When I think coconut, I tend to think shrimp. Now, while coconut shrimp are all very well and good, my budget isn’t always in the mood for shrimp. These were inspired by a friend who recently made them for his beautiful little daughter when he couldn’t face another Thursday night pizza.
I usually have IQF (individually quick-frozen) chicken tenders in the freezer because they’re so useful when cooking for one. I’ve come to think of these as kids’ food all grown up. I remember when the son and the daughter were small, I could generally entice them to eat nearly anything if I made it dippable. There’s something so very satisfying about food eaten with one’s hands, whatever the age.
The dipping sauce based on coconut milk came to me as I was riding my bike to work the other morning. I often see cyclists around town with iPod wires snaking out from under their helmets, and I can’t imagine how they can cut off their hearing. While I love the free-association time, I also like to be able to hear the car that’s about to run me off the road.
At any rate, I was thinking thoughts of sauce that morning. The chicken needed a dipping sauce – not ketchup, and not, God forbid, ranch dressing. I mentally scrolled through what I remembered discovering on a recent journey to the back of a pantry cupboard and a single can of coconut milk popped up. I shouted out loud, “Oh my God, that’s IT!” And then spent the rest of the ride so focused on what flavors I could add to it to make it really interesting that I’m not sure I would have heard a semi truck trying to run me down.
FOR THE STIX
4 chicken tenders *
1 egg, whisked with a pinch of salt **
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup Panko ***
1/2 cup unsweetened dried coconut ****
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
12 grinds from a pepper mill
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup Mae Ploy (sweet chili sauce)
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons lemongrass paste *****
Juice of 1 lime
1″ grated fresh ginger
Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste
Sriracha to taste, if you need it to be hotter
1/4 cup very thinly sliced scallion greens
* Your tenders are going to release some water as they thaw because when frozen, water-containing cells swell and rupture, and when thawed, water is turned loose. So lay them out on a plate lined with a thick layer of paper towels and blot them dry on both sides. If you don’t, your crust will likely be soggier than you may like.
** Just a pinch of salt breaks down the viscosity of the protein in the egg white so that it whisks together more homogeneously with the yolk.
*** Panko is very dry breadcrumbs. You can find breading crumbs in the flour and baking aisle of most grocery stores, but if you look in the Asian foods section, the same product with a different label will cost you one to two dollars less.
**** Unsweetened coconut (AKA macaroon coconut) can be found in any natural foods store with a good bulk bins section. Its flakes are smaller, so the flavor dissipation on your palate is greater, the flavor is much more coconutty, if you will, than sweetened coconut, and when baked it matches Panko crunch for crunch. Too, sweetened coconut basically will burn over the length of time that the chicken needs to be in the oven.
***** If you live in an area where you can blessedly find fresh lemongrass, well lucky, lucky you. I don’t suspect that describes most of us, though, so look in your grocery store’s produce section for lemongrass paste. It’s an ingenious product, and if you keep it on hand, you may be surprised by the ways you wind up using it.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees because you’re going to bake, not fry these beauties. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
- Pour the whisked egg onto a plate. Scatter the flour over a separate plate.
- Stir together the Panko, coconut, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Pour them out onto a third plate.
- Working with one tender at a time, dip it into the egg, then into the flour, turning it over so that each side is covered. Dip it back into the egg, then lay it in the crumb mixture. Cover the tenders with the crumbs, pressing down firmly to adhere a good crust. I know, there’s a whole lot of dipping going on, but if you follow this sequence, you’ll have an excellent crisp crust as opposed to a soggy one, or one where approximately half of it won’t stick to anything but your fingers. And if you use tongs, adherence of all the layers will be even better and your hands won’t be a mess. Transfer tenders to the baking sheet. Discard the egg, flour, and crumbs.
- Bake for about 20 minutes, until the tenders are gently browned and a thermometer inserted in the middle registers 165 degrees.
- While the tenders are baking, make the dipping sauce. Whisk together all of the sauce ingredients, except for the Sriracha. First taste the sauce, then add drops of Sriracha if you need it to be hotter. I do. The sauce may appear on the thin side. Not to worry; the crisp, crunchy coating will nap it perfectly without picking up so much that it is overpowering.
- Pour the remaining coconut milk into an ice cube tray, and freeze it. When frozen, pop the coconut cubes out and freeze them in a plastic bag. Add a few of them to rice to lend an interesting flavor note. Thaw and add a couple to an Asian slaw. Think outside the ice cube tray.
- Serve the tenders alongside a bowl of the dipping sauce that you’ve garnished with thinly sliced greens of scallions.