Broyles: Festival chefs explain why chicken doesn’t have to be boring

Updated April 19, 2016

It’s so easy to hate on chicken.

It might be one of the most consumed proteins in the U.S., but in the past few decades, chicken has gained a reputation, especially among chefs, as the most unimaginative.

Not so with Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook, the chefs behind several Los Angeles restaurants, including Son of a Gun, Animal and Trois Mec, who have attended the Austin Food & Wine Festival each year but one since it started in 2012.

They blame the boneless, skinless chicken breast craze that peaked during the low-fat era of the 1990s. Even though we’ve seen other cuts of chicken — especially the thighs and wings — gain favor for their moist meat and potential for crispy skin, white meat is still the most popular cut of chicken for home cooks. It’s a cut that Animal’s chefs, who have been cooking together since culinary school nearly 20 years ago, embrace.

“It’s like using white paper,” Dotolo says. “It’s a blank canvas. You can go with any direction. It goes with tons of different stuff,” from heavier preparations, like fried chicken, to lighter dishes, such as a vinaigrette-based chicken salad.

At restaurants, you’ll find brick chicken, a form of roasted chicken that involves placing the bird under a hot brick to help sear the skin, or maybe grilled chicken breast on a salad. But the en vogue chicken dish of the moment is that fried chicken Dotolo mentioned.

“Fried chicken is to the 2010s as tuna tartare was to the 2000s,” he says. Fried chicken is a much more familiar dish for home cooks than tuna tartare, but most are still sticking to roasting or grilling their poultry. Shook makes the case that we should be poaching and stewing chicken, too, as in his chicken soup that they’ll be demonstrating during a session Saturday at Auditorium Shores at this year’s fest.

Other chicken dishes to look out for at the festival include Atlanta chef Ford Fry’s Korean-style fried chicken at the Taste of Texas on Friday night, lemongrass chicken pad thai from Ming Tsai during his cooking demonstration on Saturday and Nashville-style hot chicken tacos from Amanda Freitag at Rock Your Taco.

Dotolo and Shook embrace the everyday chicken breast, but their favorite ways to cook chicken involve using the whole bird because you can get both white and dark meat and a rich, versatile broth from one cooking session.

Don’t be intimidated by buying a whole chicken at the store, Shook says, even if you’re not feeling up to breaking it down into the individual parts. “We want to allow people to get to that comfort level” without any fancy tricks, tools or butchery techniques, he says. A simple roasted chicken can be a huge confidence builder because you can make it with seasonings as simple as salt and pepper or express your inner rockstar chef creativity with star anise butter or green garlic chimichurri rubbed under the skin. You can go down a more complicated path of brining a chicken like a Thanksgiving turkey or trussing it so it looks nice or flipping the bird halfway through to get even more crispy skin. But Shook and Dotolo suggest making it easy on yourself and just sticking a well-seasoned bird in a hot oven — at least 425 degrees — for between 40 minutes and an hour and change, depending on how much the chicken weighs.

One of the biggest mistakes home cooks make with chicken is cooking it when the meat is still cold. There are legitimate food safety concerns about holding chicken at room temperature for more than an hour, but pulling the meat out of the fridge about 45 minutes before you want to cook it will discourage that chewy dryness that can happen, especially with white meat. This is particularly true for a whole chicken, because the bone-in bird will cook in a lot less time if the meat has had some time to lose some of the cold from the fridge before you stick it in a blazing hot oven.

Instead of using thermometers, Dotolo and Shook rely on other clues to determine when the chicken is done, checking for leg meat that pulls away from the end of the drumstick and whether the meat feels firm or flimsy. Experts recommend cooking chicken to 165 degrees, but don’t forget that the temperature will continue to rise after the meat has been removed from the heat, Dotolo and Shook say.

Another piece of advice: Don’t marinate chicken too long. With buttermilk, you can marinate the meat for a few days, but other acid-based marinades can toughen the meat if left too long. Instead of always relying on a marinade, consider rubbing the chicken with spices an hour or up to a day before you plan to cook it.

Unless you refuse to eat leftovers — which could be a worse culinary sin than thinking boneless, skinless chicken breasts are boring — always make more chicken than you’ll need for one meal. In addition to chicken salads, leftover chicken can be used in stir-fries, sandwiches, or rice or pasta dishes.

Buttermilk-Sage Fried Chicken

Boneless chicken is a great way to step into the world of fried chicken without worrying as much about making sure the chicken is cooked all the way through. Unless bone-in chicken has been brought up to room temperature (or close to it), it can be hard to cook all the way through without burning the outside. Feel free to use a gluten-free flour, but don’t use olive oil for frying. If you have a peanut allergy, use canola.

6 boneless skin-on chicken breasts or thighs

2 cups buttermilk

1 cup all-purpose flour (plus more if needed)

10 fresh sage leaves, roughly chopped

3 cups peanut oil

1 Tbsp. kosher salt

Place the chicken in a large resealable plastic bag with the buttermilk and refrigerate for at least a day or up to three days.

In a large, shallow dish, mix the flour and sage together. One piece at a time, remove the chicken from the buttermilk, allowing any excess liquid to drip off, and then dredge through the flour, tapping off any excess. Place the coated chicken piece on a plate and repeat with the remaining pieces.

Heat the peanut oil in a Dutch oven over high heat until it reaches 375 degrees. With tongs, add the chicken pieces to the pot. (All of the chicken should fit in a single layer in the pot; if it doesn’t, fry the chicken in two batches.) Cook until the chicken is golden brown all over and cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain. Season with the salt while still hot and serve warm, at room temperate or cold.

— From Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo

Jon’s Chicken Soup

The key to this recipe is not boiling the chicken too hard. Reduce the heat to as low as you can so that the skin, fat and collagen don’t disintegrate into the liquid, which can make a cloudy, greasy stock. Keep a strainer nearby so you can skim any foam or scum that gathers at the top. You can remove some of the excess skin from the chicken if you’d like, but if you cook the bird over low heat, not all of the fat in the chicken will render out, so you’ll pull it off the bird after the meat has cooked.

1 (3-4 lb.) whole chicken (giblets and innards removed)

2 to 3 large brown or yellow onions, peeled and divided

8 to 10 carrots (roughly equal to quantity of celery), peeled and divided

1 head of celery, divided

1 bay leaf

1 bunch flat loose-leaf parsley

1 bag wide egg noodles

Kosher salt to taste

Place whole chicken in a 12 quart pot. Cover the chicken with an inch of cold water. Chop half of the onions, carrots and celery into 1-inch chunks. Add vegetables to the pot, as well as the bay leaf and about a dozen sprigs of parsley. Bring to a boil and immediately reduce the heat so that the liquid is just simmering. Cook for roughly 1 hour or until chicken is falling off the bone. Strain and toss the cooked vegetables.

Let the chicken cool enough until you can handle it and then pick the meat off the chicken. Put broth back in a clean pot over medium heat. Cut the other half of the onion, carrots and celery into pieces that are about 1/4 inch or smaller. Chop remaining parsley leaves for garnish.

Add the onions, carrots and celery to the broth and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the pulled chicken and simmer for another 20 minutes. In a separate pot, cook noodles following the directions on the bag. When done, run the noodles under cold water but keep the noodles separate from the soup. Once the vegetables are tender, add salt to taste. Serve soup in bowls, adding the noodles to each bowl. Serves 6 to 8.

— From Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo

Roasted Chicken Salad

This is Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s spin on the Waldorf salad, but with plenty of changes from the traditional mayo-based salad that originated at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City in the late 1800s. You could use mayonnaise instead of oil, if you prefer.

For the tarragon vinaigrette:

2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar

2 Tbsp. grapeseed or canola oil

1 1/2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 small shallot, minced

1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh tarragon

1 1/2 tsp. finely chopped fresh thyme

1 1/2 tsp. grain mustard

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1 1/2 tsp. sugar

1/4 tsp. kosher salt

For the salad:

1 cup roasted chicken

1 cup red grapes, cut in half

1/2 cup almonds, toasted

1 bunch watercress, washed

Endive leaves, cleaned and separated

Whisk all of the vinaigrette ingredients in a small bowl and set aside. Place the salad ingredients in a bowl and add the dressing. Top with watercress and serve with endive.

— From Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo