PUBLISHED: 3:03 PM on Wednesday, December 21, 2005
A party food also just fine for dinner
One of my favorite parts of the Christmas season is the annual mayhem that is the neighborhood Christmas gift exchange.

On our street, we have a buffet and a secret Santa deal for the kids.

Then the adults have their fun by swapping gifts in a White Elephant Gift Exchange that looks more harried than the New York Stock Exchange.

The White Elephant thing works like this: Each person brings a gift and gets a number. The first person chooses a gift and opens it. The next person can either open a gift or take the gift from the first person. If the gift is taken, the first person gets to pick another gift. The this person can either open a new present or snag one of the two gifts already open, and so on.

With 15 people, gifts can sometimes be tossed around like a hot potato. Not surprisingly, a bottle of Gray Goose vodka was one of the most coveted gifts. It caused quite a stir as it was shaken around the room.

While the exchange is fun, the food can't be overlooked. We had a feast of meatballs, cheese plates, grilled sausage, pepperoni bread, shrimp and some chocolate truffles and cheesecake lollipops.

Before the party, I couldn't decide what to make. I had plenty of options but wanted one that would be easy, tasty and, what the heck, something I could write about in this column.

Jennifer DeCamp, talented designer of the Taste section and quite the cook in her own right, suggested the dish I decided to make, Sesame Chicken Strips from Paula Deen's The Lady & Sons Savannah Country Cookbook. Not only did it work great for a party, but it's the sort of dish kids and their parents will love for a weeknight dinner.

I like the recipe because it's perfect for a party that happens to be on a work day.

Just cut six chicken breast halves into 1/2-inch wide strips and marinate for at least eight hours in a combination of sour cream, lemon juice, celery salt, Worcestershire sauce, garlic and salt and pepper. If you're an enterprising cook, you can get up 30 minutes earlier than usual, prepare the marinade and let the chicken soak up the flavors in the refrigerator while you're away at work. The chicken can even sit in the sour cream mixture overnight.

Prior to dinner or going to a party, roll the strips in a breadcrumb and sesame seed mixture, dab with a touch of butter and then bake in a 350-degree oven for 40 to 45 minutes. It's too easy.

The strips are best served with a honey mustard sauce. Of course, I forgot to buy any at the store. No worries. I like my sauces like my cocktails -- with the recipe in the name. Just as a scotch and water is nothing more than scotch and water, honey mustard is just that, honey and mustard. I combined 1/2 cup regular yellow hot dog mustard with 1/3 cup honey to start. I added more mustard and honey until I got the thickness and flavor I wanted. It was a hit.

The next time I make the strips (and these will be a regular menu item at our house), I think I will line the baking pan with parchment paper rather than greasing the pan. The bottoms of some of the strips burned a bit.

And after all the swapping was done and the tinsel had settled, I ended up with a Christmas candle. But I also count this recipe as one of the best Christmas gifts of the season so far.

Dan Macdonald is a Morris News Service food columnist..

Sesame Chicken Strips

6 skinless boneless chicken breast halves
1 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice or juice from 1/2 lemon
2 teaspoons celery salt
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dried bread crumbs
1/3 cup sesame seeds
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, melted
Cut chicken crosswise into 1/2-inch strips. In a large bowl, combine sour cream, lemon juice, celery salt, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper and garlic. Mix well.

Add chicken to mixture, coat well, and cover. Refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In medium bowl, combine bread crumbs and sesame seeds.

Remove chicken strips from sour cream mixture. Roll in crumb mixture, coating evenly. Lightly grease a 15-by-10 jelly roll pan. Arrange strips in single layer in prepared pan. Spoon butter evenly over chicken.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes until chicken is tender and golden brown. Serve with honey mustard.

Source: The Lady & Sons Savannah Country Cookbook by Paula Deen