Mounds of Butter
There’s nothing that sparks my creativity in the kitchen than a big mound of butter. And a big mound is what I got from a drop in visit to the Downtown Farmstand. Nina Winston has brought in the lumpy and unassuming two pound package of butter churned by a neighbor of Blue Marble whose license includes butter-making. Apologetically, Nina sold it to me given its homely appearance: a white butcher paper covered log labeled with a red band stamped with the vague description “unsalted 174.”
With a trip to NY this weekend, my butter remained safe and cold in my meat keeper. Sunday’s meal was grilled steak tacos with homemade tortillas and as a result grapeseed, vegetable shortening and lard were the fats of choice. Monday’s dinner was Cranberry Bean & Chard Soup, inspired by the flavors of Ribollita, so no butter required there either. Tuesday, however, was chicken night. Motivated by a Facebook post by Provenance Food & Wine’s Tracy Kellner, fried chicken was the plat du jour.
Now, fried chicken probably doesn’t make a cook think immediately of butter. But biscuits might. I’ve been very irritated by my biscuit recipe having almost flubbed it at my Bloomie’s demo by forgetting my buttermilk and being forced to rely upon the substantially thinner soured 1% milk. To redeem my skills as a “cooker” (as Thor puts it), I felt compelled to make a batch. While baking, I did some research on fried chicken. In September, I’ve signed up as the chef for Green City Market’s Soulfest and so I’m currently perfecting my Southern dishes. Little did I know how quickly I’d accomplish that with the centerpiece of my demo.
I’d known that I was going to marinate my chicken (Cedar Valley) in garlic and Tabasco flecked buttermilk. The fat was still in question until I pulled out my favorite Southern cookbook, Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s, The Gift of Southern Cooking. Their method is a combination of Peacock’s native Alabama and Lewis’s Freetown, Virginia and it involves butter and lard with a bit of country ham tossed in for flavor. A few years back, friend Bruce Cook brought back some beautifully rendered leaf lard from a pig he helped slaughter down in Georgia. The mason jars have been impeccably preserved in my downstairs freezer. Combined with 4 ounces of butter from my unmarked log, it made the perfect cooking vehicle. The result was deeply flavorful chicken, chestnut in color, juicy in the interior and a coating that shattered to the bite. Between that and the biscuits, I can’t imagine (at least today) a better use for a mound of butter.
Here’s my version of the Peacock and Lewis recipe.
1 small chicken, cut into 2 legs, 2 wings, 2 thighs and 4 breast pieces
2 cups buttermilk
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 dashes Tabasco
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon finely-ground cornmeal
1 pinch cayenne
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 pound lard
1 stick unsalted butter
1 small chunk country ham
Mix together buttermilk, garlic, Tabasco with a pinch of salt. Pour over chicken pieces and marinate in the refrigerator for a minimum of 1 day and up to 3. Approximately 1 hour before serving, heat the butter and lard in a cast iron skillet or dutch oven over low heat. Add the country ham chunk. Skim any foam that rises to the surface. Cook for about ½ hour, skimming any foam that rises to the surface. Remove the ham chunk. In a shallow dish, mix together flour, cornstarch, cornmeal, cayenne, salt and pepper. Heat the oil to 325°-335° F. Remove the chicken pieces from the liquid and set on a baking sheet. Dredge a few chicken pieces in the dry ingredients, shaking off excess. Slide into hot fat and fry for approximately 5 minutes each side. Drain on a rack set over a baking sheet and repeat with remaining pieces.
¼ cup whole wheat pastry flour
¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 ½ tablespoons vegetable shortening
½ cup buttermilk
METHOD: Preheat oven to 425° F. In a medium bowl, combine flours, baking powder and salt. Cut the butter and shortening into small pieces. Work the fat into the dry ingredients with your fingertips until the mixture looks sandy with smallish lumps. Pour in the buttermilk and mix with a fork until the ingredients just hold together. Knead into a ¾-inch circle very lightly on a floured surface. Cut into 6 pieces. Place on a silpat or parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes in the center rack of the oven or until light brown. Cool slightly.