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On Cooking Southern: Go Ahead And Waffle Around With That Chicken

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SOUTHERNISM OF THE WEEK
Southern Fried: A term that refers to something soaked in Southern culture — like our fried chicken soaked in buttermilk and batter, and fried in grease. Or like any expression, food or cultural tradition unique to the region.

Southerners and chicken are a culinary match made in food heaven. We go together like bread and butter, salt and pepper, coffee and cream, or Eggs Benedict and hollandaise sauce. Or like other inseparable duos such as Justin and Jimmy, Batman and Robin, Beyoncé and Jay Z.

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Surely, it’s a fact proven in some survey somewhere that only a strong-willed vegetarian can resist the fragrant aroma of a good piece of perfectly cooked chicken. Hence, the plethora of chicken food chains in every American town with a stoplight, and in many foreign countries.

Southern folk have embraced the “eat-more chik’n” concept and elevated it to a higher plane. We love chicken just about any way we can get it, and we all have fond memories (some of them even real) of Grandmother’s Sunday chicken dinners. Our favorites? Fried chicken, stewed chicken, chicken fricassee, chicken salad, or even church lady chicken casseroles.

We put our money where our mouths are as well. The South now produces more chicken broilers than any other region, according to the National Chicken Council, with 12 Southern states ranking among the top 20 producers. Mississippi ranks fifth, behind Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama and North Carolina.

Throw a few waffles into the mix, and we might be feeling as fine as frog hair. The results have been known to make grown men weep in ecstasy.

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The waffle is a curious piece of bread. The first known waffles originated in European medieval monasteries as a type of communion wafer made with yeast batter baked between two heated metal plates. Over time the waffle became a popular street food. Fancy versions were concocted with eggs and honey. Specialized waffle irons were created to make interesting patterns in the baked waffle – patterns designed as an enhanced platform for holding delicious savory or sweet sauces and toppings.

The waffle immigrated to America with the Pilgrims, who learned how to make them during a stopover in the Netherlands. Thomas Jefferson, that ever-curious gourmand, brought a waffle iron back from his stay in France. The Pennsylvania Dutch popularized waffles nationally after the Civil War, once the Midwest commercialized wheat production and brought down flour prices.

And then came the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. That’s when and where Southern fried chicken and the waffle got married.

Dickie Wells, owner of Wells Supper Club in Harlem, created a late-night, wee-hours-of-the-morning dish to satisfy tired Caucasian jazz-club hoppers and black musicians. Tillie’s Chicken Shack and other Harlem joints began offering the dish. It became a mainstay of local culture.

Herb Hudson took the idea with him to Los Angeles and began offering chicken and waffles at Roscoe’s in 1976. Nowadays, Chicken and Waffles is a nationally popular dish. February is the perfect time to celebrate this dish created by black Americans of Southern extraction.

SOUTHERN-FRIED AND STEWED ITERATIONS OF CHICKEN & WAFFLES

I’m also sharing recipes for Chicken Fricassee and Chicken a la King this week. Both of them pair beautifully with waffles, and these recipes have deep roots in Southern food culture.

Fricassee dates back to France and the Deep South’s Creole culture. Chicken a la King has been a mainstay at every Methodist and Baptist church supper for a hundred years.

EASY WAFFLES
This is the classic White Lily Flour recipe for buttermilk waffles. I prefer it to fancy versions containing yeast, sugar and vanilla.

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1-1/4 c self-rising flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 large eggs, separated
1/3 c salted butter, melted but cooled
1 c buttermilk

Sift flour and baking soda together in a large non-reactive bowl. In a small bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Set bowl aside.

Beat the yolks and buttermilk together in a separate bowl; mix in the melted butter until blended. (I use a hand mixer for this.) Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and beat just enough to combine.

Use a soft spatula to fold the egg whites into the batter, folding in a single direction until combined. Allow batter to sit for 10 minutes or longer, to initiate the rise process. It will begin to puff up. Ladle batter into waffle iron, taking care not to overfill the metal plate. Close waffle iron and allow 5-8 minutes, until steam no longer comes out the sides. Carefully raise the lid and remove waffle with a fork.


SOUTHERN FRIED CHICKEN
This classic fried chicken pairs even better with waffles and syrup if you increase the pepper sauce heat.

3 lb chicken pieces (for waffles, use chicken breasts and thighs)
1 large bowl of water containing 1/4 c table salt, iced

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2 to 4 large eggs
2 c milk or buttermilk
1/4 to 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper or hot pepper sauce, to taste
1 to 2 tsp salt
1/8 to 1 tsp black pepper, to taste
1 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1 T cornstarch
1-2 c all purpose flour
Shortening or peanut oil (about 1 qt)

BRINE: Clean chicken, remove skin, and soak overnight or several hours in a large bowl of iced water brined with salt. This clears out any blood vessels and softens the chicken tissue to prevent over-drying during frying.

BATHE: Remove chicken from brine, pat dry, and marinate in buttermilk for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

DREDGE: Combine beaten eggs with cayenne and hot pepper sauce in a bowl. Sift flour, salt, black pepper, garlic powder, paprika and cornstarch into large shallow pan. Set up wire rack over shallow pan to hold dredged chicken. Set up another shallow pan lined with brown paper bags or wire rack to hold fried chicken. Remove chicken from buttermilk and dip into egg bath. Hold up with tongs to let excess egg drip back into bowl. Dredge in seasoned flour mix. Dip again into egg bath and repeat dredging in flour mixture. Place onto holding rack, not touching, to set up.

FRY: Heat shortening or oil to about 350-365˚F in skillet or deep fryer. Place prepared chicken in hot oil, pieces not touching. If in skillet, fry about 8-10 minutes on first side before turning. Fry on second side for 8-10 minutes until golden brown. In deep fryer, chicken will rise to top of oil as it cooks; deep frying requires less time than skillet. Test for doneness by piercing with a fork: Clear juices indicate it’s done, reddish juices indicate it needs more cooking. Remove cooked chicken from oil to prepared drip pan when done, and continue until all chicken has been fried. To keep it warm, store fried chicken in oven set at 250-300˚F degrees.

CHICKEN A LA KING AND QUEEN
The key to success here is the white sauce, which should be silky smooth. If preparing the dish for a luncheon or dinner party, the sauce may be made ahead and reheated in the microwave before adding the chicken. Do not fear the long list of ingredients.

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2 qt water
1 T ground thyme
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp garlic powder
3 chicken breasts
2 T butter
1 c fresh mushrooms, chopped
1/4 c chopped green bell peppers or mini sweet peppers
4-oz jar of diced pimentos, drained
1/2 c (1 stick) butter
1/2 c all-purpose flour
2 dashes of paprika
2 c warm chicken stock or broth
1/4 c milk
1/2 c cream
2 egg yolks, beaten
1 tsp salt
Black pepper to taste
2 T sherry or cognac, optional

Combine water and first 4 seasonings in a 3- or 4-quart saucepan. Add chicken and simmer for about an hour until fork tender. Remove chicken from pot to cool enough top be cut into cubes. Reserve 2 cups of liquid, supplementing if needed with packaged broth.

While chicken is poaching, sauté the mushrooms and bell pepper in about 2 tablespoons of butter. Add drained pimentos and set aside.

Melt stick of butter in a double boiler over boiling water. Whisk in flour and paprika. Cook, whisking slowly, for 5 minutes. Gently whisk in chicken stock, milk and cream. Cook 15 minutes, whisking regularly to prevent clumping as it thickens.

Remove from heat and add beaten egg yolks, pimentos, mushrooms and cooked bell peppers. Return to heat on low for about 10 minutes, stirring gently with spoon or spatula until thickened. Add salt, pepper and optional sherry. Fold in 2 c cubed chicken. Serve immediately over waffles or rice, or in puff pastry shells.

DAD’S CHICKEN FRICASSEE
This is one of those amazingly good simmer-on-the-stove recipes favored by folks from earlier times. When paired with buttermilk waffles, fricassee is perfect for a day spent hanging around the house with family and friends. Be forewarned but be bold: Bacon drippings are the preferred grease!

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3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 or 2 lb pkg of boneless, skinless thighs

For dredging the chicken:
1 c all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp black pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper

For the fricassee:
1 c bacon drippings (lard or shortening if you MUST)
3/4 c of all-purpose flour
2 c fine-chopped onion
1 c chopped celery
1/2 c chopped green bell pepper or sweet minipeppers
1/2 to 1 c chopped fresh mushrooms
2 T (about 4 cloves) garlic, minced
1/2 c white wine
4 c (1 qt) chicken stock or broth
1 large Bay leaf
4-5 springs of fresh thyme tied together with kitchen twine
Kosher salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper, to taste
Splash of Worcestershire sauce (be sparing)
2 T cream, optional
Green onions, for garnish

Combine flour, the salt, paprika and pepper. Dredge chicken pieces in flour mixture; reserve remaining flour. Heat grease in a 12-inch skillet, braising pan or Dutch oven until hot, about 365ºF. Fry chicken in hot oil until browned on all sides but not cooked completely. Remove chicken. Whisk flour into the grease and continue cooking, whisking, until it achieves peanut or paper bag color. Congratulations, it’s a roux!

Stir in Louisiana Trinity (onion, celery and peppers). Cook about 5 minutes before adding the mushrooms and garlic. Cook until mushrooms release their liquid.

Whisk in the wine, which will thicken as it hits the flour. Gradually whisk in the chicken stock, stirring until clump-free. Add the Bay leaf, thyme, salt, both black and cayenne pepper, and the Worcestershire.

Bring to a low boil and add the chicken back to the sauce, which has formed a gravy. Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring and adding water as necessary for about 2-1/2 hours, until chicken is falling apart. Make sure to scrape bottom of pot at intervals to prevent scorching.

Before serving, if desired, stir in cream. Serve over buttermilk waffles or rice. Garnish with chopped green onion.


Laurie Triplette is a writer, historian and accredited appraiser of fine arts, dedicated to preserving Southern culture and foodways. Author of the award-winning community family cookbook GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’, and editor of ZEBRA TALES (Tailgating Recipes from the Ladies of the NFLRA), Triplette is a member of the Association of Food Journalists, Southern Foodways Alliance and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Check out the GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’ website and follow Laurie’s food adventures on Facebook and Twitter.

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