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Try the Pink Chicken. Please.

February 17, 2011 | Frank Bonanno

Sometimes you have to compromise even when you know you’re right.

At Green Russell, we celebrate our industry with Fried Chicken Sundays. Ten dollars for Red Bird Farms organic birds and a big helping of mashed potatoes. The country fried recipe is pretty straightforward: legs and thighs brined in buttermilk, salt, and pepper for 24 hours, dredged in seasoned flour, dipped in fresh buttermilk, dredged a second time, and fried in 325° oil until crispy golden brown—about 18 minutes. So simple—crunchy, tender, flavorful. We’ve served over 100 of those specials without a single complaint. Not one. Nearly every plate returns to the dish pit with only a few bones left behind.

So we bring the same recipe to Lou’s. It’s a natural for that concept—totally family-friendly comfort food. I am so confident of the success of the Country Fried Chicken that those words are actually painted on the Lou’s wall. The first order, served during our soft opening and to the daughter of one of my best friends, comes back to the kitchen. Elizabeth feels it’s undercooked. By the night’s end the tally is even—two orders raved about, and two returned for further cooking. In the subsequent week probably one out of every eight fried chickens ordered at Lou’s comes back to the kitchen. Here’s why: real chickens that eat grains and use their bodies for things like moving around a farm have pink meat. Most American diners cannot tolerate pinkness in their homogeneous, thrice-weekly consumed chicken–and if diners can’t tolerate pink chicken, imagine how they feel encountering blood—a physical reminder that this was once a living being. Not good.

The guest is always right; the recipe evolves. I can’t give up on organic chicken, so we eliminate the buttermilk. Internet hearsay says a straight saltwater brine will draw out all of the blood

The hearsay is wrong, and several other brining “solutions” confirm that no matter how long you soak an organic chicken, or what you soak it in, or how long you submerge it in a deep fryer, there’s going to be a bit of blood around the thigh bone. So the buttermilk returns and Mike and I discuss replacing the thigh with a breast. No chef can support a fried breast, though–no flavor . So we remove the thigh bone, which eliminates the bloodline and most of the pinkness, and also speeds up the cooking time. Problem solved. The second order sent lovingly into the dining room returns with a new complaint: where’s the bone? Turns out diners like a bone, and I have to agree, there’s more flavor in meat that’s been cooked around a bone. Besides, it’s nice to have a little handle on a piece of fried chicken.

So to keep the handle and the flavor but eliminate the pink, we stop serving the thigh and go with an all drumstick batch of fried chicken. For me, that’s a major compromise, because a chicken thigh is the perfect piece of fried protein. It has an ideal skin to meat ratio, the bone is thick but compact, the meat is tasty and juicy. It is quite simply the perfect piece for fried chicken. (Thighs and drumsticks are the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of fried chicken–the breast is Huey Louis.)

New complaints: portion size–four drumsticks don’t really fill up a plate; and no white or pink meat. We can’t win. Back to the original recipe with thighs—a longer cooking time at a lower temperature takes care of most of the pink. It’s a slower pick up time, though, and who wants to wait a half hour for an order of fried chicken? We try crisping it up in the fryer, holding warm, and finishing it in the oven–but then the batter doesn’t stick as well, or it browns up too much and looks burnt. More complaints.

Slow, long frying it is, with the original Green Russell recipe, and the chicken comes out great, but the servers have to verbally confirm an understanding of the long cooking time and potential coloring with the guests. And, yes, we still get 1 in 10 returned for pinkness concerns, which we throw in the oven (the chicken, not the guest) and just cook until it’s as robbed of all juice, taste, blush, and character as skim milk.

I can tell we’re not finished compromising on this recipe—as with all dishes this one will continue to evolve. But it’s chicken, damn it, not lobster, and after months of tasting, revising, discussing, and now blogging about it, I am ready to move on.

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