The process seemed sort of fun — at first: Take a dollop of “chicken mayonnaise,” the goopy binder that French chef Michel Richard created for his chicken nuggets recipe in “Happy in the Kitchen” (Artisan, 2006), and slather it all over these small squares of breast and thigh meat. It was like playing with mud, except you got to eat the results (and not be accused of having a pica disorder).
But the “mud” in this case was pureed chicken scrap meat combined with an egg white and seasoned with salt and pepper. The stuff was stickier than a clingy girlfriend; it reminded me of the white paste from elementary school, the stuff that almost required military-grade soap to clean off your fingers. The goop seemed to adhere to the surface of my digits better than the surface of the chicken meat. After awhile, I felt like I was trying to transfer my own skin to the chicken nuggets. A rather gross image, dontcha think?
I washed my hands a lot while assembling these nuggets, which raised a whole ’nother matter. Whether because the directions for Richard’s recipe are poorly written or because I can’t follow directions -- I prefer to believe the former -- I had a mess of breast and thigh parts to cover with goop, far more than the 20 squares that the recipes called for. I was slathering chicken meat, washing my hands, breading the balls and frying those blasted nuggets for hours. I suddenly felt very bad for the line cooks at Central who have to do this daily. (Can I leave a tip just for the cooks next time I order a bucket of fried chicken?)
When I removed the first batch of nuggets from the fryer oil, I had to admit that despite the hours of prep, despite the Sisyphean task of slathering and breading those balls and despite the fact that my fingers felt as if I had expoxyed them together, those fried chicken nuggets felt like an eternal reward for mortal suffering. I had to resist the urge to pop them like candy.
The nuggets also made me feel immediately sorry for the French. Richard, after all, told me that, as far as he knew, his native country has no savory food with this kind of transfixing crunch — a noisy prelude to something more soft and supple underneath. I had never really considered “crunchiness” a particularly American trait, but it makes sense, at least metaphorically. We’re a country that takes pride in its hard, almost armored exterior. We’re also a bit noisy when people try to take a bite out of us.
Leave it to Richard to marry American crunch with Frech gastronomic technique. It’s not a shot-gun marriage, either, or a marriage of convenience. It’s a bond of sheer sensual attraction.
Makes about 36 nuggets
This is a recipe that should be followed closely. For example, if you don’t compress those breast and thigh logs tightly, you’ll waste much of your pureed chicken binder trying to “glue” the wayward pieces into a workable ball. Pay close attention to poaching temperatures, too, and make sure to have plenty of ice on hand. The water temperature is difficult to maintain at the recommended range; you may need to devise your own method of removing overheated water and replacing it with cool tap water if you run out of ice. It’s best to have a clip-on thermometer or take constant readings with an instant-read digital thermometer.
After poaching, the log of breast meat turns a beautiful shade of pink, but that color can quickly disappear during the final deep-frying phase. Here, the pieces are cut slightly smaller than in Richard’s original recipe. In the end, nuggets at this size may yield more servings.
Are these nuggets worth all the work? Certainly if you have guests to impress.
MAKE AHEAD: The logs of chicken need to be refrigerated for at least several hours and up to a day in advance. The moist coating for the nuggets can be prepared and refrigerated a day in advance. The nuggets are best eaten the same day they are made.
Adapted from Richard’s “Happy in the Kitchen” (Artisan, 2006).
3 large boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 24 ounces total), trimmed of all fat
2 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 12 ounces total), trimmed of all fat
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Leaves from 4 sprigs thyme, finely chopped (1 teaspoon)
6 ounces day-old Italian bread or country bread, crusts removed
1 large egg white
About 5 cups canola or peanut oil, for deep-frying
1 to 3 teaspoons whole or low-fat milk (optional)
Detach the chicken tender from the underside of each chicken breast half. Use a paring knife to remove and discard the piece of sinew that runs the length of the tender. Cut the thin pointed end off of each breast and add those pieces to the tenders.
The tenders and trimmings will be used as the binder; cut them into 1-inch pieces. There should be 1 cup. If there is less, add enough cut-up breast meat to yield 1 cup.
Season both sides of the trimmed chicken breast halves and the thighs generously with salt, pepper and about half of the thyme.
To roll the thighs into a log, lightly moisten the work surface to anchor the plastic wrap, and lay out a 2-foot-long piece of the wrap with a short end facing you. Arrange the thighs end to end down the center of the plastic, starting about 4 inches from the bottom edge. Pull the wrap from the bottom up and over the thighs, pressing it against the surface of the meat. Slowly roll up the chicken in the plastic wrap, being careful not to catch the wrap in the chicken and pinching in the sides from time to time to keep the roll as compact as possible. Twist both ends of the roll and tie with kitchen twine, forming a compact log.
Repeat with the chicken breast halves, laying them end to end, with the trimmed ends overlapping. Trim the ends of the plastic wrap; this will keep water from collecting when the chicken is poached. Refrigerate the logs for at least several hours, or up to a day.
Tear the bread into pieces and place them in a food processor. Pulse to form irregular crumbs, the largest of which should be no more than 1/4 inch; do not over-process. You should have a scant 2 cups. Transfer to a wide, shallow bowl.
Combine the cup of chicken trimmings and egg white in a blender or mini food processor; puree until smooth then transfer to a bowl. Whisk in a generous pinch each of salt and pepper. Cover with plastic and refrigerate until ready to use, or for up to a day.
To cook the chicken, fill a large pot with water; using a large pot will make it easier to maintain the proper poaching-water temperature. Clip a thermometer to the side of the pot or have an instant-read digital thermometer at hand.
Heat the water to 160 degrees. It is important that the water temperature remain between 155 degrees and 160 degrees as the chicken cooks. Keep a large bowl of ice cubes next to the stove, and if the temperature climbs, add a few cubes to reduce the temperature quickly.
Place the thigh log, still wrapped in plastic, in the water and poach for 20 minutes, checking the water temperature often. If the chicken doesn’t remain under the surface of the water, wedge a wooden spoon in the pot to keep the roll submerged.
After 20 minutes, add the log of chicken breast meat; poach for 30 minutes. (The thigh log will have been poaching for a total of 50 minutes.)
Fill a large bowl with ice water.
Transfer the logs of chicken to the bowl of ice water to cool completely. If the thighs still look undercooked, return to the poaching water for a few more minutes.
Remove the logs from the ice water and wipe them dry.
Heat the canola or peanut oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat to 325 degrees.
Meanwhile, unwrap the log of poached chicken thighs. Cut it crosswise into 3/4-inch pieces. Cut the log of poached chicken breast halves in lengthwise in half, then cut each half crosswise into 3/4-inch pieces. You should have about 36 pieces.
Remove the chicken puree from the refrigerator; whisk it so it has the consistency of mayonnaise. If it is too thick, add enough milk to make it spreadable.
Line a baking sheet with a few layers of paper towels, then place a wire cooling rack over them. Use paper towels to dry the chicken pieces. Have the bowl of bread crumbs at hand.
Use your hands or a brush to coat each chicken nugget generously with the chicken puree, then roll in the bread crumbs, pressing so the crumbs adhere. Fry about 6 nuggets at time, for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, or until golden brown and crisped. Use a slotted spoon or Chinese skimmer to transfer them to the wire rack to cool. Sprinkle immediately with the remaining chopped thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Serve while they are hot.
Repeat to use all the chicken and puree.