Monday, February 11, 2013

Continuing a Zen Kitchen Study: Panko

This is a continuation of the trilogy that started with my new favorite snack, Onigiri. You can find that post linked here. Today we are going to talk about Panko, it's many components and applications, and my recipe for panko-crusted chicken.

I have a great love for both tempura and panko in their approaches to frying. There is something about lightly battered and flash fried goodies that makes my heart flutter. However, the miracle of panko not only lends itself to frying but also to baking, which is a recipe that I feature here today. If you want to read more about the approach to tempura frying, it is much more involved than panko, I also whipped up a batch of tempura okra that turned out to be legendary.

I believe that most people have tried panko fried shrimp, which is a wonderful dish completed by ponzu sauce, or whatever light Japanese-inspired sauce you can whip up. Honestly, it doesn't even make it to a sauce when I encounter a plate of panko shrimp, it just pops directly into my mouth. In my experience panko lends itself best to vegetables, fish, and lean meat, and I only say this because I can't imagine trying to panko encrust beef or just doesn't feel right, but perhaps there is a tradition somewhere that features such a protein selection. In my book, fish, chicken, and vegetables provide fine vessels for panko, allowing it to cook quickly, remain light, and deliver a satisfying crunch.

If you do want to fry using panko, let me recommend some techniques I've picked up from various places. First soak the chicken in milk for at least 30 minutes, then roll it in corn starch and tap off the excess, then dip it in an egg wash and press it into your panko crumbs. Fry as normal. This ritual is changed slightly while baking because that crunchy crust is not entirely necessary or achievable as with frying...but make no mistake, it is no less satisfying! The overhaul of dairy products not only provides adherence for the breading, but it also adds incredible richness.

Crunchiness is one of the aspects of mouthfeel that I desire almost to the point of addiction. If I am snacking on something, I typically want a crunchy snack. Perhaps it is my subconscious feeling like it's getting something done, or maybe my jaw enjoys the fact that there is percussion accompanying all its hard work. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way---otherwise, if it weren't for the inspirational crunch, how could anyone put up with the god-awfulness that is the "Cheeto"?

Let's return to something that will make your meals a little better, inspired by the beautiful breading that has become associated with Japanese fried goods, and now can grace your baked mains.

Note: I chose to crumble up some seaweed (sold now in packets as "Sea veggies", which I find amusing, as if the term "seaweed" was somehow not as marketable anymore....please) and mix it in with the panko crumbs. You could easily do this with roasted nori or sesame seeds, to add a little color and flavor. I found it delightful and it cooked up really well next to the panko, not changing the integrity of the breading.

Panko Chicken
Organic chicken breast, sliced thin
Sesame oil
Panko crumbs
Seaweed, crumbled to the size of the panko (optional)
Sesame seeds (optional)

Clean and trim your chicken breast of fat and slice it into even pieces. Cutting them smaller and even will ensure that they all cook at the same rate, and that they cook faster.

Heat your oven to 350º

Crack a few eggs into a medium bowl and beat them with a couple splashes of sesame oil. Put the chicken breast in this egg wash and let them sit in there while you are preparing your breading. If you want to do this ahead of time, the chicken could sit in the egg wash in the fridge, covered. However, it is always better to cook your food while at room temperature--you can be more accurate with timing and the food isn't forced to change its temperature at an unnatural speed. Trust me, adding fire is quick enough for room temperature food, then try to imagine it with something that has been frozen or refrigerated. I store my eggs on the counter at room temperature anyway, so I don't have a fear or letting chicken sit in eggs..but some of you might have, so just take note of the room temperature thing for when you prepare your food.

The breading should be spread out on a large plate that will allow you ample room for rolling around your chicken pieces. You can choose at this point to go straight panko, or add your seaweed and/or sesame seeds. I promise that the addition of these last two optional ingredients will only add to the flavor and crunch, as they do not suck up additional moisture and they do not burn in the baking process. Press the eggy chicken pieces into the breading, making sure that all surfaces are covered

Arrange the breaded chicken on a baking sheet....parchment paper might be a good idea, but it doesn't take much to get it off after cooking. I used a pair of tongs. I'd say bake it for 15-20 minutes. Check around 15. They should come out slightly golden. I served it with straight soy sauce, which in retrospect is a little heavy for my taste, so I'd go with ponzu sauce if any. I enjoyed the addition of seaweed to the breading, so that was enough for me!

I hope you try this little gem out, and try your hand at fish or vegetables. Play around, I'd like to see what else is happening outside my kitchen!


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