Crisp autumn breezes, falling leaves and porches piled with russet-hued pumpkins cause many chefs to trade their summer recipes in for cooler weather fare. We are tempted this time of year with soups and roasts and braises, hearty dishes served warm that delight us when there is a chill in the air and a frost on the ground. But there is one summer favorite that gets made all year round, amongst fall’s crimson leaves and winter’s blinding white snows. It is our almond crusted chicken, a recipe born from a long-ago memory of Cara’s. This is an adaptation of that memory, always evocative of a certain place. Summer camp at visiting day was a spot brewing with excitement and joy. Campers hadn’t seen their parents in 3 or so weeks, and every parent wanted to please their kid with treats whose flavors would evoke the feelings of home. Cara’s parents always brought a crusty baked chicken cut into small pieces and often coated in cornflake crumbs. Serve cold., on a picnic blanket, she loved it. Cara waited all year for that crunchy treat, speckled on the outside like a gold rush miners rinsed remains of the day. Rumors fly in summer camps that plenty of moms still make corn flake chicken, but our summer camp days are far behind us, and true or not, memories of that chicken still touch us.
This chicken is a current version drawn from and inspired by those old memories. We chose to soak the chicken before baking in almond milk instead of a buttermilk bath. We flavor the almond milk with lemon and mustard, elevating the tang that the milk imparts.
The lemon zest and tarragon give a zingy, perky touch to the crust. The almond crust bakes with a flecked golden color, glints of burnished gold, flecks of hay and wheat. The crunch is even better than the corn flake chicken of old. The flavor is exponentially better. And we serve this hot as well as refrigerated on the next day. It looses a little crunch, but if crunch is what you need, reheat the chicken on a flat sheet for 20 minutes at 350° F. Straight from the refrigerator, this chicken has all the all of the characteristics of our cornflake chicken of youth. crunchy exterior, moist interior, and squishy edges, little crevises that are crispy and get a little soggy at the same time. We serve this chicken all summer, and curse ourselves for turning the oven on when the outdoor heat was already high. We’ve learned to enjoy this chicken all year round, especially when the oven can go on without everyone’s complaint about the additional heat in the kitchen. While as chef-intructors, we teach it as picnic fare in the summer, fall may be the best time for this chicken. No reservations about turning on the oven. Great results are found hot as it comes from the oven, or cold and leftover, making it crunchy and squishy, if you like it that way. And leftovers make a great school lunch!
ALMOND CRUSTED CHICKEN
Yield: 4 generous servings
2 cups almond milk, homemade or store-bought
1 lemon, zest removed with a microplane, then juiced and the juice strained
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
8 pieces (approximately 3 pounds) bone-in chicken thighs, with or without skin
For the Crumb Mixture:
2 ½ cups (9 ounces) sliced almonds
½ cup white or yellow cornmeal, preferably stone ground
3 tablespoons fresh chopped tarragon
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour seasoned with salt and pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for the baking sheet
- Stir together the almond milk, lemon juice, and mustard in a large bowl. (Set the lemon zest aside for the crumb mixture.) Add the chicken pieces to the bowl and toss them gently. Cover with plastic wrap and let soak for at least two hours at room temperature or overnight in refrigerator.
- Make the crumb mixture: Pulse the almonds in the work bowl of a food processor until finely ground. Add the lemon zest, cornmeal, dry mustard, tarragon, salt, and pepper and pulse briefly, just until combined. Pour into a bowl and set aside.
- When ready to roast the chicken, preheat oven to 400° F. Drain the chicken and reserve the almond milk. Working with one piece at a time, dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour until lightly coated. Tap off any excess flour. Lay each piece on a cooling rack or a baking pan lined with waxed paper. Again working with one piece at a time, dip the chicken lightly in the reserved almond milk and shake off excess. Drop the chicken into the crumb mixture and toss, pressing the almond mixture onto the chicken to help it stick. Make sure to coat all sides. Repeat with the remaining thighs.
- Place the chicken pieces skin side up (or rounded side up if there is no skin) on a lightly greased roasting pan. Drizzle the olive oil over the chicken and bake until the crust is golden and crispy and an instant reading thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thighs near the bone registers 185° F, about 45 minutes. Serve immediately or at room temperature, or refrigerate to save for future use.