March 30, 2016

Dear friends,

When we talked about retirement, Elvis never entered the discussion. But last week, three weeks after selling the sushi bar, Tony and I headed for Graceland.

In the back of my mind was a vague plan to drive far enough south to see flowers bloom and to eat barbecue. We did both, and it was thrilling.

I also wanted to check out hot chicken, a spicy Tennessee specialty that is generating national press and a lot of belated excitement. More on that later. First I had to have some mutton barbecue.

For years I had heard about the The Moonlite Bar-B-Q in Owensboro, Ky., and I finally got to check it off my bucket list. The smoked sliced mutton was a tad dry but the ribs, chicken, juicy brisket, pulled pork and catfish were excellent. For $11 we got all that plus a buffet heaped with lovingly prepared Southern sides including rich mac and cheese, baked beans, pinto beans, green beans with ham, buttered cabbage, fried apples, creamed corn and real mashed potatoes with butter puddled on top. Midway through his second plate Tony paused and said seriously, “This is a dream come true.” It was his first encounter with real barbecue, and he plowed through plates and platters with gusto not only at the Moonlite but twice at the excellent Jack’s in Nashville and at Marlowe’s Ribs in Memphis. The succulent meat and thick slabs of cornbread, not to mention the outdoor smoker set-up, was memorable at Jack’s, but nowhere could the side dishes compare to the Moonlite’s. They tasted like they’d been prepared by a bevy of grandmothers for a family picnic.

But back to Memphis, where Elvis music blared from dawn to dusk at our Day’s Inn motel, which had a fabulous guitar-shaped swimming pool and portraits of Elvis above our bed. The Elvis theme was relentless in a good way. Best of all, we were just 15 minutes from Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken.

The one-story building on Front Street downtown looks shabby on the outside and even worse inside. It is one big room with plastic-covered tables, mismatched chairs, EasyNap dispensers and plastic silverware. The floor is a beaten-down, trodden black gummy substance left behind when the tiles were pulled up and discarded. You can still see the faint outlines of the tiles.

But oh, that chicken. The dark, reddish-brown coating is shatteringly crisp. When you bite into it, the juices of the chicken spurt into your mouth. A second later you get the heat. The spiciness varies from batch to batch. Our first order was so mild I wondered what all the fuss was about (besides that killer texture). A couple of days later, our order was moderately spicy-hot – too fiery to give the dog a bite, but not hot enough to numb our mouths. It was perfect.

Gus’s chicken was invented in 1953 in Mason, Tenn..
The original restaurant is still there but as its popularity spread, so did Gus’s chicken restaurants. There are now 14 locations in eight states including outposts in Chicago and Kansas City.

The recipe is about as hard to nail down as Kentucky Fried’s. Many cooks have attempted to duplicate it, with just partial success. The closest I found is from
The Fried Chicken Blog (http://thefriedchickenblog.blogspot.com/2013/07/guss-fried-chicken-update-july-16-2013.html) where author Jay Francis and fellow Gus’s fanatics swap bits of information about the recipe they have observed or heard. Francis describes the coating mixture as a “slurry” of cornstarch and buttermilk, and ticks off a list of spices including cayenne, garlic powder and Louisiana hot sauce.

I started with Francis’s loosely articulated recipe, subtracted a few ingredients and came up with a different way to add spiciness by seasoning the chicken with cayenne before it is dipped in the slurry.

Francis seasons the slurry only, and says it isn’t spicy enough. I also dust the chicken with flour before dipping in the slurry, which helps the coating stick.
I think my recipe is darn close to the real thing. Yes, it’s a mess to make. But when a craving hits and you’re 700 miles from Memphis, what’s a little work?

IMG_0363.JPG

SPICY MEMPHIS-STYLE CHICKEN

•    6 small chicken breasts or 2 breasts, 2 thighs and 2 legs
•    2 1/4 cups buttermilk
•    1 tsp. paprika
•    1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper plus more for sprinkling
•    1 tsp. ground black pepper
•    1/2 tsp. garlic powder
•    2 tsp. salt
•    1 cup cornstarch
•    1 cup flour
•    Canola or peanut oil for deep frying

Trim excess skin and fat from chicken, leaving the skin that covers the meaty portions. Place in a bowl and cover with 1 cup of the buttermilk. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight.

When ready to cook, in a medium bowl combine paprika, the 1/2 teaspoon cayenne, black pepper, garlic powder and salt. Add cornstarch and whisk to combine. Place flour in a 1-gallon plastic bag. Measure out remaining 1 1/4 cups buttermilk.

Remove chicken from buttermilk and pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle lightly on both sides with cayenne pepper. One at a time, shake in bag with flour, knocking off excess. Place floured pieces on a plate and dust again with cayenne.

Heat about 3 to 4 inches of oil in a deep fryer or a fairly wide (10 inches), deep pan. Bring the oil to 280 degrees on a deep-fry thermometer. While oil heats, whisk remaining 1 1/4 cups buttermilk into the cornstarch mixture until smooth.

When oil reaches frying temperature, with tongs dip a piece of chicken in the cornstarch slurry, allowing excess to drip back into bowl. Place in oil. Continue with remaining chicken pieces or as many as will fit in pan. You may have to fry the chicken in batches.
Fry each batch for 20 minutes, maintaining temperature and scraping chicken from bottom of pan after a couple of minutes to make sure it doesn’t stick. Scrape periodically and turn chicken over once.

Drain chicken on paper towels. Continue until all chicken pieces have been fried. Makes 3 to 6 servings depending on size of chicken pieces.

HELP U COOK

If you’ve ever had the breading slip off a deep-fried vegetable or piece of fish, you need to remember this rule: Dry first, fry later.

OK, I just made that up, but the rhyme may help you remember to bread only bone-dry pieces of food. The best way to dry a shrimp or japaleno or whatnot is to blot with a paper towel and dust with flour. The flour will soak up any remaining moisture, giving the breading a good chance to stick to the food.

So the order is: Dust with flour, dip in egg, roll in crumbs (or cornmeal or more flour). Or if using a batter coating, dust with flour and dip in batter.

THE MAILBAG

From Tracey C.:
Your pork roast sounds delicious AND doable! Thanks so much for the recipe. Wish I could see what you mean with the rolling-up part of the directions, though. I’m not experienced in that, and for some reason it’s hard for me to visualize. Any tips or websites you could recommend? Especially on how it differs — with the “tucking” — from the standard rolling up method?

If not, no problem. Just thought I’d ask.

I look forward to your weekly message. Thanks for brightening my inbox!

Dear Tracey: There are no websites with pics of the process because the recipe and technique are my own. Basically it’s a standard roll-up (like rolling a cigar). But because pork tenderloins are so small, even when pounded, you must use two of them to encase the filling.

When you pound the two pieces of meat, one of the tenderloins is bound to be larger than the other.
That’s the piece you put on the bottom. Add filling down the length, and put the smaller piece on top. Now you want to essentially tuck that smaller piece around the filling, then draw the edges of the larger piece around the half-cylinder that is now the smaller piece. And yes, tuck in the ends.

If that just confuses you more, how about this: Use two pounded pork tenderloins to form a log encasing the filling. How you get there is your business.

From Ann C.:
It’s asparagus season again, and like in past years I’ll probably buy a lot of asparagus because it looks good, but won’t get around to cooking it until it is too late. Have you tried different ways of keeping it? What’s the best?

Dear Ann: When I remember not to just toss the asparagus in the crisper, I store it in a loose plastic bag with the cut ends wrapped in a damp paper towel. If the cut ends are dry, it helps to cut them again so they can draw moisture from the towel.
A method I haven’t tried but hear is even better is to cut the tough ends and store the asparagus upright in about an inch of water with plastic draped loosely over the tips and stalks. If you try this, let me know how it works.

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