Anyone who knows me will tell you that fried chicken is one of my favorite foods. And it's not just me. My sister has always been crazy about fried chicken. My wife absolutely loves fried chicken, and she says it's just about the only thing that prevents her from switching to purely a pescatarian diet.
What is it about fried chicken that makes it so wonderful? It's not really the taste of the meat itself, since chicken takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it in. And we've found that veggie options like Beyond Meat Chicken-Free Strips can do a great job of replicating the texture of chicken muscle. So it has to be something else.
OK, I'll stop playing dumb now. Of course, it's the skin! That crunchy, crackly, crispy, greasy goodness dressed in batter and deep fried to a golden delight is like manna from heaven. My sister once famously decreed that she would like nothing more than a whole plate of fried chicken skin, and I would have to concur.
Finding a good way to make vegetarian chicken skin seemed like an impossibility until I stumbled on a blog post yesterday on the Vegan Crunk blog about Roberto Martin's cookbook, Vegan Cooking for Carnivores. Martin is the personal chef for Ellen DeGeneres, and while he's not a vegan himself, he's tasked with making vegan fare. His inspiration is typical meat-based dishes, and to solve the chicken skin problem he came up with a masterful solution: spring roll wrappers! Simply brilliant, and I can't believe I never learned about this until now.
After getting the idea for the chicken skin, putting together the rest of the recipe was easy. While I do eat soy and seitan-based meat substitutes, I think that relying on them too heavily is probably a bad thing, and besides, sometimes you're looking for the vegetable to stand on its own instead of imitating something else. I still eat some poultry along with fish (and the very rare slice of bacon), so I can still have real fried chicken as a treat. This time, however, I wanted something unique.
Eggplant is one of my favorite go-to meat substitutes. It cooks quickly but can still retain structure if done right, has a large surface area that easily makes it look like a piece of chicken or steak, and tastes great. For frying, it's perfect. If it can work in eggplant parmesan, why can't it work in fried chicken?
The batter is a standard two-step wet and dry combo. Since I'm not vegan I used eggs in the wet batter, but you can use cashew cream (soaked cashews blended until smooth) if you want. I paired the fried eggplant with a waffle recipe from Megan on allrecipes.com (which also has eggs and milk), because if there's one thing that can make fried chicken better, it's waffles.
The result is out of this world. The skin keeps the eggplant, while soft after frying, from falling apart, and the crunch is worlds better than just dredging and frying. I hope to make a truly vegan version of this someday, but until then I think this recipe for chicken-fried eggplant is going to be a favorite in our household. Enjoy!
For the eggplant
2 medium globe eggplants, peeled with stems removed
1/2 cup liquid aminos or tamari
1/4 cup water
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp salt
1 tsp garlic powder
the zest of one lemon
1 package of 6" rice paper spring roll wrappers, or larger ones cut to fit with kitchen shears
For the wet batter
2 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup all purpose flour
1 cup water
1 tbsp hot sauce (optional)
2 tsp salt
For the seasoned flour
2/3 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup cornmeal
1 tbsp Old Bay seasoning
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp paprika
Slice the eggplants about 3/4" thick and in half crosswise if necessary. The goal is to make them look somewhat like boneless chicken breast pieces. In a zip top bag, combine the liquid aminos, water, cayenne, salt, garlic, and lemon zest, and add the eggplant pieces. Let them marinate for about 30 minutes.
Fill a pie plate or dish large enough to hold a rice paper wrapper flat with enough warm tap water to keep the wrapper submerged. Soak a single wrapper for about 20 seconds, until it is just soft and workable enough to fold. Don't let it get too soft, or it will tear. Wrap each eggplant piece in the rice paper, and set it on a plate lined with wax paper. Set the plate on a chopstick at one end so that it tilts slightly. You want the eggplant to drain so that the rice paper adheres well to it. Set this aside while you work on the batter.
Heat a cast iron skillet or frying pan with about an inch of oil. In a bowl, mix all the wet batter ingredients together. The consistency should be fairly thin but still adhere to the back of a spoon. In a separate bowl, combine the ingredients for the seasoned flour.
Coat each piece of eggplant in the wet batter, then dredge in the seasoned flour and fry until golden. They will cook very quickly, and a minute or two is really all that is needed to make the eggplant tender. Place on an inverted cooling rack to drain while you work on the rest of the "chicken."
Yields: 6 servings