To a dim sum newbie, braised chicken feet (a.k.a. Phoenix Claws) can look as intimidating to eat as it sounds. Plump braised chicken feet sticking out of a small bowl—it's a dish for those who love cartilage, skin, and bones. On top of that, it's also one of the most time-consuming dim sum dishes to make.
So why bother? Well, apart from the obvious street cred you get for transforming the least desirable part of a very mundane bird into something edible, it's actually one of the tastiest dim-sum dishes around, provided you get over that mental hurdle. Cooked in a three-step process—frying, braising, and simmering in sauce—the chicken feet turn from tough and leathery into tender, gelatinous, and flavor-packed. Give them a shot and you may well find yourself fighting for that last claw so that you can suck every last bit of delicious skin and cartilage from between the tiny bones.
My recipe is fairly classic, and designed to give the chicken feet the most flavor, with the tenderest texture. Bur first things first: The pedicure.
Most chickens spend the majority of their time walking around in, well, their own droppings, so you'll want to take extra care to make sure the feet are clean.
Start by locating and removing all tiny blemishes with a set of sharp kitchen shears.
Next, trim down the nails. You want to completely remove the claws. They're no fun to eat.
The next step is exfoliation. Rub those chicken feet with plenty of coarse kosher salt to gently remove any surface impurities or loose skin. A quick rinse will get rid of the excess salt and scum.
Unusually, this recipe requires deep frying before braising—in most Western recipes, you'd see the reverse. This deep-frying step is not so much about getting the chicken feet crisp (any crispness disappears in the subsequent braising step), but more about priming it to pick up flavors from the brine you're going to pack it into later on.
Long tongs or deep-frying chopsticks are the best tools for the job here.
I always work in small batches and keep the lid on top of the pot, left just slightly cracked. Be careful, since chicken feet will sputter and spit a lot! To minimize spatter, make sure to dry the chicken very thoroughly with paper towels before adding them to the oil. If you have a dedicated deep fryer or an outdoor space to fry in, all the better.
After five minutes in the oil, the feet should be a pale golden-brown.
Next step: the brine. I make my brine like tea, by pouring hot water over the aromatics (in this case, star anise, bay leaf, cloves, and ginger). When the chicken feet go in, I add some cold water to cool it down rapidly, along with some Xiaoshing wine. The chicken feet rest in this brine for two hours.
All that, and we're only about halfway done. Now we get to the real cooking step: the braise.
You could use some of the existing brine to form the flavor base of your braise, but I find that you get cleaner, fuller flavors by starting fresh, this time using chicken broth in place of the water, along with more aromatics and wine. I add the chicken feet and simmer them until completely tender. It takes about two more hours.
Think we're done yet? Think again. The last step is still to come: making the sauce. Chicken feet have a ton of connective tissue in them, and this connective tissue breaks down and forms gelatin, which gives the braising liquid a rich, mouth-coating texture. I'm going to take advantage of this in a moment.
But first, we start our sauce by sautéing some fermented black beans, garlic, and chilies in a pot. When they're nice and aromatic, I add back some of the reserved braising liquid, along with some oyster sauce and soy sauce.
In go the chicken feet, as well as a touch of cornstarch to give the sauce even more body. I simmer the cooked feet in the sauce for about 10 minutes, which gives them that final layer of built-in flavor.
You can serve the chicken feet right away, but if you want to take it easy before your guests arrive, you can also cook them a few days in advance and steam them with their sauce in a bamboo steamer just before serving.
So is all this extra effort worth it in the end? I'll let you know just as soon as I finish picking the last flavorful scraps of meat off of this toe, ok?