Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Food of the Day -- Chicken Tenders

Why the inner pectoral muscles of chicken for food of the day? It's just white meat. Yes, it is just white meat, but it happens to be very good white meat. Breaded and fried (with tater tots on the side), it is my default lunch when eating at my work cafeteria. I'm repeatedly surprised how good it is. It also presents a conundrum for some restaurants and butchers.

I've resolved to be my own butcher . . . sort of. Not a primary, slaughterhouse butcher, not the grocery store role, but a tertiary level where I handle some of the finer ("value-added") cutting and trimming. First I need to, pardon the pun, bone-up on the craft. My wife reminds me of how her mother flirted with their butcher,
"Hey Mrs. Nichols, I've got some good-looking lamb chops for you."
"Oh Mike. . ." [spoken in goofy, never-heard-at-home voice]

I'm not persuing the romantic opportunities as much as the practical: It's not just that meat is expensive. Beef is confusing. At the risk of stating the obvious, cows are big. In addition to the major cuts (chuck, rib, loin, sirloin, round, flank, short plate, brisket and shank), there are dozens of sub cuts, many with multiple names. The confounded consumer (me) wastes time and money with poor choices. Why? Because the recipe I stuck in my pocket before shopping recommends something too pricey or the butcher used a different name for the same cut. Unavailable, concealed under an unrecognized label or too pricey -- I often need a substitute. Unfortunately, there is more to beef than "slow and low" versus "fast and high." Cooking techniques are destined to fail when you can't recognize the product. My food education continues.

I've been buying and carving whole chickens for years. The simplicity is incomparable -- a wing is a wing, a leg is a leg (thigh or drumstick), a breast is a breast. If you're having trouble figuring out the anatomy, stand it up, flap the wings and dance it around the kitchen. Even a city boy knows what a chicken looks like. For the butcher's apprentice, there isn't much nomenclature to master with poultry. There is an exception to this poultry simplicity -- chicken tenders. The USDA describes the inner pectoral muscle, tenderloin or strip closest to the bone, but doesn't provide a standard name.

Terminology aside, the chicken tender is a clumsy piece of muscle when dealing with a boneless breast. It hangs loosely and is difficult to contain for breading or cooking a neat split, boneless breast. Include them and the breasts look bulbous and huge, separate them and the portions appear reasonable and rest easily on a plate. Separately, they don't add up to much. Two tenders make a modest serving. What does the chef or butcher do? In a family restaurant, those clumsy, but tender pieces are separated and wind up on the kids menu as chicken fingers, tenders or nuggets. Despite their high quality, most consumers aren't sure how to cook just tenders, though they're increasingly sold separately. They haven't reached the status of beef tenderloins in the grocery stores, but their price suggests they're catching up (last check $6.39/lb).

I learned how to make Wiener Schnitzel from my days as an at-large employee of a German restaurant. The basic technique of breading and frying was an invaluable lesson. The veal in Wiener Schitzel is pounded flat (and thereby tenderized). No such flattening or pounding is necessary with tenders. The small, tube-like tenders don't require the large quantities of cooking oil necessary for deep-frying breasts, and they cook quickly. The keys to good breading technique are using the right oil temperature, i.e. hot enough to sear immediately, and using a breading you like. The technique is fairly simple: cover with flour, dip in beaten egg and bread crumbs (in that order). I have seen recipes recommending soaking in a buttermilk and crumb mixture overnight, which produces a heavy coating. The method I learned and just described was recently described on The Splendid Table. Lynne's stamp of approval is good enough for me. Season the breadcrumbs with a little pepper, Parmesan and Italian seasonings. They cook very fast.

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