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Fried chicken: It's not just a Southern passion

If you think fried chicken is purely Southern, think again.

The crispy goodness of this great finger food extends well beyond any single region. As much as people in the South would love to claim ownership, this down-home guilty pleasure belongs to the planet.

Take a glance at the drool-worthy recipes inside the new fried chicken cookbook “Fried & True: 50 Recipes for America’s Best Fried Chicken and Sides” (Clarkson Potter, $22.50). You’ll find plenty of variations on the crispy bird theme.

Sure, you’ll find Southern fried chicken, buttermilk fried chicken and Louisiana battered fried chicken. But those and other classic renditions share space with Vietnamese-inspired fried chicken, Cuban-style chicharrones de pollo, Argentinian Milanesa de Pollo a la Napolitana, Korean-style crispy chicken wings, Senegalese fried chicken and even an Israeli take on chicken schnitzel.

It’s all fried and true, says the book’s co-author, Lee Brian Schrager, a guy who knows his fried chicken. Sure, he’s a trained chef, a gourmet and the founder of the South Beach and New York Wine & Food festivals. He can feast on faddish molecular dishes, the alien spheres and foams with the rest of the fancy-food cognoscenti. But he’s as fried chicken-obsessed as they come.

That obsession sparked the sequence of events that led to the book project. It began innocently, when Schrager ducked behind a curtain during one of his sold-out South Beach festival events last year to scarf down some fried chicken.

But Schrager got busted by a visiting food celebrity.

“Trisha Yearwood comes over and catches me in the act,” Schrager says. Next thing he knows, his publisher walks up and joins the fried chicken conversation.

“She jokingly says, ‘You should do a fried chicken book.’ ”

Several days later, the publisher called to say, “You should really do this book.” Schrager’s cookbook, co-authored by food writer and recipe developer Adeena Sussman, hit bookstores in May.

There’s no doubt Schrager was the guy for the job. In his younger years, he was asked to leave a Howard Johnson’s restaurant because he and his friends had surpassed the per-person limit at the all-you-can-eat fried chicken buffet.

“Imagine the humiliation of being thrown out of a HoJo’s,” says Schrager, who insists the fried chicken was to blame.

If researching this book taught Schrager anything, it’s that the fried chicken universe is even larger than he had imagined.

“Everyone assumes fried chicken comes from the South. But it came over from Scotland in the 1700s,” he says. “And almost every country has a fried chicken recipe.”

In researching and recipe-tasting, he discovered fried chicken can be as simple as it is complex.

“For such a simple thing to make, fried chicken can taste differently, depending on the preparation. You can use the same recipe and fry it in different formats – the fat changes the taste,” says Schrager, who is partial to a Crisco-fried bird. (“It lasts longer,” he says. “You can fry more.”)

But the fat that gives fried chicken its flavor can also be the biggest obstacle to its success as a dish.

“The biggest mistake is not heating the fat to the right temperature. The right temperature is key. I heat my oil to 370 or 380 degrees,” says Schrager, who advises home cooks to make sure the oil remains hot as they add more chicken to the pan.

He also noted that many chefs, particularly those he met in New Orleans, used well-chilled chicken for coating and frying – it is said to help the coating or batter stick to the chicken skin.

“The secret is cold chicken,” he says.

What makes good fried chicken utterly exquisite?

“To me, I love a crispy crust,” he says.“I love it when the skin is crunchy and the inside is moist and juicy.”

That sound you hear is the planet applauding in agreement.

Liz Balmaseda writes for The Palm Beach Post. E-mail: