This month, we bring you a very special “Eat This, Drink That.” Normally, we pick a theme for the month’s post, find an appropriate recipe, and then muddle through as best we can, with Google as our sous chef. But this month, we brought in the professionals for a real schooling in one of the tenets of Southern cuisine. The dish? Fried chicken. And the pro? That would be Southern Cook Extraordinaire Gaga, aka Scout’s grandmother. She’s famous in Eastern Kentucky and, as a friend of ours puts it “universally loved,” not to mention an expert in all things chicken-fried, bourbon-soaked, and gravy-topped. This started as a lesson, turned into an observation of her exemplary skills, and ended with a feast for all. Here’s how it went down.
For this recipe, you will need: chicken (Gaga’s recipe calls for a four-pound bird, cut into pieces, but a pack of drumsticks or equivalent would do just as well), flour, buttermilk, paprika, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and a butt load of vegetable oil (at least a quart). We used this recipe as a guideline, but cooking with Gaga has no exact measurements. First things first, examine your chicken. Remove the breasts from the bone, and use some heavy implement (meat tenderizer, rolling pin, etc.) to pound them down to an even thickness. This ensures that they will cook evenly. Drumsticks require no pounding and can be cooked as is. Step two, combine two cups of flour, one teaspoon of paprika, 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, and plenty of salt and pepper in a Ziploc bag and shake to combine (Like we said, these are more like guidelines than actual rules. You just want to make sure you have enough flour to evenly coat all of your chicken. And don’t be shy with the spices; we found the teaspoons the recipe called for didn’t provide quite enough flavor for our palettes). Next, to prepare for the flour-coating portion of the evening, you’ll need to pour your buttermilk into a casserole dish or large bowl, and place a wire cooling rack on top of a cookie sheet in preparation for your chicken. For easier clean up, line the cookie sheet with aluminum foil.
Now comes the shake and bake portion of the evening. Scout’s great grandmother, Granny McCoy, used to say, “I like to dredge my breasts in buttermilk and then fry them in hot oil,” to which Gaga and the Momma would reply, “That sounds painful!” But dredge and fry we did. Dredging involves coating your chicken thoroughly in buttermilk. Once it’s completely covered, allow the excess liquid to drip off, put the chicken in the bag with your dry ingredients, and shake until completely coated. Make sure you get all chicken nooks and chicken crannies, and then place each piece on your rack. (Note: At this point, Gaga kind of took over, as she’s been known to do. But we continued to learn!) Once all your chicken has been thoroughly dredged and floured, leave it to set for a while. This step is of utmost importance: You need to wait until the flour has taken on a paste-like consistency. As Gaga put it when she placed the final drumstick to set, “There we go. And now, a very important part of the process: We have a cocktail.”
The Gaga had spoken, and so we turned to Zelda’s portion of the evening: the cocktail. She had a few goals this month: to make something Christmas-themed, to conquer a classic cocktail, and to bust out her shaker in earnest. Inspiration came in the form of a post by her favorite ex-pat food blogger, David Lebovitz, and his Rosemary Gimlet. He had her at rosemary and sealed the deal with gin, the classiest (and tastiest) of the clear alcohols in her book.
This drink is super easy to make while also being thoroughly impressive, every hostess’s favorite combo, but it does require some prep. A traditional gimlet contains only two elements — gin and lime juice — but for this holiday version, you need to make a rosemary-infused simple syrup for an herbal twist. But fear not, while this does require a bit of forethought, it is not difficult. Simply put ½ cup of sugar, ½ cup of water, and 2 tablespoons of coarsely chopped fresh rosemary in a small saucepan (if you want to make many drinks, or have some yummy herbal syrup left over for future use, you can up the quantities, sticking to a one-to-one sugar-to-water ratio). Heat until the mixture is hot and the sugar has fully dissolved (it does not need to come to a boil), then remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. Once it’s cool, strain out the rosemary and put the syrup in the fridge to chill further (ideally in a container that is easy to pour from — Zelda used a Pyrex measuring pitcher).
Her syrup thus made an hour or so before her guests arrived, Zelda was prepared, when her moment came, to assemble some delicious cocktails for her audience. This recipe comes to you in three parts. Step one, measure 2 ounces of gin, ¾ ounce of the rosemary syrup, and ¾ ounce of fresh lime juice into a cocktail shaker (Zelda recently purchased the Oggi Marilyn model and is in love, two thumbs up!). Step two, fill your shaker halfway with ice, preferably crushed (but cubed will do just fine should you find yourself sans ice crusher). Step three, shake for approximately 30 seconds, while doing your best Mamrie Hart impression. Pour into your glass (David calls for the glass to be both stemmed and frozen, of which we managed to accomplish half), garnish with a sprig of rosemary, and enjoy!
Oh man, guys. This might be our most successful cocktail to date. The gimlets were delicious, potent, and pretty, checking all of our beverage boxes. Zelda whipped up some vodka alternatives for the non-gin drinkers (aka the Momma and Gaga), and sampled some herself when the gin ran out, and they worked just as well. Even Zelda, who is not a big vodka gal, approved, declaring that she couldn’t taste the Russian spirit at all (like we said, these things are dangerously yummy). All in all, we give it our highest recommendation: easy, impressive, delicious, deadly, and 100% Z&S approved. Now back to the chicken!
Now that all of us were sufficiently buzzed on gimlets, it was time to play with hot oil (Do not drink and fry, kids. Professionals were on hand)! Once the chicken was pasty enough for Gaga’s liking, we poured about two inches of vegetable oil (about a quart) into a large skillet (if you have a cast iron skillet, that’s ideal, otherwise a general non-stick will do) and turned up the heat. You need to wait until the oil is good and VERY hot (375 degrees is ideal) before you start adding the meat. Pro tip: If you, like Zelda, don’t have a thermometer to test your oil, you can use a piece of bread. If you throw it in and it sizzles up immediately, you’re good to go. At this point, we were throwing back gimlets with abandon, but Gaga continued her efforts to educate us in the art of fried chicken, and to provide three hungry Brooklyn girls (Scout’s roommate joined the party) and a Southern Momma with a bona fide Southern meal.
Once your oil is ready, place as many pieces of chicken as will comfortably fit into the pan (do not crowd the chicken). Like any good lover, you want to start with the breasts, since the white meat takes longer to cook. Let the chicken brown thoroughly on both sides (you’ll need tongs to turn the pieces over), turn down the heat, cover the pan, and let the chicken continue to cook for about half an hour, or until it’s cooked through (Have another drink in the interim. It’s the Gaga way.). You’ll know it’s done when you can stick a knife in and the meat is good and tender and the juices run clear (if you have a meat thermometer, your chicken should be 165 degrees inside). Once your chicken is cooked through, remove the lid and turn the heat back up to achieve maximum crispiness. Once well-crisped, remove from the skillet and place on a paper towel-lined plate to cool. Add your favorite Southern side dish (we opted for mac and cheese), and enjoy!
And enjoy we did. The chicken could have used a little more kick (see note above about not being stingy with those spices), but it was crispy on the outside and tender and moist on the inside, just like the Good Lord intended. With some Stouffer’s Mac & Cheese on the side, gimlets in our bellies, and Gaga to see us through, it was an evening of all-around, home-cooked Kentucky goodness. Happy frying to y’all, and to y’all a good night.