Friday, March 25, 2016

Book 4 of the Food Books, _Fried Chicken_ by Damon Lee Fowler, 3/25/2016

This week, I am reviewing a cookbook. I chose a book focused on chicken, because I had an abundance of chicken in the freezer already. (Of course, one of the pieces of advice early in the book is not to freeze the chicken before cooking. Oh well.) What became quickly apparent, however, is that I have no real idea how to review a cookbook. Ideally, I would prepare a significant number of the recipes contained therein and report back. However, I think that an attempt to feed my family fried chicken more than once or twice in the course of week would result in mutiny, so. Here is what I have done. I have read the front material explaining the premise of the book and the matter of equipment and basic ingredients. I have also made one of the recipes. I will report on that.

The front material:

The premise is that every place where there are chickens (which is pretty much every place) has some tradition of frying chickens one way or another. Fowler outlines four basic methods: saute (in which the fat serves mostly as lubricant and flavoring agent, as the food is moved quickly and constantly about the pan), stir fry (which, he concedes, is really very much the same as a saute), pan fried (by which he means the food is no more than half covered in the frying fat, and needs to be turned during the cooking process), and deep fried (in which the food is fully submerged in fat). Thus, the book contains recipes from all over the world, and the American South. Perhaps I could have gotten away with cooking fried chicken more than once, after all.

Fowler contends that the only equipment you really need for frying is a cast iron frying pan. However, a cast iron dutch oven is useful, and a fry skimmer (one of those large spoons of wire mesh for removing things from the oil), a fry basket, a good thermometer, tongs, and wooden spatulas are all good to have. (For the record, I do not have a fry basket, and my tongs are poorly suited to frying things, as they are plastic. Otherwise, I am well set.) I disagree with Fowler on how to care for cast iron - he's of the "never wash with soap" camp, while I'm of the "if it's properly seasoned, soap can't remove the seasoning" camp. However, I'm well aware of the folks in Fowler's camp, and have no particular beef with them - they can wash their pans however they like, frankly.

Fowler's list of basic ingredients is fairly short - chicken, fat, broth.

The chicken should be young - if not young, then small - and he suggests that cutting it up yourself ensures that you get the bits you need in the shape you really want. I started with two leg quarters of chicken (the drumsticks and attached thigh and ribs), and cut them more or less as suggested. Fowler's suggestion that there are obvious places to make the cuts is not wrong, but it does take a little practice to make exactly the right joint cuts - I've done it, but I'm not an expert. Anyway, Fowler lays out the methods of cutting a whole chicken quite clearly and helpfully.

The fat should be either rendered lard (Fowler recommends rendering it yourself) or vegetable oil - Fowler says that peanut oil is recommended as olive oil is too expensive for deep frying. He also says not to re-use oil. (I used mostly corn oil, I did re-use oil [I'm a rebel!], and there was a very faint carry-over of the Indian food I had fried last week. No tears were shed over that. :) )

The broth should be homemade. Fowler lays out two methods for making broth: a quick way if you are caught short, and the right way, if you have time. Both are fairly straightforward, but it's good that he does not assume that his readers already know how to make broth.

The recipes:

Each recipe has a little note about where the recipe is from, how it is prepared and eaten there, and maybe some additional thoughts. The instructions are clear, and assume that the reader has only very moderate knowledge of cooking, offering a great deal of detailed direction. When an ingredient is uncommon - like tamarind paste - Fowler offers suggestions as to where one might find it, and also an alternative. I've flipped through, and none of the recipes has more than six steps, most are four or five steps. In short, the recipes are not particularly intimidating.

The range of recipes is excellent, from fairly simple recipes to fawncy ones like chicken cordon bleu and chicken kiev. There are a variety of chicken wing recipes, and a very good section of stir fry recipes (which I think I will have to return to). There's even one recipe that involves deep frying a whole chicken - outside, over propane, VERY carefully. That one, I probably won't attempt.

I chose to make a Cuban style fried chicken with an orange marinade. But, because I'm a rebel (and because I did not have an orange of any sort), I made it with a mix of lemon and lime juice. I particularly liked Fowler's method for preparing garlic - in a pestle, with a healthy amount of salt (I used kosher), ground to a paste. The salt acts to grind the garlic, and the result is a smooth, garlic-y salty paste which blended easily and quickly with the rest of the marinade. This recipe called for a quick fry, followed by a protracted steaming in the reserved marinade, followed by a second fry to re-crisp the skin. I had trouble with the last stage - the skin (as Fowler warned) was quite delicate at that stage. Perhaps because I used half as much chicken (I'm not sure I could have fit a whole chicken in my pan - perhaps a small one?), but all of the marinade, the end result was (while absolutely delicious) not as crispy as I had hoped. Also, the other 3/4 of my family immediately peeled the skin off, losing a good portion of the flavor as a result. The chicken had a potent citrus kick - I served it with rice and black beans, which balanced nicely. I was happy with the results, but would like to try it again.

A final note - Fowler also includes an end section on sauces and sides which is excellent. A very good cookbook, especially for cooks in the skilled novice to well seasoned dilettante range. If you like chicken, especially fried chicken, and short historical, sociological notes, this is a good book for you.