Ask me what I would choose for my last meal, and I will answer “fried chicken and chocolate cake.” Not the healthiest two-some, but each one has fond memories to me. Another day I will wax nostalgic about chocolate cake. Today, I am talking chicken.
The kind of chicken that makes memories – small chickens, cut into pieces, and soaked in salted ice water in a bowl on the kitchen counter for an hour or more.
My mother said this step was to draw the blood out before she fried it. Little did she know she was brining and tenderizing the chicken at the same time. After the chicken pieces were well dried with paper towels, my mother would dredge them in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Her electric skillet half filled with vegetable oil was on the counter heating to 350 degrees, and when the first piece of chicken was carefully dropped in, it made a lot of noise. Spitting, sputtering, splattering. We ran from the kitchen, and left my mother to the delicious chaos that is just part of frying food.
My crunchy, pan-fried chicken memories came flooding back recently while in New Orleans on book tour. A longtime colleague, Judy Walker, food editor of the Times-Picayune, suggested we go to Dooky Chase restaurant for lunch. Located on the same Katrina-flooded corner in the 5th Ward neighborhood as it has been for more than 50 years, Dooky Chase is named for the musician husband of the famous Leah Chase. Often called the Queen of Creole, Leah Chase is so renowned that her portrait is in the Smithsonian Museum. And her fried chicken is equally famous, having been dubbed the best fried chicken in the city by the Times-Picayune.
Piled a foot high in a giant chafing dish, alongside red beans and rice and vegetables like sweet potatoes and green beans on the buffet line, the chicken was crisp, moist, perfectly seasoned, and was the only chicken I have tasted that rivaled my mother’s. The secret, devulged Cleo Robinson who has been frying chicken at Dooky Chase since Hurricane Katrina, is trimming off excess fat from the chicken pieces before they are seasoned with salt, pepper, granulated garlic and cayenne pepper.
Then the chicken goes into what she calls “the marinade” – beaten eggs. The chicken in marinade is chilled and ready to fry, or it can stay in the fridge for up to two days before frying. Cleo then tosses the chicken in flour, and drops it into hot deep oil heated to 350 degrees. It will cook in 15 to 17 minutes. “You can hear the chicken finish frying,” said Cleo. “But you got to pay attention to it. It makes a whining sound when frying because the water is coming out of it, but when the chicken quietens down, it’s done.”
I’ve been told to listen in my life, but I had never been told to listen to chicken. And yet it made sense. Good cooks know to use their senses. You can smell a cake reaching doneness in the oven. You can see a pie bubble up and brown on top and know it’s time to pull it out of the oven. You can touch bread dough and know from its softness that it is ready to bake. Why shouldn’t you listen to chicken, too?
The night before I was to head home from New Orleans, I was at my book signing at the Garden District Books store. A local cook I met, whom I only know as Donna, was generous to share her family recipe for oven-frying chicken after we got into a long discussion about fried chicken. This is a favorite recipe of her grown son and husband, and she said it’s a lot easier to prepare than traditional fried chicken.
I pulled out my note pad, and I was listening.
Donna said to begin with a small chicken, less than three pounds. Cut it into pieces, or buy the chicken already cut into pieces. Season the chicken with salt and pepper, and roll in flour. Pan fry in an oven-proof skillet until it’s brown on both sides, and then place the lid on the skillet and pop in the oven to bake at 300 degrees for one hour, or until tender and cooked through. Donna serves the chicken with cooked rice that she seasons with a little of the chicken pan drippings.
Back home, I could not wait to get into the kitchen and make Donna’s Oven-Fried Chicken. So easy, so good. Not the fried chicken of my youth, and not Cleo Robinson’s legendary chicken at Dooky Chase. But it was delicious, satisfying, and doable for busy cooks who want to fry their own chicken. It will make fond memories, too.