Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"Chicken Ain't Nuthin' but a Bird!"

"It was a dish for old Caesar,
Also King Henry the Third,
But Columbus was smart, said "You can't fool me,
A chicken ain't nothin' but a bird!"
~Cab Calloway, 1940

Don't you just love enthusiastic people?  Somebody at work, a neighbor or friend at church who carries that gift of a ready smile and a positive outlook are gems that we hold dear.  They can brighten our days and elevate our occasional down moods. 
We look forward to seeing them.

Passionate people aren't only a subset of this same group, but more specifically, form an elite corps of radically focused true believers that can zero-in on a topic, jump up on a soapbox and preach with the fervor and conviction of a Penticostal minister.  All with a smile on their lips and love in their hearts.
My friend Janice is one of these gifted individuals, especially when it comes to her beloved Southern food and Carolina roots.

Last week, I found myself at our workplace information hub: the front desk.  We were scanning invoices, checking mailboxes and engaging in idle banter with other staff, when our exercise coordinator rounds the corner in full stride;  matching Addidas warm-ups flying.
Janice throws a quick high five at me, then, stops long enough to ask how the weekend went with 'momma' out of town.  'Shugh' and I talk food all the time, but, Mondays usually start with a weekend, culinary adventure.
She parked her wheely cart with fitness gear and licked her lips, ready to preach. Her eyes were wide, hands were out front with palms down, barely keeping a lid on the story about to erupt.  She began her sermon on a fried chicken and waffle brunch at the Screen Door restaurant with a sacred enthusiasm usually reserved to iPad devotees at an Apple store opening.

 "...the collards were tinder with a little bit uh bakin, the biskeets were perfect cat hayds," her breathing quickening to a pant, "an man, that graivee, ah tell ya wut, you could pore that on a dead cat an ahd tare it UP!"
When she got to the chicken, well, I thought a spirit was about to abandon her body.  'Shugh' wiped her mouth with one hand and paused,

"Nugget, this chicken was...," she raised her hands to either measure a bass or call upon the Lord,
"...thuh most a-mazin' frahd chickin' ahve had in this town.  It was hot an crispy on thuh outsahd, an steamy-juicy on thuh insahd.  An peppery, too...," her voiced trailed off into that delicious memory and her body seemed to go limp from the recollection. 

Fifteen years in Portland have not diminished her North Carolina accent one little, bitty, syllable and given her passion for the topic, actually enhanced her drawl the way I imagine Bourbon would...

"B-dazzle, ya'll GOT-ta go if you like real fried chicken.  Yore boys are gonna dig it," she concluded, pointing at my chest, then, snapping the handle up on her carry-on luggage kit.

My boys and I followed Janice's empassioned plea and found that she actually had not oversold the experience.  That weekend we were seated outside at the Screen Door Restaurant after waiting 45 minutes for a table. We could smell the fried chicken about half a block away and the four of us became giddy; poking and prodding each other like kids going to the fair. 

We ordered chicken all around and sipped drinks, craning our necks to see the heaping platters of Southern Goodness coming out of the kitchen.
Finally, it was our turn.

We examined our meals and just stared, slack-jawed, at the simple home-cooked beauty.  The waitress was saying something and we just kind of mumbled a reply in unison.  The aromas were etherial, yet, comforting.  It was the longest 7 seconds of the night. 

A blessing was said.

"Ow-ow-owww, hot-hot-hot," cried Liam tearing away a piece of crispy skin and meat.
"Bacon in the collards, Hell Yes!," exclaimed Patrick.
"Whoa, check this out, it's like an aquifer of juice," Brendan informed us, displaying a golden half-breast.

Our evening was an expression of the food: we ended up talking to tables next to us, they displayed and described their desserts.  Not suprisingly, each person had a tally of their visits to this fine purveyor of Southern victuals. 
"This is our 7th time.  You HAVE to come back for the brunch," said the two-top next to us,
"The fried chicken is skewered and presented on a waffle!"

We talked, laughed, gawked, met folks and shared stories. 
Ain't that what good cookin's supposed to do?!

Janice, JJ, Shugh, whatever you want to call her, is a distinguished ambassador of home cooking and an inspiring preacher of the gospel of Fried Chicken.   It may be just a bird, Mr. Calloway, but, this flightless fowl can soar given the right breading.

Amen, Sistah Janice!

Crispy Southern Fried Chicken

1 whole      chicken, cut into pieces (whatever pieces you like)
2 cups        buttermilk
2 cups        flour
2 Tbl          salt, kosher
1 tsp          pepper, ground
1 qt.          canola oil

Place chicken pieces in a bowl and sprinkle with salt one at a time.  Pour buttermilk in and mix by hand till all pieces are soaked.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, pour oil into deep sided cast iron pot/skillet and heat to 300 degrees on the stove top.  Buy a high temp thermometer if you don't have one.  It takes out the guess work.  Remove chicken pieces from the buttermilk, one at a time, and dredge in the flour giving them a good coat.  Once four pieces are ready and the oil is hot, gently slide one piece at a time into the oil.  I suggest using tongs for safety.  When desired color is reached, turn each piece over gently.  This should take 20-25 minutes for each batch.  When done, remove to a cookie rack in a pre-heated oven (200 degrees) to keep warm.  Internal temp of the meat should be 160 degrees or higher. 
Don't poke the chicken as it is cooking, the breading will fall off.  Keep an eye on the oil temp; cast iron retains heat very well and you will probably adjust your flame down as the process unfolds. 

Make a salad with your garden greens, have plenty of paper towels on hand and always make more than you will eat that night.  Left-over fried chicken is like dessert!

Take Care, God bless and Remember:
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
the Best Things in Life aren't Things!"


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Cooking Can Be a Grind; and That's OK...

Liam leaned straight back in the metal folding chair, like a two-by-four about to slide out, his arms folded behind his head, eyes closed and directed up towards the gently swaying branches of our neighbors Doug firs. 
"Dude, that was awesome...I knew it would be good, but, put together like that, it was flippin' a-MAZE-ing!" 

Mom and Bonnie are taking a one month 'tour de California Cousins' which leaves three teenaged boys and Dad at home.  Great, I thought, this'll give us time to get all those projects done that we've always had on the back burner!  It'll be guy-time with plenty of father/son bonding.  I had visions of circular saws whirring, nails getting beaten into boards, wheelbarrows moving dirt from point A to point B...all capped by a hearty dinner full of laughter, clinking glasses and "I LOVE you, Man!"s on the back deck. Then, Life got in the way...

Well, we lost a cook at work and I went into overtime, leaving only Sunday free. 

Implement Plan B: Move most projects to back burner and focus on the evening meal; maybe the chicken coop could still get done. 
The dinners required some forethought and pre-meal prep; walking through the front door at 6 p.m. from work didn't leave much time for a casual stroll to the dinner table.  
I'd buy a load of assorted proteins, chicken, beef and pork, along with some seasonal vegetables to last us the week.  The chickens were split and slow-roasted, pork went out on the smoker. The meat was then cooled, wrapped and dated for later use.  The beef was reserved for a special recipe from Patrick. 

Pat had a recent stint working at one of Portland's burgeoning food carts and mentioned the trend of custom grinds for each burger cart.  The one that caught his attention used bacon in the ground chuck blend.  Holy cow, we concluded, what could be better than richly marbled beef laced with one of God's great gifts to mankind?!  A night was set for our 'Boys-Burgers-Beer' event and the necessary equipment was lined up.  The 5 quart KitchenAid mixer was to be employed with grinder attachment.  If for some reason you don't own this brand of mixer with crank-up handle (not the tilt-head!), run don't walk to your nearest retailer and secure one for your home kitchen.  It is as essential as a sharp chef's knife, a 10" cast iron skillet and a large cutting board.  Your life will change with this mixer and grinder attachment.  No, I don't work for KitchenAid...

The beef used in this grind was something called 'Boneless Beef Ribs' or words to that effect.  It is the beef trimmed from ribs in slabs that actually show the indentation from where the ribs used to be.  The marbling of fat was like a spiderweb or fine netting; for a chef, it's jaw-dropping eye candy!  We cut the slabs into 1/4" wide strips about 6" long.  The strips were dusted with an off-the-shelf seasoning blend and fed into the grinder.  Every other strip was paired with a slice of bacon. 
(Insert angelic single note here..."ahhhh!").

The ground meat was then formed into massive oval patties to fit our pub rolls, selected for size and hearty texture, followed by the patties placed on a pre-heated grill.  We kicked our heat down to 'low' since we knew the melting fat would create some flare ups. 
As the burgers slowly charred on one side, Brendan sliced home made pickles, red onions and tomatoes.  Liam assembled the stable of condiments: Frank's Red Hot, Sriracha, Mayo, three kinds of mustard and ketchup.  Pat set up a runway of dinner plates and napkins.  Tillamook extra sharp white cheddar and pepper Jack cheeses were prepared and set grillside for final approach.

"...and we're flipping!" I called out, signaling 3 minutes to cheese flaps down and beginning our glide path.

As the burgers were pulled from the grill to a side plate, Pat placed our four split rolls onto the grill for 30 seconds of toasting.  Burgers and rolls were moved into the assembly area and a flurry of reaching arms created each guys personal monument. 
Three of us sat on the back deck and waited for the last burger artist to complete our party.

A blessing was said.

The anticipation was palpable and I must admit, was a bit nervous about meeting expectations. 
Watching and waiting those first few seconds, I found Patrick to make the first indication of satisfaction. 

"Mmmm, mmm...," he groaned, his eyes slowly closing and gently shaking his head.
"Oh, oh, OH!," followed Brendan, "ee-yeah, this is in-CRED-able!  You can taste the beefiness, but, you get that hint of smokiness from the bacon."
When Liam likes something he's eating, a primordial fear overtakes him that someone will steal his food if he sets it down.  He looks like he's in a Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest.
"Someone tell Liam to breathe, please," I asked, "and you don't need to unhinge your jaw to enjoy this."

We laughed, shared comments on taste, texture, char, acidity, and spice.   Our local jazz station softly played on an old radio as we finished, set our plates aside and took turns stretching.

"This was worth it," Brendan proclaimed, "We should make this like our special guy's meal."
It took us about an hour to prepare and 10 minutes of clean up, but, the time spent together serving one another and sharing a meal was more than just a moment. 

It was a menu of friendship, fellowship and of love that we will taste with precise memory in years to come.

Is cooking at home worth all this effort? Our fifteen year old seems to think so. 
Every last, delicious and memorable bit of it!

Take care, God bless and remember:
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
The Best Things in Life Aren't Things."