SoBe Fest Founder Explores South’s Greatest Delicacy: Fried Chicken

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Lee Brian Schager

Brined, battered, double battered, bathed in buttermilk and slathered in secret sauce. Everyone loves fried chicken and there are countless ways to prepare this distinctly American dish.

And now Lee Brian Schrager has written the definitive guide, “Fried & True: More than 50 Recipes for America’s Best Fried Chicken and Sides,” now available online and at leading bookstores from Clarkson Potter Publishers.

Schrager, the founder of the Food Network South Beach and New York Wine and Food Festivals, has plenty of opportunities to savor the latest fancy creations from the biggest stars of the culinary world.

But, if fried chicken is on the menu, he almost always goes with the tried and true —his secret guilty pleasure — “whether I’m eating at a white tablecloth restaurant or a greasy spoon diner,” Schrager admitted.

How did he become the expert on fried chicken?

“Sadly enough from eating so much,” the longtime Miami Beach resident said.

The book includes more than 50 recipes, including many from his Food Network festival friends Tyler Florence, Paula Deen and Andrew Carmellini.

The idea for the cookbook, his second, came up during an event at the 2013 South Beach festival hosted by country singer Trisha Yearwood.

“We were sitting around talking about how much we both loved the incredible fried chicken and my publisher, who was also her publisher, was nearby and said I should do a book,” Schrager said.

After writing the “Food Network South Beach Wine and Food Festival Cookbook” nearly four years earlier, Schrager swore he would not take on another book project, but he jumped on this one, completing the manuscript in a matter of months.

Schrager started with his friends’ versions and even hit the road to sample some legendary recipes across the country. The result was even more referrals.

“We’d be eating in one restaurant and then somebody — sometimes a server or a cook — would tell us about another place to try,” he recalled, noting their list of unique recipes seemed to grow exponentially through the process.

The result was an eclectic collection of recipes that highlighted regional tastes like Cajun and Southwestern seasonings from local restaurants, a fiery General Tso’s Chinese fried chicken and gourmet versions from haute cuisine chefs including Jacques Pepin.

He also included cooking tips in the book, as well as a collection of his favorite side dishes, such as a savory tomato pie topped with crumbled Ritz crackers and a cheesy hash brown casserole recipe from the Loveless Café in Nashville.

Schrager’s favorites?

“Well, that’s like asking a parent about their favorite child,” he said with a chuckle as he headed off to do other media interviews about the book.

For now, Schrager continues preparations for the New York festival this fall, as well as planning for next winter’s South Beach event, in addition to his duties as vice president for special events at Southern Wine & Spirits. He doesn’t have plans for another book….at least for now.

He concluded, “I love what I do and I do what I love.”

Lee Schrager’s Perfect Fried Chicken Dinner

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Paula Deen’s Best Ever Southern Fried Chicken

Serves 4

Before I actually met Paula Deen in person, I fell in love with the heavenly fried chicken (and the cheese biscuits) she served at The Lady & Sons, her Savannah restaurant. Looking at the long line of people waiting outside the front door, I wondered what all the fuss was about . . . then understood after just one bite why Paula was — and is — the reigning queen of Southern cooking. Let the record stand; it was her fried chicken —simply dipped, dredged and fried — that first caught my eye. The combination of eggs and self-rising flour promises extra-airy, crispy results that will be the star of your next dinner party or picnic.

3 large eggs
2 cups self-rising flour
1 teaspoon black pepper, plus more for seasoning
Sea salt
1 whole chicken, rinsed, patted dry, and cut into 10 pieces
4 cups solid vegetable shortening (such as Crisco), for deep-frying

Make the dredge: In a shallow bowl, lightly beat the eggs with 1/3 cup water. In a separate shallow bowl, combine the flour and the black pepper. Set aside.

Dredge the chicken: Lightly season the chicken all over with salt and black pepper. Dip the chicken pieces in the egg mixture, letting any excess drip off, and then coat well in the flour mixture.

Fry the chicken: In a large (at least 12-inch diameter), high-sided skillet, heat the shortening to 350°F and until it has melted to a liquid of 2 inches deep in the skillet. Slip the chicken into the melted fat (the fat should just come up over the chicken), and cook the pieces until browned and crisp, 13-14 minutes for the dark meat and 9 to 10 minutes for the white meat. Drain on paper towels and serve warm or at room temperature.

The Loveless Café’s Hash Brown Casserole

Serves 8-10

The Loveless Café was founded in 1951, about a 30-minute drive outside of downtown Nashville, as a motel and restaurant designed to feed travelers rolling by on Highway 100 as it lazily winds down to Natchez, Mississippi. Many a famed musician’s tour bus has pulled over for a dose of southern comfort (and we suspect, Southern Comfort); legend has it the Loveless was where the late, great George Jones came to sober up after a particularly long bender….The hash brown casserole is sinfully rich and unabashedly made from pantry staples; one of its main ingredients—a can of creamed, condensed soup—has been half-jokingly referred to as the “duct tape of the Southern kitchen.”

Ingredients:
1 30-ounce (or 2 16-ounce ) bags shredded refrigerated hash brown potatoes, defrosted if frozen
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
1 8-ounce bag shredded cheddar cheese (about 2 cups)
1 10 3/4-ounce can cream of chicken soup
1 16-ounce container sour cream
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Grease a 9- x 13-inch casserole dish and set aside.

In a large bowl combine all ingredients until well mixed. Place in a casserole dish and bake, covered with tin foil, until the edges begin to brown, about 30 minutes. Remove the tinfoil and continue to bake until completely golden brown, an additional 30 to 40 minutes.

Mary Mac’s Tea Room Tomato Pie

Serves 8-10

In Atlanta, a “tea room” isn’t a place for finger sandwiches and Earl Grey, but rather a traditional “meat-and-three” dressed up just enough to suit occasions ranging from a workaday lunch to a family celebration. There used to be 16 such establishments in Atlanta, but now there’s only one: Mary Mac’s. Originally opened in 1945, this warren of comfortable rooms serves a combination of classic Southern food and Atlanta history, with photos of politicians, celebrities and plain old patrons, featured alongside ephemera that tells the story of Mary Mac’s three owners and those staff members who have been in the restaurant’s employ for decades. The labyrinthine kitchen balances the high volume with a devotion to batch-by-batch quality…. The guilty-pleasure tomato pie is a more recent addition, and one of Mary Mac’s most popular sides since being introduced a few years ago.

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for greasing
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 sleeves Ritz crackers, crushed by hand or in a food processor (about 2 ½ crushed cups)
2 28-ounce cans diced tomatoes in juice
2 cups mayonnaise
1 ½ cups (6 ounces) grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano (or domestic Parmesan cheese)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking dish with oil and set aside.

In a large skillet heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until soft and translucent, 7 to 8 minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper and set aside. Reserve ½ cup of the crushed crackers, then scatter 1 cup of the remaining crackers in the bottom of the baking dish. Pour 1 can of the tomatoes, juice included, over the crackers. Layer half the onions on top of the tomatoes; repeat the layering with the remaining can of tomatoes and onions. Sprinkle 1 cup of the cracker crumbs over the top onion layer.

In a medium bowl, combine the mayonnaise, cheddar, Parmesan and basil. Spread over the top of the layers and top with the reserved ½ cup cracker crumbs. Bake the pie until golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes.

2014 “Fried & True,” Clarkson Potter. Recipes used with permission.

Lee Schrager’s Favorite South Florida Chicken Joints
Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, Miami Beach
Michy’s, Miami
Joe’s Stone Crab, Miami Beach (Crabs aren’t always in season!)
Publix, Location near you (Yes!)
Popeye’s, Location near you
Whisk Gourmet Food & Catering, Miami
HuaHua’s Taqueria, Miami Beach (Fried Chicken Tacos!)
Versailles, Little Havana (Chicarrones)
The Federal Food, Drink & Provisions, Miami


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