Growing up in Crystal Falls in the 70s, with a traditional family structure, cooking was primarily reserved for my mother. She was a stay-at-home mom until my senior year of high school and the only time I remember my dad cooking was on hot summer evenings when he manned the domed charcoal grill. I know this set-up may sound familiar for many in my generation.
When I left for college, I noticed that my father, James Armstrong, started hobby cooking. He enjoyed making chili, hearty soups, and one of his specialties became Potato Encrusted Walleye. The fish was caught by either him or my brother Jamie on the Paint River — and I often requested it for breakfast when I was home on holiday. A sunny side up egg was the perfect accompaniment to the crispy coating of the fish and I can still hear and smell the fillets sizzling on the stove. My dad taught me that you had to be patient as you fry the delicate fish on low to allow the outside to brown to perfection. Of course, a squeeze of fresh lemon was the mandatory finishing touch. Fish may sound like a strange meal for breakfast, but most people who fish will agree that sometimes it is hard to wait until dinner to feast on your catch. So breakfast it is!
In our household, I try to do the bulk of the cooking. Not only was this the way that I was raised, but my workaholic husband goes above and beyond his share of household chores. However, he often pitches in at mealtime when we are in a time crunch (or when I need a cooking break) and he knows his way around the kitchen.
When I married John and became a step-mom, I tried to encourage my new family to eat healthier. Yet, I quickly learned that they were not going to get excited about hummus, roasted beets, or twenty ways to prepare avocado toast. Believe me, I learned this lesson quick. Our first summer together we spent many evenings at our backyard fire pit and my most important job was to make sure that we always had the ingredients for s’mores on hand (in fact, it is still my most important job). Avalon loves peanut butter cups on hers and Lukas is more of a purist and prefers the traditional chocolate squares and his marshmallows fluffy and toasted a mellow brown. Well, I thought that I would change things up a bit and suggested a ‘healthier’ s’mores substitute that I saw on Pinterest that utilized apple slices instead of graham crackers. I will never forget the looks on all of their faces. Avalon did not miss a beat with her tart reply, “Great job, Amy. You just ruined s’mores!” Thankfully, this was a moment that we still laugh about. Though, anyone with a blended family knows, this moment sums up being a step-parent perfectly.
One of the challenges of mealtime, not exclusive to step-parents, is finding ways to strike a healthy balance and satisfy everyone’s food cravings. One of the things that I discovered was that my step-daughter, who takes her s’mores seriously, is also a chicken finger/nugget/wing aficionado. While we do have hens for eggs, we also raise chickens on our farm for meat. I had the foresight to try out my dad’s walleye coating on chicken breasts and in the process I discovered a new dinner favorite for Avalon and the rest of the family.
The thing that I like about this recipe is that you can be exploratory with spices and it works well for a variety of meals: it makes great fish tacos with a cilantro slaw (check out my shrimp tacos recipe for the slaw. I recommend a firm fish like mahi mahi for the tacos) and I am a huge fan of it as a coating for zucchini or mushrooms. The main ingredient is simple: instant potato flakes. My father prefers “Potato Buds” but I buy whatever is available at the supermarket.
POTATO ENCRUSTED CHICKEN BREASTS
*3 cups of instant mashed potatoes (non-prepared)
*Tablespoon of oregano
*Tablespoon of garlic powder
*Tablespoon of onion power
*Tablespoon of paprika
*Tablespoon of lemon pepper seasoning (the seasoning I buy has plenty of salt – so I do not add any additionally)
*5 beaten eggs
*1 package of chicken breasts
*Cooking oil (1 inch in the pan)
Add all the dry ingredients to a gallon size plastic bag (if you like to recycle bread bags work great for this). Coating the chicken tends to be a messy process, but I promise you that it’s worth it. Coat the chicken near a sink, or have plenty of paper towels within reach (I tend to like to use my hands when I cook so I wash between each piece of chicken the coat). I also cut the chicken into smaller pieces so it cooks faster.
I pat dry the chicken with a paper towel and dip in the egg and then toss in the gallon bag and shake. I like to double-dip the chicken so once it’s coated, I dip it again into the egg wash and give it another shake in the coating. I try not to over-handle the chicken once coated. While the coating does maintain itself well (due to the double dipping) I am gentle with it when frying. I have found that if you coat all the chicken and then let it rest for the time that you heat the oil, the coating stays better intact when frying. I like to use a cast iron pan.
I heat the oil on low for 7-10 minutes and bring it up a few notches (3 or 4 on my gas burner) and cook the chicken for 5 minutes on each side (by then it should be golden brown). I try not to overload the pan so the chicken cooks faster. After each side is browned I transfer the chicken into a baking pan and cook at 350 for 20 minutes. While the chicken is baking I have time to finish my sides. Avalon’s favorite is mashed Yukon gold potatoes (I leave the peels on, cook in the pressure cooker for 5 minutes and whip up in the stand mixer with plenty of butter, hot milk — and if I am prepared – roasted garlic. Lukas’ favorite side is canned green beans from our garden.
While this chicken is fit for a Sunday dinner, it is easy enough to prepare for a weeknight. Sometimes I like to change out the spices and we like some heat with a blackening or Cajun spice and dill is fantastic as well. Just as my dad’s fish, I started serving this chicken with wedges of lemon, but I have found that the lemon pepper gives the coating a tangy finish (though personally I do not think you can ever have enough lemon).
As summer approaches after an arduous winter, I am dreaming of some of my dad’s fried walleye. I foresee time spent with him on the pontoon boat listening to Johnny Cash and sipping a PBR. Of course, the best fishing adventures involve stories around the campfire. I guess it is up to me to bring the s’mores. After all, it is the least I can do after nearly destroying the traditional dessert with one of my culinary adventures. Thank you, Dad, for helping me redeem myself!