On a recent balmy weekday afternoon in Little Italy , chef-owner Richard Blais' newest restaurant, Crack Shack, was mobbed. The outdoor eatery has a picniclike vibe, with little kids running around and diners mostly fixated on one dish: fried chicken. Also dotting the tables were little paper cups containing a rainbow of house-made dipping sauces.
The fried chicken is prepared in a spicy Nashville style, Blais later explained, one of Crack Shack's fried chicken preparations. The chicken pieces are brined overnight in buttermilk, hot sauce and pickle juice. Then they're sprinkled with a spice mix of cayenne, sweet paprika, light brown sugar, garlic powder, onion powder, ground pepper and salt. The coating is flour mixed with a Japanese seasoning called karaage. Then the chicken is fried. The result is an über crispy, spicy crust, complementing the tender meat beneath that sports heat mixed with tanginess. If you crave it, not only can you get it at Crack Shack, you can now make a close version of it at home.
That's because it's included in Blais' new cookbook, "So Good." This recipe and 99 others represent the native New Yorker's affection for home cooking. His first book, "Try This," he said, was a "getting to know you" book. And it did well, earning him a James Beard Award nomination. "So Good," however, represents "the food I cook at home when I'm entertaining or the version of my restaurant food I'll cook at home and I'll be eating." Whom did he write it for? Blais joked that he imagined his audience to be his wife, who shops at Anthropologie.
The "Top Chef" alumnus and now judge, who also owns Juniper & Ivy, next door to Crack Shack, and restaurants in Atlanta and Nashville, noted that there's always a moment in a chef's career where he puffs his chest out as he shows what he can do. This book, he said, is "what I like to do."
That's good news for home cooks who know Blais from his competitions on "Top Chef" and recall his passion for molecular gastronomy, including wielding liquid nitrogen and nitrous oxide. He pointed out that using unusual techniques was an obvious thing to do in a competition. After all, if everyone else is frantically racing around grabbing lemons or garlic, why wouldn't you go for the liquid nitrogen to set your technique and dish apart? But for home cooks wary of science projects, "So Good" is considerably more accessible. Sure, you could take dishes to another level - and here Blais will try to entice you to go beyond basic chicken, steak and salmon to explore duck, goose, squab and live prawns - but you likely have easy access to most of the ingredients and can build on the flavors he introduces. Or stick with your own comfort level. And if you have a question, he said with a smile, "the book comes with Twitter tech support. Just tweet me at @RichardBlais."
For instance, his Squash Blossom Rellenos are a riff on chile rellenos. But instead of stuffing the chilies, the chilies are roasted, skinned and diced, then mixed with grated Monterey cheese and stuffed into delicate zucchini blossoms and dipped into egg whites, then masa before being fried. Blais loves this recipe, which reflects his newfound passion for Mexican food and the culinary style of San Diego, where he, his wife and young daughters now live. Never cooked with zucchini blossoms before? Blais' tips are, "Don't overstuff the blossoms, and be sure to twist the top of the blossom so the stuffing won't leak out." Want to change it up?
"Take the base of the recipe and have fun," he said. "Stuff the blossom with crabcake filling or a filling with a meat or seafood base. Or use the filling to stuff nasturtium flowers."
You might not associate Blais with international flavors, but the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef has saturated "So Good" with a wide range of global ingredients.
"The dishes in this book are very global. I think people don't know this about me," he said. "I love to introduce people to ingredients like za'atar and harissa."
This plays out in his vegetarian dish, Charred Eggplant With Chickpeas, Olives and Za'atar-
Spiked Yogurt. Basically, you char slender Japanese eggplants and split and season them. You'll combine chickpeas with Middle Eastern seasoning za'atar (a blend of sumac, sesame seeds and dried herbs), heat and add olives, capers and orange sections. Mix yogurt with some more za'atar and spoon it onto a plate. Then you top the yogurt with the eggplant and add the chickpea mixture. Easy.
Blais said this dish represents the goal of the book: the way he cooks at home. "I made this dish for my wife and decided to add it to the book," he said. The big lesson in this dish, he added, is falling in love with charring.
"It's a chef infatuation with burnt and charred food. It seems weird, but that's where you get the flavor."
"So Good" is filled with these kinds of distinctive but unpretentious recipes. Blais said the criteria for developing and including recipes was, "Does it make me want to eat it? Are these the types of things if I was cooking at home with a dozen friends over would I make, or cooking for family on a Sunday night?"
Unlike restaurant cooking, here, Blais said, presentation is not as calculated. "It's about flavor." And a little more. "I like to think we learn about culture through food. We don't discriminate when it comes to flavor or taste."
Golden is a San Diego freelance food writer and blogger.
Crack Shack Fried Chicken, Nashville-Style
Adapted from The Crack Shack in San Diego, where we serve chicken and eggs all day long. The buttermilk brine provides just enough sourness, and the spice blend affords some pretty assertive heat. What you're going for in the texture department is crispy, golden chicken with lots of crevices and fissures in the fried coating. Giving the chicken a good shake once it's been coated in the spiced flour should do the trick. For a quick side sauce, mix a little honey with vinegar and a minced jalapeño. I also recommend serving this with a mandatory treadmill session.
3 pounds whole chicken thighs, legs and thighs separated
¾ cup pickle juice (from a jar of your favorite pickles)
½ cup buttermilk
¼ cup Frank's Red Hot sauce
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the spice mix:
¼ cup plus 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons onion powder
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon kosher salt
About 2 cups all-purpose flour
About 2 cups karaage seasoning mix (see note)
Canola, vegetable or peanut oil for frying
Put the chicken in a glass, ceramic or other nonreactive dish. Pour the pickle juice over the chicken and turn to coat. Cover and refrigerate for about 1 hour, turning several times to ensure all the chicken pieces are flavored with the pickle juice.
Meanwhile, in another dish, whisk together the buttermilk and hot sauce. Season with salt and pepper.
Lift the chicken from the pickle juice and submerge it in the buttermilk marinade. Turn the chicken to coat, cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours and up to 12 hours or overnight.
To make the spice mix, in a mixing bowl, stir together the paprika, cayenne, brown sugar, garlic powder, onion powder, ginger and salt.
Lift the chicken from the marinade and lay it on a baking sheet. Sprinkle the spice mix over the chicken and let sit for about 10 minutes to give the spice mix time to flavor the chicken. Meanwhile, spread the flour and karaage mix in a large, shallow bowl or dish and stir to mix.
Dip the chicken in the flour to coat both sides. Shake the chicken to knock off some of the flour and distribute the flour that stays on the bird.
Refrigerate the coated chicken on the baking sheet for 30 minutes before frying.
Pour oil into a deep, heavy pot to reach a depth of 3 to 4 inches. Heat over medium-high heat until a deep-frying thermometer reaches 350 degrees.
When the oil reaches the desired temperature, use tongs to put the chicken in the oil. Do not crowd the pan; you might have to fry the chicken in batches. Turn the chicken several times to brown it on all sides. Once it's lightly browned, let it cook without turning for 18 to 20 minutes. When it's done, an instant-read thermometer will register about 165 degrees when inserted into a meaty part of the chicken. (Take a piece of chicken out of the fryer before you check the temp! The oil is very hot.)
Lift the chicken from the pot and set on a wire rack sitting over a baking sheet to drain. If frying in batches, let the oil regain its temperature before cooking the next batch.
Let the chicken cool for about 10 minutes before serving.
Note: Karaage is a style of fried chicken (and other foods) developed in Japan. First, the food is flavored with ginger, garlic and soy sauce, and then it's coated with potato starch or flour. If you can't find a commercial karaage mix, double the amount of all-purpose flour and season it generously with garlic powder, ground ginger, salt and pepper.