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Chicken Appetizers: What's On First? – US Food Trends

04 June 2008

Chicken's broad appeal and timely affordability makes the versatile protein a win-win first-course choice.

This article first appeared in the 15 May 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions.Visit the R&I websiteto find out more about the magazine or tosearch its recipe database.

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

"We actually should be called The Chicken Factory," jokes Howard Gordon, senior vice president of business development and marketing for The Cheesecake Factory, where the popular poultry stars in more than a half-dozen appetizers, from Tex Mex Eggrolls stuffed with corn, black beans, peppers and cheese to Southern Fried Chicken Sliders, a recent on-trend addition.

Playing to chicken's flavor flexibility helps the Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based chain respond to guests' various dining needs, from shareable starters and snacks for munching with drinks to simple, handheld fare for kids.

"Chicken goes with all kinds of sauces and spices; it can be cut up or pounded; eaten bone-in or boneless; white meat or dark meat-it's very versatile," Gordon says. "It's still the most-popular protein, and it's more affordable."

In fact, chicken choices rank as the second-best-selling category of appetizers, just behind seafood, according to R&I's 2007 Menu Census. Operators can build on this strong showing by expanding offerings built around the multipurpose protein. The six out-of-the-box recipes that follow are just a small sampling of the creative menuing possible with chicken.

Flip for CrÁªpes

"If you put a chicken appetizer on the menu, you're practically guaranteed to sell it," says Damien O'Donnell, chef-partner at Harbor Bistro in East Hampton, N.Y. "You're playing it safe, and you're also cross-utilizing your whole bird."

Starters also make a great place to utilize the dark meat that many diners don't realize can be the tastiest part of the bird. For Braised Chicken & Mushroom CrÁªpes, O'Donnell uses thighs from the free-range chickens that he roasts for a main course.

The tender thigh meat-braised in Burgundy wine with star anise, black peppercorns, thyme and aromatics-is folded with sautéed shallots as well as cremini and shiitake mushrooms into lacy crÁªpes (prepared ahead of service and held, tightly wrapped, between layers of parchment paper). Crumbled goat cheese is sprinkled liberally on top, and the crÁªpes are browned lightly under a salamander for a crispy finish.

"Chicken can get old if the recipe is run-of-the-mill, but if you keep your ideas fresh, you can take a basic item like chicken and turn it into an awesome appetizer," O'Donnell says.

Take Nuggets Up a Notch

"It can be challenging to do something with chicken that catches people's attention, but your menu mix can't just be high-end products across the board," says Corporate Chef Ted Mendez at Barton G. The Restaurant in Miami.

For Mendez, whose menu is built around upscale twists on American classics, the answer is Chicken Cordon Bleu Bites, a cross between crowd-pleasing chicken nuggets and conventional cordon bleu. The dish has become a surprising staple, holding its own against top-selling seafood starters such as lobster-filled pastries and popcorn shrimp.

Prior to service, boneless chicken breasts are pounded thin and topped with prosciutto and Gruyère cheese-chosen for its sharpness to counter the salty pork. Mendez adds provolone and cream cheese to keep the mix creamy and less oily as it melts during cooking. The chicken is rolled into cylinders, wrapped in plastic film and kept in the freezer for at least six hours to ensure that it holds its shape. For service, the rolls are sliced into 1½-in.-thick pieces, coated in panko-cornflake breading and deep-fried and baked for extra crispness. The nuggets are paired with Parmesan mayonnaise and ranch dressing for dipping.

Think Out of the Box(ty)

"When you offer things on the menu like wings and fingers, you're setting yourself up for a lot of comparisons," says Isaac Stewart, executive chef of operations for Atlanta-based FadÁ³ Irish Pub and Restaurants. "We wanted to do something more signature, something that would set us apart."

Stewart chose boxty, the thick Irish potato pancakes that already headlined two entrées on the casual-dining chain's menu, as the foundation for an unorthodox quesadilla recipe. Traditional quesadilla fillings-grilled chicken, pepper-Jack cheese and pico de gallo-are layered between thin, crÁªpe-like versions of the pancakes made from a savory batter with shredded potatoes, garlic and onion powder.

To serve, the Chicken Boxty Quesadillas are sautéed lightly to crisp both sides and then cut into quarters and drizzled with smoky chipotle aÁ¯oli. Salsa and sour cream come on the side.

Not Your Ordinary Nachos

"We tried left and right with steak appetizers because we are a steakhouse, but when our customers want steak, they want it as a center-of-the-plate item," says Philip Butler, director of food and beverage for Atlanta-based Bugaboo Creek Steak House.

Instead, BBQ Chicken Nachos rank as the family-casual chain's top-selling appetizer. The recipe relies on Bugaboo's house-made rotisserie chicken, creating another avenue of profit for the already-on-hand product. Pulled meat is tossed in sweet barbecue sauce, spread atop two layers of tri-color tortilla chips and melted Cheddar cheese, and sprinkled with diced tomatoes and sliced jalapeÁ±os.

"The way the economy is right now, people are looking to be a little more frugal, and our shareable appetizers are doing well," Butler notes. The chain's menu also includes Buffalo chicken wings, chicken flatbread quesadillas and battered chicken tenders.

Naan's The Word

"Chicken is relatively inexpensive compared to everything else nowadays," says Zack Bruell, consulting chef at Table 45 in Cleveland. "Fish has gone through the roof; beef has gone through the roof; but you can make money with chicken."

Looking for a starter that diners could share over cocktails, he turned to the contemporary-global restaurant's house-made naan as inspiration for Indian-influenced pizza. Chicken, simply seasoned with salt and pepper and roasted in the tandoori oven, adds heft to the dish without overpowering the central flavor elements of goat cheese and pickled lime.

Prebaked rounds of Indian naan are spread with mayonnaise that is mixed with the pickled lime, a salty-spicy Indian condiment, and then topped with goat cheese, whose tanginess is tempered with ricotta. Sliced chicken and fresh mozzarella complete the assembly, and the pizzas are baked in a convection oven. Cilantro, green onions and yogurt provide a cool garnish that counters the recipe's heat.

Lollipop, Lollipop

"Your menu is always a balance," says Brandt Evans, chef of Blue Canyon Restaurant & Tavern, a Twinsburg, Ohio-based contemporary-American concept with four locations. "Nine times out of 10, the customer will order that wonderful steak, so if you can get them to grab that chicken appetizer at a lower food cost, it will help offset higher-cost items."

Thai Chicken Lollipops tempt diners on two counts, marrying meatballs' comfort-food appeal with the more-exotic Asian flavors Evans' clientele loves. They're easy to eat, too, speared with lemongrass-scented skewers or simple lollipop sticks.

Ground chicken breasts and thighs are blended with lemongrass, soy sauce, curry paste, pickled ginger, green onions, garlic and coriander and bound with egg and panko crumbs into compact spheres. To serve, the baked "lollipops" are paired with carrot, cucumber and daikon slaw dressed in rice-wine vinaigrette.

"With meat prices going up, a lot of menus are going toward pork and chicken dishes, so the question is, how can I make a chicken dish look more creative and a little more interesting and drive the customer to that?'" Evans says.

Thai Chicken Lollipops
Yield: 16
Executive Chef Brandt Evans, Blue Canyon, multiple locations

2 lb. Boneless, skinless chicken (breast or thigh)
2 cupsPanko breadcrumbs
2 cups Sweet soy sauce
2Eggs
½ cup Green onion, sliced thin
½ cup White onion, diced
4 Tbsp.White sesame seeds
3 Tbsp. Kosher salt
2 Tbsp.Ground coriander
1 Tbsp. Pickled ginger
1 tsp.Garlic, minced
1 tsp. Lemongrass, minced
1 tsp. Red curry paste
1 Tbsp. Cracked black pepper
16 Lemongrass skewers or lollipop sticks
 - Combine chicken, breadcrumbs, soy sauce, eggs, green onion, white onion, sesame seeds, salt, coriander, pickled ginger, garlic, lemongrass, curry paste and pepper in processor; blend well. Scrape down sides; repeat. Chill 1 hour. - Roll chicken mixture into 2-oz. balls; place on parchment-lined sheet pan; and stick lemongrass skewers or lollipop sticks in center of each. Bake 15 minutes at 350F. Braised Chicken & Mushroom CrÁªpes Yield: 25 crÁªpes Chef-partner Damien O'Donnell, Harbor Bistro, East Hampton, N.Y.
3 lb. Chicken thighs, skin removed
- Salt as needed
3 Tbsp. Olive oil
2Onions, chopped
2Carrots, chopped
3 Celery stalks, chopped
5Garlic cloves, crushed
2 Tbsp.Tomato paste
2 cupsBurgundy wine
- Chicken stock to cover
8Fresh thyme sprigs
15Black peppercorns
3 Star anise
½ lb.Cremini mushrooms
½ lb.Shiitake mushrooms
3 Shallots
¼ cupChives, chopped, divided use
1 lb. Goat cheese
- Salt to taste
3 TbspButter
25 CrÁªpes (recipe follows)
 - Season chicken thighs with salt. Heat olive oil in large skillet over medium-to-high heat; brown chicken thighs on both sides. Add onions, carrots, celery and garlic; brown lightly. Add tomato paste; cook 3 minutes. - Add wine, stock, thyme, peppercorns and star anise. Cover; cook on low-to-medium heat until tender, about 1 hour. - While chicken cooks, season mushrooms and shallots with salt; sauté in butter until tender. Strain; reserve. - Remove chicken thighs from braising liquid; pull meat from bones using fork. Pull or chop chicken into small pieces (but do not shred completely). - Strain braising liquid; reserve. - In bowl, mix braised chicken with sautéed mushrooms; add chives. Check for seasoning. - Spoon about 3 oz. chicken mixture into each crÁªpe; fold in half. - Layer lightly oiled sheet pan with folded crÁªpes; crumble goat cheese liberally on top. Place crÁªpes under broiler or salamander until cheese is lightly browned. - To serve, place stuffed crÁªpe on plate; drizzle with red-wine braising liquid; and garnish with chopped chives.  CrÁªpes Yield: 25
Large eggsÂ
¾ cup Milk
½ cupWater
1 cup Flour
3 Tbsp.Butter, melted, divided use and as needed
 - Combine eggs, milk, water, flour and 3 Tbsp. melted butter in blender; pulse 10 seconds. Refrigerate batter for 1 hour. - Heat a 9-in. nonstick pan; add butter to coat. Pour 1 oz. of batter in center of pan; swirl to spread evenly. Cook 30 seconds; flip. Cook 10 seconds; remove to cutting board, laying crÁªpe flat to cool. Continue with remaining batter.  Entrées That Excite Fresh, fun ideas for chicken aren't limited to the starter side of the menu. Check out how chefs are making chicken more than an entrée afterthought. - At Copperblue in Chicago, Chef-owner Michael Tsonton highlights roasted poussin with warm tapenade of almonds, zucchini, preserved lemon, Serrano ham, chives, tomato confit, capers and basil (r.). - Chef-owner Michael Tusk at Quince in San Francisco offers a taste of spring in poulard fricassee with morels, ramps and asparagus. - Hash-brown potatoes add crunch to pan-fried chicken at SAS, a computer-software company in Cary, N.C. (r.). - Orlando-based Bahama Breeze spices up wood-grilled chicken breasts with creamy roasted-red-pepper sauce and crisp yucca tossed with sweet peppers and onions. - Chef Jason Tuzinkewich at Edina Grill in Minneapolis relies on the sweetness of roasted grapes to counter pan-roasted chicken with rich, red-wine demi-glace (below).  Pan-Roasted Chicken with Roasted Grapes Yield: 1 serving Chef Jason D. Tuzinkewich, Edina Grill, Minneapolis
¼ cup Red wine
1 Bone-in chicken breast
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Instantized flour as needed
2 Tbsp.Canola oil
4 oz. Green beans, blanched
½ oz. Butter
½ oz. Balsamic reduction
- Parsley, chopped pinch
1½ oz.Demi-glace
2 oz. Roasted Grapes (recipe follows)
½ oz. Cold butter, cubed
4 oz. Creamy polenta, prepared
- Parsley leaves to garnish
- Reduce wine by half; set aside. - Season chicken breast with salt and pepper; dust skin side with flour, shake off excess. - In a large sauté pan over high heat, heat oil. Place chicken skin-side down. Reduce heat to medium/medium-high; cook 3-4 minutes or until skin is crisp and brown. - Turn breast over; transfer pan to 375F oven and roast for 10-12 minutes or until cooked through. Remove ribs from chicken breast; keep warm. - In a sauté pan over medium-high heat, brown butter. Add balsamic reduction and parsley; season with salt and pepper. - In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine wine, demi-glace and grapes. Bring to a boil, remove from heat, swirl in butter; keep warm. - To serve, spoon polenta on one side of oval plate and place green beans on other side. Place chicken breast in the center. Spoon sauce over top of the chicken; garnish with parsley. Roasted Grapes Yield: 7½ pounds Red grapes, stems removed, grapes rinsed 10 lb. - Roast grapes on a sheet tray lined with parchment paper at 200F for 1½-2 hours, or until grapes just begin to soften and wrinkle; remove and cool.  Â
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