Monday, March 22, 2010

Nostalgic Snacking (or, I Was A Teenaged Card Sharp)

I categorize my teenaged self thus because the term 'card blunt' does not exist.  I played a lot of cards, but that doesn't mean I was any good.

I am sitting here on this drizzly proto-spring morning getting caught up on work and, until I ran out of salsa, snacking on Pace mild salsa, Finn Crisp fiber crackers, and Chobani 2% Greek yogurt.  This, I realize, looks foul on paper but in reality it is divine.  Pace mild salsa is everything an American-style salsa should be: chunky, tangy, a hint of sweetness, peppery bitterness, the merest hint of heat, good balance of liquid to solid.  Chobani 2% Greek yogurt is the closest thing to sour cream that gets brought into our house anymore.  It is unctuous, not overly starchy (that extra 1% of fat makes a big difference), and not horribly grainy and soupy like most yogurts I know.  Finn Crisp crackers are the best cracker in the world (and here I need to apologize to my friend Geoff, with whom I shared a passion for AkMak Armenian whole wheat crackers for many years, but Geoff, the times they are a-changin').  Finn Crisps are long and rectangular and satisfyingly rigid (all the better for scooping up heavy dips), possessed of a wonderful rough texture, tangy with rye and crammed with fiber and whole grains, and low in calories.  They snap gratifyingly, like a tortilla chip, but are not deep fried.

When I was a young 'un, living in the pre-renovation Keep Cottage co-op at Oberlin College, I discovered the joy of Hearts (or was it Spades?) and we played it for hour upon hour.  In fact, if memory serves me, there was a brief period where one could leave for class, hand off one's cards to a bystander, return two hours later, and assume the cards of some other departing person.  At our elbows, always always, were bowls of real sour cream, bags of crispy corn tortilla chips, and jar after jar of Pace salsa. Usually the salsa and sour cream were stirred together to make a chunky, tangy, pink ambrosia.  I hadn't eaten this combination in years, and when I popped it into my mouth this morning my head swam, instantly full of memories of friends, crappy plumbing, many delicious meals shared, many more horrible ones shared (two words: undercooked beans), and card games that seemed to last weeks on end.

Other snacks that trigger my Pavlovian response system:

- Graham crackers and apple juice.  I defy anyone who attended pre-school in the United States to not sigh contentedly while consuming this combination.

-  Nacho Cheese Doritos and Coke.  The junior high slumber party staple.  Just the memory of this combination jets me back to Melanie Nezer's rumpus room.

- Thick slabs of toast, made from freshly-baked, still-warm whole wheat bread, slathered with butter.  In my neighborhood growing up there was a family, the O'Connors, whose father worked at the King Arthur Flour company.  To earn pocket money, the O'Connor kids would bake loaves of the most gorgeous whole wheat or white bread, and deliver them to neighbors while the loaves were still warm.  This bread was (and still is) a revelation.  Faintly sweet, lofty and tender yet substantive, with a bottom crust that became shatteringly crunchy when toasted.  Since the kids baked after school, this meant hot toast with fresh bread when WE got home from school, and it was heaven.

- Chewy slices of Syrian dried apricot paste.  When I was a very small kid, my mom used to give us this gorgeous sweet (which we simply referred to as "apricot") as a special treat.  It came--and still comes--in about 10" wide, 20" long sheets, about 1/3" thick, folded over three times, wrapped in plastic wrap then bright orange cellophane, and adorned with a beautiful, colorful label in bright blue, orange, and yellow.  I swear, they still use the same label today as they did when I was a child.  It is very dense, very chewy, sticky like caramel, and (if you're an apricot freak like me) a wonderful smack-upside-the-head of apricoty goodness.  A footnote to this snack:  years later, pregnant with my son Charlie, I discovered a middle eastern food shop on the road to my obstetrician's office.  I stopped in and asked if they carried "apricot".  He said yes and produced a packet.  Delighted, I told him I used to get it as a special treat when I was a kid and I loved tearing off pieces to snack on.  He looked at me like I was crazy.  Apparently, in Syria it's dissolved in water and used to make an apricot nectar drink.  They do not eat it like candy.  I guess my usage is to them a bit like enjoying a heaping bowlful of orange juice concentrate.  Oh well... live and learn.

- Canned peaches.  My sister in law remarked once that she had never met anyone as crazy for canned fruit and vegetables as my brother and I.  I'm sure whenever the greater population hears the canned food industry's proclamations ("It's as healthy as fresh fruit, perhaps even more so!  The fruit tastes better because it's allowed to ripen more before picking!") it collectively rolls its eyes and say "yeah, yeah, methinks thou doth protest too much".  However, with God as my witness, I tell you it's true.  No, canned peaches do not have the same texture and exact taste as their fresh counterparts.  Come on now.  But they are lovely and springy and peachy, delightfully slippery, great in desserts, and a heck of a lot better than the cottony orange croquet balls my grocery store sells year-round.  They were absolutely a snacking mainstay of my childhood, no doubt because of my mom who grew up in midwestern Canada, where the peach growing season... well, what peach growing season?  They knew from their canned foods, and as a result, so do I.  Oh, and of course, I love canned apricots equaly.

And I'll have you know I didn't mention Proust even once during this post.  Okay, just that once.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

When the Going Gets Rough, the Roughed-Up Make Fried Chicken (or, If You Bathed in Buttermilk for 24 Hours, You'd be Fabulous, Too)

A dear friend (the previously mentioned Stephanie) noted today, with evident puzzlement but profound kindness, that there are two ways people act when they're in crisis.  The first type reaches out to friends and talks everything over until they can get a grip on things.  The second type fold in on themselves like a morning glory at night and wait for the sun to come up.  You will easily determine into which category I fall based on the fact that Stephanie called me today to inquire whether I'd joined the French Foreign Legion.

Many people find that making things, whether edible or not, is a panacea in times of trouble or doubt.  I put myself in that category.  Not for me, the sitting around in a meditative state and working out my feelings.  This has a lot to do with my Scottish/Canadian/Protestant-type upbringing, which involved a lot of stiff upper lips and a general disavowal of personal emotions.  These character traits have, curiously, served me well:  when OTHERS are experiencing crises, I am a champ.  I will swab blood from the faces of screaming toddlers, I will calmly soothe those who have experienced loss, I will formulate a level-headed plan when someone is unable to cope.  But when I'm feeling at a loss myself, I tend to retreat to the kitchen.

The last 12 months (the last four years, actually, the birth of my beautiful son absolutely notwithstanding) have been a sh*tstorm of the first degree.  Is it a coincidence that my blog, having to do largely with crafts and cooking, evolved during this time?  Who knows.  I didn't ever deal with death as a young person, but as an adult I soon found that with death inevitably comes food, regardless of the religion of the deceased.  So as I mourn and parse various passings and transitions, some literal and some figurative, the occurrence of a little fried chicken seems not only logical but inevitable.

Anyone (God bless those of you who actually read this) who has followed this blog may recall an earlier posting about fried chicken.  It was my first outing, and while my ever-loyal husband raved, I was wholly unsatisfied with the results.  Too firm in texture, not "done" enough, bland in flavor.  About six months ago I went a little nuts at Costco and bought about 100 chicken legs, and have been slowly working my way through them.  I defrosted the last 10 two days ago and thought it was time to try again.

Of course, being an honorary southerner*, I have come to understand that fried chicken with a lovely tossed salad and a glass of chardonnay does not cut the mustard.  There really ought to be collard greens and cornbread and gravy and some manner of sweet dessert.  So yesterday (the day before, actually) I set myself methodically to the task of doing it right.

*There's an old anecdote about a man who claimed himself to be a Mainer (that is, someone who calls the state of Maine home), even though his parents had only moved there about 50 years previously.  A wizened old-timer squints at this upstart and says "Well now, if your cat had kittens in the oven, would you call 'em biscuits?"  I daresay this sums up what any southerner may feel upon reading this blog.  But don't they say that the converts make the best true-believers?

Theses are long recipes with detailed instructions.  There are, simply, no shortcuts.


Equipment needed:

  • Tupperware container large enough to contain 10 large chicken drumsticks
  • A baking sheet
  • A cooling rack
  • A very large, high-rimmed skillet, no LESS than 12" across and 4" high (you can use a deeper vessel, but the diameter is very important.  This is shallow frying, not deep frying) WITH A LID for safety (see note below about grease fires)
  • Tongs
  • A frying or candy thermometer
  • Paper towels
  • Two large bowls
  • A medium-sized sieve
  • Cheesecloth or paper towels
  • A apron or other protective garment (or wear clothes you don't care about)
  • A timer or clock
  • Two sturdy oven mitts

  • Ten large chicken drumsticks (no thighs attached) of similar size
  • 1 quart buttermilk
  • 1 onion
  • Kosher salt
  • Pepper
  • Tabasco
  • Smoked paprika (optional but awesome)
  • 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour OR all-purpose white flour
  • More Kosher salt and pepper and paprika
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch (aka corn flour, NOT cornmeal)
  • 1 pound lard (aka "manteca"), usually found in the meat or dairy section of the supermarket**
  • 1 stick unsalted butter


The afternoon before you plan to eat your fried chicken, wash the legs and put them in the big tupperware container.  To these add the whole quart of buttermilk, about two teaspoons of salt, a bunch of pepper, a teaspoon of smoked paprika, your tabasco, and onion, sliced into thick slices and broken up a bit.  Seal the lid and shake well.  Refrigerate and take out to jostle when you think of it.  Leave for a day.  The next day, remove chicken from buttermilk (toss the buttermilk) and place on the cooling rack laid atop the baking sheet to catch drips.  Allow to drain very well...the less moisture that hits your hot fat, the happier you'll be.

Over MEDIUM LOW heat, gradually melt the lard and butter together.  The butter will cause this mixture to gently foam; use a spoon to skim off as much foam as you can.  Eventually, the foaming will stop and you will see lots of dark brown residue at the bottom of the pan. These are the milk solids which have cooked and should be removed to avoid a burnt taste.  Line your sieve with cheesecloth or a paper towel, position over one of the bowls, and carefully pour the fat through the sieve.  Discard the towel, and return the strained oil to the skillet.  Before replacing it on the hot burner, take a moment to wipe any drips of oil off the bottom of the pan with a paper towel, so as to avoid smoking or (God forbid) a grease fire.

A word on grease fires...when frying with fat at high temperatures, this is always a risk, although the risk is low if you use common sense.  Should any fat ignite, DO NOT POUR WATER ONTO THE FLAMES.  When water hits hot fat, it causes violent spattering which could severely burn you.  If the fire is inside the burner, quickly kill the flame/heat and pour BAKING SODA onto the flames to extinguish.  If the fire is inside the skillet itself, clap the lid on it and allow the lack of oxygen inside to extinguish the flames.   

Affix your candy/frying thermometer to the side of the pan, and raise the temperature of the oil gradually to 335 degrees, give or take a couple of degrees.  Any higher and the exterior of the chicken will burn before the interior cooks.  Any lower and the chicken and crust will absorb too much oil.  You will find you can adjust the temperature up and down pretty easily by simply turning the burner on and off.

Prepare your dredge.  Mix the flour, cornstarch, salt, pepper and paprika thoroughly in a clean bowl.  One by one, coat the chicken with the flour (work it under the skin if it's loose) and then pat thoroughly to remove any excess.  Set the floured drumsticks aside until all are done, and work quickly.

Now, here's where you have to make an important judgement call.  If your skillet is on the smaller side, fry the chicken in two batches.  If you can fit all ten pieces in your skillet WITHOUT TOUCHING, then fry all at once.  Put the chicken into the 335 degree oil as quickly and carefully as you can.   This all-at-once approach will make it easier to predict when they're done.

**A few words on the subject of lard...NOTHING is better for frying chicken.  I will not pretend it is laden with nutritional benefits, but the flavor and texture that hot lard imparts to fried chicken cannot be equalled with any other type of fat.  Lard, in my estimation, is no better or worse than any other fat that is solid at room temperature.  As long as you don't eat fried chicken every day of the week, the very occasional indulgence will have zero long-term impact on your health.

The actual frying is the sexy part, a feast for nearly all your senses (except touch... call me conservative, but I do not advise touching chicken as it fries.)  The bubbles roil furiously, the sound is a deep crackly gurgle, the smell is divine...and what else is taste but slightly augmented smell?  The raw side will, inevitably, leak some blood, which looks alarming if you're not expecting it.  You will fry on EACH side for 8-10 minutes.  If it looks very dark brown, that's fine.  It's supposed to be rather dark.

As long as your drumsticks are neither gargantuan nor minute, twenty minutes total will yield perfect chicken.  If you really need visual reassurance, a poke to the thickest part of a drumstick with a knife tip should yield clear juices.  However, avoid cutting deeply into it when the chicken is just off the heat, as all the juices will spill out and leave you with a dry drumstick.  Remove the cooked chicken to a CLEAN cooling rack set atop a CLEAN baking sheet (please, please, be sure to wash your rack and sheet thoroughly before re-using...any surface annointed with raw chicken juices is a hotbed for microbe terrorist activity).  Do not cover the hot chicken or it will steam/sweat and you'll lose that fabulous crispness.  Allow to cool for fully 15 minutes.  Believe me, it will still be plenty hot, and during the resting period the juices will have re-dispersed through the meat uniformly.  Also, nothing is quite as demoralizing as biting eagerly into a long-awaited piece of freshly fried chicken, only to sear all the skin off the inside of your mouth.  Just wait.  Delayed gratification is always better.

Allow your fat to cool considerably (like, for an hour) before pouring/spooning it into a sawed-off milk carton or empty can.  Allow to solidify completely, and dispose in the regular garbage.  Do not, under any circumstances, pour the hot fat down the kitchen sink, unless you have a secret crush on your plumber and are trying to devise ways to lure him into your home.


  • A very, very big pot (must hold 12 cups of water--3 quarts--with room to spare)
  • A collander (or better, a salad spinner)
  • A cutting board
  • A long-handled spoon

Ingredients (enough for five people):
  • Three big bunches of fresh collard greens
  • 1 pound (more or less) of smoked turkey wings
  • Garlic Powder
  • Seasoned Salt
  • Kosher Salt
  • Smoked Paprika (again, optional but excellent)
  • Pepper
  • 3 quarts of water (that's 12 cups)


Put the turkey, the water, a tablespoon of garlic powder, a tablespoon of seasoned salt, and as much smoked paprika and pepper as you like, in your pot.  Bring to a boil, then cook on medium high heat for one hour.  You are creating the brothy base of this dish, and that hour of cooking is important.

While the broth bubbles away, slowly, meticulously, and patiently remove the collard green leaves from any central stem.  If you have never handled collards before, I would call it the love child of romaine lettuce and kale.  It's kind of like a big, loose, dark green, disorganized cabbage.  As you start cleaning the leaves, be sure to reserve any small, tender inner leaves, which are lovely and frilly and have a deep, cruciferous sweetness.  Wash all leaves individually under running water to remove all traces of sand/grit.  Once this is done, strip each leaf of its stem and central vein by grasping the edges of the leaf and pulling gently.  If there are any dry/yellow/yucky bits, tear these off now.  The smaller the leaf/vein, the less important it is to remove it.  At the end, you will have a large fluffy pile.  

Make small stacks of leaves (6-10) and cut these into 1 inch strips.  Wash these prepared leaves one last time, and drain thoroughly.  

When the broth has cooked for an hour,  remove the turkey wings from the broth and allow to cool on a plate.  When cool enough to touch, hand-pick the meat from the bones, discarding any gristle, skin and fat, and tear into bite sized pieces.  Return, along with any juices from the plate, to the pot.

Add the collard greens to the pot, cover, and boil on medium heat for about 45 minutes.  They will first be brilliant green, then gradually darken as they cook and soften.  When they're done, the broth will be rich, dark, fragrant, salty, smoky and vaguely sweet.  Before serving, taste for salt (you may need quite a lot) and you may even want to add a little sugar if you like your greens on the sweet side.  Serve with plenty of the broth (aka potlikker).


(courtesy of The Gift of Southern Cooking, by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock)

2 tablespoons hot fat from frying chicken
1 cup finely diced onion
2 cloves garlic finely minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 tablespoon flour
1 pound of tomato, fresh or canned, seeded and chopped into small pieces
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup cream (you can use all milk, too, but don't use lowfat...what's the point?)

Heat the fat in a skillet and add onion and garlic, salt, pepper and thyme and cook over medium low heat for about 10 minutes.  Sprinkle flour over this and cook another 2 minutes.  Stir in tomato  and about 1/2 teaspoon more salt, and cook for five minutes.  Slowly stir in milk/cream and SIMMER gently for five minutes--don't boil--and taste for seasoning.

This is a chunky gravy that adds a delightful hit of tang to your chicken.  I suppose if you felt particularly refined, you could strain it or puree it with an immersion blender (or in a regular blender).  I like the chunks.  The gravy is not 100% essential to the experience but it IS 100% southern, and it's awfully good.


(courtesy of The Gift of Southern Cooking, by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock)

  • A cast-iron skillet or 9" square baking pan***
  • The usual bowls, measuring spoons, etc.
***A few words on the merits of cast iron skillets.  My husband inherited his from his paternal grandmother, already seasoned with decades of use.  You can buy a new one and season it yourself, or you can skip it entirely and just use a regular pan.  But there's a crispness that a well-seasoned cast iron pan imparts that cannot be imitated with other pans.

  • 1 1/2 cups fine ground white cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 3/4 cups soured milk (regular milk to which 1 tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice has been added, then allowed to curdle for 5 minutes...a great trick for pancakes and waffles, too.)
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter


Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Mix dry ingredients thoroughly.  Stir the milk into the beaten eggs, and gradually beat into the dry ingredients until you've achieved a glossy batter.

Melt butter in the pan by placing in the hot oven.  When melted, remove and swirl pan until butter coats the entire bottom and sides.  Pour remaining butter into the batter and blend thoroughly.  Pour batter into the pan and bake for 30-40 minutes, until it's becoming golden brown on top and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.  

This cornbread is best served hot.  It has a wonderfully custardy texture, not awful and crumbly and dry. No sugar, by the way.  That's a northern thing and it ain't how it's done.

= = = = =

The first bite of this chicken is a revelation,  Your teeth break the skin with a gentle crunch, and the luscious, salty, chickeny juices pour onto your tongue.  It is impossible to describe the sensory joy this brings.  It is also impossible to stop eating.

The greens are a great foil for the chicken, with their smoky, moist, vaguely bitter lusciousness.  Of course, you need the cornbread to mop up all the succulent potlikker and any stray bits of tomato gravy.

This meal is not a cure for all ills, but it is both quicker and cheaper than psychotherapy.