Thursday, June 14, 2012

A taste of Central New York

June 10, 2012
Cornell chicken
Salt potatoes
Grilled sweet corn

I grew up in Central New York (the state, not the city) which, like every other part of the country, has its own culinary traditions. I only really learned this after I moved away. Growing up, I took what I ate for granted, it didn't occur to me that many of the dishes I was used to were not available elsewhere. I had to move to learn that many of my childhood favorites are unknown and unavailable in other parts of the country. Moving provided an opportunity for me to broaden my culinary horizons, but I still missed some of the foods of my childhood. By having them for dinner I was able to introduce these regional dishes to my California family, and to Caryn's boyfriend from Santa Cruz, Alex.

Cornell Chicken was named after the Ivy League University in Ithaca, New York, where the recipe was developed by Professor Robert C. Baker. I only learned about this staple of CNY cookouts and the NY State Fair a few years ago,  I don't remember it from my own childhood. I used the recipe published recently at Food Wishes. It is close to the original from Cornell and simpler than the recipe published by Cook's Country. I purchased a nice organic chicken at Whole Foods for $3.99/lb. I had the butcher halve the chicken  and I removed the backbone at home. Because the chicken weighed over four pounds I also separated the thighs/legs from the breasts and removed the wings in order to reduce the cooking time. I halved the ingredients from the Food Wishes recipe – vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, egg, and poultry seasoning – except for the egg and combined them in a blender.  This is a thin, white, vinegary sauce, nothing like what most people think of as barbecue sauce. I used about half of the sauce to marinade the chicken for about 100 minutes.  Dr. Baker's original recipe does not marinate the chicken; Food Wishes  suggests that an even longer time marinating improves the flavor. I cooked the chicken on the gas grill over low heat with the cover closed. Every five minutes I applied sauce to the meat and flipped it. After 45 minutes I checked the temperature and the meat was already done, overdone if anything. I should have started checking the temperature sooner. That being said, it was still pretty good. The dark meat that I chose was juicy and flavorful with a crisp well-seasoned skin. Diane had white meat and said it was a little dry. I will probably want to try the Cook's Country recipe next. I've only taken a quick look but it uses a thicker version of the sauce that won't run off the chicken so readily and employs fresh herbs rather than dried. It looks like it takes a little more work but it's worth trying.

Unlike Cornell Chicken, salt potatoes were a regular at our family barbecues. They're so easy to fix and so delicious that it's hard to understand why they are not known outside of CNY where you can buy bags of potatoes packaged with a big packet of salt. The best resource I found for how to cook these (and some interesting history, too) came from Wikipedia, of all places. The process is dirt simple. Boil potatoes in brine made from salt and water. You don't use big ole russets for this but small, bite-sized potatoes, according to the Wikipedia article "Size B Grade US No. 2". These are usually available only some of the time (and in some places, like CNY) but you can usually find a reasonable substitute. I purchased German Butter Potatoes at Whole Foods and while the result was not quite the same it was still very good. I had almost three pounds of potatoes which were cooked in 12 cups of water that had been brought to a boil with 2 cups of salt. Brine boils at a higher temperature than water resulting in very creamy  potatoes. The brine also coats the potatoes with a thin layer of salt. The potatoes were served, as is tradition, with bowls of melted butter on the side. You simply dip the potatoes into the warm butter and pop them into your mouth.

The remaining two parts of this meal are not particular to Central New York. White corn from California (though we don't have local corn yet) was husked and put on the grill. Grilling imparts a different flavor – sweet, still, but also a little smoky – than microwaving, our usual method and it imparts a slightly chewy texture. For a beverage we had homemade lemonade.  Diane, remembering that we had some lemons in the fridge, juiced four lemons producing about ⅓ cup of juice. This was combined with ⅓ cup of bottled lemon juice and ⅔ cups of sugar in a two liter pitcher. Ice and water were added to fill the pitcher. The resulting juice was fresh and well balanced, neither too sweet nor too sour, and it was much better than any store-bought juice. For Caryn we bought some fake chicken (Smart Tenders Savory Chick'n) which only needed to be heated, not cooked, and this took but a few minutes on the grill. She tried it with some of the Cornell sauce but preferred Bull's-Eye Original that we almost always have on hand.

The Internet is great! Not only do I get to write this blog (notice I didn't say the Internet is great because you get to read my blog) but I can go on-line and buy some of the endemic CNY foods that I can't get in California. Why, I can even get Grandma Brown's Baked Beans from Amazon. My mom always sprinkled brown sugar on top and baked these beans in the oven producing a sweet crunchy crust.

Cornell Chicken from Food Wishes
Salt Potatoes from Wikipedia

BLT salad is just no good left over. Diane and I both had it for lunch on Monday. Even though the croutons were seperate and so still crisp, it just wasn't worth saving. Later in the week, though, Diane made a better version of the salad than mine. She made smaller croutons with a better mix of greens, tomatoes, and dressing.
One of the best features of homemade, no-knead bread is the crisp crust. Usually we store what is left over in a plastic bag. It keeps well but the crust is no longer crispy when it is stored this way. So we tried storing it on a cutting board, cut side down. It was a few days until we ate it and while still edible it had dried out some and lost some of its flavor. The crust was crispy but this method is probably only good if you'll be eating the bread the next day.


  1. You could try your Mom's Cornell marinade recipe. I have it . . .

  2. Oh, and also, we are having Cornell Chicken Ka-bobs and salt potatoes, among other things, for our Father's Day BBQ!

    1. How do you prepare the chicken for kabobs? Do you marinate it or just baste it with the sauce?