I threw a big dinner party last weekend. Well, six people total (including our culinary teammate Scott), but seven courses. I totally brought it. But then I was brought down: three of the courses totally sucked. The pea consommé? At the last moment I overdid it with the cinnamon oil – it tasted like a bad scented candle. The Thai beef curry broth was watery and the beef over-tender. The sous vide vegetables were mushy and lifeless. Man, was I embarrassed. But one of the courses did come through: my deep fried chicken feet. Good thing, too – they took the longest to prepare. I don’t know if I was redeemed, but at least I wasn’t damned. In the end, fowl became friend.
Feet Slicin’, Bone Pickin’
Working with chicken feet is one of those products where you’re reminded very clearly where your food comes from. What once allowed the strutting around a barnyard was now in a pile on my counter top. The absence of abstraction made me aware of the price the chickens paid to be my meal. It also made me thankful, as good food should. It also was a little gory, as one would expect as well.
Take the preparation, for example. In Modernist Cuisine, they suggest to take a scalpel and needle nose pliers to extract the bones from the feet after cooking them. I went to my local Asian grocery store, grabbed some chicken feet and stood in line. It was probably a novelty to see someone like me do this, as an Asian woman behind me pointed out I was buying chicken feet and asked what I was planning for them. I told her I was going to cook them and then fry them.
“Ah, yes, they puff up,” she said. That’s what they say in Modernist Cuisine as well.
“Are you going to dry them out first?” she asked.
“Why, yes,” I replied. Modernist Cuisine has a dehydration step.
She knew exactly what I was making. I asked her if she had any advice. She said that before cooking I should cut down each toe so that the bones pop out once they were cooked. It seemed to make more sense to do it before cooking than after. I thanked her and decided to modify the recipe based on her advice.
So, then, the gory part: taking a knife and slicing down each toe of every foot.
With that bit of disturbing process out of the way, I was able to vacuum seal it up with water and salt and cook them for twelve hours. It’s supposed to be done sous vide, but I chose to use my combi oven.
Twelve hours later, they were done and ready to be de-boned. The woman in the checkout line was right – it was very easy to pull out the bones with the feet pre-cut.
Now, chicken feet don’t have just three or four bones. The toes are jointed. There are more like thirteen or fourteen bones, plus the four claws. So it was quite a process. I had to work quickly. As the feet cooled down, they became sticky and gelatinous, making it harder to pull out the bones, tearing whole parts of the skin away. Below is a fuzzy shot, but gives you an idea of the process. It’s grunt work. I felt like a stagier in my own kitchen.
Dry and Fry
Now I was in the home stretch. I laid out the feet on a perforated tray and dehydrated them in my combi oven for three hours. They came out slightly sticky and very gelatinous. Practically begging to be puffed.
I put them in a container and had them ready to go for dinner. Once the course came around, I put them in oil at 375F, and after a few minutes, pulled them out and set them on a plate with a paper towel. Once the excess oil came off they were ready to be served. They puffed up beautifully.
After a good salting, they were ready to go. The verdict? They taste just like pork rinds. This is a great, great thing. I could eat a bowl of them. A perfect snack for any occasion. Plus, like pork rinds, they offer all sorts of flavor variations: BBQ Puffed Chicken Feet, Spicy Puffed Chicken Feet, Salt And Vinegar Puffed Chicken Feet, etc.
They were able to help prop up my dinner after some misfires, so they’ll always have a special place in my heart. Plus they look funky and kinda freak people out. This, too, is a great, great thing.