I expected that my children would become adventurous eaters. After all, their mother had tried buffalo in Rio de Janeiro; green papaya salad from a street vendor in Bangkok, Thailand; kebabs (which may or may not have been lamb) from the medina in Marrakech, Morocco; and wild boar in the south of France.
Cookbooks were always on my holiday gift list. At home, my stove hummed with interesting recipes from the Wednesday New York Times.
When they were too young to eat anything that was not puréed, Alexander and Julia accompanied us to many great restaurants with their own meals in tow.
So I eagerly anticipated each one's toddlerhood as a time to say hello to interesting restaurant food.
Unfortunately, I was thwarted by the "children's menu," and its perennial star, chicken fingers.
Ah, chicken fingers. In its most popular incarnation, the poultry tends to take a back seat to its friends: bread crumbs, oil, and salt.
Sometimes the chicken is so overprocessed that it looks more like white cotton than meat.
On the kids' menus, the chicken is called cute names like tenders, nuggets, fingers, or toes. So convenient but so scary to a mom is the supermarket version, which lists at least 20 ingredients not found in nature. It does, however, come in child-friendly shapes such as footballs and dinosaurs.
I felt foiled by the American food industry, but I wasn't defeated. I was determined to create a semblance of the shaped patties at home – but with quality ingredients like panko (Japanese) bread crumbs, freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and organic chicken.
When successive tries won no converts, I even stooped to using crushed potato chips to coat chicken shapes that I cut by tracing plastic animal cookie cutters with a paring knife.
I tried "Chicken Pops," inserting popsicle sticks into ground seasoned chicken patties, which became a popular recipe at the children's cooking class I teach.
But when it came to my own offspring, every recipe was tasted and then rejected by Alexander or Julia, or both.
Unexpectedly, though, somewhere between the potato chips and the panko came a success story.
The winning coating was Ritz crackers, a retro ingredient that may make purists shudder. But the chicken was real – and so was my relief.
Chicken Fingers à la Ritz
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 cup Ritz crackers
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup canola oil
One lemon (optional)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Slice the chicken into strips (6 to 8 strips per double chicken breast).
Place crackers in a heavy, zippered plastic bag and crush them to fine crumbs with a rolling pin. Add cheese and seasonings and shake the bag to mix.
Put the oil in a bowl; dip the chicken in it.
One at a time, put the chicken strips in the bag, seal, and shake to coat with crumbs.
Place chicken on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes until brown (cooking time depends upon thickness of chicken). Squeeze lemon over chicken, if desired, and serve.
Makes about 4 servings.