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Chefs find fried chicken has legs

Chefs find fried chicken has legs

Once every three months at Chicago’s West Town Tavern, chef-owner Susan Goss used to make fried chicken for family meal. Everyone loved it, but it was a hassle.

“I’m a fried-chicken snob,” Goss says, and she didn’t want to veer from the heavy-lidded iron skillet of her childhood, which she says seems to act “almost like a pressure cooker,” and also a steamer, making for moist, crispy chicken.

“It took all day to prepare and 45 minutes to cook,” she says, “so I didn’t know how to put it on the menu.”

She figured it out, though, and offers it as a special once a week.

“We do it only on Monday nights, and it has increased our business exponentially,” she says.

What once was one of the slowest nights is now one of the busiest, and Goss says half of the Monday night guests order fried chicken.

She serves half of a chicken from a farm in Indiana Amish country with her great-grandmother’s buttermilk biscuit, mushroom gravy, mashed potatoes and braised greens, for $16.95.

“If I’d known this was going to be this successful, I’d have done this years ago,” Goss says.

Even as fried-chicken giant KFC has seen success with its new line of grilled chicken, independent restaurants are looking to the high-calorie, low-cost, much-loved fried variety to attract guests.

Goss’ method is to par-fry the chicken and then finish it in the oven.

“That duplicates the iron skillet method best,” she says.

Like many chefs, and generations of Southern home cooks, she also marinates the chicken in buttermilk. She says her marinade is almost a brine, as she adds a good amount of salt to it, “which helps to keep it moist,” she says.

She adds house-made hot sauce to the buttermilk for flavor and West Town Tavern barbecue spice mix to the breading, which is a combination of flour and cornmeal.

Then she par-fries the chicken in oil at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, just to set the crust—about eight minutes for the breast and 10 minutes for the thighs.

Then at service she heats them on the rack of a 500-degree oven for 20 minutes.

“That keeps it moist and steamy and delicious,” she says. “The crust is crisp, but not as hard as if it were fried all the way through.”

She says the addition of hot sauce and spice mix is not intended to make the food spicy, but just to add complexity of flavor.

“We don’t do spicy chicken,” she says. “I think fried chicken should taste like fried chicken.”

But chefs are adapting fried chicken to their own tastes and cooking styles. Indian-born chef Suvir Saran does intend his chicken to be spicy. In his salty buttermilk brine—a quarter cup of kosher salt to three cups of buttermilk—he adds “a plethora of spices” and seasonings, including coriander seed, black pepper, dried ginger, paprika, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, cumin, green cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, mace, laurel and dried rosebuds. He brines the chicken for 24 to 48 hours.

Then he adds similar spices to the flour that he coats the chicken in before frying it in an iron skillet at his restaurant American Masala, in Jersey City, N.J.

He says most of the spices’ flavor comes from the brining process, but that the spices in the flour also come through as long as he doesn’t toast the spices before using them.

Many chefs are under the impression that spices must always be toasted before being used, he says, but it really depends on the situation. For frying, you want untoasted spices, he says. That way, “when the spices touch the heat, the essential flavors come out for the first time.”

At his fine-dining New York City restaurant, Devi, Saran serves fried quail and Cornish game hen using the same method.

In early summer at the 103-year-old Occidental restaurant in Washington, D.C., chef Rodney Scruggs introduced a “duo of poussin”: a grilled breast with a fried leg.

“The thought was to combine good and evil,” Scruggs says—serving a boneless grilled breast with buttermilk-soaked fried dark meat that is reminiscent of the common duck preparation of a grilled breast and confit legs.

“We’ve had poussin on the menu a couple other times during my tenure, and it just didn’t seem to do so well,” Scruggs says.

Not so for this item, which sells for $28 and will stay on the menu for the fall. He flavors his buttermilk with garlic, thyme and rosemary and puts some cayenne pepper and fennel in the flour.

Scruggs removes the upper thighbone but leaves in the lower leg bone, allowing guests the choice of picking it up in the traditional style or eating it with a knife and fork.

With the boned thigh and boneless grilled breast, Scruggs says, the dish is “kind of a quick pick-up item,” so it can all be cooked à la minute in about eight minutes.

He serves it with a sauce made from the roasted poussin bones, which he makes into a stock and then reduces, adding chamomile tea bags about three-quarters of the way through. Then he adds some veal demi-glace and finishes the dish with candied orange peel and fresh sour cherries from Iran.

Typically, fried chicken is served with mashed potatoes and cole slaw and the like, but it doesn’t have to be that way. This summer at The Redhead in New York City chef Meg Grace’s $17 fried chicken came with a salad of spinach and frisée, sliced red onion, spiced candied almond, strawberries, white balsamic vinaigrette and an herb mix of chive, parsley, thyme and tarragon.

“My mom used to make it when I was a kid,” Grace says. “Fried chicken is really heavy. It’s a lot of food, and I wanted to put something a little lighter with it.”

For the fall, the strawberries and pecans will be replaced with julienne apple and candied pecans, and the dressing will be a creamy apple cider vinaigrette made with crème fraîche, apple cider reduction, cider vinegar, lemon, salt and pepper.

Fried chicken has even made it onto the menu on gluten-free nights at Ina’s in Chicago.

On the second Wednesday of every month, chef-owner Ina Pinkney and her staff scrub out the deep-fryer four times to remove any traces of wheat and make gluten-free chicken in a breading of brown-rice flour, white-rice flour, tapioca and potato starch.

The recipe was developed using trial and error after Pinkney read the ingredient lists of every gluten-free item she could find. She doesn’t use buttermilk for this chicken because she has found that many people who are gluten-intolerant don’t do well with lactose either. She cooks the chicken at 275 degrees.

“For you and I, its got a different taste altogether,” from regular fried chicken, she says, but for her customers who don’t eat gluten, it provides a crunch they haven’t enjoyed in a long time.

Pinkney serves half a chicken, with the gluten-free breading, mashed potatoes and cole slaw, for $17.99, the same price she charges for her regular fried chicken that is a regular signature item.

She limits her gluten-free meals to once a month so that they are a special event, and she says it has worked.

“On a rainy Wednesday night in July, we had 112 people here,” she says.

Even Boston fine-dining temple Clio has gotten in on the fried-chicken action with its new $35 Sunday suppers. Chef Andrés Julian-Grundy plans on making the chicken slightly different each week. He’s still working out the details, but he’s thinking of making the batter into a foam by squirting it out of a nitrous oxide canister.

“I think that will help make it crispy and crunchy,” he says.— [email protected]

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