Some notions about nuggets

Healthful nuggets can be made at home by baking - not frying - the chicken pieces after coating them with bread or pretzel crumbs or cornflakes.
Healthful nuggets can be made at home by baking - not frying - the chicken pieces after coating them with bread or pretzel crumbs or cornflakes. (LARRY CROWE / Associated Press)
Posted: January 25, 2013

It didn't take long for chicken nuggets, the go-to protein for many American children, to come up in conversation when Eli Kulp and the staff of Fork were brainstorming snack ideas for the bar menu at the Market Street restaurant.

"Chicken nuggets have all-American roots," says Kulp, the executive chef of the Old City restaurant.

That means they're appropriate fodder for Fork, where the challenge is "taking familiar food and presenting it in new ways or shedding new light on it," Kulp says.

Despite what he now knows about the deficient nutrition of fast-food chicken nuggets, Kulp has fond memories of eating them at the nearest McDonald's - 45 minutes from his home in the tiny town of Mossyrock, Wash.

Kulp's nostalgic attachment to the chicken nugget - in one form or another - is common.

How did that breaded and fried hunk of boneless chicken come out of nowhere to become the only meat some American children would eat?

Blame developments in farming, food science, and advertising in this country since World War II.

That is when the U.S. government began to subsidize school lunches, family farms morphed into large-scale agribusiness, and there was a growing interest in creating convenient, processed food with a shelf life.

In addition, the entrance of more and more women into the workforce gave advertisers just the right hook to push nearly ready-made food that saved time and fuss. This also went hand-in-hand with the proliferation of fast-food "drive-through" dining.

And then there's the human love of any foodstuff that's convenient, crisp, golden, and juicy.

An unsung but key player in the courtship between Americans and chicken nuggets was Robert C. Baker, an ingenious, kindly food scientist who created a chicken nugget long before McDonald's or anyone else.

Baker worked for Cornell University and was a liaison to growers and marketers when he was challenged to come up with ways to promote chicken. At the time, before 1957, chicken was neither popular nor plentiful in American homes.

Baker devised a machine that could remove poultry meat from its bones. He figured out how to make breading stick to the product. He also developed many products, including chicken hot dogs and breaded nuggets, that eventually - with the help of the advertising industry in the 1970s - took poultry from a per capita consumption of about 34 pounds in 1950 to more than 80 pounds today.

It was only in 1979 that McDonald's elaborated upon Baker's innovations - because he worked for a university, he did not profit from his ideas - to develop the nuggets, which now contain more preservatives and chemicals than the original and are a bane of nutritionists.

The similarities between Kulp's chicken nuggets at Fork and fast-food and convenient freezer specimens are few. Yes, Kulp's are made of chicken, are breaded and fried, and come with sauce.

But the restaurant's are not, among other things, "fast." Nor, with their pungent and spicy sauces, do they target consumers who eat like persnickety toddlers.

The road to Fork's lustrous golden chicken nuggets, which are also offered as pre-dinner "bites" and at lunch, begins with brining bone-in chicken thighs overnight in a solution of salt, sugar, and herbs.

The next day the meat is deboned, chunked, and put into a sous vide machine - the low, slow, constant-temperature poaching device popular among higher-tier chefs but still not a household staple - for about one hour at 170 degrees Celsius.

Then, says Kulp, the now exceedingly tender and moist morsels are coated in a batter of rice flour and sparkling water. Kulp says he uses rice flour because it can sustain higher heat before it browns, which produces a crisper product.

The crunchy armor is essential because Fork's nuggets are drenched in a spicy-sweet sauce called agrodolce before being topped with chopped chives and served alongside a pot of spicy mustard made with honey, Dijon, and - for a "nose burn" - intense mustard oil.

All very interesting, you say, but am I suggesting you go through all that at home?

Not a chance.

Most home cooks already know they can easily make healthful chicken strips or nuggets sans additives that can be baked rather than fried. If children are the cook's target, chicken pieces baked after being coated with bread crumbs, pretzel crumbs or cornflakes are the answer.

If you haven't yet made your own chicken nuggets, provided here is a recipe from the American Diabetes Association. Notice the buttermilk bath that mimics Southern cooks' tenderizing technique for fried chicken.

An even more adventurous take on nuggets for children coats the poultry pieces with vegetable puree, which results in a surprisingly tasty nugget. That recipe is also here.

But let's agree that a small piece of chicken or even an oval of ground or pounded chicken doesn't have to be fried to be thought of as a "nugget."

According to Lynne Olver's online "Food Timeline," croquettes, which are fried, breaded logs of ground meat and vegetables (from the French word croquer, "to crunch") became fashionable in America in the early 1700s.

Those, and Asian food expert Joyce Jue's chicken medallions flavored with gin and sesame seeds, are more easily prepared than Kulp's chicken nuggets, but they still qualify as a kicked-up version.

Oven-Baked Chicken Nuggets

Makes 4 servings

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 cup low-fat buttermilk

1 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs

2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Olive oil cooking spray

1. On the day before you serve the nuggets, place one chicken breast in a large plastic bag. With a rolling pin or meat mallet, pound it until it is thin (about 1/2 inch). Repeat with each chicken breast. Cut breasts into a total of 20 pieces. Place the chicken in another large plastic bag and add the buttermilk. Seal the bag and marinate the chicken in the refrigerator overnight.

2. The next day, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or with foil that has been coated with cooking spray. On a plate, combine the panko bread crumbs with the cayenne pepper, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Shake the excess buttermilk off each piece of chicken and roll the chicken in the bread-crumb mixture, coating it well. You will not use all the bread crumbs.

3. Place the chicken nuggets in a single layer on the baking sheet and coat the top of the nuggets with the olive oil cooking spray.

4. Bake the nuggets for about 10 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked through. Serve with your own favorite dipping sauce.

- From The Family Classics Diabetes Cookbook (American Diabetes Association, 2012)

Per serving: 405 calories, 41 grams protein, 33 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 103 milligrams cholesterol, 606 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Deceptively Delicious Chicken Nuggets With Vegetable Puree

Makes 4 servings

1 cup whole-wheat, white, or panko (Japanese) bread crumbs

1/2 cup flaxseed meal

1 tablespoon grated Parmesan

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

1 cup broccoli, spinach, sweet potato, or beet puree

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts or chicken tenders, cut into small chunks

1/2 teaspoon salt

Nonstick cooking spray

1 tablespoon olive oil

1. In a bowl, combine the bread crumbs, flaxseed meal, Parmesan, paprika, and garlic and onion powders and mix well with your fingers.

2. In a shallow bowl, mix the vegetable puree and egg with a fork and set the bowl next to the bread crumb mixture.

3. Sprinkle the chicken chunks with the salt. Dip the chunks into the egg mixture and then toss them in the bread crumbs until completely coated.

4. Coat a large nonstick skillet with cooking spray and set over medium-high heat. When the skillet is hot, add the oil. Place the chicken nuggets in the skillet in a single layer, being careful not to crowd the pan, and cook until crisp and golden on one side, 3 to 4 minutes. Then turn and cook until the chicken is cooked through, golden brown and crisp all over, 4 to 5 minutes longer. (Cut through a piece to check that it's cooked through.) Serve warm.

- From Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food (William Morrow, 2008)

Per serving: 474 calories, 45 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 143 milligrams cholesterol, 633 milligrams sodium, 9 grams dietary fiber.

Lemon-Sesame-Gin Chicken Nuggets

Serves 4 as a main course; 6 to 8 as a starter

3 large, skinless, boneless chicken breast halves (1 pound)

3 tablespoons gin

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon sugar

Peanut or corn oil for pan-frying

For sesame-gin sauce:

4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons gin

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon honey

1/2 teaspoon salt

Zest of 1 lemon, cut into thin slivers

1 1/2 teaspoons water chestnut flour or cornstarch

1/4 cup chicken stock

For the batter:

3 large egg whites

3 tablespoons water chestnut flour or all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon black sesame seeds

1 teaspoon salt

1. Cut the chicken breasts across the grain into ½-inch-thick slices. Pound each slice with the side of a cleaver to flatten it into an oval medallion about ¼ inch thick. Combine the gin, soy sauce, salt, and sugar in a bowl; add the chicken and marinate for 20 minutes.

2. Prepare the sesame-gin sauce by combining the lemon juice, gin, ginger, sugar, honey, salt, and lemon zest in a saucepan. Cook over high heat until the sugar and honey are dissolved. Stir the water chestnut flour and stock together to make a smooth paste; stir the paste into the sauce and cook until thickened. Keep warm.

3. Heat the oven to 200 degrees. To make the batter, beat the egg whites until frothy. Combine the water chestnut flour, cornstarch, sesame seeds, and salt and blend them into the egg whites. Do not overstir. Preheat a skillet over medium-high heat and add enough oil to coat the bottom. Drain the chicken nuggets.

4. Coat the chicken pieces with batter. Place a few nuggets in the skillet, not touching each other. Fry until the bottoms are crisp and golden brown; turn them over and brown the other sides (about 3 minutes total). The chicken should feel firm to the touch. Transfer to a serving plate and keep warm in the oven while you cook the remaining nuggets.

5. Reheat the sauce and pour it over the chicken. Garnish with lemon slices and serve hot and immediately.

- From San Francisco cooking teacher and author Joyce Jue

Per serving (based on 4): 339 calories, 27 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 66 milligrams cholesterol, 1,661 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.

Elevated Chicken Nuggets, a.k.a. Croquettes

Makes 4 servings

1/2 pounds ground turkey or chicken

1/2 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms (stems removed, cut into ¼- inch strips, sauteed in 4 tablespoons unsalted butter until brown, set aside and cooled)

2 tablespoons chopped sun-dried tomatoes

1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted in a dry pan until golden

2 large eggs

1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup panko bread crumbs

Grapeseed or canola oil for frying

1. In a large bowl, mix the chicken, shiitakes, sun-dried tomatoes, bread crumbs, garlic, cheese, pine nuts, eggs, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Fold until well-combined.

2. Pour the panko into a shallow pie plate. Form the meat mixture into small patties and coat the patties on both sides with the panko. Set the patties aside. You can do this several hours ahead, covering and refrigerating the patties until ready to fry.

3. Heat a ½-inch layer of grapeseed oil in a frying pan until it's hot when you hold your hand over it. Put in a few croquettes at a time and cook until brown and crisp on both sides and heated through the middle, 3 to 4 minute per side.

- From Secrets of the Best Chefs: Recipes, Techniques and Tricks from America's Best Chefs (Artisan, 2012)

Per serving: 494 calories, 26 grams protein, 34 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 29 grams fat, 169 milligrams cholesterol, 578 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

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