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July 25, 2017

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Ben Vaughn: Indulge in a Southern staple — and my fried chicken recipe

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Christopher DeVargas

Yardbird Southern Table & Bar

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Four-piece Crispy Southern Fried Chicken at Chow, Chef Natalie Young's Chinese and Chicken restaurant, 1020 E. Fremont St., in downtown Las Vegas Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015.

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Spicy buttermilk fried chicken with pepper jelly drizzle by Emeril Lagasse.

The South is known for many things — the Civil War, Civil Rights Movement, sweet tea and porch swings — but what stands out in my mind is the food. Maybe it’s because I’m a chef and author, or maybe it’s because most of my fondest memories involve either a kitchen or gathering around the supper table.

People in the South will break their backs to show you the true meaning of hospitality putting out a spread that could feed a small army for a dinner party of six or so. In the South, food shows kindness, and every Southern cook will tell you that his most important ingredient is love.

Maybe it is the love poured out of gravy boats and bacon pans that started my affair with Southern food, but it is time-tested recipes and richness of the heritage and ingredients that have carried my crush to a full-fledged obsession.

The South is rich with delectable selections of local veggies and fruits, not to mention the local farmers who pride themselves in the best beef, pork and chicken around these here parts. The food people cook here hasn’t changed much from the way great-great-Grandma used to make it, and that’s just fine with Southerners — and me.

There is something to be said for recipes that are handed down through the generations. Southerners guard their grandmother’s recipes for (insert delicious

Southern fare here) as if it was a priceless antique and will share the fruits of their labor graciously with you, but not, come hell or high water, the recipe.

Most of these precious gems aren’t even written down. Like the ancient times when stories were shared orally with the next generation to carry on the history of that people, so it goes with Southern recipes.

Grandma shows little Susie how to make her famous biscuits by inviting her in to the kitchen and letting her get her little hands into the flour. She does this every year, and, as Susie grows, she learns how to guesstimate the right amount of flour, salt, baking powder, etc., to get her biscuits to taste just like Grandma’s.

It’s a beautiful family tradition that remains strong in the South despite getting lost in the busyness of other parts of the country. That reminds me of another important quality of Southern food: It has the ability to make you indulge in Southern lifestyle, even if only for an evening.

Think about it: Southern food has a definite stick-to-your-ribs quality about it. There is no way you can eat a delicious, truly Southern meal and rush off to do, well, anything. It is food that forces you to pay homage to the Southern way of “slow down and sit a spell.”

Southern cuisine grew out of necessity. As the cradle of agriculture for the U.S., Southerners needed food that was readily available and could sustain them for the long days at the plow and in the fields. The food style of the South may have been born out of necessity for farmers and farmhands alike, but it has grown into something so much more.

People in the South take pride in agriculture and showcase their pride in what they offer at their tables. The food is meant to join those around the supper table together. There are so many dishes that can do that in the South, but one dish is paramount as the forerunner.

Fried chicken has to be one of the most well-known staples of Southern cuisine (insert Yardbird at the Venetian here). Every Southern cook has his own secret recipe, and each cook is convinced that he has gotten it right. Southerners take the lowly yard bird and transform it into something magical.

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Omoide features Karraage fried chicken on Sunday, October 18, 2015.

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You can't eat at Blue Ribbon without indulging in its spicy, crispy fried chicken.

Despite the nuances of each cook’s specific recipe, it has to meet certain specifications. The breading has to be just crispy enough with the perfect mix of salt and pepper and possibly other top-secret spices. The cook has to have the finesse to fry the chicken well while keeping the meat moist and succulent.

Fried chicken might seem simple to a non-Southerner, but to those below the Mason-Dixon Line, it is serious business. Every cook not only has a specific recipe, but also his individualized preparatory steps to ensure that the chicken will turn our perfect every time. I have had some delicious poultry in my travels, but, IMHO, no one knows how to fry a bird quite like the South.

I've been blessed in my travels to sample some of the best Southern cooks and chefs and, maybe even, to get a peek behind the curtain every now and then into the kitchen to learn tasty secrets to creating delicious Southern fried chicken.

Maybe it’s because I’m not born and bred in the South, or maybe it’s because I don’t have to worry about my granny rolling over in her grave because my grandmother wasn’t Southern, either, but I’m going to break the chain here and share my secrets for delicious Southern fried chicken.

I promise that it will fill the void in your soul that only Southern fried chicken can, and, who knows, maybe with a tweak or two of your own, it can become one of your family’s treasured and well-guarded secret recipes.

Just promise me that if it does, you take the time to share the love with the younger generation to carry on this tasty tradition. After all, the secret ingredient is love, and who better to share that with than your family?

I have favorites when it comes to kitchen utensils for preparing the ultimate Southern fried chicken. Obviously, ingredients are always top of the list for turning out the best-tasting food.

However, the equipment you choose can make a great recipe more consistent and easier to execute every time. I have my gear nearby for each type of recipe. For fried chicken, I have my 5-quart cast-iron Dutch oven for frying. You also need a great set of mixing bowls, 5-quart, 3-quart and 1 ½ quart bowls that are ideal for marinating, mixing and breading the ultimate chicken recipe.

This fried chicken recipe is pretty easy and a whole lotta awesome. Get ready for a true Southern treat. Fry it up and thank me later. You’re welcome.

Heirloom Southern fried chicken recipe

Ingredients

2 whole chickens (3 to 5 pounds each) cut into 10 pieces

1 1/2 gallon buttermilk

2 tablespoons Tabasco sauce (original)

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper

3/4 gallon vegetable oil

Kosher salt to taste

Directions

Marinate chicken in buttermilk with Tabasco and pinch of salt in 5-quart mixing bowl for 12 to 24 hours. Combine ingredients and mix with hands, making sure chicken is evenly coated. Refrigerate and cover with airtight lid.

An hour before frying, remove chicken from fridge and bring to room temperature. In 3-quart mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients and mix with fork.

Add oil to cast-iron Dutch oven. Oil should be 1/3 full in pan cold.

Slowly bring oil temperature from room temperature to 350 degrees. Maintain this temperature through frying process.

Remove chicken from buttermilk and wipe off excess buttermilk. Lightly salt all sides of chicken. Coat chicken in flour mixture and shake off excess. Carefully lower chicken into oil. Cook wings together, breasts together, thighs together, legs together. This allows for even cooking for entire pot of fried chicken.

Do not add too many pieces of chicken. Cool chicken will reduce temperature of oil and foul up frying process. Add two or three pieces. If you can add more pieces, add more pieces. Make sure when adding chicken the oil doesn’t exceed 3/4 of pot full.

Fry chicken for 3 to 4 minutes, then turn it over until chicken is beautiful burnished brown all over. With thermometer inserted into chicken, do not remove from oil until 165 degrees of internal temperature has been reached. Remove chicken to cooling rack with clean tongs and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Repeat steps with rest of chicken and serve.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

Number of servings: 12

Feel free to let me know what you think on Twitter @BenVaughn and in the comments below.

Ben Vaughn is a chef, author and TV personality widely known as a host for the Food Network. Ben’s latest book, “Southern Routes,” chronicles his journey to find the best-kept food secrets in the South from the Carolinas to Texas. “Southern Routes” is published by HarperCollins.

Ben resides in Tennessee and serves as CEO and culinary director for his restaurant group Fork Knife Spoon. Ben’s new brand of Southern Kitchen food trucks hit the streets in Las Vegas. Follow all the action from the mobile kitchen @SoKitchenLV. @BenVaughn also is host of “The Breakfast Show,” a TV series that premieres in the fall.

Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Las Vegas Sun Entertainment + Luxury Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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