Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Picky Eater (plus a recipe for Oven Baked Buttermilk Chicken Fingers)

I lucked out in the eating department with the child.  Minus a nursing strike when she was only six weeks old, she has been a champion eater since birth.  I even became one of those loathsome, smug first time parents of an excellent eater.  "Oh, she'll eat ANYTHING I put in front of her.  Spinach.  Kale.  Tofu.  Anything."

Enter personal choice and the terrible twos.  Smacked my smug ass right to the curb.  She was still a great eater - she just started expressing her preferences - and she had learned the power of the word no.

Following the lead of my husband's cousin, May, (who had children long before we did) I never fell into the trap of becoming a short order cook for the child.  She eats what we eat (or, at the time, a toddler-ized version thereof).  I  recall a lovely dinner of an expertly roasted cut of beef, perfectly browned roasted potatoes, a beautiful salad, a set table, and two children who "didn't want that for dinner."  May looked at her children and  calmly said "You eat what we eat or you can have toast."  I watched, in awe, as her children (aged eight and ten at the time) made themselves toast without complaint and brought it back to the table.  I decided, right in that moment, that if or when we ever had a family this is how it would work at mealtime.  And it has pretty much worked that way for the last eight years or so.  Of course, I was the one making the toast (or grabbing a yogurt, or pouring a bowl of cereal - there is room for variation) when she was younger. 

Now that we have the child's school-aged friends over at mealtime on nearly a weekly basis, I truly realize how good we have it on the food front.  Plenty of kids are great eaters.  But then, upon inviting one of them over, the child helpfully informs me of the likes and dislikes of the impending guest.

This one doesn't eat anything green.  That one eats vegetables but only raw and never any fruit.  This one eats "everything" if by everything you mean chicken, corn and carrots.  That one will only eat pasta.  With butter.

You get the picture.  But I still have to feed these kids if I've invited them for dinner.  How can I send them home without feeding them?  Enter this recipe for chicken fingers.  Trust me - these don't resemble a frozen chicken finger or a McNugget in any way.  The parent of every child who has eaten these at my table has called or e-mailed me for the recipe after their child came home talking about it.  I also have it on pretty good authority that it's popular with adults as well.  So popular in fact that it has been served on major occasions. 

Basically disaster  struck one evening when a not so adventurous eater was coiming to dinner.  I had bought some boneless chicken breasts in anticipation of making some sort of healthy breaded chicken dish.  Next came the realization that I didn't have any eggs.  I did have some buttermilk left over from a recent fried chicken dinner and figured to give it a go.  For the fried chicken I "brine" the chicken in a mixture of buttermilk, paprika, garlic and Dijon mustard before coating it in flour and frying it so I figured I could do the same here.  While the chicken was having a good soak in the butermilk mixture I combined some freshly grated parmesan with some whole wheat panko breadcrumbs and a little salt.  I pressed the chicken "fingers" (cut from organic chicken breasts) into the breadcrumb mixture and placed them on a parchment lined baking sheet.  A drizzle of olive oil and into a 400˚F oven they went.

The result?  Moist on the inside, crunchy on the outside, healthy chicken fingers that even the pickiest of eaters will love. 
Once again - the picture I took doesn't do them justice.

Oven Baked Buttermilk Chicken Fingers
Serves 4-6

  • 1.5 lbs chicken breast or chicken tenders (if using the breast cut it into tender-sized pieces)
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 cups panko breadcrumbs (if you can find whole wheat they give the dish a nice color and a little "healthier" kick)
  • 1/3 c freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • pinch of salt

  1. Combine the buttermilk, garlic, paprika, mustard, salt and pepper in a bowl large enough to accommodate the chicken.  Mix well.
  2. Add in the chicken pieces and stir to coat.  Soak the chicken in the buttermilk at least one hour and up to 24 hours.
  3. Preheat the oven to 400˚ F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment or lightly oil a baking sheet.
  4. Combine the breadcrumbs, Parmesan, and salt and mix.
  5. Remove the chicken from the buttermilk mixture and gently shake off any excess.  You want the chicken to be wet, not dripping.
  6. Press the chicken pieces into the breadcrumbs and coat on all sides.
  7. Place onto prepared baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes (this timing really depends on your oven and the size of the tenders - it's chicken you don't want it undercooked).  If desired you can turn them halfway through for even browning but they will cook through without a turn.
  8. Serve with or without a dipping sauce.  I love a mixture of orange marmalade or mango chutney and a dash of Dijon mustard.  They're also great with a drizzle of good quality honey.

Note: The chicken fingers can also be cooked and frozen as they reheat well.