Family members often like to point out one another's shortcomings. Recently, mine lamented the lack of fried chicken in their lives. Mind you, we love fried chicken -- of all kinds. We even happily eat fried chicken that is just passable or from a local chain. But its appearance on our dinner table proves rare. Mostly for health reasons, partly because the cook abhors the lingering aromas.
The popularity of fried chicken restaurants fueled their reproach and subsequent plea: Let's work on our own version. Preferably with do-ahead steps for practicality. Preferably spicy and reminiscent of the hot chicken served at Prince's in Nashville that burned into our memories on the first bite.
You may ask yourself, why make fried chicken at home? First, it's so yummy. Second, you can control the quality of the chicken and the frying oil. I really like the kosher chicken sold at Trader Joe's for its flavor and modestly sized pieces (from small chickens). Organic chicken, sold at Whole Foods and many supermarkets, makes me feel good about what I'm serving. Heck, you can even take the skin off if you wish for a more healthful approach.
As for the cooking aromas, read oil labels, and select those designated for high-heat cooking. Safflower oil fries beautifully and doesn't fill the house with off-aromas. Sunflower oil, peanut oil, rice bran oil and expeller-pressed canola oil work too. Do not use ordinary canola oil -- it doesn't hold up to high temperatures, so it smells nasty. Trust me.
My gram didn't use a thermometer to monitor the oil for her frying, but then again she was an instinctive cook. I need more guidance and the discipline to pay attention to the heat that the device enforces. A deep-fry thermometer is a small investment; look for them in cookware stores or online. Your chicken will be better.
Properly heated oil yields a bonus: Chicken fries fast. It takes about 10 minutes for average-size pieces. Homemade fried chicken reheats beautifully too. We make it an hour or two before serving, then pop it into a hot oven. Makes for a relaxed cook and a clean kitchen. Don't forget how fantastic leftover, cold fried chicken tastes; this spicy version is especially satisfying.
To make our spicy version, we dry-brined the chicken pieces with a flavorful salt mixture. The same salt mix gets used to season the buttermilk for coating and the flour for dredging. I triple dip (first flour, then buttermilk, then flour again) to create a crisp, nearly crackly crust.
Most recipes for the Nashville-style hot chicken have the cook season some of the frying oil with hot chili and then baste it over the fried chicken. I prefer to make a tangy hot dipping sauce from light agave syrup, a little fresh oil and plenty of hot chili. This dipping sauce also tastes great on the biscuits.
I serve fried chicken with sliced pickles and a tangy slaw made from shredded broccoli tossed with poppy seed dressing, roasted sunflower seeds and dried cranberries.
Homemade biscuits, seasoned with sweet potato and smoked cheddar are not as hard to make as you'd think. And they are worth the time. Especially if you serve them with soft, sorghum butter.
P.S. Just to let you know the power of fried chicken, the night after I made a double batch of this recipe (and ate my share), I found myself in a Houston restaurant that serves platters of stunning, golden battered chicken. Yes, I was all in.
SPICY HOT FRIED CHICKEN WITH SWEET AND TANGY RED CHILI GLAZE
Prep: 40 minutes
Brine: 1 to 2 hours
Cook: 10 minutes per batch
Makes: 6 servings
Leftover salt-spice mixture will keep in a covered container for several weeks; it is great rubbed into chicken or pork chops before roasting or grilling. Bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts can stand in for the chicken legs; increase cooking time to about 12 minutes; use caution not to overcook. To reheat the chicken, put it on a wire rack set over a baking sheet; bake in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes. Rewarm the glaze before drizzling it over the chicken. Want a spicier result closer to Nashville's hot chicken? Double the amount of salt-spice mix when coating the chicken pieces.
2 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon each: chili powder, ground sage
½ teaspoon each: black pepper, cayenne
6 whole chicken legs, separated into thighs and drums (about 3 1/4 pounds total)
1 ½ cups flour
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 to 2 tablespoons hot red pepper sauce, preferably Crystal or Louisiana
About 1 quart (32 ounces) oil for high heat cooking, such as safflower, sunflower, peanut or rice bran oil
Sweet and tangy red chili glaze and dipping sauce, see recipe
1. Mix salt, garlic powder, chili powder, sage, pepper and cayenne in a small bowl.
2. Rinse chicken and pat dry. Place in a single layer in a baking dish. Use about 1/3 of the salt-spice mixture to rub into all the chicken pieces. Let the chicken dry brine in the refrigerator (uncovered) for an hour or two.
3. Season the flour with 1 ½ teaspoons of the remaining salt-spice mixture in a shallow dish. In another shallow bowl, mix buttermilk, egg, 1 teaspoon of the remaining salt-spice mixture and hot sauce to taste.
4. Working with one piece at a time, dip chicken into flour mixture to coat well. Shake off excess. Dip into buttermilk to coat; let excess drain back into bowl. Dip chicken again into the flour mixture to coat on all sides; shake off excess. Place coated chicken on a rack set over a tray and refrigerate uncovered up to several hours. Let chicken stand at room temperature while you heat the oil or up to 1 hour if it's not too hot in the kitchen.
5. About 30 minutes before serving, heat oven to 200 degrees. Have a baking sheet topped with a wire cooling rack ready.
6. Pour oil to a depth of ½ inch into a 10-inch deep, wide cast-iron skillet or heavy-bottomed pot. Position a deep-fry thermometer into the pot so the tip is immersed. (Do not let the tip of the thermometer rest on the bottom of the pan). Heat oil over medium to medium-high heat (you'll need to adjust the heat as you work) until the thermometer registers 325 degrees. (Lacking a thermometer, test the oil by slipping an edge of the chicken into the oil -- it should bubble vigorously; do not let oil heat to the point of smoking.)
7. To fry, gently slip a couple of pieces of chicken into the oil; do not crowd the pan. Cook, turning gently with tongs after 5 minutes, until chicken is deep-golden and meat feels firm when pressed (165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer), usually 10 minutes total. Transfer to the rack; place in the oven while you fry the rest of the chicken.
8. To serve, arrange chicken on a heated platter. Drizzle generously with the glaze. Serve hot with extra glaze for dipping.
Note: After frying, let the oil cool, then strain it through a fine wire mesh sieve into a glass container. Refrigerate covered up to 2 weeks and use for other frying, browning or sauteing purposes.
Nutrition information per serving: 642 calories, 48 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 189 mg cholesterol, 18 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 33 g protein, 1,603 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
SWEET AND TANGY RED CHILE GLAZE DIPPING SAUCE
Prep: 5 minutes
Cook: 2 minutes
Makes: about 1 ½ cups
Store this sauce in the refrigerator up to 2 weeks. Use warm to glaze fried chicken, dunk biscuits or oven roasted Brussels sprouts or sweet potatoes. No agave? Make a simple syrup by boiling 1 cup sugar with 1 cup water until the sugar is completely dissolved. Cool.
1 cup light agave syrup
1/3 cup vegetable oil, such as safflower or sunflower oil
1/4 cup hot red pepper sauce (preferably Crystal or Louisiana)
1 to 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
½ teaspoon salt
Mix everything in a small saucepan. Heat over medium until warm and salt has dissolved. Serve warm.
Nutrition information per tablespoon: 70 calories, 3 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 9 g sugar, 0 g protein, 111 mg sodium, 0 g fiber
SMOKED CHEDDAR AND SWEET POTATO BISCUITS
Prep: 25 minutes
Cook: 15 minutes
Makes: about 18 biscuits
You can use canned pumpkin puree if desired. Or pierce a large sweet potato in several places with a fork. Microwave on high until potato is fork-tender, about 6 minutes. Cool, then peel, mash and measure out 1 cup.
About half of a 15-ounce can sweet potatoes, drained, mashed to yield 1 cup puree
3/4 cup buttermilk
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour (or more all-purpose flour)
2 tablespoons coconut sugar (or granulated sugar)
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon each: baking soda, salt
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, very cold
1 ½ cups (about 4 ounces) shredded smoked sharp cheddar cheese
Sorghum butter, see recipe
1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Put the sweet potato puree into a small bowl; stir in buttermilk until smooth.
3. Put flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Process to mix. Dice cold butter and sprinkle over flour mixture. Use on/off turns to cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the sweet potato mixture and cheese. Pulse once or twice, just until a soft dough forms.
4. Scrape the dough out onto a floured work surface. Use floured hands to gently pat it into a 3/4-inch-thick round. Using a floured 2-inch round biscuit cutter, cut out 12 biscuits. Place on prepared baking sheets. Gently press the scraps together and press out 6 more biscuits. Bake until tops are golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm with sorghum butter.
Note: To make without a food processor, put flour mixture into a large bowl. Use two knives or a pastry blender to cut the cubed butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the sweet potato mixture and cheese and gather into a dough by stirring with a spoon. Do not over mix.
Sorghum butter: Blend 1 stick butter, softened, with 2 to 3 tablespoons sorghum or honey until smooth. Taste and blend in a little coarse salt as desired. Use at room temperature.
Nutrition information per biscuit: 201 calories, 13 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 34 mg cholesterol, 18 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 4 g protein, 241 mg sodium, 1 g fiber