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Menu Development | By Marc Halperin

Chickening Out
Poultry’s limitless applications mean menu inspirations can come from unlikely places.
There are limitless ways to prepare chicken.

When you close your eyes and think about chicken, does your mind conjure up a steaming-hot plate of Chicken Cordon Bleu or a steaming-hot box of Chicken McNuggets? Coq au vin or Thai-style chicken satay? Pot pie or Indian-style, tandoori-grilled chicken kebabs?

My point in asking is to demonstrate the dizzying versatility of our favorite fowl and the numerous untapped uses it has for creative menu-development professionals. How many foods can transition as seamlessly from fine-dining applications to simple comfort-food preparations to exotic-but-accessible ethnic street-food staples?

I could probably devote an entire column to ways chains could mainstream white-tablecloth chicken dishes, but for purposes of discussion in this still-recessionary climate, let’s linger this month on some treatments that are more in tune with the times. If you think of comfort foods—with their traditional, down-home, all-American simplicity—as falling to one end of the spectrum and ethnic street foods—decidedly different, exciting, and equally satisfying—at the other, there really are a world of interesting and novel chicken dishes that can fit neatly under each.

Take it to the Street

The drive-thru restaurant is, in many ways, the American equivalent of the traditional street-food carts, trucks, and stands found in parts of the world where heavy foot traffic makes these ventures viable. In places like Mexico City, Seoul, New Delhi, Shanghai, and other major cities, street vendors who sell portable, handheld, relatively neat-to-eat items such as tacos, samosas, grilled meat skewers, and frozen fruit on a stick are a distinctive part of the culinary and cultural landscape.

But many millions of Americans live well outside densely populated urban areas. As a result, our largely suburban nation hasn’t spawned a vibrant street-food scene. The question is: How might quick-serves re-create some of the fantastically popular dishes that prompt so many urbanites around the globe to take to the streets at lunchtime?

The truth is there are plenty of ways to make the translation. While KFC may not see much promise in serving, say, a batch of chicken satay skewers, it could take the concept and parlay it into a chicken satay salad with a peanut-sauce dressing, adapting a distinctive street-food staple into a menu item that might fit neatly alongside other KFC offerings.

Elsewhere, more sandwich chains such as Panera could devise a limitless array of grilled-chicken menu offerings simply by using different carriers, sauces, and seasonings. Grilled chicken tricked out with various marinades, herbs, citrus juices, spices, or chutneys—and wrapped in anything from a crèpe to a dosa (a crispy, savory Indian pancake) to tortillas to lettuce leaves—might satisfy a host of different hankerings for guests who crave variety and a little something different during the day.

Other possibilities that fall somewhere between comfort and street foods on the culinary continuum abound. Chicken-stuffed samosas—those Indian potato-and-spice dumplings—also would be right at home on any number of fast-food menus nowadays, as would chicken-stuffed empanadas, the Latin-American equivalent. Both provide an opportunity to leverage the appeal of sweet and savory ingredients, and both offer a mix of foreign intrigue and approachability.

These are just a few ways to give chicken a street-wise twist, but there are probably dozens of other, equally appealing options. If it’s being served on the streets, it’s almost a sure bet that, with a little creativity and imagination, a modern fast-food adaptation is possible.

Hunkering Down with Comfortable

Chicken soup is and will always be the ultimate comfort food. But fried chicken, chicken pot pie, chicken pirogues, and other highly satisfying, down-home favorites could be ripe for a quick-serve makeover as well. Stuffed chicken-and-potato biscuits, for example, have never truly made inroads into the quick-serve marketplace beyond a handful of chicken chains. But executed well, they could become hearty comfort sensations as commonplace as chicken-club sandwiches and deep-fried chicken strip platters.

For pizza and sandwich chains, meanwhile, baking a chicken-and-vegetable stew into a calzone or piecrust also might go a long way toward winning over comfort foodies. There’s just something about moist, flaky pieces of chicken steeped in gravy or a thick broth—accompanied by thick starchy noodles and wrapped in a pie or pastry shell—that settles the stomach and soothes the senses.

If it’s being served on the streets, it’s almost a sure bet that, with a little creativity and imagination, a modern fast-food adaptation is possible.”

Chains like California Pizza Kitchen have been putting chicken on pizzas for years, but to my knowledge, no one has yet attempted a wintertime chicken dumpling pizza or a pizza crust stuffed with chicken parmigiana rather than cheese. But chicken’s inherent flavor malleability makes it possible to retool some basic formulas in compelling, memorable ways. At a time when comfort foods are providing solace to people reeling from the economic ravages of the past year, it may just be time to think about more creative ways to package and promote these mealtime mainstays.

Think of chicken as a gift to the quick-serve world: a popular, relatively inexpensive protein capable of being molded into dozens of different forms—and flavored in hundreds or even thousands of ways—such that it is brilliantly suited to just about any mainstream chain concept I can think of.

My advice: Take some cues from the streets, and from the mood of these times, and see if you can’t figure out a few new ways to put a new spin on a familiar favorite.

As COO and culinary director at San Francisco’s Center for Culinary Development, Marc Halperin assists food and beverage companies with new product development and consumer research.