I love comfort food. Who doesn’t? That’s why they call it that, right? It’s comforting. It holds your head and tells you that it loves you, looking longingly into your eyes and touching your soul.
For whatever reason, I decided yesterday that I wanted to make a grown-up, gourmet version of mac and cheese for dinner; mac and cheese with roasted green chiles, bacon, and green onion. And since eating just mac and cheese for dinner seemed a little too “college” for me, I decided that I should probably make something else to go with it, so I decided on cracker-crusted chicken tenders with my go-to honey mustard.
PREP: The first thing I did, as with any other dish involving roasted chiles, was to roast the chiles (1 poblano, 2 hatch) in the broiler. And as before, I pull out the roasty chiles, wrap them in foil and let them sweat until I’m ready for them. I then started to boil the water for my macaroni shells while I made the delicious bacon cheese sauce. I cooked up half a pound of bacon in a large stainless steel sauce pan, making sure to get them crispy without burning them. I removed the bacon, and drained about half the grease. I wanted all those delicious bacon bits and grease in the cheese sauce, so I returned the pan to heat, and added about half a cup of whole milk, and roughly 1/4 cup of buttermilk. Once heated, I threw in 1lb of cubed american cheese (I did half white, half yellow – I used Boars Head instead of Velveeta this time. Insanely more expensive, but the flavor is far superior). Once the cheese melted, I diced up the roasted chiles after removing their seeds, and threw them into the cheesy, bacon-y pool. That’s all she wrote for the cheese sauce, so I covered it and set it aside.
The water still hadn’t reached a boil yet, so I started on the chicken. I developed the batter for this recipe back when I was 18 or 19, and it’s carried me this far, so I keep using it. I mix 1 cup of milk with 1 cup of buttermilk, 1 Tbsp Krystal (or louisiana, or franks) hot sauce, 1 tsp sea salt, 1 cup of flour, and 1 tsp lemon juice in a big bowl. It turns into a thick, salmon-colored batter, perfect for chicken. Pat your chicken tenders with a paper towel to remove excess moisture, then season with salt and pepper. Submerge the tenders in the batter and let them soak for a minute while you prepare the rest.
Your water is probably boiling right now, so go ahead and throw in the pasta.
Fill a cast iron skillet with a cup of shortening, and heat it on medium-high heat until melted.
While that’s happening I put 2 cups of oyster crackers in a food processor along with a tsp of black pepper and pulse it into fine cracker meal for the chicken. I also pulse another half cup of oyster crackers (sans pepper) to use on the mac and cheese.
I mixed up a quick honey mustard too. I whisked together 1/2 c of miracle whip (even if you’re a mayo person, use miracle whip. Mayo taste awful in this recipe), 2 Tbsp dijon mustard, 1 Tbsp Honey, pinch of cayenne (optional). Set this in the fridge until you’re ready for it.
Finally I chopped up some green onion for garnish, and crumbled the bacon from earlier.
COOK: Once the shortening is hot (drop some cracker meal into it and see if it sizzles), start breading your chicken. Take out a strip at a time, roll it in the cracker meal, and add it to the hot shortening. Fry em up until they’re golden brown and delicious. Adjust the heat as necessary to keep them from cooking too quickly. Cast iron holds onto heat really well, so don’t get impatient, just make small adjustments and wait.
Once all the tenders have been fried and drained on a towel, I place them on a cookie sheet and throw them into a 200°F oven to keep them warm and crispy until it’s time to serve.
About this time your pasta should be done, so you can drain it and set it aside for assembly.
ASSEMBLY: Put the desired amount of macaroni shells into a bowl, cover with the cheese sauce, add a sprinkle of oyster cracker crumbs (please don’t use the ones you breaded the chicken with), a few green onions (don’t overdo it, these can quickly overpower the dish…unless you like that.), and finally add a decent sprinkling of crumbled bacon. I didn’t add an ounce of salt to the mac and cheese. The american cheese, bacon, and oyster crackers bring plenty of sodium to the plate.
I served the chicken on a side plate, because let’s face it, it was an afterthought. I only made it as a supplemental sidekick. The Mac totally stole the show.
REVIEW: I’m in love. Regular mac and cheese will no longer cut it in my house. The cheesy, smokey, salty, crunchy, creamy balance is so far above reproach. The only bad thing I have to say about my plate is that I used too much green onion.
The chicken, albeit sidelined, was really good too. Super juicy and the cracker crust held its crispiness like a champ. I noticed that I forgot to season the chicken directly, but the salt and pepper in the oyster cracker crust took charge and carried the chicken just fine.
the honey mustard was amazing as it’s always been (I’ve been using this recipe for a decade now). It had an odd, bitter aftertaste that I attribute to the crappy store-brand dijon mustard I used. I normally use Grey Poupon.
I know you’re all probably tired of seeing 5-stars, but, honey mustard aside, I don’t think there’s anything I can do to improve this recipe. I’m being as impartial as I can. If I ordered this at a restaurant, I’d be very happy.