Saturday, January 23, 2010

Making your own

Every time I see someone in the grocery store picking up a bag of frozen chicken [nuggets, strips, fingers, whatever] I just cringe. We have bought more than our share of those - everyone likes 'em, in theory - but the frozen ones are always so nasty. But it's easy, though not instant, to make your own. You can even do it in steps to save time here and there.

First, make sure you have bread crumbs. Not those things in the cardboard canisters. Make your own. Save all the bread that's too stale to eat, but not moldy yet, in a ziplock in the freezer. When there is enough to make it worth the effort, dry it out in the oven and make it into crumbs. I use a food processor but a blender works too. If you get the bread really crispy you can bash it with a kitchen mallet or rolling pin. Put it in a plastic bag first.

Now, the chicken. Boneless breast is easy and most healthful; boneless thighs are tastier (because they have more fat, of course). I pound them too. Flatter is better. Then, cut them into strips or chunks. If you like them crispy with lots of coating, cut them smaller. But not tiny or they're more work.

Put them in a bowl and mix up a little marinade to pour over them. We use buttermilk - we almost always have it around but not everyone does. You can mix up milk with some vinegar to sour it. Or lemon juice. Then add some seasoning. We use Tabasco or Cholula hot sauce. The bottle of Frank's you keep in the fridge for impromptu Buffalo wings would work too. Of course if you don't like spicy you can leave that out. Or put in some thyme, or tarragon, and a little mustard. Don't forget salt and pepper. Mix the buttermilk mixture up well before putting it over the chicken. Then toss the chicken around a bit (don't spill!) so the chicken is all wet. You'll probably be throwing away a little of this marinade. Don't worry about it.

That can sit around for a while on the counter, or all day in the fridge. The next step is to coat the chicken. First get your pan ready - a cookie sheet will do. I put aluminum foil on mine and spray it with Pam. If I had olive oil spray, I'd use that. Or you can just lightly coat the pan with oil. You don't have to use foil, but it helps with cleanup, especially if your pans are old like mine.

Put the bread crumbs on a plate. Take your chicken, piece by piece, out of the marinade and press it into the crumbs. Make sure you get enough coating on there to completely cover it. Press down a little so it sticks. Then put it on the baking sheet. Don't crowd your sheet - the chicken pieces should not touch, or they won't be crispy. You can spray or brush the tops with a little oil if you like.

Oh, you should turn your oven on to 425F.

Put the pans of chicken in the oven and set the timer for 10 minutes. Turn the chicken over and put it back in for another 5. Test for doneness. Now if your chicken pieces are really thin you have to be careful not to overcook them. A kitchen thermometer is an indispensable tool but if you don't have one, cut into one of the pieces. This is where it really helps if they are all close to the same size. Hard to do with an irregular-shaped chicken breast, but do your best. (This is another good reason to pound the chicken, so it's a uniformish thickness.)

If you want to make a dipping sauce, you could mix up some mustard (honey, or Dijon would be better than yellow) and mayonnaise. We usually don't bother with that.

You notice this is not a real recipe with amounts. That all depends on how many people you want to feed and your opinion of leftovers. I have a family of carnivores, including one who is growing fast. I use 3 chicken breasts (takes 2 cookie sheets to bake them all) so we have leftovers. These make great sandwiches a day or two later (don't keep them around more than 4 days!).

But, here is a real recipe that you can use to start. It has more, and different, ingredients than I use. But, that is one of the beauties of knowing how to cook: you can start with someone else's recipe and change it around.

These are certainly more work than a bag o'frozen nuggets, but they are not so much work and are much, much better in taste and healthfulness. Next time we make them, my kids are going to do all the work.

UPDATE: Sandy asked a good question. I go through the bread and breadcrumbs pretty quickly so freezer life is not a problem. A couple places said 2 - 3 months; here is one.

I tend to keep chunks of bread frozen and make breadcrumbs as needed, so I can use the stale bread for bread pudding. Actually most of the time I have bags of both bread chunks and bread crumbs. I like not throwing away bread. This works with hamburger buns too. Really any kind of bread. Um, you might want to be sure you don't accidentally make chocolate bread pudding with garlicky bread!


Sandy said...

How long will the bread crumbs last, say in some kind of plastic container? Basically forever? I think we'll try these. That stuff in the bags is disgusting, um, I mean, not very good.

Sandy said...

Three months it is then. Thanks!