I love chicken wings.
Back in the day when calories and health consciousness didn’t count in my little bubble in Champaign, IL, we ate wings like it was our job. A little joint called White Horse Inn served 10 cent wings with $5 pitchers of beer on Sundays. So for a mere $17 (tip your waiters, people) four college students could occupy themselves for an hour for the low low price of $4.25 each. $5.75 if we drank two pitchers.
Those were the days when math was important, and the quarters in our couch cushions actually meant something.
White Horse made wings simply – just fried them up and tossed them in Franks hot sauce – but their schtick was the bed on which the wings were placed. They lined the plastic serving baskets with seasoned, cooked potato wedges to soak up the sauce. This was also back when potatoes counted as a healthy vegetable and starch all in one for highly effective nutrition. Win, win, win.
My senior year I received a beautiful invitation in calligraphy inviting my family to the Chancellor’s estate for tea in the afternoon after graduation. My mom was thrilled. “The chancellor’s home? What an honor! What will I wear? I can’t wait!” But come time for the event, all I could think about was ditching my cap, gown, dress, and heels, throwing on some shorts and a tank, and heading out to spend one final romp with my friends. “Mom – change in plans. We’re going to White Horse for wings and beer.”
“Aw. Are you sure? You’ll never get this opportunity again.”
“I’m sure, Mom. We won’t know a soul at the Chancellor’s house. I don’t even know his name! It’s going to be stuffy and uncomfortable. I’d rather be with my friends eating one last batch of hot wings and drinking one last vat of bad beer.”
My bestie and her brother joined us. So did Mr. Musky, and a giant handful of good friends. Hands down, that night at that bar is one of my best memories of University of Illinois. We ordered 200 wings. Dad said, “No way. They’ll never finish them.” Later, with his mouth agape, he watched Bubba eat the final wing. We all had a blast, rocked out to Pearl Jam, and I can say with 100% confidence it beat tea and crumpets any day of the week.
Anytime we eat wings, I think of graduation and the White Horse. Sadly, it fell into disrepair and closed, and in all honesty it was probably on its way out while we were still in town. After that, Hooters was the only viable option, and we ate those wings for years. But now? Even say the word and my gastrointestinal tract starts a vicious revolt, to the point where I’ve officially sworn them off forever. Know why? They use margarine in the sauce. MARGARINE! Ugh. That crap is just not suitable for human consumption. Nor is the peanut oil they fry them in, not to mention the 1250 calories in just 10 wings, along with 74 grams of fat. Don’t believe me? I’m not alone. Neither Mr. Musky nor Jake can tolerate them, nor can the scads of people online who complain about horrible experiences after eating them. Buffalo Wild Wings are just ok, and Jake would argue that a little joint in Evanston called Buffalo Joe’s is the best place to address a serious wing craving.
But nowadays I prefer things to be slightly healthier when possible. I get it – chicken wings aren’t the stuff skinny waistlines and healthy bodies are made of, but when a gal’s got a craving, sometimes it just must be met. That’s why a few years ago we set out to make wings healthier, if at all possible. We start with a dry rub and some serious smoke.
Mr. Musky uses the Big Green Egg or the Traeger (when at the cabin) to smoke the wings for two hours.
He uses hardwood charcoal, and pecan chips for a subtle flavor that doesn’t overpower the chicken. He sets the smoker to 250 degrees so they cook low and slow. Halfway in, he opens the lid to give them a little toss and to make sure things are progressing nicely.
After two hours, he brings them in and we address the sauce situation.
If you’ve been a regular reader on Apéritif Friday, you know that I’m not big on added sugar in anything. But I also realize that sweetness is key to many dishes, wing sauce included. So I set out to make a sauce that included natural sweetness. Dalfour jam fit the bill and worked perfectly in this. I opted for the strawberry variety to complement dried cranberries, but you could also use apricot jelly and dried apricots as a variation (I’d also sub the balsamic for champagne vinegar in that case). Play around with the sauce flavors! Once cooled, toss the wings and sauce together in a plastic zippered bag to coat as you preheat the broiler for the final step.
We still tossed a few in Frank’s hot sauce (1/4 cup hot sauce to 2 T melted butter) just because I love the traditional variety. However, I recommend using a separate tray for your differently flavored wings. They broil at different rates, and you don’t want to crowd the wings too much so they can get nice and crispy. Ours were a bit too crowded, and the Franks wings didn’t get as crunchy on the exterior as we would have liked.
Watch them closely! After several hours of effort (read: sitting on the patio in the sun while the smoker did all the work) you don’t want to scorch the end result. Mr. M takes the watching off the wings very seriously.
We cooked about 3.5 pounds of wings for 3 people and ate every last one of them.
Always count on more wings than you’ll need, because I’ve also never seen leftover wings wind up in the garbage. They’re great for a late night snack!
If you’re going for the gusto, skip the broiling of the wings and drop them in a fryer for 5-7 minutes, then toss them with the sauce. But honestly, the broiling helps crisp them up, is far easier for cleanup, and is undoubtedly better for your health.
Up North we make these a couple of times each summer. Camp counsellors and old White Horse aficionados both agree that they’re outstanding, particularly if you have a favorite teriyaki sauce. I personally love the traditional hot sauce combo. And now I like the Balsamic Cranberry Sauce. Barbecue sauce is good too. So are naked wings! The possibilities are endless, and the hardest job is figuring out how to narrow things down.
Dare I say…these would be a great option for a certain upcoming race held in Indianapolis. Give them a whirl, and put my Asparagus Salad alongside them.
- 3-4 lbs chicken wings
- Your favorite chicken dry rub (we used Stubbs)
- 1 T Balsamic Vinegar
- 3 T Tamari Sauce or Soy Sauce
- ⅓ cup Strawberry Jam (Dalfour preferred)
- ⅓ cup water
- 2 T chopped dried cranberries
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 2 T butter
- If you prefer traditional wing sauce, use ½ cup Franks Red Hot sauce to ¼ cup melted butter.
- Liberally sprinkle the dry rub on both sides of your chicken. Return to the refrigerator while the grill gets hot.
- Set up your smoker and add a small smattering of pecan wood chips, setting the temperature to 250 degrees. Alternatively, you can set up a charcoal grill with indirect, low heat.
- Place the wings in an aluminum pan in the smoker for two hours. After an hour, give them a toss.
- Meanwhile, prepare the sauce. In a medium pan over medium heat combine the vinegar, Tamari or Soy sauce, jam, water, cranberries and rosemary. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for 5-7 minutes, or until the mixture thickens to the consistency of a glaze.
- Add the butter and stir to melt. Cool the sauce.
- Preheat the broiler in your oven.
- Place the cooled wings in a large zippered plastic bag. Add the sauce and shake to coat the wings. Place them on an aluminum lined sheet tray, then put them 6 inches under the broiler for approximately 5 minutes per side. Watch them closely so they don't burn. You want a slightly crunchy, browned exterior.
- Remove and enjoy! If you prefer traditional wings, follow the same steps but use Franks/Butter sauce instead of the Balsamic Cranberry Sauce.