Let’s play chicken

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Chefs across America are putting their own spin on this ubiquitous bird.

Although most people can cook it at home, chicken is still one of the most popular items ordered in restaurants. “There is a deeply emotional attachment [to chicken]in America’s food history,” says Chef Richard Torres, of The Continental in Miami Beach. The bird is an American culinary mainstay because it’s ubiquitous. “Where lamb, goat and rabbit are all influences from other countries, [Americans see] chicken everywhere we go.”

Today, poultry consumption in the United States surpasses beef consumption. In 1960, Americans ate less than 30 pounds of chicken per year. In 2015, they ate a whopping 90 pounds per person, according to the National Chicken Council.

But today’s chefs are not resting on their laurels, nor do their customers expect them to. Instead, they are exploring innovative preps, new flavor adventures and creative presentations to not only keep diners excited but to also pay homage to an American dinner staple.

To get inspired, take a look at some of the dishes that chefs are preparing across the States.

Korean Fried Chicken
The Continental, Miami
Chef Richard Torres (Pictured on cover)

Although steeped in American tradition, chicken is actually a versatile canvas for exotic spices, sauces and flavors that may be inspired from cuisines around the world. “There has certainly been a romance with fried chicken over the course of the last few years, whether with waffles or Korean style,” says Torres, who offers the latter at The Continental. His eclectic menu is known for celebrating the cultures that converge in its Miami Beach neighborhood. Diners will find Jamaican Jerk Chicken as well as Chinese Kung Pao Chicken, for example.

Torres calls his Korean Fried Chicken “a science” that begins with half of a Bell and Evans allnatural organic whole chicken broken down into a wing, drumstick, thigh and two breast strips. Dusted with a mix of cornstarch, baking soda and salt, he lets it air dry for 24 hours. “The batter makes this dish unique,” he says, noting the addition of vodka, which he says gives an extracrispy finish.

The entire frying process takes 18 minutes exactly. First, he sets the timer for 10 minutes and drops in the chicken drumstick and thigh. When there’s about 3 minutes left, he drops the wing, and then the two pieces of breast. Then the chicken rests for 5 minutes and is fried again for an additional 3 minutes. Garnish includes a gochujang (Korean chili paste) glaze, toasted sesame seeds and a “giardiniera” of assorted pickled vegetables.

Lemon Chicken Soup
Branch Line, Massachusetts
Chef Stephen Oxaal

Similar to the nose-to-tail culinary movement, some chefs are championing a “chickento- branch” approach. That’s the philosophy at Branch Line, a neighborhood rotisserie and wood fire grill. “The great thing about chicken is that you can use every part of the animal,” says Stephen Oxaal, chef de cuisine and a graduate of New England Culinary Institute. “We use the feet and necks to make stock; we cook the chickens on the rotisserie and use the breast meat for a fried chicken sandwich; the pulled leg meat goes into a chopped salad; and the remaining bones get turned into soup. And, of course, the whole bird is served fresh off the rotisserie.” For the restaurant’s beloved Lemon Chicken Soup, Oxaal pulls all the meat off the rotisserie chickens, and the remaining bones are simmered for hours with vegetables, aromatics and fresh squeezed lemon juice. “Then we strain it thoroughly and add chopped olives, more vegetables, fresh chopped oregano, toasted [French] bread, lemon oil and pulled leg meat from the rotisserie chickens,” he says. For every gallon of finished soup, there are about two whole chickens’ worth of bones. “Restaurants can typically prepare [chicken]in ways that may not be the easiest at home,” says Oxaal, “because not everyone has access to a rotisserie or a deep-fryer at their house.”

Peruvian Chicken
Son and Daughters, NYC
Chef Jon Bignelli

Executive Chef Jon Bignelli, a mentee of Wylie Dufresne and alum of the Food Network’s “Chopped,” has seen the quality of farming practices in the poultry business improve in recent years. “We have wider access to a better variety of chicken. For example, everyone is using the Amish chickens now,” says Bignelli. “They’re relatively inexpensive, and you can use the whole product, so there’s zero waste.”

At Sons and Daughters, Bignelli is known for several standout dishes, including Peruvian chicken with fried yucca. It’s traditionally made with rotisserie chicken, but Bignelli discovered that a grill was a perfectly good substitute for the whole-chicken dish, marinated with a blend of smoked paprika, cumin, garlic powder, salt, Worcestershire sauce, white vinegar and grape seed oil.

In addition to grilling, roasting whole birds is a favorite method for Bignelli. “I like to roast whole birds a la Thomas Keller, which calls for a sixhour brine and a high roasting temperature,” says Bignelli. “It never disappoints. But, at home, it will most certainly set off a smoke alarm.”

Country Fried Yard Bird
Grayson Social, Dallas
Darlene Marcello, VP of Food & Beverage

In Dallas, Darlene Marcello, vice president of Food & Beverage at Grayson Social, says fried chicken remains a longtime fan favorite because of comfort, memories and the ultimate combination of crunch, moisture and flavor. “When chicken is done right, you get the unbeatable trifecta,” she says, noting today’s guests are more open to different cuts as well as whole birds. “The standard boneless chicken breast is not the star or the attraction anymore.”

At Grayson Social, a neighborhood restaurant that offers shared plates and Southern favorites, patrons flock to the Country Fried Yardbird—fried chicken made with tempura batter and a hint of spice.

“Chef Daniel Tarasevich and I battled on seasonings and flavor profile,” she says. “I wanted something as delicious as the fried chicken my great-grandmother made in her cast-ironed skillet with some heated spice. Yet, I didn’t want a dish that would weigh you down.” After many trials, they came up with a bird that is moist with flavor to the bone and a nice crunch on the crust. In the end, her team decided to cook to rotisserie the chicken before frying it—and the rest is her secret.

Katsu Omelet
TanakaSan, Seattle
Chef Melissa Martz

At Tom Douglas’ TanakaSan in Seattle, Chef Melissa Martz uses chicken in all forms. “Using the entire bird is both an economical and a creative outlet,” says Martz, noting crispy chicken skin makes a fabulous garnish. Martz’s team also grinds excess chicken skin and fat with thigh meat as a source of moisture for chicken meatballs and dumplings.

The Fried Chicken Katsu Omelet is a take on oyakodon, a Japanese dish with eggs and chicken that means ‘parent and child.’ Instead of a simple sauté, chicken thighs are breaded in Panko crumbs, deep-fried and then sliced in strips and placed in a subtly sweet egg omelet seasoned with onions and dashi. It’s then served over steamed white rice and topped with green onions and bonito flakes. “It’s the ultimate comfort food,” she says.

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