Being the West coast wild child that I am, chicken and waffles wasn’t exactly a staple of my youth. Because of that, I had no qualms about eviscerating it to its very core and recreating it Salty Seattle-style. If you are some kind of Roscoe’s purist, or your mama makes the best chicken and waffles this side of the great divide, you may not want to read about my bastardization. (There- full disclosure)
The first time I had chicken and waffles was on a recent trip to Detroit. It was served in what I assume was a traditional fashion- fried chicken with waffles and maple syrup. It was good, don’t get me wrong. However it could have been SO much better. My ruminations and research began that day, and I’ve finally come up with a more-than-passable update on an old classic.
Did you know there are two classic variations on chicken and waffles? The first is as described above- fried chicken with waffles drenched in maple syrup. The second is the Pennsylvania Dutch version which consists of stewed, pulled chicken on waffles with gravy. Renditions of both are slowly migrating across the nation; there is even a chicken and waffles food truck in Portland, OR. If that isn’t a brilliant encapsulation of two of the nation’s current food trends in one exhaust-laden package, I don’t know what is.
I made passable classic representations of both versions before I started experimenting with my hybrid slut-ification. It’s important to do that so you know the fundamentals of the flavor/texture profiles. I liken it to developing a good vocabulary before you go making up words.
Ok, enough with the ad nauseam rambling- this is what I came up with. I was attached to both the Pennsylvania Dutch pulled chicken and the fried chicken, so I decided to combine the two. I cooked Hungarian paprika-spiced chicken thighs en sous vide until they easily pulled apart, and made “nuggets” from the meat. Then I battered, cornflake-coated, and pan-fried them.
The result winningly captured aspects of both original chicken and waffles that I was not willing to forego. The toothsome, crisp exterior yielded to reveal the succulent interior of the croquette in just the right manner of contrast. Chicken prepared like this eliminates one of the problems I find with the fried chicken version of the dish. Fried chicken in combination with a thick waffle is too dry for me. The only recourse is more maple syrup, which makes it too sweet. This way there is still a little crunch from the cornflake-crust, but the chicken inside is so tender and flavored, sauce is almost an afterthought.
I say almost, because after one taste of the banana foam I devised in place of more traditional sauce (gravy or maple syrup), I almost wanted to spray it directly in my mouth straight out of the whipped cream canister. The banana foam has notes of anise, lemongrass and coconut and couldn’t be more refreshing when acting as a foil against the richness of the chicken croquettes.
Another thing I discovered I didn’t totally love with traditional chicken and waffles is the gut-bomb feeling I got after eating a giant plate of waffles. I decided to streamline them by making smaller, denser pizzelles instead. Not only are pizzelles more visually-stimulating (we eat first with our eyes), they are also a better backdrop for the various textures that compose the dish.
On the note of texture, it is important to consider the friction created by tasting various foods against a saliva-lubricated interface (aka the mouth). Yes, most of us love the flavor of chocolate ice cream, but what if it had the texture of pea gravel- would it still be such a beloved dessert? In thinking about my chicken and waffles as a whole, I covered a gamut of textures with the dual-style chicken, the crunch of the pizzelle, and the creaminess of the banana foam. The only thing I lacked is effervescence. Enter mint coconut bubbles. I steeped some mint leaves in light coconut milk then mixed the infusion with powdered lecithin. Finally I frothed the mixture with an immersion blender and scooped dollops of bubbles onto the plate.
Different parts of the mouth respond to different textures. Bubbles (think carbonated beverages, etc) burst against the roof and rear of the mouth. When you consider the perfect bite, you must bear in mind the tactile sensation of food as it is being eaten. An ideal mouthful evokes responses from various oral zones. While the back of the jowl denotes crunch, the front of the tongue detects smoothness as in a sauce. Soft textures play on the middle of the tongue. Spice and sauce will linger on the soft palate after the bite has been swallowed. The perfect bite is multi-dimensional and includes a thoughtful combination of several of these textures.
At the end of the day, we eat food. Sometimes we like it and sometimes we don’t. Many find it intriguing to think about why. Because of this, modernist (some say molecular) gastronomy is not going away any time soon. You can deny its validity in favor of “slow food,” but the fact remains that the staunch supporters of both camps are really doing the same thing at the end of the day, and that is combining food in thoughtful ways in order to please the palate. This adaptation of chicken and waffles is an example of food that can be perceived in different ways. If you don’t want to think about it, just eat it- you’ll like it. If you do wish to analyze it on the molecular level, however, go ahead- there is plenty of food for thought.
Chicken Paprika Croquettes and Pizzelles with Banana Foam and Mint Coconut Bubbles
For the chicken:
- 4 chicken thighs
- Salt and pepper
- 1 medium shallot, chopped medium
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tablespoons Hungarian paprika (as fresh as possible)
- 3 bay leaves, ripped in half
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten in a shallow dish
- 2 cups cornflakes, crushed
- 2 tbsp canola oil
- 2 tbsp butter
For the pizzelles: (based on an old recipe from Betty Crocker, I think, but modified with lard and butter and recreated years ago so not 100% sure who to give credit to for the original)
- 1 c flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 2 oz butter, melted and cooled
- 1 oz lard, melted and cooled
- ½ vanilla pod OR 1 tsp anise extract
- 2 eggs ( I always use 1 chicken egg, 1 duck egg)
For the banana foam:
- 1 sheet of leaf gelatin
- ½ banana, chopped into ¼” dice
- ¼ c corn syrup
- ½ c light coconut milk
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 star anise
- ½ stalk lemongrass, chopped into 1/8” rounds
- ½ c heavy cream
- Small amount of yellow gel food coloring, if you wish
For the mint-coconut bubbles:
- 1 c mint leaves
- 200 ml light coconut milk
- 200 ml water
- Small amount of green gel food coloring, if you wish
- 1-2 grams powdered soy lecithin (available from willpowder.net)
- Heat sous vide water bath to 165°F. Salt and pepper chicken thighs, then fry, skin-side down in a dry skillet (fat will render) until browned- about three minutes. Flip onto flesh-side and fry for one minute. Remove to a towel-lined plate.
- Add the shallots to the fat rendered in the skillet and cook until browned. Add the garlic, bay leaf and paprika and cook for two minutes, stirring constantly.
- Place the chicken and the paprika-shallot mixture in a food grade plastic bag, seal, and immerse in the water bath for 6-8 hours, or until thigh meat is so tender it pulls off the bone in your fingers.
- Remove the chicken from the water bath, cut open the bag and cool until you can handle it comfortably. Pull the chicken from the bones and place in a bowl along with some of the resulting paprika-shallot liquid. Form pulled chicken into balls about 1” thick.
- Dip chicken croquettes into the egg, then coat with cornflakes. Pan-fry in half-canola, half-butter until crisp on all sides.
- Sift the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Add the butter, lard, vanilla and eggs and stir until well-combined and no bubbles remain. Drop by the tablespoon into a pizzelle-maker and cook until sizzling stops. This recipe will make extra pizzelles, which is never a bad thing!
The banana foam:
- Immerse the sheet of gelatin in cold water for about five minutes or until pliable.
- Combine all other ingredients except the heavy cream in a small skillet. Bring to boil, then simmer for five minutes. Strain the mixture into a bowl and add the sheet of gelatin (not the water). Whisk to thoroughly combine. Add the heavy cream and food coloring if using, then whisk again.
- Strain the mixture once more into a whipped cream canister and charge with one NO2 cartridge. Keep canister in an ice bath and shake occasionally. Use when cooled.
The mint-coconut bubbles:
- Heat all ingredients except the lecithin in a saucepan until boiling. Remove from heat and steep for five minutes. Puree with an immersion blender, then strain the mint leaves out. Place liquid in the cup designed for the immersion blender and add the lecithin. Aerate with the immersion blender until lecithin is completely mixed and bubbles form.
Arrange pizzelles on plate. Top with banana foam and chicken croquettes. Spoon foam onto plate and enjoy!