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Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009 12:24 pm

Smokin’ fried chicken

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“As American as apple pie.” How often is that saying heard? The problem is, apple pie isn’t really all that American — or at least not exclusively American. Apple pie in various traditional forms can be found throughout Europe from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, from Ireland to Eastern Europe; South Africa to South America to Australia and New Zealand.

A more accurate saying would be, “as American as fried chicken.” Admittedly, that doesn’t have the same ring. But as far as I know, only Austria has a preparation similar to American fried chicken — Wiener backhendl, usually eaten in spring. The preparation is similar to Wienerschnitzel: the chicken pieces are dredged sequentially in flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs before being fried.

Fried chicken was a spring/early summer specialty in America, too, before freezing made long-term preservation of uncooked chickens possible. Chickens hatched in spring, and it was only then that they were tender enough to be suitable for frying. As the year progressed, the birds would toughen and be roasted, boiled, or stewed. My grandfather used to reminisce that their rich city relatives somehow always showed up, uninvited, at their farm on the first spring Sunday that his mother made fried chicken, ensuring he and his eight brothers and sisters would only get necks and backs.

Even when suitable chickens became available year-round, fried chicken was a big deal. For home cooks, frying anything made enough mess that it wasn’t usually an everyday method of preparation. Folks would drive long distances to restaurants that specialized in fried chicken, such as the White Fence Farm outside Chicago. Growing up, fried chicken at my home was either for Sunday dinner or special occasions, still mostly in spring and early summer. We had a yearly Fourth of July party for around 100 people. It was a potluck — except my mom and grandmother made enough fried chicken for everyone. They’d begin frying at dawn, and usually were just finishing as guests began arriving.

For reasons I’ve never quite understood, fried chicken was the bring-along choice whenever my family went on extended road trips. No simple mess-free sandwiches for us, no sir. It was always fried chicken and deviled eggs. We rarely got past Litchfield before somebody started opening the Tupperware.

These days, fast food franchises such as KFC have made fried chicken cheap and easy — it certainly isn’t special, nor much of a treat; and regularly eating much of any fried food isn’t healthy. Maybe it’s time to restore fried chicken to its rightful place of honor. Use free-range chickens. They have incredible flavor (even the breasts!) and aren’t laden with drugs and artificial hormones. They’re available at the Farmer’s Market from May to October and at Food Fantasies year-round. Use a good quality oil (I use a combination of canola oil and unhydrogenated lard — see the RealCuisine 10/23/08 column for more about unhydrogenated lard and where to find it). Season it well, keep the breading simple and rediscover how special fried chicken can be. To really “guild the lily,” try the smoked variation on the next page — it’s worth crowing about!


Having said that fried chicken is a spring/summer specialty, why am I writing about it in freezing February? Because it’s best to make this variation in cold weather. The chicken is smoked lightly before being fried, giving it fantastic flavor without masking the chicken taste. It needs to be done in cool/cold weather for safety, because the chicken is cold-smoked — smoked without being cooked. It does require extra time and effort, but this fried chicken definitely is in the special occasion category.

SMOKED FRIED CHICKEN

3½-5 lb. chicken pieces, either a whole chicken cut up, all one part (such as wings),
or a combination.
3 C. buttermilk
3 T. kosher salt*
1 large onion, sliced thinly or chopped — NOT super-sweet
AND/OR
1 T. minced garlic
¼c. minced fresh sage, rosemary, marjoram, or thyme — singly or in combination, optional
2 C. unbleached all-purpose flour
Freshly ground black pepper to taste ( I use 1 T.)
oil for deep frying

Wood for smoking: hickory, apple, cherry, grapevine, corncobs, etc.

Put the buttermilk, salt, onion or garlic and herbs (if using) into a large resealable plastic bag. Seal the bag and squish/shake to combine the ingredients and completely dissolve the salt. Add the chicken pieces, squish out as much air as possible, seal the bag and refrigerate the chicken for 4 hours or up to 24 hours, turning occasionally. Twenty minutes before you plan to smoke the chicken, light a very small amount of charcoal (2-4 c.). When the charcoal is mostly covered with white ash, put in the bottom of a bullet smoker or the side chamber of an offset smoker. Alternatively, light the gas on one side of a two-burner gas grill to the lowest possible setting.

Fill the drip pan of the bullet smoker with ice cubes or alternatively have filled the pan with water the day before and frozen it. If using an offset smoker, fill disposable loaf or cake pans with ice cubes or fill with water and freeze as above and place under the rack on the side of the smoker farthest from the side chamber. (If the weather is very cold, you may not need to do this.)

Do not bring the chicken to room temperature before smoking. It should be kept in the refrigerator until just before smoking. The goal is to smoke the chicken without cooking it. Remove the chicken from the bag and let excess liquid drip off, reserving the buttermilk marinade. Place the chicken on a rack above the ice. Place a handful of smoking wood on the charcoal or flames, either green twigs or dry chips that have been briefly soaked, then drained well. Smoke will emerge from the vents and sides of the smoker/grill. Whenever the smoke quits, put another handful of wood on the charcoal/flames. Smoke for about an hour.

Place the flour and pepper in a large paper bag, fold over the top and shake to combine. In a large deep pan or skillet, add the oil to a depth of 1½"-2". Make sure the pan is at least twice as deep as the oil. Heat to 375º. Remove the chicken from the smoker and return it to the bag with the buttermilk mixture. Seal the bag, toss to coat the chicken pieces, then remove and allow excess liquid to drip off. Put the pieces in the paper bag with the flour mixture a few at a time. Close the bag and shake to coat the chicken. Tap the chicken pieces against the inside of the bag to shake off excess flour and lower them carefully into the hot oil.

Put as many pieces of the chicken into the pan as will fit comfortably; do not crowd the pan. It’s a good idea to put the white meat pieces in one batch (wings and breasts) and the dark meat (legs and thighs) in another, because the cooking times are similar. Fry the chicken, turning as needed, until the crust is a dark golden brown and the juices run clear when pierced with the tip of a knife. White meat will take about 10-15 minutes; dark meat about 15-20 minutes. Drain on paper towels.

*Kosher salt is cleaner and less harsh-tasting than regular table salt because of the way it’s processed and because it doesn’t contain any anti-caking ingredients. It’s essential to use in brining and brining marinades, such as the buttermilk mixture above, and can be found in most grocery stores.

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