I’ve always held that reasonable men and women may disagree over matters of substance, such as boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
Some follow the sincerely held position that chicken breasts are dreary, insipid and bland. Others argue just as passionately that they are boring and flavorless. And a third group holds that they are just plain blah.
Can’t we all just get along? Can’t we agree that boneless, skinless chicken breasts are bland, boring and blah?
Now that we are all united in peace and harmony, perhaps we can work together to improve the situation. Perhaps we can strive to make chicken breasts exciting again.
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It can be done.
For instance, you can pound them flat, dip them in a crispy coating and then fry them. In other words, you can turn them into chicken schnitzel.
I used to think that schnitzels, by definition, ought to be made from veal. People who make them out of pork are just trying to save a little money and should be met with disdain. And chicken schnitzels? I thought that chicken schnitzels are not even worth the energy it would take to view them with contempt.
But then I started going to a restaurant in Toledo, Ohio, that made absolutely the best chicken schnitzels ever, and my world was changed. It was as if a great weight had been lifted off me; I was blind, but now I see. These days, I’m all about chicken schnitzels.
So I combined two recipes for chicken schnitzel, using the batter for one and the sauce for the other. Both used panko bread crumbs, which are the key to getting the perfect crunchy crust. Then I added the traditional toppings for a Holstein schnitzel, a fried egg and anchovies, and came up with a delectably tender and crispy piece of meat that could hold its own even against that restaurant in Toledo.
If you don’t want egg or anchovy on your schnitzel, don’t add them. It is very nearly as good without them.
Another way to dress up an otherwise uninspiring chicken breast is to shred it or dice it and then stir fry it. Because of their very blandness, chicken breasts are the perfect medium for stir frying – they are a blank canvas for all the other flavors in the dish.
I made one of my favorite stir fries from one of my favorite cookbooks. The recipe for chicken and peanuts with chili peppers is perhaps the most stained page in my copy of “Regional Cooking of China” by Maggie Gin, which I have had since 1984. It’s a simple dish, and any vegetables for your meal will have to come from somewhere else, but it has a marvelous flavor.
Specifically, the flavor is peanuts, which comes both from peanuts themselves and the peanut oil in which it is cooked. A bit of minced ginger and soy sauce lend their indispensable flavors, but what truly ties the meal together is just a hint of mild rice vinegar sweetened with a dash of sugar.
If Mexican food is more to your liking, you can use chicken breasts to display the bold flavors of Guanajuato, a state smack dab in the middle of Mexico. Chicken Guanajuato uses orange juice (and orange zest) as a base on which to layer an unusual array of herbs: thyme, marjoram and cinnamon.
Add sliced carrots, potatoes and a sauce of tomatoes, onions and garlic, and you end up with a bright-tasting and unexpectedly satisfying meal. The combined miasma of flavors is the perfect foil for the chicken breast.
But what if you want to strike out on your own and be more creative? Then you should think about taking a chicken breast and stuffing it.
Think of it as a pita made of chicken. You simply slice it horizontally almost all the way through, forming a pocket. Then, fill it with a stuffing of your choosing.
I was feeling ambitious, so I created four different stuffings. Because I love Italian food, I made one from sautéed tomatoes, basil and Parmesan cheese. I added mushrooms and Swiss cheese to another, essentially taking the toppings of one of my favorite grilled chicken sandwiches and putting them inside the chicken.
A third I stuffed with a classic combination of shallots, mushrooms and asparagus. And I looked toward Asia for my fourth, combining shallots, mushrooms, ginger, scallions and soy sauce.
Each, in its own way, was special. I stayed with traditional combinations that go well with chicken, but when you stuff a chicken breast you can let your imagination soar. I once made one with sauerkraut and sun-dried tomatoes. That may be why I stayed with the traditional combinations. But you can take the concept and run with it.
You will see that there are a million ways to make chicken breasts exciting.
Adapted from a recipe by Thomas Keller in Food & Wine and a recipe from Bon Appetit.
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, pounded to 1/4-inch thickness
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 cups panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
1/4 cup canola or corn oil, plus more if needed
6 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons capers
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 eggs, optional
8 anchovy fillets, rinsed, optional
Season the chicken breasts well with salt and pepper. Place flour on a plate. In a bowl, mix together eggs and mustard. Place panko on a plate. Dredge the chicken in the flour, shaking off any excess, then dip in the eggs and coat thoroughly with the panko, pressing lightly to adhere.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 of the breasts and cook, turning once, until golden and crispy on each side, about 3 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels. Add more oil if necessary, and cook the remaining 2 breasts in the same way.
Meanwhile, in a separate pan, melt the butter over medium-high heat and cook until browned and nutty, about 4 minutes. Stir in the capers and lemon juice.
If using eggs, fry them, keeping the yolks runny. Spoon the sauce over the chicken, top with an optional egg and optional anchovies, if desired.
Per serving: 731 calories; 39 g fat; 14 g saturated fat; 258 mg cholesterol; 39 g protein; 55 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 537 mg sodium; 45 mg calcium.
Chicken and peanuts with chili peppers
Recipe from “Regional Cooking of China” by Maggie Gin.
2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
2 quarter-sized slices ginger root, minced
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup peanut oil
1 cup skinless peanuts
3 or 4 dried red chili peppers
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
Dice chicken breasts. Combine with ginger, cornstarch, soy sauce and salt. Set aside.
Heat peanut oil over high heat in a wok or skillet and stir fry peanuts 2 minutes until lightly golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon, leaving oil in pan, and set aside. Add chili pepper to pan and stir fry 1 minute until browned and pungent. Remove with slotted spoon, leaving oil in pan, and set aside. Stir fry chicken 2 minutes. Add sugar, vinegar, reserved peanuts and chilies and heat through. Serve hot with rice.
Per serving: 405 calories; 33 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 36 mg cholesterol; 23 g protein; 7 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 424 mg sodium; 40 mg calcium.
Adapted from “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico,” by Diana Kennedy.
1 pound tomatoes (in season) or cherry tomatoes
6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup thickly sliced white onions
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
6 sprigs fresh thyme or heaping 1/4 teaspoon dried
6 sprigs fresh marjoram or heaping 1/4 teaspoon dried
3/4-inch piece of cinnamon stick
1 1/4 cups fresh orange juice
Zest of 1/ 2 orange
12 very small new potatoes, unpeeled
5 medium carrots, peeled, cut into 2-inch lengths, and quartered
Note: While this dish should be served as soon as it is cooked, it could be prepared and refrigerated up until the point when you add the chicken.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut whole tomatoes in slices or cherry tomatoes in half. Spray a pan with nonstick spray, place over medium-high heat, and cook tomatoes until beginning to char on both sides. Set aside.
Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large ovenproof casserole or pot with a lid (the breasts have to fit in one layer). Season the breasts well with salt and pepper and cook to a deep golden color on both sides – you may have to do this in 2 batches. Remove from casserole, sprinkle with more salt and pepper, and set aside.
Take out all but 2 tablespoons of the oil from the pot. Saute the onion and garlic gently, without browning, until translucent.
Blend the unskinned tomatoes until smooth. Add to the pan, together with the thyme, marjoram and cinnamon stick, and saute over high heat for 3 minutes, occasionally stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan.
Add the chicken pieces, orange juice, orange zest, potatoes and carrots. Cover and bake for 15 minutes, then turn the chicken pieces over and bake until tender, an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Serve with plenty of the sauce and vegetables.
Per serving: 483 calories; 11 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 73 mg cholesterol; 34 g protein; 64 g carbohydrate; 12 g sugar; 8 g fiber; 127 mg sodium; 87 mg calcium.
Stuffed chicken breasts
Recipe by Daniel Neman.
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
3 tablespoons butter, divided
1 cup dry white wine
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Make a pocket in each breast by cutting it horizontally almost all the way to the far side. Stuff with one of the following stuffings, or make one up yourself. Close pockets with toothpicks.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Without crowding the pan, cook chicken until golden brown on both sides; you may have to do this in two batches. Do not clean this pan. Transfer chicken to a rimmed baking sheet or a pan (or pans) large enough to hold the breasts in a single layer. Cook in oven until done, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, over medium-high heat, reheat the original pan in which you cooked the chicken (skip this whole step if you made Asian-atyle stuffing). Add the wine and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Boil the wine until it reduces by about half. Remove from the heat and add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter, swirling it in the pan until it is completely incorporated with the reduced wine. Pour this sauce over the cooked chicken, and serve.
Per serving: 243 calories; 12 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 96 mg cholesterol; 27 g protein; 1g carbohydrate; no sugar; no fiber; 66 mg sodium; 18 mg calcium.
Italian-style chicken breasts – Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a medium pan over medium-high heat. Saute 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons diced tomatoes or sliced cherry tomatoes until softened. Add 1/4 cup thinly sliced basil and remove from heat. Stir in 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, and stuff in equal portions into chicken breasts.
Mushroom ‘n’ Swiss chicken breasts – Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a medium pan over medium-high heat. Add 1 cup sliced mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and saute until mushrooms release their liquid. Stuff into chicken breasts in equal portions, and add 1 ounce of sliced Swiss cheese to each pocket.
Springtime chicken breasts – Snap off bottom few inches of 4 asparagus spears and steam stalks in a little boiling water until cooked through, about 3 to 4 minutes. Cut into 1/4-inch slices. In a medium pan over medium-high heat, melt 1 tablespoon butter. Add 1/4 cup shallots and cook until translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add 1 cup sliced mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and cook until mushrooms release their liquid. Stir in chopped asparagus and stuff into chicken breasts in equal portions.
Asian-style chicken breasts – In a medium pan over medium-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon oil. Add 1/4 cup chopped shallots and 2 teaspoons minced ginger and cook until shallots are translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add 1 cup sliced mushrooms, season with pepper, and cook until mushrooms release their liquid. Stir in 1/4 cup soy sauce and 1 tablespoon chopped scallions. Stuff into chicken breasts in equal portions.