The Boring Background Bit
There were several factors that came together to result in me cooking fried chicken (not a meal I would commonly cook or order out) on Sunday night. The first being that, based on the advice of Bittman and Ruhlman, I started making my own poultry stock this past winter. The impact that homemade stock has had on my cooking is so profound, that I vowed to never use store-bought chicken stock again. The main hurdle with this has been procuring chicken carcasses with which to make said stock (this is actually a separate topic that I would like to expand on later; suffice it to say, I’m roasting a lot more chickens these days than I used to, often for the primary reason I’m in need of stock). I used up my last bit of stock last week making some risotto, so this weekend I was once again looking for a reason to cook chicken.
Thus, chicken was already on my mind when we headed out early on Saturday excited to go to our first farmer’s market of the season. If we’d thought a little bit more about the fact that the growing season in Alaska hasn’t really gotten off the ground yet, we may not have been so excited. Other than sprouts and young planters, there really wasn’t much vegetative to browse. Feeling the need to buy something, anything, fresh and local, we spent more time than usual at the meat booths, and ended up going home with a roaster chicken, some locally raised shoulder bacon, and a dozen duck eggs. At $5/pound, this was the most expensive chicken I ever bought! However, I knew that if I was going to get my girlfriend to help me eat this chicken, it was going to have to be as local, organic, hormone-free, and cage-free as possible.
If I had just been cooking for myself, I would have simply stuffed it with a lemon, trussed it, smeared it with oil, sprinkled it with coarse salt, and thrown it in the oven. This would have been an easy and tasty way to get to that chicken carcass that I needed. However, I knew my poultry-ambivalent girlfriend wouldn’t have been very excited. While musing on how to serve the bird in a pleasing way, I remembered a take-out meal we had eaten while traveling in Guatemala. I had insisted on a trip to Pollo Campero, a local fast food chain that I had fond memories of. That evening I remember watching with astonishment as she carefully picked every last scrap of meat off of the bones I had already discarded. It was the first time she had eaten fried chicken since she was a child, and she was obviously enjoying herself.
So I decided to deep fry my recently procured, extremely expensive, happy little Alaskan chicken. I hadn’t attempted making fried chicken since about 8 years ago, when I was living in Las Vegas and was decidedly less into cooking. But I did remember having used a buttermilk brine at the time to generate decent fried chicken. A quick Google search for “buttermilk-brined fried chicken” returned a long list of links, which I scrolled down until one caught my eye: “Rosemary-Brined, Buttermilk Fried Chicken” from the fairly reliable Epicurious. The first line of the recipe reads “This is the best fried chicken, ever.” which is quite a claim. My eyes immediately went to the author and that’s when I knew I was going to try this recipe. My current culinary hero, Michael Ruhlman. His book Ratio has become my new bible of cooking, as evidence by how I store it: open faced on my kitchen counter. This recipe is from his latest, Ruhlman’s Twenty, which I haven’t read yet but is in my Amazon shopping cart.
The Cooking Bit
I won’t detail the recipe here, since I hardly modified a thing other than halving the ingredients (I only had one bird to work with) and brining for four hours instead of the recommended eight to 24. After piecing out my chicken and placeing it in the brine, I also ended up roasting the backbone to prep for making stock later this week.
For a side dish, we sautéed up a bunch of collard greens we received in our CSA box this week, with butter and a plenty of garlic and salt. This is just about my favorite way to eat bitter greens (I’d like to say I whipped up some grits to go along with them, but didn’t realize this bone-head omission until later in the evening).
I’m no expert on deep frying, so I watched the temperature very carefully with my instant read thermometer and allowed the oil to get back up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit between batches. As recommended by Ruhlman, I cooked small pieces for 3 minutes and larger pieces for 5 minutes. It must have worked, because the meat came out cooked through but moist and tender.
Even with the shortened brining period, this was hands down the best fried chicken I’ve ever had in my life. Our happy little chicken was a bit more effort to eat than the sad, poorly raised ones in the freezer section at Fred Meyer (we had to work around some extra strong connective tissue to get to the flesh), but the meat was fantastically flavorful. Well worth the surcharge. Ruhlman’s breading recipe is very tasty, peppery, well salted, and just spicy enough to be interesting. The rosemary from the brine comes through more than I expected. My lady (who, as I mentioned before is no chicken fan) was raving about the meal . . . and I’d like to think it’s not just because she’s always so nice about my food.
At the end of the day, it was another cooking success (we’ve been on a good run lately!) and a recipe I’ll definitely do again. Next time I’ll hopefully be on top of things enough to do the full length brine, it’d be interesting to see how much a difference it makes.