Andreae Prozesky didn’t burn her house down.
Fridays, to celebrate another week of making it through the madness of kindergarten without incident (or to provide some solace after a particularly difficult few days, depending), we hand the joy of dinner selection over to the delightful Miss B. More often than not, this means chicken fingers. Like her mother before her, Miss B. goes cracked for a plate of fried chicken. So strong is this love that the menu pronouncement is often accompanied by a little chant dating back to Miss B’s toddler years, and that goes, “Chicken and fries! Chicken and fries! My little girl loves chicken and fries!” You’ve got to say it kind of sassy-like. Dancing is an optional, but enjoyable, addition.
Since we’ve had to kick gluten to the curb, however, chicken fingers have taken a hit. No longer can we scurry up to our favourite takeout and walk home with dinner steaming its greasy way through layers of cardboard plates and paper bags. I’ve tried making chicken fingers with coatings of corn flakes and rice cereal, of tapioca and potato starches, I’ve tried broiling, baking, and pan-frying, and the results have been pretty uninspiring. I have made a few good batches, only to be unable to replicate them. For the most part, the chicken fingers have been pretty gross. Soggy, oily, strangely sweet or else awfully bland. A shameful thing to do to otherwise perfectly tasty chicken.
It only struck me a couple weeks ago where I was going wrong. The hubby and I were out for a big ol’ Indian dinner (a very rare occurrence these days), and, in an unusual manoeuvre, ordered chicken pakoras as an appetizer. I’m generally a veggie pakora kind of gal, but we were awfully hungry and chicken seemed like the way to go. If you’ve never had pakoras, they’re just an Indian take on fritters. In the vegetable version, pieces of cauliflower, onion, potato, mushroom, and whatever other veggie is on hand are dipped into a spiced chickpea-flour batter, deep-fried, and served with chutney or herbed yogurt for dipping. Chicken pakoras have the same crispy chickpea flour coating, but instead of vegetables they’re made with delicately-flavoured marinated chicken pieces. Keep this in mind if ever you’re at an Indian restaurant with a child who has decided that curry is the enemy. When our order of pakoras came to the table, I knew that this was what I would have to replicate if I were going to make chicken fingers worth eating.
I bake with chickpea flour a fair bit at home, and I use it in sauces and gravies all the time, but I had forgotten what a great batter it makes. Texturally you get a bit of heft, which is what I like for chicken (though not for fish; fish requires an airy, tempura-like lightness). The flavour is a little earthy, but not overly assertive like some other bean flours. It’s available in bulk shops, and also in specialty shops where it may be labeled gram (not to be confused with graham) or besan.
Pakoras, like many of the tastier things in life, are deep fried. Do not be alarmed at the amount of oil called for in the recipe; you want at least two and a half inches of oil in the bottom of the pot. So long as you don’t scorch it, you can strain it and use it over and over again. Keep an eye on the pot and don’t let the temperature get too high; the oil should bubble insistently, but not furiously. If you’re using a thermometer, it should read between 350F and 375F. Chances are you’ve had a parent or insurance agent try to scare the wits out of you with tales of people burning down entire city blocks through inept use of chip fat; I’ve been deep-frying for ages and I’ve never burnt anything, but I approach the process with reverence and awe. Never turn your back on boiling oil, and make sure no children come near the stove. Do not answer the phone, run a bath, or go outside to weed the garden while you’ve got pakoras cooking. Don’t wear long flowing sleeves, and tie your hair back, for heaven’s sake. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you’re nervous, check out this website: tinyurl.com/howtodeepfryanything
Obviously, in an Indian restaurant these wouldn’t be served with fries and ketchup, but don’t let that stop you. If you want to keep it authentic, chop some cilantro or mint finely and stir it into some yogurt to make a nice, simple dipping sauce, then follow the pakoras with any of your favourite homemade or store-bought curries.
(serves 4 as an appetizer)
2 chicken breasts (about 400 g), skin and bone removed
½ cup yogurt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, crushed
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garam masala
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
optional: chili garlic paste (sambal olek) to taste
1 cup chickpea flour
1 tablespoon rice flour
½ teaspoon coriander
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more, to taste)
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
cold water to make batter
canola or other vegetable oil for frying (about 1 ½ litres)
1. Cut chicken breasts into strips or nuggets. Try to make sure the pieces are of equal thickness; this way they will all take equally long to cook through. Combine marinade ingredients in a bowl. Add chicken pieces, stir to coat, and refrigerate at least 40 minutes.
2. When chicken is ready, combine batter ingredients, using enough water for proper consistency; it should be thinner than pancake batter, about as thick as honey. Remove chicken pieces from marinade and drop them into the batter.
3. In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, heat your oil over a medium-high burner. You will see little swirly trails in the oil as it heats up. When it reaches 350F, it’s ready; a ball of batter dropped from the end of a spoon should sink and then immediately rise, surrounded by bubbles.
4. Gently drop pieces of batter-coated chicken in the oil, making sure not to overcrowd the pot; turn the pieces occasionally to make sure the batter cooks on both sides. The chicken will take 6-8 minutes to cook through. With a slotted spoon, remove nuggets to a newspaper-lined tray to drain. Serve warm.
To make vegetable pakoras instead, you can a) dip bite-sized pieces of your veggies of choice (cauliflower, potato, pepper, and onion are all common) into batter and fry, or b) shred up a whole pile of veggies, stir them into the batter, and drop by the spoonful into the oil; either way the vegetable fritters should cook about 5 minutes.
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