We’ve held three fortieth Birthday parties at The Richmond in as many years. Themes have ranged from a Staten Island BBQ to a Throwback Fraternity House Mixer. So for my dear friend Jennifer Kim, I was challenged to forge a new route. I wanted to host a casual Sunday event where many different people from all factions of her life could interact in a meaningful way and have fun. Since everyone (including Jen) goes crazy for my Buttermilk Fried Chicken, a recipe and process adapted over many years (with a lot of influence from my Mississippi grandmother), so that seemed like a natural menu choice. Who doesn’t like fried chicken? I’ve even seen vegetarians fight over one of my drumsticks. So from there the Fried Chicken & Fixin’s Brunch was hatched (pun intended).
As good as the Chicken is (and it is good – more about that later), any successful picnic (indoors or out) it is all about the sides. Because I was cooking for 50 people – I wanted to make sure I had guaranteed hits on my table. For this reason the four I picked were all tried and true classics. First up Buttermilk and Dill Potato Salad with a garnish of sliced boiled eggs (thanks Martha). Next, Creamy BBQ Peanut Coleslaw (it sounds strange but this combo really works). Then Pesto Pasta Salad with Peas and Pine Nuts is always a hit (thanks Ina). And no authentic Southern gathering would be complete without Crustless Pimento Cheese Sandwiches on White Bread (thanks Mom). Judging from the empty serving bowls, and the 4 dozen pimento cheese sandwiches which were gone in a flash, I was four for four here. I love it when there are no leftovers – so following the recipe’s serving sizes I planned on a half portion per guest. And as the host this menu worked well for me too. I deliberately chose recipes which could be made earlier that morning and refrigerated or where the components could be prepped ahead of time and combined at the last minute. This was critical – as I had almost 100 pieces of Chicken to fry.
The secret to great Fried Chicken is mostly process driven. My late Grandmother Wanda’s bird was the blue ribbon standard in my family. A few years before she passed away I called her specifically to talk Fried Chicken. I had done a lot of research and seen that many chefs recommended frying the chicken until it was just lightly brown and then finishing it in the oven for about a half hour. This allowed for simultaneous serving and a more uniform cooking process. I expected my Grandmother to shudder at this notion – as I had only seen her tending chicken one piece at a time. Instead she told me this was the way her mother cooked fried chicken when she was growing up on a small farm in Iowa. This was the only endorsement I needed. And after many batches I can now attest that the process works (bring the chicken out of the oven when the internal temperature in the breast reaches 160 degrees).
My other Secrets for Fabulous Fried Chicken:
- Brine the chicken overnight in buttermilk and salt to guarantee moistness and infuse flavor (I also add Crystal Hot Sauce to add a slight kick).
- The paper bag method works. Combine the flour and seasonings in a paper grocery bag, drop the pieces in one by one, shake to coat. This a sure a sure fire way to uniformly coat each piece – and the bags make clean up a breeze.
- After you have it coated put the chicken back in the fridge on racks in baking trays and refrigerate for a half hour. This allows the coating to set and adhere to the chicken.
- Nothing works better for your frying process than a cast iron skillet and peanut oil. The cast iron keeps the temperature of the oil uniform and insulates the chicken from the flame. The high flash point of peanut oil keeps that burnt flour flavor away. I use a candy thermometer to keep my oil around 360 degrees throughout frying process.
- Use the best chicken you can find. All natural chicken (I prefer the antibiotic and hormone free variety at Whole Foods) is the key component to insuring great chicken flavor. I cut the breasts in half to allow for more manageable and uniform pieces.
- And finally select a great sous chef. For this party it was my good friend Sarah Brick – who did a smashing job. It for sure takes two people to keep this process moving along.
A few more touches made the day memorable. The pre-made Strawberry Limeade served in a glass canister on the bar was a hit – allowing people to add vodka or champagne as they liked. To keep things festive I had Custom Cocktail and Luncheon Napkins made for the occasion at For Your Party. They have an winning assortment and their real time design tool is fantastic. Having another friend handle the cake (kudos Amy Waldon who chose an excellent one from Deerfield’s Bakery) allowed me focus on the main course. And to keep things easy, I used Disposable Bamboo Plates which looked chic and minimized clean-up. But the real secret to the party’s success was the guest of honor. A true friend to many, she inspired the very best from all of us on her big day. Happy fortieth Dr. Kim.