“Whether hidden, or right on an avenue Harlem is cooking. An entire neighbourhood is draped in spice and smells: cumin, garlic, brown sugar….. Right now my Rooster marks the halfway point of 125th Street….. I offer the food I grew up with, big dishes that made you suck your fingers. Good lumpy gravy with odd-shaped kroppkaka, Swedish potato dumpling. But my food also comes out of church cooking, home cooking, diners, and the southern tradition of meat and three. It’s black culture but it’s for everyone. It’s the bird and the pig. It’s bourbon.”
-Marcus Samuelsson, The Red Rooster Cookbook
Marcus Samuelsson is an extraordinary man – Ethiopian by birth, he was brought up in Gothenburg in Sweden, and then, a qualified chef, moved to the States, working in the prestigious Scandinavian restaurant, Aquavit and finally ending by setting up the Red Rooster in Harlem, now described as the gathering place for the cultural glitterati.
Somewhere along the line there is also a connection with southern food (see Cajun and Creole for more on that cuisine), and so, as day follows night, there is also a connection with jazz, and music.
Unfortunately, I don’t hop on Virgin to the Big Apple very regularly so I didn’t know when, if ever, I would be able to savour this incredible mix of culinary inspiration first hand. When I first published this post, I had no idea that Samuelsson planed to open a second Red Rooster in London, later in the year.
So instead, to celebrate the Chinese Year of the Rooster, I bought The Red Rooster Cookbook and entertained myself royally reading through his recipe ideas as well as the music listings.
There was a lot there.
At the bar
An initial section, At The Bar, describes a hedonistic scene…
“oysters for everyone. Women ask for peach wine, and get it. Brothers call out, ‘give me that hooch’ and the bartender knows exactly what they mean”.
Samuelsson developed a place which could cater to the needs of the local Harlem customers; but also for those (his Swedish countrymen) who know a lot about vodka; and also for knowledgeable wine buffs. Samuelsson was warned,
“Chef, those drinks gotta be on point. Hear me?”
So no wonder we read of how they infuse their bourbon with nutmeg; or with figs and Asian pears. They use their homemade ginger beer to add to rum to make a mixture beguilingly named, Dark And Stormier. They offer a Bloody Rooster, which intriguingly incorporates okra.
And there’s a whole selection of interesting tapas – fish croquettes with scallops, snapper and chorizo; or a mayonnaise turned green with mint and coriander which accompanies crispy fried cauliflower (my own version of this in a future post).
Then there are all kinds of recipes including one for Fried Yardbird – and that’s the one which seemed especially right for celebrating the new year of the Rooster.
I’ve followed it loosely at best – the Saucy Dressings’ version is certainly saucy, but I’ve left out the berbere, and a lot of the other heat source so you can still savour it with a good hefty red wine. And I think my alterations may actually have improved this dish.
Recently The Telegraph‘s restaurant critic, Michael Deacon, tried the Red Rooster version, and had this to say about it:
“to judge by its drumsticks the thing must have been the size of an ostrich. All the same I’d be hard-pressed to identify anything special about it. It tasted perfectly good, but given the Red Rooster’s reputation, I was looking forward to being amazed. Maybe that’s unfair. I mean it’s fried chicken. There are limits to what you can expect from it. It wasn’t about to do a tap dance on the table, or recite pi to 400 places.”
On his evenings off (dining chez soi), perhaps Deacon should try this Saucy Dressings’ version, which has become one of the most popular recipes so far posted.
I don’t think you need any extra carbs – the additional bits of fried batter are plenty.
But this does go well with a spinach and walnut salad – the nuts crunch rather effectively in harmony with the crispy batter. In fact, I’d say the salad is an essential part of this recipe.
NB – lots of marinating involved – make the day before.
Recipe for Saucy Dressings’ version of Red Rooster Fried Yardbird
- 2 litres/8⅓ cups of chicken stock – made with water and 8 generous tsp (or cubes) chicken stock powder
- 8 chicken pieces – drumsticks or thighs or a mix of both
- 400 ml tin of coconut milk
- 240ml/1 cup of buttermilk (this is easy to make yourself – add lemon juice to milk – follow this link for more information)
- 3 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed with two tsp smoked salt
- 1 tsp cumin seeds, dry fried and crushed in a pestle and mortar
- 1 tbsp Aleppo pepper; or Kashmiri or Byadgi chilli; or hot paprika
- groundnut oil – you’ll need about two cups – 500ml
- 40g/4 tbsps/¼ cup semolina
- 260g/2 cups of flour
- 2 tbsp cornflour
- lots of freshly ground Indonesian long pepper
- 240g/8 oz baby spinach
- ¼ cup/30 g roughly chopped walnuts or pecans, ideally dry-fried first
- ⅓ cup/80 ml walnut or hazelnut oil
- 1 tbsp raspberry balsamic vinegar, or pomegranate molasses
- salt and pepper
- small packet fresh dill
- In a large casserole bring the stock to a simmer. Leave to cool. Add the chicken pieces. Cover and refrigerate for two hours. Drain, and place in a roasting tin with sides which will easily be higher than the chicken.
- In a large mixing bowl whisk together the coconut milk, the buttermilk, the garlic, the cumin seeds, and the red chilli pepper (whichever you are using). Pour over the chicken pieces. Cover with cling film, return to the fridge, and leave overnight.
- Meanwhile mix the semolina, the flour, the cornflour and the pepper together on a plate.
- You can do (and should do) all the above ahead of time. About forty minutes before you are due to eat preheat your oven to 210°C and fill a wok with groundnut oil up to a couple of inches – about 5 cm – and warm the oil to get it just smoking.
- Mentally divide the chicken pieces into two batches. Take the first lot of pieces out of the marinade and coat generously with the flour mixture. Reserve what remains of the marinade (it should be quite a lot) to serve with the chicken.
- Fry until crisp and golden for about ten minutes, turning in the middle. Do the same with the second batch. You will find that the batter doesn’t stick very well to the chicken – it doesn’t matter. Add bits of batter to the hot oil to fry on its own.
- Put onto a flat roasting tray lined with foil, and when you’ve fried all the pieces, and some extra bits of batter, sprinkle over a little smoked salt, and put all into the roasting oven for about twenty minutes. Samuelsson doesn’t do this, but I suspect he can get his hob a lot hotter than my Aga (lucky man prob’ly has gas).
- Meanwhile make the salad – add the spinach and nuts to a salad bowl, and toss with the oil, vinegar, salt and pepper
- When the chicken is hot, golden and crispy sprinkle over a bit more red chilli pepper if you want, garnish with dill, and serve immediately with the rest of the marinade in a jug.
The music they play at The Red Rooster
The playlists that Samuelsson includes in his book have been an absolute revelation to me – I’ve found some fabulous artists that I’d never heard of before – but all of them have that choclately, jazzy sound that transports me across the pond and into my own mental Harlem and into the sort of noisy, friendly, busy place that I envisage the Red Rooster restaurant to be.
Below you can hear a selection:
Charlie Parker – Chasin’ the Bird
Come to My Door – José James
When My Train Pulls In – Gary Clark Jr
La Nave del Olvido – Buika
Harlem River Drive – Bobbi Humphrey
Sometimes – Bilal
I Blame You – Ledisi
Crazy Love – Akie Bermiss
Blackbird – The Beatles