Saturday, November 24, 2007

Even Grandma Will Admit this Fried Chicken Is Better than Hers

Sunday afternoon, right around 12:30. For those in the know, that’s prime fried chicken eatin’ time. Here in the Metroplex, we’re lucky to be surrounded by options to help us scratch the chicken itch, both down-home good and corporate-laboratory-tested. On one recent Sunday, DallasEats tried them all (well, as close to all as we could get in one day) and crowned a champion. Bless us arteries, for we have sinned.

We gathered two additional (and very willing) participants around the dining table to join us on our deep-fried vision quest. First, we chose the contenders. We couldn’t taste-test every chicken joint in Dallas, so we settled on six, ranging from a shack in East Dallas to the world’s most famous purveyor of fried chicken (think white beard and glasses). The final six contenders were: Williams Chicken (for the record, this should be possessive, but it’s not a part of their official name. This omission is slowly killing FP inside), Pope’s, Church’s, Brother’s, Popeye’s, and KFC.

After deciding upon the entrants, the particulars of the taste-off were debated and refined, ensuring as pure a result as possible. A great deal of discussion took place ahead of time about the basics of this competition. The question was asked—what makes for a great piece of fried chicken? The way we see it, the answer is two-fold: crust and chicken. Within these two components, however, are myriad subtleties. We narrowed these factors to the following manageable and quantifiable list:

· Crust texture
· Crust flavor
· Chicken texture
· Chicken flavor
· Crust to chicken ratio

Categories were ranked on a scale of one to five, giving each type of chicken a possible 25 points per judge, 100 points overall. Check out the rankings, from last place to first:

6. Church’s Chicken (59)

With a final score of 59 points, Church’s received the dubious distinction of last place in our competition. Its downfall was the crust, which was judged tasteless and thin. Adding insult to injury, the crust-to-chicken ratio was skewed by giant, meaty parts, which didn’t appeal to anyone. On the upside, it packed a good crunch, and a generous squirt from one of those trademark jalapeños could give it a much-needed kick.

5. Popeye’s (61)

Keeping Church’s company in the dregs of our rankings was Popeye’s, with a total score of 61. The batch we sampled seemed to vary from piece to piece, ranging from good to just plain gross. In fact, the meat on one drumstick was so gray and unappealing that it was downright inedible. That said, Popeye’s crispy, spicy crust distinguished it from Church’s and kept it out of the bottom of the barrel.

4. KFC (62.5)

The big surprise of the day was KFC - the artist formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken - which racked up 62.5 points (one guess as to which over-analytical - but loveable - blogger resorted to using half points). We decided to give them a chance by ordering the “Extra Tasty Crispy” variety, which proved to be just that. One taster called it “surprisingly good”, and that summed up the group consensus. The only dissenter was FP, who could still taste the 11 herbs and spices—and not in a good way.

3. Pope’s (75)

The top three chicken joints stood head and shoulders over the rest, to nobody’s surprise. Pope’s Fried Chicken in East Dallas, a small, rundown shop at the intersection of Carroll and I30 (yikes), rang in at 75 points. Although the pieces were on the smallish side, they were crisp, with juicy, flavorful meat. The only complaint was that the crust lacked the flavor punch that distinguished the top two. Even so, it was delicious and its score reflected its quality.

2. Brother’s Fried Chicken (77.5)

With 77.5 total points, this East Dallas institution near Baylor hospital ended up in second place on our list. For the record, not everyone loved Brother’s spicy crust. C&S was a little off-put by the presence of what she believed to be Lowry’s Seasoned Salt. However, everyone agreed that the crust texture and ratio were just about perfect. One reviewer summed it up perfectly, “Mmmmm. Brother’s.” The good news for those of you north of 635 is that another outpost of this fried chicken goodness is now open in Richardson.

1. Williams Fried Chicken (79.5)

Wow. Two of our reviewers had never tasted the magical goodness of Williams prior to the competition, and their minds were effectively blown. With a total score of 79.5 points, this chicken was declared almost perfect by the judges. Crisp and moist, with a crust to chicken ratio favoring the crust, it’s no wonder FP had to spend 20-minutes in line to get it. This chicken is worth waiting for, and it has now been crowned DallasEats’ Best Fried Chicken in Dallas.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Thanksgiving Special--Robin's Cornbread Dressing

Okay, let me first say, there is no one cornbread dressing recipe that will please everyone. We all grew up with moms that made it just a little bit differently, and I love all the stuff my mom makes at Thanksgiving—even the sweet potatoes with marshmallows. Okay, especially the sweet potatoes with marshmallows. That being said, this is not my mom’s recipe. This is my recipe, which I’ve made for the last several years, tweaking it just a little bit each time. It’s also great with sausage, but this is the slightly lighter version.

Robin’s Cornbread Dressing:

1/3 of a stick of butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped celery (don’t chop it too finely—you still want it to look like celery)
1 medium fennel bulb, diced
1 large sweet onion, diced
2 medium/large crisp, sweet apples (Fuji apples are my favorite)
1tsp. +1 tbs. kosher salt
2 tsp. dried fennel seeds
2 tsp. dried thyme
2 tsp. dried sage
2 prepared 8X8 pans of yellow cornbread
1 cup apple juice
2 cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth for our vegetarian friends)
2 eggs, beaten
2 tsp. fresh black pepper (to taste)
½ cup chopped pecans

Melt the butter and olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the celery and fennel, and sauté for five minutes. Add the onion, apples, fennel seeds, 1 tsp. salt, thyme, and sage. Sauté for about five-10 more minutes, or until the onions begin to get translucent.

In a large mixing bowl, crumble the cornbread. When it’s done, pour the apple mixture over the top. Add the apple juice, chicken broth, eggs, pepper, pecans and the rest of the salt. Combine.

Spoon the mixture into a 9 by 13 pan, and bake for 45 minutes. The mixture should become firm and the top should brown. It should also smell awesome.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

She Got Game

Two of our favorite readers (and friends), Lydia and Tim Wagner, have gifted me with several pounds of Tim's family's venison sausage. Growing up in Texas, I've eaten game on several occaisions, but I have never cooked with it. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to try a few different ways to put this sausage to use, and I'll share the good and the bad with you all.

Tonight's menu is barley risotto with venision sausage. I'll let you know how it goes...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Kiss My Grits

As fall is clearly upon us, my food preferences have turned from the fresh, crisp flavors of summer to the homey, cozy flavors of fall. Basically—I don’t want a stupid salad. I want stew. Or mashed potatoes. Or best of all, in my humble opinion, grits.

Basic cheese grits provide a basis for coming up with your own innovative grits recipes. I’ll start there, and then give you two other options that step it up a little.

All of these recipes are easy, cheap, and yummy and make a whole mess of grits. The best new is—they are even better on day 2 or day 3.

Basic Cheese Grits
These basic grits are great for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and pair with anything from a steak to grilled chicken to sausage.

· 2 cups chicken broth (or vegetable stock, if you’re not the meat-eatin’ kind—this is true for all three recipes. If you’re a vegan, you’re on your own.)
· 2 cups milk (I use 2%, but skim or whole would probably work okay too)
· 1 tsp. + 1 tsp. salt—(kosher if possible—it’s sooooo much better than Morton’s from the can, but not much more expensive)
· 1 cup quick grits—yellow or white, whatever is your preference.
· 1 and ½ cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
· 1 tsp. black pepper—try to use a grinder, it makes a big difference

Step 1: Combine the chicken broth, milk, and 1 tsp. of the salt in a medium/large sauce pan and bring to a bubble. BE CAREFUL, because the milk can boil over very quickly if you’re not watching it.

Step 2: Add the grits slowly while stirring with a whisk (or just with a fork if you don’t have one), to avoid the dreaded lumps.

Step 3: Turn down the heat to low and cover for five minutes.

Step 4: Add the cheese, pepper and the other tsp. of salt, and stir to combine.

Step 5: Let it sit uncovered on low heat for a few minutes to thicken up a bit.

Step 6: Eat and enjoy!

Baked Chipotle Grits
This is just a ramped-up version of the basic cheese grits. I love to make these spicy grits to go with Mike’s famous brisket, but they go well with a variety of other dishes.

Additional ingredients:
· Four chipotle chilis in adobo, chopped.
· 1 small can of green chilis.
· ½ an onion, chopped and sautéed in olive oil until translucent.
· Extra ½ cup of sharp cheddar cheese

Perform steps 1-4 of the basic cheese grits recipe.

Step 5: Preheat over to 350 degrees

Step 6: Add the “extra ingredients” to the grits

Step 7: Pour the grits into a small, lightly greased baking dish

Step 8: Sprinkle the extra cheddar on top

Step 8: Bake for about 45 minutes, until lightly browned on top and firm.

Step 9: Eat and enjoy!

Robin’s Famous Drunken Grits
Okay, they may not be famous yet with anyone but Mike and I, but they are definitely a favorite in our household. A little fancier, and possibly a bit schmancier than most grits recipes, they are as suitable for a formal dinner party as they are a backyard BBQ. I’m going to give you the entire recipe here, because it’s a smidge different than the other two. It’s totally worth the couple of extra steps, though.

· 1 tbs. olive oil
· 2 garlic cloves, minced (Or use that pre-minced stuff from the grocery store. I buy the jumbo tub of that stuff a few times a year, because it lasts forever. Sure, maybe it’s not quite as good as the fresh stuff, but it’s a lot easier, and your hands don’t smell like butt when you’re done using it)
· 2 cups chicken broth
· 1 and ½ cups milk
· 1 tsp. salt
· Either one tbs. fresh chopped or ½ a tablespoon dried thyme
· Either ½ tbs. fresh chopped or 1 tsp. dried rosemary
· 1 cup quick grits
· 1 and ½ cups shredded white cheddar cheese
· ¾ cup shredded parmesan cheese (Do not use the freaky powdered kind from the can. Get an actual block of fresh parmesan and shred it, please. It’s for your own good.)
· 1 tsp. white pepper (if you don’t want to buy it, black works too)
· ¾ cup of chardonnay

Step 1: Heat 1 tbs. olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat.

Step 3: Add the garlic and cook for two minutes.

Step 3: Add the milk, chicken broth, salt, thyme and rosemary to the garlic and bring to a bubble. Again, BE CAREFUL, because the milk can boil over very quickly if you’re not watching it.

Step 4: Add the grits slowly while stirring with a whisk (or just with a fork if you don’t have one), to avoid the dreaded lumps.

Step 5: Turn down the heat to low and cover for five minutes.

Step 6: Bring the burner temp back up to medium and stir in the chardonnay until the mixture is smooth.

Step 7: Add the cheese and pepper and stir to combine (depending on how salty the parmesan is, you may or may not need to add a little salt here, too).

Step 8: Turn the heat back down to low, and let the grits sit uncovered for a few minutes to thicken up a bit.

Step 9: Eat and enjoy!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Cornbread Chronicles, Part II

This is just a short note to commemorate the official end of my cornbread project. My review of "The Cornbread Gospels" by Crescent Dragonwagon appears in today's issue of the San Antonio Current. Click the link below to read the full text:

More than cornmeal-to-flour ratios and levels of sweetness and the presence or absence of whole kernal corn, this book taught me what a joy it can be to dissect a cuisine (or just one simple food) down to its roots and work your way back up again.

I now know that I love cornbread of all kinds, and it's all "authentic" - just depends on who you ask!

The following recipe is one of my favorites from the book: a Greek dessert cornbread, bobota is a cousin of baklava. Soaked in orange-flavored honey while still warm from the oven, it's a perfect pair with strong coffee, Sauternes or, of course, Ouzo. Enjoy!


(Greek Cornbread)

Makes 10 to 12 squares

Vegetable oil cooking spray
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached white flour
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons stone-ground yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 eggs, separated
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 orange, preferably organic
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (seeds and large pieces of pulp removed, but not strained)
1 cup currants or raisins
1 recipe Orange-Honey Syrup (below)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 7 1/2 x 12 1/2-inch pan with cooking spray and set aside.

2. Sift together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt onto a piece of wax paper. Set aside.

3. In a high-sided non-plastic bowl using scrupulously clean beaters, beat the egg whites until stiff. Set aside.

4. Using the same beaters that you used on the egg whites, in a medium-sized bowl, cream together the butter and sugar, beating until fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time. Add the orange zest.

5. Add the flour-cornmeal mixture and the orange juice to the creamed butter mixture, stirring until just combined. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the egg whites and currants or raisins.

6. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, and put it in the oven. Bake until golden brown, firm and slightly domed in the middle, 35 to 40 minutes. As the cake bakes, prepare the Orange-Honey Syrup.

7. When the cake is done, remove it from the oven and prick the top all over with a toothpick. Pour the slightly cooled syrup evenly over the cake, dousing it. Let stand 1 to 2 hours before serving.

Orange-Honey Syrup

sufficient for one Bobota

1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons honey
Juice from 1 orange plus water to equal 1 cup
Finely grated zest of one orange, preferably organic
6 whole cloves

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, turn heat down to a simmer, and let cook until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is a thin syrup, about 4 minutes. Let the syrup cool to room temperature. Remove the cloves before pouring the syrup over the Bobota.

(Photo, clockwise from top left: Dairy Hollow House Skillet-Sizzled Cornbread, cornbread and beans, Greek Bobota, Portuguese Broa and Caldo Verde stew. All recipes from The Cornbread Gospels by Crescent Dragonwagon. Photo by Lara Bierner)