Skin for the Win



A golden brown chicken is pulled out of the oven for Sunday Supper, its skin the gleaming piece de resistance of your supper. The salty, crunchy skin on the roasted bird is worth fighting for and arguably the best treat of the meal. The sweet exterior of the frequently basted bird has been alleviated of its fat, rendering the skin crisp and delicious, taking on the flavor of the garlic, herbs, and lemon zest of the roasting process. Everyone has a notable and marked memory of this as both a visual stimulant as well as its flavor. The skin is the best part, and skin is no longer just for the birds.

Perhaps the most recognizable skin crisp also has the most names; the spanish chiccaron, the snack food cracklin’ or pork rinds, and chef friends have named them pork-otine for their addictive siren song of flavor. Chiccaron are easy to make and a low cost treat that can be featured as a dish, a garnish, or a bar snack. A simple method for making skin puffs is to cut the skin (from your local trusted butcher) into six inch squares and place into a thick bottomed pot. Cover the skin with water weigh it gently to keep in covered in water. Bring the skin to a boil then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook the skin for about two hours until very tender and easily cut with a spoon. Drain the water and clean the skin while warm. With the skin side on the cutting board, with the fat facing up, gently use a small pallet knife or similar and meticulously scrape the fat away from the skin. Be gentle and use care to not rip or tear the skin. Once you have removed as much fat from the skin as possible, cut them to a suitable size for your use. A half inch by one inch piece will grow in the fryer to about five fold its size. A puffed skin crisp can always be broken to a smaller size later before or after frying as well. Once the pieces are cut, place them onto a parchment paper lined tray and place into an oven on its drying setting or simply with the pilot light lit, at around one hundred fifty degrees Fahrenheit . Allow the skin to fully dry, roughly over night. Allow the skin to cool at room temperature. At this stage they are shelf stable and can be stored in a cool dry pantry for a few weeks. To fry the chips prepare oil for frying at three hundred seventy five degrees with a spider, or strainer, and a tray lined with paper towels to drain. Submerge the skins until completely puffed, or about forty five seconds. Remove the skin puff from the oil and drain, then season with kosher salt. At Thin Man, Chef Bruce Wiezala offers the skin cracklins seasoned with Cheddar Cheese Powder or Cool Ranch. Chef James Roberts’ version at Toutant features Blue Cheese Powder and Cayenne. Chef Steve Gedra loves skin and plays with them as whimsical snack foods in the style of nachos, or he folds the braised skin into a batter and fries them for a delicious and decadent skin fritter. The chef also loves skin chips as a vehicle for french onion dip and pretty much any dip, cause they’re damn delicious. Try them around town and impress your friends by making your own version at home.

The humble swine is not the only skin crisp that is to be adored. Chicken skin is showing up on menus abound. A different technique is used for this style of skin crisp. Preheat an oven to 375. Lay chicken skin onto a flat parchment lined sheet tray or baking tray. Top the skin with another piece of parchment paper and another flat tray to weigh the skin down. Take notice to use the flattest trays to ensure even cooking and flat crispy skin. Bake the skin for about fifty minutes, rotating roughly three times throughout the cooking process for even cooking. When done, remove from the pan and drain of excess fat. As with any crunchy snack or garnish, season to fit your desired outcome. A dehydrated caper powder and lemon zest, Japanese togarashi, or salt and a dehydrated vinegar powder (salt and vinegar chicken skin chips anyone?) are just a few suggestions. Chicken skin is also adored by Chef 2-2 at his Kaydara noodle bar in lieu of dumpling skin as a wrapper. The chef stuffs dumpling mix into chicken skin and gently pan sears them on all sides for a crispy delicious exterior with a surprising filling.

Moving to the ocean, our finned friends make excellent skin chiccaron as well. Salmon, Fluke, Bass, and Halibut are just a few of the fish that can be successfully puffed. Clean the skin of flesh and scales with a sharp knife. In a vacuum seal bag or heavy duty zip lock, place skin flat into the bag, being careful not to overlap. Seal the skin and cook at 190 degrees or gently simmer in a pot. After an hour remove the skin and allow to cool in an ice bath. Remove the skin from the bag carefully and transfer to a dehydrator tray or a sheet tray in an oven on pilot. Allow the skin to dry until fully dehydrated, about four hours. Once cool, fry the skin at 375 until puffed. This garnish brings great texture to crudos and raw fish dishes, as well as poached fish. It is a remarkable way as well to utilize the whole sea creature, paying respect to the fish and using every bit available.

Skin is also a remarkable ingredient from our gardens. Dehydrate tomato skins and grind them into a sweet umami ridden powder for seasoning. Take your carrot skin peelings and fry them into crispy carrot chips. Chefs world wide are looking at products considered to be waste and finding creative and tasty ways to reduce what goes into the garbage can. With a bit of creativity and desire, it is easy to do at home as well. Now keep the skin out of the bin!


Smoke Stacks- Layers of flavors on more than just BBQ

As you walk through the doors of Elm Street Bakery, there’s something in the air that causes your  mouth to water almost instantly. It is the scent of a beautiful wood-burning oven, its gentle smoke pulsing through the food it’s cooking and into your nostrils. The bakery utilizes this oven to roast scallops, mussels, chicken, shishito peppers, even mac and cheese. But why should a diner care about little smoke? Have a bite of chef Brad Rowell’s seemingly simple yet remarkable cuisine, and you’ll understand that the proof is truly in the puddin’.


Rowell loves the wood oven for its super intense dry heat. The restaurant bakes bread at a lower temperature during the day, increasing the heat for dinner service to almost six hundred degrees. With that kind of heat, the oven can roast half a chicken from raw to done in just eight minutes.


Chef Rowell has tinkered with the oven’s coals, setting onions and other root vegetables directly atop the cooked-down fuel. Showing their industrious nature, the staff at Elm Street has also suspended grates inside the intense enclosure to create a grill, allowing the oven’s dry heat and wonderful flavor to be imparted into ingredients and dishes in yet another way.


Chefs love the aroma smoke gives to cuisine, but it doesn’t have to be just wood smoke. Whether smoking salmon for an hors d’oeuvres preparation, cold smoking rapeseed oil over hay for smoked aioli, or adding burned wood chips to dashi broth, the list of items you can smoke extends well beyond basic barbecue. Smoking isn’t limited to wood—nut shells, hay, vegetable and citrus skins, herbs and spices, and other items can all change your end result for the better. For example, black walnut shells and a bit of apple wood makes an excellent bed for duck breast pastrami. In many cases, a combination of charcoal and logs can create a more reliable and simple way for both chefs and home cooks to achieve a great smoked result.


Chef James Roberts of downtown’s recently opened Toutant uses a combination gas and wood grill. With it he creates dishes like the restaurant’s Charred Ribeye or Wood Grilled Black Drumfish. Roberts loves this gulf fish, explaining it was the first fish he ever caught in his native Louisiana. He’s able to achieve an intense and smoky richness in it by roasting the fish solely on its flesh side. He then finishes it in a hot pan on the reverse side, creating a crispy skin. The deep sweet and smoky flavor from this cooking technique is a gorgeous way to elevate this fish.


That small charcoal grill in the back of your garage may be all you need to get a little smoke at home. The sweet smell of wood smoke on meat, fish, vegetables, and even broth adds incredible flavor. Whether using logs for a long and slow cooking process, or wood chips for a quicker and shorter cooking approach, both methods impart flavor and can be used on a home charcoal grill.


Start with a bit of lump charcoal and light it, allowing the coals to burn until they are red. Add them to your grill and top with logs. Make certain to use wood that has not been sealed or chemically treated as such treatment will impart odd aromas and toxic chemicals to your food. Once the wood begins to burn you can keep feeding it like a fire, allowing the logs to burn down into coals and embers. Put the flames out; add a well-seasoned and brined bone-in pork shoulder. Roast slowly in the wood smoke until tender, about five hours, checking that your fire is still warm and emitting smoke—about 220-300 degrees. Once finished, the smoked pork makes an excellent sandwich, addition to beans, pairing to charred avocado and tomato salad, or any number of applications. That whole Bronzino you bought from your local fishmonger is also begging for a trip over the hot wood’s flames. Master this technique and you’ll find yourself thinking of ways to include the heavenly flavor of smoke in your favorite dishes.