Thursday, May 26, 2011

Indulging a Craving

I broke one of my cardinal rules tonight—dinner prep should be easy—in the interest of satisfying a craving.  We used to live in the Midwest, and I loved the pecan crusted chicken salad from a restaurant chain out there called O’Charley’s.  Northwest PA doesn’t have anything quite like O’Charley’s, and though TGIFriday’s has a decent version, there’s not one of those anywhere nearby either.  So, I had to figure out how to make a version of the salad myself.  Last fall I got a sample issue of the magazine Cuisine at Home. It looks like a good cooking magazine, but I already subscribe to three magazines with recipes that I use regularly, so I couldn’t really justify subscribing to this one, too.  However, I am happy to use the recipes they sent me for free!  I was excited to see a recipe for a pecan crusted chicken salad in the free issue.  I have adapted it for a little more convenience and to more closely approximate the O’Charley’s version.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s well worth a little extra work.
Pecan Crusted Chicken Salad
For the chicken:
½ loaf ciabatta bread, cubed
Handful fresh Italian parsley
Salt and pepper
¾ -1 c. pecans
½ tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. dried thyme leaves
9 pieces boneless, skinless chicken tenderloins (I figured 2 per adult and 1 per child)
2 whole eggs
2 tsp. cornstarch
3 Tbsp. olive oil
For the salad:  (makes 3 dinner salads)
3 small heads lettuce greens (I use artisanal greens from Aldi)
1 sm. can mandarin oranges, drained and cut to bite-sized pieces
Dried berries (I like the mixed berries from Aldi, but I’ve made it with just cranberries)
1 c. whole pecans
Gorgonzola cheese crumbles
Sweet balsamic vinaigrette (I used store-bought this time, but it’s easy to make with a ratio of 2:2:1 of oil, sugar, and vinegar.  Adjust the sugar to your taste, and try mixing different vinegars such as raspberry, balsamic, white wine, etc.)

Preheat oven to 200o.  Place bread in food processor and process until you get crumbs.  There should be a range of sizes from pea-sized crumbs down to almost powder (see picture below.)  Work in batches if necessary to avoid overworking the food processor.  Spread crumbs on a rimmed baking sheet and place in oven to dry for 10-12 minutes.  Do not allow crumbs to toast.  Meanwhile, trim excess skin and fat from the tenderloins, if necessary, and pat dry with paper towels.  Beat together eggs and cornstarch in shallow dish (such as a pie plate.)  Pulse pecans, parsley, oregano, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste in the food processor until pecans are finely chopped.  Remove bread crumbs from oven and increase heat to 450o.  In a second shallow dish, combine bread crumbs and pecan mixture.  Set up an assembly line with the tenderloins, egg wash, crumbs, and a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet.  Dip each tenderloin in the egg wash, then roll in the crumbs, pressing the crumbs to the chicken to help them adhere.  Gently place each tenderloin on the wire rack (some crumbs will fall off.)  When all the chicken is coated, place the chicken on the rack in the refrigerator to allow them to air dry, 20-30 minutes.  This helps set the crust.  While the chicken is resting, wash, dry and tear the salad greens.  Toast the whole pecans in a toaster oven set to 300o until they are fragrant, about 5-10 minutes (you can also toast them in a dry skillet over medium heat on the stovetop if you don’t have a toaster oven.)  Fill three salad plates with greens.  Top with dried berries (or fresh if available,) mandarin orange pieces, toasted pecans, and gorgonzola cheese.  Use amounts of each that look good to you, according to your taste.  When it’s about time to remove the chicken from the fridge, heat olive oil in a large oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat, until shimmering.  Place the chicken pieces carefully in the pan, laying them toward you to allow loose crumbs to form a bed for the chicken.  Sauté until chicken is golden brown and crisp on one side, about 3 minutes.  Carefully turn with a spatula and transfer the skillet to the oven to finish cooking.  Roast chicken until done, 8-10 minutes depending on the thickness of the tenderloins.  Place tenderloins on top of salads (1-2 per salad depending on the size of the chicken pieces.)  Sprinkle any toasted crumbs left in the pan over the salads.  Pass vinaigrette at the table.
Cube the bread to help process it into crumbs

The crumbs shouldn't be uniform--look for a range from pea-sized to powdery

Breading assembly line

Phew!  It is a lot of work, but I love the flavors in this salad, and it will be easier the next time I make it.  That’s because I turned the whole loaf of bread into crumbs, but I put half in a freezer bag, so I have homemade crumbs already made for next time I want to bread something.  I didn’t dry them yet because depending on the recipe, I might want soft crumbs, and they’re easy enough to dry if I want, straight from the freezer.  I also had a good bit of the pecan breading mixture left over, and I froze that, too, so when I crave this salad again I only have to thaw the crumbs when I thaw the chicken.

I made some significant changes from the original Cuisine at Home recipe, which was actually a little hard to follow in the magazine because it was spread over several pages.  One article had a basic crusted chicken breast recipe, and several pages later was the pecan variation, with instructions for a pretty different salad.  I didn’t get as fancy with the spices as they called for.  I also chose to use the tenderloins rather than whole breasts, which the original recipe wants you to trim and pound to an even thickness.  I am still not proficient at the art of pounding chicken breasts, and the recipe is complicated and labor-intensive enough as it is.  The tenderloins are a little more pricey (not by much, as I get them at Aldi,) but I’ll pay for the convenience in this case. 

The recipe called for a non-stick pan but I had no problem in this one

Salad, just waiting for chicken

The O’Charley’s salad I love is actually a chopped salad with dried cranberries, mandarin oranges, candied pecans, and bleu cheese crumbles and comes with a sweet balsamic vinaigrette.  I don’t go to the trouble of chopping the greens, and I don’t candy the pecans—they taste great just toasted and they’re better for me.  Tonight I happened to have fresh strawberries on hand, so I threw those on, too.  In addition to the vinaigrette, we passed some raspberry vinegar at the table and the extra flavor a few sprinkles lent to the salad was really nice.

Ready to dig in!  I sliced the chicken once it was on my salad.
 One more thing I love about this recipe is that it is easy to make kid-friendly.  My kids aren’t into salad, so I just put all the other elements on their plates.  The tenders are chicken nuggets as far as the kids are concerned, and they like the fruits and even the nuts that top the salads.  I wanted them to have a little green as well, so I heated up some leftover broccoli.  We all ate well, and I miss the Midwest just a little bit less after this meal.

The kiddie version (watched over by Batman and friends)


  1. Yes, you really should be blogging! Great job! This looks soooo yummy!

  2. The Midwest misses you too! Meanwhile I miss Western PA-- you wouldn't BELIEVE what it took to find frozen pierogies out here. Can you believe that? I bought up four boxes when I finally found a grocery that carried them. Good old Mrs. T's!

  3. I'm glad you found the blog, and I'm even more glad you found the pierogies! We can get them at Aldi. Have you looked there? Check near the ravioli. The Aldi brand is pretty good!