Big Little Recipes

The Crispiest Chicken Cutlets—With a One-Ingredient Crust

July 28, 2020

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else—flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst: We don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re breading chicken, but not with bread crumbs.

When I don’t know what to make for dinner—or, let’s be real, when I don’t want to make dinner at all—chicken cutlet plus giant salad is a template that never lets me down.

Cutlet is the American term for a dish found all over the world—think German schnitzel, Italian Milanese, Mexican milanesa, Japanese katsu, to name a few—meat pounded until thin, then breaded and fried, until it’s crunchy like an oversized nugget.

But back to that word breaded. Just as flour once assumed wheat, but now might refer to oats, almonds, or chickpeas, the word bread evolved into a verb, and a free for all verb at that. While Merriam-Webster defines the action as “cover in bread crumbs,” The New Food Lover’s Companion loosens the reins with “bread, cracker, or other crumbs.”

The fun thing about “other” is: It could mean anything crumb-like, especially seeds. Think sesame, pumpkin, chia, or in this case, poppy. Finicky (dare I say needy?) bread crumbs often require a glue—like milk, egg, flour, or all three—to really stick to meat or seafood. But itty-bitty seeds are happy to do it all on their own.

Photo by Emma Laperruque

If you’re like me, you keep poppy seeds around for scones, muffins, cookies, or any sweet-ish thing that could use some crunch-crunch-crunch. I even keep them on the “baking” shelf of my spice cabinet (yes, my spice cabinet is organized by category and yes, it’s a source of martial unrest when someone—I won’t say who, but someone—keeps putting nutmeg next to the chile flakes).

Anyway. While many of us, myself included, default to using them in baked goods, poppy seeds have range. With a nutty, almost-bitter flavor and moody, dramatic color, they’re a one-ingredient way to make any lunch or dinner pop. Just think of the pivotal role they play inside a bialy belly or on an everything bagel.

Here, poppy seeds turn into a wildly crispy breading that just happens to be gluten-free and couldn’t be lazier if we tried. All you need is a fresh, juicy salad to go with (and maybe a glass of wine, you tell me).

The salad could be as simple as lettuce and vinaigrette and done. I’m taking it one step further with summery plums. Soaked in vinegar, then smushed with a potato masher, these turn an otherwise soft-spoken dressing into the sort that sings in the shower, loud enough for the neighbors to hear.

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.