As I said in Part One, just about everything tastes and looks better with a crispy topping.
Seeds & Nuts
Other crunchy possibilities include using seeds and nuts. Just replace some or all of the crumbs you're using with sesame seeds or nut meals.Tuna steaks crusted with sesame seeds is a popular restaurant dish, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t crust chicken, vegetables, or other fish at home. Sesame seeds are usually sold in the spice section of most grocery stores, but they’re way too expensive there. You can find sesame seeds, usually sold in bulk, in the natural foods section of grocery stores or at health food stores. I always keep some in my freezer.
Because of increased awareness of gluten intolerance, many grocery stores and natural foods stores now carry almond meal. This finely ground almond product is wonderful for breading fish, chicken, & vegetables. Used for baking or frying, the ground nuts develop a wonderful toasty flavor and crunchy texture. Both Bob's Red Mill and Trader Joe’s carry ground almond and ground hazelnut meal.
Chopped, sliced, & slivered nuts are handy to have on hand for quick toppings. I buy unsalted toasted & sliced and slivered almonds at Trader Joe’s and keep them in my freezer. I often throw a quick handful on vegetables, salads, & casseroles. I also keep toasted pine nuts in my freezer along with peanuts and cashews. Coarsely chopped nuts can make a nice coating for baked/fried fish or chicken too. Toss some into the crumb mixture for additional crunch.
When you think crunchy, you must think chips – corn & potato. My local grocery stores carry Padrino’s and El Sabrosa brands of unsalted tortilla chips. Trader Joe's also sells organic corn chips. They’re wonderful for snacks with homemade salsa or guacamole. However, they’re also good made into crumbs. They make a deliciously different coating for fish or chicken. Just season the meat with a chili flavored spice blend before dipping into the tortilla crumbs. Bake or fry and serve with salsa. Because the chips are already fried, you don’t need to add any additional fat to the crumb mixture.
Combine some coarse tortilla crumbs with a bit of cheese and spices for a unique vegetable or casserole topping. Or use tortilla crumbs in your favorite meatloaf or meatball recipe along with chili spices for a completely new taste treat. One word of warning: the unsalted baked tortilla chips taste like cardboard. Definitely not worth using.
And then there are potato chips... Could anything be tastier than a piece of chicken or fish dredged in crispy, crunchy potato chips? The plain chips are great! Crushed potato chips are great for casserole toppings too.
Most grocery stores and health food stores stock unsalted tortilla & potato chips. However, if you can’t find any in your local stores, shop online at Healthy Heart Market.
A Better Egg Wash
The September, 2008 issue of Cook’s Illustrated included a recipe for crunchy oven-fried fish. I was intrigued by their different method for creating an egg wash. It used the usual eggs but added a bit of flour and mayonnaise. The end result was more like a batter than a simple egg wash. I decided to give it a try and discovered that this thick egg wash was the perfect glue for all kinds of crumb crusts. I’ve since used it several times. It’s perfect for oven baking. One of the things I really like about this method is that you can make the wash quite flavorful – always a bonus when dealing with no or low salt cuisine. One cautionary note, though. Remove the skin from chicken pieces. The thick batter and thick crumb layer tend to rubberize chicken skin.
Better Egg Wash
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoons prepared horseradish or low sodium mustard (optional)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
2 teaspoons low sodium Worcestershire sauce (optional)
1 teaspoons minced fresh or dried herbs or spice blends (optional)
Whisk all ingredients together in a shallow bowl. The egg wash should have the consistency of pancake batter. Add drops of milk, cream, or buttermilk if the mixture seems too thick.
Dip meat, chicken, or fish in the wash and then into crumb mixture.
I’m crazy about French fried onions. Always have been, always will be. I’ll eat them in any shape, size, or form. Good ones made with great batter & perfectly fried. Lousy frozen ones made with minced onions. I’ll still eat them. Heck, I even like the canned French’s fried onions. I don’t like that ubiquitous green bean casserole that always seems to be featured at holiday time, but I like the crispy onions part.
A little while ago I came across a homemade version and decided I had to give it a try. If the recipe worked, I’d have another tasty & crunchy casserole or vegetable topping. It comes from Alton Brown’s "Best Ever Green Bean Casserole" recipe. I’ve made it twice so far. The first time I followed the recipe exactly as written, but I found the oven temperature to be too high. The second time, I adjusted the temperature and did things a bit differently. I was really pleased with the end results. Crunchy onion bits perfect for topping all kinds of things. I had made some braised cabbage for dinner that night. The crispy onions elevated such a ho-hum vegetable dish to an entirely new level. I didn’t use them all, so I refrigerated the leftovers. Now the only thing I have to do is keep myself from snitching them while no one is looking.
Crispy Onion Topping
Adapted from Alton Brown
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons low sodium panko or bread crumbs
Nonstick cooking spray
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Combine the onions, flour, and panko in a large mixing bowl and toss to combine. Coat a sheet pan with nonstick cooking spray and evenly spread the onions on the pan. Place the pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake until golden brown, approximately 20 - 30 minutes. Toss the onions 2 to 3 times during cooking. Once done, remove from the oven and set aside until ready to use.
I used 1 large onion. The first time I made these, I tried to keep the onion slices in rings, but that made slicing difficult. The next time, I cut the onion in half and cut the thin slices. Much easier.
I tossed the onions, flour, & Panko crumbs together with two forks. As I tossed, I also pressed down on the onions to thoroughly coat them with the flour mixture. The moisture released naturally from the sliced onions was enough to get most of the flour to adhere.
The first time I made these, I came close to burning all the onions.The original 475 degrees temperature was just too hot. The second time, I turned the oven down to 450 degrees. That worked much better.
I lined a jelly roll pan with Reynold’s Non-Stick foil. Then I sprayed the bottom of the pan with nonstick cooking spray. After spreading the onions on the pan, I sprayed the onions too. Each time I stirred the onions during cooking, I also sprayed them again.
I set the timer to remind me to stir & redistribute the onions after 10 minutes of cooking. I stirred them once again ten minutes later.
I didn't bake for 30 minutes. I turned off the heat after 20 minutes but left the onions inside the oven. The onions continued to crisp up but didn’t burn. I probably left them in another 10 minutes or so. This last step really made a difference. The resulting onions were quite crisp and browned but had escaped burning.