Tender at the home

The Kid has been living here at the house for the past few months, until a suitable abode could be procured which didn’t necessitate a roommate (it’s an only child thing).A cute little place, not far from us has been found, and our little occupant is in the process of moving in.  And while The Kid will come home for family dinners from time to time, this week is really the last week in which we will sit down for regular suppers.

So, when I was figuring out what nights The Kid would be home from work at supper time, and what I would make, my child had a meal request.

My buttermilk chicken tenders.It’s a family favorite: strips of very juicy white meat, with the tang of buttermilk, and a seriously crispy coating.  But juicy and crispy from one piece of chicken can be extremely problematic.  So, what to do?  And how to do it?

My answer was science.

I was looking for a coating that was insanely crispy, thin and delicate.  I desired golden, salty fairy wings.

Fat-free buttermilk would give me flavor.  It’s viscous enough to cling so that I wouldn’t need any eggs.  Plus, and most importantly, it’s chock full of acid.  Which I needed for the other part of my dredge.

chic tenders

Number two was self-rising flour.  This is flour fortified with salt and baking powder.  Double-acting baking powder has, like the name implies, two opportunities to rise.  One is at room temperature, when it comes into contact with acid.  The second is in the presence of heat.  It can impart a salty, bitter flavor, but the buttermilk tang, salt, and pepper will entirely negate that.

For 1 ½ pounds of tenders, I use about 2 cups of fat-free buttermilk, seasoned, and poured into a shallow dish large enough to easily fit the chicken.  I use three or four cups of self-rising, also seasoned.  It may seem like a lot of flour, but I promise you don’t want to run out halfway through cooking, and be stuck scrambling with nothing left but those weird lumps made when buttermilk drips into the flour.  The breading system is three-stage; flour, then buttermilk, and then back once more into the flour before finally frying.

I also highly recommend using gloves.  And a second person, to actually fry each piece while you’re coating, makes the whole ordeal almost simple.

The procedure is also pretty specific.  Unlike the way I usually like to cook, the tenders cannot be done in advance.  To get that ultra-crispiness you have to bread the chicken immediately before frying.  Otherwise that first, acid-based rise will disipate and you won’t get the full ethereal crust.

And the frying portion of the program is kinda picky, too.I cook the chicky in my 10-inch cast iron pan.  I pour in vegetable oil about 1/3 of the way up the side and heat it to 350 degrees.  When placed in the pan (don’t crowd them—no more than four at a time), the oil should not be deep enough to cover them.  When the bottom is golden flip and cook the other side.  If you oil temperature stays near 350, by the time the tenders are golden all over, the chicken is cooked through, but still crazy juicy.  Perfect.I serve them with ranch dressing and honey mustard for dipping.  Our side is always a green salad, to make ourselves feel just a bit better for all the gorging that takes place.

Thanks for your time.

Ode To An Onyx Lodge

Originally published in the Herald Sun 3/7/2012

I just wiped oil off one of my best friends. I toasted coconut, and we got a little sticky.
The name of my anointed friend? It’s characteristically simple and straightforward, just; “Cast Iron”. It’s big, handled, and has the heft to be a lethal weapon. It’s my Lodge skillet.
On the 1999 premiere of “Good Eats”, Alton Brown perfectly cooked steak in his cast iron. He extolled their many virtues. I decided to procure one.
I grew up ignorant of them. I remember, as a child, briefly seeing one at a friend’s house, in a sink full of cold, dirty, water. It haunts me, like someone who years ago witnessed a murder, and only now realizes the true horror of what they saw. Those things are indestructible, but they can be criminally disrespected.
Non-users may feel there’s a lot of work involved in the care and feeding. True, it’s easy to toss a pan in the dishwasher for five or ten years, and then get a new one. But do you know how I usually clean Cast Iron? I wipe it out with a paper towel. That’s the whole deal. And that is but one facet of the beauty that is my forged-by-fire friend.
Curiously, there is only one factory in the whole country that makes cast iron cookware. Lodge Ironworks, in the Appalachian mountains, has been around since 1896. And they still do it the same way.
I once bought a piece that was not Lodge; therfore, not made to US safety standards. When heated, it replaced the house’s oxygen with greasy fumes that smelled of outsourcing and death.
Don’t mess around. For something that can honestly outlast you (and not by murdering you), pay the extra few dollars.
I got mine off the dusty shelf of a sleepy hardware store, unseasoned. Let me repeat that: un…seasoned.
Ask anybody to describe granny’s skillet, and they’ll speak of something the color of the burnished, unfathomable black of (insert name of hated politician or celebrity here)’s heart.
Brand new, and unseasoned, they are closer to the depressing, gunmetal gray of Mitt Romney’s bachelor weekend in Altoona. Also when new, they’re whatever the complete opposite of non-stick is.
To get it as black as a licorice whip and slick as a cruise ship Lothario, the surface must be seasoned. Over time, the heated metal and fat forms a bond, that as it darkens, will become naturally non-stick.
*Microscopic gaps in the smooth, bonded, surface of cookware will shrink when hot (it all has gaps, even well seasoned, long-time possesions). So preheat before using, every time.
If it’s scrubbed after every use, or chunked into the Maytag, that marriage will wash away.
So how to clean?
The key is to, carefully, wipe it when it’s still a little hot. That’s when you deal with any gunk. When the surface is smooth and dry, you’re done. If that doesn’t work, pour some kosher salt in and gently rub. It’s easier with fat, so if needed, splash a little cooking oil into the warm pan. This method can also be used to reclaim neglected pans with an entirely rusted-over surface (like Aunt Eugenia’s set in the attic, maybe?).
What if it’s really messed up, and the salt ain’t gonna cut it?
This next tactic works, but can be dangerous, so at least wear some gloves, and think about maybe renting a haz-mat suit.
Take the pan, as hot as you trust yourself, and pour in some warm water; you’re deglazing the stuck. If the pan is molten, and the water icy, you’ll crack the metal–irreversibly fatal. So, ginger.
Sometimes it’s gloppy and dirty (like for my Skillet Taters). It’s then time for hot, soapy water. It will lubricate and cleanse. If all else fails, use a very soft scrubby sponge (I really dig the hourglass O-Cel-O). Go slowly and lightly, and stop as soon as you feel surface. Give it the same bomb-squad reverence you would a non-stick piece of All-Clad from Williams-Sonoma.

Skillet Taters
If you make these, your skillet will see some warm, soapy water later. Just be gentle.

3 cups unpeeled cubed into 3/4 inch approx. You want them similar size and shape. If you have fingerlings, slice into 1/2 coins. Baby potatoes, quarter or halve, just make sure there is cut are on each potato.
1/2 white onion, chopped
1 tbls each butter and oil (You can substitue bacon drippings, and sprinkle the finished dish with crumbled bacon, but I am not coming with you on your next doctor’s appt)
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp dried thyme
pinch sugar
1/2 tsp favorite seasoning blend (I like Goya Adobo with bitter orange)bacon
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 tbls chopped fresh flat leaf parsey
squeeze of citrus, if you’re out, substitute splash of you favorite vinegar
pinch cayenne

In a pot of heavily salted water (it should taste like the ocean any time you boil anything), cook potatoes until just barely tender, a paring knife goes in, but with a little resistance.
Drain, and allow them to dry on the outside. This cuts down on popping and spitting later.
Get your skillet hot. Not quite smoking, because of the fats involved, but really hot.
Tumble in spuds and toss in the pan to coat with fat. Season potatoes with everything, except for onion, parsley, and juice.
When the taters are evenly coated arrange them in one layer. Then take your spatula and give them all little smoosh. Not quite a smash, something gentler. You want be able to recognize a slightly battered cube after smooshing it. Then leave them alone.
Reduce heat to medium, cook until the crustiness that has appeared is browned to your liking. Add chopped onions, toss everything around a bit and then put them in a single layer and smoosh. Don’t get too wrapped up in making sure each potato is perfectly golden, you want some amber colored crust, some blond crispiness, and even some black peeking out here and there. They are home fries, not NASA fries.
Cook until they and nice and crispy, maybe another 6-7 minutes. Stir in parsley.
Just before serving, spritz with citrus, and check for salt.
I like mine topped with a poached egg. Petey likes his with scrambled, and a steak.

If you’re forced to wash it, dry it immediately. Oxidation can happen quickly. Store it like a freshly showered body builder–very lightly oiled. It’s not just sexy, it provides a barrier against moisture.
After especially vigorous cleaning, give your faithful companion a spa treatment. Pour in about a quarter cup of cooking oil, wipe it all around, and let it meditate in a 250-300 degree oven for about an hour. Wipe out the excess while warm, and when it’s cool, put it away, so the saucepans can tell it how rested it looks.
One of the most classic things made in it, and an honest test of your cast iron stewardship, is corn bread.
My favorite is Mildred “Mama Dip” Council’s, “Sunday Cornbread”. It’s moist like it should be, and crispy where it oughta.
Clean-up after baking cornbread?
My seasoned, loyal comrade now wipes completely clean with one dry Viva. The first time it happened, I almost wept. The memory still touches me deeply.
Thanks for your time.

Do your homework

This column was originally published in the Herald-Sun 6/6/2012.

For you, gentle readers, I do quite a bit of research for these essays. I watch way too much food television. I experiment, culinarily. I also read many articles on the interwebs. (Confidentially, I would probably do it even without the motivation of a weekly column.)
Recently, on Huffpost, there was a piece on the dos and don’ts of shopping warehouse clubs.
It caught my eye, because I love me some sweet, sweet, Costco. It holds a dark fascination for me that really isn’t healthy.
My relationship with Costco isn’t an easy one. Many early trips saw me trying to fit all kinds of random things into my car trunk. If anyone out there has any use for the entire filmography of Dana Andrews on Beta Max, please let me know. And I honestly don’t know why I thought my little family could use up 235 D batteries before the next ice age.
But, after much time, and exercising superhuman self-control, occasionally I can get out of there for less than $100. Not often, but occasionally.
The catalytic article supplied a list of foodstuffs that one must or must not buy at a warehouse club.
A few of the do-bees on the list, meat, cooking oil, and nuts, are good ideas, for me. They butcher their meat on-site, and it is usually beautiful. Unless you feed twenty or more diners each night, you will have to break it up into smaller amounts, and freeze it. My own shopping habits have produced quite a bounty for freezer bag industry. I guess that makes me a job creator.
Costco has a cut of meat that they call tri-tip. It’s not the usual triangular shaped piece of beef you might be familiar with. It’s cut into long strips, five or six inches long, and an inch wide. The great thing about this steak is that you can cook it for a long time, like stew meat (it’s great for beef Stroganoff), or you can cook it quickly for a juicy, flavorful, yet oddly shaped steak. The carnivores at my house enjoy a simple, mock fillet mignon that I came up with.

Tri-Strip Mignon

4 Costco tri-tip strips
8 thin slices of bacon
salt and pepper

Cook bacon on a plate wrapped in paper towels in microwave for about 1 1/2 minutes on high until it’s hot and has lost some grease into the paper towel. This will par-cook it, so it will be much easier to crisp in the pan. Wrap a slice evenly around a piece of seasoned meat, from end to end. Truss it up with butcher twine.

Into a dry heavy skillet (cast iron is perfect) heated to medium, medium-high, place the steaks, and cook them until the bacon is browned and crisp, turning them as they cook. By the time the bacon is done, the meat will be cooked medium rare.
When done, remove from pan, and let rest, lightly covered, for 6-8 minutes. Serve whole, or slice into pretty little rounds.

Those buys make sense for me. Some of the other purchasing suggestions, though, were akin to encouraging a canary to buy dental insurance.
Cereal: Each October The Kid and Petey eagerly urge me to purchase boxes and boxes of the seasonally available Boo Berry and Frankenberry cereal (not big Count Chocula fans). That’s pretty much the only cereal they eat.
I just checked. It is now early June, and I have 3/4 of a box of Boo Berry, and an unopened box of Frankenberry. I should chuck them, but it’s funny to see the monsters grinning down at me from the top of the fridge.
Another list must-buy: coffee. Petey can’t abide the stuff (he’s a Mountain Dew man), and I only like coffe in ice cream and ridiculous lattes prepared by someone other than me. Being a college student though, The Kid loves it. We bought a fancy maker from Starbucks that makes a single, large travel mug’s worth. The problem is, not long after purchasing said maker, the mug was lost. The machine will only work with the special receptacle, so Gramma kindly purchased a second (the entire thing, they don’t sell the cups separately). After that one’s vessel went AWOL, the coffee maker became an expensive, shiny paperweight. Coffee is now purchased by my child, prepared and iced, from Bean Traders, in a massive jug that looks like it should contain white lightening. So, buying seventeen pounds of coffee isn’t a wise choice for us.
Some of the don’t-bees are just as wrong (for me).
Fresh produce. We may not like melons enough to eat eight of them before they go slimy and brown, but my family can put away loads of things like asparagus, mushrooms, and fresh cherries. They carry big bags of sugar snap peas that we love, and there’s enough for few dinners in each sack.
Milk was a recommended commodity. I do buy their heavy cream in quarts. Cream lasts a long time, and we always use it up. But a two gallon jug of milk? I could sail to Singapore on the oceans of expired milk I’ve dumped.
Condiments, such as mayonnaise, were no-nos. But I’m Southern girl. Believe me when I say we can, and do, use up a gallon of that magical white stuff on a regular basis. Mustard and ketchup though, not so much.
Every family is different, and the Huffpost list takes for granted that everyone eats and lives exactly like the writer.
Thus, my point. Before you go all consumer-crazy, and fill your warehouse cart with stuff that will be thrown away, unused, do your homework.
Maybe the thought of six gallons of pickles makes you queasy. Then don’t buy them. But if you can’t start the day without a couple of gerkins dunked in your morning beverage, it’s a very smart buy. Just be realistic, and get only what’s right for you.
Thanks for your time.