On the Fourth of July, millions of us will celebrate America's birthday with a festive picnic. Red white and blue decorations will fill the streets as we try to enjoy that extra day of rest and relaxation. Eating outdoors is a summertime tradition in which even we New Yorkers indulge. We often pick up a gourmet sandwich or prepared salad from one of many take-out markets around the city on our way to one of our favorite city parks. But this year I am urging everyone to go retro and pack their picnic baskets with some fried chicken, coleslaw, and macaroni salad!
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Friend or Foe
It is no easy task to ask an increasingly health-conscience country to eat something like fried chicken, what many consider to be the quintessential fatty food. This classic American dish always has a coating of one kind or another on the chicken, whether skinless or not. But fried chicken need not be cooked in a cauldron of hot grease; it can be "oven fried," or baked. Since the USA's birthday falls on the 4th, I list below four different recipes for your picnic basket. Fried chicken can be made on the bone, off the bone, with or without skin, or even in strips as a topper to a salad.
To Fry or to Bake
The decision to fry or to bake is really an easy one. Do you want to use the skin? If so, then you must fry. Fried chicken with skin works best when the skin can render its fat, and cooking it in the oven with a coating does not really allow that to happen. If you want to go skinless, then you have the option to bake or fry, irrespective of the coating you choose. If you are not sure what kind of coating you want the chicken to have, but you are certain you want to watch your fat intake, then baking is the best option.
Temperature and Equipment
Baking requires a lot less attention than frying. You set the temperature, wait until the oven is warm, and place the food in the oven for a set period of time. But frying requires hands-on concentration with a lot of potential temperature fluctuation that any cook needs to monitor.
To fry chicken, the fat should be between 325-375 degrees F depending on the fat and fry method you use. When you put larger pieces of chicken in the pot, the temperature will drop more significantly than when you put in smaller pieces, such as wings. It is important to fry like-sized pieces together to facilitate even cooking time, which makes your job a lot easier.
As always when frying, do not overcrowd the pot. Work in batches. If you crowd the pan, the temperature will drop too quickly and the chicken will absorb more of the oil than necessary. A deep fryer, aptly named, is ideal for the undertaking. However, a deep cast iron skillet or Dutch oven is equal to the task. Do not fill the pot more than half way, as the fat will rise when the chicken is added.
Packing the Picnic
Fried chicken is such a terrific picnic food because it travels well at room temperature. Once you have finished frying all your chicken and have drained it on paper towels, place the chicken in a large paper bag. This allows the chicken to breathe a little while it continues to release some residual heat, all while absorbing any excess grease. Plus, a paper bag makes for easy cleanup when the picnic ends. All you have to do is throw out the bag : no extra reusable containers to lug home!
Oven-fried chicken is not very greasy, so it can be stored in any type of travel container. Just be sure to let it cool first before packing so that it does not "sweat," making itself soggy en route to your outdoor meal. Keep your salads cold and crisp with ice packs or thermal packaging.
One more important tip when having a picnic: HAVE FUN! Happy Birthday, USA!
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