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August 29, 1996|JOAN DRAKE

Two of my friends, who live 3,000 miles apart and have never met, use the exact same method to make incredibly delicious fried chicken.

One lives in California but was born and raised in Missouri. The other is a native of Guam and the wife of a retired U.S. Marine. She now calls Maine home, but years ago, while living on a military base, she learned to make fried chicken from another soldier's wife. And guess where her teacher was from?

There are dozens of fried chicken recipes, but the Missouri style these women use is my favorite. Both cook the chicken more by a sixth sense than by a recipe--they know the oil is the right temperature, for instance, when a little flour sprinkled in the pan "spits." They helped me get accurate measurements for the ingredients, however, and they checked the temperature of the oil with a thermometer when their instincts told them the time was right for frying.

I still have to rely on a deep-fat thermometer but can now turn out fried chicken just about as good as theirs.

They also passed along these tips:

* After being dredged in the flour mixture, the chicken needs to sit long enough for the flour particles to expand and the coating to set.

* The chicken must be fried in shortening heated to 375 degrees. The fat needs to be a half inch deep, so depending on the diameter of the pan, you may need more than 3 cups.

* As the chicken is added, the temperature of the fat will drop as much as 25 degrees. Maintaining the temperature at 350 degrees allows the chicken to cook through without over-browning the outside.

* Brown just a few pieces of chicken at a time. Overcrowding the pan causes the temperature of the fat to plummet; too much is absorbed, and the chicken ends up tasting greasy.

* Cook the larger, thicker pieces first. They'll need about 20 minutes to brown. Reduce the cooking time slightly for smaller pieces.

MISSOURI FRIED CHICKEN

2 chicken half-breasts (about 1 1/4 pounds)

2 chicken drumsticks (about 1/2 pound)

2 chicken thighs (about 3/4 pound)

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

3 cups shortening, about

Wash chicken and pat dry with paper towels. If desired, cut each breast half into 2 pieces.

Combine flour, salt, pepper and paprika in plastic bag. Dredge chicken pieces in flour. Set aside, covered with paper towels, at least 20 minutes. Discard remaining flour mixture or use for gravy.

Begin heating shortening in 5-quart Dutch oven. When melted, fat should be 1/2-inch deep. Continue heating to 375 degrees.

Fry 4 to 5 largest chicken pieces, without crowding, until browned on all sides, about 20 minutes. Maintain fat temperature at 350 degrees. Remove cooked chicken and fry remaining pieces, reducing time slightly for smaller pieces.

Return all chicken to pan. Cover and cook over very low heat 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove lid, increase heat and cook chicken until crisp, about 10 minutes. Remove chicken from fat and drain on paper towels.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each of 8 servings contains about:

290 calories; 353 mg sodium; 60 mg cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 6 grams carbohydrates; 17 grams protein; 0.08 gram fiber.

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