Saturday, August 28, 2010

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Recipe!

Sometimes cooking with a chef can be a bit frustrating.  I'm not talking about a critical eye cast on your knife skills or mise en place, or vague, not-really-compliments on the finished results.  No, Miss Chef has always been very good about letting me make my own mistakes, and very careful about only stepping in when I'm ready for help.  And there are a couple of dishes I make that she's perfectly content to leave in my charge, she enjoys them so much.  So cooking with her is generally fun and rewarding.

The problem with "cheffy" cooking is when I ask her for a recipe.

Oh, sure, chefs use recipes--at work.  But at home, a recipe consists mainly of ingredients and method.  As for the rest... 
Measurements?  "A bunch."  "Some."  "To taste."
Temperature?  Anywhere from "really low" to "rocket hot." 
And my favorite:  How long?  "'Til it's done."

One year, for my mother's birthday, I wanted to deliver a "kit" to make a squash gratin.  I still remember cornering Miss Chef in the kitchen, to wrench actual numbers from her and try to nail down something more specific than "I dunno, somewhere between 300 and 350 degrees."  My mother, being raised in a very German household, cooks by the numbers.  I knew a recipe that concluded with "...until it's done" wouldn't be a very good gift.

All of this is just a prelude to sharing a few dishes we've been having fun with over the past week.  I just want you to appreciate how unusual it is for me to have anything like a recipe to share with you!

Last Sunday, between a new issue of Cook's Illustrated, rewatching an old Good Eats episode, and Week 8 of Miss Chef's skills class, we were both in the mood for homemade fried chicken.  This has got to be one of my most favorite foods ever.  But I've only ever done oven-fried chicken, and I wanted to know how to do it for real.  All the way...I wanted to know how to go from this:

image found here

to this:

(This was my lunch for the next day...I was too busy eating to get a picture of dinner!)

I'm not going to give you a tutorial of breaking down a chicken...but you can go to the link below the first picture if you'd really like one!  Miss Chef very patiently coached me through the steps of removing wings, legs and breasts, placing each piece in a baking dish as they came off.  I can't say I'm ready to tackle another one on my own, but I think I could figure it out.  Hooray for hands-on learning!

The next step for our all-American Sunday Fried Chicken was a long soak in buttermilk.  The acid in it tenderizes the meat, and if you add salt or other seasonings it can draw them into the flesh as well.

We let the chicken marinate for two or three hours, then pulled it out and used Alton Brown's seasoning method.  He adds something like a rub mixture under the flour, to protect it from burning.  This is what I used:

2 tsp. garlic powder (not salt)
2 tsp. paprika
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cayenne
a bunch of fresh-ground black pepper

These amounts were more than enough; if you like more kick to your chicken (like, if you live in New Mexico and have a holiday involving chile roasting), you will want to add more spice, and make sure it's not a million years old like ours is!

Anyway, I very generously sprinkled both sides of the pieces with that mixture, dredged it in the flour and tapped off as much excess as possible.  In the meantime, Miss Chef had heated up some (canola) oil in our trusty iron skillet.  Alton says heat it to 350 degrees; Miss Chef does some magical thing dropping wisps of flour in.

Once the oil was hot enough, we fried the chicken about 12 minutes a side.  Alton loads it in very specifically: the smaller, faster-cooking breasts and drumsticks on the outside, thighs in the center.  With all that expert advice, this raw beginner managed to make some amazing fried chicken--moist and tender, just the way it should be.  I think the buttermilk helped a lot...and of course, so did Miss Chef.


If any of you have been paying close attention to the comments, you'll have noticed I seem to have picked up a stalker!  (Just kidding!)  Joanna of BooneDocks Wilcox posted a recipe for German potato salad a while ago, and I commented that my mother had a slightly different recipe.  And Joanna wants it!  Well, Joanna, I'm not sure it's what you were looking for--I think I had told you it didn't have mustard in it, and this one does.  I'm not even sure this is the recipe I was thinking of, because Mom wasn't sure she still had it.

However, this is from a 1960 Amish Country Cookbook, so it's gotta be somewhat authentic, right??  You'll notice the directions are pretty cut and dry!

5 well-cooked potatoes
3 tbsp. sugar
1/2 cup celery, diced
2 tbsp. flour
2 onions, chopped fine
1/2 cup vinegar
2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup water
8 slices bacon
1 tbsp. finely chopped parsley
1/4 tsp. dry mustard
3 hard-boiled eggs

Cut potatoes as small as desired, slice eggs. Put in casserole. Add celery and onions. Cook bacon slowly until lightly brown or crisp. Add bacon to potatoes.

Mix mustard, sugar, flour, water, vinegar and 4 tablespoons bacon dripping and boil. Pour over potatoes. Put casserole where it will keep hot.
You'll notice that the author didn't have to specify the "German" in this recipe.  My favorite sentence: "Put in casserole."  Yes Ma'am!

Ok Joanna, I hope this satisfies your craving!  If not, there's also a recipe in there for potato pancakes...

Of course, I've saved dessert for last!  Miss Chef was just reading the May issue of Saveur (it takes her a while to get through her various food magazines), when a recipe for orange-scented olive-oil cake just reached out and grabbed her.  Every once in a while this happens while I'm not around, and the next thing I know, she's stocking up on ingredients, no matter how unusual or specific to the recipe.

She whipped this up Thursday night after dinner, and the entire house smelled indescribably delicious.  Which highlights the two reasons I felt compelled to share it with you: it's super easy and amazingly tasty.  Plus, there are no unusual ingredients to stock up on!

I wish you all could smell this baking; it's the most satisfying food odor ever.  Oh wait...yes, you can smell this!  Just head to this page, print out the recipe and get baking!  (Oh, and it only serves one, if your counter-surfing dog has anything to say about it.  Good thing our 9" cake pan was too small to hold it all, and we ended up with some extra little ones!)

Of course, Miss Chef has to go her own way with everything...she planned on using the water from the last simmering of the oranges to make the glaze...but then she tasted it.  And it somehow ended up in a glass on the rocks, with a generous splash of Grand Marnier, a soupçon of vodka and a couple of brandied cherries.  We still haven't named it, but it's a refreshing summer libation.


  1. Your cake looks more delicious that the one in the magazine. Really. I can almost smell yours.

  2. Oh how I hate to cook! However, after reading this blog post I may have to get busy! I'm still giggling over how quickly your glaze turned into a libation....!!!

    Nancy in Iowa


    check out Art Smith's Fried Chicken

    Like you said, I think marinating the chicken beforehand is the key.
    Thank you so much for the potato salad recipe, however, the actual one I'm searching for is one that you pour a warm eggyolk-vinegar-sugar-little flour mixture over warm potatoes, it's incredible.

  4. What a culinary adventure! I too need to cook with recipes and envy those who don't. :)

  5. The fried chicken looks delicious! I appreciate the cooking tips and recipes.

  6. You had me at fried chicken. It's my favorite too, but I've never made it-- The hot grease always scares me away. But the potato salad and the cake I can do. Thanks for the tips!

    Cheers, jj

  7. I am playing catch up with everyones blog.
    I have to say everytime I read yours I get hungry!
    And I very much appreciate the recipes.
    As for cutting up a whole chicken, nope, don't know how to do that. Mainly because I only eat skinless, boneless chicken breasts.
    Please give Rosie a hug from me.


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