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Trendy hot chicken makes its way to Lexington in droves

Traditional Nashville hot chicken is fried, skin on, after it is breaded and spiced with cayenne, dry mustard, paprika and garlic. Then it is dressed with a paste of the spicy rub mixed with fat, usually lard. Serve on white bread to soak up the grease, with dill pickles.
Traditional Nashville hot chicken is fried, skin on, after it is breaded and spiced with cayenne, dry mustard, paprika and garlic. Then it is dressed with a paste of the spicy rub mixed with fat, usually lard. Serve on white bread to soak up the grease, with dill pickles.

It’s cold outside, but Lexington is about to get hit by a heat wave: Hot chicken is coming to town with a vengeance.

What is hot chicken, exactly? It’s Nashville’s contribution to fried chicken, a spicy version that is often breaded, fried and sauced with layers of cayenne to create a greasy lava that devotees soak up with white bread and attempt fruitlessly to cool down with pickles, according to Timothy Davis, author of The Hot Chicken Cookbook, The Fiery History & Red-Hot Recipes of Nashville’s Beloved Bird.

“It’s the preparation as much as the food,” Davis said in a recent interview. “And the presentation — traditionally it’s served on white bread with pickles. ... I think white bread because it’s cheap and sopped up the grease. I think the pickles are more garnish than anything because there’s not a lot to calm down the heat.”

The chicken, usually legs, breast and quarters with the skin on, is often brined in hot sauce, then breaded with flour and a spicy rub. Most versions have cayenne, paprika and garlic powder in the seasoning, Davis said. The recipes are secret, but he suspects that mustard and sugar factor into many successful versions.

And the real key: After the chicken is fried, it is brushed with a cayenne and bacon fat paste that soaks into the crisp coating. The pickles, while an integral part of the presentation, are generally just plain Mount Olive dill chips, he said. For a real treat, bread dill pickles with the hot seasoning and fry them.

For his book, Davis researched the origins of hot chicken. Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville claims that hot chicken was born of the spicy revenge breakfast that a girlfriend cooked for a carousing Thornton Prince III, who liked the dish so much he opened a restaurant in the mid-1930s to sell it.

There’s really nothing to disprove that story, Davis said, but that probably wasn’t the first time anyone made hot chicken. Prince might, however, be the first hot-chicken entrepreneur.

“As far as anybody can tell, Prince’s was the first,” he said. “I’ve never found any evidence predating that.”

Seems lots of folks are jumping on the hot food trend, from the high to the low. Chef Carla Hall is building her new Brooklyn restaurant around it, and chefs from Atlanta to Chicago to New York are putting it on the menu. Even fast casual and fast food is getting hot: Louisville-based KFC is launching hot chicken, and O’Charley’s recently added a version, too.

Hattie B’s, another Nashville stop for hot-chicken pilgrims, is expanding to Birmingham, Ala., with more restaurants possible. And Chef Big Shake Shawn Davis of Franklin, Tenn., is bringing his hot chicken and shrimp to Lexington.

Author Davis, who keeps tabs on hot-chicken developments, said Kentucky is becoming a second home for hot chicken.

“It seems like there is as much interest in Kentucky as in Nashville,” he said.

Lexington is the place where the recent opening of a Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen on East New Circle Road caused traffic jams and where fans routinely lined up for a half-hour to get Indi’s Fried Chicken on Broadway or Richie’s off Georgetown.

But it seems there’s room for more. Joella’s Hot Chicken, a hit in Louisville, will open Jan. 26 in the former home of Billy’s Bar-B-Q on Cochran and Tates Creek Road.

What drives that interest? Andre Prince Jeffries, the grande dame of Nashville’s hot chicken scene, has her theories. Among the theories is that it’s an aphrodisiac. After all, hot chicken was born of passion.

“Sometimes you see feet hanging out of cars,” Jeffries told Davis.

Which could make hot chicken the perfect meal to fix for Valentine’s Day and fire your sweetie’s heart. Or heartburn, as the case may be.

Davis recommended that beginners keep the spice on the mild side, so the night doesn’t disintegrate into a gastrointestinal gaffe. But he has noticed a curious thing, even amongst those who wind up in pain.

“Lot of people try it, then a week later find themselves craving it,” he said.

He thinks it’s the endorphin release. Sounds like love to me.

Traditional hot chicken

The Hot Chicken Cookbook by Timothy Charles Davis

1 whole fryer, cut up

2 cups all purpose flour

2 tablespoons rub (recipe below)

Peanut oil (or frying oil of your choice)

Rub (for paste, add bacon fat or used oil as needed)

3 tablespoons cayenne pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt

2 teaspoons dry mustard

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon smoked or hot paprika

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

 3/4 teaspoon garlic powder

Fill an iron skillet or Dutch oven about 2 inches deep with oil and heat to 350 degrees. Mix the flour and a tablespoon of the spice mix (use the paste recipe, except for the oil) in a large paper bag. Working in small batches, drop the chicken into the bag, shake, let rest briefly, and shake again. Test the oil by sprinkling a small pinch of flour into it — when ready, the oil should gently bubble around the flour. Carefully lower the chicken into the oil. Fry only a few pieces at a time so as not to crowd the pan. Cover partially and cook until one side begins to brown. Turn the chicken and cook until golden brown. (Internal temperature should be at least 165 degrees.) Remove from the oil and drain on a wire rack or paper towels. Cook in batches until all is done.

Ingredients for the paste are for what most would consider medium heat, according to Davis. To add heat, add more cayenne. To make the paste, heat your bacon fat (or use a couple teaspoons of the fry oil) and add a little at a time to the spices listed for the paste. What you’re looking to achieve is a brushable consistency that is neither a hard paste nor too liquid; aim for something along the lines of stone-ground mustard. Liberally brush the finished chicken with the paste. Serve on white bread with pickles and sides. And lots of napkins.

8 to 10 servings

Hot tempeh

A vegetarian option from The Hot Chicken Cookbook

2 slices wheat bread, lightly toasted

Avocado, cut into strips

Lettuce (iceberg will do in a pinch)

Sliced tomato

Shredded carrots

Bean sprouts

Veganise or other vegan mayo

Tempeh steaks (Nashville’s Wild Cow marinates theirs in the paste)

Rub

 1/3 to 1/2 cup hot frying oil or other fat source to replace lard

3 tablespoons cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon paprika, smoked or hot

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Bake tempeh according to instructions on package (you’re looking for it to have a slight, fried-chicken-like crispness on the outside, yet tender and chewy throughout.)

Assemble rub, mix with oil to make paste, and brush liberally on tempeh.

Toast breads. Spread both sides with Veganaise. From the bottom up, layer lettuce, tempeh, lettuce, carrot, avocado, tomato and sprouts.

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