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!

1 comment:

  1. Wow! That really is a labor of love! I think I'll let experts like you keep cooking the fried chicken.