When I was in grad school, vacation was a non-issue. Every 10 weeks, a quarter would pass us by and we’d be off for a bit – free to cause trouble in the big city, take a real vacation (as if one could afford that in grad school), or head back ‘home’. For most of my time in grad school, I was juggling gettin’ my learn on with planning a wedding that was to take place in North Carolina, so school breaks typically meant heading there for cake tasting, photographer shopping, and finding that-dress-I’d-never-wear-again-in-my-life. Although, if I find myself getting hitched again, I’ll do the green thing, and I’ll recycle it.
Having the luxury of being in my home state so frequently was certainly groovy for wedding planning, but it was also great for something else: indulging in, and by that I mean eating a hella lot of, my favorite foods.
It should come as no surprise to you dear friends of mine that one of the foods on that list was fried chicken. But let’s set the record straight so there’s no chance for confusion: not just any fried chicken. I’d happily eat two kinds, and those two were either given to me in a yellow box through a window along with sweat tea, dirty rice, and honey mustard sauce, or hand-dipped in buttermilk and flour and pan-fried by, on a good day, my Aunt Faye (on a semi-good day, my pops). And served with biscuits, clearly.
I dare you to find better. Double-dog dare you.
Many of you may remember my most recent trip back to North Carolina, a visit filled with emotions, both happy and sad. As would be customary when there’s a death in the family, the need for cooking is generally placed on the back burner, so to speak. And though my Aunt, in my mind, has probably made fried chicken at least every weekend of her adult life, that weekend was different, for obvious reasons. Fortunately, the Bojang is relatively close by, therefore her kitchen counter was loaded with yellow boxes and about ten thousand other things as well.
I’ve had a hankerin’ for another piece of fried chicken since that time. I didn’t dare try to replicate Aunt Faye’s, though.
Unsure of whether I’d really make it or not, I’d clipped this recipe from a Saveur magazine I’d purchased a few months back, and remembered it when I opened the freezer and realized I had a whole chicken that was practically begging me to fry it. Following a perusal of the recipe, I’d deduced that it was relatively basic, straightforward, but spicy. It was right up my alley, and aside from the matzo meal (let’s be honest: does any non-Jewish person keep that around?!) I had all the ingredients. What the hell, right?
There’s something magical about dunking a lightly battered chicken leg into a container of crazy-hot oil. The oil, calm aside from a pop here and a pop there, is suddenly engulfing the meat, sizzling furiously, erupting dramatically, volcano-like. The smell – regardless of the differing recipe – immediately teleported me back to NC, back to the dome house my Aunt Faye has lived in for most of my life; I, yes I, was frying chicken that smelled like hers. Minutes later, the sizzling continuing, it’s cooked and transferred to a napkin-lined plate to cool (and sure, to drain a bit, too). Crisp to the touch, I can hardly wait for the oil to cool, but fearing burnt lips, I do.
When that moment arrived, that moment when I could finally feel that crunch I’d been staring at for at least 5 minutes, it was nothing short of remarkable. Crunch? Oh baby, yeah, and I thought, “Why doesn’t everybody fry with matzo meal?!”. The spices? permeating every bite – a bit of smoke proving the wise doubling of paprika, a bit of freshness from another wise addition of zest, and something clean and crisp, despite the oil bath it received. This was not my Aunt Faye’s fried chicken, that’s for sure. But over time, it might just become mine.
Spicy Fried Chicken
Adapted from Saveur, April 2010; serves 4
let me reiterate – this won’t beat the taste of your mom’s, or your gramma’s, or in my case, your aunt’s and dad’s fried chicken (though if you’re not from the South, it could, actually). but if you’re into a little spice and a lotta crunch, you must give this a try. Matzo meal = a new frying staple in this house. serve this with kale chips (a couple of posts back) and mashed potatoes. a biscuit isn’t a bad idea, either.
canola oil, for frying
1 t hot smoked paprika
1/4 t cayenne pepper
1/2 t Italian seasoning
1/4 t onion powder
1/4 t garlic powder
zest of 1 lemon
4 egg whites, beaten
1/2 c flour
1/2 c matzo meal
1/4 t baking powder
1 3-lb chicken, cut into 8 pieces
salt and pepper
Pour oil to a depth of 2″ in a 5 quart Dutch oven.
Heat over medium-high heat until a deep-fry thermometer reads 375 F. Combine smoked paprika through lemon zest; set aside. Put egg whites into a bowl. Combine flour, matzo meal, and baking powder in another bowl and mix half of spice mixture into bowl; set other half aside. Working with one piece at a time, dip chicken into egg whites, then flour mixture. Shake off excess; transfer chicken to a rack set inside a sheet pan.
Working in two batches (or more, depending on the size of your vessel), fry chicken until crispy and cooked through, 10-12 minutes each, trying to keep heat of oil as close to 375 as possible. Transfer to paper towels, and season with salt, pepper and remaining spice mixture. Let cool for 5-10 minutes.