Chinese Chicken Nuggets!

It begins, as many of our dinners do, with chicken.  We eat a lot of chicken because it’s versatile, affordable, and freezes well – unlike beef, which never emerges from the freezer in quite the same condition as it had when it first went in, and pork, which is affordable but requires some mental effort to determine a worthy preparation.  Chicken, by comparison, comes in neat little single serving thighs or breasts, can be sauteed quickly in a bit of olive oil, and ka-chow, there’s a meal on the table.

That being said, we were still getting a little fatigued from chicken, chicken, chicken – but that’s all we had on hand at home.  That, and a bunch of cilantro left over from our weekend party.  So I cast my net into the waters of the world wide web, did a search for ‘chicken and cilantro’, and I found this recipe.

Coming out of Epicurious.com, they call it ‘Chicken and Cilantro Bites’, but as I formed them and fried them up, the term ‘chicken nuggets’ kept coming to mind, so that’s what I’ve come to rename them.  Chinese Chicken Nuggets!

There’s a lot to like about this recipe.  For one thing, it gave me a chance to break out my Kitchenaid grinder attachment, which I bought last year, used once to grind meat for burgers, which then turned into miserable failures – I had not trimmed the beef, and gristle had clogged the holes of the grinder, resulting in burgers that were dense and flavorless.  Intimidated by that incident, I put the grinder attachment away and have not touched it since.  But this recipe, which calls for a pound of ground chicken, was perfectly served by the Kitchenaid, which produced a nice mound of ground poultry in a matter of minutes.  I used chicken thighs which I had deboned and stripped of skin, but this preparation could just as easily be made with boneless, skinless thighs, or just a purchased package of ground chicken, if it’s available at your market.  The most surprising aspect of this dish is how light and airy the nuggets turn out, despite being made with the heavier, fattier dark meat.

This recipe also demonstrates how effective cornstarch can be as a coating for pan-fried foods.  I had always used flour, or dried bread crumbs, or panko as my coating of choice – but the cornstarch lends an airiness to the finished product that just cannot be achieved by any other means.  It’s important to roll the chicken lightly in the cornstarch, passing the poultry from hand to hand, as if you were juggling.  Any firmer handling would cause the cornstarch to be incorporated into the chicken, instead of coating it.

I made a few departures from the original dish, most notably in the preparation steps.  Epicurious specifies that the chicken should not be white meat – since I used thighs, I can’t speak to using white meat, but I don’t see the recipe failing outright if you want to try it.  Also, because I used dark meat, and because chicken needs to be completely cooked, I followed up the pan frying with a stint in a low oven for 20 minutes, just to be safe.

Chinese Chicken Nuggets

1 lb ground chicken
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
2 scallions, finely chopped
2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
1 teaspoon salt
cornstarch

Combine the egg, cilantro, scallions, sesame oil, and salt in a mixing bowl.  Add the chicken and mix thoroughly using a rubber spatula or fork.

The mixture, I will warn you, will be very loose.  Get a plate, wet your hands, and form the mixture into nuggets, about an inch or so in diameter (they will actually end up being more oval-ish than round).  When you’ve run out of room on the plate, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water, and dry them (you’ll probably get through all of the chicken in two batches).

Set a large frying pan over medium high heat and coat it with about 1/4 cup of vegetable or canola oil.  Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.  Set aside a large cookie sheet with a rack on it.

Spread a sheet of parchment paper or aluminum foil on your workspace.  Pour a small mound of cornstarch onto a plate or wide bowl.  Using your fingers, scrape up a nugget of chicken and drop it into the cornstarch, then sprinkle, toss, and flip the nugget gently until it’s coated, then place it onto the parchment/foil.  Repeat for the other nuggets, working quickly before the prepared ones get too soggy.

Using a pair of tongs and a gentle touch, pick up each coated nugget and place it into the hot oil, filling the pan with as many nuggets as you can comfortably fit without crowding them.  After five minutes, use the tongs to turn each nugget over, frying for another five minutes and then rotating each one so that you achieve fairly even browning on all sides.  As each batch is done, transfer the nuggets to the cookie sheet.

When all of the nuggets have been fried, place them into the oven for 20 minutes.  Serve with soy sauce, chinese black vinegar, or peanut sauce.