By Mike Pound
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Anita Simmons’ award-winning fried chicken is no overnight sensation. Simmons’ flavorful fried chicken took first place this past week in the entree division of the Soul Food Cook-off, sponsored by the Joplin Emancipation Park Days Committee.
When Simmons was asked about the secret to her fried chicken, her answer was much like that of the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
“That chicken comes from 20 years of practice,” Simmons said. “It took me 20 years to learn how to fix fried chicken the right way.”
In addition to Simmons’ fried chicken, other first-place winners at the Soul Food Cook-off were Janice Booth, who won first place in the sides category for her collard greens, and Louise “Coolie” West, who won the desert category for her jelly cake.
Simmons said one of the secrets to her fried chicken is marinating the chicken for 24 hours before she dredges it in a mixture of flour and spices. Marinating the chicken, she said, allows the flour to practically cling to it, creating an even coating and, at the same time, ensuring that the chicken remains moist as it cooks.
When asked what she uses as marinade, Simmons smiled and shook her head.
“I can’t tell you that. It’s a secret,” she said.
Simmons did say that she fries her chicken in a deep nonstick skillet, making sure the grease in the skillet is very hot. If it’s not hot enough, she said, the flour will not stick, and you’ll wind up with breadless chicken.
Learning from one of the best
When asked how she learned to cook, Simmons stepped back and pointed at ArBella Rodgers -- a woman sitting at a nearby table who was chatting with friends.
“I learned from that lady there,” Simmons said. “We lived next-door to her when I was growing up, and when I had something that she fixed, I would rush home and try to duplicate it until I got it right.”
That tradition of passing recipes and cooking tips from generation to generation is what gives soul food its soul, Simmons said.
“It’s all part of the tradition. I’m teaching my daughter-in-law to cook right now, and when I’m gone, she will carry on the tradition,” she said.
Joplin food enthusiast shares secret
Tradition is one reason Simmons said the matzo ball soup prepared for the cook-off by Dr. Benjamin Rosenberg most certainly qualifies as soul food. Rosenberg, a longtime Joplin dentist and current member of the Joplin City Council, said matzo ball soup, with its rich chicken broth base, has long been a staple in the homes of descendants of European Jews.
One of the few contestants who included a recipe with his entry, Rosenberg said making proper homemade matzo ball soup is somewhat of a long and drawn-out process. He said he and his wife often opt for a shortcut.
“Chicken soup is Jewish penicillin,” Rosenberg said.
Matzo ball soup
3- to 4-pound chicken
4 pieces celery with leaves, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 leeks, chopped and thoroughly rinsed
3 cloves garlic, peeled
4 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
3 sprigs dill
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup matzo meal
4 large eggs
2 tablespoons schmaltz (rendered chicken fat). If you can’t find schmaltz, you may substitute shortening or butter
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup seltzer
1 carrot, peeled, thinly sliced and blanched until soft
2 tablespoons chopped dill
For the broth: Rub chicken inside and out with about 2 tablespoons of kosher salt. Allow to stand for 15 minutes, then rinse well under water. Place in large stock pot and add cold water to cover by 3 inches. Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Skim off impurities that rise during the first 15 minutes of boiling, then add the rest of the ingredients. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer about 45 minutes.
Remove chicken from pot and remove meat from bones, reserving meat for later use. Return bones to pot of broth and simmer for 1 hour longer. Strain through a sieve lined with cheesecloth. Cool broth, then refrigerate until fat rises to the top and solidifies, at least several hours. Skim off fat and discard.
For the matzo balls: In a large mixing bowl, combine matzo meal, eggs, schmaltz, kosher salt and baking powder. Mix well then add seltzer and mix again. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour. Fill large pot with water and bring to a simmer. With wet hands, roll out 1-ounce matzo balls (about the size of a walnut). Add matzo balls to water and simmer until tender, light and fluffy in the center, about 45 to 60 minutes. Drain; allow to cool; transfer to a flat covered container. Refrigerate until needed. To serve, place broth over medium-low heat. Add matzo balls, blanched carrot slices and chopped dill. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer until matzo balls are thoroughly heated.
Source: Benjamin Rosenberg via recipe originally published in the New York Times