As Americans focus more and more on healthy eating, poultry remains an excellent choice for the center of the plate. The challenge for chefs remains finding new ways to prepare and season chicken and turkey to satisfy customers' increasingly sophisticated palates.
"Chicken is the most popular dish in the USA," says Gabriel Gomez, executive chef at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. "The secret is how you prepare [chicken]. We do half chickens in barbecue style and Asian style, and chicken breast sautéed, grilled, fried, poached and breaded. The key is what you put on the chicken: sauce, gravy, cheese, salsa, etc. It's the same thing with turkey."
Gary Arthur, associate director of dining services at Stanford University, agrees, adding that, with chicken the preparation doesn't have to be boring.
"Chicken doesn't stand on its own and it takes culinary skill to dress it up, but it's an easy sell," says Arthur. "People aren't tired of chicken. It's a good protein, lean and affordable."
Arthur says he has been using dark meat lately in ethnic dishes such as Vietnamese, Thai and Caribbean.
"We make a Cuban lemon chicken dish using legs and thighs, also a lot of curry dishes," he says. "We grind dark meat for patties and meatballs. We make specialty rice bowls, burgers and sausages with it."
Arthur adds that chicken is not the only poultry being used in college foodservice.
"We use duck, quail and Cornish game hens for special meals and catering," he notes. "We make an oriental duck, soy glazed with black fungus mushrooms and shiitake. We make a traditional roast duck with different citrus sauces and flavorful chutneys. The Cornish game hen is a comfort food, like your grandmother would make on Sundays."
Demand remains the same: "The demand has pretty much stayed the same," says Linda Nardella, director of Holy Cross Dining at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass. "Three of our most popular items are chicken fingers, chicken parmesan and our traditional turkey dinner. We've tried to jazz it up. We've done flaky herb chicken with garlic sauce, turkey Marsala, maple glazed turkey burgers and turkey chili."
Directors often get creative with poultry dishes to keep things fresh.
"Food cycles itself around; some things are popular, then they go away for a while, then they revitalize," says Bart Hipple, assistant director of Dining Services at the University of Maryland. "We do a ‘Recipes From Home' program where we ask parents for the students' favorite recipes and we implement them into our menu rotation every Thursday. A lot of them are chicken dishes-some we had never heard of. We got a very good chicken and sausage recipe recently. It's with chicken thighs and drumsticks with small pieces of sausage baked together with some seasoning.
"One thing that comes in a lot is some sort of a chicken and broccoli casserole, usually with either a cream sauce or cheese on it," Hipple says. "Apparently, this is very popular with students at home before they come to school. Many variations of that have come in.
"Our single most popular lunch is a Buffalo chicken sandwich," he adds. "We take a chicken breast, bread it, deep-fry it and put it in the Buffalo sauce. We add shredded lettuce, tomato and bleu cheese on the bun. We also do three wraps routinely with chicken that are very popular. We do an island chicken wrap, with shredded lettuce, tomato, Thousand Island dressing, hot peppers and shredded cheddar cheese. We do a club wrap, with shredded lettuce, bacon, tomato, ranch dressing and shredded cheddar cheese. And we do a Buffalo chicken wrap, with shredded lettuce, tomato, bleu cheese dressing and hot sauce. All the wraps can be ordered with either fried chicken tenders or broiled chicken breast."
John Gray, senior executive chef at the university, explains that taking old ideas and tweaking them is the trick, "like taking traditional Asian stir-fry and turning it into a wrap. We make a Moroccan chicken wrap as well, with feta cheese, tomatoes, shredded lettuce, red onions and Moroccan sauce."
A healthy value: In addition to its healthy properties, poultry's price point in relation to other proteins helps to keep it, in the collective consciousness of America, the choice of the masses.
"Some people say, chicken again? But it's one of the largest proteins in sales volume," says Shawn Hoch, associate director of culinary operations at Washington State University in Pullman. "Poultry is definitely a lot more versatile than any other protein or center of the plate item. You can do all the things that you can do with beef or fish with chicken, plus a lot more modifications.
"Chicken burritos are one of our highest selling single protein items, with onions, peppers, tomatoes and mushrooms," he adds. "We also get fresh salsa to serve with that. Whether it's fried, baked or sautéed with a multitude of different spices, chicken sells significantly better than any of our beef or seafood based entrées."
Hoch also notes that, even though poultry is generally healthier than other meats, he still looks for ways to improve its nutitional value.
"With poultry items, we're doing a lighter, fresh marinade, using fresh citrus or wines and fresh aromatics to give it
flavor so your palate doesn't necessarily crave all that fat," he explains. "For instance, we have a citrus marinated chicken breast with a Mandarin orange salsa. It's got a nice color component. It definitely fits our healthy platform."
Vitamins and Value
Whether it's fresh or frozen, you can't argue chicken's value as a healthy entree.
Full of iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein, chicken often is a center of the plate item for the health conscious. Lenny Scranton, CEC, vice president of culinary operations for Morrison Management Specialists in Atlanta, says that because there are so many variations with chicken dishes, people can diet, yet still get vitamins and protein from their favorite poultry.
“Poultry is a great option for us when planning menus that bring our customers great tasting, nutritious meals, at a fair price point,” Scranton says. “We’ve also worked with our business partners to implement a purchasing policy to require all poultry to be produced without the routine use of human antibiotics. Our contracted suppliers are required to provide products which adhere to specific criteria developed in partnership with The Environmental Defense Fund.”
Scranton has developed a number of entrées, using both chicken and turkey, that take the healthfulness of poultry to a higher level. They include panko-herb crusted chicken breast with cabernet rice blend with braised greens, black-eyed peas and baked sweet potatoes, whole wheat penne pasta with turkey Bolognese, layered turkey enchilada, slow-roasted turkey with polenta, and braised Swiss chard with turkey and fresh herb au jus.
“These recipes have been created to resemble traditional comfort foods that our customers will recognize but prepared in a more health conscious and mindful manner,” he explains.
Many chefs have been getting requests for organic and free-range chicken, but those items are often more expensive.
Robert Cartwright, retail and catering manager at Integris Heart Hospital in Oklahoma City, says he buys frozen “airline chicken.” “Airline chicken is the breast with the first part of the wing still attached,” he says. “The breast is the healthiest part of the chicken. We serve the breast as a stand alone with different sauces like honey mustard, Italian tomato basil or Mexican pico de gallo.”
Pico de gallo is especially appropriate for chicken—it means rooster’s beak in Spanish—and Cartwright can vary the traditional preparation of chopped tomato, red onion, garlic, jalapeño or Serrano pepper, lemon and salt by using cilantro, lime, cucumbers and/or chopped bell pepper.
The Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix also uses airline chicken, but Troy Gauthier, purchasing and production manager, says he buys his breasts fresh and locally processed.
“One of our chefs, Steven Clark, plans a weekly feature that frequently includes chicken,” says Gauthier. “These specials are assembled to order in our Creative Corner station. The chicken is fresh, locally processed to order, and is high quality. The difference of the fresh chicken versus frozen is truly amazing.”
Chicken in 'Carb Country'
Satisfying Southerners with chicken is easy.
Mickey Sellard has worked at the corporate headquarters of Golden Living in Smith, Ark., for 10 years. She is the executive chef and manager of dining services for the company, which manages eldercare issues. Sellard says her customers see chicken as a healthy protien. For Sellard's Southern customers, chicken added to carbs is always a big hit.
“We have to serve chicken because people walk through the door assuming that it’s healthy. That’s the mindset. Today I had a flank steak special using very lean beef and people were saying no, I need to eat chicken, because that chicken is going to be healthier, even if it’s popcorn chicken and it’s deep-fried and it comes with fries. It’s just the way we all think now. If we eat chicken or if we eat turkey, we are eating healthy. It’s different than 20 years ago when everyone was on the where’s-the-beef bandwagon.
We do a sandwich with blackened chicken, which is the most popular way to eat chicken here. They like it spicy and bold. We take our boneless, skinless breast and dredge it in a mix of cayenne pepper, garlic, paprika, thyme, marjoram and black pepper, and then we bake it to make it lower in fat. Then we hold it in the cooler. When customers order the sandwich, we slice it and heat it on the flat top, roll it in a 12-inch wrap—generally multi-grain—with lettuce, shredded cheddar, diced tomatoes and ranch dressing.
In the South, chicken and dumplings is a major meal. We steam our dumplings. We take the little dumpling dough and put them in our big steamer in perforated pans then combine them with chicken and broth. They will leave chicken in the pan and they will dredge out the dumplings. I am in carb country. You know if you didn’t get about 15 dumplings in your bowl, then you just didn’t get your share.
Chicken spaghetti is also popular. You cook spaghetti and add diced chicken, Velveeta, cream of mushroom soup, onions and cream cheese and put it all together. We serve it with garlic toast and if we didn’t have it on Thursdays they would have a seizure. It’s self-serve and if you can close the lid it’s $2.95. It’s thick and gooey and like the best macaroni and cheese—with chicken in it. It’s extra rich, with the cream cheese, but it’s good.
In the spring we do a roasted chicken salad; you get half a chicken with roasted vegetables along with various lettuces. We also make a duck salad. We marinate duck breast in a French dressing, grill it and slice it, medium rare, which is a little odd here. Sometimes I have to overcook it because this is the South and they don’t do rare real well. We serve it with grilled eggplant, celery, fennel, baby greens and tomatoes. And that’s served with a dressing of their choice. We push them toward the balsamic vinegar and olive oil because it’s a natural go-with. The dressing that we use to marinate the duck breasts caramelizes when you cook it; we get a nice coating on the outside.
The one thing that they beg for, on an almost weekly basis, is a Cobb salad wrap. It doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer; they eat it like crazy. We put absolutely everything in it. We use baby greens, diced chicken, diced tomatoes, hard-boiled egg, bleu cheese, black olives, diced bacon and avocado. We have each item separate and we make it to order. That way, for people watching their carbs, we can make a salad for them right there.
We make chicken every day; but we also do turkey burgers and turkey meatloaf. We do traditional carved turkey to order, turkey and dressing, because dressing here is a big deal. You would call it stuffing. Here you must make twice as much; we make it in separate pans. You can sprinkle chicken on it and they would just eat the dressing. I kid you not, they just want it with plenty of creamy gravy on it; big carb land. Corn bread dressing is very traditional around here. We make chicken or turkey gravy the traditional way with flour, drippings and bacon fat roux; it’s like eating silk.”