Saturday, August 25, 2012

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

As I write this, I’m sitting at the pool in a lovely beach house in Kiawah Island, South Carolina.  It’s a gorgeous late afternoon and the only sounds I hear are the overhead fan, the crickets and the cawing of the many crows that live on this island.  The pool is sparkling and inviting … but it makes me sad because it’s empty.

For the past twelve days this place has been alive with family and friends and now they’ve all gone home.  It was a ton of work, but a lot of fun and I wish they were all still here.  Even if I did have to fry chicken for them.

Yep, you read that correctly.  I eff-ing fried 70 PIECES OF CHICKEN for my kids and their friends while they were here.   You’d think I had enough of that at Watershed and would welcome a vacation from it, wouldn’t you? 

We have stayed in this house at least half a dozen times before over the last seven or eight years.  It sleeps 12 comfortably, has that lovely pool, is only a short walk or bike ride from the beach and it has a fabulous kitchen.  Let me repeat that:  IT HAS A FABULOUS KITCHEN.  Given my kitchen-deprived state right now, you can guess where I chose to spend most of my time over the last two weeks.  Hence that fried chicken.

Here is the “recipe” if you can call it that.  It is based on Scott Peacock’s version of fried chicken in his book with Edna Lewis, “The Gift of Southern Cooking.”  It’s an adaptation of the method I use at Watershed.  Yes, it’s time-consuming, but you don’t have to be like me and overdo it (although I will say that those thirty-something “kids” managed to put most of those 70 pieces away).  The proportions I’m giving you are what I used, but you can scale it down.  Just keep the same ratio of flour to cornstarch in the dredge.

There are three steps to this process.  Two days before you are ready to fry, you must brine the chicken overnight.  The next day, you must drain it, then soak it in buttermilk overnight.  You will fry it on the third day.

And then the hungry hordes will show up!

FRIED CHICKEN  (in the style of Watershed, Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis)

4 chickens, each cut into 8 pieces

For the brine:
1 gallon water (preferably filtered or spring water)
1 cup salt (I used kosher)

Stir water and salt together until salt is dissolved.  Two days before you want to fry, place the cut-up chicken into a large container and pour the brine over.  Cover and refrigerate until the next day.

For the buttermilk soak:
½ gallon buttermilk

Remove chicken from brine.  Place into a container large enough to hold it and pour buttermilk over.  Toss well to coat each piece then cover and refrigerate overnight.

For the “fry fat:”  (as Chef Joe Truex at Watershed calls it):
1 gallon peanut oil
1 lb. applewood smoked bacon, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 lb. unsalted European butter (such as Plugra)

Place all ingredients in a large stockpot over medium heat.  When butter melts and the mixture is hot (but not boiling), turn heat down as low as possible and let it simmer for 2 to 3 hours, stirring occasionally.  Strain into a large, heatproof container and set aside.  (If not using immediately, refrigerate overnight and bring to room temperature before proceeding).

For the dredge:
2 ½ lbs. all-purpose, unbleached flour (10 cups)
1 cup cornstarch
¼ cup kosher salt (4 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

Place all ingredients in a large tub or bowl.  Whisk to combine well.

To fry the chicken:  (Day Three)
Get the largest sauté pan you have.  Figure out about how many pieces of chicken it will hold without crowding, then set it over medium heat.  Add enough fry fat to come up to about a 1-inch depth and heat it to 325-degrees. 

In the meantime, dip only enough chicken pieces that the pan will hold into the dredge.  Toss them well to coat, then remove them one-by-one to a rack placed over a baking sheet, slapping each one well with your hands to remove excess dredge (as Chef Scott and Chef Joe like to say, you only want a “rumor” of flour on each one).  Less is more here, believe it or not.

When fry fat reaches the desired temperature, gently slip the chicken pieces skin side down into the hot fat.  They should be bubbling, but not too much.  You are looking for just a gentle bubble, so you know it is cooking, but not too fast.

After about 10 minutes, start checking to see if the pieces are golden on the bottom side.  If so, use tongs and a spatula to gently turn them to brown the other side.  If not, let them go until they release from the pan and are golden.  Once turned, each piece should take another 5 to 10 minutes.  Don’t crowd them and don’t rush them.

As chicken pieces are done, use tongs to remove them to a rack set over a baking sheet.  When all pieces have been removed, you must drain the fat from the pan into a strainer set over a heatproof bowl, then wipe out the pan so that no browned or burned bits remain (sometimes it helps if you use a little hot water, then scrape up any bits and wipe the pan well with a dish towel). 

Return pan to the heat, pour the strained fry fat back in, bring it back to temperature and then proceed with your next batch of chicken.  Repeat this process until all pieces are fried.  (If you are crazy like me and are doing a ridiculous number of pieces, then you should use new fry fat after about the third batch or so).

Yield:  32 pieces

At the restaurant, we make our fry fat with a combination of lard, smoked pork shoulder (or country ham) and Plugra.  That's great if you want to render your own lard (don't even think about using that boxed hydrogenated stuff you find on the grocery store shelves), but if not, peanut oil works just fine.  I have also found that applewood smoked bacon is a good substitute for the pork shoulder or country ham.

When it comes to the oil temperature, I don't use a thermometer.  I just sprinkle a little of the dredge mixture into the pan when I think it's hot enough.  If it produces a few bubbles, then your pan is ready for the chicken.

Here's the biggest tip:  you don't have to fry your chicken at the last minute so you can make sure it is hot and crisp.  Just keep it on that rack until you are ready for it, then transfer it to a baking sheet and slip it into a 425-degree oven for about 10 minutes.  It will emerge hot and crispy and no one will ever know that you did not fry it up for them at the very last minute.

So now you know that this is truly a labor of love.  Some would debate whether or not it is worth the work.  It is to me, when I hear the compliments from our guests at Watershed or, more importantly, when my kids and their friends heap on the praises and scarf down enormous quantities of it.  But here’s my dirty little secret … I would never fry this stuff in my own kitchen.

Thank you, beach house!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Watershed on Peachtree: A Relic Returns to the Kitchen

Those of you (wonderful) people who follow this blog may remember that I worked at Watershed here in Atlanta for 5 years, doing everything from baking to working the line on the sauté station to frying the chicken that was only offered on Tuesday nights and was a sell-out by 7pm.  It was the pre-cursor to my stint at Star Provisions and it served me well in learning how to navigate around a professional kitchen.

That was few (thousand) years ago.  Fast forward to 2012 and Watershed has morphed from a cult-like, low-key restaurant in sleepy Decatur to an energized, celebrity-studded, cutting edge, you-want-to-try-everything-on-the-menu new hotspot in SoBuck (south of Buckhead).  It kept its roots but it has also propelled itself into a new era, under the helm of Executive Chef Joe Truex and Chef de Cuisine Julia LeRoy.  It’s the old Watershed to the tenth power.

Except that they still do the fried chicken.  Once a week, now on Wednesdays.  

When the new Watershed on Peachtree opened in late May, we were honored to be guests at the “friends and family” trial run.  Fried chicken was on the menu that night.  I tasted it and my immediate reaction was “this ain’t right.”  I said as much to my dear friend Ross (one of the owners) and followed it up with “you need to let me fry the chicken for you.”  Clearly, I had imbibed too much wine.

Liz, be careful of what you ask for because you just might get it.  Ross texted me the next Tuesday, one day before the first “Fried Chicken Night” and asked if I would come in to make it happen.  

So I am now the Chicken Bitch at Watershed on Peachtree.  I get there by 9:00 every Wednesday, start frying by 9:30 and it takes me until 7pm or so to finish the job.  This is no ordinary fried chicken, people!
It gets brined on Monday, then soaked in buttermilk on Tuesday.  I pan fry it on Wednesday (no deep fryers here; every piece is lovingly attended to by me) in a lovely “fry fat” mixture of lard, country ham and European butter.  I fry it in a steam kettle (or tilt skillet, as I call it) and I can do about 25 pieces per batch.

Yesterday I fried 140 orders, which translates into 560 pieces of chicken.  It also translates into 9+ hours of standing there with no food, no pee break  and no nuthin’ other than frying those damn birds.  Ridiculous, but I love it.  Each week I tweak it just a little bit more and it's become my personal challenge to see how many perfect pieces I can produce.  Oy veh, Liz!

Take a look at the new Watershed on Fried Chicken Night.  Yep, that's me in the third slide!

When I finally stagger out to my car, I can barely stand myself.  I stink.  (Of course, I will never need a facial again).  The first thing I do when I get home is strip off those clothes and hop in the shower.  EXCEPT for the time I managed to lock my closet door when I left in the morning and came home to the sad realization that I didn’t have a key to open it.  One locksmith, $200 and 2 hours later, I had access to my clothes and could finally get into the shower.  I think it was probably the best shower I ever took.

I will give you the recipe for the fried chicken in a later post.  For now, we are going to wallow in the “old Watershed” and revel in two recipes of years past.  They may not be a part of Watershed as we know it today, but they are part of its history.  As am I.  Except that they couldn't get rid of me!

BLUEBERRY BUCKLE (from Watershed)

For the berries:
3 pints fresh blueberries, washed, drained and picked over
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon flour (I used White Lily)

For the topping:
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs, at room temperature (I used extra-large)
3 cups White Lily flour
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 ½ teaspoons cream of tartar
¾ teaspoon baking soda
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325-degrees.  Butter and flour a 13x9x2-inch baking pan or dish.  Layer berries in the pan and sprinkle with the ¼ cup of sugar, ½ teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon of flour.  Set aside.

In electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together on high speed until light and fluffy, scraping down bowl several times.  Reduce mixer speed to medium-low and add eggs, one at a time.

Sift together the White Lily flour, salt, cream of tartar and baking soda.  Combine the milk and vanilla extract.  With mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients in thirds, alternating with milk until just combined.  Do not overbeat.  Spread topping over berries.

Bake for 1 ¼ or 1 ½ hours until cake tests done.

Serves 12 - 16

*  White Lily flour is made from soft winter wheat and we Southerners like it a lot for our baked goods as it produces a lovely and tender crumb.  If you can't find it, no worries.  You can use all-purpose flour and your buckle will still be delicious.

*  You can gild the lily (no pun intended) and serve your buckle with whipped cream, a splash of heavy cream or even ice cream, but I prefer it unadorned, served warm straight from the pan.


4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons salt (I used kosher)
1 lb. unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup light brown sugar (firmly packed)
¾ cup dark brown sugar (firmly packed)
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
4 eggs (I used extra-large)
1 ½ tablespoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups chopped pecans
2 ½ cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
4 cups milk chocolate chips

Place flour, baking soda and salt into w mixing bowl.  Whisk together and set aside.

Place butter into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.  Beat until creamy, 2 – 3 minutes.  Add brown and granulated sugars and continue to mix on medium-high speed for 5 minutes, scraping down bowl several times, until light and fluffy.  Reduce mixer speed to low and add eggs, one at a time.  Beat in the vanilla extract.  Add flour in three parts, mixing only until just incorporated.  Do not overbeat.

Remove bowl from mixer stand and stir in pecans and chocolate chips.  Wrap dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate before using.

To bake:
Preheat oven to 350-degrees.  Use an ice cream scoop to scoop out even portions of cookie dough.  Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, at least 1 ½-inches apart.  Place tray on middle rack in oven and bake for approximately 15 minutes, rotating pan once.  Cool slightly the transfer to wire rack to cool completely.

Yield:  9 ½ dozen cookies (if using a 1 ½-inch scoop)

Don't you just love the teeny-tiny stove in my temporary kitchen?

*  This makes a lot of cookies, so feel free to halve the recipe.  Or do what I do, which is to scoop out the dough, roll into balls, place on a cookie sheet and freeze.  When frozen, store in plastic bags and keep in your freezer.  When you need a warm chocolate chip cookie fix, just bake up however many you like.  This is not necessarily a good thing if you want to be a skinny cook, but it does mean you will always be prepared  when friends (or kids) are around.

Speaking of kids, mine will be around this weekend, Andy with his fiancee and Eric with his girlfriend.  Can you guess where we are taking them to dinner on Saturday night???