I think that brain matter, likewise, has to muscle into the preparation of this recipe.
I don’t know about you but my memory is starting to play up in certain spheres. I used to be blessed with a very fine memory, one that came in most useful during the final weeks preceding examinations; I was an adept swotter with a quasi OCD approach to note-and-rote learning, with close to photographic results. But there is another kind of memory that nearly always comes to my aid. To this day, friends and family will remark on how extraordinary it is that I can still remember a series of events, or even the day of the week something happened. Well that, instead, I attribute to a very ordinary practice of logical sequencing, linking or deduction: putting two and two together, as it were. “How on earth do you remember that it was a Tuesday?” for instance, someone will ask. And I will answer, “Well, because I used to go to gymn classes on Tuedays, that’s how.” Nothing Sherlock Holmes about this, just plain ol’ Watson.
I did write a diary for a while, starting in my teens at boarding school. And one can’t deny that a diary involves some kind of memory function. Goodness knows what I wanted to record, to save for remembrance. I suppose it was a way of keeping time, of making sense of the uneventful progressing of the days. People sometimes wonder whether I had a hard time at boarding school and I answer no: in an age when it is all too easy to fingerpoint at horrid priests and nuns for the maltreatment of their pupils, I must attest to our nuns being actually very nice on the whole. But life at boarding school was hardly exciting, let’s face it, so my diary was mostly the jotting down of desultory homework requirements, disappointing match results of games played, or an unhoped for change in lunch menu; commenting on a spat between best friends or, yes!, the break-up even of best friends; the changes in mood due to an imminent menstrual period (we used to call it the ‘curse’) and the excitement of someone buying a new l.p. record. To this day I cannot bear certain songs (John Lennon’s Imagine for one) because we used to play such records to death, over and over again in the space of a few hours.
And I was always ‘pining’. Oh what a piner I was! Longing, awaiting, yearning for, moping, hankering after, languishing for, craving … you get the picture. I suppose it’s what many young girls feel while growing up? I can recognise much of myself in Anne Frank’s diary – being able to talk to yourself is a way of trying to make sense of things, of giving words to a troubling feeling, it can soothe restlessness, it can stimulate consciousness. There is a confessional side to writing a diary, an intimacy of ‘sharing’ that one only usually does with loved and trusted confidantes. What is life all about? Who can I consult? I did French for ‘A’ level and was totally taken by the whole existentialist outlook – with the underlying agnosticism or indeed Godlessness somehow not interfering whatsoever with my catholic religion. I asked hard questions at times, and I fell in love with Camus (never liked Sartre, horrid toad of a man, was not surprised later in life to discover that he used to require his girlfriend to pimp underage girls for him). One of the set books was Camus’s The Plague and ouff, how ironic that it should come to mind in this Spring of 2020. In the mid-seventies, his book could be read as a metaphor for the plague of recurring war (the Vietnam war was still going on), and as a generation we were indeed worried about the possibility of a nuclear war. And here we are – at the very start of the third decade of the 21st century, witnessing a very real virus-driven outbreak, who would have thought … who could have thought? Camus, like all good things, never goes out of fashion.
One thing I did know for sure: I wanted to ‘live’ and not merely ‘exist’. And yes, laugh if you will, but that desire is with me still. My idea of ‘living’ might not be yours, of course – travelling and travel of the mind, and friends and family are its four pillars. To each their own, as they say, and bringing life into this world, having children, has been my most memorable ‘achievement’, that which made me feel ‘alive’ as no other experience had ever previously done. Can it be altogether coincidental, I am asking myself as I write, that I began a blog round about the time I was dealing with the empty nest syndrome? (One child had already left home, and the other was about to.) I am not sure I would have started keeping a diary if I hadn’t gone to boarding school. Then, despite beloved friends with whom I am still close more than forty years later, it was my family I missed the most, my parents, my sisters, even our dog. The diary helped me cope with what was missing. And I can only surmise that the blog has served a similar purpose, this time the people missed being my children. And I am still asking hard questions. If you think about it, a blog is a bit like a diary, no? It’s about food all right but, also, food for thought.
Now that I’ve gone off at a tangent let me try to get back to the recipe and why I want to have it carved in blog-stone.
The main reason is that, fried chicken never goes out of fashion. And it requires a good batter. The second reason has to do with the slings and arrows of a failing memory. I want to get this recipe down pat, once and for all.
I have made chicken fried in batter at least a dozen times, and each time it’s been a bit different. The first attempt was based on a Nigella episode where I learned the crafty art of a) pre cooking the chicken in milk and b) shaking the chicken bits in a plastic bag filled with flour (or was it breadcrumbs, mmm?) to coat them – very clever trick indeed. Successive attempts always included egg somewhere in the recipe but it wasn’t until two years ago that I made a batter to coat the chicken, as opposed to just flour and breadcrumbs. And that was because my mother was harping on and on about how wonderful (“out of this world” according to her) our cook in Bangladesh’s fried chicken was. And could I try and replicate it? Which I dutifully and gastronomically did to general acclaim. Jolly good. Except, now, I can’t remember what I did!
I read quite a few food blogs and found myself being intrigued about fried chicken recipes. Some amount of marinading is always called for. A magical ingredient known as buttermilk (which we can’t get here in Italy) is presented as to a cut above yogurt. Seasoning ranges from family secrets to the ubiquitous salt, pepper and paprika. Some opt for chopped onion, others for dried garlic. Fresh herbs? Dry herbs? So much to consider, so many choices. The following are my conclusions, which I am most happy to reconsider based on any new information coming my way.
RECIPE and TIPS
Marinading – I don’t know what all the fuss is about. Chicken is tender, to me it doesn’t need marinading or tenderising. The tastiness comes from the spices you are going to add to the batter, not the marinade. So I give this step a miss. Shoot me.
Pre-Cooking the chicken: well done Nigella, as I already said. In this version, however, instead of simmering the chicken pieces in milk, I steamed them. It took about half an hour. Easy enough to do and one less ingredient to add to the list. The reason for pre-cooking is kind of obvious: when it comes to frying the chicken, it will take less time and you don’t have to worry about eating semi-raw chicken. All you have to be worried about is getting the batter to turn crisp. Note to self for next time: rub a little olive oil over the chicken parts and add some salt. I am sure this will enhance the overall taste.
(1)Eggs – egg whites only. There is a scientific (chemistry) reason why we should eschew the egg yolk. I think it has something to do with the crisp factor. I confess, I read about it but have forgotten why.
(2)Alcohol – I used grappa, you could use vodka or some other strong alcoholic drink (not wine and nothing sweet of course). Apparently, at high heat (and frying does require high heat), the alcohol evaporates and makes the batter extra crisp. We are talking about tablespoons of alcohol, not great big mugfulls!
(3a)Flours for the batter: both ordinary flour and corn flour/starch
(3b) Plain flour for coating the chicken pieces before immersing them in the batter; for flavouring, read below.
(5a)Dry spices and/or herbs: you choose what you like … paprika, allpice, parsley, thyme, rosemary – not mint or marjoram I shouldn’t think. Indeed, you don’t have to add any spices if you don’t want to. But salt and pepper, yes. Especially salt. No salt, no taste.
(5b) Fresh herbs: parsley, chives, dill, fresh coriander (even teensy amount of sage) finely chopped – but if so, add them to the batter only at the end, just before you fry the chicken.
(6)Fresh stuff: by ‘stuff’ I mean onion and garlic. Dry garlic is heaven sent and is what I used. I did use chopped onions on one occasion and it was a tad overwhelming – but that is a matter of personal taste. I suppose spring onions might be a good alternative? Whatever stuff you choose to include ‘fresh’, make sure you add it to the batter ONLY at the last minute. Otherwise it will dilute it.
(7a)Tomato paste – to add colour and a hint of acidity.
(7b)Grated lemon zest – to add freshness, but just a touch. If you are after a lemony fried chicken drumstick, then by all means add to your heart’s content.
(8)Slurry: there used to be an ad on British television about Murray Mints and the line was, “Never hurry a Murray, it’s far too good to hurry”. So, mutatis mutandis, it’s a good idea to take your time to make a proper slurry. Sounds awful, somehow, doesn’t it, conjuring up something slimy. The slurry basically IS the batter, just not a nice name for it. It will include beaten egg whites (I used three) diluted with cold water (you could use beer I suppose?) to which you will then add all the other ingredients mentioned above. The ratio of flours is 30 percent corn starch, 70 plain white flour, but you could even do 50/50 why not. The final consistency has to be fairly thick. Go ahead – taste it. You might want to add a je ne sais quoi to make it just right. Last: it’s not a bad idea to cool the batter in the fridge. A cold batter will ‘react’ with the hot oil for a crispier result.
(9)Frying oil: groundnut/peanut oil has a good smoke point.
PROCEDURE/METHOD – WHAT TO DO, IN OTHER WORDS, STEP BY STEP
(1)Coat the chicken pieces with olive oil, season and then steam for about half an hour or until ready. Remove from the pan and allow to cool completely.
(2)While the chicken is cooking, you can prepare the slurry/batter and put it in the fridge. .
(3)Dredge the cooled-down chicken pieces in a bowl full of seasoned flour (3b above). Alternatively, place this flour in a large plastic bag, slip the chicken pieces into the bag and shake it until they are evenly coated.
(4a) Place the floured chicken pieces on a rack or large plate, awaiting to be dunked in the batter before being fried.
(4b)Alternatively, place the chicken pieces in a bowl large enough to hold them, pour the batter over them so that it covers them completely, seal with clingfilm and put in the fridge until the next day. It’s okay for the batter to be cold but …but fridge-cold chicken will take longer to cook. Hence, it’s a good idea to remove the chicken from the fridge-cold batter at least one hour before frying.
(5)Heat the oil. It’s a good idea to use a deep frying pan. If you have one, even a Dutch oven works very well. When the oil is ready to receive the chicken (at around 180°C), first dunk each piece of chicken in the batter and proceed with frying in sensible batches (don’t fry them all at once).
Fried chicken makes everyone happy, it is festive. People of all ages like it, it is democratic, it can be eaten with one’s fingers. Fried chicken is a treat.
And, as we all know, fried chicken tastes fab eaten cold the next day. Great for a picnic! Remember Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in the picnic scene in To Catch a Thief ? Who says fried chicken can’t be sultry and sexy!
Here are some photos from my latest batch, cooked last Saturday and shared with my parents-in-law. There is something naughty about fried foods, isn’t there, and I wanted my in-laws to live a little – heartburn be damned.
Here are the cooked, cooled chicken pieces coated with spiced-up flour.
Here is one chicken piece about to be coated in the batter. Notice how slightly ‘pink’ it is in colour. That’s because of the tomato paste in the batter.
Frying away …
Just out of the frying pan and onto a white carpet of kitchen paper.
And this is one piece that got gobbled up by me before dinner. After I had sprinkled a little bit of salt over it. We had fried chips for dinner too. And home-made mayonnaise but not home-made ketchup.
We also had the above stuffed courgette blossoms fried in a different batter. Saturday night was definitely fried-food night! (Although in all fairness I did steam the asparagus.)
There were leftovers next day and we enjoyed those cold. I brought some over to my mother a day after that. And that’s when she told me she had notes for the fried chicken recipe of our cook in Bangladesh! The one she always raved about. Odd that she hadn’t mentioned she had the recipe before. It didn’t take her long to find the recipe notes, written on a sheet of paper bearing the letterhead of the company my stepfather used to work for. I must say looking at that letterhead really threw me back … decades ! Talk about bittersweet memories. Anyway, our cook was called Toka. Toka’s Fried Chicken might well be the title of another post from me in the not too distant future.