An al fresco Fourth

Written by Joe Stumpe

The word “picnic” appears to have evolved from an early French term for a meal in which everybody contributes something. What better way to celebrate our nation’s birthday than with a meal recognizing that we all bring something to the table?

In my case, I know exactly what that something’s going to be: pan-fried chicken and watermelon salad. One’s a longtime favorite, the other a new discovery.

There’s really nothing better than chicken that’s been freshly fried, tossed into a basket and enjoyed outside. Yes, there are some restaurants that make fine fried chicken, but with a handful of ingredients and one key piece of equipment, you can outdo them all.

The essential equipment is a cast-iron skillet — or even better, two, since most supermarket chickens are large these days. You’ll find many other uses for this inexpensive, durable utensil, too.

Pan-fried chicken is about the technique. Follow the recipe and you’ll have no trouble.

I’m not generally a fan of combining odd ingredients together for the novelty of it, but the accompanying watermelon recipe has me rethinking that policy. Watermelon, feta cheese, hot sauce and the other ingredients add up to a refreshing salad that is cold, creamy, salty, spicy and sweet all at the same time. The recipe comes from Jacques Pepin. No wonder he’s considered one of the greatest chefs who ever lived.

Of course, a Fourth of July picnic wouldn’t be complete without pie, potato salad and plenty of cold drinks. But bringing that is somebody else’s job.

Pan-fried chicken

Vegetable oil, shortening, lard or combination thereof, for frying
1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces (if breasts are very large, cut in half to make 10 pieces total)
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional

Directions:

Fill the skillet about one-third full of vegetable oil and/or shortening or lard. You want the oil to come no more than halfway up the chicken pieces when they are placed in the skillet. Heat over a burner set to medium.

Combine flour, salt, pepper and cayenne, if using, in a pie pan. Dredge chicken pieces in the mixture and shake off any excess.

Carefully place chicken pieces in skillet. There should be enough room that the pieces don’t touch. Otherwise fry the chicken in batches or use two skillets. The oil should gently bubble around the chicken, not erupt into a full rolling boil. Increase or reduce heat as necessary. Fry the chicken, uncovered, 10 minutes per side, turning once. Remove chicken from skillet and drain on paper towels. Tent foil loosely over chicken to keep warm rather than wrapping it tightly, which will tend to make the skin less crispy.

Watermelon salad

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon Tabasco
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
One 8-pound seedless watermelon, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks (10 cups), chilled
1/2 pound feta cheese, crumbled (2 cups)
1 1/4 cups pitted kalamata olives, coarsely chopped (optional)
1 small sweet onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 cup coarsely chopped mint leaves

Directions:

In a large bowl, whisk the oil, lemon juice, salt, Tabasco and pepper. Add the watermelon, feta, olives and onion and toss gently. Garnish with the mint and serve.

 
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