Fried Chicken: A Love Story
By Virginia Willis
I’ve been cooking as a professional for a little over 15 years, but my passion actually started when I wasn’t tall enough to reach the counter in my grandmother’s country kitchen. I called her Meme and she was the light of my life. My mother now lives in her home, the simple country house my grandfather hand-built over 60 years ago. The kitchen hasn’t really changed much. There never has been enough space for everything. The light still hums. Her recipes still are posted on the inside of the cabinet, some written directly on the wood. Her worn wooden-handled turning fork still hangs from the cabinet and her skillets and pans still hang on nails behind the door propped open with the same antique solid cast iron pressing iron.
She and I spent hours together in the kitchen. There are photos of me as young as 3 years old standing on a stool “helping”. I remember we’d roll out the biscuits and she’d let me make a handprint with the scraps of dough. The tiny fingers on my handprint biscuit would cook very dark in the heat of the oven, taking on a slightly bitter almost nutty taste. I know that’s where my love for cooking took root, working at her side on her linoleum countertop in the gentle breeze of the oscillating fan.
Oh, she could cook. Her pound cake was legendary. She’d wake in the early morning before the heat of the day and prepare fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, old-fashioned butterbeans, creamed corn, okra and tomatoes. Fried chicken would be my hands-down choice for my last supper if I were “on the way to the chair”. Meme knew how much I loved it and spoiled me. When I lived far away and flew home to visit, it didn’t matter what time of the day or night I arrived—2:00 p.m. or 2:00 a.m.—she would be at the stove frying chicken to welcome me home. I was undeniably spoiled absolutely, positively rotten.
She was not the first bit shy about pretty much acknowledging me as a favorite grandchild. My cousin Gene was the male counterpart. He and I seemingly could do no wrong. However, she and my sister were oil and water, far too much alike to ever get along. She wasn’t exactly a twinkling eyed docile grandmother. She was formidable – a veritable force of nature. Before I was born, I was told she got tired of driving into town to go to church. Not going to church wasn’t an option. So, she had my grandfather donate the land and build a little country church.
My grandfather adored her and called her his better half. She would literally make the man take his shirt off so she could wash it. That never made a lick of sense to me. She would start on something and wouldn’t stop until her will was met. He’d mumble quietly under his breath, “Lawd, have mercy” but he would have moved a mountain range for her. My grandfather with his blue eyes twinkling said he always got the “last word”, and they were, “Yes, beloved.”
For as long as I can remember, they had a motor home, a camper. They drove as far South as the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and the far end of the Alaska Highway. I was able to take several long trips with them when I was young. She had an even smaller kitchen, but she would still fry me chicken and we would stop at farmstands for fresh produce. Dede and I would hike and walk in the woods often bringing her buckets of wild berries and she would make cobbler.
Once the three of us drove north, through Detroit into Canada, east to Nova Scotia, and caught the ferry to Newfoundland. Not a small trip. To familiarize you with the roads of Newfoundland, imagine a squiggly horseshoe starting on one end of the island that zigzags and meanders to the other side. We were about halfway across the island when Meme looked at my Grandfather and said, “Sam, pull over in that gas station and turn around, I’m ready to go home.” He did, and we did.
The very last time I saw my grandmother was on Mother’s Day nine years ago. She had a sore throat, went to the doctor, and was diagnosed with cancer. She was 91 and quickly conceded defeat when she heard that ugly word. I thought my heart would break. I never knew anything could hurt so badly – I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was living in New York and would fly home at least every other weekend to see her. When I returned to that simple country kitchen, our tables were turned, and I cooked for her. It was not fried chicken that I prepared, but soft, rich custards and creamy desserts that she loved.
The very cruel irony is that the cause of death listed on Meme’s death certificate is actually starvation, not cancer. The tumor prevented her from swallowing. A feeding tube would have been an inviolate injustice. Nine years later and there’s still hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. To this day, the smell of chicken frying reaches into my soul. I often wish I could show her a copy of my cookbook and I so wish I could be in the kitchen with her just one more time.
Happy Mother’s Day, Meme.
Love you still.
- Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper. Set aside. Place the flour in a shallow plate and season with cayenne, salt, and pepper. Set aside. Line a baking sheet or large plate with brown paper bags or several layers of paper towels.
- Heat the oil in a large skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat until the temperature measures 375°F on a deep-fat thermometer.
- Meanwhile, to fry the chicken, starting with the dark meat (since it takes longer to cook) and working one piece at a time, dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour, turning to coat. Shake to remove excess flour. Reserve any leftover seasoned flour for the gravy.
- One piece at a time, slip the chicken into the hot fat without crowding; the fat should not quite cover the chicken. Adjust the heat as necessary to maintain the temperature at 375°F. At this stage, a splatter guard (a wire cover laid over the pan) may prove useful to contain the hot grease. The guard lets the steam escape, while allowing the chicken to brown nicely.
- Fry the pieces, turning them once or twice, until the coating is a rich, golden brown on all sides, 10 to 14 minutes. Decrease the heat to medium-low and cover the skillet. Continue cooking until the chicken is cooked all the way through and the juices run clear when pricked with a knife, an additional 10 to 15 minutes. (An instant-read thermometer inserted into a thigh should register 170°F.) Remove the pieces and drain on the prepared baking sheet. (Do not hold the chicken in a warm oven; it will get soggy.)
- To make the gravy, remove the skillet from the heat. Pour off most of the grease, leaving 2 to 3 tablespoons and any browned bits.
- Decrease the heat to very low. Add the butter and cook until foaming. Add 4 tablespoons of the reserved seasoned flour and stir to combine. Cook, whisking constantly, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk in the stock. Increase the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring often, until the gravy is smooth and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add more stock or water to achieve the correct consistency. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.
PHOTO CREDIT: TERRY ALLEN
This week was y’all filled. Seriously y’all filled. I was a guest on Paula Deen’s Best Dishes on Saturday and Monday on Food Network. And, the May issue of her magazine, Cooking with Paula Deen has a feature on me with my recipe for French Toast Casserole. She was really, really nice. We had a blast. She called me a “hell of a chef” and said “I could put my shoes beside her stove or under her table any day.” Nice!
This recipe is great for breakfast, brunch, and I will also be featuring it as a dessert this week at May-Gration, a fundraiser for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts hosted by the Blue Heron in Sunderland, Massachusetts. I’m thrilled to be a part of this. It’s a North-South thing, featuring recipes from my book and tasty morsels from owners Chef Deborah Snow and Manager Barbara White. The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts distributes approximately 6.4 million pounds of food to more than 100,000 people in the community every year. Click on May-Gration above to check it out.
So, check out this month’s issue of Cooking with Paula Deen. Give my French Toast Casserole a try for breakfast, brunch, or even as dessert. It’d be a great make-ahead dessert for a Kentucky Derby Party served with Bourbon Crème Anglaise. (How often to do you get to say bourbon and breakfast in the same paragraph? Hmm.)
Speaking of bourbon. I got to meet Parker Beam earlier this month at a bourbon tasting at a conference. That’s right, BEAM, as in related to Jim BEAM. His ding-dang ancestor INVENTED bourbon in Kentucky. He’s now the master distiller at Evan Williams. I was in the presence of greatness.
And, yes, I got his autograph. 😉
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
French Toast Casserole with Bourbon Crème Anglaise
When my sister and I were young, our favorite mornings were when Mama would prepare French toast for breakfast. The smell of butter, kissed with cinnamon, combined with the heady scent of sizzling egg was a most welcome greeting as we bounded down the stairs. For breakfast, this version is made the night before, so you won’t find yourself camped in front of a hot griddle in the early morning, groggy and in need of caffeine. The next morning, remove it from the fridge to take the chill off. Grab a cup of coffee and pop it in the oven. By the time the table is set, the family is assembled, and you’re ready for your second cup, breakfast is ready. Brioche and challah are yeast breads, rich with egg and butter, and make superlative French toast.
For dessert, make it early in the day, or even a day ahead. It's bread and eggs, y'all. We're not solving life's mysteries, and nothing will "go wrong" if it's in the fridge for a day or so. Just remember to remove it from the fridge to take the chill off about 30 minutes before you cook it. Serve it warm or room temperature.
Ingredients4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar1 loaf brioche or challah, sliced11/2 inches thick (about 11/2 pounds)8 large eggs, lightly beaten1 cup whole milk1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon1/4 teaspoon ground gingerPinch of salt1/2 cup chopped pecansConfectioners’ sugar, for accompanimentSorghum, cane, or maple syrup, for accompanimentBourbon Crème Anglaise (makes 3 cups)2 cups whole milk6 large egg yolks1/4 cup sugarPinch of fine sea salt1 tablespoon bourbon
- Combine the melted butter and brown sugar in a baking dish. Arrange the bread slices in the dish. Whisk together the eggs, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, and salt in a bowl. Pour over the bread, letting it soak in. Top with the pecans. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to 12 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Let the chilled casserole stand at room temperature for 20 minutes.
- Bake until browned and set, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Sift over confectioners’ sugar. Serve hot or warm with sorghum, cane, or maple syrup.For the Bourbon Crème Anglaise:
- Make an ice bath by filling a large bowl halfway with ice cubes and water.
- In a saucepan, bring the milk almost to a boil over medium heat. In a second saucepan, blend together the egg yolks, sugar, and salt with a wooden spoon until thick and light (be careful not to make the mixture foamy). Mix in half the hot milk, then transfer the mixture to the other saucepan with the remaining milk and blend. Add the bourbon.
- Decrease the heat to low and simmer gently, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Continue stirring the custard until thick enough to coat the back of the spoon and the mixture reaches 180°F on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from the heat.
- Set a sieve over a large, clean bowl and pass the custard through the sieve.
- Place the bowl in the ice bath, and stir the custard until it has completely cooled. Lay a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming. Store the custard in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.3.1http://blog.virginiawillis.com/2009/05/derby-yall-french-toast-casserole-with-bourbon-creme-anglaise/Recipe by Virginia Willis © 2014 www.virginiawillis.com
Reprinted with permission from Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories
from Three Generations of Southern Cooking by Virginia Willis, copyright ©
2008. Published by Ten Speed Press.
Photo credit: Ellen Silverman copyright 2008.
It’s raining today, not real rain – just the drizzle that makes the sofa look so very inviting. And, it’s just cool enough that a stew is the perfect Sunday supper.
Here’s a wonderful recipe for Lamb Stew with Spring Vegetables. I like to use the shoulder because the meat is flavorful with just enough fat so that the meat stays moist. As tempting as it may be, don’t purchase the lamb that is already cubed. It’s usually the leftover bits and pieces, often from different areas of the animal.
I absolutely adore turnips. Some of the farmers in my area are growing hakurei turnips. They are delicious raw. They are tender, very crisp and fresh, not bitter at all, almost sweet. Frankly, I have to buy 2 bunches because I always eat one on the way home! Nope, don’t even wash them! Just rub the dirt off on my shorts! Regular turnips will do, of course. And, as a matter of interest, do recommend washing them!
Bon Appétit Y’all!
PS – I also send out a newsletter including a recipe every 4 weeks or so. I don’t do anything rude like sell or rent your name, and I don’t bug your with gobs of emails, so please sign up today!
NAVARIN D’AGNEAU PRINTANIER
- Heat the oven to 350°. Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Heat the butter and oil in a large oven proof Dutch oven over medium-high heat and brown the lamb on all sides. Remove to a plate.
- Reduce the heat to low and add the chopped onion and cook gently until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the flour and cook until light blonde in color. Add the wine and stir to loosen the brown bits and from the bottom of the pan. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock, and tomato purée. Return the lamb to the Dutch oven and add the bouquet garni; Season with salt and pepper.
- Bring to a boil and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Transfer to the heated oven and cook until the lamb is just beginning to become tender, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and add the potatoes, carrots, turnips, and onions. Cover and return to oven and bake and 30 minutes. Add the peas and cover and return to oven and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Remove and discard the bouquet garni. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve straight from the casserole with a loaf of crusty French bread.
LAMB STEW WITH SPRING VEGETABLES
NAVARIN D’AGNEAU PRINTANIER
2 pounds lamb shoulder
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup dry white wine
4 tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups homemade chicken stock or low sodium chicken broth
Bouquet garni wrapped in cheesecloth of 2 sprigs thyme, 3 sprigs parsley, and 1 bay leaf)
8 small new potatoes
8 baby carrots, peeled
8 small turnips, peeled and halved
8 shallots, peeled
2 cups freshly shelled English peas
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 350°. Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Heat the butter and oil in a large oven proof Dutch oven over medium-high heat and brown the lamb on all sides. Remove to a plate.
Reduce the heat to low and add the chopped onion and cook gently until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the flour and cook until light blonde in color. Add the wine and stir to loosen the brown bits and from the bottom of the pan. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock, and tomato purée. Return the lamb to the Dutch oven and add the bouquet garni; Season with salt and pepper.
Bring to a boil and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Transfer to the heated oven and cook until the lamb is just beginning to become tender, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and add the potatoes, carrots, turnips, and onions. Cover and return to oven and bake and 30 minutes. Add the peas and cover and return to oven and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Remove and discard the bouquet garni. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve straight from the casserole with a loaf of crusty French bread.
I took the above photograph a few weeks ago at the Chapel Hill Farmer’s Market. It was a rainy Saturday morning, overcast and cool. The light can be so nice on days like that. I just love this photo, but I can’t claim too much credit. At this farmer’s market, like many, there was not much to do. Just point and shoot! I would really like to take photography classes. (In my spare time! Ok – maybe a reward for when I complete my second book proposal.)
These deviled eggs are amazing. It’s very important to puree the yolk mixture completely, and really I prefer using a sieve or tamis. This prevents lumps and makes the mixture so much smoother as well as prettier. This is another one of those recipes that there are very few ingredients which makes the technique is so important.
I made these once for a political fundraiser at my friend Melita Easter’s house, attended by the governor of Georgia, who stood there and practically ate the whole plate. The secret is butter, a tip I picked up in culinary school that takes this Southern staple from delicious to sublime and renders people unable to use the sense God gave a cat to stop eating. (more…)
I’ve had great success with my newsletter and after a few sessions at IACP last week have decided to venture into the blogosphere. I thought I would start with sharing a recipe for Easter.
Bon Appétit Y’all!
Herb-crusted Fresh Ham
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon
- 1/2 teaspoon dried untreated lavender flowers
- Half of a fresh bone-in ham 6 to 8 pounds, preferably shank end, with skin
- Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups chicken stock or low-fat reduced-sodium chicken broth
To prepare the ham, in a small bowl, combine the thyme, rosemary, tarragon, and lavender. Season the ham with salt and pepper. Rub the herb mixture all over the ham and set aside to marinate and come to room temperature, 30 to 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the herb-crusted ham in a roasting pan. Bake approximately 25 minutes per pound, or until the internal temperature reaches 150°F on an instant-read thermometer inserted near the bone, 2 to 21/2 hours. Remove from the oven to a rack. Tent the ham loosely with aluminum foil and let stand until the center of the ham registers 155° to 160°F on the instant-read thermometer, 25 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, to make the sauce, pour the pan drippings into a fat separator. Remove and discard the fat. Transfer the drippings into a small saucepan to make the jus. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to medium to keep warm until serving. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.
Once the ham has rested, transfer to a cutting board, carve, and serve with the jus on the side.