- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Listen to America’s top chefs, and you’ll hear a lot of talk about seasonal foods: fresh peas in the spring, height-of-summer tomatoes, August corn, fall squash, midwinter root vegetables. There’s venison season, stone crab season, wild salmon season, fiddlehead fern season.

Then there’s football season, which can mean only one thing: chicken wings.

Scott Sanders, a New York-based interior designer who specializes in classic American style, says: “Spicy chicken wings and beer are an essential part of … tailgating. There’s nothing more American.”

Gnawing on these messy little wonders is the perfect thing to do while watching football. After all, the two activities have an awful lot in common. They’re primitive, messy and sloppy. They’re communal pleasures. Both go really well with beer. Wings also are a great way to get out a spectator’s frustrations with a losing home team (or joy over a winning one).

For superstitious fans, eating chicken wings is an essential ritual. Along with a favorite shirt or hat or position on the couch, a big platter of wings or their absence can easily mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Unlike apple pie and other iconic American foods, chicken wings rarely are prepared at home. They come from restaurant kitchens, bar kitchens, pizza-delivery services, barbecue joints, supermarket deli sections and even precooked in packages at Costco. Seldom do they arrive from Mom’s kitchen.

This is understandable. The traditional way to cook wings is to fry them in a vat of vegetable oil, toss them with equal parts butter and Tabasco, and serve them with a bowl of blue cheese dressing.

For a crowd of hungry football fans, this involves an industrial-size jug of vegetable oil; entire sticks of butter; a whole lot of sour cream, mayo and blue cheese; and an ironclad willingness to leave your house smelling like a fried-chicken joint. It’s not that Mom doesn’t want to spend the time; she just doesn’t want to kill us.

However, there’s another way. In an age when even linebackers are discovering their sensitive sides, better-for-you baked wings are the latest trend in heat-‘n’-serve snacks. “Baked ones are usually crispier and less greasy,” says Andy Acker, an assistant manager at a health care mutual fund in Denver. “And they’re better for you.”

Mr. Acker says he has seen baked wings at only one bar and has never made them at home. Maybe if he knew how easy it is, he would.

The key to great homemade baked wings is to start with a simple master recipe and then dress them to your taste. There’s almost nothing to it. You stick the wings on a pan with a little oil, salt and pepper; put them in the oven; and forget about them for 50 minutes. Then you toss them with a dressing that can be made days in advance or whipped up in a flash on the spot.

You can go with something as classic as the typical buffalo-wing Tabasco-and-butter combo (which still involves a whole stick, but, hey, at least the wings aren’t fried) or go gourmet with anything from Thai sweet-and-sour dip to cilantro pesto. You even can divide up the batch and serve a few different flavors.

Basic baked chicken wings

30 chicken wings (with drumettes separated from wings), about 4 pounds

1/4 cup olive oil

1 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

Dressing of choice, optional (recipes follow)

Line a baking sheet or two with sides with aluminum foil (nonstick if you can find it). Place wings on pan(s) in a single layer. Drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper on both sides. Place in preheated 400-degree oven for 50 minutes, or until golden. Toss immediately with dressing of your choice, if desired. Makes 12 servings.

Superspicy classic wings with blue cheese dressing

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, cut into pieces and softened

8 tablespoons Tabasco sauce

1 batch basic baked chicken wings (above), still hot

Blue cheese dressing

Celery sticks

Place butter and Tabasco in a bowl. Add fully cooked and hot wings. Toss well to coat. Serve with blue cheese dressing and celery sticks. Makes 12 servings.

BLUE CHEESE DRESSING:

1 cups (about 9 ounces) crumbled blue cheese

cup sour cream

cup mayonnaise

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

teaspoon coarsely ground pepper

Place crumbled blue cheese, sour cream, mayonnaise, Worcestershire and pepper in a bowl; stir well, mashing the blue cheese a little, until combined. Makes about 2 cups.

Thai sweet-and-sour wings

cup honey

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Zest of 2 limes

Juice of 1 lime (about 2 tablespoons)

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro (from about 15 sprigs)

2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1 recipe basic baked chicken wings (recipe above), still hot

Place honey, Worcestershire, lime zest and juice, soy sauce, garlic, cilantro, pepper flakes, pepper and salt in a bowl and stir well. Pour 1/3 cup over fully cooked and hot wings and toss well, then serve the rest on the side as a dipping sauce. Makes about 2/3 cup, or 12 servings.

Cilantro pesto wings

1 cup chopped cilantro (from about 1 bunch)

1 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley (from about bunch)

cup olive oil

4 cloves garlic, peeled

cup walnut pieces

1 tablespoon lime juice (about lime)

teaspoon pepper

teaspoon salt

1 recipe basic baked chicken wings (above), still hot

Place cilantro, parsley and olive oil in a blender container. Pulse on high for about 30 seconds, until herbs are well-chopped (but not long enough to puree). Add garlic, walnuts, lime juice, pepper and salt, and pulse another 30 seconds, or until fully incorporated. Pour into a bowl, add fully cooked and hot wings and toss. Serve immediately. Makes 1 cup, or 12 servings.

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