Turning out a crunchy and delicious fried chicken tender is easier than popular mythology would have you believe. The chicken tender is a small, oblong piece of white meat connected to each breast, which is usually separated during the butchering process– almost like a breast in miniature. These 4-6 inch long, thin, boneless pieces will fry up quickly in the pan, and you’ll get a favorable ratio of crispy batter to meat, if you’re into that sort of thing– and who isn’t?
Here’s what you do: marinate 12 chicken tenders in a mixture of buttermilk and your favorite hot sauce, (I like Frank’s Red Hot for this purpose.) Let the chicken marinate in the fridge overnight if you have a chance.
When it’s time to fry the chicken, whisk together 1 1/2 cups of flour, and 1 teaspoon each freshly ground black pepper, ground paprika, and ground garlic. Whisk the spices into your flour. Then, after letting the excess buttermilk drip off each chicken tender, dredge it in the flour and set aside.
Line a cookie sheet with paper towels and set it near your stove. Select a large frying pan. (Cast iron is a great choice– some people say the only choice— for fried chicken.) Add oil to a quarter inch deep. Heat the oil until it shimmers. Fry your chicken tenders, a few at a time, flipping once after a golden crust has formed on the bottom, and moving them to the paper-towel lined cookie sheet as soon as they’re a deep gold on each side. Salt them immediately, while they’re still very hot, and then fry up the next batch. Don’t stack them– they’ll get soggy. (A note about frying– don’t overcrowd your pan. Too much food added to the pan at once will drop the temperature of the oil and affect your ability to achieve a quick and crispy crust. Overcrowded food may also steam, further thwarting your attempts at crispiness.)
Obviously fried chicken pairs deliciously with all sorts of things, but it’s Spring, and there are some lovely carrots and radishes at the Farmer’s Market, so what do you say we roast and glaze them, and serve the whole lot over polenta?
Let’s turn back time a bit and get your vegetables roasted before you fry the chicken. Gather 6 large, 10 medium, or a couple dozen small carrots, and a couple of hearty bunches of good-sized radishes. Go outside the radish box and choose a different type than usual. In Spring, Farmer’s Markets are full of French Breakfast radishes, for instance (as shown in the photo at the top of this post.) Radishes mellow considerably and lose their sharpness in the oven.
Always peel your carrots, no matter what you’re planning to do with them, (even if they’re just going into mirepoix for stock.) Carrot peels are bitter. Cut your peeled carrots so the size of each piece roughly matches the size of your radishes. A few diagonal cross-cuts should achieve that, and look attractive to boot.
Toss your carrots and radishes with olive oil and kosher or sea salt and distribute in a roasting pan. If you add flavorful aromatics and peppers to the roasting pan, (with carrots, I particularly like to use whole peeled garlic cloves and stemmed and vertically-halved jalapenos), their flavors will be infused into the olive oil, and that flavored oil will in turn coat the vegetables. Then you can either serve these roasted flavor-enhancers with the vegetables, or pull them out before plating if you’re going for a more subtle effect. (Note: the roasted garlic at minimum is always a huge hit at my table.) Stick the pan in the oven at 350 or so and roast until tender.
While the vegetables are roasting, make your polenta. The ratio for making polenta on the stovetop is 1 part dried ground polenta to 4 parts liquid. For this dish, since I had a cup of buttermilk leftover from earlier, I decided to include it for a little extra tang. So 1 cup polenta to 1 cup buttermilk + 3 cups water + a few shakes of salt, and away we went. I kept it at a simmer, stirring frequently, until the polenta was cooked. Towards the end, I stirred in a quarter stick of butter and about 4 ounces of goat cheese, to further kick up the tangy flavor profile I’d started with the buttermilk. Once that was incorporated, I left it alone on very low heat and just stirred once in a while to keep a skin from forming on the top. (Handy tip- if you’re working with dairy or an acid, don’t use an aluminum pot. The pot will react with your ingredients, and your food will turn an unappetizing gray. Stainless steel is a safer bet.)
Now, to glaze your vegetables. Let’s turn back time to before you fried your chicken, again. You pulled half a stick of butter out of the fridge and let it soften. In that case, making honey butter is this easy: Take your softened butter and whip it together with honey, (say, 1 teaspoon, although you can adjust to your tastes.) Fold in half a teaspoon of your favorite finishing salt, (I like crunchy Maldon), and you have a luxurious glaze at the ready.
To plate: mound a serving of the soft polenta in the middle of the dish. Carefully pile a serving of roasted vegetables atop the polenta. Let a generous spoonful of the honey butter melt over the roasted vegetables; it will create a luscious glaze which drips down to flavor the polenta as well. Place three of the buttermilk fried chicken tenders atop the honey butter-glazed vegetables and goat cheese polenta, and serve.