Lee Schrager's alfresco feast

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Lee Schrager is known for many things: masterminding the South Beach Wine & Food Festival and, in the 13 years since its founding, turning it into a multi-million dollar extravaganza; heading corporate communications for America’s largest wine and spirits distributor, the Miami-based Southern Wine & Spirits; and being one of the world’s most well-connected foodies, whose singular emails and phone calls can summon the best table at the best restaurant anywhere on the planet. And it’s safe to say, many people assume his culinary tastes are fairly highfalutin, what with his degree from the Culinary Institute of America, the Harvard of cooking schools.

So it might come as a surprise that his cravings actually run in the opposite direction, toward the simple and comforting, and toward some seriously guilty pleasures. Proof? His new book, “Fried & True: 50 Recipes for America’s Best Fried Chicken and Sides,” an unapologetically decadent homage to fried chicken and all the mouthwatering fixings that typically come along for the ride.

 
Miami’s most famous foodie, Lee Schrager hosts an al fresco fried chicken feast for a dozen of his closest friends, and showcases recipe from his new book.
Miami’s most famous foodie, Lee Schrager hosts an al fresco fried chicken feast for a dozen of his closest friends, and showcases recipe from his new book.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY FELIPE CUEVAS

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For his research, Schrager scoured the country, gathering recipes from some of his favorite chefs (Tyler Florence, Thomas Keller, Art Smith and Miami’s own Michelle Bernstein are among the long list of star toques featured.) But he also explored hole-in-the-wall restaurants, where he met humble, down home cooks for whom frying a chicken is as much art as it is history, livelihood and family legacy. Throughout, Schrager paid attention to the smallest details, which are especially evident in the tome’s early chapters, where he explains the particulars of brining, seasoning, skillet frying versus deep frying, even how to choose a chicken and cut it up.

Since the book’s release in late May, Schrager has been on a cross-country celebratory tear, his famous foodie friends in tow. There was the launch party at New York City’s acclaimed Hill Country restaurant, where the likes of Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern, The Chew’s Carla Hall and Food Network’s Debbie Mazar were on hand to toast with—what else?— fried chicken drumsticks. There were appearances on CBS and FOX morning shows, the Food Network, QVC, The Queen Latifah Show and his buddy Martha Stewart’s Sirius XM radio program. “The reaction has been really great,” Schrager said. “Everybody I talk to has their own story about fried chicken—whether it’s a favorite one they’ve had or a great recipe they want to share, or a place where they hear it’s made really well. Listening to the stories has been one of the best parts of this.”

For INDULGE, watching the festivities from afar was nice enough—but we wanted in on the fun. So we asked Schrager to host an alfresco fried chicken feast right here in our backyard, and to show us exactly how it’s done. He not only invited his closest friends, he did the cooking himself, from kneading impossibly light and flaky biscuits, to grilling sweet, plump corn on the cob, to whipping up a delectable tomato and watermelon salad, a perfectly refreshing antidote for South Florida’s summer swelter. And, of course, there was the fried chicken. A finger-licking, crispy mountain of it. He cooked it in the kitchen of one of his favorite local fried chicken haunts—Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, Miami Beach’s paean to southern comfort on a plate. Most of the recipes Schrager served up for us came from his book, and all are shared on the following pages too. So go ahead: sit back and start savoring.

FRIED CHICKEN - Serves 4

Schrager fried up chicken for the INDULGE party, taking a cue from Food Network chef Tyler Florence’s herb infused recipe, which is featured in the book. For our event, he skipped the fried herbs, but it’s worth the effort at home.

1 whole chicken, cut into 10 pieces

3 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more to taste

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons garlic powder

2 tablespoons onion powder

2 tablespoons paprika

2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 cups buttermilk

2 tablespoons hot sauce, preferably Crystal or Tabasco

Peanut oil, for frying

¼ bunch fresh thyme

3 large sprigs fresh rosemary

¼ bunch fresh sage

½ head garlic (about 12 cloves), smashed, husk still attached

Lemon wedges, for serving

1. Brine the chicken. In a large (at least 5-quart) bowl or container, cover the chicken with 3 quarts cold water. Add 3 tablespoons salt, cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight.

2. Make the dredge. In a large shallow bowl, whisk together the flour, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, and salt and black pepper to taste until well blended. In another large shallow bowl, combine the buttermilk and hot sauce with a fork and season with salt and black pepper. Line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.

3. Dredge the chicken. Remove the chicken from the brine and pat it dry. Working a few pieces at a time, dredge the chicken pieces in the flour mixture, then dip them into the buttermilk, then dredge again in the seasoned flour. Set the pieces aside to rest on the parchment-lined sheet while you prepare the oil.

4. Fry the herbs. Place about 3 inches of oil into a large (at least 6-quart) deep pot. Add the thyme, rosemary, sage and garlic to the cool oil and gradually heat over medium-high heat to between 360° to 365°F on a deep-fry thermometer. (The herbs and garlic will perfume the oil with their flavor as the oil heats.)

5. Working in batches, add the chicken to the oil, 3 or 4 pieces at a time. Fry, turning the pieces once, until golden brown and cooked through, 12 to 13 minutes. Remove the chicken and herbs from the pot, shaking off as much oil as you can, and drain on a tea towel or brown paper bag to soak up the oil. Sprinkle all over with more salt and black pepper. Arrange the chicken on a platter and scatter the fried herbs and garlic over the top. Serve hot, with lemon wedges.

WATERMELON GREEK SALAD - Serves 4

The refreshing combination of tomato and watermelon is perfect for South Florida’s summer heat. So it’s not entirely surprising this recipe came to Schrager from his good friend, Miami star chef Michelle Bernstein.

1-13/4 lb wedge watermelon, rind removed and cut into medium dice (about 4 cups)

2 large beefsteak tomatoes (1 1/4 lb), seeded and cut into small dice (about 2 cups)

1 large English hothouse cucumber (3/4 lb), peeled and cut into small dice (about 2 cups) 1 cup crumbled feta cheese

2 tablespoons torn dill, uncut

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Pinch of garlic powder

Pinch of onion powder

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste In a large bowl, combine the watermelon, tomatoes, cucumber, feta and dill. In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, garlic powder and onion powder; season with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle half the vinaigrette over the salad and toss very gently. Add the remaining dressing to taste and gently toss again.

CLASSIC BUTTERMILK BISCUITS - Makes about 14 biscuits

Perfectly light and airy, these biscuits are great served with honey or sweet honey-butter. Acclaimed Atlanta chef Scott Peacock gave Schrager the recipe.

5 cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour (measured after sifting)

1 tablespoon cream of tartar

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon kosher salt

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons packed lard or unsalted butter, chilled

2 cups chilled buttermilk

3 tablespoons unsalted butter melted

1. Arrange the oven rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 500°F. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt. Add the lard (or butter) in one large piece, coating it in the flour. Working quickly, run the lard briskly between your fingers (or use a pastry blender) until roughly half the lard or butter is coarsely blended and half remains in large, 3/4 inch pieces.

2. Form a well in the center of the flour mixture and add the buttermilk all at once. With a large spoon, stir the mixture quickly until blended and a sticky mass of dough is formed, adding 1 to 2 tablespoons of additional buttermilk if necessary.

3. Transfer the dough to a generously floured surface. Using floured hands, knead until a cohesive ball of dough forms, 8 to 10 times. Gently flatten the dough, and then, using a floured rolling pin, lightly roll the dough 3/4 inch thick. Dip a fork in flour and pierce the dough through to the surface at 1/2-inch intervals.

4. Using a floured 2 1/2 - or 3-inch biscuit cutter, cut out rounds and arrange on a heavy parchment-lined baking sheet. Do not re-roll the dough, but add the leftover dough scraps to the baking sheet. Bake until crusty and golden brown, 8 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven, brush with melted butter, and serve hot with honey.

GRILLED CORN WITH MAYO-CAYENNE GLAZE - Serves 4

While this isn’t a recipe that appears in Schrager’s book, it is one of his go-to summer dishes—a delicious and beautiful way to add kick to corn on the cob.

4 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

4 ears corn, husked

1 lime, quartered

1. Preheat grill to medium-high.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together mayonnaise and chili powder and set aside.

3. Grill corn, turning occasionally, until marked and tender, 8 to 12 minutes total. Spread each ear with 1 tablespoon of the glaze. Serve with lime wedges.

HASH BROWN CASSEROLE - Serves 8 to 10

This recipe comes from Schrager’s research trip to the Loveless Café, about 30 minutes outside of Nashville. It calls for nothing fancy—a bag of shredded, refrigerated potatoes, a can of cream of chicken soup—but the result is rich and sinfully delicious.

1 30-ounce (or 2 16-ounce) bags of shredded, refrigerated hash brown potatoes, defrosted if frozen

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

1 8-ounce bag shredded cheddar cheese (about 2 cups)

1 10 3/4 ounce can of cream of chicken soup

1 16-ounce container of sour cream

2 teaspoons kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Lightly butter a 9 by 13-inch casserole dish and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients until well mixed. Place in the casserole dish and bake, covered with tin foil, until the edges begin to brown, about 30 minutes.

3. Remove the tin foil and continue to bake until completely golden brown, an additional 30 to 40 minutes.

AND FOR DESSERT...

An alfresco summer meal wouldn’t be complete without something icy, sweet and decadent for dessert. Schrager shipped in some of his favorite treats including Jeni’s ice cream and frozen yogurt in an array of unique flavors like wildberry lavender, goat cheese with cherries and apricot, plus toppings like honey butterscotch sauce and salty graham cracker crumbles. This being South Florida, the meal would not have been complete without a big key lime pie from Joe’s Stone Crab, which the guests devoured.

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