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Chicken Parm Nuggets with Fresh Marinara

Chicken Parm Nuggets with Fresh Marinara

hy should chicken nuggets only be enjoyed by children? Crispy, delicious, fun to eat nuggets should be enjoyed by people of all ages! But chicken nuggets are unhealthy and made of weird chicken parts, you say? These nuggets aren’t! These are a nutritious, grown-up version of what was perhaps your childhood favorite.

Traditional commercial chicken nuggets are made with reformed chicken, or bits and pieces of chicken that you don’t even want to think about. So we won’t go there. Let’s instead talk about how these here chicken parm nuggets are made simply with chicken tenders. The tenders (tender loins) are found right beneath the chicken breasts, and are a low fat part of the bird. Chicken, projected to be the most consumed meat in the world by 2020, is a high quality source of protein. This means our body is able to absorb and utilize close to 100% of the protein in the food. Chicken is favored by many athletes over other meats because of desirable qualities such as easy preparation, low fat content, wide availability, and affordability.

n addition to the high quality protein used in these nuggets, they are more nutritious because they are coated with whole wheat bread crumbs rather than bread crumbs from refined flour/white bread. The whole wheat crumbs are mixed with a small mountain of grated Parmesan, because the cheese is what really gets these nuggets to taste like tiny chicken parms. 

The next vital ingredient in chicken parmesan is the marinara sauce, which by the way is not the same as tomato sauce. While pasta sauce or tomato sauce can be made with any combo of tomatoes, onions, other veggies, herbs, etc., marinara sauce is meant to be kept very simple. It is traditionally made with just olive oil, garlic, tomato, oregano or basil, and salt and pepper. Such a short ingredient list may sound like the resulting sauce will be rather boring or flavorless, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

This marinara comes out so fresh, bright, savory, tomato-y, it is amazing how just a couple ingredients can equal much more than just the sum of the parts. Sure you can buy a jar of sauce, but why not use some fresh, ripe tomatoes (perhaps gifted to you from your grandparents’ garden, thanks gma & gpa!) and learn how to make a super easy, yet classic and versatile sauce.

Tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene, which has been discussed here a bit previously. Lycopene is a phytochemical that gives some foods their red pigment and is known to decrease risk of some illnesses in humans. Cooking tomatoes actually increases the bioavailability of lycopene. This means that the lycopene will be better absorbed and utilized in the body. So this marinara sauce is not just a flavorful bath to dunk these nuggets in, but also a health promoting functional food to add to your diet.

f course you can go to the nearest restaurant or grocery store and pick up some chicken nuggets. But will they be nutritious or chicken parm flavored or fun to prepare? Probably not. I hope you try this recipe for a healthy, creative version of a childhood classic. Try something new and have fun with your food!

Chicken Parm Nuggets with Fresh Marinara
Makes 4-6 servings depending on serving size
 
Marinara
2 lbs. fresh tomatoes
2 tbs. olive oil
3 cloves garlic
1 tsp salt
few grinds black pepper
¼ cup fresh basil leaves
 
Nuggets
2 lbs. chicken tenders
1 ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus a little extra
4 pieces whole wheat bread
2 eggs
big pinch of coarse/kosher salt
few grinds black pepper
 
Start with the marinara first. Fill a medium saucepan about half full with water and heat on high to boil. Fill a large bowl with lots of ice and some water. Wash tomatoes. Make an X in the bottom of each tomato, just cutting beneath the skin. Working with ~2 tomatoes at a time, place the tomatoes in the boiling water for about 20 seconds. (Adding too many tomatoes at once could cool the water too much) Then immediately transfer tomatoes to ice water. Once cool enough to handle, peel off the skin from the X on the bottoms. Taking the skin off the tomatoes results in a smoother sauce. Cut tomatoes into quarters, removing the little stem/core. Careful when cutting, as they will be pretty slippery.
 
Peel the garlic, and then slice thinly. Heat a medium saucepan (you can use the same one as above, just dump the water and dry out first) on medium heat. When hot, add the olive oil and then the sliced garlic. Stir and let cook for about 30 seconds, or until fragrant. The garlic doesn’t need to get browned at all. Then add in the cut tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Stir well. Let the tomato mixture come to a rapid simmer, and cook, stirring and smooshing the tomato chunks every few minutes for about 25 minutes. Add the basil half way through the cooking. The finished sauce should be thickened, or reduced by about half.
 
You can start to make the nuggets as the marinara cooks. Heat oven to 350°F. Toast the bread until nice and dry. When bread has cooled, tear into small pieces and blend into bread crumbs in a food processor. Remove any large, soft bread chunks as needed. Mix the bread crumbs with the 1 ½ cups grated Parmesan, salt and pepper.
 
Cut the chicken tenders into 2 or 3 pieces each. Whisk the eggs together well. Dip each piece of chicken in the egg, then coat well in the Parm-bread crumb mixture. Pat the mixture onto the chicken pieces to help stick if needed. Place each nugget on a wire rack on a baking sheet, and add a little more grated Parm on top of each. (Foil or parchment on the sheet will make clean up for future you much easier) Bake the nuggets for about 20 minutes, or until firm (internal temp 165°F).
 
Serve the chicken parm nuggets with the warm marinara and impress dining companions with your nugget skills.

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