Fourth of July, summer picnics, casual dining on the run: What could be better than a plate of fried chicken, sizzling, golden-brown and delicious?
Not much, say I. But real, old-fashioned fried chicken, as addictively delicious as it may be, offers all that crispy golden-brown goodness at a price: Crunchy breading laid over fatty chicken skin and fried in hot oil, it contains almost as many calories and just about as much artery-clogging fat as a Big Mac or a Cinnabon sticky bun.
Now, if you've been following these articles for any time, you know that I'm no health fascist, demanding that we sacrifice all good things in an immoderately healthy lifestyle. In other words, in today's even healthier variation on my old oven-"fried" chicken recipe, I'm still not going to succumb to the Puritanical idea of removing the delicious crispy skin.
My original version, last reported in the Jan. 13, 2005 <I>FoodLetter</I>
, involves a simple process of dredging chicken parts in seasoned flour, then baking them in a hot oven with a little butter, turning once.
The result is excellent, tender meat with a crunchy, almost glassy skin. But between the breading and the butter, a good deal of luscious but calorie-loaded fat hangs on. This summer, balancing an occasional hankering for fried chicken against a modest commitment to keep things halfway light, I've come up with a couple of variations that get rid of a good share of the fat without taking things to a ridiculous extreme.
First, I tried losing the flour dredge, and discovered to my delight that this omission not only saves a little time but makes no perceptible difference in flavor. Then, I dismissed the butter from the baking pan, and better yet, brought to bear an old Marcella Hazan technique, pan-sauteeing chicken parts until they're partly done, using <i>no</i> additional fat beyond the ample quantity that they naturally contain in and under the skin. Finally, by dividing the cooking into two phases - first sautee until crisp and brown, then finish in the oven - I'm able to render out and discard a good share of that fat before serving.
The result, if not truly <i>low</i> in fat, reduces the fat about as far as it can be and still have anything resembling fried chicken. And it is, in fact, a reasonable substitute, with crisp, crackling skin enclosing tender meat within.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
6 to 8 chicken pieces
1. Preheat your oven to 425F (220C) and put a large skillet, preferably nonstick, over high heat on top of the stove. When the skillet is hot, rinse the chicken pieces, shake off excess water, and without drying them, put them skin-side down on the hot skillet. (NOTE: I like to use all chicken thighs for this dish, because they're consistent in size and shape and because I like them. Feel free to substitute mixed chicken pieces or a cut-up whole chicken.)
2. Don't move the pieces for two or three minutes, to allow a brown crust to form. Shake the pan to break them loose if necessary, turn and brown on the other side for a few minutes. Cook for a total of 5 or 6 minutes on both sides until they're well-browned. Pour off and discard any rendered fat in the skillet, or refrigerate it for use some other time as a sauteeing fat.
3. Put the chicken pieces skin-side up in a shallow roasting pan, 9-by-13 inches or large enough to hold the chicken comfortably. Season to taste with salt, pepper and paprika, and bake for about a half-hour until they're crisp and dark golden-brown, shaking the pan once or twice to make sure the pieces don't stick. There's no need to turn them; leaving the skin on top throughout helps keep it crisp and grease-free.
4. Remove to paper towels to allow any additional fat to drain off, and serve.
<B>MATCHING WINE</b>: On the one hand, fried chicken isn't really a traditional dish with wine. On the other, it makes an easy match with a wide variety of wine styles, red or white, if you want to do it. I was happy with its affinity for a hearty young Argentine red, <b>Altos 2005 "Las Hormigas" Mendoza Malbec</b>.