Chicken — popular, safe and ubiquitous — can sometimes fall victim to its own success because it has been offered and iterated so many ways on today's menus. That everyday familiarity of America's most popular protein puts a real challenge before creative chefs. They either rise to the occasion or they generate yawns.
It is indeed fortunate that so many onsite chefs choose to do the former. Often, they will employ lesser-used cuts or new types of prep methods to “upscale” their presentations and flavor profiles, adding value and variety without necessarily adding much in the way of cost. Do this successfully, and no one will see your menu as “ho-hum.”
Making poultry a platform
It helps to think of chicken as a “flavor platform,” says Paul Reinfeld, a regional chef for Chartwells Higher Education division. For catered events at client Johnson & Wales University in North Miami, FL, “chicken is still the one thing most will order,” he says. “Still, ordinary preparations can disappoint at the higher VIP level, where the perception can be that chicken dishes are too commonplace.”
To combat that, Reinfeld looks to introduce more exotic flavors while still emphasizing the comfort level that poultry brings. Diners are more willing to consider unusual flavor combinations when they realize those flavors are anchored to something familiar, Reinfeld says.
Here's an example along those lines: chunks of Thai-flavored chicken atop sliced avocado “carpaccio” and served with a few ounces of avocado pulled tea (borrowed from Malaysia, where tea is poured quickly back and forth between two pitchers to build body and cappuccino-like froth) on the side. The recipe was developed by Chef Matthew Vasquez, a foodservice director for a Eurest Dining Services account. It's anything but commonplace (see recipe p. 52).
Chicken provides similar benefits at The Commons Center, the dining facility and community square of the area where first-year students live and learn at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.
At Vanderbilt, Chef Bill Claypool uses a similar strategy to add sizzle to poultry offerings in selected menus and venues.
For example, he upscales chicken with the use of premium ingredients to make Spinach-Stuffed Chicken Breast with Summer Vegetables and Red-Pepper Coulis, served with a melange of white corn kernels and brunoised carrot, butter-sauteed asparagus spears and sauteed shiitake mushrooms (see recipe, next page), offered at The Commons Center. Another of his creations is Sauteed Chicken Breast with Shrimp Creole. In it, a handful of shrimp atop the chicken adds value and contrast to the basic protein.
Vanderbilt's meal plan is mandatory for all first- through third-year students, and “chicken is the number-one protein on students' plates” throughout the university, says Camp Howard, director of dining. Vanderbilt operates dining outlets campus-wide according to a retail paradigm that gives all 4,500 students on the meal plan a wealth of dining choices.
“Students grew up with chicken and are comfortable with it,” Howard says. “For us, it's priced right, so we challenge our chefs to come up with interesting and creative ways to use chicken, from different rubs and seasonings for the whole bird to tandoori with leg and thigh meat. The general consensus is, if it's chicken, it tastes good, so the sky's the limit with ethnic cuisines, fun sauces and marinades and different cooking techniques.”
A recent case in point: Africa-inspired kabobs boasting spicily rubbed chicken leg and thigh meat along with chunks of roasted sweet potato and marinated cabbage, all speared with a bamboo skewer and then grilled to perfection.
“Chicken certainly can be boring, but it doesn't have to be,” says Thomas Schneller, an assistant professor at The Culinary Institute in Hyde Park. He teaches meat fabrication at the CIA and is the author of Poultry: Identification, Fabrication and Utilization, the upcoming third volume in the new Kitchen Pro Series of food instructional books from the school.
Schneller observes that so many offerings are based on skinless, boneless chicken breast that skin-on airline breast, as well as chicken legs and thighs, offer special opportunities. “They are extremely reasonable in cost and have a lot of flavor,” he adds.
Kevin J. Blaney, a Northeast regional executive chef for Chartwells Higher Education, reports that he likes to use the airline breast for what it lends a presentation.
“The wing bone attached to the breast holds the natural shape and thickness of the breast and keeps it moist through the cooking process,” he says.
“I leave the skin on, which allows me to pan-sear or grill the breast and keep some of that fat for flavor. Once the breast has been cooked, you let it rest, and then you can carve the breast and fan the slices onto the plate with the bone still attached to the last piece. The slices are shingled to resemble the breast's original shape. Prepared this way, it's very moist, has caramelized skin for flavor, and you can rest it up against another plate component to get more height.”
It's all in the technique
Schneller also believes that more exotic marination and grilling techniques can help onsite operators find more applications for flavorful dark meat.
Although working with the whole chicken carcass adds labor costs and can be prohibitive for high volume needs, in the right situations, the approach can help increase plate elegance and price point, he says.
“You can buy a roaster chicken, bone it out flat, stuff and roll it and then tie and carve it to yield light and dark meat.”
“That's perceived value you can charge for,” he adds.
So-called 'glove-boning' is another specialized technique that can add value in the right application. At The School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College, Chicago, culinary students learn to glove-bone Cornish hens and other small birds such as squab and poussin. These are then stuffed and roasted or grilled.
“Glove-boning is a classic technique for fabricating poultry,” says Mike Artlip, CEC, CCE, CHE. Artlip is chair of the school's associate-degree program and is also chef and manager of the Café that serves students and faculty of the college's four schools.
The technique gets its name because after preparation, the boneless carcass ostensibly can fit over the hand like a glove.
“The bone-in thighs and legs add perceived value,” says Artlip, while still offering flexibility of cooking method and plate presentation. It also allows the diner to enjoy a succulent item that is easy to cut and eat with a knife and fork.
|Here are links to some great related recipes selected from past issues of FM.|
Chicken Breasts filled with Prosciutto di Parma and Fontina
California Raisin Pan-Seared Chile Chicken Breast
Potato & Herb-Crusted Chicken
Grilled Thai Chicken Thighs
- Spinach-Stuffed Chicken Breast with Summer Vegetables and Red-Pepper Coulis
- Grilled Chicken Breasts with Wild Mushrooms, Herbs and Marsala
- Deli Chicken Bruschetta Knife & Fork Sandwich
- Chicken Mignon with Roasted New Potatoes and Green Beans with Fire-Roasted Tomatoes
- Glove-Boned Cornish Hen with Peppers
- Orecchiette with Chicken, Asparagus, Shiitakes and Fontina Fondue
- Carpaccio of Avocado and Chicken Salad Thai Style
- Chicken Breasts with Roasted Tomatillo-Avocado Salsa