One of my favorite all-weather meals is a piece or two of crispy and nicely-seasoned roasted, grilled or fried chicken. Pair it up with a well-appointed salad drizzled with creamy Ranch dressing and I can't resist it. It's gotta be Ranch dressing too -- no substitutions. Save the blue cheese dressing for chicken wings, Buffalo-style chicken 'burgers and all things beef. In my Happy Valley, PA kitchen, "if mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy", and this is my sandwich.
Hidden Valley Ranch dressing has a fascinating history:
A little over 50 years ago no one had ever heard of ranch dressing and now it is America's most popular salad dressing. We do much more than top our salads with it too. It is our dip of choice for vegetables, a marinade for our meat or poultry, and, a flavoring in our favorite brands of corn and potato chips. I buy very little bottled salad dressing in general (although I do keep a bottle of Wish-Bone Light Italian in my refrigerator at all times), but, when my boys were small, I was one of those mom's who kept a stack of Hidden Valley Ranch seasoning packets in my pantry at all times. Why? Like many of you, it was the only way I could get my kids to eat raw vegetables.
A bit about ranch dressing: It is a wholly American invention with a bona fide rags-to-riches story. In 1954, Nebraska-born Steve Henson (once a homeless child of the Great depression, former plumbing contractor and a cook in Alaska) and his wife Gayle, bought the sprawling, picturesque, 120-acre Sweetwater Ranch in Santa Barbarba, CA. They renamed it Hidden Valley, opened a guest-type dude ranch and attempted to live out their life's dream of entertaining and cooking for their paying guests. But, due to the remote location and lack of funds for advertising, Henson found himself facing bankruptcy. One thing the few guests he did have left the ranch talking about was: the salad dressing. Henson had developed the recipe back in Alaska: a garlicky emulsion of mayonnaise, buttermilk, herbs and spices.
Henson knew how popular his dressing was when guests started asking to purchase jars of it to take home with them, but, it wasn't until one of them asked to take 300 bottles back to Hawaii that he saw a business opportunity. Henson didn't have 300 jars, so he took a few hours to package his dry spice blend in a bunch of envelopes. He instructed his customer to mix each envelope with 1-quart of buttermilk and 1-quart of mayonnaise.
In 1964, Henson closed his ranch to guests and entered into the salad dressing business full-time. He assembled a small team of workers in his home and developed a small-scale mail-order business that mailed 75-cent packets of Hidden Valley salad dressing mix to the local community. It wasn't long before he moved into a larger manufacturing facility that produced 35,000 packets every eight hours. In 1972, Henson sold his business to Clorox and the rest is history.
Mel's "Happy Valley" version of Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing:
I developed my own version of these beloved seasoning packets here in my Happy Valley, PA kitchen to rival the original. I must have done a pretty good job, because every time I make this dressing there is rarely any leftover and almost everyone asks me for the recipe. It is a requested favorite at our Penn State tailgate every year. If you have the time, prepare it a day before you serve it, to give all of the great flavors time to marry with the mayonnaise and buttermilk.
Can you add fresh ingredients (minced chives, parsley, garlic and onion) to it? Well of course you can, and I often do, but, I add them as flavor enhancers after the fact, not in place of any of the dry spices and herbs. Why? Because, like Steve Henson, I like to make and keep a few small ziplock bags of my pre-mixed dry mixture on hand in my pantry at all times -- how convenient.
For the dry spice blend:
1 teaspoon dried, minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried, minced onion
1 tablespoon dried chives (Note: Dried chives are not pictured above because Joe dries chives from our garden for me and they are in a large mason jar that didn't fit nicely into this photo.)
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely-ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
For the additions:
1 cup buttermilk (Note: If this dressing is refrigerated for several hours or overnight, it will thicken to a creamy consistency, which I consider perfection. If you want a thicker, scoopable consistency, substitute sour cream for a portion or all of the buttermilk.)
1 cup mayonnaise
~ Step 1. In a medium bowl, place mayonnaise and all of the dry spices as listed. Add the buttermilk.
~ Step 2. Whisk until mixture is smooth and drizzley.
~ Step 3. Transfer to a food storage container and refrigerate for several hours or overnight, until nicely thickened (for perfect taste and consistency, overnight is best).
Note: Dressing may be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week (or the shelf life of the expiration date on the buttermilk). If fresh ingredients are added, the shelf-life is shortened to 3 days. For this reason, I stir any fresh ingredients in 1-2 hours prior to serving. Stir prior to serving chilled. Yield: 2 1/2 cups.
Prepping & lightly-pounding the chicken tenderloin patties:
~ Step 1. Cover a cutting board or work surface with a layer of plastic wrap. Curl up, "doughnut-style"...
12 large boneless, skinless chicken breast tenderloins, no substitutions, close to room temperature (Note: I remove them from the refrigerator 30-45 minutes prior to starting. If the tenders are too cold, they will lose their "doughnut" shape when you pound them, and, they will not cook through to the the center in the time it takes to prevent the crispy outside coating from over-browning.)
... tightly overlapping their ends. Cover with a second layer of plastic and firmly press down on their tops w/the palm of your hand to "glue" them together.
~ Step 2. Using the flat side of a meat mallet, gently-pound them, until they are half their original thickness and about twice their size. Twelve pounded-patties appear in the small photo above.
Setting up the assembly line (left to right) & deep-frying:
One 8" x 8" x 2" dish containing 1 cup dry pancake mix.
One medium bowl containing 1 1/2 cups pancake mix whisked with 1 1/2 cups beer.
One 8" x 8" x 2" dish containing 8-ounces panko breadcrumbs.
Deep-fryer w/peanut oil heated to 375° according to manufacturer's specifications.
Misc: 3-minute timer, tongs, cooling rack, paper towels, sea salt grinder.
~ Step 1. When everything is measured and in place, whisk together the pancake mix and beer. Set aside for about 5 minutes before starting the frying process. This will give the batter time to thicken to a drizzly consistency. If at any point during the frying process (even at the outset) if the batter seems or gets too thick, whisk in a little more beer (or some water) to maintain a drizzly consistency.
~Step 2. Working in batches of 3 chicken patties at a time, dredge each one in the dry pancake mix to coat it on all sides. Note: I fry 3 at a time because that is what fits comfortably in the basket of my fryer without overcrowding it. Next, move up the assembly line and dip each pattie into the batter. As you lift each one out of the batter, hold it over the bowl for a second or two, to allow the batter to drizzle back into the bowl. As you batter dip each one, place it into the dish of panko. Coat patties on all sides in the panko.
~ Step 3. By hand, carefully and gently, drop/lower each patty into the hot 375° oil (don't place them directly in the basket). Close the fryer lid and fry 4-5 minutes. Chicken patties will be a deep golden brown. Do not overcook.
~ Step 7. Open fryer lid and slowly lift basket up and out of deep-fryer. Transfer patties to a wire rack that has been placed over a few layers of paper towels. Tip: To transfer the patties , I simply tilt the basket onto its side directly over the rack. Using tongs is tricky -- it can be done but it's an easy way to damage (rip, tear or poke holes in) their crust.
Immediately sprinkle chicken patties w/a grinding of sea salt.
Repeat the dredging, dipping and coating process until all patties are deep fried. Serve hot (almost immediately), warm (within 30 minutes), or at room temperature (within 1 hour). There's more: trust me when I tell you, chicken patties will remain crunchy well past the four hour mark, so, do not hesitate for one moment to fry them (and do your cleanup) well in advance of serving.
Super-crispy on the outside & super-tender on the inside:
I've yet to taste a better chicken patty in any sandwich:
Happy-Valley-Ranch Deep-Fried Chicken Sandwich: Recipe yields 2 1/2 cups homemade Ranch dressing and 12 chicken sandwiches.
Special Equipment List: medium mixing bowl; whisk; 4-cup food storage container w/lid; 2 shallow 8" x 8" x 2" baking dishes or 9" pie dishes; medium-large bowl; whisk; cutting board; plastic wrap; flat-sided meat mallet; deep-fryer; 3-minute egg timer; tongs (use at your own risk); paper towels; wire cooling rack
Cook's Note: For a classic Italian recipe for a delightfully-delicate, lightly-pounded, traditionally-breaded, pan-fried chicken cutlet bursting with buttery lemon flavor, click into Categories 3, 12 or 20 to get my recipe for ~ A Flash-in-Pan Dinner: Chicken all Milanese ~.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2017)