Thursday, October 7, 2010

Healthier Homemade Chicken Strips with Almond and Barley Coating

For most of my academic career I felt like I was treading water -- maintaining until I encountered some worthwhile pursuit that actually appealed to me.  Now, with law school graduation looming large on the horizon, I have finally found something I care about: food policy.  Whether I will be able to apply this interest to any real-world, salary-earning career is less clear, but I have been relieved to find that I have the enthusiasm to read books, scholarly articles, popular media pieces, and even legislative acts about food without losing interest.  Inevitably, my growing passion for responsibly produced food has had a pretty dramatic impact on our diet.  I've become especially selective about the meat, poultry, and eggs we buy; I usually purchase chicken from Harr Farms at the Soulard Farmer's Market (antibiotic-free, cage-free, and reasonably priced, yay!).  Part of what has allowed us to improve our eating is finding better ways to prepare at-home versions of the processed foods we would normally eat, like chicken tenders.

Unfortunately, I tend not to measure the ingredients for dishes like this; I pretty much just dump items into the bowl of my food processor until it looks right.  Here's the list of what I included, but any of the seasonings could be substituted or omitted, according to taste:

Sliced Almonds (a generous handful)
Rolled Barley Flakes (about the same amount as the almonds)
Kosher Salt (I was pretty generous with the salt because my fresh chicken is not injected at all)
Italian Seasoning
Freshly ground black pepper
Ancho Chili Powder
Garlic Powder
Onion Powder
Ground Mustard

I did not toast the almonds or barley flakes before grinding them.  I put all of the ingredients in the food processor and pulsed them together until the coating was the consistency I wanted (mostly fine with a few larger pieces of almond left).  Then I poured the coating in a shallow bowl.  In a second bowl, I whisked an egg, a splash of water, and a few dashes of  hot sauce.  From two large chicken breasts I cut 12 chicken fingers.  I preheated the oven to 375 and lined a large, rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil.  Then I placed a wire rack over the baking sheet.  When all of the prep work was done, I coated the strips with the egg mixture first, then with the crumb coating.  When they were thoroughly coated, I placed the chicken pieces on the wire rack.  I put the smallest dab of butter on each strip before sliding the sheet pan into the oven, but you could certainly skip the butter altogether.  The strips baked for about 25 minutes, but the time would ultimately depend on the thickness of the chicken pieces.

Cooking the chicken tenders on a rack avoids the gummy, soggy crust that sometimes forms on breaded items while they bake.  It also ensures that you don't leave half of that yummy coating behind on the pan.  When the strips were done, I piled them up on a plate with our favorite barbeque sauce from a local restaurant (no high fructose corn syrup) and dinner was served!  The crust was well-seasoned and a bit chewy from the barley flakes.  The variations here could be endless.  In lieu of barley, I'm sure you could use oats, or pecans instead of almonds; the seasonings could be adjusted to suit individual tastes.  Serve them with homemade honey-mustard or ketchup.  Also, I made chicken strips but this would be a great way to make smaller chicken nuggets for kids.  You could even make them in advance to freeze (but only if the chicken has not been frozen previously).  I hope you will give these easy strips a try.  They are significantly cheaper (I figured about $6.75 for 12 strips) than the restaurant equivalent and I would guess that they are also significantly more healthy.  If you come up with any interesting coating combinations, feel free to comment.  Be creative and enjoy!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Leather Cuff: Eight-Strand Flat Braid

My great-grandfather recently passed away.  He was an avid hunter during his lifetime and among his belongings my parents found a box of tanned deer hides.  There was a piece of the paper packaging left from the taxidermist who processed the hides; it was postmarked May 23, 1956.  I'm not sure what my great-grandparents intended to do with the buckskins (although it couldn't have been very urgent since the hides weren't used for more than 50 years).  When my dad called to ask if I could use the skins, I immediately told him yes although I had no idea what I would do with them.  For my first project, I decided on something small, just so I could get the feel of cutting and working with the leather.  I have always liked chunky bracelets and, although they may be a bit masculine, I decided to make a cuff.  I was leafing through the book Quick to Make from the editors of Threads Magazine and saw instructions for braided belts.  I loved the idea of an eight-strand braided bracelet but the instructions seemed sort of . . . complicated.  After perusing countless websites on the subject, I decided to go with good old trial and error and work out an easier method.

4 strands, folded in half

5 over 4
2 under 3, over 4, under 5
My wrist is about 5 1/2" around.  The 8 strands are actually 4 lengths of cord folded in half.  The strands braid to a little over half of their length.  So, I cut four lengths of leather, each 1/8" wide and 22" long (5 1/2 doubled, then doubled again).  I folded the strands in half then pinned them to my upright ironing board, as pictured.  From left to right, the strands are numbered 1-8.  Every time a strand is moved, the lengths are renumbered 1-8.  First, I crossed 5 over 4 (making 5 the new 4).  Then cross 2 under 3, over 4, under 5.  Next, 8 under 7, over 6, under 5, over 4.  Then 1 over 2, under 3, over 4.  At this point, I tightened all of the strands as much as possible without pulling out the pins.  I should say, for illustrative purposes, I used yarn in the photos because it was easier to see than the strips of leather.

8 under 7, over 6, under 5, over 4

After several more rounds, I pulled out the pins and tightened the slack at the top (sort of like tightening shoelaces), then I repinned the bracelet to the board.  I continued the pattern for the length of the braid: 8 under 7, over 6, under 5, over 4.  Then 1 over 2, under 3, over 4.  Essentially, starting from the left the pattern is over, under, over.  From the right it is under, over, under, over.    I continued to tighten the braid as I went.  Once I reached the ends of the strands, I tightened the braid one last time and stitched across the loose ends.  I pulled, stretched, tightened the braid until it was even and straight.  I stitched a cuff of leather (about 3/4" long) over the loose ends.  Into the other end of this small leather endpiece I inserted a loop for a button closure and stitched it in (I first hot glued the loop into place, though, to make it more manageable to stitch across).  On the other end of the bracelet, where the braid began, I sewed a button in the appropriate place (see the photo below).  Finished!

I'm sure this is the first of many buckskin projects to come.  The leather cut beautifully and was so easy to work with.  This braid could easily translate into a cute belt or purse straps.  It could be done in lengths of fine cord and used as trim or straps for a summer dress.  The eight-strand braid is a lot easier than it seems and pretty impressive-looking when it is done.  I hope you'll give it a try.  Be creative and enjoy!