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I OFTEN WISH THAT I COULD EAT AT Tom Hirschfeld’s house every single day.
Over ten years ago, I had dinner in Indiana with him and with his beautiful wife, Amy, and their kids, Joselynn and Ian—and I still remember exactly what we had: duck burgers with hotel butter and a potato and burnt okra hash. It was one of the most comforting meals of my life.
Tom and I had become friends when we were both involved in the early days of the Food52 community (he was a longtime columnist). Later, his home became a stop on my comfort food pilgrimage. Which is a tidy name for me wandering the country like a broken zombie, trying to make sense of the worst tragedy of my life—and also trying to write a book about it (with recipes!), right after it happened. Probably the stupidest idea I’d ever had; it almost killed me.
Imagine what a ray of sunshine I was back then! And yet Tom and Amy were so welcoming and kind. I adore them.
Back then, they were living on a beautiful farm, in a spot overflowing with sweet peas and purple clover, in a town aptly named Arcadia. Tom had an enormous garden and grew about half of what his family ate, along with raising chickens and making honey. He prepared it all, too, as CEO of his household, while Amy tended to her growing dental practice.
Here are some of Tom’s photos of his bounty:
Tom loved his garden so much that the first thing he did when I arrived at their big farmhouse back in 2011 was take me to out to see it—the minute I got out of the car. “This is it,” he said, waving his arm over his plants, smiling like a man showing off a fancy car instead of pea tendrils.
But when I talked to him the other day, he’d given up gardening for several years. It had been about three since they’d moved from the farm to a new place in Indianapolis, to be closer to good schools and doctors, after Amy contracted a painful neurological disorder with secondary autoimmune disorders.
I’m not sure I’ve ever really believed in “comfort food” per se, but I do think that being completely obsessed with food is a great way to get yourself, and the people you love, through all life throws at us.
For instance, Tom recently became engrossed in noodle-making—partly as a way to tune out the constant blare of terrible news this year. “I taught myself to make noodles by going on YouTube and watching videos from China, Japan, Korea—to see how they make them there. When I found Danny Bowien’s video for the big, wide, pulled noodles—that was really fun. I’m in the kitchen and the kids are in there—and we're smacking these noodles against the counter,” he said, laughing.
These healthy obsessions of Tom’s—and the fact that he doesn’t follow trends (“I couldn’t care less, I just want good food, I cook what I cook”)—are part of what I’ve always admired about him.
“That much hasn’t changed,” said Tom, whose somewhat earthy and rambling approach to food reflects his somewhat earthy and rambling approach to life before settling down. “I was a photojournalist after college,” he said. “I worked in Missouri, and couldn’t take the small-town life, so I moved for five years to NYC, where I’d never even been before.” He was a truck driver who delivered oil, a culinary school student, a concrete worker (“I thought I wanted to be a contractor”), and, of course, a restaurant chef; when their first child came, he was working in catering.
You can see exactly what I mean about his ranging style by looking at his beautiful Instagram. There he is, taking an extremely alluring looking smoked-turkey and oyster gumbo pot pie out of the oven. Grilling salmon over a hibachi he MacGyvered from a large flowerpot and cookie rack. Theatrically grinding his own flour for his absolutely gorgeous array of bread loaves. Showing off the ingredients for a late December choucroute garnie, musing about the various incarnations of basic chicken and rice (purloo, jambalaya, arroz con pollo.) And on and on, like an illustration of someone’s appetite.
Because it’s not for show, like a lot of food Instagrammers. “I just shoot what we eat,” he said, meaning the kids, too. “I tell them they have to try a bite, and if they don’t like it, they can have leftovers.” They’ve grown up to be pretty good eaters, and Joselynn has turned into a precise critic. (“I was really enjoying the chicken salad,” she told Tom. “Until I ran into those pecans.”)
Joselynn is particular and has a mind of her own, sort of like Tom—who, when I asked him to talk to me about salad, said: “I want to talk about fried chicken.”
But this is a salad newsletter, I replied
He’d realized that while his family really loved fried chicken (“We have it once a month”), they don’t love all the usual sides that come with it in the Midwest. “The mashed potatoes and cream, corn and green bean casseroles, and all that other heavy stuff.
“What I’ve learned,” he said, “ is that fried chicken is best in spring, and best served with salad.”
I was so relieved.
“I just love the killed salad,” he added, meaning the classic Southern dish of spring greens and onions wilted in a hot bacon-grease dressing.
“I make it with tart apple cider vinegar, which makes it perfect for chicken, even though it has all that bacon grease,” he added.
Imagine how thrilled I was that the salad my Midwestern friend wanted to give me was also the the salad of my people here in Southern Appalachia—where it has always been referred to as “kilt sallet.” We take bacon (or ham) and greens—in all its forms—very seriously.
But the thing that made me happiest was finding out that Tom had started gardening again. He’s been using raised beds and large fabric pots for his smaller crops, which include a kind of lettuce he’s obsessed with. “It’s a fantastic old-timey lettuce called Black-Seeded Simpson,” he said, before continuing to tell me, with so much excitement in his voice, all about what he was growing this year, out in Indiana.
It was so nice catching up with my friend Tom.
*Recipe: Tom’s Kilt Sallet (aka Killed Salad)
4 big handfuls of salad greens (one per person); I like to use one kind of green rather than mixing them. My favorite is Black Seeded Simpson but Little Gem, Romaine, red leaf, oak leaf, baby mustard greens, and dandelion all work.
2 to 4 green onions depending on your preference, you can slice them into thin rounds, but I like to mince them
2 to 3 tablespoons bacon grease, if you save bacon grease you can save yourself a step unless you want bacon bits on the salad. Personally, I don’t put bacon bits on it but feel free to change the recipe to your tastes. If you cook 6 slices of good thick bacon slowly over low heat it should easily render enough fat for the dressing
1⁄4 cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
Lots of black pepper
Salt, to taste
Optional: chopped hard-boiled egg, crumbled bacon (EMILY NOTE: I love this salad with hard-cooked egg. Do a 10-minute one.)
Tear the lettuce into pieces that easily fit into one’s mouth. Place them into a bowl.
Add the green onions and toss with salad forks
Heat the bacon grease, vinegar, and sugar in a pan until very hot. The vinegar can come to a boil just don’t let it reduce
Pour the dressing over the top of the salad and toss with the forks so you don’t burn your hands. Season with lots of black pepper and serve immediately (while lots of people say the salad doesn’t last, I like it when it is soggy and even the following morning after it has sat in the fridge all night)
BONUS: Tom Hirschfeld’s Bossy But Perfect Rules for Frying Chicken, Plus His Recipe
1. Pick a bird that is no bigger than 3 1/2 pounds. Anything over this size really isn’t meant to be fried. To me, a 3-pound bird is perfect.
2. To ensure the breasts don’t overcook and become too dry, cut the double lobed breast into three. Like this:
3. In my opinion, wet brining does nothing for chicken but change the texture of the chicken to be more like ham. I am not a fan.
4. If you have a source for good chicken, why cover up the taste of a great bird with lots of unnecessary flavors?
5. To retain moisture, I use the Russ Parsons/Judy Rodgers method of dry brining as a guide and salt the chicken the night before, or at least 2 hours before frying.
6. You don’t need a deep fryer to make great fried chicken. A high-sided Dutch oven or cast-iron pot (not pan) is fine. Fill the bottom with peanut oil about 1 to 1 1/2 inches in depth. It should come up the sides of the pot no more than a third. When you add the chicken, the oil level will rise.
7. After you flour coat the chicken the second time, let the chicken rest on a rack for twenty minutes to form a crust before you fry it. This also allows the chicken to warm to room temperature which will help it to cook through. Use the time to finish any sides.
8. Your oven is your best friend here. Fried chicken is meant to rest before it is eaten. In turn, I don’t worry too much about interior doneness because I always keep the chicken in a 250˚F (or 121˚C) oven. I let it rest in there about twenty minutes, which allows time for it to finish cooking, remain crispy, and lets me finish any side dishes too.
9. Don’t forget to fry up the giblets too — I always throw in extras. Serve them with a side of wing sauce. You’ll be happy you did.
10. Choose lots of sides that can be made ahead of time so when you go to fry the chicken, there is nothing else to think about.
11. Gluten-free flours such as Cup4Cup make for a crispier crust. If you are going to use wheat flour, add a 1/4 cup of cornstarch to the flour to crisp up the crust.
12. Take your time, don’t short cut anything, and give the chicken lots of room. Enjoy yourself, frying chicken is fun!
Serves 6 to 8
Settle in. Clear your mind. Then, be in the moment and your fried chicken dinner will be the best ever. To cut the chicken into 9 you cut the double lobed breast crosswise into three pieces.
2 chickens, around 3 pounds each, each chicken cut into 9 pieces
1 teaspoon kosher salt plus extra for seasoning
2 cups gluten-free flour or all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch (optional, it is used for a crispier crust)
1 tablespoon Spanish paprika
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups buttermilk
1 1/2 cups peanut oil
2 slices pancetta, 1/16 inch thick this adds a really nice subtle flavor to the finished product
After you have cut up your chicken, place it in a tray or on a sheet pan with sides. Season it on all sides with kosher salt. Place it back into the fridge for at least 2 hours to overnight.
When you are ready to fry the chicken, combine the flour, cornstarch, dried seasonings, salt, and pepper in a large plastic or paper bag. Give it a shake to mix.
Work with three pieces of chicken at a time. Place the first three pieces into the flour. Close the bag and shake it around until the chicken is coated evenly. Before you remove the chicken to a cooling rack give it a gently shake to rid it of excess flour. Continue with the first flour coat until all the pieces are floured.
Again, working with three pieces at a time dip the first three pieces of chicken into the egg wash (the buttermilk and egg whisked together). Make sure they are coated on all sides. Remove them from the wash and place them into the flour bag. Gently shake and roll them until they are fully coated for the second time. Remove them to a cooling rack once more. Continue until you have finished with all the pieces. Now let the flour-coated chicken rest for 20 minutes to form a crust.
Turn your oven to 250˚F (or 121˚C)
Place the pot over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and oil. You can use a deep fry thermometer, but I never really find them accurate unless you can submerge then at least 2 inches up the stem. The pancetta is your canary in a coal mine. As the oil heats it will begin to bubble. It will get you close to the right oil temperature but then you need to go with the crouton method. In other words, I take a piece of bread, pinch off a corner and drop it into the oil. If the oil is hot enough the bread will sink almost to the bottom but before it gets there the bubbles that have formed from the hot oil will carry it back to the top. If the bread sinks to the bottom and rests, gets a few bubbles and then slowly rises, the oil isn’t hot enough. On the other hand, if the bread hits the surface of the oil and it looks immediately like it is surfing a volcano then the oil is way too hot—remove the pot from the heat, let it cool for a few minutes then place it back on the heat and test again.
Remove the pancetta when it is crispy.
When the oil is right, begin frying 5 to 7 pieces of chicken at a time. Just be sure to give the chicken some room. This, of course, is a common sense moment. It all depends on the size of your pot — you be the judge. Just realize if you crowd the chicken, the crust will cook together and you either have one big piece of fried chicken or you’ll have to break off pieces of the crust, which is less than desirable.
After you place the chicken into the pot, let it sit for 15 to 30 seconds before you attempt to turn it. This moment of time allows the crust to set so when you go to turn it the crust doesn’t fall off.
Turn the chicken as necessary. If by chance your oil has not risen above the chicken, you will need to turn it more often but by no means add oil after you have begun frying.
Brown the chicken on all sides. Once it has browned, remove it to a tray with a cooling rack and place it immediately into the heated oven.
After the last batch of chicken goes into the oven, let all of it rest in there for 15 to 20 minutes. Finish any sides that need it, dress the salads, and get everything to the table.
Platter up the bird and serve.
That’s it. We’re done here. Coming up midweek, we have another delicious salad from Tom Hirschfeld, for paid subscribers. It uses broccoli stems! Which are the best part of broccoli. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to share the Department of Salad: Official Bulletin with your friends and loved ones who deserve it!