After dinner, many summer evenings ago, I would walk across the lawn to the house next door, and hang around (not, in those days, ‘out’) with Jean and Joan Walstrom, whom I’d known since the beginning of dancing school, in fourth grade, long before we were neighbors. I am sure that I never paid a single one of these visits with the express intention of raiding the Walstroms’ refrigerator, but as long as I was around, leftovers were not a problem. Food at the Walstroms’ was seen to by a very sweet black woman whose last name I never learned. She was, after my grandmothers, both of whom were long dead by this time, the first really good cook I encountered. My gustatory sensibilities were admittedly callow. All I recall of Catherine’s layer cakes, which I’m sure were very tasty, is that she dropped small objects into the batter, as a surprise for the eater, who had better be alert. I don’t remember what kind of objects they were any more than I remember what kind of cakes they were dropped into, but of course they were generously frosted. The only other memory of Catherine’s art to survive adolescent solipsism is of glorious fried chicken.
Then we moved to Texas, welcomed among others by Colonel Sanders. Fried chicken joined pizza and cheeseburgers on the fast-food menu. All I remember about Kentucky Fried Chicken is my growing disappointment. Its whole purpose seemed to be to teach me how unsatisfactory food could be. The dry meat had no flavor, and the skin came off in one rubbery flap at the first bite. Without giving it any thought, I assumed that I’d outgrown the taste for fried chicken, just as I’d outgrown the taste for uncooked bacon slices and raw frankfurters.
Staying at the Williamsburg Inn in 1986, Kathleen and I had the idea of picnicking under the oak tree outside our room, looking out over the golf course, and it was in this bucolic setting I was ravished by the Platonic ideal of fried chicken made flesh. Beyond demonstrating and meeting all the imaginable criteria of excellence – crispy skin, juicy meat, the interplay of salt and sweet that’s peculiar to superior fowl – this gastronomic epiphany glimmered with an ineffable seasoning, as of pepper stripped of its spiciness. When Kathleen thought I was through raving about it, she suggested that I ask the management for the recipe, but I knew that glory on this order would never be attained by following instructions, be they ever so precise. The secrets of a great dish can’t really be reduced to writing. Edna Lewis standing by her oven listening for the sound that cakes make when they’re done gives a good example of the skill and judgment that only come with time and repetition. (If you think this sounds silly, have another look at Gloria Foster at the beginning of the ‘Oracle’ scene in The Matrix.) Even if the Inn gave me the recipe, I would only drive myself crazy by trying to reproduce this miracle - which, as if to reinforce my caution, even the Inn’s kitchen didn’t repeat the next day, when we ordered another couple of box lunches.
As it happens, though, I’ve come pretty close, and without driving myself crazy. First of all, I learned that deep fat frying requires very hot oil, period. Like the making of candy, it should not be attempted without a reliable thermometer. When done properly, deep-fat frying causes a starch-based seal to form around the food to be cooked, keeping the juices inside the seal – and the oil out. Batter or flour coating forms this seal only when it comes into contact with fat at a temperature between 350º and 375º. If the fat isn’t hot enough, the coating doesn’t form a seal but absorbs the fat, turning into a ghastly paste and yielding food that’s both greasy and dried-out – in a word, disgusting. Once I realized that this hot-fat business wasn’t optional or even optimal, but absolutely necessary, I learned to wait for the oil to get hot enough, even though it seemed to take forever. I would stick the spear of my thermometer through a hole on the side of an old box grater and sit it right in the oil. When the temperature passed 350º, out came the grater and in went the chicken.
From a recipe in the September, 1993 issue of Gourmet,I discovered the virtue of giving chicken a long soak in plenty of buttermilk – eight hours at least, preferably overnight. Although I can’t explain buttermilk’s strange and wonderful powers, I can attest that it imparts to many dishes both the tang of lemon (which does not hold up to prolonged heat) and the heft of cream (without the fat). The Gourmet recipe carries an unwieldy and not particularly enlightening moniker, Cornmeal-Crusted Oven-Fried Chicken, but it’s a great dish for cool weather and hearty appetites. Begin by marinating a cut-up chicken in buttermilk, lemon, shallots, oil, cayenne and seasonings. The next day, about ninety minutes before dinner, drain the chicken pieces and dredge them in English-muffin crumbs and parmesan – and some more cayenne. After a spell in the fridge, the chicken goes into a hot oven from which it emerges crispy and delicious, although nothing like deep-fried chicken.
When I said goodbye to my Connecticut kitchen in 1999, I said goodbye to fried chicken as well. Dealing with the pungent and pervasive odors thrown off by deep-fat frying was enough of a problem in a kitchen with plenty of doors, windows, and an exhaust fan. Once the chicken was in the pot, we virtually barred the kitchen door, and passed from the kitchen to the rest of the house via the flagstone terrace that overlooked the lake. As soon as all the chicken was cooked, I carried the pot out the kitchen door to cool by the back steps. Even so, and with the exhaust fan roaring away, the kitchen reeked of grease for at least the next day. Greasy aerosols become intolerable to the extent that they’re inescapable, and if someone chanced to open the kitchen door for more than a minute, life was not worth living anywhere else in the house. Since my kitchen in town has neither fan nor window, and only a pair of louvered shutters for a door, fried chicken seemed out of the question. But within a surprisingly short time I was back in business, with the help of the DeLonghi Rotofryer.
This wonderful appliance not only fries foods perfectly without using very much oil – that’s the point of the ‘roto’ part – but is very easy to clean, and I do mean to clean. When I was growing up, we had a rarely-used but nevertheless disgusting deep-fat fryer, with a discolored aluminum well and a basket to match, cracked Bakelite handles, and a textile-sheathed power cord. If you’ve ever had to deal with a greasy electrical appliance that doesn’t go in the dishwasher, you’ll appreciate the fact that the DeLonghi is as well-designed for cleaning as it is for cooking. But I didn’t know this when I ordered the Rotofryer from one of the culinary catalogues. The selling point for me was the filtered lid, which remains closed during frying. I resolved doubts about whether the filters would actually work by reminding myself that I could always plug the unit into the socket out on the balcony and do my deep-fat frying outside. It wouldn’t be convenient, but it would put fried chicken back on the table. (In fact, the filters do work very well: just frying catfish for a few minutes in a sauté pan makes a much bigger stink.)
The chicken pieces to be fried spend the night, or even longer, in a covered bowl of buttermilk to which I add a few dashes of Tabasco. Then I drain them and toss them in a couple of plastic grocery bags loaded with flour, cornmeal, salt and – another one of Edna Lewis’s tricks – potato starch. As with the Cornmeal-Crusted Oven-Fried Chicken, I lay the pieces on a rack over a jelly-roll pan and set them in the refrigerator for half an hour. Cooking the chicken in two batches for fifteen to eighteen minutes each in the Rotofryer doesn’t take nearly as long as cooking one batch in a gallon of oil used to do, because the Rotofryer brings it’s 2.2 liters of oil to the right temperature in about eight minutes. And as for the oil, try combining four ounces of fresh lard, two heaping tablespoons of bacon drippings, and enough oil to top the 'MAX' line.
Tip: To avoid sticking, lower the Rotofryer basket into the oil before loading with chicken pieces.
If I bought the DeLonghi to fry chicken, it didn’t take me long to prioritize the production of perfect French fries. Until this summer, French fries eluded me. No matter whose recipe I followed, they came out limp and greasy, and it hardly seemed worth the time and oil to make something that isn’t really terribly healthy and that in any case the fast-fooderies do well enough. The DeLonghi’s frugal approach to oil tempted me to reconsider, but the first few batches were disappointing. Almost any recipe for fries will tell you to deep-fry the potatoes for a given time at a given temperature and then to let them cool off completely, while bringing the oil to a higher temperature for a second, shorter plunge. But borrowing a technique from a recent Cook’s Illustrated study of home fries, I have turned out invariably superior fries time after time by substituting a brief parboiling for the first deep-frying. As an incidental advantage, you can parboil the potatoes ahead of time. Having cut three or four Yukon Golds however you like them – it seems to me that they can never be sliced too thin – put the potatoes in a saucepan with half an inch of water to cover. The potatoes will be sufficiently pre-cooked in the time that it takes to bring this water to a boil, at which point they can be drained into a colander. After five or six minutes in very hot oil (375º), they’ll be everything that French fries ought to be. Dump them onto paper towels, try not to oversalt them, and watch them disappear. (May 2003)
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