CHARLESTON, S.C. -- If I tell my friends I am going to buy a chicken the response is either a hearty laugh or a question: "Are you raising chickens to eat or for the eggs up there at Posey Lake?"
Neither, thank you. Every two years the National Chicken Council and the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association holds a seminar to update the media on the state of the industry. I was one of 50 newspaper and magazine writers and bloggers invited to the April meeting in Charleston. Who could turn down a meeting in Charleston where food and American history compete as tourist attractions?
We learned about Low Country cooking (Low Country is a term referring to the South Carolina coast), ate grits and greens, and returned to our homes with chicken recipes prepared by Charleston's top chefs. Chicken isn't a hard sell in America. The average consumption is 83.6 pounds, a statistic that we helped to maintain by eating eight chicken entrees in two days, including chicken apple-sausage for breakfast.
Charleston chefs create far beyond fried chicken, which we associate with southern cooking. They came up with fascinating recipes that put the humble bird in the haute cuisine spotlight. From the first entree prepared by Charleston Place executive chef Michelle Weaver to a barbecued shredded chicken at a picnic, the diversity held our interest.
The council no longer sponsors the national chicken cooking contest but we nevertheless were compelled to have opinions. The deluge of chicken dishes reminded me of the three times I judged the national contest when the grand prize of $50,000 was at stake. Was it moist, was it flavorful, was it overcooked, undercooked, what method was used, and was it worth publishing the recipe?
It was at lunch at the Fat Hen on Johns Island that our table unanimously agreed, "This is the best."
Chef Fred Neuville got our attention when we discovered boiled peanuts and corn in a fresh tomato salad. Boiled peanuts are an acquired taste, but in the salad they added a diverse texture.
Chef Fred, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, refers to his style as French Low Country.
So what could the chef do differently with boneless, skinless chicken breast halves that have come to be the staple of chicken cookery in America? Try marinating them in apple brine for two days before they are grilled and served on a butter bean ragout and topped with crème fraiche. The recipe requires several steps and ingredients, but home cooks who want to play chef have to follow professional leaders.
Charleston Place, one of 10 Orient Express Hotels, is a gem in Charleston's historic district. Chef Michelle Weaver, a native of Alabama, has been at Charleston Place since 1997 and takes pride in the four diamond awards the Charleston Grill has received from the Mobil and AAA dining guides.
Chef Michelle brought smiles to chicken industry leaders with a recipe featuring chicken thighs. Boning and removing the skin from legs and thighs is an industry move to encourage dark meat sales.
Colleen Pierre, of Baltimore, a registered dietitian, recipient of the James Beard nutrition journalism award winner, and the author of four nutrition books, addressed the subject with a talk entitled "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark."
"If you love chicken dark meat, the tide has turned in your favor," Ms. Pierre said. "Although thighs and drumsticks contain slightly more fat than white meat, most of the fat is the heart-healthy unsaturated kind favored by the 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines. Dark meat is nutrient-rich, packed with extra iron and zinc, moist, and flavorful. It cooks better in a slow cooker and remember kids love the drumstick," she reminded us.
Fat Hen's Brine
2 Granny Smith apples, sliced
4 bay leaves
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1/4 cup chopped fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
5 whole cloves
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
1 cup brandy
1 quart hot water
1/2 quart ice cubes
Combine all ingredients through allspice. Mix well before adding sugar, salt, and brandy. Let set 1 hour before adding hot water to dissolve seasonings; then add ice to cool down.
Use as a brine for whole chicken or chicken breasts. Let marinate at least one day or up to 2 days refrigerated. Chef Fred Neuville, Johns Island, S.C. also recommends this brine for turkey and pork. Brining seasons and insures moistness in poultry.
Michelle Weaver's Braised Chicken Thighs with Capers and Olives
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 chicken thighs, skin on, bone in
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cracked pepper
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 14-ounce can tomatoes, chopped with juice
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons capers, drained
⅓ cup mixed green and black olives, pitted and halved
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
Heat olive oil in dutch oven over medium heat. Season chicken with half of salt and pepper. Brown chicken on both sides; remove from heat and spoon off fat. Reserve 1 tablespoon of fat to add to pan; add onion and cook until soft. Stir occasionally.
Deglaze pan with wine and reduce wine by half. Add chicken stock, tomatoes, thyme, and bay leaves. Bring to simmer. Add chicken to pan with skin side up and bring back to simmer. Add olives and capers. Place in 350-degree oven and cook about 30 to 40 minutes until the thighs pull away from bones. Finish with remaining salt, pepper, and basil. Serves 4, over couscous, pasta, or rice.
Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor. Contact her at: email@example.com.