Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Four centuries ago, France’s King Henri IV promised “a chicken in every peasant’s pot on Sunday,” epitomizing widespread prosperity. Today, chickens are so common that most people don’t even consider them special.

Springtime, however, always makes me think happily about chicken. If you’ve grown up in the countryside, as I did, this is the time of year for young, tender birds perfect for roasting or frying. In late fall and winter, there were only tough old birds that needed slow simmering to make them tender.

One of my favorite ways to enjoy spring chicken has always been as Wiener Backhendl, Viennese-style fried chicken. Not only is the recipe incredibly delicious, but it is also very easy, especially if you pay attention to a few key details.

First, start with the right kind of chicken. Look for a smaller, younger bird labeled “broiler-fryer.” A whole bird shouldn’t weigh more than 2 1/2 to 3 pounds (1.25 to 1.5 kg).

Next, use bone-in chicken pieces. My mother taught me long ago that the bones help keep the meat juicier and more flavorful.

You should, however, remove the skin. This isn’t for health reasons, but because, under the coating, the skin steams and stays unappetizingly soft instead of turning deliciously crisp. I remember my mother ordering fried chicken when we dined out and, upon discovering at first bite that the skin hadn’t been removed, announcing, “This is not a good restaurant!”

Besides, despite what some home cooks might think, the skin doesn’t help the breadcrumbs stick. Just make sure to dust the pieces with flour and then coat them with egg, producing a sticky surface to which crumbs adhere. Use plain white breadcrumbs from a firm loaf several days old. My mother grated the bread by hand, but you can use a food processor, processing the bread with the stainless-steel blade to a uniformly fine consistency.

For frying, use a large, deep, heavy skillet with enough oil to immerse the chicken. Position the skillet securely on a burner where it won’t be in danger of accidental bumping. A deep-frying thermometer helps ensure that the temperature is high enough, essential to nongreasy results. (Or use a thermostatically controlled electric deep-fryer.) If necessary, cook the chicken in batches to avoid overcrowding, which will diminish the temperature and trap steam between the pieces.

That’s it: perfect fried chicken. I love to fry fresh parsley or lovage leaves at the last minute for a garnish. Then, I serve the chicken with mashed potatoes and a romaine lettuce salad. I always make extra to enjoy cold the next day, a perfect summer meal with coleslaw or potato salad.

Please try my recipe, and rediscover how wonderful spring chicken can be!


Serves 4 to 6

2 1/2 pounds (1.25 kg) bone-in frying chicken pieces


Freshly ground black pepper

2 cups (500 ml) all-purpose flour

3 eggs, beaten

4 cups (1 l) fine white breadcrumbs

Vegetable oil for deep-frying

1 cup (250 ml) whole parsley leaves, rinsed and thoroughly patted dry

2 lemons, cut into wedges

Pull off and discard the skin from the chicken pieces, carefully using a small, sharp knife to help you if necessary. Season the chicken generously all over with salt and pepper. On 3 separate soup plates, put the flour, the eggs and the breadcrumbs. Spread a sheet of waxed paper or parchment paper on a baking sheet or platter.

Fill a deep-fryer or a large, deep, heavy skillet with enough oil to immerse the chicken. Heat it to 350 degrees (180 C), setting the deep-fryer’s thermostat or gauging the oil in the skillet with a deep-frying thermometer.

Meanwhile, one piece at a time, dip the chicken into the flour, coating it evenly all over; then, dip it in the egg, coating it all over; and finally, roll the piece in the breadcrumbs and gently shake off excess crumbs before placing it on the waxed paper. Repeat with the remaining chicken pieces.

As soon as the oil is hot, taking care not to splatter, carefully put the chicken in the oil and deep-fry, in batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding, until deep golden brown and cooked through, 12 to 14 minutes; during frying, use a wire skimmer or slotted metal spoon to turn them every 3 to 4 minutes so they cook evenly.

While the chicken is frying, discard the waxed paper from the baking sheet or platter and cover it in a triple layer of paper towels. When the chicken is done, use the skimmer or slotted spoon to remove the pieces from the oil one by one, transferring them to the paper towels to drain.

As soon as all the chicken is done, put the parsley into the hot oil and fry until dark green and crisp, about 30 seconds. Remove it with the skimmer or slotted spoon and drain on the paper towels.

Divide the chicken pieces among serving plates and scatter the fried parsley on top. Serve immediately with lemon wedges for squeezing over the chicken.

Chef Wolfgang Puck’s new TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY. 14207.



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