My dim sum experiment: four toes make a blog post

by Matt Ruff on December 21, 2011

Lisa is out of town this week, and one of our deals when we’re apart is that she gets to eat all the almonds, cashews, and pistachios she likes (I’m allergic) while I get to indulge in the sort of culinary experiments that she’d rather not be a part of (e.g., anything involving squid ink, the smell of which once woke her from a sound sleep convinced that I’d started an electrical fire).

Seeing as yesterday was the first night of Hanukkah, I decided to try my hand at a traditional dim sum item that I’ve always been curious about: chicken feet. I bought a pound and a half of them for a little over three bucks at Uwajimaya in the International District.

Iron Chef Kitteh surveys the secret ingredient

For a recipe I settled on “Spicy Steamed Chicken Feet” from Jennifer McLagan’s Bones: Recipes, History, and Lore, in part because it was the only one I found that didn’t require deep-frying, something I prefer not to do unless I’m sure the result is going to be worth the mess. Instead, after clipping the toenails, you give the feet a quick blanch in boiling water, which makes them curl up like little alien hands:

After that, they simmer for 40 minutes in a braising liquid of soy, Shao Xing wine, ginger, garlic, orange zest, scallion, star anise, brown sugar, and cinnamon. (The braising liquid smells awesome, and very Christmasy with the spices.) Once the feet are nice and tender, you transfer them to a platter, coat them in a mixture of hoisin and chili-garlic sauce, and steam for another 15 minutes. And serve:

My final verdict: Can’t beat the visuals, but the eating experience was a disappointment. The flavor was fine, the problem is there’s almost no substance behind it: it’s all skin and cartilage, without even the token bit of meat you get with chicken wings. (Not sure why I was expecting anything different, but after all those cooking steps I guess I thought the bones would turn into magic breadsticks or something.)

For tonight, I’ll be trying something much heftier: pork braised in milk.

Martin McClellan December 21, 2011 at 1:12 pm

I’ve never tried chicken feet. Every time I go to dim sum my more adventurous friends report similar to your findings, and I confess that hasn’t made me eager to try. Especially with so many trays circling with so many tasty items.

But I was almost tempted by this sign I saw in Singapore.

Matt Ruff December 21, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Yeah, pig’s feet are also on my “to try” list. Although I think I may go for some organ meats first.

Inken Schuster December 21, 2011 at 2:34 pm

Matt, stay away from all that feet stuff. If you want to try organ meat, prepare liver. You will probably have to order calf liver at your butcher. Have it sliced into half a centimeter (sorry, no clue, how much this is in inches) and fry the liver in olive oil. No salt or pepper before frying, it would make the liver hard and rubber-like. Serve it salted and peppered together with mashed potatoes and any kind of veggies. Put sauteed onion rings on top.
Liver has a very singular taste. Either you like it or you don’t. Nothing in between.
BTW, this is how we serve liver in Austria.
Enjoy it with a nice red wine or beer.
Inken

PS: interested in chicken hearts bavarian style?

Matt Ruff December 21, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Thanks Inken, I’ll definitely give your liver recipe a try. (Was trying to decide between calf and pig’s liver, have you eaten the latter?)

And yeah, I’d love the Bavarian chicken heart recipe.

Inken Schuster December 21, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Matt,
the calf liver is to prefer. It is smoother and tastier. Think of what calfs and pigs eat, all the not-so-good-stuff gets cleaned by the liver. So I would always prefer the liver of a vegetarian. (I guess, Dr. Lecter would have an opinion on that one…) Get rid of all the fat and skin-like tissue before you put it in your frying pan. I would fry it about four minutes from both sides, not longer. It can stay pink in the middle. Oh, wash the liver with warm water and make sure to dry it very diligently before frying.

Chicken hearts

They don’t have to be cleaned of anything, little beautiful muscles you can buy deep frosted or at a good butcher. Wash the little thingies and dry them with kitchen tissue. Put salt and pepper on them. Do not cut them, they are so small, you don’t have to. Sautee chopped onions in a frying pan, add some garlic, if you want a heartier taste. Put the hearts in and fry them for about 8 minutes, stir from time to time to make sure, they are done from all sides. Add some flour to bind the juice and then pour sour cream or half and half, if you like your sauce more fluid. Let it simmer for a few more minutes, some ground nutmeg will give it le dernier cri. I prefer new potatoes with butter and parsley with it, but rice or pasta will go with it very nicely too. A green salad will freshen the whole thing up. It won’t take more than 15 minutes.

I once tried a mediterranian version and put them into sauce bolognese instead of ground meat. This is great with penne pasta and loads of parmigan. And the curry version wasn’t bad either.

Both the liver and the chicken hearts have a special feeling when you bite into them for the first time. The liver will be very smooth and has a dry feeling to it. It is different from any meat you ever prepared.
Biting into a chicken heart will feel a bit like chewing an octopus, but only because they are hollow. The hearts are the smoothest and cleanest muscle you can probably eat, so the meat is very healthy (depending on where the chicken came from certainly…).
Guten Appetit!
Inken

Mary Ellen LaRochelle December 22, 2011 at 4:57 am

That’s why so many of the recipes were deep-fried. The texture of the fried coating gives more bite to the chicken feet, and more of a reason to bother working so hard at eating so little. Plus, different food cultures have different palates, especially where texture is concerned.

If you haven’t had fried chicken livers before, that’s the place to start on your organ-meat adventure. Crispy outside with a rich soft center. So good. Here in Atlanta we can get them very easily even at fast-food places. I also like chicken hearts, calves’ liver, and kidneys. Your Asian markets should have any kind of organ meat your heart might desire. If you can find chicken feet, you can find anything!

Nicola Griffith December 22, 2011 at 3:49 pm

I’ve eaten a lot of chicken, calf, and pig liver. I don’t care for the chicken, but the calf and pig are massively tasty. I’d say the calf is marginally better.

Here’s how I do it: sautée the liver with a lot of onions, add enough water to cover, put a lid on the pan, and simmer slowly (without salt) for a couple of hours, until the onions and water have become luscious thick liver-y gravy. At that point season to taste (I use herbs like marjoram, some salt, and the tiniest bit of black pepper). Serve with mashed potatoes and steamed cabbage.

Oh, I’m drooling now…

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