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January 19, 2007

Filed under: culture»cooking

Lime Chicken without the Chicken

Belle starts another weekend dogsit tonight, so she won't be having one of our homecooked meals for a few days. I'm sure that she can manage the store-bought pasta that's a staple on our dinner table (and one of the main reasons I keep a membership at Costco), but if she feels more adventurous I thought I'd try to write up one of her favorite dishes. This is a Mexican Lime chicken, but since Belle's a vegetarian obviously we're not going to be using real poultry. You'll need:

  • Fake chicken cutlets - The accepted industry name for this seems to be "chik'n" but I prefer "ficken" myself. I think I used some Quorn Naked Cutlets that Belle bought, and they were very good. The texture was about right, and they picked up good flavor from the spices.
  • Lime juice - Around here, you can go to the Super H or other Asian groceries and get a bag of 10 limes for a dollar. I used to keep a bunch in the fridge just because you never know when they'll come in handy. But when I've made this recipe, I've just used the lime squeeze bottle, and that works as well.
  • Olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper - There's really no excuse to not put fresh ground black pepper into almost everything, in my opinion. Even if there's not very much, it'll liven up flavors like chedder cheese, which I also love but which sometimes becomes too greasy and thick. You've probably seen those little spice dispensers that they have now, with the grinder built-in, which is not "straight from the plant fresh" but still has more kick and aroma than just the pre-ground stuff.
  • Cumin - I was raised on Old El Paso "Mexican" dinners. For me, this is the taste of Mexican food, for better or worse. But I also like to substitute adobo powder.
  • Other spices - Red chili powder, used sparingly, can be helpful. Cilantro, like black pepper, is one of those spices that I add to everything--you can get a bundle of it fresh for pretty cheap at Super H, and it's another that I like to pick up just in case. But I think for the most part, the flavor profile (guess who's been watching Top Chef?) of this dish is all about the salt and lime combination, so not a lot of other spices are really necessary.

Start by adding a little bit of olive oil--only about a teaspoon--to the pan. Cooking with fake meats takes getting used to. Real chicken tends to have lots of its own juices, and when I've tried to use oil in the past, using too much just saturates the meat and makes it greasy. But vegetarian meat obviously never had any real juices, since the good stuff is usually some kind of mycoprotein (read: fungus. MMmmm!) so you have to help it out and keep it from burning in the pan or drying out. On top of the oil, squirt in some of your lime juice. With a squeeze bottle, I use two or three squeezes--probably a full lime and a half. Then I actually add a little bit of salt and pepper to the lime and oil mixture, so it'll cook into the bottom of the meat at first. I'm wary about doing an actual "rub" for fake meat, because I think it's less cohesive or durable than the real thing. You don't want it to crumble on you.

Now put the stove on medium to medium-high, enough to get a little sizzle but not enough to flash fry. Remember that the ficken doesn't really need to cook to be done--we're just trying to warm it up and sautee the outside a little. Add the cutlets, and sprinkle more lime juice on each, enough that the spices will stick. Sprinkle the salt, pepper, and other spices on top of the cutlets to taste. Now your job is basically just to babysit the cutlets and make sure that they don't burn--you want the outside to be browned but well away from blackening. There's nothing worse than burnt fungus. Turn each cutlet a few times, and use their position on the stove eye to regulate their cooking. To test, cut a little bit off the end and see if it's hot all the way through, as well as making sure that you don't need more lime or salt. Be careful not to add too much of either, though. It shouldn't be sour.

You can serve this on its own as an entree. I think it'd be good with wild rice and black beans, to offset the saltiness. But when I've served this for Belle, what I actually do is crush tortilla chips to cover the bottom of a shallow bowl, shred a little cheese on top of that, then layer on the cutlets and add a thin line of salsa down the middle of each. It's a colorful meal, quick to make, and pretty filling.

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