In the annals of unfortunately timed cookbooks, the upcoming "Tailgreat: How to Crush It at Tailgating" (Ten Speed Press; $28) ranks up there.
The book, by the James Beard Award-winning chef John Currence, debuted Aug. 28, just a few weeks after the announcement that most college football games, including the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences, have been canceled for the season.
"The only way it gets worse is if the SEC (Southeastern Conference) announces they're canceling games the day the book comes out," said Currence, who owns four restaurants in the football-mad college town of Oxford, Mississippi. As the leading chef in the University of Mississippi's hometown, he has become a master at preparing food for the legendary tailgates at the Grove, the 10-acre party space on the Ole Miss campus.
Currence noted, while a good tailgate upgrades the spectator's experience, the food needs to be interesting.
"Tailgating has become sterile, as far as menu selection goes. It's like a repeat loop in an old cartoon: Cold chicken tenders, pimento cheese, seven-layer dip. Repeat." The book offers a total of 125 recipes for high-flavor party food, from grilled wedge salad on a stick to sweet-mustard pulled pork.
He has a particular fondness for fried chicken—though as an ingredient, not a recipe.
"I'm unapologetic about the fact that I don't fry a lot of chicken any more, because no one makes it better than Popeye's," he said.
This technique for getting the essence of fried chicken without doing the work shows up in his recipes for such dishes as fried chicken salad with Alabama Firecrackers, the popular Southern snack of saltine crackers tossed with spices and baked. For his "God's Own Buffalo Chicken Dip," Currence admits he can't source enough Popeye's to keep up with demand for this creamy dip when there's a home game.
But it's his recipe for Spicy Fried Chicken Buttered Popcorn that stands out. There's no actual fried chicken in this recipe for what is essentially a very luscious, buttery and highly seasoned popcorn, and it should not be confused with the fried nuggets known as popcorn chicken. This popcorn's intense flavor comes from a seasoning mix Currence makes with a mix of chicken soup base, garlic powder, cayenne, and Accent (or MSG) that clings tightly to the kernels, thanks to all that butter.
What's incredible about this addictive snack, though, is the way it is popped. Currence cooks the kernels in an insane amount of clarified butter instead of oil. This method suffuses the popcorn with an even richness instead of the soggy clump that results from adding melted butter at the end.
It also makes the kernels tender but crisp outside.
"This spicy fried chicken version is crazy fun and surprising," Currence said, and I agree. It's well worth trying this technique even as you accept the fact that there's less popcorn (1/2 cup) than clarified butter (1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons) in the ingredient list. If the end product doesn't taste exactly like fried chicken, it is still profoundly chicken-y, along with the salty, peppery, savory accents that go into a good fried bird's crust.
Currence did get one thing right with the timing: Sales of ready-to-eat popcorn and caramel corn reached $1.5 billion, up 5 percent, for the 52-week period that ended in mid-May, according to Snack Food and Wholesale Bakery. Garrett Smith, president of American Pop Corn Co., estimates sales of uncooked popcorn have risen more than 70 percent since mid-March, when Americans started sheltering in place.
And there's still hope you can serve this popcorn at a socially distanced tailgate. The SEC hasn't canceled its season, at least not yet.
Spicy Fried Chicken Buttered Popcorn
The following recipe is adapted from "Tailgreat," by John Currence.
Testing note: Be careful popping the corn this way, as the fat can spatter and burn.
Makes about 3 quarts
1 1/2 tablespoons low-sodium powdered chicken base
1 1/2 teaspoons MSG, such as Accent (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons clarified butter or ghee (see note)
1 tablespoon lard (optional)
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
Salt, if needed
In a small bowl, stir together the chicken base, MSG, nutritional yeast, garlic powder and cayenne. Combine the clarified butter and lard in a large saucepan with a lid. Pour in the popcorn kernels and turn the heat to medium-high. Cover the pot and heat the popcorn and fat for 2 minutes.
Begin slowly swirling the pot; as soon as you hear the first kernel pop, turn down the heat to low and start agitating the pot more aggressively.
The corn will begin popping rapidly. Crack the lid slightly to allow steam to escape, re-cover the pot, and continue shaking to keep the kernels and popped corn moving. The corn will pop quickly for about 30 to 45 seconds and then slow down. Once the popping slows to once every 4 to 5 seconds, remove the pan from the heat. Crack open the top again to allow steam to escape and then dump the hot popcorn into a large bowl. Sprinkle with the dry seasonings and toss to coat evenly. Season with salt, if desired, and serve warm or cool.
Note: Clarified butter and ghee are available in supermarkets. Alternatively, you can make clarified butter by cooking butter in a saucepan over very low heat, continually skimming off the white foam on top. Pour off the clear, clarified butter, stopping when you get to the golden brown solids at the bottom of the pan.