Weekday Fried Chicken is Easy with Tenders and a Spicy-Sweet Sauce

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Do you blanch at the thought of frying chicken? Are you missing the right technique and timing? Does splash and mess seem too complicated?

Then imagine frying it 11 hours a day for two days straight for over 100,000 people – outdoors, with portable fryers, under tents. More than forty food vendors will do just that during the sixth annual National Fried Chicken Festival, September 30 through October 1, on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans.

Vendors include family restaurants, well-known chains, food trucks and caterers. Among them will be Jeffery Heard Sr., who, along with daughters Tia’Nesha Heard-Dorset and Angel Aaliyah Heard and son Jeffery Heard Jr., operate Heard Dat Kitchen in Crescent City. They don’t feel intimidated by the task of serving hordes of hungry festival-goers. They do this every day, preparing trays of prepared meals in a small kitchen and passing them through a window to a line of regulars.

Get the recipe: Sweet and sour fried chicken fillets

The restaurant, which closed its small indoor space during the pandemic, will offer its “Bourbon Street Love,” fried boneless thighs served over macaroni and cheese and topped with a “crawdat” crawfish cream sauce, as well as strips of “skeesh”, fried strips of chicken drizzled with a homemade sweet and spicy sauce. The family is used to working quickly and efficiently. When I visited in 2017, I noticed that two clocks in the kitchen were 15 minutes apart. When I asked why, they said: one shows the time and the other immediately tells the cook when this order should be sent.

Timing and precision are key, the elder Heard likes to say. Chicken can’t be overfried or it will be too dry – even a minute or two can make a difference. Any sauce is added just before serving to keep the chicken crispy. Heard also likes to say that you eat with your eyes, which is why he takes care to prepare food properly, even if it’s placed in a takeout container.

Heard, who has more than 35 years of experience in the hospitality industry, is exactly the kind of salesperson Tina Dixon-Williams was looking for as she coordinated the festival’s food and beverage program.

“They have to be able to produce at the rate they need to serve that crowd,” Dixon-Williams said, noting that vendors include locals as well as restaurants from other states, including Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Oregon and Tennessee. “It’s not an easy task, and it’s not something you can learn as you go.”

The festival, which last year saw an attendance of more than 107,000 people, features creations as varied as whole fried Cornish hens (I have to try that), tacos, stuffed wings, kebabs and corn fried dogs with Korean chicken, as well as options for vegans (fried cauliflower and fried mushrooms, anyone?) and even gluten-free breaded birds. Restaurants compete for titles, such as best fried chicken and best use of chicken in a dish. Live music, an artisan market and cooking demonstrations are also part of the fun.

The festival provides booths, tables, and point-of-sale materials, but vendors bring everything else. Everyone has at least two people dedicated to frying all day. They bring their own spices, frying equipment, oils and specific chicken orders.

Dixon-Williams, who joined the festival in 2022, said she learned more about different types of chicken and frying oil than she ever thought possible.

“Did you know there are seven different types of wings? Who knew there were so many? she says with a laugh, adding that the vendors are “literally frying chicken from 10 a.m. until the festival closes at 9 p.m. By the time they drop off the first batch, which is the test batch, they are ready to open the doors. People are rushing to get in.

Dixon-Williams goes on a fried food-free diet in the days leading up to the festival so he can sample as many “test batch” chicken dishes as possible before the doors open. This effort is part of quality control and, she admits, because everything is so delicious. All this talk about fried chicken has made me want it, of course.

For the home cook, Heard Dat’s Fried Chicken Tenders with Skeesh Sauce are totally doable, even on a weeknight.

The sauce ingredients – tomato, onion, sugar, water, vinegar – are placed in a saucepan and cooked until they thicken to a pepper jelly-like consistency. Then you add a healthy dose of Buffalo sauce and, if you want to turn up the heat, crushed red pepper flakes. While the sauce is boiling, the chicken fillets can be breaded and prepared for frying. They fry quickly in 1 cup of hot oil in a pan, so cleanup is considerably quicker and less messy than frying whole pieces. Use a splash guard if you have one.

Toss the fillets with the sauce, pour it over or use it as a dipping sauce. Don’t forget to add it just before serving to keep the chicken crispy. Dig.

Get the recipe: Sweet and sour fried chicken fillets

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