Chef Marie Nygren, owner of the Inn at Serenbe
Backstory Nygren entered the kitchen almost as soon as she was born. Her mother, Margaret Lupo, became pregnant with her in 1959, three years after Lupo opened her first restaurant, Margaret’s Tray Shop, in downtown Atlanta. “She took me to work with her in a tomato basket and passed me around the other cooks while she worked,” says Nygren. In 1962 Lupo became the proprietress of Mary Mac’s Tea Room, and over the next couple of decades she turned the meat-and-three restaurant into an Atlanta icon, sealing her reputation as the queen of Dixie cuisine in the process. All the while, Nygren worked as a dish dryer, then cashier, then hostess.
Today Nygren owns Serenbe, the 1,000-acre eco-community in south Fulton County built around an organic farm she cofounded with her husband, Steve, in 1991. The couple moved to the farm in 1994, and in 2006 they turned the inn’s kitchen into a restaurant, the Farmhouse, where Nygren presides over Southern classics, including a much-respected skillet-fried buttermilk chicken. At home, Nygren simplifies the recipe by pounding boneless, skinless breasts into scallops—or paillards—before giving them a quick soak in buttermilk, dredging them in cornmeal, and sauteing them quickly in grapeseed oil. She tops the fillets with a seasonal medley that, in the summer, consists of mint, tomatoes, peaches, and Vidalia onions.
Chicken paillards with tomato, peach, Vidalia onion, and mint
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 cup whole-milk buttermilk
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup white cornmeal
Kosher salt and fresh pepper to taste
2 to 4 tablespoons grapeseed oil
Tomato, peach, Vidalia onion, and mint topping (recipe follows)
To marinate the chicken: Using a heavy-bottomed skillet, pound the chicken breasts between sheets of waxed paper or in a zip-top bag until ½ inch thick. Place the chicken in a bowl or another zip-top bag and add buttermilk and 1 teaspoon salt. Marinate for 30 minutes in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, make the topping (see below).
To finish the chicken: Place the cornmeal in an even layer in a baking dish. Dredge the marinated chicken breasts in cornmeal, coating all sides and shaking off excess. Season with salt and pepper. Set a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil and swirl to coat the pan. When a pinch of cornmeal will sizzle in the oil, place the chicken in a single layer in the skillet and fry 3 to 5 minutes per side until golden brown. Do not crowd the pan. Scrape out any cornmeal that sticks to the bottom before adding another batch to avoid burning. Add more oil as needed. Place finished pieces on a plate or in another skillet for serving and top with the tomato mixture. Makes 4 servings.
Tomato, peach, Vidalia onion, and mint topping
2 cups chopped heirloom tomatoes
1 medium peach, peeled and chopped
¼ cup diced Vidalia onion
2 tablespoons finely chopped mint
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice
To assemble: Place tomato, peach, onion, mint, oil, and orange juice in a bowl and toss together. Season to taste with salt. Makes about 3 cups.
This article originally appeared in our July 2014 issue under the headline “Mad Skillets.”