After a tough week, I wanted something indulgent for dinner tonight, and I’d been eyeing the Coconut Crusted Chicken Nuggets on page 228 of Aloha Days Hula Nights, in the Entrees – Poultry section, just a few pages over from my favorite Teriyaki Chicken. (Which, by the way, I’ve made twice more this month, including for a very successful Father’s Day BBQ). Anything that starts with “Coconut Crusted” will catch my eye, but these nuggets were something special. Crunchy, golden, sweet, tender, and juicy – I couldn’t have asked for anything more comforting. And the peanut sauce that goes with it really had that wow! factor – spicy authentic Thai flavor that perfectly balanced the chicken’s sweetness.
When I first tasted the Peanut Sauce, I thought, “Man, that is way too spicy – why on earth did I use two jalapenos?!” And I as tried the chicken nuggets when they came out of the frying oil (after “Holy cow those are so good, yummmmmmmm, wow!!!!!”) I thought “but they’re a little sweet…” But as soon as I dipped the nuggets into the sauce and tasted them together, everything was perfectly balanced – I wouldn’t change a thing.
You see, I’m a little strange when it comes to eating restaurant dishes – my husband laughs at me because I try to get a little bit of everything on the plate onto my fork. My thinking is, there’s a reason the chef put all these things together – he or she must know something I don’t, and I want to learn. In my mind, the best cooks have a reason for everything on the plate: the elements in their dishes work together in harmony, each contributing something to elevate the dish. Some say the perfect dish combines the four (or five) basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty (and umami).
The Coconut Crusted Chicken Nuggets and Peanut Sauce made me think of this ideal balance instantly – there’s sweet from the coconut crust and the brown sugar in the marinade, sour in the marinade’s lime juice, bitter in the spices and rum, salt in the frying batter and the peanuts, and even umami in the tomatoes. There’s also spicy heat, juicy meat, fatty richness, and crunchy crust, bringing it closer to perfection. You should make this dish now. Trust me – it’s worth the extra calories. Perfect for cuddling up and watching the Bachelorette on the couch (you know you do it).
Side note: This dish is a form of tempura, that quintessential Japanese frying batter, which includes some form of carbonated liquid to fluff up the batter. I’ve never made a tempura batter, so I was excited to try it. It worked great – it seemed foolproof to me. Some tempura recipes are fussy about temperature or overmixing, but this recipe (featuring club soda) made it easy – and delicious!
Leftover Update: Fried food is never as good when reheated as leftovers, but these were actually quite tasty from the microwave – the Peanut Sauce flavors melded overnight and the coconut kept its crunch. Two times the tasty!
I’m hungry just looking at these again – crunchy, sweet, and spicy. What a treat!
Coconut Crusted Chicken Nuggets
CHICKEN NUGGETS Ingredients:
- 1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 3 cloves garlic, passed through press
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- 2 tablespoons dark rum
- 1 tablespoon packed dark brown sugar
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup club soda
- Vegetable oil
- 3 cups shredded coconut
PEANUT SAUCE Ingredients:
- 2 jalapeno peppers
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil
- 1 medium Ewa sweet onion, diced
- 1 large clove garlic, passed through press
- 1 large tomato, diced
- 1/2 cup coconut milk
- 1 cup chopped peanuts
- 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Rinse and pat dry chicken breasts. Cut into 1 1/2 x 1 1/2-inch pieces. Mix together paprika, cumin, turmeric, cayenne and garlic. Rub onto chicken pieces. Place in a glass bowl and toss with lime juice, rum, and sugar. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 2 to 6 hours.
In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Whisk in club soda. Let stand for 10 minutes. Remove chicken from marinade. In a deep heavy skillet, heat 1 1/2 inches of oil over medium heat. Place one-third of coconut on shallow plate, replace as needed. Working with a few pieces of chicken at a time, dip into batter, letting the excess drip off. Roll in coconut, pressing firmly to adhere. Place in hot oil, frying in batches about 4 to 5 minutes, until crisp and golden. Drain on paper towels. Serve with Peanut Sauce.
Peanut Sauce: Place jalapenos under broiler unit and roast, turning until they start to blister. Remove, let cool, then seed and mince. Heat oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add onion and garlic. Sauté 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in tomato, jalapeno, and coconut milk. Cook 10 minutes or until soft, stirring frequently. Stir in peanuts and peppers. The sauce can be stored in a covered container in refrigerator up to one week.
Note: Omit coconut milk and serve as a topping on braised greens or as a pureed spread on pita bread.
Serves 6. Makes about 1 cup Peanut Sauce.
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