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.
1 chicken, 4-pounds
Salt, pepper and Creole seasoning
Fresh herbs such as rosemary, parsley
2 Tablespoons butter, melted
Preheat oven to 450 degrees
Rinse chicken and pat dry inside and out. Sprinkle with seasonings inside and out, and place herbs in the cavity.
Loosen the skin on the sides of the breast with your finger, being careful not to break it. Slide some herbs underneath the skin on both sides. Set the chicken on a rack in a roasting pan. Tie legs together with string. Tuck wing tips under thighs. Brush chicken with butter.
Cut a triangle cover out of aluminum foil to cover the breast for the first 20 minutes of baking. After 20 minutes, remove the foil, brush chicken with butter again and continue roasting for 30 minutes, until done. Insert a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh or leg. Temperature should be between 180 to 185 degrees. Remove from oven and let the chicken set for 15 minutes before serving.
Add a little water to the pan and return pan to oven for about 5 minutes to make a thin gravy (au jus) for serving with the chicken.
1 chicken, cut in pieces
Salt, pepper and cayenne pepper
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups flour
1 large onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chicken stock
Rinse chicken well and pat dry with paper towels. Remove as much fat as possible from chicken. Place on wax paper or paper towels. Mix together 1/2-teaspoon salt, 1/2-teaspoon black pepper and 1/4-teaspoon cayenne pepper.
Sprinkle mixture on all sides of chicken pieces.
Heat oil to hot (high) in a large heavy skillet or pot. Place flour in a large bowl. Dredge chicken in flour and shake off excess. Place chicken in skillet, skin side down. Brown in batches so as not to crowd skillet. Move chicken around to keep it from sticking. Turn to brown on both sides. Do not cook through. Browning should take about 2 minutes on each side in a very hot skillet. Take chicken pieces out and place on a rack to drain.
In remaining oil, sauté onion slices and garlic briefly. Add chicken stock, 1/4-teaspoon salt, 1/4-teaspoon black pepper and 1/8-teaspoon cayenne pepper. Return chicken to skillet, skin side up, spooning some of the onions on top of the chicken. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until chicken is done, about 20 minutes. To test doneness, take out one of the dark pieces and pierce with a fork to see if juices run clear. Serve with mashed potatoes.
1 chicken, whole
3 ounces beer
1 teaspoon liquid crab boil
1 teaspoon liquid smoke
Clean chicken and pat dry. Sprinkle inside and out with Creole seasoning.
Light a charcoal grill and bring temperature to hot.
Meanwhile, pour a can of beer into a measuring cup. Measure 3 ounces and pour it back into the can. Add crab boil and liquid smoke.
When fire is ready, place chicken on top of beer can so that the chicken is sitting up with legs just touching the grill with the can inside the cavity of the chicken. Cover grill and cook for one hour and 20 minutes. Do not open grill during cooking. The result should be a very moist chicken. Several chickens can be cooked like this at one time – just line them in a row over the fire.
Note: A handful of wet hickory chips can be placed over the coals after they’re hot to give a smoky taste.
1 chicken, 2 1/2-to-3-pounds
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
10 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon Italian seasoning
1 cup dry white wine
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Tabasco®
Cut chicken into 8 pieces. Cut breasts into 3 pieces each. Rinse, dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Heat oil in large heavy skillet. When hot, brown chicken pieces, moving around and turning, until brown on both sides. Remove chicken from skillet. Reduce heat and sauté garlic for 1 minute. Add remaining ingredients, including all but breast pieces of chicken. Simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add breast pieces and simmer for 5 to 10 more minutes, or until chicken is done but not overcooked. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Serve hot with pan juices and hot Italian or French bread for dunking.
2 whole chickens
Salt, pepper, garlic powder and
Barbecue sauce (optional)
Split chickens through the breast sides, leaving each chicken in a flat single piece. Rinse and pat dry. Season liberally with salt, pepper, garlic powder and Creole seasoning.
Build a large charcoal fire and spread a thin layer of coals when white-hot. The coals should be about 5 inches below cooking grill. Or, light a gas grill and heat to high. Cooking grill should be cleaned and oiled.
Place chickens on grill skin side down and grill until browned. Brown other side. Lower heat to medium and grill, turning occasionally, until done. Temperature of thigh meat should be 180 degrees on a meat thermometer.
If using barbecue sauce, apply thinly with brush 5 or 10 minutes before chicken is done, turning often and applying as much sauce as desired. Watch closely as the sauce can burn quickly.
Coq Au Vin
1 chicken, 3 1/2-to-4-pounds, cut into pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 strips thick-cut bacon
1 onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
Good quality pinot noir or burgundy, about 1 cup
1 Tablespoon chicken base*
2 bay leaves, fresh or dried
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
8 ounces whole fresh mushrooms
2 Tablespoons cognac
1 Tablespoon butter, softened
1 Tablespoon flour
1 Tablespoon minced parsley
Salt and pepper the chicken generously. In a large, heavy skillet, fry the bacon until crisp. Remove bacon to paper towels. In the bacon fat, plus enough olive oil to cover 1/8-inch of skillet, brown the chicken, moving and turning often, until brown on both sides. Remove chicken to a plate and set aside. Chicken should not be done at this point.
In the same fat, sauté onions until soft, add garlic and sauté a minute more. Stir in red wine and chicken base.
When smooth, add bay leaves and thyme. Return chicken to skillet and simmer over low heat until chicken is done, about 15 minutes, turning pieces over about halfway through cooking. Do not overcook chicken. Add mushrooms and cognac and cook 5 minutes more.
Mix butter and flour, forming into a ball. Add to skillet, stirring until smooth and thickened. Adjust seasonings. If sauce is too thick, add a little more wine. Add parsley, sprinkle with crumbled bacon and remove from heat.
*Available in supermarkets next to bouillon cubes.
Southern Fried Chicken
1 chicken, 3 1/2-to-4 pounds, cut into pieces
2 cups milk
2 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper or to taste for spicier
Vegetable oil for frying
Trim chicken of excess fat and cut breasts in half. Rinse chicken pieces and pat dry. Pour milk in a large bowl and add chicken.
Meanwhile, mix seasonings with flour in a large bag, such as a brown paper grocery bag.
Pour about 1-inch of oil into frying pan. Heat oil to high heat (325 degrees). Or heat a deep fryer, such as a Fry Daddy, to 325. Place a sheet of wax paper next to the bag of flour.
Take chicken pieces one at a time from milk, draining slightly, and shake in a bag of flour. Shake off excess flour and place on wax paper. Continue until all pieces are floured. Place chicken in heated skillet in a single layer. Do not overcrowd. If all chicken does not fit into skillet, fry in batches or in two skillets. Move pieces around and fry for about 10 to 12 minutes on each side, turning when necessary. If chicken is browning too fast, reduce heat to medium.
Check chicken for doneness by removing a piece from the pan, piercing it and making sure the juices run clear. Or test with a meat thermometer for 180 degrees. White pieces will get done sooner than dark ones. When done, place on racks over paper towels to drain fat and then on platter.
To make chicken gravy: After frying chicken, remove all fat from the skillet except for about 2 Tablespoons. Leave some browned bits in the skillet but not if they look burned. Mix 3/4-cup water and 3/4-cup whole milk in a 2-cup measuring cup. Heat oil to medium-hot and add 2 Tablespoons flour, stirring constantly until flour is browned to a peanut butter color. Reduce heat and gradually pour in water-milk mixture, stirring constantly, and cook until thickened. If needed, add salt and pepper. Serve over mashed potatoes or rice with fried chicken.
Chicken Bonne Femme
1 chicken, 3 1/2-to-4 pounds, quartered
with backbone removed
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
2 large potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
Rinse chicken and pat dry. Liberally season the chicken with salt and pepper.
Heat oil in a large heavy skillet or pot. When hot, fry chicken skin up for about 10 minutes. Turn and fry 10 minutes on the other side. Chicken should be browned and juices should run clean when pierced with a fork. Remove chicken from skillet. Let it drain first on a wire rack and transfer onto a large platter.
With oil still hot, fry potatoes until browned and crisp. Drain and place around chicken on the platter. Place garlic in a small strainer and dip into the hot oil for about 30 seconds. Remove and mix with parsley. Sprinkle garlic-parsley over chicken and serve.