I’m writing a cookbook called Twin Cities Chef’s Table, to be published by Globe Pequot in spring 2014. The book is a snapshot of the Twin Cities food scene, incorporating recipes and full-color photographs from chefs, growers, and purveyors. Twin Cities Chef’s Table will be part of a series of of beautiful Chef’s Table books that have highlighted various regions and cities around the country. Back when I was considering the proposal, the publisher sent me Cape Cod Chef’s Table, by John Carafoli and Francine Zaslow, which for me sealed the deal. The book is a food fairy’s tale of Cape Cod and its magical bounty of farms, fish, and markets. Smart chefs add just a bit of sparkle to perfect ingredients.
It was actually a non-fish recipe that stole my heart, likely because the dish would happily shine here in the Twin Cities. Folks in every region spread checkered tablecloths on picnic tables and set out platters of fried chicken, watermelon, sweet corn, and garden-ripe tomatoes. What I loved about this dish is how fresh and pretty the components are together, snuggled right into the same dish, pulled together with fresh mint, jalapeno, lime, and honey. Cool and sweet meets hot and salty, always a winning combination.
As an unplanned aside, I happened to possess a bottle of Lucia’s (yes, that Lucia!) maple-mustard vinaigrette, one of a line of best-quality products Lucia has developed with Lakewinds Natural Foods Co-op. While the recipe’s honey/lime dressing is a perfect finish for the salad, I couldn’t resist eating the fried chicken with Lucia’s dressing. The hint of mustard, smooth and just a bit sweet, yet tangy enough to be addictive, is nice here…and everywhere.
Fried Chicken with Watermelon, Tomato & Corn Salad
Adapted from a recipe by Chef Marc Swierkowski
Cape Cod Chef’s Table by John Carafoli
Note: I used my dad’s buttermilk brine–because it’s my favorite–with boneless chicken breasts for ease of frying. Certainly use your favorite chicken pieces, bone-in or boneless, all of them work beautifully here (bearing in mind that bone-in chicken pieces take longer to fry). For the best results, I suggest buying best-quality, free-range chicken, like Kadejan or Callister, available locally at farmers markets, co-ops, and butcher shops.
For the chicken:
2 c. buttermilk
3 Tbsp. Kosher salt, divided
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 bay leaf
several dashes hot sauce
2 cloves garlic, smashed
2 lbs. boneless chicken breasts, cut into 2-inch wide strips
2 c. all-purpose flour (I used King Arthur gluten-free)
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 Tbsp. smoked paprika (optional)
oil for frying (peanut, sunflower, or safflower)
For the salad:
1/4 seedless watermelon, rind removed, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 1/2 c. sweet corn kernels from 3 ears sweet corn
1 pint garden-ripe cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 red onion, diced small
1 jalapeno, seeded and diced small
1/4 c. thinly sliced mint leaves
2 limes, zested and juiced
1/4 c. honey
1/4 c. olive oil
In a large Ziploc bag set in a bowl (for support), combine buttermilk, two tablespoons of the salt, sugar, bay leaf, hot sauce, garlic, and chicken breasts. Seal the bag and refrigerate for at least two hours and up to four hours.
While the chicken chills in the brine, assemble the salad. In a medium bowl, stir together the watermelon, corn, tomatoes, onion, jalapeno, and mint. In a small bowl, whisk together the lime zest, lime juice, honey, and olive oil. Pour half of the dressing over salad (reserving the rest for serving); toss to coat, cover, and chill until ready to serve.
When ready to fry the chicken, set a large, cast iron skillet over medium-high heat and add the oil to the pan.
Set out a few baking racks to hold the chicken as you coat it. Set out a baking sheet lined with paper towels to drain the fried chicken.
In a shallow bowl, combine flour, remaining 1 tablespoon of salt, cayenne pepper, and smoked paprika. Working with one piece of chicken at a time, remove chicken from brine (shaking off excess buttermilk) and roll chicken in the seasoned flour. Set coated chicken on baking rack. Continue to coat the rest of the chicken.
When the oil is hot, fry chicken pieces, a few at a time so the pan isn’t crowded, until chicken is golden brown on all sides and is just cooked through, about 10 minutes per piece. If the chicken is browning too quickly, turn heat to medium. Transfer chicken to paper towels until all the pieces are fried.
To serve: add a pinch of salt to the salad and stir. Divide among four shallow bowls, top with warm fried chicken, drizzle salad with remaining dressing, and serve immediately.