If a man cannot or will not cook, he is not a man. All REAL men – manly men, if you will – know how to cook, and by cook I don’t mean scurry around a studio kitchen yelling “BAM!” and cooking stuff most ordinary chefs don’t cook, like that wretched little Emeril does on his stupid Food Network show. Honestly…what kind of serious chef has his own studio band, complete with an African-American Doc Severinsen? I learned to cook because my mother – God rest her soul – was a superb cook. When I moved out and lived on my own, I had no choice but to teach myself the arcane ways of the kitchen. And now I happily pass what I have learned along to you, gentle reader.
Nevermind Col. Sanders and his mysterious blend of herbs and spices. Nevermind Popeye’s Cajun style fried chicken – in my opinion, vastly superior to KFC. Nevermind any other fast food or chicken chain out there that lays claim to serving the “best” fried chicken on the planet. They all pale in comparison to true Southern Fried Chicken (SFC) – which any ordinary Southerner serves for supper on a semi-regular basis – accompanied by milk gravy, mashed potatoes and collard greens.
Many years ago I had to travel to Columbia, South Carolina to testify as an expert witness in a civil trial. I arrived a day early to prepare for my testimony and that evening the attorney treated me to supper at a local restaurant that was renowned for its SFC and milk gravy – although the dish, for some reason, was a pricey one. Despite the fact that the barbecued ribs were highly recommended, I trusted my famished gut and opted for a plate of SFC, homemade “marshed” potatoes, milk gravy and collard greens on the side. I wasn’t disappointed: it was the best SFC I had ever tasted in my life. I asked the waitress if the chef could come to our table so I could compliment him personally and ten minutes later – after I polished off my third mint julep – he approached our table.
Insofar as discretion and better judgment had long since succumbed to the Kentucky bourbon in the juleps, I reverted to true Yankee form and asked the chef outright for the recipes. An insecure man would have declined, explaining that they were a closely guarded, hundred year-old family secret. But this chef chuckled, shrugged his shoulders and outlined, step-by-step, how he did it. Whether by the simplicity of the recipes or the bourbon in the juleps, I was floored – and never forgot what he explained to me because it was ridiculously simple.
The not-so-secret trick? The restaurant only used farm-raised, free range chickens (thus the high cost of the dish) and lard in the fryer. You read that correctly: LARD…rendered pig fat…the bane of food nazis worldwide. And the secret blend of herbs and spices? Heh…a not-so-secret blend of salt and black pepper.
2 free range fryer chickens, about 2-½ lb. each. (Bell & Evans chicken is recommended)
1 quart whole milk
¼ cup salt/pepper mixture (2 parts black pepper, 1 part kosher salt)
2 cups sifted all purpose flower
2 lbs. cooking lard
2 small onions, one cut in half and the other finely diced
1 celery stalk and 1 carrot stick, cut into pieces
With a sturdy knife or kitchen shears, remove the backbone of the chicken by cutting along both sides. Remove the wingtips. Place the chicken, breast side down, on a cutting board and cut the chicken into halves by cutting through the breastbone lengthwise. Cut off the wing at the joint that connects it to the breast, then cut each wing in half at the joint. Separate the leg from the breast. Cut the leg in half at the joint. Using a very sharp paring knife, remove each breast from the ribcage. Repeat with the remaining chicken. Each bird should yield 10 pieces.
Place the backbone, wingtips, and giblets — except for the liver — into a saucepan filled with one quart of spring water. Bring to a boil and add a whole onion (cut into halves) along with a stalk of celery and a carrot, cut into pieces. Reduce heat to medium and cook uncovered while you prepare the rest of the dish. Check from time to time: do not allow broth to reduce by more than half the volume.
Wash the chicken pieces in cold water and dry with a paper towel. Rub each piece generously with salt/pepper mixture and place on a platter. When all the pieces have been spiced, cover the platter and refrigerate for half an hour.
Pour milk into a large bowl and add the chicken pieces. Cover bowl and place in refrigerator for 2 hours.
In a gallon-size ziplock bag sift all of the flour and add the remaining salt/pepper mixture. Shake excess milk from each piece of chicken, place in the bag and shake until thoroughly coated. Place chicken pieces on a cooling rack and let sit on counter for 15 minutes. Reserve the milk.
Heat lard in a large cast iron pan (at least 12″ diameter) until it reaches a temperature of 375 degrees F. Cook the larger pieces first, starting with the breasts and thighs. Cook in batches to avoid crowding the pan. Place the pieces skin side down and allow to fry for 5 minutes. Turn over and fry other side for 5 minutes. Then repeat for a total of 20 minutes’ cooking time or until chicken is a deep golden brown and registers an internal temperature of 170 degrees F.
Remove pieces from fat to cooling rack on a cookie sheet where they can drain. Loosely tent with aluminum foil to keep warm.
Preparing the gravy
After all of the pieces have been fried, turn off heat and carefully pour off the lard from the pan until a quarter cup remains. Return pan to the stove, turn flame back up to high and add diced onions. Saute until the onion begins to turn brown.
Strain chicken broth and discard pieces and veggies. Pour all of broth into pan and bring to a boil, scraping bottom of pan with a spatula. Continue boiling until most of the broth has evaporated.
Add 2 cups of the reserved milk (add more milk if necessary) to the pan. Thoroughly whisk 2 heaping tablespoons of unseasoned flour with ½ cup of milk and strain to remove any lumps. When the mixture in the pan begins to simmer, whisk in the flour/milk mixture a little at a time and simmer until desired consistency is achieved. Simmer the gravy for 10 to 15 minutes more and adjust seasoning to taste.
Serve chicken and gravy with mashed potatoes, collard greens and freshly baked biscuits. This will be the best SFC and gravy you have ever tasted.
Buon Appetito and Happy New Year!