Give fried chicken tenders a sweet and spicy sauce upgrade

Do you blanch at the thought of frying chicken? Does the proper technique and timing elude you? Does the splatter and mess seem like too much trouble?

Then imagine frying it for 11 hours a day for two days straight for more than 100,000 people — outside, with portable fryers, under tents. Forty-plus food vendors will be doing just that at the sixth annual National Fried Chicken Festival, which runs Sept. 30 to Oct. 1, on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans.

The vendors include mom-and-pop restaurants, well-known chains, food trucks and caterers. Among them will be Jeffery Heard Sr., who, with his daughters Tia’Nesha Heard-Dorset and Angel Aaliyah Heard and son Jeffery Heard Jr., operate Heard Dat Kitchen in the Crescent City. They don’t feel daunted by the task of serving hordes of hungry festival-goers. They do that all day every day by preparing platters of from-scratch food in a small galley kitchen and passing them through a window to a line of regulars.

Get the recipe: Sweet and Sour Fried Chicken Tenders

The restaurant, which closed its small indoor space during the pandemic, will dish out its “Bourbon Street Love,” fried boneless thighs served over macaroni and cheese and topped with a crawfish “crawdat” cream sauce, as well as “skeesh” strips, fried chicken strips tossed with housemade sweet and spicy sauce. The family is used to working quickly and efficiently. When I visited them in 2017, I noticed two clocks in the kitchen were set 15 minutes apart. When I asked why, they said: One tells the time, and the other immediately tells the cook when that order should be out the door.

Timing and precision are key, the elder Heard is fond of saying. Chicken cannot be overfried or it will be too dry — even a minute or two can make a difference. Any sauce is added just before serving so the chicken stays crisp. Heard is also fond of saying that you eat with your eyes, so he takes care to plate food properly, even if it is going into a takeaway container.

Heard, who has more than 35 years in the hospitality industry, is just the kind of vendor Tina Dixon-Williams was seeking as she coordinated the food and beverage program for the festival.

“They need to be able to produce at the rate they need to to serve that crowd,” Dixon-Williams said, noting that vendors include locals as well as restaurants from other states, including Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Oregon and Tennessee. “It is not an easy feat, and it’s not something you can learn to do as you go.”

The festival, which last year reported an attendance of more than 107,000 people, features such varied creations as whole fried Cornish hens (I have to try that), tacos, stuffed wings, skewers and Korean chicken fried corn dogs, as well as options for vegans (fried cauliflower and fried mushrooms, anyone?) and even gluten-free battered birds. Restaurants compete for titles, such as best fried chicken and best use of chicken in a dish. Live music, an artisan marketplace and cooking demonstrations are part of the fun, too.

The festival provides booths, tables and point-of-sale equipment, but the vendors bring everything else. Each has at least two people dedicated to frying all day. They bring their own spices, frying equipment, oils and specific chicken orders.

Dixon-Williams, who joined the festival in 2022, said she has learned more about the various kinds of chicken and frying oil than she ever thought possible.

“Did you know there are seven different types of wings? Who knew that there were that many?” she said, laughing, and added that the vendors are “literally frying chicken from 10 a.m. until the festival closes at 9 p.m. By the time they drop the first batch, which is the trial batch, they’re ready for the gates to open. People are busting to get in.”

Dixon-Williams puts herself on a fried-food-free diet in the days leading up to the festival so she can sample as many of the “trial-batch” chicken dishes as she can before the gates open. That effort is part quality check and, she admits, because it’s all so delicious. All this talk about fried chicken made me want some, of course.

For the home cook, Heard Dat’s fried chicken tenders with “skeesh” sauce are quite doable — even on a weeknight.

The sauce ingredients — tomato, onion, sugar, water, vinegar — are placed in a pot and cooked until they thicken into a pepper-jelly-like consistency. Then you add a healthy dose of Buffalo sauce and, if you want to kick up the heat, crushed red chili flakes. While the sauce boils, the chicken tenders can be battered and readied for frying. They fry quickly in 1 cup of hot oil in a skillet, so the cleanup is considerably faster and less messy than deep-frying whole pieces. Use a splatter guard if you’ve got one.

Toss the tenders with the sauce, spoon it over or use it as a dip. Just remember to add it just before serving so the chicken stays crisp. Dig in.

Get the recipe: Sweet and Sour Fried Chicken Tenders

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