Tuesday, January 22, 2008

So you have to know I was sold

One day in 2001, Donna Hay appeared on Martha Stewart's TV show (the old one, pre-prison -- the one without the live studio audience). She prepared a recipe from her cookbook, Flavours. I don't remember what the recipe was, but the book looked so cool I just had to get my hands on it. With entire chapters devoted to simple culinary elements such as "salt + pepper," "cinnamon + spice," "chocolate," "basil + mint" and "lemon + lime," the book was beautifully and creatively organized and, as far as I could tell through my TV screen, included some of the most luscious food photography I'd seen in quite some time.

Then there is small the matter of Ms. Hay's being Australian. So you have to know I was sold.

For whatever reason, however, I didn't make any actual effort to buy the book. I placed it on my Amazon wish list and there it sat, a virtual pile of 1s and 0s. It wasn't until I was in Australia in April 2004 that I actually held a copy of Flavours in my hand and was able to peruse its recipes and photography. I was visiting Sydney for a friend's wedding, and had made a several-week vacation out of it. (I maintain that it is nearly useless to travel to Australia for less than two -- maybe even three -- weeks. Too much distance, too much jet lag to overcome. Plus, it is such an amazing place that a lifetime there isn't enough, really. That said, if you told me I could go tomorrow but could only spend four days there, you know I'd be on board the next overnight Qantas flight out of LAX.)

After the wedding, after my friend and his bride had jetted off to their honeymoon destination, I spent a few days wandering through Sydney. Those of you who have been there already know that Sydney is a sparkling city. I had spent enough time and was well-enough acquainted with her to wander aimlessly and happily, looking for experiences and adventure.

Though The Rocks is hardly off Sydney's beaten path, I had Flavours in mind when I darkened Ariel Booksellers' doorstep. I spent a lot of time in that small shop that day, looking to supplement my growing cookbook library with publications representing Australia's burgeoning food scene. In addition to Ms. Hay's book -- which I was delighted to purchase within Australia because it means the title on my edition includes the "u" in "flavours," versus ordering a "u"-less version off Amazon -- I picked up a copy of Sydney Food, by Bill Granger, and several issues of the magnificent "Delicious" magazine. Hey, if traveling half-way around the world is what it takes to get your hands on a good cookbook, and maybe a few back issues of a phenomenal culinary magazine, so be it. Who am I to judge?

I fiercely guarded my paperback babies through their journey back across the Pacific and east to Ohio. As anyone who knows me knows, I hate it when my books get dog-eared, or damaged, or wet, or otherwise marred -- ESPECIALLY if I haven't read them yet. (Very old cookbooks are the exception: the more scarred, the better, as use and wear are manifestations of food and love and happy times.) Flavours made it home in pristine condition, and I dove right in.

One of my favourites from the book is found in the "cinnamon + spice" chapter: Crispy five-spice chicken. I started making the recipe for Husband on Hanukkah, as fried foods are customary to celebrate and commemorate the miracle of oil. However, the dish quickly departed the realm of Foods Only Prepared During Holidays and arrived an everyday standby, based on its supremely satisfying texture and magnificent spice combination. Cooked to the precise temperature, crispy five-spice chicken has the most perfect ratio of juicy inside to crunchy outside that I've ever experienced with poultry: not even Colonel Sanders can compete. That delicious dichotomy on its own would be enough to elevate this dish to extraordinary, but then you throw in the five-spice and, well, get ready, friends.

You are going to need your spreadin'-out clothes for this one.


Adapted from Flavours, by Donna Hay

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast fillets

1/2 c. plain flour lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, for coating

2 eggs, lightly beaten and seasoned with salt and pepper

Vegetable oil, to shallow-fry (enough to fill whatever frying pan you're using about 1/2")

Coating mixture:

1 1/2 c. panko breadcrumbs (Panko is definitely the way to go, as its texture is amazingly light and crispy. You could use regular breadcrumbs if you can't find panko -- though panko is sold in all the grocery stores I frequent. We've used matzo meal as well. It's a great choice: better than regular ol' breadcrumbs, but still not as good as panko.)

2 1/2 t. Chinese five-spice

2 t. ground cumin

2 t. ground coriander

1 t. sea salt

Cracked black pepper, to taste

1 T. fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Cut the chicken breasts in half length-wise; set aside.

Make the coating mixture. Combine the panko, Chinese five-spice powder, cumin, coriander, salt, pepper and parsley. Dust the chicken in flour, shake off some of the excess, then dip in the beaten eggs. Press chicken firmly in the coating mixture; set aside on a plate to await frying.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is at 350 degrees (I use a handy infrared thermometer to determine oil temperature, and find it works like a dream), add the chicken to the pan and cook for 2-3 minutes per side. You might need to knock back the heat to make sure the coating doesn't burn before the chicken is cooked through. Keep in mind that the spice mixture makes this coating appear rather dark brown and lovely, so while you need to make sure it doesn't burn, don't be alarmed when you see the color.

After you have flipped the chicken to the second side, start taking its temperature. When its internal temp reaches 161 degrees, pull it. Any longer, and you'll begin losing the juiciness that works so nicely with the coating in this recipe. I use an internal probe thermometer for this task. Drain the chicken on a plate lined with paper towel; serve while hot and crispy.

Makes 4 servings. Donna Hay suggests serving this dish with steamed Asian greens. I'm sure that would be tasty, but I like to serve it with potatoes of some sort -- mashed, latkes, whatever the season inspires.

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