Nut-Crusted Chicken Cutlets

One of my little pleasures in life is watching America’s Test Kitchen. While goofy and geeky (perhaps that’s why I like it), the team behind the show delivers interesting and informative recipes that make it easy to improve your cooking. Recently, I tried recreating their recipe for nut-crusted chicken cutlets and was very happy with the results.

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The recipe tackles the common pitfalls of nut-crusted chicken: flavorless chicken and bland, burnt, soggy, or oily crust. There are several tricks they suggest. One of the most interesting is to use panko (Japanese style breadcrumbs) which do a better job of remaining crisp. They also suggest browning the butter in a skillet and then toasting the nuts and breadcrumbs so they begin to caramelize before you ever bread the chicken cutlets.

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They further suggest salting the chicken and letting it rest for about thirty minutes before preparing the dish. This creates a dry brine, sealing in the chicken’s moisture. Finally, instead of frying in oil, you bake the breaded cutlets on a wire rack set above a baking sheet. This allows hot air to circulate, cooking and crisping the chicken on all sides without adding any more oil to the dish.

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The end result was fantastic – one of the first times I’ve had a breaded chicken cutlet that was actually moist and flavorful. The crust was crisp and buttery but not greasy or heavy. Definitely a good technique and one I will repeat!

The show is produced by the publishers of Cooks Illustrated magazine. They don’t accept advertising so all their evaluations of recipes, ingredients, and equipment are made based on quality alone. Their approach to recipes is to figure out how to achieve great results consistently, eliminating the pitfalls that plague some dishes.

The thing I like best about the show is that it is one of the few cooking shows on television that is actually about cooking. So much of what we see these days is about food and eating but not that much about the technique of preparing the food. It is a refreshing return to how cooking shows started out.

French Fries – Cold Oil Method

There are certain cooking techniques with which I am not very familiar.  Deep frying is one of them.  Part of this is because all I have is a small condo kitchen.  There is not a nice outdoor kitchen for “heavy duty” cooking, the type that imparts a lingering smell in your furniture, carpets and draperies.  Lack of familiarity doesn’t quiet my curiosity, though.  In fact, it heightens it.

That is why, when Cook’s Illustrated published a recipe for “Easier French Fries” using a cold oil method in the July/August 2009 issue, I was intrigued and eager to try it.

Conventional wisdom holds that to make good french fries you need to rinse the cut potatoes to remove excesses starch and then fry them twice, once at a lower temperature to cook the potatoes and a second, more brief dousing in the oil to form a crisp crust.

That is a lot of work.  Frankly, I’ll just walk down to McDonald’s instead of going through that much work.  As the author of the CI article explained it, they broke with conventional wisdom and achieved exceptional results along with a few added benefits.

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Their first break with tradition was to abandon the Russet potato, which they found to be too dry and starchy for this single-fry method.  They chose instead the Yukon Gold, which is waxier in texture.  Our local markets don’t identify the different potato types by name but I picked up some that looked like Yukons.  Squaring the sides, I cut them into batons about 3/8″ wide.  No peeling beforehand and no rinsing after.

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Next, place the potatoes in a Dutch oven or other heavy, deep pan along with the oil.  Peanut oil was recommended but as that wasn’t readily available here, I used canola oil.  I also added a few tablespoons of duck fat left over from a previous cooking project.  A little duck fat or bacon fat will add more flavor to the fries.  How do I know this?  Because they add flavor to anything!

This cold oil method is attributed to a recipe from Jeffrey Steingarten, a food write whose approach to food (and life) and style of writing appeals to me.  It was attributed to the method of Michelin-starred chef Joel Robuchon.

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This is where the process really breaks all the rules.  You put the pan on the stove top and turn the heat to high until the oil is boiling.  During this time you do not stir the fries at all.  After the boiling starts you continue to cook for about fifteen minutes or until the potatoes are limp but the exteriors are starting to firm up.

It is only at this point that you start to stir the fries, gently unsticking any that have caught on the bottom of the pan or each other.  After the fries are golden and crisp you can pull them out and drain them on paper towels, paper bags, newspapers, or whatever else is handy.

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The resulting fries were very tasty, if just a little overcooked.  But who is going to complain when you have freshly made french fries sitting in front of you?

I mentioned that the author of this method discovered a few unexpected benefits.  Not only does this cold oil method result in a lot less splatter and, subsequently, a lot less “fried food” smell inundating your house, it also results in fries that absorb a lot less fat.  Based on some scientific analysis, the CI lab found that fries cooked by the cold oil method contained about one-third less fat than the conventional twice-fried method: 13% versus 20%.  When I went to pour the oil back into the bottle, I was surprised to discover that it refilled the bottle nearly to the top.  Only a few tablespoons had been lost in the entire process!

Now, I don’t know that I’ll be making french fries again anytime soon.  But I’m glad I gave them a try.