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Fried Chicken with a Side Order of Perfection
by Kirk Leins
I'll bet that when you think of "comfort foods," many of the dishes that come to mind are ones associated with the down-home style of southern cooking. Meals such as chicken-fried steak, biscuits and gravy, macaroni and cheese, and meatloaf are perfect examples. But in my opinion, there is one southern comfort food that's at the head of the class. I'm talking about fried chicken. And if you're as big a fan as I am, you'll definitely want to read on.
I don't know about you, but I truly love southern-style fried chicken. On one hand, it's a hearty dish, able to satisfy on a visceral, almost primal, level. On the other, its preparation is minimal and simple, which honors the delicate taste of the bird. Quite a unique concept, especially when you think about it in comparison to the aforementioned comfort foods.
One of my favorite ways to eat southern-fried chicken is alongside to a heaping mound of stewed collard greens, and accompanied by a man-sized piece of homemade cornbread and an ice-cold glass of sweet tea. While this article will include recipes for all of these dishes, we must not forget that the fried chicken is our star. So, let's start there.
Since my goal is for any chicken frying novice to nail this dish the first time out, I've decided to use only chicken wings. The reason is simple; they're the easiest in terms of frying. In comparison to other cuts of the chicken, wings are fairly uniform in size and have a higher bone-to-meat ratio. This means that their cooking times are also uniform, and they're really hard to overcook and dry out. That being said, I encourage you to eventually graduate to the remaining cuts, as they each have their own strong points in terms of taste.
Another preface to my fried chicken recipe has to do with the fat in which it cooks. While most southern chefs fry their chicken in shortening, I fry mine in peanut oil. Don't get me wrong, shortening turns out some darn good fried chicken. The problem is that it packs some nasty stowaways known as trans-fats. Peanut oil, on the other hand, is clean-tasting and fairly healthy. The best part is that, unlike shortening, it has a very high threshold for heat, making it almost impossible to burn and become bitter. Now, let's make some chicken.
Southern-Fried Chicken Wings (serves 4 to 5)
The night before you plan to cook, wash the chicken wings under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Place wings in a large re-sealable plastic bag and pour in the buttermilk. Seal the bag and place in a large bowl to guard against any leakage. Set in refrigerator overnight.
The day of, remove wings from bag and drain in a colander. Transfer wings to a large baking sheet and season liberally with spice mixture.
Place several cups of flour inside a large plastic bag. Place two of the seasoned wings inside bag and give it a shake. Using tongs, remove wings from the bag, shaking off any excess flour, and place on another sheet pan lined with wax paper or parchment. Repeat until all the wings have been breaded. Allow the breaded wings to sit at room temperature for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large cast-iron pan until it reaches a temperature of 350 degrees. Working in batches of 4 to 5 wings, fry in the oil for 6 to 7 minutes, turning them over every minute or so. Monitor the oil so that it stays between 325 and 350 degrees. When the wings have achieved a perfect golden brown, transfer them to a metal rack placed over brown paper bags. Season the freshly-cooked wings with more of the seasoning mix. Repeat until all the wings are cooked.
Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. To keep the wings warm, place the rack on a sheet pan and store inside a 250-degree oven.
Now for the collard greens. Don't be afraid to make this as a side dish to almost any meal. Also, feel free to use other bitter greens such as mustard greens, chard or kale. Cooking times may slightly vary.
Chef Kirk's Smoky Collard Greens (serves 4)
In a large stockpot, add chicken broth, water, smoked ham, and garlic. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce heat, and cover. Allow the mixture to simmer for a half hour.
Meanwhile, remove the large stems from the collard greens and discard. Chop the leaves into 2-inch pieces and wash in a colander.
After the stock has simmered for 30 minutes, remove ham hocks from the pot. Remove ham meat from the bone and return the meat to the pot, along with chopped onion, collard greens, sugar and vinegar. Cover and allow to simmer gently for 40 minutes or until the greens are tender. Taste the greens and season appropriately with salt and pepper. Serve family style in a serving bowl along with some of the cooking stock.
It's time to make some cornbread. The rule of thumb is that most cornbread doesn't improve the longer it sits and is best when served right out of the oven. This recipe buys you a little time, but it should still be made right before you're ready to serve dinner.
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. When the oven is at full temperature, place a 10-inch cast iron pan inside.
Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine cornmeal, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Mix well using a fork.
In a larger bowl, combine eggs, buttermilk, and creamed corn. Mix well.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. Using a wooden spoon, mix together until incorporated, but being careful to not over-mix (roughly 20 stirs). There should still be some lumps in the batter.
Remove the cast iron pan from the oven and add bacon drippings. Swirl the pan to make sure the drippings fully cover the bottom of the pan. Pour in the corn bread batter and return pan to the oven. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread can be removed clean. Allow corn bread to sit for a minute or so before serving.
And now, on to our beverage. This version is sweet, but not too sweet.
Easy Sweet Tea
In a small pot, boil 4 cups of the water. Add baking soda and tea bags. Turn off heat and cover. Allow the teabags to steep for 10 minutes.
Remove tea bags and pour the tea into a gallon-sized pitcher. Add sugar and stir until fully dissolved. Add the remaining water to the pitcher and refrigerate until cold.
Pour into glasses filled with ice and garnish with lemon wedges.
Our meal is now complete, and I must say that I'm downright proud of this menu. If you're feeding a lot of people, you'll probably want to make a lot more chicken. It has a tendency to go fast.
I wish you the best of luck and happy frying!
Kirk Leins has been cooking his entire life. No stranger to professional kitchens, he currently devotes most of his time to cooking instruction, food writing, and producing television. Kirk also provides his services as a personal chef in and around the Los Angeles area. He has made several TV appearances on both the national and local level, and is the Executive Chef for YOU Magazine. His free newsletter, The Everyday Gourmet, is available by contacting Kirk at EGcuisine@gmail.com.
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