Sunday, November 20, 2005

Honey Balsamic Chicken Breasts

There is something depressing about the ubiquity of the skinless, boneless chicken breast. The very things that make it popular -- its convenience and relative healthfulness -- also seem to make it a bit soulless. It has become too much of a blank canvas, and too many people just leave it blank. They toss it in the oven or on the indoor grill substitute, cook it, and serve it without so much as worrying about proper seasoning or even a soupcon of presentation. If you caught Broken Flowers earlier this year, you saw a very unfortunate Bill Murray sit down to a meal prepared by a former girlfriend. Plain (and overcooked) grilled tuna (or maybe swordfish) with plain rice and some cooked frozen carrots. Despair on a plate. I'm pretty sure that on Tuesdays and Thursdays, she serves the same thing, except with a chicken breast and lima beans in place of the anonymous seafood and the ridged carrots.

The fact that it's so easy to overcook a chicken breast doesn't help either. The trip from tender and juicy to tough and dry is a very quick one indeed. Part of the cooking difficulty comes from the shape of a chicken breast, with its nice plump rounded side tapering off to a thin point. You can get around this problem by pounding. Put the breast between two pieces of plastic wrap (or don't) and pound with a mallet or a pounder. I'm sure the pounder has a real name, but I don't know what it is. In any event, it is a flat round of smooth metal with a handle sticking out of its back. You grasp it in your fist and pound the chicken breast (it also works on various other types of meat) until it's even. The pounding is a very satisfying action, and it's a great way to work out your aggression, though if you have too much aggression to work out, your chicken breasts may lose their structural integrity.

Anyway. The chicken breast really is a great convenience, and if you want to put together a dinner quickly, it's a very useful thing to know how to cook properly. (And, let's face it, the lack of fat is a very good thing because then you can put extra butter in your mashed potatoes and still feel virtuous.)

The French name, in case you were wondering, for a chicken breast is something like suprême de volaille. I'm not sure why you were wondering that, but I'm happy to have appeased your curiosity. I live to serve.

Most of my chicken breast dishes share a common basic preparation with many variations in a few of the details. While I'm pounding my chicken breasts, I'm preheating my skillet. When I'm just about ready to go, I pour a small amount of olive oil in the skillet, then I as many chicken breasts as I can comfortably fit into the pan into the pan. I am generally using a nonstick skillet, so flipping them only once is not absolutely critical, but you should really cook them on one side, flip them once, cook them on the other side, and then remove them from the pan. You can either salt and pepper the breasts before you start cooking, or you can season them in the pan. Season side B while side A is cooking, and then when you flip them over to cook side B, season side A. The breasts are done when they're just firm throughout. I have no trouble cutting into one of my breasts to check, if I'm not sure, but I don't usually need to. If they are very slightly undercooked, you can just reheat them for a little longer than you normally would when you get to that part of the preparation.

When you've cooked all of your breasts, then you'll want to deglaze your pan. My favorite simple preparation is to deglaze with a shot of red wine, then quickly cook some minced garlic or shallots and perhaps a handful of mushrooms in the pan. When those have cooked a bit, I will usually add another few ounces of wine and a spoonful of dijon mustard and put the breasts back in to get coated in the sauce and finish cooking. The whole thing takes very little time indeed, and it tastes very good. You can make innumerable different sauces this way. Put in some chopped fresh herbs. Whisk in some softened butter. Add some fortified wine. You get the idea.

If you want to cook the breasts quickly, but you can plan ahead a day or a few hours, then marinating them works very well. (This is a very good strategy to use when you know on Sunday or Monday that you're having a guest for dinner on Tuesday.) There are any number of potential marinades. The one I used last night was reminiscent of the rabbit dish I had when I was in San Francisco a couple of months ago. I didn't use juniper berries in mine, and I (obviously) didn't use rabbit, but it was still very good.

Honey Balsamic Chicken Breasts

1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1 t. dijon mustard
1 t. grated fresh ginger
1/2 t. kosher salt
ground black pepper
a sprig of fresh rosemary (or 1/2 tsp. dried)

6 boneless skinless chicken breasts, pounded to an even thickness

Olive oil
Additional salt and pepper

In a saucepan, combine the honey, vinegar, mustard, ginger, salt, pepper, and rosemary. Bring to a simmer, stirring. Let cool.

Put the chicken breasts in a one-gallon ziplock bag. Pour in the marinade. Press as much air as possible out of the bag and seal it. Moosh the breasts and marinade around a bit so that the breasts are all coated. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

Put a skillet over medium high heat. Take the breasts out of the ziplock bag, taking as little marinade as possible with them. Reserve the marinade.

When the skillet is good and hot, pour about a tablespoon of olive oil in it, swirl the oil around and add three breasts. Cook for four or five minutes on one side, then flip them over and cook until they're done. Season with salt and pepper during the cooking. Repeat with the other three breasts.

While the breasts are cooking, put the marinade in a saucepan and bring to a boil. (Alternatively, put it in a large pyrex measuring cup and microwave on high.) Cook until the marinade reduces by about a third and is thick.

Pour the sauce into the skillet, add the chicken breasts and turn to coat well. Remove the chicken breasts to a platter and serve, garnished with additional sprigs of fresh rosemary. Serve the remaining sauce on the side.

As it happens, I used white balsamic vinegar because I had a big jar of it in my pantry, but you will want to use the regular dark balsamic vinegar. You do not want to use a very expensive balsamic vinegar, but if you want to use something that's a step or two above the really cheap stuff, that's probably a good idea.

If you like, you can bake the breasts in the marinade instead of cooking them on top of the stove. You can do all six at once that way, but you will also find that it's easier to overcook them, and I don't think the flavor is quite as nice. On the other hand, if you're doubling this recipe for a party, the oven is probably the way to go. In that case, you might want to cook the marinade down first and then bake the breasts in the reduced marinade to get a nice glaze.

This recipe would also be splendid with bone-in breast quarters (made in the oven). Because you'd have the skin on, the chances of drying the breasts out in the oven would be much reduced. I would use a higher heat (maybe 400 as opposed to 350 for the skinless, boneless breasts) for the breast quarters.


Blogger MzOuiser said...

Frankly, I'm saddened that no one else chose to comment on this post. I have often enjoyed the challenge of making chicken breast interesting. Perhaps next week I'll try this delightfully sweet-sounding recipe.

1:30 PM  
Blogger David said...

'I'll have two chicken breasts, please.'

- Donna Dasher (Mary Vivian Pearce)in the John Waters movie Female Trouble.

3:22 PM  
Blogger anapestic said...

Well, mzouiser, I reckon that everyone's mind is on turkey right now. Timing is everything. Thanks for stopping by, though.

David, I'm ashamed to admit that, despite my proximity to Baltimore, I've never seen Female Troubles, though I have seen most of the Waters oeuvre. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, you don't see his earlier movies on the TV much, though I did once see an afternoon broadcast of Polyester.

7:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heading to a party and needed a marinade for boneless, skinless chicken breast. The marinade looked tasty and I had either all of the ingredients or some handy substitutes (powder instead of fresh ginger). Upon mixing it together, it smelled pretty good.


8:34 AM  
Anonymous Esme said...

This meal was absolutely delicious. I made it for me and my boyfriend and we both really enjoyed it. The marinade was really sweet and sticky and made a wonderful dinner with some salad. Thanks! x

4:03 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home