What I Like About Being an American

What I Like About Being an AmericanI developed an interest in Indian cooking after watching the movie The Lunchbox. The main character, Ila, infused her cooking with beautiful, artistic expression in the form of spices. I enjoyed watching her hands move as she seasoned her culinary creations without the benefit of measuring spoons. Her spice box caught my attention and held my interest.

I mentioned this to a former co-worker, Bina, who is Indian. She was surprised that I enjoyed the movie, and we had a lovely discussion on Indian food. She suggested the movie The Hundred Foot Journey which further fueled my desire to learn Indian cooking. Bina invited me and three co-workers to her home for an introduction to the world of Indian cuisine.

One of the first things she explained was masala. I assumed masala was a set combination of spices used in a particular recipe. I had seen garam masala and madras masala in markets selling exotic foods. However, like curry, masala changes depending on the country and regions within said country. Bina didn’t own anything among her spices bottled and labeled masala. What she had were individual spices that she knew how to blend perfectly without measuring to create the flavor the recipe required.

Still, I didn’t quite understand masala, but I kept Bina’s comments and instructions in mind, specifically when she said she has a dessert masala, a chicken masala, and a vegetable masala. I Googled a few Indian recipes and tried them. They were good, and many of the spices Bina owns and uses were featured, but something was missing. My desire to cook Indian food was stifled by a concept I wasn’t grasping. I took a break from pursuing it and kept making recipes with which I am familiar.

One day I decided to make chili for dinner. When it came time to season the chili, jars were opened and contents sprinkled over the simmering pot until the quantity on the surface looked right and I stirred them in. A little tasting, a few more dashes of this or that, and I allowed the chili to simmer for a while. I always taste again before it’s completely cooked just to see if the flavors are balanced and add anything as needed. That’s when it hit me: the combination of spices I used was my chili masala which I return to every time I make it. I know how chili should taste to me, but I’m sure if I visited Texas or other chili-making regions of America, I’d experience other spice combinations.

I laughed to myself as my favorite seasoning combination for chicken came to mind. Then I realized I had been on the cusp of understanding the beautiful concept of masala several years ago when I attempted to swap ground ginger for fresh. The ground variety tastes savory and what I describe as classically American. Think Thanksgiving. But the recipe I was making needed the lemony zestiness of fresh ginger, that classically Asian flavor, because I was cooking a Chinese dish. Herbs de Provence is another example of a spice combination that will reflect the nuances of the person cooking with it. Just like masala, there are some spices that will always appear in the mix, but people love to alter it based on their preferences or just to add a dash of mystery.

What I Like About Being an American 2What I learned about masala, about seasoning food in general, is why I like being an American. Where else can you experience a merging of cultures that bring amazing culinary skills from their own countries so that everyone can enjoy them in one place? The great American melting pot starts in our kitchens and ends with the united flavors of America. I have returned to Indian cooking, and while I use the spices to which Bina introduced me, I suspect that my masala may not taste exactly like what she would expect. But that’s okay.

Crossing the Road with the Chicken

Buttermilk Fried Chicken with Mounds of Smashed Potatoes and a hungry child in the background.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken with Mounds of Smashed Potatoes and a hungry child in the background.

In June of 1920, John Welles travels with his Aunt Prudence to her house in Baltimore. It is the first time he has been away from his home on the farm. As much as he loves his family, John is desperate to escape the two tragedies that haunt him, leaving him with a painful secret.

John’s stepmother, Collie, packs a picnic lunch for him and Prudence. Buttermilk fried chicken is sure to ease the sadness John feels at his departure. Her gesture will also soften the heartbreak she experiences when her youngest child leaves home for good.

The fried chicken I imagined when I wrote this scene tastes like what my mother made during my childhood. Unfortunately, by the time I became a homemaker, frying had long since been replaced with baked or grilled skinless chicken. To make matters worse, Mom didn’t really remember how she prepared the chicken.

I called my sister-in-law because her parents host fish fries, but I discovered that she, too, possessed no talent for frying. After a good laugh, we collaborated on the following recipe. I took responsibility for the marinade, and she handled the coating. Together we monitored the frying process like a new mother watching over a sleeping baby. What we created was juicy, delicious, and not too bad for a couple of chicks learning to fry!

I hope you enjoy our recipe.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken

Chicken – 2 breasts, 2 thighs, 2 legs, 2 wings

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 cups buttermilk

2 teaspoons hot sauce

3 cloves garlic, crushed

½ teaspoons dried thyme

House of Autry Chicken Breader (I highly recommend this product; it is seasoned perfectly and deliciously)

32 oz. bottle peanut oil

Vegetable shortening

Rinse and trim the chicken pieces for excess fat, pat dry with a paper towel. Place the pieces in a baking dish and season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate about an hour.

Mix the buttermilk, hot sauce, garlic, and thyme in a gallon-sized, re-sealable plastic bag. Add the chicken pieces, making sure all pieces are submerged, seal and refrigerate 2 to 4 hours, turning the bag every hour.

Remove chicken from the bag and gently shake off excess marinade. Place half of the chicken in another gallon-sized, re-sealable bag with two cups of chicken breading. Seal and shake thoroughly to coat the pieces. Remove from the bag and shake off any excess breading, set aside. Repeat with remaining pieces, adding more breading if necessary.

Fill an electric skillet with all of the peanut oil and two large spoonsful of vegetable shortening. Heat to 350° F, making sure the shortening melts completely. When the skillet reaches desired temperature, a bead of water dropped in the oil should dance across the surface.

I suggest cooking the thickest pieces first (breasts and thighs). Use tongs to carefully lower the coated chicken into the hot oil. The temperature will drop, so adjust the skillet heat as needed to maintain the correct cooking temperature.

The following indicates the number of minutes per side for each piece, with flipping in between, to ensure doneness without burning. The first five minutes per side sets the breading:

Breasts – 5, 5, 3, 3, 3

Thighs – 5, 5, 3, 3

Legs & Wings – 5, 5, 2, 2

Remove the chicken to a cooling rack lined with paper towels to drain, sprinkle with salt, and let rest a few minutes. Repeat with the remaining chicken. Serve with favorite side dishes.

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