, was served with fries.
The bistro was really not much more than a café, and it was run by a husband and wife team; they both cooked and worked in the front of the house. Though I never knew her name, “Madame” let me in her kitchen to watch her fry potatoes. Like the English, Madame used to use rendered beef fat to fry in. The last time I saw her, they had stopped frying altogether and had simplified their menu to mostly sandwiches. One of the art dealers in the neighborhood had hopes of maintaining the café after Madame and Monsieur retired, but I feared then that I would never have fries like those again.
In an ironic twist of fate, however, there has been a great resurgence in traditional fare on the other side of the Atlantic, and I recently discovered that the space was taken over in 2005 by Alain Ducasse, one of the world’s most famous chefs. He is apparently playing on its history and maintaining the classic bistro fare. I now know that the restaurant was in the same family for 3 generations. Their name was Petit. The bistro, Benoît, is located at 20, rue St Martin, in the 4th. Just a few blocks from the Pompidou Center.
These fries are pretty damn close to the Petits’. I use lard, but you can use peanut oil as well. The potatoes are fried twice, once at a lower temperature, then quickly again in hotter fat. Beef fat or lard will begin to smoke if it goes above 375o; you must put the fries in the second that it reaches that temperature. Madame fried all of her potatoes for the day ahead of time, then set her fryer at the higher temperature and flash-fried them to order. Her fryer had a basket that allowed excess oil to drain off; she did not pat them dry, but simply dumped them out onto the plates and served them piping hot.
3 pounds baking potatoes (4 Idahos or russets)
Lard or peanut oil for frying
At least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours before serving, peel the potatoes and cut them into 1/4-inch batons. Lay the potatoes out on a towel and fold it up around them so that they don’t darken while you heat the lard or oil. Line a large colander with crumpled paper towels and set aside.
Put lard or oil in a deep pot to a depth of 3 inches. Heat over medium heat to 350o. Fry the potatoes in 5 or 6 batches, about 1 cup at a time. As each batch is lightly browned, after about 7 minutes, remove the potatoes from the oil with a wire mesh strainer, allowing any excess oil to drain back in the pot before placing them in the colander. Place more crumpled paper towels on top of the batch before adding the next. Fry all of the potatoes, then remove them from the colander to a baking sheet, discarding the paper towels and patting the potatoes dry of all grease. Place them in a dry place such as an unheated oven. Turn off the heat under the fat until ready to finish frying.
When ready to fry, reheat the fat to 375o. Be very careful if you are using lard and do not let it go any higher. Remove the fries from the baking sheet to another container. Place a wire rack on the baking sheet. Fry the potatoes in batches again, keeping the oil right at 375o. Fry until golden brown, between 1 and 2 minutes. Remove immediately to the prepared baking sheet to drain and finish the frying. Do not salt them until serving; better yet, let each diner salt his own so that they don’t get soggy.
Serve with homemade mayonnaise, not the blender variety (recipe follows).
Serves 6
This is so much easier if someone helps. It only takes a couple of minutes to make and you’ll wonder why you ever bought that weird white stuff at the store made from all sorts of things like soy oil and sugar! Mayonnaise was originally made with only olive oil, as it still is in Liguria, where I learned to make it in a mortar with a pestle. Most Americans and Europeans today are used to mayonnaise made with lighter tasting oils, and often gussied up with mustard and other flavorings. Do yourself a favor and omit the mustard this time, and be sure to include at least 25% of the olive oil of your choice (if you like a bold mayo, go ahead and use a bolder oil such as a Tuscan blend). You won’t be disappointed.
All ingredients must be at room temperature. Take your time. If the mayo is too thin, add some more oil. If it’s too thick, add some more lemon juice. If it separates, warm it in hot water bath, begin with a teaspoon of prepared mustard, and start whisking in the broken sauce just as would the oil.
2 large egg yolks
freshly squeezed lemon juice
3/4 cup lightly flavored oil such as grapeseed or peanut combined with 1/4 cup lightly flavored
         extra virgin olive oil, such as a Spanish oil made from arbequina olives or a Ligurian oil
         made from taggiasca olives
salt and cayenne to taste
Place the egg yolks in a heavy bowl or mortar or place the bowl on a damp towel so that it won’t move around
on the counter. Whisk the eggs lightly and add about a teaspoon of the lemon juice, beating the mixture until it is foamy.
Now, beating constantly, slowly add the oil, drop by drop at first, until you have added about 1/4 cup. (This is where the extra set of hands comes in handy: one to add the oil, the other to beat.) When the mayo begins to thicken, you can start adding the oil in a stream, whisking constantly and adding only so much oil at a time as you can whisk in at once. Continue adding the oil until it is all incorporated.
Season to taste with salt, cayenne, and more lemon juice, if desired. Whisk thoroughly and serve immediately or store covered in the refrigerator for no more than a couple of days.
Makes about 1 cup.
April 14, 2008 Chicken Liver Pâté
I love to make pâtés and terrines, and this one is very easy and delicious. The recipe for this country-style terrine calls for ground pork or veal, but I used ground turkey (which I’ve been seeing in the grocery stores for years and never knew what to do with it) this weekend and it worked just fine. This is a dish to make when you’re having a party or weekend guests. It makes a lot. Cut into little slices and serve with crackers and mustard, or make a meal of it with a salad and good, crusty French bread. If you can’t find fresh pork fat, you can use thick-sliced bacon, but try to find some that has very little meat in it and preferably one that is not smoked.
1 pound chicken livers
1/4 pound (1 stick) butter
4 shallots, peeled and minced (about 1 cup)
1 cup freshly grated French bread crumbs
grated rind of one orange
1/2 cup brandy
1 pound ground lean pork or veal
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon mixed dried herbs such as herbes de Provence or Italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon Quatre-épices (See January 2007 or the Note, below)
4 eggs
1/2 cup cream
fresh pork fat cut into thin slices
Clean the livers of any sinew or funny spots and set aside. Sauté the shallots in the butter until they become transparent, about 5 minutes, then add the livers and sauté another 5 minutes.
Put the bread crumbs in a large mixing bowl and add the liver and shallot mixture. Add the orange rind and brandy, toss well, cover, and refrigerate for 6 hours or overnight.
In a separate bowl, add the seasonings to the ground meat. Remove the liver mixture from the refrigerator and puree in the work bowl of a food processor. Beat the eggs lightly into the cream and add them to the food processor and blend again until smooth. Add the puree to the ground meat and mix well together, then process in batches in the food processor until it is all well blended.
Preheat the oven to 350o. Line a standard loaf pan or a 1-1/2-quart terrine with the porl fat and fill with the forcemeat. Cover with foil and place in a hot water bath in the oven for 1-1/2 hours. Remove from the oven, place a heavy object such as a brick or can of food on the paté, and allow to cool. Refrigerate with the weight overnight, then serve on crackers or toast points, or alongside a salad with French bread and mustard.
Note: Quatre-épices is a traditional spice mix for patés and terrines. Use 1/4 teaspoon each of freshly ground white pepper, plus pinches of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger, preferably all freshly ground.
You’ll want to serve either a red or white wine that has enough acidity to balance the richness of the pâté, such as Sangre de Torro or a white Burgundy.
April 4, 2008 More Royal Reds
I’ve been testing more recipes with the delicious deep-water Royal Red Shrimp and we loved all three of the following dishes that we had this evening:
Royal Red Shrimp Salad with Fennel, Oranges, and Red OnionThis salad is an outrageous display of red shrimp, oranges, and purplish red onions on the plate. You may also substitute other shrimp, but you will have to cook them a bit longer.

3 or 4 oranges
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1/2 cup peanut oil or olive oil, plus a little for the pan
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 pounds Royal Red Shrimp, peeled
1/2 red onion, sliced thin
1/2 fennel bulb, sliced thin
salad greens
Peel and section the oranges over a bowl. You will need about 30 orange sections for the garnish. Set aside. Make the vinaigrette by whisking together one tablespoon of the juice from the oranges, the lime juice, vinegar, and oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. Brush a skillet with oil (preferably peanut) and heat over medium high heat. Add the shrimp to the pan one at a time with tongs. Don’t crowd the pan. Allow them to cook for about 30 seconds on each side. Remove them from the pan, cover, and keep warm while you prepare the plates.
Arrange a bed of salad greens on each of six plates. Toss the onion and fennel in the vinaigrette. Divide the vegetables among the plates, then divide the shrimp, topping each salad with them, and garnishing with about 5 orange sections per plate.
Makes 6 servings.
To drink, serve an Orvieto Classico or a Chenin Blanc such as a Vouvray.Royal Reds in a Fennel and Tomato Court-Bouillon

Court-bouillon means quick stock in French, but in Louisiana, where it’s prononunced “coobeeyon,” it’s a soup made by the addition of fish to the stock as it cooks. Neither the French nor French immigrants in Louisiana would dream of cooking shellfish or fennel in unseasoned water. The quick stock is made in a matter of minutes to provide an aromatic poaching liquid. Fennel is traditionally poached in a court-bouillon and served cold as an hors d’oeuvre. For some reason this very French preparation is called à la grecque (in the Greek style).
1 pound Royal Red Shrimp in shell
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups water
1 cup Vermouth or dry white wine
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
4 or 5 black peppercorns
a sprig of fresh thyme
juice of a lemon
one garlic clove, unpeeled but crushed
2 fennel bulbs with stalks attached
2 average ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
Peel the shrimp, saving the shells. Cover the shrimp bodies and place in the refrigerator.
Sauté the onion in the olive oil until it is transparent, about 5 minutes. Add the water, wine, bay, cayenne, pepper, thyme, lemon juice, garlic, and shrimp shells. Trim the stalks from the fennel bulbs and add them, saving a few of the feathery leaves for garnish. Raise the heat, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for 20 minutes.
Strain the court-bouillon and discard the solids. Cut the base off the fennel bulbs but do not core them. Remove any discolored or damaged outer ribs and discard. Slice the fennel into 1/4- to 1/2-inch slices, about 6 per bulb. Place the fennel in a large sauté pan with the court-bouillon, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes.
Add the tomatoes to the pot, raise the heat to medium high, and cook until the liquid is reduced in half, about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally as it cooks, breaking up the fennel clusters so that they cook evenly and intermingle with the tomatoes.
Add the shrimp and continue to cook, shaking the pan, until the shrimp are done, about 1 or 1-1/2 minutes. Divide among pasta bowls, garnish with the reserved fennel leaves, and serve immediately in pasta bowls with crusty bread as an appetizer, or refrigerate immediately and serve chilled as a light lunch.
Makes 4 servings.
Serve a Tuscan Chardonnay/Pinot Grigio blend with this dish.Garides Ouzo (Shrimp with Ouzo)

Greeks and Sicilians in northern Florida were the first people to begin catching Royal Red Shrimp over 100 years ago, though their harvest did not become commercially viable until the 1960s. Traditional recipes among the descendants of those shrimpers tend to be very simple, such as Frank Patti’s (see April 3, below). This is a classic throughout the Greek islands and wherever Greeks have settled.
There are dozens of variations — some with cream or yogurt; others with tomatoes and fennel. In southern France, you find similar concoctions with pastis, ouzo’s cousin. This is hardly a recipe, but more the idea of keeping it simple and not overcooking the shrimp. If you use shrimp other than Royal Reds, you’ll need to cook them a minute longer.
Serve a young Greek Rosé with this dish. Akakies by Kir-Yianni is made from 100% Xinomavro, the superb red grape of Macedonia. Remarkably full-bodied for a rosé, its flowery nose and refreshing acidity make it just the drink for this lemony meze.
1 pound shelled shrimp, preferably Royal Red
1/3 cup ouzo
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
extra virgin olive oil, preferably Greek
fleur de sel or high-quality sea salt such as Cyprus Flake
Place the shrimp in a non-reactive dish such as Pyrex and sprinkle with cayenne. Mix the ouzo and lemon juice together and pour over the shrimp, tossing to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate for 1 or 2 hours.
Drain the shrimp and pat dry. Pour a film of olive oil into a large skillet over high heat. As soon as the oil begins to shimmer, add half of the shrimp, and stir-fry for about one minute. Remove to a warmed platter. Repeat with the remaining shrimp, season with salt to taste, and serve hot or warm.
Serves 4.
April 3, 2008 Royal Reds and Fried Chicken
I got some Royal Red Shrimp (see March 10, 2008) from Wood’s Fisheries in Florida and am enjoying this rare species while I can. In truth, they’re not rare at all, but because they live at 189 to 430 fathoms, off the Continental Shelf, the industry — such as it is — may die because of rising fuel costs. They cost a lot more to harvest, but the public is so unaware of these sweet and salty shrimp that most retailers and distributors won’t carry them.
The shrimp really are bright red, even after you remove their shells, though veteran shrimper Frank Patti of the 77-year-old Joe Patti’s Seafood in Pensacola tells me that when they are first hauled from the depths onto the deck of the shrimp boats, that they are translucent and colorless — though they quickly turn red.
Often described as “sweet, delicate, and lobster-like,” they cook in about half or a third the time as the inshore species. When asked how his Sicilian parents cooked them, Patti, who was the first person to commercially harvest Royal Reds in the Gulf of Mexico, told me, “You bring your water to a boil and dump in the shrimp. They’ll be done before the water comes back to a boil, really about as soon as you put them in.”
I am reminded of how I learned to cook shrimp as a child in the South Carolina Lowcountry, where, in the local Gullah dialect, the recipe goes, “Sree minute, off de hot, out de pot, dey ready!”
I’m working on an article about Royal Reds for the Washington Post and adapted this recipe last night from one published by my friend Virginia Elverson in her marvelous Gulf Coast Cooking (Shearer Publishing, 1991).
Royal Red Lime Soup
Royal red shrimp (camarón rojo gigante) appear occasionally in the markets along the Mexican coastline in the Gulf, where they are cooked just as the other species are, though not for as long. This simple soup is typical of the fare found in Tampico , Veracruz , and Campeche, fishing towns known for their excellent ceviche of raw seafood “cooked” in limón.You can use a vegetable or light chicken or fish stock in this recipe if you prefer, but the subtle flavor of the shrimp stock is a great reward for a small amount of effort.

For the shrimp and stock:

1 pound Royal Red shrimp in shell
1 juicy lime
cayenne pepper
1 medium yellow onion, unpeeled and quartered
1 celery rib
a bouquet garni (a bay leaf and sprigs of thyme and

     parsley tied together with the celery or in cheesecloth)
10-12 black peppercornsPeel the shrimp, saving the shells, and place on a non-reactive plate or bowl. Squeeze the juice of the lime onto the shrimp and sprinkle them with cayenne. Cover and refrigerate.

Place the reserved shrimp shells in a non-reactive pot and add 6 cups of water and the remaining ingredients. Allow the pot to cook at a low boil until the broth is lightly flavored, the vegetables have softened, and the broth has reduced by a third, about 45 minutes. Strain out the solids and discard. You should have a quart of stock.

For the tortillas:

3 corn tortillas

While the broth is cooking, or about 1-1/2 hours before serving, cut the tortillas into thin strips and spread them out on a dish towel or paper towels to dry for about an hour.

For the soup:

peanut oil for frying
reserved tortilla strips
1 medium onion, chopped
3 large ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped, 1 to 1-1/2 cups, or 1 small can of San Marzano

          peeled tomatoes, rinsed and chopped
1 quart mild-flavored stock, preferably shrimp (see above)
the juice and rind of 1 large, juicy lime
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
reserved shrimp
freshly ground white pepper
fresh cilantro leaves
1 ripe avocado, the flesh diced and sprinkled with some lime juice to prevent discoloration
salt, lime quarters, and/or hot sauce, optionalHeat ½” of peanut oil over medium-high in a large heavy skillet or saucepan until the oil is shimmering, 365º to 375º. Fry the tortilla strips for about 30 seconds, or until they are crisp. Work in batches so as not to crowd the pot. Drain on paper towels.

Pour off most of the oil, leaving a film in the pan, about 2 tablespoons. Add the onion and cook over medium heat until it softens, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for 2 or 3 minutes, until most of their liquid has evaporated. Add the broth, lime juice and rind, and oregano, and raise the heat, allowing the soup to simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove the lime rind and add the shrimp. Immediately turn off the heat. The shrimp will be done in about a minute. Season with white pepper, and serve in heated bowls. Garnish with cilantro leaves, avocados, and tortilla strips.

You can have salt, lime quarters, and/or hot sauce available for diners to season their soup, but they probably won’t need them.

Serves 4.
Note: The truly observant reader will see that those are whole-wheat tortillas in the photo. I forgot to buy corn tortillas yesterday, which would be authentic, more delicious, and a better complement to this soup.

Fried Chicken
What southern food has been written about more than fried chicken? I myself have written extensively about it in two of my books, in numerous articles, and online. Mikel’s sister Questria is arriving today, though, and yesterday I happened to have found two small, naturally raised chickens, each under 3 pounds. How could I resist?
The main problem with chicken in the fast food joints — which actually do a good job of frying — is the chicken itself. A bad breed, poorly fed, too fatty, and too old. Having long recommended the simplest cooking methods, I now am firmly convinced that small, natural birds, lightly brined, are the way to go.
I cut the chicken up into serving pieces and brine them for about 1-1/2 hours in a brine of 1/4 cup of Kosher salt per quart of water. I put the chicken pieces in a pot, cover it with water, pour off the water and measure it, and dissolve the salt in about 1/4 of the water in a pot on the stove, add it to the cold water, and cover the chicken with it. I refrigerate the chicken while it brines, then drain it well and pat it dry with paper towels. I sprinkle a little salt, pepper, and cayenne on the pieces while the oil heats, and then fry as I explain below (from one of my recipes for fried chicken in The Fearless Frying Cookbook):
As a southerner, I ate fried chicken often growing up. I knew what home-fried chicken was like before the Colonel was a household word. At its best, fried chicken is tender, succulent, and not greasy at all. The fast food chains actually do a good job, because they use clean and very hot, deep fat to fry the chicken so that each piece is totally surrounded by the cooking medium at all times. Deep-fried chicken is the crispest and therefore the best to take on a picnic or to eat at room temperature.
When I lived in the Caribbean, roadside vendors would put a Dutch oven filled with fat down in a charcoal fire. They threw some whole garlic bulbs down in the grease. When the papery skin of the garlic browned and the bulb floated to the surface, they added unadorned chicken legs to the pot and cooked them until they too were golden brown and floated freely in the hot fat. It was one of many delicious variations on fried chicken that I’ve had in my travels, though nowhere have I tasted any better than the home-fried chicken from my youth. I know some southern homemakers who don’t cook much any more but who will fry chicken. Everyone’s is the best.
There are no secrets to fried chicken. The Savannah Cookbook of 1933 tells it best, and quite simply: “Cut up the chicken, sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper, dredge with flour, and fry in deep, and very hot, fat.” If you watch the process at most of the fast food chains, that’s about all there is to it. At Kentucky Fried Chicken, the quick cooking (original recipe) is done in a pressure cooker, making for a very juicy bird. The Colonel’s claim to 11 secret herbs and spices was debunked in William Poundstone’s 1983 book, Big Secrets: a laboratory hired by Poundstone to analyze the famous seasoning found only flour, salt, pepper, and MSG! You can fry in a pressure cooker if you want to; it will only take 10 minutes. You can also deep-fry or pan-fry the chicken.
Most recipes for fried chicken are similar. The chicken pieces — sometimes soaked, sometimes not — are covered with some type of coating (more often than not a dry one), then fried in hot oil until golden brown all over. Some people cover the pan when frying in shallow fat; others don’t. Gravy is a given, not the exception. Abby Fisher, a former slave, wrote in her 1881 cookbook, “The chicken is done when the fork passes easily into it. After the chicken is all cooked, leave a little of the hot fat in the skillet; then take a tablespoon of dry flour and brown it in the fat, stirring it around, then pour water in and stir till the gravy is as thin as soup.”
Thirty-five years before Mrs. Fisher’s book appeared, Sarah Rutledge had offered several recipes for fried chicken in The Carolina Housewife. Her aristocratic Charleston kitchen offered far more elegant sauces than Mrs. Fisher’s gravy: “Skim carefully the gravy in which the chickens have been fried; mix with it half a pint of cream; season with a little mace, pepper and salt, adding some parsley.” Another version called “Cold Fried Chicken” called for skinning the chicken, then rubbing it “with an egg beaten up, and cover it with grated bread, seasoned with pepper, salt, and chopped parsley. Fry it in butter; thicken a little brown gravy with flour and butter, and add a little cayenne, pickle, and mushroom ketchup.”
I’m not one to mess with tradition too much, especially when that tradition is as delicious as fried chicken. Though I gave two tried-and-true ways to fry chicken in my book on frying, I don’t want you to think that they are the only authentic recipes. You can soak the bird or not. You can cover the pan when shallow-frying or not. And these are just the southern methods. The Chinese, Italians, West Indians, Austrians, Japanese, and Greeks are adept chicken fryers as well.
Brining poultry and pork has become a revelation for me. You’ll get a far more succulent bird if it’s brined first. Of course, Jews have always known this. If you don’t have the extra time or desire to brine, buy a Kosher bird, which will have already been brined.
Real Southern Deep-Fried Chicken
If you’re going to eat the chicken at room temperature, try this simple deep-frying method. The meat will stay crispy longer. Lard is traditional, but you can use peanut oil. I’m not about to say how many people one little chicken will feed, but if you only fry one you’ll not have leftovers. If you do, you may want to freeze it.
What many people do not know about fried chicken — and other fried foods — is that the finished dish can be wrapped well, frozen, and refried later. For refrying, use a vegetable oil with a high smoke point, such as peanut. Preheat the oil to between 390o to 400o, then carefully lower the pieces in the oil, frying them until just warmed through, about 1 or 2 minutes. Don’t let the oil go below 365o or above 400o.
1 fryer, 2 1/2 to 3 pounds, cut into 8 to 10 pieces, with skin, brined (see above)
Lard or peanut oil for frying
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more for the pieces
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for the pieces
1/4 teaspoon cayenne, plus more for the pieces
Place a wire rack over a baking sheet and set aside. Remove the chicken from the brine, drain well, and pat completely dry. Put enough lard or peanut oil in a large heavy pot to totally cover the chicken pieces; they should float in the fat. Place the pot over medium-high heat.
Season the pieces on both sides with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Place the flour, and the measured salt, pepper, and cayenne in a heavy paper bag and shake to mix. Add the chicken pieces one at a time, shaking to coat. When the fat has reached 370o, use tongs to lower the chicken in the fat, one piece at a time. Do not crowd the pot and keep the temperature of the fat between 365o and 375o. Fry the chicken until it is golden brown and tender, 10 to 20 minutes. Remove the pieces with tongs as they are done to the prepared baking sheet. Use a slotted spoon or a wire mesh strainer to remove any debris from the fat, then continue frying the rest of the chicken. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
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April 1, 2008 Bruschette, no foolin’!
My sister Sue and my brother Mike left this morning after a week’s visit. The cherry trees finally opened and were beautiful, but it’s been rainy for the past couple of days, so we didn’t stroll through them. We did spend a gloriously sunny weekend out on the Eastern Shore, where there were abundant signs of spring not only among the budding trees and flowering plants such as daffodils and quince, but also in the asparagus bed. Since we were six people and there were only a dozen of the savory stalks poking through the ground, I decided to mix them with other vegetables and serve them atop bruschette before dinner one night. I know that many other writers have set the record straight on this, but, having lived in Italy, I am always flummoxed by the misuse of this simple Italian word.
First of all, let’s say it right: the singular form of the word is bruschetta, pronounced. brew sket ta. The “sch” is always hard, as in “school.”
As for its etymology, the word has evolved with overlapping meanings. Brusco means tart in flavor or quick (or abrupt in manner), similar to the English brusque. But in Rome, where the word is common (it’s called other things in other Italian dialects), brustolito means something cooked over an open flame. Etta is, of course, a diminutive, so bruschetta is the diminutive of the feminine plural of the word. That makes it hard not to want to translate bruschette as meaning savory little things, or tidbits to perk up the palate — appetizers, in other words.  Or little things cooked quickly over the fire. No matter their origin, bruschette always begin with a roughly cut slice of bread charred or grilled or toasted or broiled, rubbed with garlic and annointed with oil. They can be topped with just about anything you can think of.
In America, folks have taken to calling the toppings themselves bruschetta. Go figure. (Just look at what we’ve done to the word “sanction,” among others!) I don’t guess it matters much what you call it, but it is important to cut the bread roughly so that it will grate the garlic that rubs it and so that the uneven surface absorbs more of the oil (in Florence, they’re called fettunta, meaning that they’re drenched in oil). Use the finest, fruitiest, best quality extra virgin oil you have on your bruschette. Ironically, that’s what the Italian peasants, whose dish this is, would use. Here, I grilled the asparagus with Vidalia onion slices (both oiled,  salted, and peppered). I cut up the grilled asparagus and onion and tossed them with a chopped ripe tomato and rinsed capers. Yum!
Sue and Mike and I visited Arlington National Cemetery one day. You would think that the 350,000 graves hovering over downtown Washington would make the members of Congress reconsider our foreign policies, but apparently the 4000th death in Iraq doesn’t even affect them. If this image we saw, with the sea of graves and the looming home of Robert E. Lee, isn’t enough to make one rethink this “war,” I don’t know what would.
I’m a big fan of celeriac, or celery root, as it’s often called, but I never really look for it. When I see it in the store and it’s not too heavy or rough, but smooth and hard, I buy it and bring it home to make a soup, a salad, or a mash (with potatoes and/or parsnips). But I also follow Roger Vergé’s brilliant instructions for making celery salt (the commercial versions are made with pungent celery seed), which I use on just about everything. I first learned of the recipe in my friend Elizabeth Schneider‘s brilliant Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini (William Morrow, 2001). Elizabeth paraphrased Roger Vergé’s Vegetables in the French Style, and now I rewrite her instructions for
Celery Salt
Scrub the roots well and peel as thinly as you can, saving the flesh for use in another dish. Be sure to use a stainless steel knife, which won’t discolor root vegetables, many of which turn black upon contact with carbon steel. Spread out the pieces of skin and place them in the driest place in your house. If you live where it’s humid, you may want to string the pieces on thread and hang them. I place them on a piece of aluminum foil and put them on top of my hot water heater in the basement, forgetting about them until I run out of my previous batch of salt. You could place them on a cleaned screen, the way my grandmother dried her apple slices.
When thoroughly dried, grind the pieces until fine, then add coarse sea salt and grind again until the mixture is uniform. Strain through a sieve and store in airtight containers (I simply place them in old spice bottles with sprinkler tops). I season all sorts of dishes with the salt, but mostly I like to dip radishes and carrots in it.