Hitting the Chicken Dinner Trail

I've just been back to visit my folks in Ohio, where an annual summer phenomenon is in full swing, or should I say "squawk." Every weekend, from April through November, tiny rural Catholic churches on either side of the Ohio/Indiana border gear up to feed the multitudes. 

The home-style fried chicken dinners have made converts out of staunch atheists as well as picky restaurant critics. Carl Heilmann, a self-described Cincinnati chicken dinner fanatic, has even created a web site devoted to these events. Check out the schedule and the menu at each one.

Imagine sitting down at a long school-cafeteria table to platters of crispy, golden chicken fried in lard, a huge bowl of real mashed potatoes, and that authentic chicken gravy that has no peer. The chicken, potatoes, and gravy are standard at all churches. But then each one branches out with side dishes and desserts that follow tradition or the garden.

See the turtle soup for sale and one of the church volunteers frying up the chicken.

And, my oh, my, the pies! At St. Anthony's of Padua near Brookville, Indiana, there's even a pie room--shelves and shelves of pies waiting to be served.

Side dishes follow the season, from celery seed cole slaw, marinated cucumbers, seasoned green beans, sliced fresh tomatoes, real creamed corn, and squash casserole.

No pilgrims to Canterbury were ever as devout as the crowds that seek perfect fried chicken in the rolling farmland of the Ohio Valley.

So, imagine you're in the mood for a fried chicken dinner at home. First consideration, of course, is the chicken. Not any old chicken. We don't eat fried chicken every Sunday anymore, so this chicken has to be good. Free range at least. Free range and organic, even better. But the best?

Heirloom, free range, and organic. Heirloom chicken breeds are, as the name suggests, older chicken breeds. Many had fallen out of favor commercially, usually because they took too long to grow to market size. But following on the success of Frank Reese's heirloom turkey--which tastes like the turkey-est, most velvety turkey you've ever put in your mouth--heirloom chicken breeds are making a comeback. Check out Reese Turkeys to see two of the heirloom breeds: Cornish, which is also known as "Indian Game," and Barred Plymouth Rock, which was first exhibited in America in 1849.

Okay, we've got the chicken. Now, let's set the table. In honor of the Chicken Dinner Trail, let's make it look Midwestern--pure prairie. And what is more Midwestern than a vintage, printed tablecloth from the 1940s and 50s and flowers from the garden? See the photo at the right.

I found a great online club for vintage tablecloth enthusiasts. Their motto is "Making the world a cozier place--one tablecloth at a time." In my next posting, I'll give you a mouthwatering recipe for that deep mahogany-colored, crispy fried chicken that brings everyone to the table.


Welcome to alfresco!

A fresh breeze wafts through an open window, making the curtains gently flutter. With it, the promise of a new day.

What will you do with it?

Here at alfresco, which is the Italian phrase for “in a fresh air style,” we’ll explore food and lifestyle, with creative ideas and fresh inspiration.

Here’s where we’ll start: At least once in fine weather, bring a table outdoors and have a meal under a blue or starry sky. At the right, you’ll see a photo of my family when we did just that.

We were all at La Foce in Tuscany for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. It was the Fourth of July—just another summer day to the locals—but even more reason to celebrate for us.

We drove the hairpin-turn, hill town roads to nearby Cetona to buy local wine in large glass jugs. We brought the table out onto the graveled courtyard of the old stone villa—the classic view of a road winding through cypress trees amidst a gold wheat field in the background.

Three generations of our family sat around that table for one of the most memorable meals we’ve ever had.

So, find the perfect spot and bring set up your own table. At the top left of this post is a photo that I clipped from Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, August/September 2007. Don’t you just love the fresh interpretation of classic blue and white paired with yellow? The chairs just say “French cafĂ© society,” don’t they? And no wonder. They were designed by Xavier Pauchaud in 1934. You can find them at Design Within Reach

To go with your table setting, here’s a dish that works well at a brunch, lunch, casual supper or black tie barbecue.

Provençal Grilled Salmon with Rosemary and Mint Aioli

This dish, pictured in front of the sunflowers in the banner photo above, is wonderful for an alfresco dinner. Enjoy it with an aioli that is out of this world. From BBQ Bash by Karen Adler and Judith Fertig (Harvard Common Press, 2008).

Makes 6 to 8 servings
Rosemary and Mint Aioli:
2 large organic egg yolks or equivalent egg substitute
2 anchovy fillets, minced, or 1 tablespoon anchovy paste
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, if needed
Fine kosher or sea salt to taste
Hot pepper sauce of your choice to taste
One 3- to 3 1/2-pound salmon fillet
Olive oil for brushing
1 to 2 tablespoons herbes de Provence
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Prepare a hot fire in your grill.

2. To make the aioli, whisk the egg yolks together and add the anchovies, garlic, rosemary, mint, Worcestershire sauce, and vinegar. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while whisking. If the mixture gets too thick, add lemon juice. Season with salt and hot pepper sauce. Mix thoroughly, cover, and chill until ready to serve. (At this point, you may cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day.)

3. Brush the salmon with olive oil, then sprinkle with the herbes de Provence, salt, and pepper. Place on a doubled baking sheet and take out to the grill.

4. Grill the salmon, flesh side down, for 7 to 8 minutes. Using 2 spatulas, loosen the salmon from the grill and carefully roll it over, so the skin side is down. Grill for another 7 to 8 minutes, until it just begins to flake when prodded with a fork. Serve the salmon on a platter, passing the aioli separately.

Note: Take care when serving dishes with uncooked eggs to the very young, the very old, or anyone with a compromised immune system. Use organic eggs from a source you trust, or use an egg substitute.

The keys to a perfectly grilled salmon fillet:
  • Oil your grill grates.
  • Prepare a hot fire in your grill.
  • Measure the thickest part of the salmon fillet. It’s usually about ¾-inch thick.
  • Grill your salmon fillet for 10 minutes per inch of thickness, or 7 minutes for a ¾-inch fillet, total time.
  • Start grilling your salmon on the flesh side.
  • Turn once with a fish spatula or two large grill spatulas.
  • Undercook it a little. You can always put it back on the grill, but it will be moister and more delicious if gone, but not dry.
Deck It Out
Place the salmon on a platter garnished with sprigs of fresh rosemary and mint.

Raise a Glass
Pour a chilled Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Noir.