When I was 19, 20 and 21 years of age … I seemed to be on a yo-yo between my boyhood home in Illinois and the place I was seeking. I wanted sunlight. I wanted music. I wanted good books.
I didn’t know I wanted … Fried Chicken too!
I rode a bus from central Illinois to Jacksonville, Florida on one such sojourn with a buddy of mine. The bus we were on had a stop in Macon, Georgia and the driver announced that we would have one hour to “stretch … eat or shop”. We were young men and our noses led us to a soul food cafeteria. We opened a rickety screened door into a large room that smelled incredible! Black women in matching service uniforms stood behind the long, gleaming counter. They smiled as they ladled, spooned, sliced and poured food and drink for a steady line of customers. We entered the queue and I know I felt some preternatural instinct for the absolute quality of what we were about to experience. I ate nearly an entire fried chicken! When it was time to board the bus again I felt I had entered a state of grace and wasn’t sure Jacksonville could compete. But my buddy’s folks had a place near the ocean we could crash for free for ten days … so we climbed aboard …. watching that cafeteria as long as we could … through the smudged bus windows.
We didn’t have that all American classic at our home. It wasn’t in the repertoire of my mother’s dishes. I occasionally had it at my best friend Wade’s home, but it was only served cold and brought to summer picnics. While good, it was not … right out of the fryers … and possessing a textural quality that I would search for in the years to come.
In 1983 … and by then a working chef … instead of an unemployed dreamer… I traveled to New York City. One of the new ones then was a place called ‘Texarkana’. One dish on the menu that I missed that night … (they’d run out) stayed with me as an idea.
It was called “Fried Chicken Salad”. I set out to work on it only having the title to … ignite my brain. For some reason … I reached for sesame oil when creating the dressing part of the recipe to accompany the salad. I think it is the reason it became so popular. How popular? Let’s fast forward. In 1985 I got an offer to return to work in Key West. It was the biggest break of my career to date … when I took on the job as Chef of “Louie’s Backyard”. The ownership was divided and … that is always tricky. The gentleman that hired me was at odds with one of the other proprietors. She wanted, (demanded!) that I keep a salad that had been on the menu with their previous chef. It was a “Steak Salad” and it was a big seller. I was not, (not!) going to have some other chef’s dish on my menu… So … I presented a “Hot Fried Chicken Salad”.
Time passed … My career rolled on towards new places beyond that track of time.
17 years later, my wife, Janet, and I went back to Key West for a visit … and to ‘Louie’s Backyard’…
The “Hot Fried Chicken Salad”? It was still on the menu.
I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s…. My Word on Food
The late great Southern Chef Bill Neal’s cookbook came into my possession while I was at Louie’s Backyard (1986 exactly). I’d like to think I had the brains to buy it but maybe it was a gift. So was Mr. Neal’s way with teaching Southern cooking. At a time when invention in cooking was rife all over the land he held fast to time-honored traditions. I also admired his sense of humor. He wrote, “First the bird; only a whole, fresh chicken will do. Frozen chicken tasted bloody and turns dark at the bone when fired. If you find yourself in the possession of one, stew it or bury it”.
For the chicken and the marinade/batter:
- 1 quality chicken, cut into pieces through the various bones
- 1 Cup low fat buttermilk
- 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 ½ Tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 Tablespoon chopped thyme leaves
- 1 Tablespoon chopped oregano leaves
- 1 Tablespoon chopped sage
- 1 Tablespoon Dijon style mustard
- ½ Tablespoon toasted and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 rib celery, washed and cut into large dice
- 1 clove garlic, rough chopped
Place the chicken in a large bowl or a food bag. Puree ingredients in a blender. Pour over chicken pieces and allow to brine for at least 8 hours or overnight, stirring once or twice.When ready to cook drain the chicken marinade off through a colander into the sink. Set aside a moment.
For the Seasoned Flour:
- 3 Cups Self-Rising or A.P. flour
- 1 Tablespoon dry mustard powder
- 2 Tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 Tablespoon pimentón or sweet paprika
- 1 Tablespoon cumin, toasted and ground
- 1 Tablespoon toasted and freshly ground black pepper
Mix all the ingredients. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour mixture. Lay the breaded chicken on a sheet pan wire type rack to air dry about 10-15 minutes. Now dredge the chicken a second time but take care to knock off all the ‘extra’ flour that doesn’t adhere to the bird in that it will just BURN in the oil. To Fry: Melt the oil, (vegetable shortening) in a heavy frying pan large enough for all of the chicken pieces. The oil needs to come up ⅓ of the way in the pan, (this is a technique called ‘shallow frying’) and be at 350 degrees to start. (Note: Once the chicken is place in the oil the temperature will drop.) Cook starting with the dark meat, (adding the skin side down first).Add the white meat pieces after 2-3 minutes. I like to keep the thighs in the middle of the pan where the heat is most direct since it is the thighs that take the longest to reach the correct internal temperature. Now cook about 10 minutes ON EACH SIDE. But an instant-read thermometer is much more important than a clock on this quest. Maintain the oil temp at about 325 degrees while it cooks. This will be advice that might be hard to follow but keep adjusting the heat as need be. A ‘screen splatter protector’ is a great aid. It is a way to trap an instant read thermometer between said screen and the edge of the pan which allows your thermometer to not fall into the oil… When fully ready the chicken will be at 180 degrees when pierced in it’s thickest part.The chicken is actually fully cooked before that temp but for fried chicken to work best and stay crispy and ready for ‘finger style eating’ the higher interior temp is required to assure the best crust. When it is remove it to a drain rack and keep it warm. It is best not to hold it in the oven as it will lose the crispness you just fought to achieve. Don’t drain on paper toweling etc either as that spoils the texture too. A ‘tent’ of aluminum foil is better.