Friday, February 19, 2010

Top Ten Tools for Keeping Southern - 2. Butter

Thus continues a somewhat regular series in ten parts highlighting some of the basic accoutrements of keeping Southern.

I can’t believe you can’t believe it’s not butter.


There’s no point in even trying to approach keeping Southern without butter. Try eating a saltine spread with butter and then one with margarine, and I don’t care what the talking Parkay bowl said, you are not going to mistake the two. There is a fortune being made on products that pretend to replace butter, but none of them even comes close. They aren’t even healthier, for the most part!

I make biscuits and pie crust with butter (Crisco is made from cotton plants and a combination of butter and lard makes a much better pie crust). I put it in vegetables. Pasta or rice with butter and salt is nearly as good as desert. I cook all my eggs in it. 
Mama used to fix me a “butter-poached” egg for a treat when I was little – you melt a tablespoon or so of butter in a smallish skillet, and then break an egg into one side. Tilt the pan so that the egg is not over the heat but the side where the butter pools is, and spoon the hot butter over the egg until it cooks it with the yellow still runny. Then slide the whole thing over a piece of whole grain toast, sprinkle on some salt, and relish the deliciousness. When I make it now, I add a little fresh parmesan if I have some around. Oh, yum. (Now I’m hungry.)

Startlingly enough, this is one part of keeping Southern that’s actually easier up north. Restaurants up here always serve real butter, whereas back home if you ask for butter with your bread, you’re apt to be brought packets of the artificial stuff. My folks, who don’t eat margarine, often encounter confused looks from servers in the South when they tell them that what they brought is not actually butter. I’ve seen them resort to instructing them to go ask the cooks to give them some real butter, and the server comes back with a slab of butter on a saucer, looking amazed to discover that there is such a thing in their restaurant.

The confusion still reigns outside restaurants in the north, though, and I always feel awful when I ask someone to bring butter and they come back with some form of margarine. But there is a difference. And while I’m giving away one of my “secrets” here, it’s just better with butter. Even a box of brownie mix can go from ordinary to mysteriously rich and delicious if the oil is replaced with melted butter. Every smidge of flavor from simple ingredients matters.

The great thing about Chicago is that, with a significant portion of the population retaining genetic European memories, you can get European, high butter-fat butters fairly easily. Some of the most expensive is Irish butter, but oh yum. Even better than that to me, though, is finding a Wisconsin dairy outlet with fresh butter. Great butter here can go well beyond Land O’Lakes (the best of the grocery store brands).

And if you’ve largely forsaken butter because it’s too hard to spread on your toast and the like, you may be happy to learn that there is actually no need to refrigerate butter! Butter does need to be protected, but the fridge isn’t necessary – a Butter Bell does the job nicely. (Another item on my wish list.) So go ahead! Dig in, scrape on, drizzle over - savor the goodness of butter.

I’m proud to say it – I ♥ butter!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Chicken Fried Chicken

The name really does make sense. Really! It does!

It’s Chicken Fried Steak made with chicken breast instead of steak, and while the steak is sometimes called Country Fried Steak, Country Fried Chicken is a common name for regular fried chicken. Thus we get to revel in the delightful redundancy of Chicken Fried Chicken.

I am new to deep frying. But back South, I had all the access to deep fried deliciousness I could want without doing the work myself. It’s different up here. I mean, they fry things, but not necessarily the same things and not necessarily the same way. I grew up watching Grandma fry chicken on a regular basis. (A favorite family story involves the first time Grandpa brought home a turkey. Grandma had never cooked one and decided to treat it pretty much like a big old rooster. She boiled it, floured the pieces, and fried it. For the rest of her life, she never cared much for turkey unless it was fried.) Fried Chicken was a not uncommon treat, but I always loved chicken even more when I didn’t have to mess with the bones (boneless wings are brilliant!).

So when my friend, Chris, decided to move to Orlando, and some of us were considering what might be a good meal to send him off with, I thought there couldn’t be a better time to try making the Chicken Fried Chicken which happens to be his favorite. I did some research and concluded that three thing (maybe four) are critical: double dipping the coating, buttermilk, lard or peanut oil, and lots of salt and pepper. So here’s the recipe:

Chicken Fried Chicken for 8

  • 8 (6-ounce) skinned boned chicken breasts, flattened to ¼ inch thickness
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus
  • 2 sleeves of saltine crackers, crushed
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne (half if you want to lower the kick)
  • 2  large eggs
  • 2  teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2  cups buttermilk
  • Lard (or Peanut oil, if you must)

-Sprinkle the chicken pieces liberally with salt and pepper.
-Combine the cracker crumbs, flour, measured salt and pepper, and cayenne.
-Beat the eggs, adding the baking powder and baking soda before blending in the buttermilk. (It will be foamy.)
-Put the flour mixture in one shallow dish, and the buttermilk mixture in a wide bowl.
-Heat the lard or oil in a cast iron dutch oven or deep skillet to 375 degrees. (This is important! When the grease is hot enough, the moisture in the cooking chicken expands and keeps it from soaking up the grease. And lard just tastes better. Shortening is awful stuff, and the lard is not going to hurt you once in a while if you generally eat healthy.)
-Dredge the chicken in the flour mixture, then the buttermilk, then the flour again, and fry it, 7-10 minutes on one side. Turn it and fry it for 4-5 minutes more. I fried 2 to 3 pieces at a time, depending on their size. It should be golden brown. It's helpful to have a cooling wrack on a cookie sheet in a 200 degree oven to keep it warm.

Then you make the gravy, which I never use a recipe for. Say, 3 to 4 tbsp of the frying grease or butter, 5-6 tablespoons of flour. Brown well, then stir in 4 cups of whole milk a cup or two at a time until it all thickens up. 1 ½ tsp of salt or so and a bunch of black pepper (to taste – Chris said enough pepper so that when you eat the first bite of gravy it makes you cough, I think it was).

And you can’t have Chicken Fried Chicken without the gravy. And mashed potatoes. Corn and green beens are pretty important, too.  

It turned out marvelously well, if I do say so. And it was a fitting send off for a friend who likes his meat fried and boneless!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Southern Snow-Frenzy

Most of you will be aware that the Southeast (which is what I'm refering to when I say "the South" - yes, Texas is geographically south, but I only really include it as the red-headed step-child of Tennessee, which founded it) got whollopped with winter this past weekend. My cousin, Lisa, called me Friday to let me know they were expecting 15 inches of snow in central North Carolina. (Uncle Don, who has been known to drive two to three hours to find snow, is ecstatic, I'm sure.)

The mysterious thing about snow in the South is its connection with white food. Snow sends Southerners into a somewhat bizarre (and hilarious) frenzy over bread and milk. And to a somewhat lesser extent, eggs. If the lightest of flurries are in the forecast and you haven't already gotten to the grocery store, you're out of luck. The bread and milk will be gone. Weather men and women must stop on the way to work or call their spouses to give them a head's up before they go on the air. Whoever it is that is getting there first, this phenomenom has been around longer than I have. Snow = we need white food staples!!!!!

I've often wondered what happens to all that bread, milk, and eggs. I can't imagine that there's too much craving for cereal in the cold. I'd like to think about all those kids snowed in at home instead of going to school stuffing themselves with a hot brunch of french toast before they go out to plow through the yard. The milk is necessary for that treat, Snow Cream, and some people put eggs in it (which I suppose would make it Snow Custard). But mostly, I think people are probably sitting there trying to figure out what to do with the extra gallons of milk before they spoil and feeding stale bread to the birds out in the snow. Eggs, as most Southerners know, don't really go bad.

Friday, when Lisa called, she was chuckling. She'd just come home from the store, where she'd gone to get some medicine and cheese for her husband Nathan who was sick and apparently develops his own craving for grilled cheese sandwiches when snow is in the forecast. She'd gone to the dairy section to get the cheese and laughed all the way home because the canned biscuits were gone. One more white food fallen to Southern snow-frenzy.