Poultry FOR THE Platter

EUGENIA UHL

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Being a seafood town, we may not eat as much chicken as they do in Dayton, Ohio; Minneapolis, Minn.; or Santa Fe, N.M., but we hold our own as the home of Popeyes, not to mention our knack for French and Italian translations.

Our French heritage makes us no stranger to chicken bonne femme and coq au vin. And, honing our skills on oysters and shrimp, we can fry as well as the best of them. My husband, Doug, often orders fried chicken in seafood restaurants because he says they know how to do it right. Louisiana also shares the invention of beer-can chicken with Texas, crediting our Lake Charles neighbors.

So maybe some of us don’t eat chicken on Fridays. We make up for it the rest of the time with Mosca’s-style Italian chicken, down-home smothered chicken served with mashed potatoes and dinner-party coq au vin, a recipe we got from our ancestors in France.

According to the National Chicken Council, Louisiana produces less chicken than any other southern state. We are spending our time setting crab traps and hauling in shrimp, but that doesn’t mean we don’t eat chicken. Let us be honest: We eat chicken when we don’t know what else to eat – and that’s a lot of chicken.

The South is known for its fried chicken. There are many versions, but the key is frying it in hot oil – about 325 degrees. The late Austin Leslie of Chez Helene, and later Jacques-Imo’s and Pampy’s Creole Kitchen, was famous for his fried chicken. He said he could tell when it was done by the sound of the oil cooking. He learned from his mother, who could cut 13 pieces out of one chicken, how to dip his chicken in an egg wash and flour, and fry it in peanut oil until at least part of each piece floated in the oil.

If you listen to a lot of culinary professionals, they’ll say there’s nothing better than the perfectly roasted chicken. That usually means tender inside, crispy outside and not overcooked. Whether you baste it with butter, olive oil or with nothing at all doesn’t really matter. What makes the difference is the length of cooking time and the temperature.

The simple roasting of a chicken is worth far more than the effort required, according to the guru herself in From Julia Child’s Kitchen:

“From that marvelous aroma of roasting that fills the air to the first plunge of the knife down through its brown skin, the juices pearling at the break in the second joint as the carving begins, and finally that first mouthful, roast chicken has always been one of life’s greatest pleasures.”

I have become a fan of Sam Club’s rotisserie chickens. They are tender, crispy, not overcooked and have the added advantage of being large, unlike some of the supermarket variety. A Sam’s chicken lasts the two of us three days, not necessarily consecutive. For the first meal, I try to buy the chicken late in the afternoon so it will still be warm for dinner. A day or two later, I’ll debone the chicken and boil the bones and skin for a stock for chicken noodle soup. I chop the dark meat and add it after sautéing onions, celery and garlic in butter, adding the stock and boiling the noodles. With the leftover breast meat, I make chicken salad for a great lunch. Three meals for $4.98 – you can’t beat that!

Another of my very favorites is the rotisserie chicken at Zea’s. You can do this at home if you have a rotisserie, so I got a few tips from chef-owner Greg Reggio. “What makes your chicken so good?” I asked.

Three things, maybe four, he said. “We use only the freshest chicken; we brine it to give it flavor and add moisture; and we use a dry rub for flavor to the skin.” The fourth is the large rotating rotisserie that constantly bastes the chickens with dripping fat.

Reggio, whose restaurants sell 462,000 whole chickens a year, thinks a good measure of a cook’s talent is how well he or she cooks the simplest of items, i.e. a chicken. And his No. 1 tip is to use a high-quality thermometer. Even at Zea’s, the doneness of rotisserie chickens is judged by thermometers. The perfect temperature is between 180 and 185 degrees, he says, at the thickest portion of the thigh and leg. “That is the most valuable tool.”

But if you want a crispy skin, don’t baste – at least not in the advanced stages of cooking. During the last 15 minutes of roasting, the oven temperature should be high with no basting for the skin to be crispy.

Cooks concerned with food safety should use a meat thermometer to measure doneness. Dark meat needs to cook to a higher temperature, usually around 180 degrees, while 165 degrees is considered safe for most cooked food, including boneless chicken breasts. This is because of the different texture and higher fat content of dark meat. The deep-fry thermometer will assure proper frying for good taste and texture. Too high a temperature can burn the outside while the inside needs more cooking.

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