For years, fried chicken- and Southern cuisine in general, for that matter- didn’t get much respect from serious gastronomes. If you grew up with it, the reasoning seemed to go, it couldn’t be worth much attention. Happily, however, one of the side effects of the new American cuisine has been reborn respect for the old American cuisine.
Local proof positive that down-home food has gone uptown is the presence of fried chicken on the menus of Baby Routh (Routh Street Cafe’s hip younger sibling). Cafe Margaux, and The Mansion on Turtle Creek. At Baby Routh, Stephan Pyles’s version is honey-fried, with a mint-thyme cream sauce and whipped sweet potatoes and baby buttermilk biscuits on the side. Cafe Margaux’s Surinder Ratra whomps up his bird with Cajun seasoning. At the Mansion, Dean Fearing does up fried chicken with a maple-pecan crust, and serves garlicky mashed potatoes on the side.
All three versions are candidates for the fried-chicken hall of feme, but for picnicking purposes, a more basic version will suffice. Although there are as many versions of fried chicken as there are Southerners, I am an adherent of novelist Laurie Col-win’s recipe, as offered in Gourmet. Col win’s chicken is as delicious as are her novels (most recently. Another Marvelous Thing), and that is strong praise indeed. (I would suggest packing some Colwin along with the fried chicken in the picnic hamper.)
Colwin says: “As everyone knows, there is only one way to fry chicken correctly. Unfortunately, most people think their method is best, but most people are wrong. Mine is the only right way, and on this subject I feel almost evangelical.”
Her five general principles of perfect fried chicken are: it should be served warm, neither straight from the fryer nor refrigerated. It should not be deep-fried. It cannot be merely shaken in a bag with flour. It must be made in a chicken fryer. Flour-not egg, crumbs, or crushed Rice Crispies-is used to bread it.
LAURIE COLWIN’S FRIED CHICKEN
2 3-pound chickens, each cut into 12 pieces (2 thighs, 2 legs, 2wings, 4 breast pieces, 2 backs)
1 cup milk
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sweet paprika
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
4 cups Wesson oil
1 cup light sesame oil (not Oriental, available at natural foods stores)
In a large, shallow dish sprinkle the chicken with the milk and let stand fifteen minutes. In a large bowl combine well the flour, paprika, salt, and pepper and dredge chicken thoroughly in the mixture, patting the mixture onto each piece. Let chicken stand in the mixture, redredging chicken frequently, patting more of the flour mixture onto it until every inch of chicken has a nice thick cover, for twenty minutes.
In a 12-inch heavy skillet, 2 inches deep, heat Wesson oil and sesame oil to 375° F (or until a piece of bread on a skewer fries as soon as you dip it in). Add as many pieces of chicken as will fit in one layer, crowding them, reduce heat to moderately low, and cook chicken, covered, turning the pieces once, for four to six minutes per side (although thigh meat seems to take a little longer), or until a sharp fork comes out easily. Cook chicken, uncovered, over high heat for 3 to 5 minutes more, or until it is a dark, honey color, transfer it to paper towels, and let drain. Cook remaining chicken in the same manner.