The Ultimate Comfort Food

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Ad Hoc Fried ChickenAs summer rolls into fall and fall goes screaming into winter, one’s culinary palate yearns for the muted flavors of  braises and stews, the consoling warmth of roasts and for me, the comfort of fried chicken. Yes, I said Fried Chicken.

This isn’t your aunt Flo’s fried chicken. Call it Uncle Thomas’ fried chicken – Thomas Keller, that is.

I’ve adapted a Lemon-Brined, Buttermilk Fried Chicken recipe originally published in the October 2007 Food & Wine magazine from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc restaurant in Yountville, California.

There are several import lessons to be learned: brining, buying and using a whole bird and the proper frying technique.

Brining, according to the Cooks Illustrated people,

provides [the protein] with a plump cushion of seasoned moisture that will sustain it throughout cooking. The [protein] will actually gain a bit of weight – call it, for lack of a better phrase, water retention – that stays with it through the cooking process. This weight gain translates into moist meat; the salt and sugar in the brine translate into seasoned, flavorful meat.

A few keys to remember with brining:

1.   Make sure the brine is completely cold before adding the protein
2.   Air-dry the chicken (see below) before frying or roasting
3.   You can leave the chicken in the brine up to 24 hours

When Frying:

  1. Use a thermometer to accurately measure the temperature of the oil
  2. Make sure the oil returns to the proper temperature in between frying batches
  3. Do not use paper towels to drain the fried chicken. Use a metal rack

Lemon-Brined, Buttermilk Fried Chicken

For the Chicken
1 – 3 to 31/2 pound whole chicken,

For the Brine
1/2 gallon water
1/2 cup kosher salt
1 ounce honey
6 bay leaves
1 head of garlic, smashed but not peeled
1 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 small bunch of thyme
1 small bunch of parsley
Finely grated zest and juice of 2 lemons

For the Coating
11/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon paprika (I prefer smoked paprika)
1 to 2 cups buttermilk
kosher salt and cracked black pepper, to taste

To Prepare the Brine: Make a Sachet d’Épices that includes the bay leaves, garlic, peppercorns, thyme and parsley. In a very large pot, combine 2 cups of the water with salt, honey. Add the lemon zest, lemon juice and the lemon halves and bring to a simmer over moderate heat, stirring until the salt is dissolved. Let cool completely, then stir in the remaining 3 pints of cold water. Remove the giblets from the chicken and reserve for future use. Add the chicken to the brine, making sure it is completely submerged. Refrigerate overnight.

To Cut and Dry the Chicken: Remove the chicken and pat dry. Cut into 12 parts (2 legs, 2 thighs, 4 bone-in breast pieces, 2 wing tips and 2 wings).

Allow the chicken to air-dry by following the Cooks Illustrated procedure:

Brining does have one negative effect on [protein]: Adding moisture to the skin as well as the flesh can prevent the skin from crisping when cooked. We found that air-drying, a technique used in many Chinese recipes for roast duck, solves this problem. Letting the brined [protein] dry uncovered in the refrigerator allows surface moisture to evaporate, making the skin visibly more dry and taut and therefore promoting crispness when cooked. Although this step is optional, if crisp skin is a goal, it’s worth the extra time. For best results, air-dry whole brined birds overnight. Brined chicken parts can be air-dried for several hours.

To Dredge the Chicken: In a large bowl, combine the flour, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper, paprika, salt and cracked black pepper. Put the buttermilk in a large, shallow bowl. Dredge the chicken twice. Working with a few pieces at a time, dip the chicken in the buttermilk, then dredge in the flour mixture. Shake off any excess coating and repeat, making sure to press the coating into the chicken so it adheres well.

To Fry the Chicken: In a very large, deep skillet, heat 1 inch of vegetable oil to 330°F.

Fry the chicken in several batches, maintaining the oil at 330°F, turning once, until golden brown and crunchy. Make sure the chicken is fully submerged in the oil when frying. Fry until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of each piece registers approximately 160°F, about 20 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a metal rack to drain and cool slightly.

To Serve: Garnish the chicken with thyme sprigs. To complete the whole “comfort food” thing, serve with smashed potatoes and wilted greens. No sauce is needed but if you like, a splash of lemon juice, malt vinegar or balsamic vinegar will add additional brightness.

Substitutions and Options: The brine works perfectly for roasting a whole chicken or for that Thanksgiving turkey. The basic brine recipe is one gallon of water to one cup of kosher salt to one 1/4 cup of sugar or honey. You can add additional aromatics, (herbs and spices), to taste.

Wine Notes: A full-bodied, somewhat tannic wine works best to cut through the richness of the fried skin and breading. I prefer a cool weather Cabernet Sauvignon or Cab/Merlot blend. I hate “green peeper” tasting Cabs and a cool weather Cabernet will show earthy berry fruit, good acid and a smooth and elegant tannin structure.

Recommended: For an relatively inexpensive rich, vibrant, & uniquely Northwest wine, try Cana’s Feast Winery, Bricco Two Rivers Blend, Washington/Oregon. Or, since we saved money on the meal, you can splurge on a Chateau Montelena, Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.

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