We catch Kia Damon before she's about to unwind. Not long after she visits the MUNCHIES Test Kitchen to cook and pick veggies on our rooftop garden, the chef is headed off to Miami for a much-deserved vacation. In our kitchen, Damon's relaxation gets a head start as she makes one of her favorite childhood comfort foods: smothered chicken with a side of warm white rice.
The Tallahassee transplant has earned plenty of acclaim as one of New York's up and coming chefs through her recent position at the Chinatown restaurant Lalito. Fresh out of that gig, Damon is taking her time. "Everyone's like, 'Kia, what's next?' I'm like, napping, cooking at home again, scrambling eggs," she says. Right now, inspiration is coming from new places. "Doing stuff like this where I'm cooking stuff I enjoy is really helpful."
Recipe: Smothered Chicken Recipe
Smothered chicken, a dish Damon's grandma and mom used to make "all the time," is the epitome of that. "It's something that brings me a lot of joy. It's the ultimate comfort food," she says. The technique of smothering involves toasting butter and flour into a roux, adding aromatics, and thickening it into a flavorful sauce. "Smothering is a big technique in Southern food. Also with me being Creole on my dad's side, there's smothered okra, there's étouffée," says Damon, who was born and raised in Florida.
In true Southern fashion, the first step is cooking down bacon, both for the crispy bits and for its rich, smoky fat. Once the bacon is crisp, Damon scoops it out and softens celery, onions, and leeks, fresh from the garden. When the aromatics are translucent, they come out, and in go chicken thighs dredged in flour seasoned with smoked paprika, garlic powder, and onion powder. "You're gonna season the flour because this is essentially what's gonna cover the chicken," Damon says. "The version my mom and grandma made would probably not have this much paprika." Otherwise, it's pretty similar.
She cooks the chicken thighs until crisp on the outside (don't worry about the inside—it'll all finish up in the oven), then lets them rest on a plate. In the same pan, Damon cooks down butter and flour. It's basically a roux, she explains, but "in Southern cooking you wouldn't call it a roux; you would just call it gravy." Adding milk would be the typical next step here (add cheese and you've got a sauce for macaroni, she mentions), but Damon opts for chicken stock instead and stirs until the sauce thickens. She tastes and seasons frequently. To Damon, that's what makes simple Southern dishes so special. "The thing about Southern cooking and Creole cooking is layers. It's all so simple, but it's the building of flavors," she says.
After putting the browned chicken thighs back into the pan, she spoons a generous amount of sauce on top and puts the whole thing in the oven—a true one-pan wonder. To serve, fill a bowl with white rice, top with chicken, and "smother it" with sauce, Damon suggests. Or, she says, thinking on it a bit, follow the same steps but with boneless chicken and then put it all between a biscuit, drizzled with sauce.
"This is a true Southern delicacy," Damon says, digging into a bowl. "I love being from the South."