Crispy Chicken Tenders From the Great Beyond

chicken nugget bites

I’ve made fried chicken before a few times, always with a breadcrumb and flour coating, and always gotten rave reviews. Now I love the idea of fried chicken. But what I don’t love is long frying (and then baking) times, wasting huge amounts of oil, unevenly cooked chicken pieces, and bits of fat, bone, and gristle getting in the way of my fried chicken experience. I mean come on people, this is serious stuff we are talking about here. So I wondered what would happen if I made my own full white-meat fried chicken tenders. Crispy spicy batter, juicy white meat chicken tenders… you know, they are called chicken “tenders” for a reason. They wouldn’t call them tenders if they were some chewy nasty tough-ass bits of shoe leather tasting “chicken product” like the stuff you get in the freezer section, am I right? Yeah, you know I am.

So there I was, searching the web for the ultimate fried chicken recipe with which to make my dreamed up nuggets, and I’ll be honest with you now… lean in… there are hundreds, if not thousands, all claiming to be the best. But you see, I had a second critical criteria. There couldn’t be milk in the batter. Turns out that almost every fried chicken recipe under the sun calls for milk or buttermilk, AND milk is the one thing in a batter that will make it burn before the chicken is crispily (yes I made that word up) cooked through to perfection. Fascinating right?

Unfortunately, or so I thought, Googling “fried chicken no milk” brings up far fewer recipes to choose from, so at first I was worried. then my eye fell on this link, from Mark of the excellent blog “2010, my year with Chris Kimball” featuring  “Batter-Fried Chicken“. (Yes, I am now a fan. He includes the relative cost of each meal. Brilliant!) I clicked on it, read through the page, and my heart leaped… I could see that this might really be something special. For those of you who didn’t know, Chris Kimball is one of the chefs behind “Cooks Illustrated Magazine”, and “Americas Test Kitchen”. The fact that Mark was inspired to write his blog after watching the movie “Julie and Julia” just made it that much better. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it. Now.

julie-julia-movieStanley Tucci Went to My College!

After making these yummy guys, (and they were AWESOME, juicy, and delicious) I emailed with Mark about how to make them less salty. He tried them that night, and pointed out that the brining time should be cut (at least) in half for nuggets vs. whole pieces of chicken on the bone, and that they would be better cut to about 2x bigger than the size I made them. This makes sense for a few reasons, and while I love bite sized food that you can just pop into your mouth,  these really would be better if you make them a bit bigger. The batter is intense, but wonderful. He got about 30 pieces to my 50 if I understood him correctly) Also, if you have leftovers, which you wont unless you are cooking for 2 and don’t halve the recipe, they can be reheated without drying out. yes, I always make too much. No, I don’t sweat it because I live with a very hungry man.

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So I am going to give you the recipe Mark provided from Cooks Illustrated Magazine, along with my variations, and his suggestions for the best “fried chicken nuggets” ever. These are a great appetizer/snack for Superbowl Sunday, and will make any day that much better!

Ingredients: (For 3-4 hungry people for dinner, or as snacks for 5-7)

Brine:
1 quart cold water
1/4 cup salt
1/4 cup sugar
4 chicken breast pieces (the tops of 2 whole chickens, or 4 chicken cutlets)

Batter:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cornstarch (cornflour, NOT cornmeal)
5 teaspoons pepper (Yes, that’s right, FIVE)
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (used pepper flakes as I had no cayenne)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1-3/4 cups cold water
1 liter vegetable oil ( I cut it from the original recipe by 2/3 and it made about 4-5 batches no problem)

Method:

1) I started with the full white meat breasts of 2 chickens. (4 pieces total). After cleaning and cutting up the pieces, (I had around 50 nugget sized pieces of chicken. Go for 30 pieces (15 pieces from 2 chicken cutlets) like Mark did unless you want them bite sized and plan to eat them all in one sitting. I brined them for an hour (too long for nuggets!), as the recipe called for.

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2) Mix up brine, then brine for 30 minutes in refrigerator. Set a timer, and drain right away. Pat dry.

3) Mix up batter by combining flour, cornstarch, pepper, paprika, cayenne, baking powder, salt, and water. Whisk until all lumps have gone. Add chicken pieces to batter and mix them around, coating each piece completely.

Fry Batter

4) Heat oil until the end of a toothpick bubbles happily.

5) When oil is hot, using a fork, add pieces one at a time, first allowing excess batter to drip off each piece. Do not overcrowd! I fit about 10 per batch for the smaller ones, I’d say 6-7 per batch of the bigger ones.

6) Set a timer for 6 minutes for each batch of smaller ones, 8 minutes each batch for the bigger ones. After about 3 minutes in the oil, break them up, make sure they aren’t sticking to the bottom or each other.

7) When they are a  deep golden brown, take them out and lay them on paper towels to crisp up and dry off.

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8) Keep warm in preheated oven while you make the next few batches.

Nuggets

9) I served with mayo and ketchup because they has so much flavor on their own they really didn’t need much, but you can serve with whatever dipping sauces you like best, be it BBQ, honey mustard, spicy mayo, the possibilities are endless.

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Homemade Jalapeno Poppers, The Last Bastion of The “Restaurants Do it Better” Misconception

Best Superbowl Appetizer

I remember the first time I ever had a Jalapeno popper. I was 16, cutting study-hall (read: we don’t know what to do with you kids so sit here and do your homework) so that I could hang out with the seniors down the street at what was one of the best deli’s in West Hampton Beach. I had never heard of such a thing before, and that first bite revealing the creamy melty interior was otherworldly. I could see the layers of orange cheddar, white cream cheese, and green jalapeno, and was just blown away by how well it all worked together. It was hot and cheesy, with just a mild spice and the perfect creamy crunch. I was in love.

Game Day Jalapeno Poppers

I have always craved brilliantly conceived and executed appetizers because they were delicious, (think Fridays’ stuffed potato skins, Friendlys’ Mozzarella sticks, and Outback Steakhouses’ 3 cheese fries with that insane dipping sauce…) but even more so because it just didn’t seem like the kind of thing people could do at home. No one I knew had a deep fryer yet, (this was in the 90’s before the food culture revolution when the only place you could buy such a thing was on the late night TV insomniacs shopping channels) so it just seemed like a non-starter. A moo point.

moo pointThank You Joey Tribbiani.

Later on, these things started becoming available to the mainstream, and I’m going to upset a lot of food supply marketing people when I say this… you don’t even need one. All you do need is a medium sized pot at least 4 inches deep and some frying oil, vegetable works just fine. You can even go out and buy a frying thermometer, which I recommend if you are going to be making doughnuts or other temperature sensitive fried foods, but really, all you need to know is this. Get your oil hot enough so that after you put the food in, it rises to the surface after about 30 seconds. If it sinks and stays down, the oil is too cold. If it never sinks, the oil is too hot. That’s it, that’s all you need to know. You see, easy.

I had been dreaming about these little monsters for ages, and literally couldn’t remember the last time I had a good popper other than that first time, when I started going off about them to my husband. He was unconvinced of their goodness and you just can’t find anyone out here who has even heard of them, so I promptly went online to see if it was possible to do at home. Guess what?!@! IT IS! I found this recipe at blogchef.net and modified it because the crust didn’t seem substantial enough, but you are free to try it his way. I also made a bigger batch since we bought too many Jalapenos and also, we just can’t ever get enough of a good thing.

hot peppers!

Ingredients: (serves 4-8 depending how many everyone wants)

  • A big bag of Jalapenos, we used about 7-10 that were each about 8-10 inches in length. I think it would be cool to use the smaller ones and much prettier, but this was what we had.
  • 16 oz plain cream cheese
  • A nice big block of either good quality shredded sharp yellow or white cheddar (I recommend Cabot), or shredded manchego cheese, which was what I used since I can’t get the former here. Anywhere from 1 cup to 1 and 1/2 cups should be enough.
  • A large container of seasoned bread crumbs, working with about a cup at a time.
  • Plain white flour (at least 1-2 cups, working with about a cup at a time).
  • Whole Milk (2% or 3% is also fine (at least 1-2 cups) working with about a cup at a time.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

Kitchen Tools:

  • A large metal slotted spoon for removing poppers from oil
  • Paper towels
  • 2 pairs of Latex gloves for working with!!! Those oils can BURN your face and eyes… but that story for another time (remind me to tell you sometime about the great chili fiasco of 08′).

safe hands1

Method: (prep time 45 minutes)

  • Wearing latex or rubber gloves, use a knife to carefully slice off the stems, cut the Jalapenos in halves, and cut out the pith (white parts) and all the seeds.
  • Cut Jalapenos to the sizes you want, we experimented with longer ones, and more bite sized ones, as you will see in the photos. Both were great, depends on your personal preference.
  • Once that is all done, carefully discard gloves.
  • In a bowl, mix up cream cheese, salt, pepper, and 1 tablespoon milk if your cream cheese is too firm. Ours comes fresh from the dairy so it’s already very creamy and easy to mix. (Alternately, you can layer the melty cheese on top of the cream cheese stuffed peppers, you will see why this might be a better idea in a minute).

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  • Put on your second pair of gloves, and stuff peppers with cheese mixture. If you are layering on melty cheese, do that now as well.

2013-01-20 20.42.51As you can see, we mixed it all together, which made them explode a little in the oil, so next time I’m going to try it with the layering. I think its also better for the textural experience, I like to see those threads of melty cheese stretching on for days when I bite in to something cheesy.

  • This part is important, dip each popper in milk, then roll in flour, and let it REST for 10 minutes.

2013-01-20 20.52.00Fun Fact: That’s G’s hand doing the dirty work!

  • Now, you are going to set up 3 bowls, one with milk, one with flour, and one with breadcrumbs, and prepare a surface to lay the poppers while you are working.

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  • After they have sat for 10 minutes, dip each one again in milk, then roll in flour, then back in milk, then roll in breadcrumbs. It will get messy, but doing the flour twice gives it a real nice crunchy coating.

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  • Once you have breaded the very last one, it’s time to FRY!!!!!!
  • Pour oil into pot until it comes up about 2-3 inches from the bottom.
  • Heat oil over high flame until a toothpick tip held in the oil bubbles happily.
  • Now you can gently add your first popper to the oil. If it sinks and then comes up to the surface after about 30 seconds, you can add more poppers until there is no room left. I had to do 3 batches. 1 dinner plate full of poppers per batch, or about 10 poppers per batch.

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  • Fry each batch for 3 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Remove one at a time with a metal slotted spoon, and place directly onto paper towels to dry and crisp up.

See how they exploded a bit? I think that’s because the Manchego was mixed in, rather than layered on top of the cream cheese. But boy did they taste AMAZING!!!

  • Remove any stray bits from the oil, repeat temperature test, and fry the second batch. I use my digital oven timer and they come out perfect in 3 minutes and evenly cooked every time.

I promise, if you are faced with the option to do these yourself or buy the processed frozen ones, TRUST me, do it yourself. Homemade  is almost always better. I left a plateful uncooked to freeze so that I can wow my chef sister with them the next time she comes to visit, the great thing about these is you can do all the work one day, then freeze them until you are ready to serve for a dinner party or Superbowl Sunday, and then just fry them right up on the spot! YUM! They were delish, with a mild heat, that you only really noticed when they started to cool down, but by then, well, they were all gone. 🙂

*Update: My cheffy sister came to visit for the weekend and sample some of the recent goings on in our kitchen (saved in the freezer for her imminent arrival). This meant sampling Asian chicken dumplings with their insane garlic scallion sweet and spicy dipping sauce, chocolate cream cheese glazed cinnamon buns, my husbands first amazing attempt at a classic new york cheesecake with a cookie crust and a creamsicle twist, herbed squash on toast with ricotta and onion marmalade, and of course, our beautiful Jalapeno poppers experiment. The poppers went into the oil frozen this time, and by 3 minutes the outsides were a gorgeous brown, but the insides were still a bit cold, so I would recommend frying for a full 5 minutes with the timer set. We just popped them into the toaster oven to finish warming the insides, on the highest heat for about 5 minutes, which did the job splendidly. Make sure that the oil is HOT when they go in, and resist the temptation to remove them until they bob up to the top and have been floating on the surface for about a minute. Salt generously when they come out of the fryer, (5 or 6 shakes over the whole thing) and serve. Watch out. they are hot inside!!! I went to bed with the smell of cheesy jalapeno in the air and dreamed of poppers dancing, dipping and swirling through the ether.

Popperjoy