Pine nuts add a buttery note to fried chicken
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Pine nuts add a buttery note to fried chicken

Dec 21, 2023

I came late to the pine nut party. Neither set of grandparents cooked with them, so they weren't something my parents used, even though the Mexican pinyon is one of the pine tree varieties with its seeds harvested for human consumption. My first exposure to pine nuts wasn't until I was in my early 20s, when I had pesto for the first time. Now I always have them on hand to toss into salads or baked goods and for homemade pestos of all types. I have yet to explore their use in Mexican cooking, though I have a mole made with pine nuts on my cooking bucket list.

This pine nut-crusted chicken was an unplanned experiment. At the time, I kept a sparse pantry that, by the end of the month, was in dire need of replenishment. I had come home from work craving fried chicken but was out of flour (I had been on a flour tortilla-making kick) and very low on breadcrumbs. I found some pine nuts in the fridge, so I mixed them with the breadcrumbs to ensure that I had enough breading to crust the chicken. I loved the nutty, buttery notes the pine nuts added and have been making variations of that fried chicken ever since.

I often pair it with wild rice. I’ve packed this version with flavor — acidity from the lemon and quick pickled red onions, a sweet nuttiness from the glazed pecans and, since I love to sneak in dark greens whenever possible, a nice peppery note from arugula.

Cooking is like a choreographed dance, and this meal comes together easily enough for a midweek dinner if you get everything set up and ready to go. I start by glazing the pecans, since they will need time to cool and the for glaze to set up. Next, I get the rice started. Once the water is boiling, I turn the heat down to maintain a simmer, then set a timer for 15 minutes to remind me to turn off the heat in case I get carried away working on the chicken. When that timer goes off, I turn off the heat, leaving the rice alone, still covered, to finish steaming while I wrap up the chicken.

Start the dish by preparing the pecans; the glaze will need time to set while you make the rest of the meal.

Makes 1 cup

1 tablespoon plus 1½ teaspoons packed brown sugar (4½ teaspoons)¼ teaspoon chile powder (cayenne, chipotle, ancho, etc.), optional¼ teaspoon sea salt1½ teaspoons warm water½ teaspoon vanilla extract1 cup pecan halves

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper.

Add the sugar, chile powder and salt to a small bowl. Whisk in the water and vanilla until the sugar dissolves; set aside.

Heat a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the pecans and toast, stirring constantly until fragrant, about 2 to 3 minutes. Turn off the heat but leave the skillet on the burner. Pour the sugar mixture over the nuts, stirring to coat the nuts well. Quickly transfer the nuts to the prepared baking sheet, ensuring the nuts are in a single layer. Let cool completely before transferring to an airtight container.

I find that the salt in the broth is plenty, so I don't add salt to the cooking liquid; add some at the end if desired.

Makes 4 servings

FOR THE QUICK PICKLED ONIONS:¼ cup finely diced red onionPinch each salt, pepper and sugar (I use three fingers to pinch, roughly ⅛ teaspoon)Juice of half a lemon

TO COOK THE RICE: 2 teaspoons butter1 teaspoon olive oil1 cup wild rice2 cloves garlic, chopped2 cups organic chicken broth

TO ASSEMBLE:2 tablespoons olive oil½ packed cup arugula, roughly chopped⅓ cup glazed pecans, coarsely choppedSalt and freshly ground pepper if needed

Get onions started: Place the onions in a bowl big enough to serve the rice. Sprinkle the onions with salt, pepper and sugar. Add the lemon juice and toss to coat well; set aside.

Cook the rice: Heat a small pot over medium. Add the butter and oil. Once the butter has melted, toss in the rice and toast, stirring constantly, until golden and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Drop in the garlic and saute for 1 minute. Pour in the broth, raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Then cover and turn the heat down to low. Set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes. DO NOT LIFT THE LID. When the timer goes off, turn the heat off and set the timer for 10 minutes to let the steam finish cooking the rice (resist the urge to lift the lid until after the 10-minute steam time — that precious steam is needed for perfectly cooked rice; or continue making the chicken and leave the rice alone, finishing right before serving).

To finish: Pour the olive oil over the onions, mixing well. Fluff the rice with a fork and add to the bowl. Toss in the arugula and pecans. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.

If you don't have a mortar and pestle to crush the pine nuts, place the nuts in a resealable bag and use a rolling pin, the smooth side of a meat tenderizer or the bottom of a coffee mug to smash (I find a food processor to be overkill, plus you run the risk of overprocessing). It's OK if there are still a few whole nuts. Simply crush them with the back of the spoon when combining the nuts with the breadcrumbs. I find pie plates ideal for the crumbs and egg wash.

Makes 4 servings

⅓ cup pine nuts½ cup plain breadcrumbs¼ cup grated Parmesan½ teaspoon pepper½ teaspoon coarse sea salt, divided use1 large egg1 tablespoon Dijon mustard1 tablespoon water1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2 small to medium breasts)Safflower, canola or avocado oil for frying

Prep a sheet pan with a cooling rack.

Set up dredging station: Toast the pine nuts in a small dry skillet over medium heat until golden (careful, they’ll burn quickly). Immediately transfer them to a mortar. Use a pestle to break them up (be careful not to overdo it — you want crumbles, not a paste). In a shallow dish, combine the pine nuts with the breadcrumbs, cheese, pepper and ¼ teaspoon salt. Whisk together the egg, Dijon, water and remaining salt in another shallow dish.

Cut down the chicken: Place a chicken breast on your chopping block, and with your knife perpendicular to the board, run the knife through the center of the breasts to make two cutlets; repeat with the second breast. The goal is to make four similarly sized cutlets. Lay them out on a chopping board, top with plastic wrap and lightly pound them so they are about ¼-inch thick (I prefer a rolling pin over the smooth side of a meat tenderizer for this task).

Dredge the cutlets: Dip a breast into the egg wash, then dredge in the crumb mixture, pressing both sides of the breasts into the crumbs to coat as evenly as possible. Shake off excess, then place on the rack; repeat with the remaining cutlets. Let the chicken rest for 10 minutes (letting the coated cutlets rest gives the breading time to bind with the egg to minimize the risk of the coating falling off while frying).

Fry the cutlets: Heat a large skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium heat. Once the skillet is hot, add enough oil to coat the bottom by about ¼ inch. Carefully lay cutlets in the pan (work in batches if needed). Cook for 4 minutes on each side until golden, and the chicken is up to temperature (160 degrees; there will be some carryover heat while they rest). If the chicken breading browns too quickly, lower the heat to medium-low. Transfer the cooked chicken to the cooling rack to rest for 5 minutes before serving. Serve with Pecan Wild Rice on the side.

Recipes are copyrighted by Anita L. Arambula and are reprinted with permission from "Confessions of a Foodie."

Arambula is the food section art director and designer. She blogs at, where the original version of this article was published. Follow her on Instagram: @afotogirl. She can be reached at [email protected].