The night Julia Child came to dinner
Southern fried chicken served as the centerpiece. And Julia helped herself to seconds.
Anyone who grew up in the South has some kind of fried chicken memory. Or maybe no particular, specific single event at all, because fried chicken is so ubiquitous. But it is one of the many food topics a true Southerner can weave a yarn around. Fried chicken a simple weekend supper, first choice for a picnic or dinner on the ground, someone’s favorite special occasion meal. Fried Chicken is served at big, noisy, sloppy family gatherings, packed into the car for road trips, served at summer camp, or for small Sunday after church lunches. That’s where I ate most of my fried chicken growing up.
Julia Child had dinner at my house when I was a kid. You may be wondering how this fits into a story about fried chicken, so here it goes. Julia and Paul Child were in Memphis raising funds for Planned Parenthood and my parents were selected to host a dinner party for the Childs and select guests (that is to say potential donors). People were scrambling for the opportunity to participate – to wash Julia’s plate, or serve Paul a drink.
The various committee members met to discuss plans and to decide, what exactly does one serve Julia Child at party? Ideas about hiring the chefs from the best restaurant in town to prepare a gourmet meal, or caterers to cook a menu made up of the fanciest ingredients available in Memphis were discussed. But my mom put out that maybe Julia gets that all the time, so why don’t we serve her something unique, that she might only be served in Memphis. So a caterer who specialized in Southern family weddings was brought in to prepare the classic Southern meal – collards, grits, biscuits and fried chicken. All the influential muckety-mucks invited to write checks filled their plates over and over again, thrilled to be served their favorite foods rather than the precious, overblown “gourmet” stuff they expected. Both Julia and Paul were noticed returning to the buffet for seconds. I must have been eight or nine, but I remember her, so tall and jovial. I still use the signed copy of The French Cook my mother gave me then.
Nowadays, like many things, most people have given up on frying their own chicken. There are so many places to buy it ready-fried, and some of them are not half-bad. From the Colonel to local joints, to grocery stores and even Wal-Mart, more often than not if you get fried chicken, it came from someplace else. I have it on authority that many a hostess has carefully arranged fried chicken on a nice napkin in a lovely basket then thrown the bucket in the neighbor’s garbage can. People will drive miles for a famous chicken joint, or pick it up just around the corner. The big iron skillet of chicken bubbling away in hot grease is just a memory for many people, something a grandmother or beloved housekeeper used to do. At the mention of frying chicken now, I hear people groan or sigh – it’s so messy, frying makes the house smell, all that grease all over the range. Yes, grease splatters. Yes, the smell of that grease tends to linger, but homemade, cooked-with-love fried chicken is such a special, special offering that everyone should have the opportunity to dig into a juicy, crispy piece at least once. It may not make you abandon the bought chicken forever, but it will create your own Fried Chicken memory.
I have watched and read and practiced and learned over the years to become a pretty good chicken fryer. I have my not so good batches every once in awhile, but that hasn’t put me off. It’s a fine meal that is always appreciated.
So here are my tips for some chicken fried love.
First, you must marinate the chicken in buttermilk so the meat is moist and tender.
You have to season the chicken well. I use an old method of making a chicken shake – my own seasoning blend that I mix up in batches and sprinkle on the chicken before flouring.
The grease needs to start hot and stay hot. And it should be shortening, maybe with some bacon grease thrown in. The chicken needs to be left alone with the grease to come to an understanding.
For the Chicken Shake:
This makes much more than is needed for one batch of chicken but will store in airtight container. It is also a great seasoning for hamburgers or for any chicken – grilled or oven-fried – that you make.
4 tablespoons sweet paprika
4 tablespoons kosher salt
4 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Measure all the spices into a small bowl and whisk to combine. Store in an airtight jar, preferably one with a shaker top.
For the Chicken:
Feel free to cut up the chicken yourself, though I always get the folks at the store to do it for me. You can fry as many batches of chicken as you want, just clean out any bits from the grease, add more shortening and bring the grease back up to temperature
1 whole cut up fryer chicken, eight pieces of chicken
2 – 3 cups buttermilk
Several shakes of hot sauce
Place the chicken parts in a large ziptop bag (or two). Pour over the buttermilk to cover the chicken completely. Shake in some good hot sauce and lightly shake the bag around to cover all the chicken pieces and distribute the hot sauce. Place the bag on a tray or plate to catch any spills and refrigerate overnight.
A couple of hours before you are ready to fry, take the chicken out of the fridge and place the pieces on a rack over a sheet pan. Sprinkle both sides of the chicken liberally with the chicken shake. Be very generous. Let the chicken sit so it begins to come closer to room temperature. Shortly before frying, scoop a generous amount of flour into a paper sack or a plastic bag. Place each chicken piece in the flour and shake it around to coat it with flour. Get in there with your hands to sprinkle and press flour onto all the crevices and parts of the chicken. Pick up each piece and shake off any loose flour and place back on the rack. Flour all the chicken pieces.
Scoop the shortening into a large, high-sided cast iron skillet set over medium high heat. Allow the shortening to melt and the hot grease to heat to 325 degrees F. Increase the heat under the skillet slightly, then add the chicken pieces. Put the thighs in the middle of the pan and the breasts and the legs around the outside. Fry the chicken until golden brown on the first side, about 12 minutes before you even think about turning it over. Check a few times to make sure the oil is still around 325 degrees F., and adjust the heat accordingly. Flip the chicken – it should be easy to do with no resistance or sticking. If not, leave it another minute or so. Cook on the second side for another 12 minutes without moving. The chicken should be crispy and brown and cooked through – that’s 170 degrees F., internal temperature. Remove the cooked chicken to a clean rack set over a pan to drain. Do not use the same one you had the raw chicken on unless it has been thoroughly cleaned
Serve hot, at room temperature or cold.
Related post on The Runaway Spoon: Buttermilk Pecan Chicken with Herbed Gravy
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