A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big, BIG everything else: flavor, ideas, holy-cow factor. Psst: We don't count salt or cooking fat (say, olive oil to sauté onions), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re making sesame chicken—well, sort of.
First things first: This is not sesame chicken. Well, not like that. Not like Americanized Chinese takeout: puffy-fried, gooey-sauced, sticky-sweet. Instead, this is just what it sounds like and nothing more: sesame seeds and chicken. That’s it.
Of course, Chinese takeout was my muse. This is the food of my Christmases, my tired days, my date nights. But here, I wanted to revamp instead of re-create, nab the idea and run in a different direction, cut a few corners and end up somewhere else. Say, how can we sidestep deep-frying? And crank up crispiness? And reduce sweetness? And actually taste the sesame?
The answer, it turned out, had less to do with takeout and more to do with Italian food. Specifically, from Milan, where chicken is pounded thin, breaded with crumbs, and pan-fried. This all happens in the blink of an eye—a dreamy weeknight throw-together. Serve with a little lemon squeeze and big peppery-green salad.
This recipe channels that sort of minimalism. Sesame chicken with the Milanese treatment. Or Milanese chicken with the sesame treatment. Either way, it’s dinner tonight.
Make Your Chicken Work for You
Two big benefits of meat-pounding: tenderer, speedier meat. And you don’t need a meat mallet—basically, a giant kitchen hammer—to get there. Use a sturdy skillet or, my favorite, a rolling pin. First, slice the breast in half horizontally—so, right to left or left to right, like a hamburger bun. It doesn’t have to be perfect! While you could pound without halving, this yields a neater result. Whenever I try to go from whole chicken breast to 1/2- or 1/4-inch thick cutlet, the meat gets all roughed up. Once they’re thin as heck, they cook in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
Take the Bread Out of Breading
While crumbs are classic, they’re not necessary. Some chicken cutlets involve nothing more than flour, others cornstarch—just a little something-something to cushion between the boneless, skinless breast and the searing-hot pan. Since we know we want sesame chicken, I wondered: Why not just sesame seeds? Is that crazy? Some digging proved otherwise: In 1981, Pierre Franey wrote a recipe for sesame-crusted chicken for his New York Times column, "60-Minute Gourmet." While Franey merely coats the chicken in seeds—and you could, too—I wanted to zhush up the texture a bit. Quickly mashing the seeds in a mortar turns some of them floury, while leaving others whole. All it needs is some salt and we’re good to go.
Ditch the Deep-Fry
Because the chicken is thin, we don’t need all that oil. Just enough to grease the bottom of the pan. I like using peanut oil, but any variety with a neutral flavor and high smoke point works. Also because it’s thin, there’s a finer line between cooked (this happens quickly) and crusty (this takes longer). Depending on the exact thickness of your meat and heat of your pan, it will take 6 to 8 minutes total. I like to spend a little longer on the first side, ensuring one deeply browned crust.
Keep It Fresh
We need something raw and crunchy and fresh to brighten this up. And something sweet—a nod to the recipe’s role model. That’s when another Chinese takeout favorite came to mind: orange chicken. Enter a juicy orange salad with crunchy, bitter, magenta radicchio. You could swap in arugula or another sassy, sturdy green. Just serve it cold alongside the just-fried chicken.
- 2 navel oranges
- 1 head radicchio
- 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 3/4 cup sesame seeds
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1/2 cup peanut oil, depending on the size of your pan
- 1/2 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
What’s your go-to weeknight chicken recipe? Tell us about it in the comments!