Chicken Katsu with Savoury Watermelon Salad
I am constantly forcing Mike to try new foods and flavors, explaining with the utmost condescension that if you stop experimenting than you might as well stop living all together. Right now. And, by the way, you’re killing *me* too. Melodrama is my middle name, and I generally tend to equate eating the same thing twice from a restaurant as being akin to a fiery demise. Look, I know that this is a character weakness that I really should seek to correct (one day…not today, but at some time in the distant future when there is nobody left to put up with me). Yet sometimes, this guilt and battery actually work in my favor, which simply fuels my inherent urge to bully and cajole.
Then again, sometimes, much to my chagrin, trying something new turns out to be….well, not that ‘new’ after all.
Historically, my most glaring failures of enthusiasm have happened in Japanese restaurants. There I sat, giddily goading Mike into trying the “Chinese Braised Sausages”, expecting him to be curious (or possibly appalled) by the sweet, fatty cured meat. Instead, what came out of the kitchen were hotdogs, or specifically, boiled hotdogs, pleated and arranged aesthetically on a small porcelain dish. He was almost beside himself with ecstasy and relief. Similarly, when I sneakily ordered pork “tonkatsu” for the first time, anticipating some form of pork ball or unidentifiable cut of saucy meat, instead I got a breaded and deep fried pork cutlet. Mike grinned joyfully at me and tucked right in.
I scowled and took a bite, still holding out some hope that the “tonkatsu” would magically exemplify the flavors of Japan if I just paid enough attention. Nope. No dice. It really was just a breaded and deep fried pork cutlet with a handful of plain shredded cabbage and a side dipping sauce that tasted vaguely similar to ketchup thinned with soya. On the other hand, the cutlet had been sliced into medium thin strips so that it could be picked up with chopsticks (very considerate, I’d say!) and the panko breading was perfectly crisp, crunchy, and delicious. By bite three, I had finally come to the conclusion, as with so many times in the past, that food didn’t have to be challenging, unique or unknown to be good. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is that food tastes good, and if all it takes to bring me to this conclusion (again…and again) is a breaded pork cutlet or a boiled hotdog, I consider myself lucky.
The word “katsu” means cutlet,, and although the variety which holds the most popularity overall is called tonkatsu (pork cutlet), katsu is also made with chicken, beef and ham. To make katsu, you simply take a cut of lean meat, pound it to an even consistency, apply a crispy breading that generally employs panko (Japanese bread crumbs), and deep or shallow fry over moderately high heat until the meat is cooked through.
Instead of serving the katsu with a mound of crunchy cabbage, this chicken katsu was topped with one of our favorite seasonal salads; juicy watermelon, refreshing cucumber and mild sweet onion, spiked with a dash of chili oil and a generous sprinkle of dill. The salad is refreshing enough to redeem the fact that you’ll be standing over a stove for 15 minutes with the chicken, when what you would really rather be doing is lounging outside in a hammock with a cold mint julep, lavishing in the perfect summer weather that we’re having.
Chicken Katsu with Savoury Watermelon Salad
- 4 medium boneless skinless chicken breasts (800 g/1.75 lb)
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 2 eggs
- 2 tbsp sake *
- 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
- 1.5 cups panko **
- salt and pepper, generously
- 4 tbsp mild vegetable or safflower oil
- 1/2 lemon, garnish
Spicy Watermelon, Cucumber, Onion and Dill Salad
- 1/2 small seedless watermelon (5 cups diced)
- 1/2 English cucumber
- 1/2 small sweet onion
- 3 tbsp sake *
- 1/2 lemon, juice only
- 1.5 tsp Asian chili oil, or to taste
- handful fresh dill (1/2 cup chopped)
- salt, to taste
* Sake is a Japanese rice wine. In flavor, to me the closest Western equivalent to a good sake would be a 1:1 combination of dry white wine and ice cold vodka. If you don’t have access to sake, for the dressing you can omit the rice wine altogether or substitute a tablespoon of vodka and a teaspoon or mirin if you really feel the yen. For the katsu breading, substitute cold water or milk instead.
** Panko is a type of Japanese bread crumb. The flakes are larger and crispier than regular bread crumbs. which mean that they’re ideal for fried or baked foods that you want to keep crunchy and textured.
For this salad, you want to use sweet ripe watermelon, so choose a fruit with a firm and unblemished skin which sounds hollow when you rap it lightly with your knuckles.
Slice one end off the watermelon so that it is flat and steady. Carefully slice away the rind and any white pith. Cube the watermelon into a medium sized 1/2″ dice. Let the watermelon drain in a colander for 20 minutes to get rid of any excess liquid. I would recommend keeping that liquid and serving it over ice with a splash of vodka, but that’s just me.
Peel a few strips of skin from the cucumber to make it all pretty like, and quarter it lengthwise. Slice the quarters into chunks about 1/4″ thick. Slice the onion vertically into chunks about 1/2″ thick and then cut across into thin slivers that are 1/8″ thick.
Or, you know, just chop it all up. Being finicky about size could be my second greatest downfall.
Whisk together the sake, juice of half a lemon and the chili oil. Season with salt to taste.
In a large mixing bowl, mix together the cucumber, onion and drained watermelon. Coarsely chop the dill and gently toss the herb with the watermelon mixture Leave the mixture in the fridge to chill until you’re ready to serve, and dress the salad no more than 15 minutes before it is served.
For the chicken katsu, cut away and discard any excess fat from the chicken breasts. Butterfly the breasts and pound them out until they are an even 1/4″ thick. Season both sides of the meat with salt and pepper.
Find three large and shallow dishes. In the first one, place the flour and season it quite generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. I like to use at least 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper.
In the second dish, whisk together the eggs and sake.
In the third dish, smooth out the panko.
Dredge each chicken cutlet well in flour and then shake off the excess. Dip the chicken in the egg mixture until it is completely coated, and again you can shake off the excess. Finally, lay the eggy chicken into the panko and press gently on both sides so that the bread crumbs adhere. The breast should be fully breaded with no naked areas.
Working in batches, heat up one tablespoon of oil in a medium sized skillet set over medium-high heat. When the oil it hot but not smoking, gently lay in the chicken and shallow fry it for 2 minutes per side, or until it is done. I like to work with 2 frying pans to speed the process, but if you’re a One Pan kind of person, heat your oven to 200ºF and lay the cooked chicken cutlets on a rack while you finish cooking the rest.
Serve each chicken breast with a wedge of fresh lemon and a portion of the watermelon salad.
The crispy fried chicken cutlets are lightened with a cool, crisp salad. With the sweetness of watermelon, the herbal richness of fresh dill and the unexpected follow up whisp of heat from the chili oil, this sweet and savory summer salad would also be a great accompaniment to grilled fish or chicken. Chicken katsu with watermelon salad: like Far East meets American South, but this time everyone comes out a winner.