We were already pretty big fans of James Villas due in large part to his undeniably charming Town and Country Cookbook (1985). But then a couple of months ago, in the midst of a run of amazing secondhand bookstore finds, we found this.
fig. a: American Taste
Written at a time when the phrase "American taste" was considered by many to be an oxymoron, Villas' book was a direct challenge (a throwdown, if you will) to an establishment that was still blindly kowtowing to Continental cuisine--a provocation from the food and wine editor at Town and Country, no less. Aside from James Beard, Calvin Trillin, and a handful of others, there weren't a whole lot of people back in '82 with the guts to stick up for American cuisine in this manner:
For those of us who devote our lives to serious eating, it sometimes seems nothing less than absurd to refer to "gastronomic excellence" in a country where millions are nourished on junk food, frozen TV dinners, stale produce, and charred steak. Yet I am convinced there is no nation on earth that has a more exciting culinary potential than ours.
Villas was right on the money, of course, the unfortunate thing is that while America has realized this "exciting culinary potential" in the 25 years since wrote those words, it’s also even more of a fast food nation. In any case, we tore right into American Taste and devoured chapter after chapter of Villas' book, including "Cry, the Beloved Country Ham," "Creole, Cajun, Choctaw...," and "Star-Spangled Bourbon," but the chapter that resonated the most with us was one entitled "Understanding Fried Chicken."
You see, 2007 was the year we rediscovered fried chicken here at AEB--it was the year we decided it was time to stop moping around and take fried chicken seriously. If we lived in Nashville or even New York, we could rely on local expertise to provide us with "fried chicken for the soul," but here in Montreal, if you want fried chicken, real pan-fried chicken, you have to fend for yourself. So we started reading up, comparing philosophies, and testing recipes. We had a few minor fried chicken epiphanies along the way, but the very most important maxim we learned was a simple one: "Temperature is everything." By the end of the year we were pretty sure we’d gotten it down pat, but then we read Villas' polemic:
When it comes to fried chicken, let’s not beat around the bush for one second. To know about fried chicken you have to have been weaned and reared on it in the South. Period. The French know absolutely nothing about it, and Yankees very little. Craig Claiborne knows plenty. He’s from Mississippi. And to set the record straight before bringing on regional and possibly national rage over the correct preparation of this classic dish, let me emphasize the fact that I’m a Southerner, born, bred, and chicken-fried for all times. Now, I don’t know exactly why we Southerners love and eat at least ten times more fried chicken than anyone else, but we do and always have and always will… [We] take our fried chicken very seriously, having singled it out years ago as not only the most important staple worthy of heated and complex debate but also as the dish that non-Southerners have never really had any knack for. Others just plain don’t understand fried chicken, and, to tell the truth, there are lots of Southerners who don’t know as much as they think they know. Naturally everybody is convinced he or she can cook or identify great fried chicken as well as any ornery reb (including all the fancy cookbook writers), but the truth remains that once you’ve eaten real chicken fried by an expert chicken fryer in the South… there are simply no grounds for contest.
Now, I might have spent a healthy chunk of my adolescence and young adulthood south of the Mason-Dixon line, but that was in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., so, in the eyes of any self-respecting/ornery reb I might as well have come from Boston. That means that neither of us are Southerners, born, bred, chicken-fried, or otherwise--not even close. Hell, we live in a French province to the north of Yankeedom, so, according to Villas, we’re doubly cursed. We wouldn’t pretend to be “expert chicken fryers” or “fried chicken experts” either. We do, however, have a profound appreciation for real fried chicken (we happen to be naturally attracted to pretty much all those staples “worthy of heated and complex debate:” barbecue, pizza, tacos, bagels—you name it). So when Villas went on to claim that he’d broken the code on fried chicken, we paid close attention:
As far as I’m concerned, all debate over how to prepare fried chicken has ended forever, for recently I fried up exactly 21 1/2 chickens (or 215 pieces) using every imaginable technique, piece of equipment, and type of oil for the sole purpose of establishing once and for all the right way to fix great fried chicken.
Being a man on a mission, Villas leaves little to chance. His list of "Equipment (no substitutes)" reads like this:
A sharp chef's or butcher's knife 12- to 13-inches long
A large wooden cutting board
A small stockpot half-filled with water (for chicken soup)
A large glass salad bowl
A heavy 12" cast-iron skillet with lid
Long-handled tweezer tongs
1 roll paper towels
2 brown paper bags [heavy-duty ones]
1 empty coffee can
A serving platter
A wire whisk
A home fire extinguisher
Like I said: no fooling around. He also discusses everything from the quality of the bird ("Without question, the most important secret to any great fried chicken is the quality of the chicken itself, and without question, most of the 3 billion pullets marketed annually in the United States have about as much flavor as tennis balls."), the right skillet (basically: heavy cast-iron, well seasoned and black as tar), the seasoning ("Real fried chicken should be seasoned with nothing more than salt, fresh pepper, a touch of lemon juice, and a few tablespoons of bacon grease added to the cooking fat."), the cooking oil ("The one and only thing to use is a bland, high-grade shortening (Crisco is best) that holds up well over intense heat."), frying strategy ("The first rule in frying chicken is never to allow more than 1/2 inch of grease in the skillet. If you add any more, you'll end up with deep-fried chicken, or something that resembles the atrocities served at greasy spoons."), and the importance of paper bags ("Nothing in heaven or on earth (not even a sponge or Kleenex) absorbs chicken grease like a brown paper bag.") at length.
Now, if you’re having a hard time figuring out what an empty coffee can or a wire whisk have to do with frying chicken, Villas’ recipe makes everything oh-so clear. If you’ve been put off by his prescriptive tone, hear the man out. After all, this is a man who feels absolutely passionately about his subject.
James Villas' "all debate is over" Fried Chicken
3 cups whole milk
1/2 fresh lemon
3 cups top-quality shortening (like Crisco)
4 tbsp rendered bacon grease
1 freshly killed 3 1/2-4 lb chicken cut into ten pieces
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tbsp flour
3 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
Rinse the ten pieces of chicken thoroughly under running water, dry with paper towels, and salt and pepper lightly. Pour milk into bowl, squeeze lemon into milk, add chicken to soak, covered, and refrigerate for at least two hours and preferably overnight.
Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and allow to return to room temperature. While melting the shortening over high heat to measure 1/2 inch in skillet, pour flour, remaining salt, and pepper to taste and drop into paper bag. Remove dark pieces of chicken from milk, drain each momentarily over bowl, drop in paper bag, shake vigorously to coat. Add bacon grease to skillet. When small bubbles appear on surface, reduce heat slightly. Remove dark pieces of chicken from bag one by one, shake off excess flour, and, using tongs, lower gently into fat, skin-side down. Quickly repeat all procedures with white pieces; reserve milk, arrrange chicken in skillet so it cooks evenly, reduce heat to medium, and cover. Fry exactly 17 minutes. Lower heat, turn pieces with tongs, and fry 17 minutes longer uncovered. With paper towels wipe grease continuously from exposed surfaces as it spatters. The chicken should be almost mahogany brown. [emphasis mine]
Drain thoroughly on second paper bag, transfer to serving platter without reheating in oven, and serve hot or at room temperature with any of the following items: mashed potatoes and cream gravy, potato salad, green beans, turnip greens, sliced homegrown tomatoes, stewed okra, fresh corn bread, iced tea, beer, homemade peach ice cream, or watermelon.
Use coffee can to discard all but one tablespoon of the fat from the skillet, making sure not to pour off brown drippings. Over high heat, add two remaining tablespoons flour to fat and stir constantly with wire whisk till the roux browns. Gradually pour 1 3/4 cups reserved milk from bowl and continue stirring till gravy comes to a boil, thickens slightly, and is smooth. Reduce heat, simmer two minutes, and check salt and pepper seasoning. Serve in a gravy boat.
Makes enough for 4 servings fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
[both recipes from James Villas' American Taste]
If you’re skeptical and you need further proof that Villas knows what he’s talking about, let me just add that no less an authority than Edna Lewis, author of The Taste of Country Cooking and In Pursuit of Flavor, writes about pan-fried chicken in very similar, if less quarrelsome, terms, although her family recipe didn’t use Crisco: “Our chicken was not only carefully tended, it was also fried in sweet, home-rendered lard, fresh-churned butter, and, in addition, we would put in a slice or two of smoked pork for flavor.”
Gourmet’s Edna Lewis-inspired Fried Chicken with Bacon and Pepper Cream Gravy from January of this year recommends a frying temperature (350º) that we feel is too high, but has some ideas pertaining to bacon fat and cream gravy that are worth noting. First, if you don’t have 4 tablespoons of “rendered bacon grease” on hand, cook half a pound of bacon in a heavy skillet until browned and crisp. Set the bacon aside and then scrape up the brown bits from the bottom of your skillet with a spatula and strain the bacon fat through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, reserving the bits caught in the sieve. Wipe the skillet clean and add the strained bacon fat. Then add your oil, shortening, or lard and proceed with frying your chicken. Later, after the chicken is done, strain the frying fat through the aforementioned sieve into a bowl, then return one tablespoon of the fat and all the brown bits in the sieve to your skillet. Whisk in 4 teaspoons all-purposed flour and cook your roux over medium heat, whisking all the while, for 1 minute. Whisk in two cups of milk (either fromthe reserved milk of Villas’ recipe or fresh milk), 1 teaspoon salt, and 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper and bring to a boil, whisking, then simmer, still whisking, until nice and thick, about 3 to 5 minutes.
The long and short of it is we'd rarely encountered a piece of food writing (on fried chicken or otherwise) as encyclopedic or as entertaining as Villas’ “Understanding Fried Chicken.” Villas later wrote, “I don’t suppose any article in my career ever created such commotion as the three-thousand-word treatise I devoted to the art of Southern fried chicken,” as if surprised. Obviously we were left mightily impressed, but more than anything it was that one line--"Chicken should be almost mahogany brown"--that stayed with us. Mahogany brown? Pretty much the only thing we'd ever cooked until it was almost mahogany brown was Cajun roux, and then only rarely. Villas was going for something similar: a near-miraculous transformation of simple ingredients (chicken, flour, fat) that it takes patience to achieve.
Is this a crazy method? Yes. Does the resultant chicken transcend? Definitely. Just look at it.
fig. b: AEB blue plate special
Villas' chicken came out perfectly moist inside, while the crust was crisp but not at all tough, and, cooked to "almost mahogany brown," its flavors were deep and complex.
Is this recipe the alpha and omega of fried chicken? Well... The thing is, if you were making any more than just one chicken--for a big group, say--you'd be condemning yourself to hours of frying. The Lee Bros. Tuesday Fried Chicken recipe that we featured last May is a pretty fine method for producing some pretty fine fried chicken and it clocks in at 18 minutes, or roughly half the time that James Villas' "all debate is over" Fried Chicken takes. So you have options. If you've got the time and you've never had your friend chicken "almost mahogany brown," you really should. Either way, 325º F is the magic number. Like I sad at the outset, “Temperature is everything.”
Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. Wondering what that brightly hued side dish is in the photograph above?
1 3-lb red cabbage, cored and coarsely chopped
1/4 lb slab bacon, diced
1/2 cup white vinegar, cider vinegar, or white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp celery seeds
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Pepper Vinegar to taste
Bring 4 quarts of water to boil over high heat in an 8-quart stockpot. Blanch the cabbage by submerging it in the boiling water until it turns a dull grayish purple, about 5 minutes. Drain in a colander, shake the colander to remove excess water, and reserve.
Scatter the bacon in a 14-inch dry skillet over medium-high heat. With a wooden spoon, move the pieces around until the bacon is firm and barely crisp, about 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve.
Pour the vinegar into the skillet. It will hiss and pop at first but will soon subside. Swirl the vinegar around with the spoon, stirring up any browned bits of bacon. Add the celery seeds and red pepper flakes and stir.
Add the cabbage to the skillet and toss to coat it with the vinegar. Add the salt, pepper, and reserved bacon, and continue to sauté, stirring the cabbage around the pan until all its bright magenta glory has returned [seriously, it's like a science fair experiment], about 4 minutes.
Place the slaw in a bowl and shake pepper vinegar over it to taste.
[recipe from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook]