Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Vast Sea of Gravy

One of the greatest things about our culinary point of view is that I get to travel the country via tastes and flavors of any region at my choosing; experiencing cultural classics along with my customers.

I really enjoy exploring the local treats of any city that I visit, whether its hot dogs in Chicago, sourdough bread in San Francisco or alligator in Florida, and some of my greatest influences drawn from living in New York City aren't from fine dining restaurants but from the little gems that define the food culture there, like egg creams, "street meat", and greasy diner food. But since I live my life in the kitchen I can't always get out to explore the country so I do it through my research to find new dishes to offer as specials at the restaurant.

One common dish that I have never been exposed to despite its popularity as far north as Manhattan is chicken and waffles. This is one of those ambiguous dishes where it seems that there is no definitive way to serve it; it all depends on where you had it (and loved it) for the first time. Even though its ingredients sound straightforward, the combinations are endless. Usually there is butter and maple syrup on the waffle with fried chicken, sometimes there is gravy, and sometimes the chicken meat is pulled, etc.... and that's not even getting into the different ways to make fried chicken!!

I've already made my own version long before I started this blog with a more refined preparation with Cornish game hen two different ways, but I decided to reinvent the dish once again with a more accessible style that people can wrap their hands around.

For the chicken I split large breasts in half and squared them off, leaving me with a 4"X4" portion that I dredged first in a well seasoned flour with Lawry's seasoning, black pepper, coriander, oregano and paprika before dipping them into a combination of buttermilk and eggs before returning to the flour mixture and resting, awaiting the fryer.

I made waffles by whisking eggs, extra virgin olive oil and buttermilk into sifted flour, sugar, salt and baking soda, to which I folded in freshly chopped parsley, chives, oregano, thyme and rosemary that helped give the waffles a unique, autumn flavor. I poured the batter into a square waffle iron, yielding thin, crisp panels that I topped with Taleggio cheese after realizing what a great gooey cheese it was for sandwiches after making myself a snack with it the last time I used it for a special. Once the chicken is fried crispy and delicious I pressed it between a layer of each, doubling up on the cheese for good measure.

Since chicken 'n' waffles has southern roots I felt it necessary to pair it with a typical side of braised greens, in this case an organic medley grown locally and cooked in bacon, of course. And though the sandwich is juicy and moist even without the Taleggio I felt the dish was incomplete unless it had a sauce to dip it into so I whipped up a gravy by simmering dried porcini pieces in a rich chicken stock that I then thickened with a roux made from flour and the leftover chicken fat (some cultures call it ghee, some call it schmaltz; I call it LOVE) and finished it with sauteed chanterelle mushrooms.

A lot of people get a kick out of how long some of these cocktails take to come to fruition, especially the ones made by the slow process of infusing flavors into a spirit instead of just blending it in.

I have to say that I even surprise myself sometimes, since a chef is conditioned to deal with the here-and-now, concentrating only on the day or maybe the week; sure, it may sound like we have a short attention span, but considering that every dish that goes out has to be our focus, it's easy to see how next month can seem like a long time away. But I use this to my advantage, because once I combine ingredients and put them away to infuse, the next thing I know they are ready to be used!

For example, sometime in the end of September I had about eight or ten red plums leftover from brunch that were the last of the season and I couldn't let them go to waste, so I chopped them up and sprinkled a little sugar on them to leech out more flavor but then I wasn't sure what spirit to use. Sure, vodka was an easy choice, but it didn't have any character, and then I thought of gin; once my friend, then turned nemesis and now back in my good graces. Gin had the complexity that I needed to create an interesting infusion with my sacred plum, so there it sat on my shelf until, before I knew it, it was a perfect marriage.

Like with most liquor, if it's good you shouldn't mask it with too many flavors, so I chose a classic gin cocktail preparation that will allow my plum gin to shine: a Plum Gin Fizz!!

A gin fizz is simply gin, a little sugar, lemon or lime juice to accentuate the citrus notes in the gin and club soda. I used lemon juice as a neutral flavor and shook it with egg white powder, a nod to the old school style but without the health concerns, giving it a frothy head and beautiful body.

With Love,