By Chris Wadsworth
Gannett News Service
Ambrosia, manna from heaven, caviar for the common man - high-fallutin' words to describe what many may consider a low-brow dish - Southern fried chicken. But to the true chicken connoisseur, no words can truly describe the experience of biting through that deep-fried, crispy crust into a tender, juicy breast, leg or thigh.
Fried chicken certainly isn't unique to the Southern United States. Culinary experts point to Vietnam's ga xao or Italy's pollo frito. It's thought Scottish immigrants introduced the dish in America. Still, it was in the South where a legend was created.
"Almost every culture in the world makes fried chicken, but only the Southern fried chicken from the U.S. is internationally known," says Damon Lee Fowler, author of Fried Chicken: The World's Best Recipes (Broadway Books; $15).
Fowler was inspired to write his book after someone implied that Southern cooking and fried chicken didn't really constitute a legitimate type of "cuisine."
"Everybody kind of laughed, and I went off," says Fowler. "I said 'Hell, yes, fried chicken. What's the matter with that?' "
So just which Southern fried chicken ingredients do grandmothers and chefs alike use?
"There are as many recipes as there are cooks," Fowler says.
A quick glance through some cookbooks finds fried chicken recipes that call for buttermilk or beer, bacon grease or garlic, green onions or ground black pepper.
Before World War II, special occasions like holidays and Sunday dinners were the only times most families had chicken, says Fowler. "Fried chicken was an expensive treat you only had at certain times of the year," he says. It's only been in recent decades, with the creation of large-scale chicken farms, that prices have gone down. "(Before), it was expensive to kill your chickens to eat them."
In today's health conscious world, fried chicken is a hard fit for most diets - too fatty for low-fat diets, too many carbs for low-carb programs. Still, this inexpensive delight always will be just that - a delight for true fried chicken lovers.
Perfect Southern Fried Chicken
2 (3-pound) chicken fryers
2 cups all-purpose flour
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon bacon grease
Cut chicken carefully and evenly into serving pieces, taking care to keep the skin of each piece intact. Rinse thoroughly under running water.
In a brown paper bag, combine the flour and salt and pepper and shake until well blended. Pour the milk into a soup bowl.
Set an electric fry pan at 375 degrees or place a large cast-iron skillet over moderate heat, fill half full of melted vegetable shortening and add the bacon grease. When a drop of water flipped into the fat sputters, dip some of the chicken pieces into the milk then place in the bag. Shake vigorously to coat evenly, shake the excess flour back into the bag, and arrange the pieces in the fat, making sure not to overcrowd the pan.
Fry chicken until golden brown and crisp, 15 to 20 minutes, turn with tongs, reduce heat to 350 degrees and fry about 15 minutes longer.
Drain on another paper bag and repeat the procedure with remaining chicken, adding a little more shortening and bacon grease as necessary and maintaining the heat at a moderate level.
Transfer chicken to a large platter and do not cover. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 8 servings.
Shelly's Fried Chicken
1 envelope (1 teaspoon) Sazon coriander and annatto seasoning blend*
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
1/2 teaspoon lemonade Kool-Aid powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3 to 4 pounds chicken parts
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
oil for frying, preferably canola
11/2 cups flour
Blend seasoning ingredients and set aside. In a large bowl, wash chicken in several changes of salted water. Remove visible fat. Drain, leaving a little water clinging to the chicken. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the skin, rubbing the seasonings into the meat. Set aside.
Add oil to come 1 inch up the sides of a deep fryer or large heavy pan. Heat to 375 degrees. While the oil is heating, sprinkle 1 teaspoon of the seasoning mix over the chicken. Blend the remaining seasoning mix with the flour in a large bag. Shake chicken pieces, one at a time, in the bag to thoroughly coat.
When oil is heated, carefully add as many chicken pieces, one at a time, as will comfortably fit in pan. Cover pan and steam meat for 5 minutes. Uncover and cook 20 to 25 minutes more, turning several times. Chicken is done when a thermometer inserted into the meat registers 180 degrees, or the juices run clear. Makes 4 servings.
*Note: If you can't find it in the Spanish section of supermarkets, substitute equal amounts of paprika and garlic salt.
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