First, a confession. I don’t watch the Super Bowl. As a matter of fact, I rarely even know who is playing. Still, I’m well aware it is far and away America’s largest secular holiday and that the celebration requires not only watching the game on television, but also eating a hefty snack or meal while doing so.
Naturally, such a manly event calls for manly cuisine, dishes designed to be eaten by hand and that will stick to the ribs. The key food groups are meat and melted cheese, preferably deep-fried.
Buffalo-style chicken wings and chicken nuggets are just the sort of deep-fried deliciousness we’re talking about. And my recipe marries the two and, incredibly, does so in a way that simultaneously satisfies the soul and keeps the blood whistling through the old arteries.
There are three reasons we all love fried food. First, the food is moist and juicy. Second, the crust is crispy. And third – and this is a well-kept secret – anything cooked in fat tastes better than food cooked without it because fat amplifies flavor even if you don’t taste the fat itself. My biggest challenge in the creation of this recipe was to construct a crisp crust without deep-frying the chicken in a vat of fat.
I worked out a delicious home-style version of chicken nuggets that requires no deep-frying years ago. I started with chicken tenders, those little flaps of chicken meat attached to the underside of each chicken breast. They’re as meaty as boneless, skinless chicken breasts, but they’re much cheaper because they’re smaller, and because of a tough little tendon that runs down the middle of each tender.
So I tenderized each tender – including the tendon – by soaking it in buttermilk before cooking it, a technique I’d learned from Southern home cooks back when I did my call-in show on the Food Network. I flavored the buttermilk with garlic and my favorite smoky hot sauce (Tabasco Chipotle), then threw in a hefty pinch of salt to create a brine.
The chicken luxuriated in this buttermilk bath for several hours, after which I coated it with a mixture of breadcrumbs and panko (for extra crunch), sauteed it in olive oil, and served it up with a wedge of lemon.
This recipe was an immediate hit at our house and quickly became part of the weekly line-up. But though I’d avoided deep-frying, the dish was still fairly caloric because the crumb mixture soaked up oil like a sponge. I solved that problem for this version of the recipe by using vegetable oil cooking spray on the chicken and cooking it not in a pan, but in the top third of a hot oven.
If it is not quite as crispy as the sautéed version, it is nonetheless ridiculously flavorful. I achieved this effect by adding a blue cheese dipping sauce, which borrows one of the trademark ingredients of Buffalo chicken wings. Traditionally, the wings are tossed in a mixture of hot sauce and butter after they come out of the hot oil. But I didn’t want to sog up my finished product, so I recommend dipping the finished baked nuggets, first in the hot sauce, then in the blue cheese. I think you will agree that this combo is a touchdown.
Buffalo Chicken Tenders
Start to finish: 2 hours 30 minutes (15 minutes active)
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons hot sauce (my favorite for this recipe is Tabasco Chipotle), divided
2 cups plus 6 tablespoons buttermilk, divided
1 pound chicken tenders (or chicken breasts cut into 3-by-1-inch strips, 1/2-inch thick)
3/4 cup whole-wheat Italian seasoned breadcrumbs
1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup low-fat mayonnaise
1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
In a medium bowl, combine the garlic, salt, 2 tablespoons of the hot sauce and 2 cups of the buttermilk. Whisk until the salt is dissolved. Add the chicken tenders and stir to coat well with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 10 hours.
When ready to cook, heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spray it with olive oil cooking spray.
In a shallow bowl combine the whole-wheat and panko breadcrumbs. In another small bowl, whisk together the remaining 6 tablespoons of buttermilk, the mayonnaise, blue cheese and lemon juice. Transfer to a ramekin for dipping. Pour the remaining 1/4 cup of hot sauce into a second ramekin for dipping.
Use a colander to drain the chicken, but do not pat it dry. Dip each chicken piece in the breadcrumb mixture, making sure it is coated well on both sides. Arrange the chicken in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet, then spritz the tops with olive oil cooking spray.
Bake on the oven’s middle shelf for 10 minutes. Turn the chicken pieces over and bake for an additional 5 minutes, or until they are just cooked through. Let cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a platter. Serve with both dipping sauces.
Nutrition information per serving: 300 calories; 80 calories from fat (27 percent of total calories); 9 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 80 mg cholesterol; 22 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 33 g protein; 1,120 mg sodium.
• Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television’s “Sara’s Weeknight Meals” and has written three cookbooks, including “Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners.”