When Mitzi Perdue approached the New York publishing house about writing a chicken cookbook, the first reaction was downright scepticism.
"Who would believe that Frank Perdue's wife can cook?" the editor asked. Sure, he scoffed, people will think here's another blonde wife of a high-powered tycoon with a staff of thousands to make her look good.
But Mitzi Perdue is no trophy wife. It doesn't take too long after meeting her to realize that this dynamic woman has the right stuff to be anything she wants to be from a cookbook author to a TV talk show host.
The jacket of "The Perdue Chicken Cookbook," (Pocket Books, $18.95), which pictures this tall, lithe woman with her famous husband, makes her seem like a cross between the perfect farmer's wife and a Junior Leaguer. Wearing a feminine white apron and a broad beauty queen's grin, she looks much younger than her 50 years and seems a compatible match for the credentials on the book flap -- author of five other cookbooks, immediate past president of the 35,000-member American Agri-Women, and former star of "Mitzi's Country Magazine," a Sacramento, Calif., television talk show.
What the book jacket doesn't say is even more revealing. She has an undergraduate degree in government and international law from Harvard Uni- versity and a masters of public administration from George Washington University. A Bostonian and the daughter of the late founder of the Sheraton Hotel chain, she decided to use her inheritance to invest in a California rice farm instead of a stock portfolio. And she recently passed a competency exam on food chemistry and safety that made her her a Certified Culinary Professional.
Obviously, this is one smart chick. And she sure knows her field.
No, she didn't develop the more than 300 recipes in the cookbook. She did what she does best -- she manages, analyzes and compiles data. In this book, she used the same winning formula that she used in her other books.
"The niche that I have developed is going to experts for advice on the particular food," she says, during an interview at the Perdue house. The house, with a grapevine wreath on the door and a unicorn on the porch, looks like an unpretentious ranch home from the front. But the back of the house is typically Eastern Shore -- with a knock-your-socks-off view of Tony Tank Creek, sweeping lawn and tennis courts. She, too, is low key. No huge diamond rings dazzle on her fingers during the afternoon. No fancy car is in her driveway. Her choice is one of those generic-looking gray Buick sedans that could be anything -- Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile.
"If I want a rice recipe I go to a rice grower," she adds. "If I want to know what to do with a tomato, I go to a tomato grower. They know best how to select their crop and what to do with it."
This time she went to the staff at Perdue to find the best chicken recipes and the questions customers most commonly have about chicken -- from freezing and storing to getting the best flavor. She now feels as at home with chicken as she did with the rice she used to produce, but it wasn't always that way.
The first time she began to make a chicken dinner for her new husband, she panicked. After all, this is the man who emphasizes in his TV commercials that it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken. And she feared if the chicken wasn't tender, he would get tough.
Frank would be coming home around 6 p.m. and she knew he would be hungry. The 30-year-old oven didn't seem to be heating properly and the new bride started chickening out. She took the easy way out and prepared a meal of salad, pasta and store-bought Perdue Tenders, part of the Perdue Done It! line. But she also made herself a promise.
"In return for letting myself off so easily, I'd make it my business from then on to learn how to make the best chicken every time," she says. "That meant asking Frank every question that popped into my head; getting tips from farmers who grew the Perdue chickens and systematically going through thousands of recipes that Frank has in his files, trying a different one each night."
During the nearly three years that she has been Mrs. Frank Perdue (third marriage for him and second for her), she has learned a lot about chicken and chicken cookery. Likewise, she has kept her promise.
When she started researching, she went to the library and began to notice that no cookbook authors seemed to agree on what temperature to cook chicken for how long. Temperatures would range from 350 to 375 degrees and cooking times varied from 20 minutes to an hour. Typically, cookbook authors just test chicken recipes in their ovens and record how long it took to cook. But ovens can vary as much as 50 degrees in calibration, making cooking times like a game of Russian roulette.
So, she headed off to the Perdue tenderness laboratory where an "electronic tooth" can cut into the meat and tell when the chicken is properly cooked. They found it's best to cook chicken with a pop-up timer or by using a thermometer -- bone-in chicken to 180 degrees and boneless chicken to 170 degrees.
"Chicken that is undercooked is tough," she says, "because the proteins haven't relaxed. And when it's overcooked, it will become rubbery because the moisture will steam off. A good way to keep the chicken moist is to cook it with the skin on."
Approximately 40 percent of the fat in chicken is contained in the skin so, if cutting the fat is your goal, remove the skin. However, it can be removed after cooking, because studies have shown that chicken fat does not migrate into the meat during cooking. Mrs. Perdue suggests that, if tenderness is the most important thing to you, leave the skin on.
Along with fat, food-borne illness caused by common bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter, is also a major concern these days.
"Remember that life begins at 40 and ends at 140," she says. "The bacteria that will hurt you grows between 40 and 140 degrees. Most food-borne illness can be prevented if you wash your hands thoroughly, wash your cutting board and keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold."
Besides researching for the book, she also helps Mr. Perdue answer some of the more complicated of the 40,000 letters he receives from customers each year. Sometimes she calls the consumers and other times she does a home test for her husband. One day he came home from work and asked her to make some chicken soup with one of his roasting chickens because he got a letter from a customer who said the bird made bad soup and needed bouillon cubes to pump up the flavor.
She made the soup and found no problems with the flavor. The Perdue conclusion: The woman must have kept the bird frozen for too long a time before making the soup. Freezing is a four-letter word in the Perdue household. She emphasizes that freezing a chicken makes the juices inside the cells turn into little spears and rupture the cell walls. Then, when the chicken defrosts, it loses some of the juice and will be drier and less tender.
Her cookbook includes all these tips for use and more -- from cooking chicken for crowds to cooking chicken in the microwave, from suggestions for holidays to planned-overs. The back of the book also includes detailed charts for instructions on cooking each part of the chicken -- from boneless breasts to wings.
All royalties are being donated to the American Red Cross. She has dedicated the book to the Business and Professional Women's Clubs, the group which helped her transform herself from a woman who was once too shy to talk on the telephone to someone who is at ease with everyone, from assembly line workers to U.S. presidents.
Here are some the recipes from the book:
Maryland breast of chicken
Makes 4 servings.
3/4 cup butter or margarine, divided
1/4 pound fresh crab meat (or frozen, thawed)
1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions
1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs
salt and ground pepper, to taste
1 whole roaster breast, bone in, skin on
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon vinegar
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and toss in a mixing bowl with crab meat, scallions, horseradish, tomato paste, lemon juice, bread crumbs and salt and pepper.
With your forefinger, carefully loosen skin from the neck end of the chicken breast to form a pocket, taking care not to detach sides or bottom. Stuff crab mixture between breast and skin. Rub breast with 1 tablespoon butter; sprinkle with salt and pepper and place in roasting pan. Bake approximately one hour, until skin is brown and meat is tender. Remove to serving platter and keep warm.
Skim off any fat from drippings; add wine and vinegar and bring to a boil. Reduce pan juices to about 1/4 cup and remove from heat. Whisk in remaining butter, strain into sauceboat and serve separately.
This recipe was inspired by Mrs. Perdue's friend Deanna Doyel, Californian who brought the dish to a potluck dinner. To make this work, be sure to keep the pastry sheets from drying out or they will get brittle and impossible to fold. Work with only one sheet at a time and keep the others covered with a sheet of waxed paper, topped with a damp tea towel.
Mitzi Perdue, author of "The Perdue Chicken Cookbook(Pocket Books, $18.95), gives the following help in shopping for chicken:
*Squeeze the package. Look for signs of ice along the wings, backs and edges. Ice may mean the chicken has been "chill-packed," a process that brings the bird close to freezing. Freezing causes a breakdown in protein, loss of natural juices and could reduce tenderness.
*Check the thickness of the meat in proportion to the bone. If the breast looks scrawny, you may be paying a lot for bone rather than meat.
*Don't assume anything. Read the label carefully. Many different parts and combinations are available and may look surprisingly the same to even a trained eye.
*Look for the "pull" date. Most stores are careful about removing chicken from the meat case before expiration, but there can always be one package that is forgotten.
*Does the chicken look well cleaned or are there traces of feathers and hairs?
*Is the chicken stored properly? If it is piled too high so that the top packages aren't kept cold, shelf life will be reduced.
*Check ends of the bones. Generally, the pinker the bone ends, the fresher the chicken.