Monday, February 11, 2013

Shake n' Bake

I was twelve the first time I ate fried chicken. My mother was away for a conference and my Aunt Homa invited my father and me for dinner. I always enjoyed going to her house because she not only had a wicked sense of humor, but a delicious hand—her cooking was tasty. She kept au courant with songs, film, recipes from Good Housekeeping sent to her from abroad. I also loved that Aunt Homa stood up to my dad if he so much as whispered a complaint about his wife’s absence. “You should be so proud of her,” she’d snap.

On this February night, she served us crispy golden chicken legs with parsley potatoes and a green salad. The simplicity of this meal would’ve struck an Iranian guest as miserly. A measure of a ‘better’ host is the surplus of food, a galaxy of dishes on a buffet around which your guests will orbit sampling everything, crowding their plates with pyramids of rice and stews, pickled vegetables and yogurts, bread and feta cheese, herbs and salad. I think my father may have even dared tease my aunt about her scanty offering. That first bite of fried chicken was unlike anything I had ever tasted. I closed my eyes and chewed slowly to understand the crackling outside and the tender inside. I glanced at my father devouring a drumstick, his mustache glistening. Quickly I ate everything else on my plate—saving the best for last. No sooner had I finished than my aunt served me another piece, then another. Like love, I would never tire of it.

Later in the kitchen when I was helping Aunt Homa clean up, she asked if I wanted to know how to make her chicken. An invitation to the ball would not have excited me as much. She handed me pen and paper to write: Rub chicken legs with olive oil, salt and pepper. Put Corn Flakes in a bowl and crush the flakes with your hands. Toss the chicken with the Corn Flakes and lay flat on a greased baking dish. Bake in a 400-degree oven until they’re golden brown. She didn’t tell me to pre-heat the oven, or how many chicken legs, or how long to bake them, but taught me that anyone who cared could learn.

My dad did the grocery shopping while my mother was away. We’d been eating a lot of eggs in her absence, so I asked him to buy chicken. Corn Flakes, however, were not so easy to come by, but one nearby market kept a paltry selection of stale American cereal. When my father came home from work, I served him ‘Kellogg’s chicken’ with radishes and a sliced cucumber drizzled with lemon juice, then watched him chew happily the first meal I had ever made him. He was the hardest working man I knew and usually never came home before ten o’clock which gave me plenty of time to experiment and tweak the only dish I’d learned to cook. Night after night we feasted on chicken until my mother came home, surprised to find her enameled stove spotless. We resumed a more balanced, colorful menu, which after days of browned bird legs, felt like a carnival.

Just because I’m a chef doesn’t mean that we eat duck a l’orange every night. Even though in my family we talk about what’s-for-dinner at breakfast, there are days when I have to fall upon my tried and true. The other night, after a busy day, I crushed a couple bars of Weetabix (if you’re wondering why I have that in my pantry, it’s not as bad as Twix), and tossed seasoned chicken legs with the crumbled flakes in a Ziploc bag. And since the oven was on anyway, I roasted some fingerling potatoes, too. A butter lettuce salad with Dijon vinaigrette and voila! Dinner was ready. Weetabix, we agreed, is a happy substitution for Corn Flakes, breadcrumbs, or even real fried chicken. At the table, I made a toast to my auntie who knew that less is more and you’re never too young to cook for your parents.