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Is Your Chicken Breast Game in Need of a Boost?

Mad Genius Tips, a new cookbook by Justin Chapple and the editors of Food & Wine, is filled with clever hacks employing common household items—your oven, scissors, dental floss, cooling racks—and recipes to go along with each.

Pepita-Crusted Chicken Cutlets
Pepita-Crusted Chicken Cutlets
by Alexandra Stafford

No food processor? No cherry pitter? No meat mallet? No rolling pin? No problem: A wine bottle can do it all. Take, for example, this recipe for pepita-crusted chicken cutlets, which calls for toasting pumpkin seeds briefly in the oven and using a wine bottle (in place of a food processor or a spice grinder) to pulverize them: Simply transfer the seeds to a resealable plastic bag, then smash with a wine bottle until they’re crushed.

The genius hack, which can be used for peppercorns as well, works beautifully. And the recipe itself has a few unexpected bonuses as well: The addition of cumin, cayenne, and ancho chile powder, whose smoky flavors so nicely complement the toasted pepitas, won me over, a card-carrying breasts-are-boring member. And the use of seeds in place of bread crumbs, moreover, makes this preparation safe for both the gluten- and nut-free crowds.

Mid-crush and the cutlets all cozied and seedy.
Photos by Alexandra Stafford

Making a seed or nut crust is nothing new, but if you don’t have a gluten allergy or you adore panko, you may not have found a reason to branch out. But in addition to a nutty, toasty flavor, seeds add a welcomed layer of texture and, like bread crumbs, protect the meat, keeping it juicy as it cooks. If your chicken breast game is in need of a boost, look no further than your pantry of seeds—this one’s not for the birds.   

A few tips:

  • Other seeds: Sunflower seeds could be used in place of the pepitas, or you could use a mix of sesame, flax, poppy, sunflower, pumpkin, millet, chia, etc. Tip: Don’t toast the seeds too much. They should take on very little color during their brief time in the oven—you want to toast them halfway, as they’ll toast fully in the sauté pan when the chicken cooks.

  • The breading process: Typically, a dredging of flour and dipping into beaten eggs precedes the final crumb coating. Here, I replace the flour-egg mix with a blend of mustard and mayonnaise. If the idea of mayonnaise is off-putting to you, you can certainly employ the traditional three-pan egg-flour-crumb station. Another trick, which eliminates one pan, is to stir the flour with the egg and a little bit of water. This is the ratio I typically use: 2 eggs, 1/4 cup flour, and 2 tablespoons water.

  • To finish: A simple squeeze of lemon will suffice here, but if you’re looking for something more, an orange salsa, which requires just a bit of extra chopping, pairs particularly well with the nutty, toasty flavors of the pumpkin-seed crust. Roasted vegetables or a simple salad would also work well here.

Photo by Alexandra Stafford

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Pepita-Crusted Chicken Cutlets

By Alexandra Stafford

  • 1 1/4
    cups pumpkin seeds

  • 2
    chicken breasts

  • 3
    tablespoons mayonnaise

  • 1
    tablespoon Dijon mustard

  • 1
    teaspoon ancho chile powder or smoked paprika

  • 1/2
    teaspoon cumin

  • Pinch cayenne

  • Kosher salt and pepper, to taste

  • Neutral oil, for frying

  • Lemon wedges or orange salsa (see notes above), for serving

View Full Recipe

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Simple Orange Salsa

By Alexandra Stafford

  • 2 to 3
    oranges, peeled, segments cut from pith

  • 1
    small shallot, thinly sliced

  • 1
    small Serrano pepper, seeds removed, finely diced

  • Small amount of cilantro, coarsely chopped

  • Salt, to taste

  • 1 to 2
    tablespoons olive oil

View Full Recipe

Do you have another favorite alternative to bread crumbs? Tell us about it in the comments!

Alexandra Stafford is a writer, photographer, and occasional stationery designer based in upstate New York, where she is writing a cookbook. You can read more of her work on her blog.

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