Chicken Dinners: Buttermilk-Thyme Chicken Tenders with Cranberry Mustard Sauce and Sweet Potato Fries

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[Photograph: Yvonne Ruperti]

I was torn with this one. Do I go healthy, or tasty? I researched recipes, soul-searched a bit, and then decided that there are some foods that are just meant to be fried, not oven-baked—chicken tenders and french fries included. I know, frying isn't good for you, but tossing on a sheet pan with a mist of oil isn't gonna get that addictive flavor and crispiness that makes a chicken tender or fry worth eating. Anyway, I don't fry all the time. Or so I tell myself.

To make sure that the chicken tenders were both juicy and crisp, I looked to a recent recipe by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt for Homemade Chick-Fil-A Sandwiches. To help the chicken tenders retain moisture, I followed the brining step, but for a much shorter time. For the flour coating, I added thyme, and an assortment of spices and flavorings to the dry mix. For the egg dip, I picked the subtle tanginess of buttermilk. And for the crispiest, most crunchiest tenders, I followed the same lead as the Chick-Fil-A method and mixed a bit of the egg/buttermilk mixture into the dry mix. The reason? When the chicken tenders are dipped in to coat, the moister, coarser dry mix creates a craggy coating which fries up extra crunchy.

The chicken was easy compared to the sweet potato fries. Unlike a regular potato, the composition of a sweet potato is such that it simply resists getting crunchy, even in a hot oil fry. And I wanted to keep the method simple (no pre-cook, pre-fry, or pre-freeze). Straight frying results in soft and wimpy fries, so a common technique is to coat the potatoes with something that will actually crisp up. I fried up a few batches, testing coatings to see which became the crispiest. Straight cornstarch was a disaster, as was wheat flour. Rice flour fared slightly better, but not good enough. I wondered if the same coating method as the chicken tenders would work for the fries. I mixed up a similar dry mix as for the tenders (but with rice flour), then stirred in a few tablespoons of buttermilk to moisten. I dipped the potato sticks in the buttermilk, then into the dry, and fried. The result? Crisp fries covered in tiny bits of crunchy coating. Now I will admit that the texture will never compare to a regular potato fry, but for a sweet potato fry it's pretty darn good.

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Buttermilk-Thyme Chicken Tenders with Cranberry Mustard and Sweet Potato Fries »