Yes, that’s right, two book reviews in a row: The Vermont Cheese Book by Ellen Ecker Ogden is today’s delectable offering. I highly recommend that you check it out if you, like me, love cheeses. Although it’s intended as a celebration of Vermont’s artisanal and farmstead cheese offerings in particular, it can teach you a great deal about cheese appreciation and making in general.
In honor of that, here’s a rough recipe courtesy of last night’s dinner:
Chicken Fingers with Eggplant-Tomato Sauce and Feta Cheese
- Chicken breasts (boneless, skinless)
- Equal parts corn meal and all-purpose flour
- A spice mix of your choice (I prefer a quality curry-based mix), at a rate of 1 1/2 teaspoons for each cup of flour/cornmeal mix you use
- High-temperature-friendly oil plus a tablespoon of butter
- One medium-to-large eggplant, skinned and diced
- A tablespoon or two of olive oil
- Two cans (undrained) diced tomatoes flavored with garlic and olive oil
- One shot of dark rum
- 1/2 cup finely chopped macadamia nuts
- Crumbled feta to taste
Chicken fingers: Cut as many chicken breasts as you feel like into strips of roughly equal thickness. Heat a large pan over medium heat; once it’s hot, heat a very thin layer of oil with a tablespoon of butter added to it until the butter is melted and foaming. In a wide bowl, mix the corn meal, flour, and spice mix.
Dip strips of chicken into the buttermilk and then into the seasoned flour mixture, placing them directly into the pan from there. Once one side is thoroughly cooked and browned, turn and cook until cooked through. Repeat, adding more oil to the pan between batches and adjusting the heat up or down as necessary, until all the chicken fingers are cooked.
Sauce: It’s best to have one person cook the chicken while another cooks the sauce; otherwise, cook the sauce first and reheat when ready. Heat a second pan; add olive oil and heat through. Add the eggplant and cook until it begins to brown and soften. Add the two cans of diced tomatoes (including liquid), shot of dark rum, and finely chopped macadamias. Cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened—you should be able to draw your spoon through the sauce and see the bottom of the pan without the liquid immediately filling the empty space. Remove from heat.
Serve: Put a large spoonful of sauce on a plate, add a couple of chicken fingers, and top with crumbled feta cheese to taste.
I had the idea for the above recipe last night when I was trying to figure out how to incorporate both the chicken breasts we’d gotten on sale this week and one of the cheeses we’d picked up as a result of our review-book-inspired cheese experimentation. The first thing I realized was that I wanted some sort of coated pan-fried chicken to top with the cheese. We happened to have some buttermilk left over from some sort of baking, and Alton Brown has previously recommended it for use before dredging when coating things because of its wonderful thick, clingy texture, so that was an easy choice. I like the crispiness cornmeal lends, so mixing that into the flour was another easy choice. My husband tells me these are the best chicken fingers he’s ever had and I don’t think he was just trying to butter me up, so they definitely came out well.
As for the sauce, it started out as a way to use the eggplant we happened to pick up this weekend, and I love eggplant with tomato, so that explains the canned tomato. From there I set my husband loose on it, meaning the rum and macadamia were his inspired additions. This resulted in a semi-sweetened sauce with a delicious dark undertone that I can’t quite describe. The dish just wouldn’t have been the same without it, and honestly it was my favorite part of the whole thing. I also gave my husband the task of picking which of the many cheeses we bought this weekend to try overtop. I don’t know that I would have picked feta, so I’m glad I left that task to him—it turned out to complement the whole thing perfectly.