Rich in Iron

My niece Maggie pointedly reminded me recently, “Aunt, you didn’t make fried chicken for us last winter when you were here.” The rest remained unstated, thereby allowing me to reach my own conclusion as to expectations.

There is nothing magical about my fried chicken, I assure you. I simply put flour, salt and pepper, and a hearty pinch of cayenne pepper into a bag, toss the chicken into the bag, shake it all about, and fry it to a golden brown in a mixture of vegetable oil and butter. I then place the chicken into the oven to finish cooking for about an hour. The result – hopefully – is very tender, fall-off-the-bone chicken that truly sticks to your fingers.

The thing is, no one else wants to make it. Why? It’s a frigging messy job, and there’s no two ways around it. As the chicken fries, the grease pops and snaps, getting all over the stove, the floor, the microwave, and if I’m particularly unlucky, my arms. Flour ends up all over the place. An apron is a requirement unless I’m wearing clothes I care nothing about.

Furthermore, I find that as I get older and more forgetful, it is not unusual for me to forget to put the chicken into the flour. The last couple of times that I fried chicken, Bec was my overseer: Kris, I don’t think you put that chicken into the flour, did you? Probably not. So I dig it out of the grease and put it into the flour. Ina Garten doesn’t have these kinds of problems. (As if Ina Garten would fry a chicken for Jeffrey.) But remember, she has staff. Bec is my staff.

When we started spending entire winters in AZ, I had to decide what things I needed here – the operative word being needed, and not wanted. I have a storage room full of things I wanted in Denver that have been used once or twice and now gather dust. This home is too small for those kinds of shenanigans. The Kitchen Aid standing mixer was one; cast iron pans were another.

At first, I got by with my small 10-inch Lodge pan (always Lodge; I’m a fan). But the first time I invited our AZ family for fried chicken, it became abundantly clear that I needed a larger pan. I have a 12-inch Lodge cast iron frying pan in Denver and it didn’t take long before I had one here as well…..

I don’t use it much, and it takes up precious space. Still, in my humble opinion, certain things need to be cooked in cast iron, and chicken is one of them. And when you fry two chickens plus extra dark meat, you need a big pan. Or you will spend hours frying chicken, and that’s not fun.

Country western singer and Food Network chef Trisha Yearwood gives newlyweds a cast iron pan as a wedding gift. That might work in the south, but I’m pretty sure some of my friends would have looked puzzled at such a gift, preferring 600 thread count sheets instead. But I did make sure Court had a Lodge cast iron pan, and I noticed in our recent visit that it was sitting out on his stove, so I think he uses it.

If the cast iron pan is properly seasoned, food doesn’t really stick to it, and clean-up is pretty easy. To season a cast iron pan – both when you first get it and then on an ongoing basis as it is needed – you rub the inside with vegetable oil and place the pan in a 325 degree oven for an hour or so. Shut off the oven, and allow the pan to cool inside the oven before removing it and wiping it with a paper towel or cloth.

I was always told not to use soap to clean a cast iron skillet. In fact, many people insist that you should only use paper towels, salt, and elbow grease. Personally, here’s how I clean my cast iron pan: wait until it is cool; remove as much food and grease as you can with a paper towel; add some hot water and let it sit for a few minutes. Not too long, mind you. Use a scrub pad without soap to clean the bottom and sides of the pan; dry it completely with a paper towel or cloth. Sit it out on your stove overnight, or until such time as you can convince someone else to put it away for you as it is HEAVY AS CAN BE!

Because cast iron maintains an even heat for so long, I read recently that it is one of the best ways to make a homemade pizza. Preheat the pan for a very long time. Make your pizza crust. Carefully (and I’m not entirely sure how this could be managed, perhaps with a pizza peel) place your crust in the pan. Add your ingredients and bake in a hot oven. Voila. I’m going to try it sometime.

By the way, this blog post is NOT sponsored by Lodge!

Meals and Memories Redux

This blog originally ran on November 12, 2013. I like this particular post because it includes fond memories of my mother, who I miss every day.

A few weeks ago, when Bill and I were still in Arizona, my brother David and I were sitting outside late in the afternoon. Talk turned towards our childhood, as it often does whenever any combination of the siblings gathers.

I think we all agree that we had a wonderful childhood. None of us ever doubted that our parents loved us. Times were different, however. There wasn’t a lot of “I love you’s” tossed around though we knew they did. A term you hear thrown around these days is “helicopter parent.” You know, the parent who hovers around their child making sure no harm ever comes to little Junior or Juniorette. I think it’s safe to say that neither my mother nor my father would ever have been accused of being a helicopter parent.

Here’s an example: My mother was a very sound sleeper. Because of this, it really took a lot of guts for any of us to wake her up in the middle of the night. We knew it would involve a lot of shaking of her shoulders. Eventually, she would leap up in bed with a loud, “What is it?” Gulp. It had better be good because by this time Dad was awake.

For me, it was either “I’m going to throw up,” or “I can’t sleep.” If I was going to throw up, she was liable to ask me why I was telling her this in her bedroom instead of leaning over the toilet in the bathroom. And the “I can’t sleep”, well, that just got on her very last nerve.

Her answer to that particular complaint, without exception, was (say it with me Siblings), “Nobody ever died from a lack of sleep. Go back to bed.” I have no recollection of her ever getting out of her bed to tuck me back into my bed.

By the way, as an adult, I can certainly see, clear as day, just how silly it is to awaken someone to tell them that you can’t sleep. But for some reason it made perfect sense to me as a 7-year-old.

On the other hand, it wasn’t a good idea for anyone to bring harm or even angst to any of her children. Do so, and out came the Mother Lion. I clearly remember when a neighbor boy who was a year or so older than me and a bully before people became concerned about bullies chased me down, held me to the ground, and kissed me on the lips. I was probably 7 or 8 years old. I broke free and ran to my mother in tears. I vividly remember that she went to her closet, got the broom, and chased him all the way back to his house. She may not have caught him, but I’m sure he felt the bristles on the back of his neck.

But back to David and my conversation that day. We were talking about Mom’s good cooking. He told me his favorite meal and I told him mine. It got me to thinking about her cooking, so this week I asked all my siblings what meal they would have Mom make if she could come back to cook one dinner for them.

My sister Beckie’s response: Mom’s fried chicken. My mom, by the way, always claimed that she couldn’t cook a lick when she got married. All of her cooking skills were learned from her mother-in-law. I’m sure that’s true as my mom was the youngest of 13 kids, and her mom died before my mom was married, and sick for much longer than that. Not in a position to teach my mom to cook. So Mom’s fried chicken is actually my grandmother’s fried chicken, and now my fried chicken. Don’t confuse this chicken with southern-style because it isn’t crunchy. Instead, it is tender and flavorful.

My Family’s Fried Chicken

1 frying chicken, cut into 10 pieces (my mother always cut each breast into two pieces}
1-2 c. flour, well-seasoned with salt and pepper
Butter and vegetable oil, half and half, deep enough to fill a pan to a depth of about a quarter of an inch

Preheat the butter and oil in the fry pan until it’s hot enough to sizzle if you flick a drop of water into the pan. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour, shaking off the excess. Lay the pieces skin-side-down into the hot oil. Cook until it’s nicely brown, 5-6 minutes. Turn over and do the same on the other side. It doesn’t have to be cooked all the way through. Only fry a few pieces at a time or your shortening will cool down too much and your chicken pieces won’t brown nicely.

As you remove the chicken pieces from the pan, place them into a roasting pan. (Conversely, you can place them temporarily on a plate and return all of the pieces to the pan to finish. Make sure your pan is oven-proof and has a lid if you choose this option.) Cover the roasting pan with aluminum foil and place into a preheated 350 degree oven for an hour or so until the chicken is cooked through and falls off the bone.

Nana’s Notes: Personally, I believe a cast iron skillet is imperative to make good fried chicken. Having said this, I must say I don’t believe my mother used a cast iron skillet. Still, you would have to pry my lovely well-seasoned iron skillet out of my hand to make me fry chicken in a regular skillet. I used to fry the chicken, place the pieces on a plate until finished, pour out most of the grease, return the chicken to that pan, cover and finish cooking it in the oven. Now, however, I fry the chicken and put the pieces into a toss-away aluminum roasting pan, cover it with tin foil and finish it in the oven. There is no getting around it. Frying chicken is messy business. Also, I add a bit of cayenne pepper to my seasoned flour. Don’t tell my mother.