Healthy Eating: Slimming down a calorie bomb — Buffalo chicken
Invented in Buffalo, N.Y., during the '60s, Buffalo chicken wings have become a national favorite. Big surprise! If fat is where the flavor is, and if everyone's a sucker for flavor, Buffalo chicken couldn't lose.
A mad scientist dreaming up the Frankenstein of comfort foods might've come up with something very like Buffalo chicken wings. It starts with the fattiest part of the bird — the wings — which then are deep-fried, tossed into a vat of melted butter and hot sauce, and finally dipped in blue cheese sauce.
I hate to be a spoilsport, but yikes! Think of the calories! Single servings of Buffalo wings with blue cheese sauce can pack more than 1,000 calories. And that's just for an appetizer.
So, I decided to tackle this monster and somehow transform it into a weeknight meal. Using all of the dish's signature elements, and adding orzo or couscous and peas, I think I succeeded, mostly by turning finger food into a dinner-in-a-pot pasta dish. My version is quick to make, big on flavor, and much lighter.
First, I swapped out chicken wings for boneless skinless chicken. We love chicken wings because the skin-to-meat ratio is so high. And because the skin is where the flavor — and the fat — reside. After cubing the chicken, I sauteed it in a nonstick pan, and flavored it with hot sauce. The nonstick pan allows us to use a lone tablespoon of butter, rather than the 4 to 6 tablespoons called for in the classic recipe.
For the pasta, I like orzo, which looks like large grains of rice. And, by the way, you finally can find good quality whole-wheat orzo in the supermarket. But if you can't find that, try whole-wheat Israeli (the large variety) couscous, which also is a pasta and cooks in about the same time as the orzo.
After partially boiling the orzo or couscous, I toss some frozen peas into the pot. I used to think that peas were just a sweet and starchy vegetable with little nutrition. When I finally took the time to do some research, I discovered to my delight that the little rascals are very high in fiber and contain a good number of micronutrients. These days, I always keep a supply of peas in the freezer for those nights when I don't have time to prep fresh vegetables.
The orzo or couscous finishes cooking in the skillet with some added chicken broth, in the company of the aforementioned peas, and only 3 ounces of blue cheese in a recipe that serves six people. I topped it off with celery, another of the classic recipe's staple ingredients. Tempting though it may be to do so, do not leave out the celery. It not only contributes its signature crunch, it works as a cooling counterpart to the spicy pasta.
I held my breath as I served this dish to The Husband, who I fully expected to ask, grumpily, “Where's the cheese?” Happily, there were no complaints. The dish is cheesy and creamy. The Husband was content. Indeed, I'm confident that this dinner-in-a-pot will be a big hit with the whole family. And it only takes 35 minutes to make.
Chef Sara Moulton writes this column for the Associated Press.
Cream Buffalo Chicken and Peas
Start to finish: 35 minutes
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
8 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes
1 to 2 tablespoons hot sauce, or to taste
8 ounces whole-wheat orzo or whole-wheat Israeli couscous
2 cups frozen peas
3⁄4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
3 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
1 cup finely chopped celery
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
While the water heats, in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the chicken and cook, stirring, until just cooked through, for 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the hot sauce and a hefty pinch of salt, then set aside.
Add the orzo or couscous to the boiling water, stir, and cook according to the package instructions until it is almost al dente. Add the peas, then return the water to a boil. As soon as the water returns to a boil, drain, and add the peas and pasta to the skillet. Return the skillet to medium heat, add the chicken broth, and bring to a simmer. Cook for 1 minute, or until the pasta is tender.
Add the blue cheese and simmer until the cheese is melted and the sauce has thickened. Transfer to 6 bowls and top each portion with some of the celery. Serve immediately.
Makes 6 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 290 calories (70 calories from fat), 8 grams fat (5 grams saturated), 40 milligrams cholesterol, 20 grams protein, 36 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams dietary fiber, 440 milligrams sodium