Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Chicken Nuggets

I do not understand picky eaters. You know the ones (maybe you are the one?) The people who eat at five different restaurants and nowhere else (and all the places are chains.) The people who see one unfamiliar ingredient and say, "Eeew!" The kids who will eat nothing but hamburgers and french fries at every meal.
When I first got pregnant with my daughter, I made it a personal goal to make sure she ate well. No weekly Happy Meals, fruits and veggies every day, and there was no way she was going to be a picky eater. I was not going to be the parent at the fancy restaurant who askes the waiter if "the chef can't just make up a grilled cheese sandwich, that's all Little Precious will eat."

Well, we had the kid and reality set in. When you go out to eat most places, all there is for kids is fast food fare--hamburgers, french fries, chicken nuggets, sometimes pasta that turns out to be Kraft Mac-n-Cheese (and the restaurants show no shame in charging $4.50 for something we all know comes in a yellow box for $0.30.) Unless you can afford to pay for another adult entree that you know will barely be eaten, most parents must buckle down and allow that occasional lapse into fast food. Before we knew it, the Tyke was asking for chicken nuggets at every meal.

So I figured that we could at least get some whole chicken breast into her once in a while (what the heck are mechanically separated chicken parts, anyway?) They may be fried but at least I know what every ingredient is. There will be a general recipe at the bottom, but with no measurements--this is one of those "a pinch of this, a pinch of that" recipes.

What you'll need to start is a package of chicken tenders (or chicken breasts that you've sliced into tender shape), buttermilk and hot sauce. I like to marinate the chicken in the buttermilk and hot sauce for a while. The buttermilk gives the tenders a nice tangy flavor, as well as keeps the meat moist.

Pour some buttermilk into a plastic bag set into a bowl (be sure not to use a plastic bowl, as plastic can harbor salmonella germs.) I like the plastic bag method, especially since I'll be making something of a mess later on. This is one less thing I'll have to clean. I didn't measure the buttermilk--just added enough where all the chicken could soak. I made sure to leave a cup for pancakes later in the week...but that's another post.

Add liberal dashes of your favorite hot sauce. It gives the tenders a little "kick".

Season with salt and pepper.

Toss in the chicken and seal the bag. I just let it hang out while I do other things--in this case, I made some homemade mayo and then turned that into honey mustard, to dip the tenders in. Recipe for mayo and honey mustard to come tomorrow!

While the tenders continue to marinate, get the breading station ready. In one bowl, I simply put in breadcrumbs. You can use any kind you like--here I actually have a mixture of regular breadcrumbs, plain panko breadcrumbs, and Italian seasoned breadcrumbs.

Okay, I'll admit it. Basically I keep forgetting which kind I currently have in my storage jar and, in the interest of saving space, dump whatever the newest box of breadcrumbs I buy in there so I won't have the jar AND the box. After dumping the new into the old, I usually realize that what I just bought is not the same as I had before. Which is why there were plain breadcrumbs on the bottom, plain panko breadcrumbs in the middle, and Italian ones on top. Ah well, breadcrumbs are breadcrumbs, right?

In the other bowl is just flour seasoned with salt, pepper, and a little cayanne. Like I said, I like it a little spicy! Again, no measurements but try to use more than you think you'll need. It's a huge hassle to stop what you're doing and get out more flour or whatever. You'll see what I mean in a second.

Finally, the plate on the far right is just a plate with a cooling rack set over it. The dredged chicken will sit on there, allowing the breading to dry out a bit. The drier the breading is, the crispier your nuggets will be. And I'm telling you now, these boys are crispy.

Grab a piece of chicken out of the bag and shake off the excess buttermilk. Coat the piece in the flour. Dunk the chicken back into the buttermilk and then move it over to the breadcrumbs.

Coat the chicken in the breadcrumbs, and then set on the cooling rack to dry.

See what I mean about not wanting to stop to refill your flour and breadcrumbs? The pros say to have a "wet" hand and a "dry" hand so situations like this don't arise, but the pros also don't have a food blog that they have to take pictures for themselves.

While the nuggets are drying out, your oil should be heating. I used a couple inches of oil in a pot. Despite what you might think, you don't need quarts and quarts of oil to fry (unless you're frying a lot of something--or deep-frying a turkey!) I could have used a larger pot (the one I used only fit a couple nuggets in at a time) but then that would have required more oil, and frankly I hate the mess of cleaning up used oil. The less I have to get rid of afterwards, the better.

Heat the oil to 350F. On my stove, that means setting the temperature on medium-high and then once the oil is hot, turning it down to medium or even medium-low. I actually bought a temperature probe not too long ago and used it tonight for the first time, which helped me get the optimum temp, but you can also just do the "grandma" test of flicking some flour in and waiting until it sizzles ;)

On the left is a plate with newspaper and another cooling rack on top of it. The newspaper is there to soak up any extra grease. Just one more trick to getting supercrispy nuggets.

Check out those irregularly-shaped nuggets. I'd complain about quality control, but I could have cut those big ones down a little more. I have to admit, though, they were still slightly frozen when I tossed them in the buttermilk and I kind of hoped they were two smaller pieces stuck together. Ah well. That just means my husband gets to eat the "manlier-sized" nuggets.

However you decide to heat your oil, once it's ready you can toss the nuggets in. Make sure no kids or pets are in the area...that stuff spatters.

The largest nuggets took about 9 minutes to cook; the smaller ones were closer to 7. When they're done cooking, set them on the cooling rack on top of the newspaper. Make sure your oil stays at the same temperature. If it gets too cool, you'll just be poaching your chicken and it'll turn into a greasy mess. If it gets too hot, it'll be burned on the outside and raw on the inside.

I paired mine with some frozen french fries I baked in the oven (who wants to heat two different pots of oil?) and my homemade honey mustard that I made earlier.

You could tweak this recipe any number of ways. You could use fish or pork. You could replace the buttermilk with beer for a beer batter. You could use different spices in the breading--cajun spices or southwestern spices. You could leave out the hot sauce or add more. You could use different breadcrumbs. If you're gluten free, you could use rice flour. You could probably even use tofu (although I'd probably bake it instead of fry.) So many possibilities!

General recipe:
Buttermilk dip:
Hot sauce
Chicken tenders
Salt and pepper to taste

Breading, Bowl 1:
Cayenne Pepper
Salt and pepper to taste

Breading, Bowl 2:
Salt and pepper to taste

Marinate chicken in buttermilk for at least 30 minutes.

Dip chicken into flour and coat lightly.

Dip chicken back into buttermilk.

Dip chicken into breadcrumbs.

Allow chicken to rest at least 10 minutes to dry out coating.

Fry chicken until cooked through (at least 155F; chicken is recommended to be at 165F but take into account that the chicken will continue to cook a bit after you take it out of the oil.) Drain on cooling rack set over newspaper or paper towel.

I'll just tempt you with pictures of the honey mustard. You'll have to wait until tomorrow to get the recipe!

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