I let the first bite seduce me, wash over me. The second one swept me off my feet, pulled me under. By the third, though, I surfaced, gasping, realizing I needed to pay attention and commit the creation to gustatory memory. While I travel with a small journal (Moleskines are wonderful), I don’t record the intricacies of each memorable dish. Rather, I jot down the date, place and its name. Given the name of a dish, I’m blessed with a pretty clear memory of what held it together. I may struggle to tell you what today’s day and date are, but mention First Night in Florence Spaghetti, and that entire evening floods back, as it and that pasta are indelibly seared upon my memory. I have no idea what the dish was called on the menu, and it isn’t important. My journal entry bears a cryptic: ”Shit it’s hot. Now I know what al dente really means. Tuna, tomatoes, spinach, lemon. I could eat this way forever. I could eat here forever.”
My sister and I were in Santa Barbara visiting her son, then a student at UCSB, and in the middle of a day spent wandering among the nooks and crannies of State Street, we sat down on the terrace of a small restaurant for lunch. I remember a green, shady scent, the sea-breeze fluffing palm leaves and bamboo fonds, hummingbirds screaming each other away from fuchsias all around us. I don’t remember seeing red cabbage allegedly listed among the ingredients of the wrap sandwich I ordered. As I’ve mentioned, I’d long been cabbage-averse. But that first bite changed my life.
Grilled chicken, shards of scallions, tender avocado slices, sprigs of cilantro, and
paper-thin shreds of red cabbage all tossed in a cumin-coriander-lime yogurt dressing. Stop. Don’t anyone say anything. Breathing in through my nose as I chewed, I’d swear there was a hint of . . . ginger? . . . maybe lemongrass, too? Certainly a crush of red pepper. Heaven-on-earth was feeling very near.
Okay, so it was a sandwich, for crying out loud. Not a tall, wavy-haired, olive-toned man, draped in classic beauty and an iconic rumpled linen suit, gliding before me down the Lungarno delle Grazie in Florence on a brilliant July afternoon, turning his head imperiously yet obligingly toward the Arno so that his profile might be as equally adored as his, well, you know. But it was just as perfect. Like the Florentine gentleman, every single part of that sandwich contributed to a whole immeasurably greater than its sum.
Chicken tenders are a staple of my freezer. One might think they were designed especially for a solitary cook; they’re packaged IQF (individually quick-frozen), so I can pull out only what I need for a lunch or a dinner plus leftovers for another time. Perfect! Michaelangelo might not have appreciated them as much as he would have that gentleman – with or without his linen suit. But I do.
6 chicken tenders, because you’re going to grill extra to freeze for another time
2 or 3 tablespoons corn oil
Juice of 1/2 lime
Sea or kosher salt and pepper
1/8 head of red cabbage, sliced ultra-thin (a mandoline is perfect here, though a good sharp knife will do nearly as well)
2 or 3 scallions thinly sliced
Handful of cilantro (leaves and stems), chopped
1 cup unflavored Greek yogurt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon lemongrass paste
Generous pinch of red pepper flakes
Juice of 1/2 lime
Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste
FOR THE SANDWICH
1 large spinach-flavored tortilla
1/4 avocado, thinly sliced
Thinly sliced curls of red onion
- If, like mine, your tenders are frozen, pull 6 of them out and seal them in a ziplock bag. The safest, and interestingly also the quickest, way to thaw them is in cold water. Cold water behaves with frozen foods exactly the way it does toward the human body in cold water. It conducts both heat and cold extremely well, so it wicks cold away from frozen foods allowing them to thaw faster than they would at room temperature alone. So set your zip lock bag in a large bowl of cold water. Turn them over every 10 minutes or so. Within about 30 minutes, they’ll be thawed and ready for their quick marinade. First, though, lay a couple of thicknesses of paper towel on a plate. Spread the tenders out on it, and press a couple of paper towels down on top of them as well. Just before they are IQFd, they are sprayed with a thin sheen of water which freezes almost instantly and helps maintain a barrier between all the tenders once bagged. That is the water you are blotting away.
- Preheat your oven to 250 degrees.
- Light a medium-sized charcoal fire or a propane grill. Pour the corn oil onto the same plate on which you dried the tenders and turn them over in it, coating both sides. Salt and pepper them, then squeeze the lime juice over them. Allow to sit at room temperature while the fire burns down/heats up. You’ll only use two or so per sandwich, but deeply flavored chicken is such a treasure to have in the freezer, that as long as you’re building a fire, you may as well make good use of it. Besides, I would hardly expect you to build a fire just to grill one or two pieces of chicken.
- Whisk together all the dressing ingredients and set it aside so they can blend. Before mixing with the cabbage, taste it and adjust any seasonings as necessary.
- Thinly shred the cabbage – this is an excellent job for a mandoline. Slice the
scallion greens 1/4″ thick, and chop a generous handful of cilantro. Toss them all together in a mixing bowl.
- When the fire is ready, spread the coals out into a single layer. Lay the chicken tenders on the grill. If you try to cook the chicken all the way through on the grill, you run the risk that it will be dry and tough. So basically get some good grill-marks and smoky flavor to both sides, about 4 to 5 minutes per side with the lid open, then remove them to a clean plate and set them in the oven to finish cooking gently. Mine were at 145 degrees when they went into the oven; within 10 minutes (I set a timer to check them at 5-minute intervals), they read 165 degrees at the center. Remove them from the oven and let sit at room temperature to cool and rest for about 5 minutes. Turn off the oven.
- Set the tortilla shell in the oven so that the residual heat can firm it up a bit. If you try to make this or any wrap sandwich with a cold tortilla, chances are very good that it will tear. Let it warm while you prepare the filling.
- Thinly slice two or three of the chicken tenders and add them to the bowl containing the cabbage mixture. Add 4 ounces of the dressing, and use tongs to toss all the ingredients together. Thinly slice 1/4 of an avocado, as well as some curls of red onion, as many as you wish, and set them both aside.
- Remove the tortilla from the oven. Distribute about a scant cup of the filling along its center. Don’t be greedy; resist the urge to over-fill. Remember, you can always make another. The juice of a blushing, perfect peach may be exquisite as it runs down your chin and arms, but a sandwich doesn’t carry quite the same charm. Place the avocado and onion slice along the length of the filling. To roll it up, first fold in the ends. Next, fold the near edge away from you over the filling, and gently pressing in on the ends with the heels of your hands and gripping the middle of the tortilla and filling, roll it all to the opposite side. Press gently to set the filling within the tortilla, and let it sit for a couple of minutes to settle itself. Then slice it in half on the diagonal across the middle. Transfer to a plate.
By the way, yes, I am peripherally aware that it is probably Sunday, not Saturday. Work has been very intense, with days off grabbed whenever available and with no consistency from one week to the next. Quite honesty, I am so day-challenged right now that you could successfully convince me it’s Tuesday and I wouldn’t argue with you. But I have been thinking about this sandwich since last Saturday, and I’m so happy to finally have a chance to make it for dinner tonight that I decided to go ahead and post it. Because who knows if I’ll have time again before next Saturday.
Save the leftover dressing in a refrigerator container. Securely wrap, bag, and freeze your leftover grilled chicken. Because a week like mine can happen to anyone at any time, and an instant, wonderful dinner will save you.