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Saturday, July 14, 2012

"Soft" Fried Chicken





One of the dishes my mother made that was always popular with my family when we would go back home to visit was her "fried" chicken. This was not the Colonel's heavily breaded, crunchy and oily stuff, as good as that may be. No, Mom's was much more like a braised meat, moist, flavorful, falling off the bones good.

Over the years, I worked at duplicating her chicken and then began refining it, adding a few more seasonings and trying out different cooking methods.

When I was in grade school, she and Dad had succumbed to a door to door salesman's pitch and bought an entire set of West Bend "Lifetime" cookware, very expensive for our tight budget. However, the pans were wonderful, and the electric skillet was like nothing I have ever seen since, with double stainless steel walls and a way of cooking things like this chicken that was very difficult to duplicate. Thus, as I tried to duplicate Mom's fried chicken over the years, I had to try many different ways of cooking it, on top of the stove, in the oven, in a slow cooker.

Along the way, I started making a few other adjustments in the coating. Hers was usually just flour, salt and pepper, fine and certainly tasty enough. However, I like a little bit of crunch from corn meal and usually include some dried herbs and/or something peppery. These adjustments have, I guess, made the recipe my own, and it is now known in the family as Grandma's Fried Chicken. I think calling it "soft" fried chicken may be a little more descriptive, so that is what I am calling it here.

As usual, this is as much a guide as an ironclad recipe. The nice thing is that this can be made using only a couple of pieces of chicken for a serving or two or in quantities large enough for a dozen hungry people. You can use bone-in pieces or boneless, full chicken quarters or pieces cut to nugget size. (About the latter--I make this as chicken nuggets only about once a year. The smaller the piece of chicken, the greater the ratio of coating to meat, and also the greater the fat content as well.)

Soft Fried Chicken

Quantities are given for 6 to 8 pieces of bone-in chicken (my preference is thighs or drumsticks). The recipe is easily doubled or halved as needed. Because any leftover breading will have had raw meat in it, you should either discard it or freeze (NOT just refrigerate) immediately and use for another batch of chicken within the next month or so.

Coating:
1 c flour--you can use whole wheat, but plain unbleached flour will work as well
1 c yellow cornmeal
1 to 3 T chili powder, to taste (may substitute a smaller amount of cayenne or black pepper)
1 t Italian seasoning
1 to 2 t garlic powder
1 t seasoning salt
(other dried herbs you may want to try include basil, rosemary, thyme, marjoram or any combination of these)

1.  Combine all the coating ingredients in a flat bowl and stir well.

2.  Heat enough canola oil in a heavy (preferably cast iron) skillet to cover the bottom to an eighth to a quarter of an inch. The oil should be shimmering slightly before adding the first piece of chicken. Keep the burner at medium high to high, enough so that the chicken "sizzles" well throughout the browning time, but not so high that it begins to burn.

3.  If desired, remove the skin from the chicken.

4.  Using tongs or a cooking fork, place each piece of chicken in the coating mix, turning and pressing down to be sure the piece is coated evenly.  Place each piece in the pan, making sure not to crowd. When the pan is full, cover lightly--I use an old pizza pan for my cast iron skillet, so that there is some covering but not enough to build up steam and cause the chicken to poach instead of brown.

5. When all the pieces have browned well (about 5 to 10 minutes), turn with a spatula to be sure that all the coating is turned with the chicken. Again cover lightly and continue to brown the second side.

6. If you are cooking a larger quantity in batches, remove the first group of pieces and place on a platter (or directly in the roaster or slow cooker--see below for cooking method). Scrape any breading from the pan onto the chicken pieces. Add a small amount of oil if needed, heat to shimmering, and continue cooking the remaining pieces.

To finish:
In the frying pan: You should not have much oil in the pan at this point. However, if there is more than you like, pour it off but leave the "drippings" and crusty pieces in the pan. Return the chicken pieces to the pan, add a small (a tablespoon or two) amount of water, cover and continue to cook on low to medium heat--just barely simmering--until the chicken is very tender. Depending on the size of the pieces, this may take 15 to 40 minutes. Check occasionally and add just a small amount of water if needed to avoid burning but not so much that it begins to poach.

In the oven:  Place the well-browned chicken parts and all drippings from the pan into a heavy roaster. Add a quarter cup or so of water to the frying pan, scrape out every last bit of flavor, and pour this over the chicken as well. Cover and bake at 350 degrees about 30 minutes to an hour--the latter amount of time may be needed for a large quantity. The more pieces of chicken you are cooking, the more it will be important to turn the pieces every 20 minutes or so, so that all are exposed to the sides of the pan at some point. This will provide for a more even browning and tenderness.

In a slow cooker:  Place the browned chicken parts and all drippings from the pan into the slow cooker. Cover and cook on Low for up to two or three hours OR cook on High for about an hour or so. As with the oven method, you may find it worthwhile to move the pieces around once or twice to be sure they cook evenly.

Microwave:  If you are only cooking a couple of pieces, you could also put them, along with the drippings, into a microwave safe dish after browning, cover and cook for about 3 to 4 minutes per piece of chicken. In general, I don't find this to be much faster than just finishing a few pieces in the skillet, but it is an option.


Marinated Variation:

If desired, you can marinate the chicken with your favorite mixture. After the chicken has been in the marinade for a few hours, drain and roll in the crumbs as in the recipe above. (Unless your marinade is very salty, reserve the drained liquid and add to the chicken along with the pan drippings, at the beginning of the finishing phase, to heighten the impact of the marinade flavors.)

Two marinade ideas:

Any favorite salad dressing (generally not the creamy, ranch types however)--this is a good way to use up the last dregs of dressings--mix a couple of kinds together with some dried herbs, garlic powder, etc.

2 T orange juice (even better orange pineapple juice) concentrate, 1 t grated ginger, 1 to 2 t chopped garlic, 1 to 2 T soy sauce (preferably reduced sodium)--mix and place in a plastic bag or bowl just large enough for the chicken you are using. This should be enough for 4 to 6 bone-in pieces, 5 to 8 boneless pieces.

Serving suggestion:

This teams well with rice or mashed potatoes. Cole slaw or another tart salad is also a good accompaniment.



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