Sunday, April 6, 2008

April 6: Pecan-Crusted Chicken

Why is so much food good in theory and not so much in practice? Things like alfredo sauce, fried chicken, tomato salads, marinara sauce, and lemon pound cake always sound great on a page, but when put into practice, they're lifeless at best, insipid at worst, and in between, just not great.

The great thing about America's Test Kitchen: they do the work of taking a recipe that frequently fails every test for yum and remodels it into something sensible, workable, and worth making.

I love a crispy chicken breast cutlet, sliced over a salad or just next to a wild rice pilaf or a pasta salad. Even better is a pecan crusted chicken breast cutlet; but they're tricky. Pecans have a lot of oil in them, they are fairly delicate, and it's almost impossible to keep them stuck to the chicken breast.

So thanks to you, America's Test Kitchen, yet again. Your tricks of the trade make my life easier, and this recipe--which I made tonight--is fabulous. Let me just say this, and I really, really mean it: be careful. The mixture sticks pretty well, but it's not stuck on there, you know, with a nail gun or anything. Those tongs you use to move the chicken breasts around are hell on a pecan crust, so exercise caution. I really mean it.

The other thing--you really will have to cut your own cutlets. Chicken breasts are too thick to cook all the way through before the crust burns; store-bought, pre-packaged cutlets are thin, inconsistent, and will dry out before the crust crisps up. It's not hard: chicken breast on counter, hand flat on top of chicken breast, sharp knife parallel to counter, blah blah fishpaste.

Pecan-Crusted Chicken Cutlets

2 large eggs
4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
3 garlic cloves, crushed through a garlic press
2 teaspoons dried tarragon
salt and pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, halved horizontally
2 cups pecans
2 slices hearty white sandwich bread, torn in half
4 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup vegetable oil

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 250 degrees. Line rimmed baking sheet with wire rack. Whisk eggs, mustard, garlic, tarragon, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in large bowl. Add chicken, coat well, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate while preparing nut mixture.

Pulse pecans in food processor until finely chopped, with some small (pebble-sized pieces). Transfer to pie plate or shallow rimmed dish. Pulse bread in food processor until finely ground. Add bread crumbs to nuts and stir in cornstarch, brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and cinnamon.

Working one at a time, remove cutlets from egg mixture, letting excess drip back into bowl. Thoroughly coat chicken with nut mixture, pressing on coating to help it adhere, and transfer to a large plate.

Heat 1/2 cup oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Place 4 cutlets in skillet and cook until golden brown on both sides, 3-4 minutes per side (lower heat if crust is browning too quickly.) Transfer chicken to rack on baking sheet and keep warm in oven. Discard oil and solids from skillet and repeat with remaining oil and cutlets. Season cutlets with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

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