Here's a sweet nosegay of violets, uncovered today in the Ongoing Excavations of Rodney. It'll have to get you by til the real ones bloom, my dears. Or you can go to Ms. Moon's, and look at her deliciously delicate white violet.
The Countdown to Katie is in full swing, and I've been thinking about how my welcomes always include food (I know, I know) and then, inevitably, about what to cook. This is partly because of me, because of my history and my roots and my crazy family and Why We Are Fat, but as Monty Woolley says in The Man Who Came to Dinner, "Yes, yes, we won't discuss that". It is also, at least on this occasion, because I've been thinking of the relative privations of living in a country, on a continent, where much of what we take for granted is simply not there. Katie called me a few months ago to ask how to make buttermilk. She knew it could be done but couldn't remember the proportions; she was cooking for Adam and something needed buttermilk. A few days later she emailed and said whatever it was had been wonderful, especially considering that she'd made buttermilk out of canned milk, because fresh milk, what my mother used to call "sweet milk", was an hour's drive away. Eggs were the same. So since she's had to be without these riches we hardly give a thought to enjoying, it seems to me that the thing to do would be welcome her with the, er, fatted calf, with apologies to my vegetarian friends, who are legion.
I am thinking of our old favorite chocolate cake, a Susan Purdy recipe I won't share with you here, but you can find it in A Piece of Cake, and you'll be glad you did. It calls for buttermilk. Before I was given a copy of this invaluable Biblical reference for cakemakers by our dear Lis, I used cake mixes. I was raised with cake mixes. But when you make a few cakes from scratch you discover a couple of things. One is that cake mixes don't really save you much time. Another more critical fact is this: cake mixes are made with chemically-treated flour. When you taste the difference for yourself, there's no going back. So I was thinking of the chocolate buttermilk cake, to celebrate a missed birthday.
And because I was busy sharing the Angel Biscuit recipe with you, the thought of fried chicken came to me. My menfolk will tell you that this is something I only cook once or twice a year, usually for celebratory occasions. Generally speaking they believe to a man that it should be served every other evening, but you'll know right away that it's not good for you and is a luxury to be savored on rare and memorable occasions. This is partly because its inseparable, more or less, from its many friends and relations, which include biscuits, of course, and usually mashed potatoes and what is called in the South "milk gravy". I think I might fry chicken for this wonderfully savor-able occasion, so I thought I'd tell you how to make it, in case you ever need to know. You can make it rather less bad if you use smart things like skim milk and reasonable serving portions, and boneless skinless chicken breast meat instead of pieces of chicken. However you decide to do it, here are the secrets to success.
Black cast iron skillets are highly recommended, but if you don't have one, use whatever you have, as long as it has a lid. Season enough flour to coat the chicken and leave some to make the roux for the gravy. This may take a couple of cups of flour, depending on how much you need, but make plenty. It's easy enough to throw away the extra but hard to recover from in mid-fry. Use salt and plenty of pepper, and whatever else you like: marjoram, rosemary, fresh or dried parsley and thyme...the salt and pepper are mandatory. The best pepper is that nice stuff that comes in different colors, fresh ground, but you know how to do this for your people so they'll like it. Put enough oil in your skillet to fry the chicken, but remember you're not deep-frying; you probably need an inch or so evenly across the bottom of your skillet. I use canola oil, but you can use peanut or safflower or whatever you prefer. Be sure it's an oil that can tolerate a heat, especially if you're frying chicken with bones; it takes longer to cook. Make sure the oil is well heated to what you might think of as medium high if you used an electric stove; this is one of the places the recipe might become science if I knew enough. I don't, so it's still art for me and you'll have to use your good cook judgement. Salt and pepper your chicken, too, but mostly pepper.
Dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour. In my family there is no dipping of the chicken in buttermilk, or any extra liquid at all. Just dredge. Place the pieces of chicken (carefully!) in the skillet, making sure not to crowd. Feed the pan (which means, sprinkle more flour on top of the chicken) and cover the skillet. This is the magic part. If you don't feed the pan, you won't have those tasty crunchy bits to season the roux for you and the gravy will taste like milk and flour. And you can only do this on the first side you cook; once you turn the chicken your opportunity passes. Leave the cover on the chicken until you're ready to turn it. The time will vary, depending on what you're cooking: if you have three chicken breasts with bones in your skillet, you let it cook for 15 or 20 minutes before you turn it. If you're doing boneless breast meat, it takes about half that time.
When you're ready to turn the chicken - this is the super top secret part you canNOT tell ANYone, and I am not kidding - turn this chicken and DO NOT put the lid back on. The lid has helped you steam your chicken to perfect white doneness and set the fine crumb coating. If you put the lid on after you turn the chicken, the breading will fall off and you'll throw the whole mess away. Peek at the chicken until the second side is nicely browned and you know you've cooked it long enough. (Make a test piece of a breast or thigh if you haven't done this before, and you'll get an idea how long it takes to cook.)
After the chicken is done, pour off the extra oil and leave just enough in the skillet to make a roux. This is purely art, my loves. Add seasoned flour until the oil is "taken up" and you can see a nice thick roux forming, stirring all the time. You want this to be as brown as it can be without even hinting at burning. As soon as you're happy with that color, add enough milk to thin the roux to the right consistency and cook as it thickens, usually another 5 minutes, perhaps a little longer. To reduce the fat, you can use half skim milk and half water if you like. The flavor is going to come from that feeding of the pan you did earlier and your beautiful dark brown roux, anyway.
Don't try to do this for a dinner party tomorrow night if you've never done it before. It's one of those recipes you have to try a few times before you do it for show. But it's completely worth it. I think Katie will love it, don't you think so? It's a good bit of work and care, this chicken, but it says, Welcome home, my dear old one. Welcome home.