Serves 8 to 10
For the popcorn Chicken:
- 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2 pounds/900 g total)
- 1 quart (960 ml) buttermilk
- 8 teaspoons fine sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 quart (960 ml) vegetable oil, for frying
- 4 cups (500 g) all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons smoked paprika (sweet or hot)
- 4 teaspoons baking powder
For the cornbread:
Makes one (12-inch/30 cm) skillet
- ½ cup (1 stick/115 g) unsalted butter
- 2 cups (250 g) all-purpose flour
- 2 cups (300 g) medium-grind cornmeal
- ¼ cup (50 g) sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 2 large eggs
- 2½ cups (600 ml) buttermilk
- 3 tablespoons honey
For the homemade ranch:
- 1 garlic clove
- Fine sea salt
- 1 cup (285 g) Greek yogurt
- ¼ cup (5 g) fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
- 3 tablespoons fresh dill, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons chopped chives
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika (sweet or hot)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- ½ small head of green cabbage
- ½ lemon
- Chile-infused hot honey or regular honey
- 2 large carrots (about 300 g), cut lengthwise into quarters and then crosswise into 3-inch (7.5 cm) sticks
- 4 large celery stalks, cut lengthwise and then crosswise into 3-inch (7.5 cm) sticks
- Start the popcorn chicken: Cut the chicken into bite-size pieces, about 1-inch (2.5 cm) cubes, and place them in a large bowl. Add the buttermilk, 4 teaspoons of the salt, and several grinds of pepper. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.
- Bake the cornbread: Heat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
- In a 12-inch (30 cm) oven-safe skillet, cook the butter over medium heat until it turns a deep grizzly-bear brown and smells nutty, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and set aside.
- In a very large bowl, stir together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In another large bowl, whisk the eggs until frothy, then whisk the buttermilk and honey into the eggs. Pour the buttermilk mixture into the cornmeal mixture and stir gently until only a few lumps remain. Mix in the browned butter from the skillet, then pour the batter into the (already buttered!) skillet. Bake until the cornbread is evenly browned and set, 20 to 30 minutes. Let cool in the skillet.
- Make the ranch: Using a mortar and pestle or the side of a large knife, crush the garlic and a pinch of salt into a paste. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the yogurt, parsley, dill, chives, lemon juice, paprika, several grinds of pepper, and ½ teaspoon of salt. Mix well. Taste and add more salt if needed. Ranch can be made ahead and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
- Finish the popcorn chicken: When you’re ready to fry the chicken, line a baking sheet with paper towels or place a wire rack over a baking sheet and set aside.
- In a heavy-bottomed pot, pour the vegetable oil (or at least enough to fill the pot with 3 inches/7.5 cm of oil) and heat to 350°F (180°C). Use a probe-style instant-read thermometer to test the heat. If you don’t have a thermometer, stick the handle of a wooden spoon into the oil; if bubbles form around the wood and float to the surface, the oil is ready. The oil usually takes about 10 minutes to heat.
- While the oil heats up, combine the flour, paprika, baking powder, the remaining 4 teaspoons of salt, and several grinds of pepper in a medium bowl. Working in 2 or 3 batches, lift the chicken pieces out of the buttermilk and toss them in the seasoned flour. Make sure the flour coating really sticks to the meat and forms a thick crust. You can use your hands or tongs to toss the chicken in the seasoned flour. Either tool will end up coated as well, but it’s worth it to make sure the chicken pieces have a nice, thick crust.
- Use a slotted spoon to carefully lower the coated chicken pieces into the hot oil, adding only as many as you can fit without crowding the pan. Fry until golden brown and cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes. To test if the chicken is done, cut a piece in half to see if it’s opaque white all the way through. Use tongs to transfer the fried chicken to the prepared baking sheet to drain. Repeat this process to cook the remaining chicken.
- Prepare the other components: Slice the cabbage into ½-inch (1 cm) ribbons and toss them in a bowl with a big squeeze of lemon juice and 2 pinches of salt.
- Assemble: Transfer the popcorn chicken to a large serving platter. Cut the cornbread into two-bite squares and pile them next to the chicken. Serve the hot honey in a small bowl with a little spoon. Arrange the cabbage on the side with toothpicks so that when you are craving something cold and bright between bites of fried chicken, you can use a toothpick to spear a lemony cabbage ribbon. Spoon the ranch into its own small bowl and place the carrots and celery nearby for dipping.
How To Make Ahead
Popcorn chicken can be kept warm in a single layer on a baking sheet (no paper towels!) in a 200°F (90°C) oven for up to 1 hour. It can also be fried ahead, stored in the refrigerator for a day or two, and reheated in a single layer on a baking sheet in a 350°F (180°C) oven until warmed through and crisp on the outside, about 10 minutes.
Excerpted from Boards, Platters, Plates by Maria Zizka (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2021. Available in NZ for $49.99 RRP (hardback), and in Australia for $26.99 RRP. Photographs by Erin Scott, distributed by www.bookreps.co.nz