Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Aromatherapy: Vanilla Goodies for the Holidays

Just a couple of days ago, I divulged that the holiday spirit was seemingly sparse around my household. But that's not entirely the case. I've actually been planning for Christmas over many weeks, creating some special homemade goodies to give as gifts with my friend and Fare to Remember cookbook co-author, Carolyn. We wanted to have a fun, unique, homemade gift that would be consistent with the Fare to Remember ideal: good eats, great friends, fun memories.

Our gift of choice this year? Homemade vanilla extract.

Making it is ridiculously easy. You need only basic ingredients (alcohol and fresh vanilla beans) and lots of time. So early in November, we started three different batches, simply splitting the vanilla beans open, scraping the flavorful and aromatic paste plus the pods straight into our 1.5 liter jugs of alcohol (so ghetto!), and setting the jugs in the pantry for the vanilla to go to town. The vanilla does all the work - it infuses the alcohol slowly but surely, and soon enough, we wound up with three big jugs of pure vanilla extract - perfect for baking (nothing artificial, as opposed to commercially available imitation vanilla or vanilla flavoring), or ideal for vanilla-flavored cocktails. Our three batches were done with various sorts of alcohol and different varieties of vanilla beans (vodka with Madagascar vanilla; rum with Tahitian vanilla; tequila with Mexican vanilla), giving each one a unique flavor profile. Much like coffee beans or wine grapes, a vanilla bean's flavor and aroma is unique to the area in which it's grown (yes - vanilla beans have terroir!). At the same time, we started a ten-pound batch of vanilla sugar by placing Indonesian vanilla beans in cane sugar to infuse it with flavor. The whole kit and caboodle became a gift set of vanilla goodness for some of our foodie friends.

But that's not all. It wouldn't be a Fare to Remember gift if there weren't a celebratory gathering involved. So we threw ourselves a vanilla bottling party, and invited friends to come and help package up their own presents. The caveat: each person had to bring a homemade holiday appetizer or dessert to share. Voila! A true Fare to Remember function.

The party's spread was nothing short of amazing - savory treats like crab cakes and salmon spread; sweet treats like gingerbread and pecan tart. The adult beverages were flowing, and Carolyn had her house festively decorated to the nines. Add the cued-up Christmas music in the background, and it was nothing short of merry and bright. (I contributed some deceptively addictive stuffed mushrooms to the table; recipe included here.)

As for the vanilla extract bottling line, we had a veritable Santa's workshop all set up. Bottles festooned with ribbon and labeled with their respective vanilla variety; tins for the vanilla sugar; packaging complete with a handy vanilla fact-filled pamphlet (did you know that vanilla is the world's second most expensive spice after saffron?), and satin bows for that finishing touch. Everybody went down the line and packaged up their own gift, and I think everyone really enjoyed it.

So thank you to Carolyn for teaming up with me on such a fun project, and thank you to all of our friends who came to celebrate the season with us. I see a tradition in the making… what do you think?

Here's a couple of tips for making your own vanilla extract:
  • Use one fresh, plump vanilla bean per every pint of alcohol
  • Let stand for a minimum of six weeks in order for the flavors to infuse. The longer the better.
  • I highly recommend beanilla.com for purchasing vanilla beans. Their prices are fantastic and the quality of their product is outstanding.
  • When baking with homemade vanilla extract, use about 1/2 of what is called for in the recipe (this stuff is strong!)

I'm Stuffed: Seriously Addicting Stuffed Mushrooms

I contributed these stuffed shrooms to the appetizer bonanza at the recent Fare to Remember holiday soiree. They turned out to be a pretty big hit, so I promised I would share the recipe here. They might look pretty harmless, but I found that I couldn't stop popping them in my mouth. I think I walked away after about a dozen. Baker's dozen, that is! :)

Stuffed Mushrooms
  • 2 dozen large mushroom caps, stems removed and chopped
  • 4 mild Italian-style chicken sausages, casings removed
  • 1 cup cooked wild rice
  • 1/4 cup fresh sage, chopped
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
Combine the chopped stems of the mushrooms with all other ingredients; combine into a meatloaf consistency. Place a heaping tablespoon of the mixture into each mushroom cap, forming a mound. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 25-30 minutes, or until sausage is cooked through. Garnish with a dab of Dijon mustard and chive spear.

Speaking of Wild Rice… Winter Wild Rice Salad

This is a dish that I brought to our family's Thanksgiving gathering. There was so much food that day, I think it understandably got lost in the shuffle. I didn't even have a bite (not when there's mashed potatoes to be had!). But I haven't forgotten about it! Since that day I've made it a couple of times because I find it warm and hearty and satisfying on a Winter's night, and its simple enough to whip up after work. Enjoy!

Wild Rice Salad
  • 1 cups wild rice
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup pecans
  • 2 scallions, chopped (including greens)
  • The juice of one fresh-squeezed orange
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
Cook the wild rice according to package directions. If using a rice cooker, use a ratio of 1 part rice to 3 parts water. Once the rice is finished cooking, transfer to a mixing bowl and fluff it up with a fork. Let cool a it before adding the cranberries, pecans, and green onions. Once combined, add the orange juice and olive oil; toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Can be served warm, chilled, or room temperature (I personally like it warm - seems very hearty and perfect for winter that way).

Monday, December 21, 2009

Please Pass the Blog: Remembering Molly

Contributed by by Joanne Ritter

All I have to say about this guest post is that yep, this is what Fare to Remember is all about. The memories we have surrounding food sustain us perhaps as much as the calories; the connections and relationships built in the kitchen or at the table are some of the most enduring. I never knew Molly, but am honored to pass along her legacy in true Fare to Remember fashion. Thank you for sharing Joanne. -Mo

When my mom died last week, my sister and I decided the best way to commemorate her spirit was to bake some of her favorite cookie recipes. Frankly, I was surprised at how cathartic and appropriate this was. As we baked, we were flooded with memories of the vivacious, creative and talented person she had been, and we appreciated the richness of our lives together. The later years of dementia were pushed into the background where they belonged. Yes, this is how we want to remember our mom.

Molly grew up on a farm in Upstate New York, one of eight children in a first-generation Italian family. They had a pastry business, and homemade breads and pasta, cakes decorated with sugar roses, pasties, canolies and other specialties were a matter of course. She loved to experiment and was always coming up with new creations. I hope you’ll make some of Molly’s recipes a part of your heritage this Christmas.

You can honor the late, great cooks in your family by starting a new Christmas tradition of baking together with your siblings. The smells and tastes of your childhood will make memories come alive. And you’ll be giving your children and grandchildren a priceless gift by letting them listen in to the stories of your family’s history.

Molly’s Italian Chocolate Cookies
(Makes 4 dozen)

Sift together:
  • 3 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 1/8 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup cocoa
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Take a tablespoon-full and roll mixture into small balls. Place on ungreased pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes.

Chocolate Frosting
Will coat a DOUBLE recipe of Italian Chocolate cookies.
  • 2 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup cocoa
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup of oil
  • 2 16-ounce boxes of powdered sugar
Mix cocoa with sugar and add the water. Place in deep pan and bring to a bubbly boil. Let cool. Add oil, blending well. Add powdered sugar. Place pan in a larger pan of hot water to keep frosting warm. If the frosting is too thick, add some of the following mixture until you get a good consistency (air temperature and humidity will affect the glaze):
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup cocoa
  • 1/2 cup water
Place several cookies in the frosting. Spoon them out on to waxed paper until frosting hardens into a shiny glaze.

Molly’s Macaroon Surprise Cookies
Makes approximately 3 dozen

Pasti Dough
  • 11 tablespoons sugar
  • 10 tablespoons shortening
Beat together in a separate bowl:
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 5 tablespoons wine (white dry vermouth)
  • 1 tablespoon honey
Blend both mixtures together.

In a separate bowl mix together:
  • 2 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
Blend both mixtures together. Knead dough until smooth (flour your hands to keep dough from sticking).

Coconut Filling
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup sugar gradually and beat until stiff.
Stir in:
  • 2 cups coconut
  • 1 cup chocolate chips
  • 1 tablespoons flour
Mix well.

Take a spoonful of pasti dough and roll into a small ball. Flatten with your palms and place a half spoon of coconut filling into the center. Fold the dough around the filling and roll between your palms gently. Bake at 400 degrees for 12-15 minutes until golden brown.

Molly’s Chocolate Cherry Bars

  • 2 eggs
Add and mix by hand:
  • 1 box chocolate cake mix
  • 1 can cherry pie filling
  • 1 teaspoon almond flavoring
Spread into greased and floured 9x13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until center springs back to the touch.

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 5 tablespoons margarine
  • 1/3 cup milk
Bring to boil and boil for one minute. Remove from heat and add one 6-ounce bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips. Spread on bars while warm.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

We've Got Spirit, Yes We Do!

There is not a single solitary Christmas decoration up at my house. No tree, no wreath, no twinkling lights. Brightly wrapped presents? Not a one to be found. But before you are sad for me and think me a grinch, a little explanation: Ran would say that he and I are making a concerted effort to SIMPLIFY (spending lots of time together, downsizing the gift list, giving presents hand made with love as opposed to "stuff" we just go out and buy) - and he would be right. But my reason? I leave for a 15-day trip to Southeast Asia on the 26th. I have Laos on the brain. Christmas, for the first time ever, has become secondary.

Randall is being a good sport about it; after all - we don't have kids, we're sharing Christmas Eve at Martha Stewart's decked out halls (that would be our friend Carolyn), and quite frankly, all the decor is so buried in the garage that the thought of unearthing it AND packing/planning/organizing for my trip AND cooking up goodies for a Christmas morning brunch AND finishing up any last minute internet shopping.... nope. Not gonna happen this year. I give myself total credit for getting a short list of holiday cards in the mail - I wasn't sure that was even going to happen.

But, thanks to the above-mentioned Carolyn who gave us the kit, Ran and I did enjoy an afternoon of holiday merriment this weekend by decorating a gingerbread house. We sat around the kitchen table - tubes of frosting and candy splayed about - laughing, decorating and sneaking in little bites of the gingerbread man's limbs. It's no masterpiece, but we had such a fun time doing it together. It was a sweet little date. And all the credit for the powdered sugar snow goes to Ran. Aw.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

One Nutty Tradition

This time of year, do you have visions of sugarplums dancing in your head, or is it just me? For the majority of my life, the holidays have always teemed with visions of sugarplums dancing - literally. As in Sugar Plum fairy. I've done the math. It's safe to say that of the 39 Christmas seasons under my belt, damn near 35 of them have been spent in the company of The Nutcracker. The holidays of my youth/young adulthood were spent performing in the time-honored ballet; and now, in my more recent non-dancing years, I've either been backstage in some capacity or in the audience. To say that I've seen The Nutcracker hundreds of times is not an exaggeration; to say that I know the ballet like the back of my hand is not an understatement. Like it or not, The Nutcracker is synonymous with Christmas for me.

Until a week or so ago however, I actually had no plans to attend The Nutcracker this year. For some inexplicable reason, the ballet just wasn't on my radar screen. Enter stage left, my friend Kathryn. Kathryn and I had served on the Board of Trustees for Marin Ballet together for many years (she's still a trustee), and she invited me to be her guest to The Nutcracker performance. And it wasn't to be just any performance - this year, Marin Ballet premiered its brand new, revamped Nutcracker with all-new choreography by the esteemed Julia Adam. In the works for three years, I was eager to see the culmination of such a huge undertaking.

So there I was, Nutcracker bound yet again.

And that's all well and good, but just what, exactly, does The Nutcracker have to do with Fare to Remember? This is a food blog, right? Well let me tell you: Ms. Adams has reinvented Marin Ballet's Nutcracker to be a mouth-watering spectacle wherein FOOD plays a central role. True - if you're familiar with the story of The Nutcracker ballet, there has always been tidbits of deliciousness (Madam Ginger, the aforementioned Sugar Plum Fairy...) - but Julia's rendition takes the notion of Act II's The Land of the Sweets quite literally, and then turns it on its head. Exotic ingredients are integral to her interpretation and essential to her modernized storyline. From the Spanish Chocolate to the Arabian Brown Sugar, she turns each variation into not only a visual feast, but integral to what she has cooking up for the ballet's climax.

To recap the program (picking up from the time when Clara, Drosselmeyer and the Nutcracker Prince arrive in the Land of the Sweets):

They are greeted with great ceremony by the Sweet Tooth Fairies, and Drosselmeyer introduces Clara to the people of the Land of the Sweets [by bringing] forth a huge mixing bowl and starting a parade of characters who bring with them wonderful ingredients for a very special cake. The Spanish dancers bring rich, dark chocolate fans; the Arabian dancers bring sparkling jewels of brown sugar; the Chinese dancers arrive with crunchy almonds, and an extraordinary Golden Goose brings Golden Eggs. Each drops their gift into the bowl. Then the Russian Bakers bustle in to stir the batter. Mother Ginger comes to add gingerbread spice, and with The Waltz of the Flour, the batter is finished. [Drosselmeyer] reveals a beautiful cake, and within the cake, another wonderful surprise: The Sugar Plum Fairy.

OMG... this ain't yo momma's Nutcracker. Quite frankly, it's not my Nutcracker yet either. I was a little blown away. There was so much going on onstage that was a complete departure from any Nutcracker I've ever been involved with, that I think I need to see Marin Ballet's new version many many more times before I can possibly take it all in. What I do know was that it was a sweet, sweet performance. If it were still playing, I'd urge everyone to go and check it out, but alas - it comes but once a year.

So with the curtains closed on yet another Nutcracker, Kathryn and I headed out to the VIP reception after the performance to mingle with, well... VIPs (Kathryn was the VIP - I was a hanger-on!). It was a celebratory affair - everyone in the room was excited by the performance, and in jubilant moods. The mirth was much assisted by the open bar turning out festive libations, specifically, a cocktail dubbed "The Blue Ballet" in honor of the evening's accomplishments. I leave you with the recipe below, and of course, a hearty "Encore!" (for both the performance and the cocktail!).

The Blue Ballet
Pour equal parts vodka and Chambord (black raspberry liquer) into a shaker full of ice. Shake vigorously; strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a skewer of blueberries and lychee fruit. Drink and repeat - but beware, this one packs a punch!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Diving Gingerly Into the Holidays, Part 1: Ginger Nasties

It's official: The holidays are here. There's no denying the full-frontal holiday assault on our senses, our wallets, and our spirits. So rather than bah-humbug about it all, why not get into the swing of things with a good stiff drink? A festive cocktail makes things better in so many ways, don't you think?

This cocktail came to be in true Fare to Remember fashion: A group of good friends sharing good times while experimenting in the kitchen (or rather, the bar... but you get the drift). I wasn't there for the birth of these auspiciously-named "Ginger Nasties," but after hearing a rundown of the ingredients, I had to recreate the drink to confirm what I suspected to be true: this is one amazing cocktail; a lovely, festive libation for the holidays.

The starring ingredient is my friend Jill's homemade Limoncello. I suppose you could make it with commercial Limoncello products, but lucky for me, I don't have to. (I got a bottle of her famed elixir for my birthday - neener neener neener!) A warning: this drink is a bit dangerous. When I served it to my DH, he proclaimed "Ah! Ginger Lemonade!" Um... yes... but with a serious punch that you just won't see coming. So proceed with caution, drink responsibly, but damn! Mix this up!

Ginger Nasties
Contributed by Jill Jacobs (that's Ms. Jacobs, if you're nasty!)
  • 8-ounce cocktail glass, rimmed with sugar and filled with ice
  • 1 2-ounce shot of limoncello
  • Ginger ale, to fill the remainder of the glass
  • Crystallized ginger, chopped into small pieces and floated on top
  • Garnished with a sprig of mint

Diving Gingerly Into the Holidays, Part 2: Gingered French Chocolate Bark

This ginger treat is a snap! My good friend Carolyn showed up at my office cubicle one recent day with a little something something she had whipped up the night before... just because. It was a twist on Ina Garten's French Chocolate Bark - a treat so colorful and full of exotic flavors, that I had to succumb and give it a try. Rich chocolate, salted cashews, dried apricots... and the kicker, candied ginger, an ingredient she included instead of the dried cranberries specified in Ina's recipe. OMG. I immediately dubbed Carolyn's kitchen experiment a huge success (especially since she never deviates from a recipe), and am convinced that it's a perfect, festive goodie for the holidays. Carolyn assures me that is was super simple to make; indeed, there's only a couple of ingredients and only a couple of steps. So if you're looking for an outrageously unique treat with a lot of WOW factor to bring to your next holiday potluck or to package up as a homemade gift, give this chocolate bark a try. It's a treat that you - and others - won't soon forget!

Gingered French Chocolate Bark
Contributed by Carolyn Hindes (adapted from an Ina Garten recipe)
  • 9 1/2 ounces very good semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 8 ounces very good bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1 cup whole roasted, salted cashews
  • 1 cup dried apricots, chopped
  • 1/2 cup crystallized ginger, chopped

Melt the 2 chocolates in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water.

Meanwhile, line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Using a ruler and a pencil, draw a 9 by 10-inch rectangle on the paper. Turn the paper facedown on the baking sheet.

Pour the melted chocolate over the paper and spread to form a rectangle, using the outline. Quickly, while the chocolate is still hot, sprinkle the cashews, apricots and ginger over the chocolate, pressing to set into the chocolate. Set aside for 2 hours until firm. Cut the bark in 1 by 3-inch pieces and serve at room temperature.

Friday, November 27, 2009

So Thankful

Another Thanksgiving down. Another year where I vowed not to stuff myself until it hurts... another year where that vow got broken. Another year that I am thankful for so very much.

Our family's Thanksgiving Day observances are nothing short of spectacular. They are always a celebration, a time of abundance. Perhaps over-abundance. We are a fortunate bunch, keenly aware that our comfortable world is not the norm. But like all families, we are not immune to misfortune or tough luck. This year saw our fair share of health scares, financial uncertainty, job losses, splintered relationships, hardship. And yet.

We are thankful.

Personally, I am thankful for a husband who quite possibly couldn't love me more. And I'm even more thankful that he shows his love in both word and deed. I am thankful for my parents. That they are healthy, that they are a big part of my life and that they are continuing to set examples of how I should - and want to - live my life.

I am thankful for a job I love, a home that is my haven, pets that make me smile.

I am thankful for siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins. Grandparents.

I am thankful for friends. I know I have more than my fair share, and I am grateful that despite the years or miles, certain friendships will always endure.

I am thankful for silly things: The Furminator. Glee. Google Reader.

I am thankful for my talents, and equally thankful for the ability to continually learn new things.

I am grateful for a body that despite every attempt at breaking down remains strong.

And finally, I am thankful for a Thanksgiving Day feast that was absolutely 100 percent "Fare to Remember":
  • A gathering of close to 30 loved ones, complete with the youthful energy of half a dozen rugrats under the age of 5.
  • A beautiful Bay Area day, fall colors all ablaze.
  • An appetizer spread that could have sufficed as a feast all on its own.
  • A 7-rib prime rib roast. Again, the biggest I've ever seen.
  • A bone-in spiral cut ham. Why not?
  • Fresh abalone, plucked from the rugged Sonoma coast only the day before.
  • All the traditional fixins - mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing, gravy, whipped yams, green beans, Caesar salad... many produced in duplicate for the vegetarians among us.
  • Decadent Williams Sonoma croissants.
  • Eight different kinds of pie.
  • Leftovers.
I sure hope your Thanksgiving was every bit as memorable, but if you'll excuse me, I've got a bit of digesting to do!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ad Hoc Fried Chicken Smackdown

It all started with this, a gift from my lovely friend Carolyn:

That's right - a fried chicken kit that had been available through Williams-Sonoma for a limited time created by none other than Chef Thomas Keller. It was, apparently, the ingredients for recreating his legendary Ad Hoc fried chicken, an every-other Monday night staple for Wine Country locals and in-the-know tourists. So since The Colonel isn't giving up his secret blend of eleven herbs and spices any time soon, Keller's kit represented the best chance I was going to have for making ridiculously good fried chicken from scratch.

But first, a little research was in order. For although I am a Napa Valley resident, well aware of the lure of the fried chicken Mondays up in Yountville, I had yet to make it to Ad Hoc to partake in the deep-fried ritual. I knew that before I made the kit version, I had to try the real thing.

The kit sat in my pantry for months before the perfect opportunity presented itself. Carolyn's brother Ted was in town for a few weeks, and Ted knows from deep frying. He lives in Texas (by choice), the home of Deep Fried Butter. He owns a turkey fryer. Puts it to use at least once a year for a "Fry Party" during which anything and everything gets a dunk: chicken wings, cheese, battered squash and mushrooms, bacon/cream cheese stuffed jalepenos, Monte Cristo sandwiches, bacon, battered fish, Twinkies, pickles... and that's just a partial list. He's as close to a deep fry expert that I'm ever going to rub elbows with, so I had to take advantage of his proximity. I booked a coveted spot at Ad Hoc for four (Carolyn, Ted, Randall and myself), and we blocked out some time the following weekend to prepare the homemade version. A fried chicken smackdown was in the making.

Ad Hoc is one high on my list of favorite Napa Valley restaurants. For those of you not familiar, it's Thomas Keller's take on fairly casual, family-style meals. According to its website: "The building at 6476 Washington Street was originally intended to be a very different type of restaurant. While we were designing it we thought we'd experiment by opening a temporary restaurant and calling it Ad Hoc, which literally means, 'for this purpose.' The idea for Ad Hoc was simple - five days a week we'd offer a four-course family-style menu that changed each day, accompanied by a small, accessible wine list in a casual setting reminiscent of home. We wanted a place to dine for our community and ourselves. The decision to change over the restaurant, however, was taken out of our hands by our guests. The response was so positive, we simply couldn't close. So, in September, 2007, we decided to stay open permanently and now we're serving dinner five nights a week as well as Sunday brunch."

While Ad Hoc reservations aren't as difficult to obtain as those for Keller's other joint up the street (a little place by the name of The French Laundry. You may have heard of it.), fried chicken night is a hot ticket item. I was lucky to get seats for our four butts without resorting to begging, shameless name dropping, or settling for the 9 p.m. reservation. It's a good thing, because I don't even know who's name I would drop. That would have been embarrassing.

So we get there without incident, ordered up some champagne (did you know that sparkling wine is the perfect accompaniment to fried foods? I wouldn't steer you wrong!), and dug in for Ad Hoc Fried Chicken Smackdown Round #1. The menu that night was as follows (notice I did not take a moment to record the actual menu - the inadequate descriptions are my own, not theirs, and the photos were surreptitiously taken with my little camera since I can't imagine pulling out my big, conspicuous camera when patronizing a restaurant):
  • Salad of Belgian endive, spinach, pears, goat cheese and damn good homemade Green Goddess dressing
  • Fried chicken with sides of herbed white rice (maybe Basmati?) and some sort of baked black bean/cauliflower/tomato/greens combo
  • A cheese course with some variety of mild white cheese and a huckleberry chutney, served with toast points made with probably more butter than flour (that's a good thing)
  • Two kinds of chocolate chip cookies (bitter dark chocolate in shortbread, plus a take on the standard milk chocolate variety) served with homemade vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce
Of course everything tasted great, and we had a fantastic time. Admittedly, I was a little taken aback by the choice of side dishes... no mashed potatoes? No collard greens? I guess I wanted a very stereotypical fried chicken dinner, but hey - this was Ad Hoc. What did I really care? It was all going to be good. But the whole point of this long-winded description is to get to the chicken. Was it phenomenal? Of course. It was probably the most moist fried chicken I've ever eaten, every bite juicy enough to send dribbles down my chin. The golden, crispy batter on the outside was perfectly cooked; I only had one piece that I found to be even this side of what I'd call greasy. And flavorful... oh-so-flavorful. One thing irked me however: there wasn't a single drumstick served on our platter. How in the world do you have a fried chicken dinner without the drumsticks? I'm a breast girl myself, so I wasn't sad about it, but really - no drumsticks? I don't get it.

Anyhow, knowing we were going to attempt to recreate this wheel in a mere six days, we got talking to our rather adorable waiter who was more than happy to supply us with the recipe from the kitchen so that we could compare/contrast it with the ingredients in the kit. Apparently, the brine recipe is no trade secret - call em up, they'll give it to you as well. Actually, I'll give it to you right here. We were told that they brine the chicken for 12 hours. The fact that we failed to get the coating recipe is a mere oversight on my part - I'm sure they would have given that to us as well. At the very least, here's what goes into a Thomas Keller chicken brine (it's a restaurant quantity recipe; I have no idea how you'd pare it down for a family-sized meal... but at least you can get an idea of the ingredients):
  • 5 lemons, halved
  • 24 Bay leaves
  • 1 bunch flat leaf parsley
  • 1 bunch thyme
  • 1/2 cup clover honey
  • 1 head of garlic, halved
  • 1/4 cup peppercorns
  • 2 cups Diamond Crystal salt
Fast forward to the following weekend, and our little group plus one (neighbor Gail also joined the fun) found ourselves in Carolyn's kitchen ready for Ad Hoc Fried Chicken Smackdown Round #2. Now to compare: the packaging for the kit reads, "Ad Hoc's signature lemon-herb brine and savory coating mix for making crispy, golden fried chicken." The brine ingredients were different from the restaurant version's ingredient list, but not too far off:
  • Salt
  • Granulated sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Whole peppercorns
  • Honey powder
  • Garlic powder
  • Parsley flakes
  • Citric acid
  • Bay leaves
  • Thyme
And a little insight to the coating lies in the packaged ingredient list:
  • Flour
  • Garlic powder
  • Onion powder
  • Salt
  • Paprika
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Black pepper
I followed the instructions to a "T." I brined our two organic 3.5-pound birds for 12 hours (the brine itself smelled divine). When the time came, we double-dredged the chicken: buttermilk followed by seasoned coating, rest, repeat. The dredging got a little ugly. Let's just say that our coating didn't go on in a smooth, even, thin layer. There were some clumps and bumps, and there wasn't quite enough of it to double dredge all of our various parts and pieces. But the majority got two layers, and even those pieces that only got one dip in the pool were well coated.

As for the frying, piece of cake! With Ted at the helm, we got the oil up to temp in a deep dutch oven and dropped in our chicken two or three pieces at a time. Ted's method for determining doneness was simply to pull the pieces out when they were crispy and golden, a method that proved to be fail proof.

This time around, I got my stereotypical fried chicken dinner. We had a spicy jicama slaw, smashed potatoes and braised Swiss chard, and washed it all down with yet more champagne. Dessert was one of Carolyn's awesome creations - a grapefruit zabaglione served over fresh berries. For the second time in a week, I was stuffing myself with an incredible meal, the centerpiece of which was deep fried. My body wasn't very appreciative (on both occasions, I felt terrible the next day), but my taste buds were on cloud nine.

So how did the homemade kit version compare with Keller's own? The verdict was divided; there was no clear winner in the Ad Hoc Fried Chicken Smackdown. Everyone agreed that both versions were delicious and extremely moist. The brine absolutely worked its magic in both instances. Randall and Carolyn preferred the restaurant version (Randall: better coating; Carolyn: better citrus flavor); whereas Ted and I both preferred the make-at-home version for the same reason: thicker, extra-crispy coating (if you think along the lines of KFC's original recipe vs. extra crispy, our version of Ad Hoc fried chicken was of the extra crispy variety. See dredging issues mentioned above.) Gail, our Smackdown #2 interloper, was just happy to be there and loved every bite.

So there you have it, a Smackdown where both sides come out ahead. This chicken is good no matter how you choose to enjoy it. Thanks Mr. Keller for not one - but two! - evenings of Fare to Remember.