One of my earliest childhood memories is the Kentucky mountainside opposite my great-grandmother’s porch. A steep mosaic of oak and pine, it towered over the one-lane highway hemming its slope, a short walk from Nannie’s front steps. I recall well the intermittent hum of semis at night, the whirring glow of their cab lights like fireflies in our guest bedroom window. In the morning we woke early to the sounds of Nannie working in the kitchen. Smells of frying bacon and chicken roused our noses from sleep, luring our feet, pair by pair, down creaking floorboards.
Nannie worked harder each morning at preparing breakfast than most families do for Thanksgiving. She rose well before daybreak to bake fresh bread, rolls, cornbread; to cut apples, slice bacon, among several other tasks. Most adults enjoyed a mug of fresh coffee at breakfast, but Nannie preferred her buttermilk. She used it as an ingredient for various dishes while simultaneously enjoying a cup herself, much like how modern chefs indulge a glass of wine while cooking.
It was in Kentucky with Nannie, when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, that I had my first glass of buttermilk. I detested it then, and don’t much care for it now, but whenever I use it to soak any cut of fowl prior to frying, I think of Nannie, of that mountainside and that small piece of land adjacent Highway 15 in Happy, Kentucky, where my cousin and I spent a portion of every summer until Nannie passed playing baseball, corralling cats, burning ticks off our dogs’ bellies and stuffing our faces with Nannie’s fried apples, chicken and butter buns.
I am very proud to share this recipe. Though its technique is nothing new or original, the method is rooted in family. I have incorporated a spice mix I developed here in Minnesota, what I call “North Woods Rub,” which pairs incredibly well with fried grouse. While this recipe calls for grouse legs, any upland fowl or commercial poultry would serve as a substitute.
Buttermilk both tenderizes proteins and allows flour dredge to evenly coat the exterior prior to frying. Make sure to save enough buttermilk to pour yourself a glass in memory of Nannie.
Makes 4 servings.
8 grouse legs, approximately 5 ounces each.
2 cups flour
1/3 cup of “North Woods Rub” spice mix below
Gallon of buttermilk
North Woods Spice Rub:
2 Tablespoons chili powder
1 Tablespoon kosher salt
1 Tablespoon granulated garlic
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons jalapeño powder
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon ground mustard
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
To prep grouse legs for frying: If possible, after dressing bird, remove tendons by snapping below spur and removing foot. Below is a video demonstration for pheasant legs:
This recipe works with skin on or off. Rinse legs thoroughly and place in large bowl. Cover with buttermilk so legs are fully submerged. Let them sit overnight.
To fry legs: Mix 2 cups of flour with 1/3 cup of spice mix. Heat an inch of peanut oil (or soy oil, if allergies are a concern) to 350 degrees in a deep sauté pan. Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees. Once oil is hot, take legs two at a time from buttermilk bowl and throw through flour dredge. Dust off excess flour and place in frying pan. Once golden brown color starts to creep up sides, flip legs and remove once all sides are golden brown. Place on a baking tray. Repeat until all legs are fried golden brown and finish in oven for 6 to 8 minutes, until legs are thoroughly cooked and internal temperature reads 165 degrees.
To serve: Set legs on a paper-napkin- or newspaper-covered plate and allow napkins to absorb grease for a minute prior to serving.