Growing up, I celebrated birthdays with Power Rangers-themed slumber parties or outings to Chuck E. Cheese’s. In my early 20s, I often spent them at a slightly too-expensive restaurant and then went and drank slightly too much at a bar or club I probably wouldn’t darken the door of anymore. But as I began to accept the mixed bag of realities that constitutes adulthood, I realized that when it comes to birthday parties, I could do what I please.
And what pleases me — on any given Tuesday, not just once a year — is fried chicken. I realized that one day a year I could let loose and try to get as close to all the fried chicken (not just one regional or cultural style) as possible. And that is how Jenn’s Fried Chicken party, known in my inner circle as JFC — started.
The idea is simple: Collect as much fried chicken from as many restaurants as possible under one roof, then spend the night devouring it. Instead of presents, I ask for chicken: Everyone who attends the party is responsible for bringing some from somewhere.
I supply the obligatory rest: homemade biscuits, mac ’n’ cheese, a green salad as a reprieve to all the fat, whatever pie I’m currently obsessed with, and booze (normally copious amounts of bubbly, some rosé and a new cocktail every year).
In the three years I’ve thrown the party, it’s taken on a life of its own. Competitive friends try to one-up each other with their fried chicken (extra points to anyone who waits in line at Howlin’ Ray’s), there are fried chicken pool floaties, and the party has its own hashtag (#JFC).
What follows is a guide to throwing your own fried chicken party. Maybe it’s for your birthday, or maybe you just want to do it some weekend night, because who in these times couldn’t use the artery-hardening comfort of a survey of fried chicken, all washed down with scrubbing alcoholic bubbles, in the company of friends.
MAC ’N’ CHEESE
About 1 hour. Serves 10.
1 pound elbow macaroni or cavatappi pasta
1 quart milk
1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons (1 stick plus 3 tablespoons) butter, divided
1/2 cup flour
4 cups grated (about 1 pound) Gruyère cheese
2 cups (about 11/4 pounds) grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese, divided
2 cups (about 1/2 pound) grated smoked Gouda cheese, divided
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs
3/4 cup drained and chopped pickled jalapeño chiles
1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook according to the directions on the package. Drain.
2. Place the milk in a small saucepan and heat over medium heat to warm; be careful to watch that the milk does not come to a boil.
3. In a large pot, melt 6 tablespoons butter over low heat, then whisk in the flour. Cook over low heat until the mixture comes together to form a roux, about two minutes. Whisk in the hot milk and cook, stirring, until the mixture thickens, about two minutes. Stir in the Gruyère, 1 1/2 cups cheddar and 1 cup of the Gouda cheese. Remove the pot from heat and stir in the nutmeg, black pepper and salt to taste. Add the macaroni and stir. Pour the mixture into a 9- by 13-inch baking dish.
4. Melt the remaining 5 tablespoons of butter. In a bowl, stir together the butter, bread crumbs, remaining cheddar and Gouda. Sprinkle the mixture over the top of the baking dish. About 5 minutes before the dish is finished, sprinkle over the chopped jalapeños.
5. Bake until the top is golden brown and the macaroni and cheese is bubbly, about 35 minutes. Remove and cool slightly before serving.
Note: Adapted from a recipe from Ina Garten.
SHAVED APPLE SALAD
Time: 15 minutes. Serves 10.
2 small or 1 large shallot
1 clove garlic
3 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup oil
In a blender, combine the shallot, garlic, vinegars, honey, mustard and lemon juice. Pulse until blended. With the blender running, slowly drizzle in the oil to emulsify and form the dressing. This will make about 1 1/4 cups dressing, which will keep, covered and refrigerated, up to 1 week.
SHAVED APPLE SALAD
10 cups (about 1 pound) mixed greens
1 golden delicious or similar sweet apple, shaved or thinly sliced
1/2 of a small red onion, thinly sliced
1 Persian cucumber, shaved or thinly sliced
1 cup toasted pecan or walnut halves
1 cup shaved or shredded aged Gouda or provolone
In a large bowl, top the greens with the apple, onion, cucumber, pecans and cheese. Toss with the dressing right before serving or serve with the dressing on the side.
Note: From Jenn Harris
3 minutes. Makes 1 cocktail.
5 dark seedless grapes, plus extra frozen grapes for garnish, divided
Leaves from 1 sprig thyme, plus 1 thyme sprig for garnish, divided
1/2 ounce lemon juice
2 ounces gin
1/2 ounce simple syrup
In the bottom of a cocktail shaker, muddle together the 5 grapes and thyme leaves until the grapes are crushed and have released their juices. Add the lemon juice, gin and simple syrup, along with ice. Close the shaker and shake until the liquid is well chilled. Strain into a short glass filled with ice. Garnish with a sprig of thyme and/or frozen grapes.
Note: From Jenn Harris
Since your friends are taking care of the chicken, concentrate on the sides and the alcohol.
I use Govind Armstrong’s recipe for buttermilk biscuits (available at recipes.latimes.com). They’re flaky and flavorful, and you can bake them a few hours ahead of time. Serve them alongside a selection of jams, preserves, butter and honey for a build-your-own-biscuit bar.
For the mac ’n’ cheese, I make Ina Garten’s basic recipe super extra by upping the amount of cheese and adding smoked Gouda and pickled jalapeños to the topping.
I grew up eating a green salad with every meal, so it seemed only fitting to serve one at the party. I used shaved apple, red onion, cucumber and toasted pecans for crunch, and I added shavings of good, aged Gouda for a little extra nuttiness. A simple vinaigrette will suffice. I added pureed shallot and garlic to mine, along with a dollop of honey.
Choose one pie to finish the meal. This year, I went with the Key lime from Winston Pies in Brentwood. It’s tart and refreshing, and it doesn’t feel too heavy after a plate of fried chicken.
Follow your bliss: The party is not about being cool, it’s about scratching a deep, deep itch. “Gypsy” by Fleetwood Mac is one of my favorite songs of all time and, because playing it on repeat would drive everyone (except me) nuts, I have a streaming service conjure a playlist based on this one song. Find the song that is shamelessly or shamefully you and let the computer do the rest.
Set the table for dinner, but set up the food buffet-style. Depending on how large your party is, you can rent tables, chairs, glasses, dishes and cutlery from multiple shops around town. If you’re thinking flowers (one must have flowers at an adult dinner party), go with a short but full arrangement on the dinner tables and smaller arrangements to fill out the buffet table.
IN YOUR GLASS
Eric Onley at Everson Royce Wine & Spirits in Pasadena, Calif., suggests many bottles of La Ghibellina 2013 Metodo Classico Italian sparkling wine. “I absolutely love this with fried chicken,” he says. “It’s less bready, with more tree fruit than a Champagne, and it cuts through the fattiness and saltiness and leaves you with a delicate balance. It’s like refreshing your palate between every bite.” Non-Champagne sparklers are also cheaper than their fancy French cousins.
I put my fried chicken on cake tiers to save space on the table. Some guests will invariably arrive late (you know who you are). Don’t worry about the fried chicken getting cold. If it’s good chicken, it will be good cold.
Some very wise friends set up busing stations for plate soaking after dinner parties. Hide bins full of soapy water in a corner to catch all the dirty plates. When you wake up the next morning, half the work has been done for you. And even if you forget to brush your teeth before bed, get that garbage bag full of chicken bones out of the house after the guests are gone.
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