Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Fried Chicken, Mashed Potatoes, Collard Greens

       As Michael had expressly asked for fried chicken, it was an easy enough thing to decide to start this whole process with that. Besides, I thought, how hard can fried chicken be? I'd not only seen it made so many times, I've eaten it (yesterday he asked for leg of lamb next, and I laughed and said, "My Michael, we don't have leg of lamb money right now" nor have I ever actually eaten a lamb, so that's getting put off for a while), watched it made on TV and in movies, and read books in which it is prepared. I feel like fried chicken, particularly in the south, should be something that is so deep in our gut consciousness that we all probably know how to make it. If you gave a southern baby a cast iron skillet, some flour, some milk, and a chicken part, that baby would eventually churn out something crispy and delicious. Right? Easy peasy.
       Last Tuesday I decided that the time had come and I was real excited about it. As the day wore on, however, I started to get a little nervous. I imagined that I would soak the chicken in buttermilk. People do that, right? But for how long? And how hot does the oil need to be? And how much oil? I was at work at the cafe and so I went to my friend and chef, Taylor, and said, "So, I'm thinking about making fried chicken tonight".  I believe she laughed. She's known me a long time. She answered my questions about the oil (hot enough so that water pops) and the buttermilk (yes, people do that) and gave me some pointers. She told me to use self-rising flour to make a crispier breading, and that maybe I should just get a mix, because they sell delicious ones with the instructions on the back and it's so easy. Ha ha! I thought. Only suckers and children use mixes! I have fried chicken in my soul! So after work I went to the grocery store.
        I bought: self-rising flour, cornmeal (because Michael had said he prefers a cornmeal crust, like fish), buttermilk, butter, collards, and potatoes. (Eggs, oil, spices, milk, we have those at home already. Especially spices because we looted the restaurant where we worked when it closed down. We also have an excellent liquor cabinet.) Also beer. I figured I might need some beer at some point during this process. I was feeling pretty good about myself. I can pick out some damn collard greens for sure. I even ran into a gentleman named James who owns a Caribbean restaurant here in town. He said, "What's for supper tonight?" and I, coy, turned my eyes down and said, "Oh, you know, fried chicken, collard greens, and mashed potatoes." "Somebody lives in a happy home!" he said, and walked away.                
        Then, with all my collard green confidence and my potato pompousness, I rocked over to the poultry section. And stood. Do you know how many different kinds of chicken bits there are in the poultry section? Like a million. That was something I hadn't thought to ask Taylor. I mean, wing, breast, thigh, drumstick- that's pretty much what comes in an eight-price box. So..... yeah. Chicken. It's so very naked. I thought it would speak to me. It told me nothing. If anything it said, "Cold, I'm so cold....." in a tiny voice. Whatevs, I thought. I grabbed a package of skin-on, bone-in, organic (I haven't become a completely loose woman) chicken breasts, because everybody likes breasts! I know I do!
         I got home and put on my collard greens. At this point I knew we wouldn't be eating until 9 or 10, because collard greens take a hell of a long time to cook. No worries, we'd be like Europeans. Really trashy Europeans. Then I unwrapped my chicken breasts. Alright. Ok. So. Am I supposed to rinse this like I do fish? I wondered. I figured it couldn't hurt, so I rinsed them and patted them dry. There seemed to be a lot of extra skin and flappy things, and then some blobby bloody stuff that seemed unnecessary and so I flopped them onto a cutting board and sliced that stuff off. Some of the ribs were sticking out a bit much so I hacked those off too. That was fun. I felt like a caveman wife, except that cavemen didn't have cleavers, so maybe I felt like a Viking lady. Whatever, hacking through bone is very satisfying. Then into a bowl of buttermilk they went and I read a book for a while.
        After a few hours (collards really do take a long time) I put on a pot of water and peeled potatoes. Now, mashed potatoes I can do in my sleep. If there is anything easier or more satisfying to a man, I would like to see it. Potatoes, butter, milk, salt, pepper, garlic, mash. Done and done. At Thanksgiving, Mama and I have always decided that we do not need mashed potatoes, what with the two different kinds of sweet potatoes, stuffing, rice, rolls and or bread and or biscuits, and casseroles out the yang, but more often than not that opinion was overruled and I would find myself in front of the Kitchenaid with my glasses full of steam 10 minutes prior to suppertime. Glarg. Anyway, mashed potatoes? I can do them. However, at this point I was starting to get nervous about the chicken. I was afraid I would somehow cause an oil fire and burn our house down (not that it's ours, we rent, but still we have some lovely things in here) or that I would under cook the chicken and kill my man, or even that I would overcook it and it would be inedible and he would try to eat it to spare my feelings and I would watch as he just chewed and chewed and said, "No! It's really good! I like it when it tastes like a shoe!" or something like that. (Shoe, the other other white meat.)(Shoe. It's what's for dinner.) This has gone on long enough so I'll spare you the details on how this happened, but the mashed potatoes turned out lumpy and gluey both. They were seasoned perfectly, though! Nobody likes BLAND gluey lumps!
         Undaunted (ok, slightly daunted) I moved on to the main course. As the oil heated in the pan I prepared my breading. On one plate I had self-rising flour, and on another I had a flour/ cornmeal mixture, heavy on the cornmeal. (My instincts told me to not use only cornmeal on the second plate, and this is all about instincts! Guts! My southern ancestors reaching through my blood and bones and muscles to guide my hands!) I seasoned both with salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, and probably some other stuff I can't remember, which is why I need to write these posts a lot sooner after actually making the meat. I whisked together some milk and two eggs with some tabasco thrown in, just because, well, why not? Why the hell not. I lit a cigarette. I pulled out my chicken.
        The breasts were heavy with buttermilk, so with my hands I sluiced some off before I dredged the first one in the first flour plate. I dipped that into the egg-and-milk, and then onto the cornmeal plate. This is when I remembered frying 101 from ALL THE RESTAURANTS I EVER WORKED AT and that is you have one hand for wet and one for dry. My hands had more breading than the chicken. That's alright, that's alright, I told myself. I'm learning. I dropped the chicken into the hot oil with a slow stall that would please a pro. Not one drop of oil left the pan. That was the most skill I showed all night.
       Now, because I wanted only the best for my first ever attempt at meatmaking, I bought some really nice, fat, full, juicy looking breasts. Breasts that would need a larger bikini top than I own. This, I realized, was a mistake. As my chicken grew darker and darker and the inside obviously not cooked all the way, I thought, Oh, this is why you never see fried chicken this big. Dur. So I switched on the oven to finish them in there. At this point, Michael was home and we cheated a little bit. Well, he did. He looked it up on his phone and he told me that if I wanted to keep the crispiness, I would want to bake them on a slotted draining pan, like what my Mama used to cook the meatloaf on. Why in hell would I have a goddamn slotted draining pan? I have a bundt pan, a torte pan, a wok, cookie trays, a pie plate, bread pans, muffin tins, cake pans star-shaped and otherwise, a few casseroles, various skillets, and two pizza rounds. Ah, but I also have cooling racks with folding legs! Ingenuity! Place one, legs folded down, on a cookie sheet and voila! Who's a meat-cooking bitch, now?
        The second breast went a lot more smoothly as I knew what to expect. I did not, in other words, burn the breading. Or bread my hands. (I will mention here that I forgot to tell you I am afraid of chicken diseases and I washed my hands and the cutting board approximately 87 times during this whole experiment. Dish soap is my friend.) Lessons learned.
         As the breasts were resting on yet another cooling rack, I smoked another cigarette and drank a beer. The kitchen was literally a hot mess. Flour coated my toes and my high-heeled flip-flops. (Euro trash! Fucking right.) Michael, to his credit, was not afraid. He told me I was the most beautiful and sweetest little woman, and "Is it ready yet?" "Yes," I said.
       We filled his plate with chicken, greens, and potatoes. Mine had baked tofu, which I made somewhere in there, probably between boiling and mashing. As we tucked in, I tried to not watch him eat. I peeked a few times. (We were watching an episode of Miami Vice. We get all romantic up in here come suppertime.) Finally I said, "How is it, love?" He told me it was so good. He told me it was crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside. Not quite as salty as he was used to (his one criticism) but really, really delicious. Was he lying? Who can say. All I know is he kissed me with his chicken mouth and promised to finish up the dishes. And he looks forward to my next effort. Even if it is not leg of lamb.

Monday, June 30, 2014

     Alright, so I've had the what-is-this blog, the writing blog, and now? A food blog? Really? Well, yes. And I apologize for it. I truly do. You will find no tips, no hints, no special, time-tested recipes here, oh no. What you will find, hopefully, is just me, May. Making meat.
     I became a vegetarian when I was twelve, went vegan a few times, started eating fish again in my twenties (gah! don't we hate the term "pescatarian"? it sounds like some offshoot religious sect we are embarrassed to tell our friends and neighbors that our daughters converted to. "Oh, my daughter? Yes, yes, she's doing well! Married a nice boy! They're... ahem... pescatarians. Nice folks, mostly.") and that's where I am now, at 36. I am a 36 year-old woman and I have never that I can recall, cooked meat. Aside from, you know, a hot dog or something. My mother is an amazing cook, the best. I never had to learn to cook until I turned, and then it was only on the nights that were more meat oriented, and those were not often. She's one of those women who make a simple meal of fresh baked bread, salad, green beans and potatoes from the garden, corn on the cob, stewed tomatoes, and chicken. Maybe bbq chicken or arroz con pollo or even pork or perhaps some beef thing or there might be ham hock in the pinto beans or flautas or shrimp, or perhaps tuna casserole or maybe a meatloaf or it might be chili or whatever, Mama made food from scratch every single night. If there was meat, there were at least two sides. Still does. We have an adopted brother who tries to dream up new holidays just to force Mama to make a ham. No lie. Even though she said she wouldn't make two meals every night when I told her I was not eating meat any more, she stopped putting ham hock in the beans and greens, she started using vegetable stock instead of chicken or beef stock. Mama feeds her babies, always. Even on Thanksgiving there is a dish of vegetarian stuffing just for me, God bless her. I fucking love stuffing.
     I digress. Anyhoo, I became a relatively good cook in my own right. At one time I even ran a small vegetarian deli and made a vegan entree, soup, and dessert every day, along with the cold salads and sandwiches we provided. That was a long time ago. Even with the vegetarian cooking, I'm out of practice. Lately I eat a lot of broccoli. Salads. Avocados. Let's be honest- scrambled eggs make up a large portion of my diet. Blah. Sometimes I go crazy! and eat all the snacks I can buy at the Circle K!! Snacks are delicious!! They make them in all the flavors!!!! For the past few years I chalked up my cooking ennui to a work related exhaustion. I am a waitress. I worked something like 50- 65 hours in restaurants hustling food. Doing my best to soft shoe shimmy those specials out the kitchen and into mouths. Food filled my brain, my words, my clothes (there's nothing better than discovering that you have been wearing whipped cream under your boob for 10 hours), my eyes.... Last thing I wanted to do was dirty up a bunch of pots and pans just to feed myself.
       Then my main job, the restaurant I had given my heart and mind to for the past six years, closed. Suddenly. I mean, there were all the signs, it wasn't like we'd gotten paid in a while or anything, but I somehow thought we'd pull out of it. Or maybe I didn't have time to think, I was working a lot. A few months before it closed however, something lovely happened. I fell in love with one of my coworkers. We'd worked together for years, I hired the man for god's sake (don't you judge me). It was one of those bolt out of the blue, chick flick, rom-com ridiculous things where all of a sudden that guy, my buddy, was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. All he had to do was kiss me at the employee Christmas party. (Seriously, even as you are puking in your own mouth don't you fucking judge me.) Next thing you know we are both unemployed (actually, I have a part time job at a darling little cafe, but it doesn't pay the bills) and living together. Life is a hoot, am I right? I'm right.
          My man eats meat. Mostly meat. He can live off a package of roast beef and a gallon of milk for days. When the restaurant was open he ate most of his meals there, and so there would be the occasional vegetable involved (arugula on a sandwich, asparagus alongside a ribeye), but even then more often than not he would order sides: mac n cheese, mashed potatoes, chicken tenders. I took heart when he first came to my Mama's house and ate the collard greens, fish, and pintos that she cooked. "That was the best meal I've had in a long, long time" he said, hand on belly, leaned back. "Will you make me collard greens some day?"
       "Yes," I said.
         Love makes you do crazy things, doesn't it? I've had boyfriends I yelled at because they used my pots to make pork. Now, faced with this other-thing, this beautiful rangy sweet sweet meat eating thing, all I can think is, "I want to feed you". More primal than sex, that. Perhaps.
       "Will you make me fried chicken one day?" he asked.
        "Yes," I said.
       So. I will learn to make meat. I will pull out my virginal, vegetarian pots and pans, I will reach into my primal guts, I will remember how to do what I have seen done a million times before, I will call my Mama. I will not use recipes (because that is not an adventure) but instead will go on instinct and advice. I will dirty up this damn kitchen, I will let the blood run down my arms. There will probably be tears before it's over. No matter what though, I am feeding this man. Let the adventure begin.