It is hard to describe my relationship to chicken. I eat it and like it, sometimes very much. But cooking it? "Heebie jeebies" is a serious understatement. I dread wrangling it out of its wrapping, wrangling various wrapped bits of its insides from inside of it. And the whole time I'm stopping to scrub my hands with soap and water approximately every nanosecond. Then I wash the tap that I may or may not have contaminated with my contaminated chickeny hands. (I don't even know if it's salmonella I picture exactly, or Bubonic Plague, or just a generalized kind of poisoning, the skull-and-crossbones-on-the-label kind, like Drain-o). Then I go grimacingly back to the chicken itself, wedging my hand in here and there like a poultry remake of something you might have seen, if you grew up in New York in the eighties, on channel J.
Hm. As always, I worry that I have not transitioned seamlessly from a confessional writer to a food writer. Anyways. I will soon be posting recipes for some of our favorite chicken dishes: a simple, perfect roast chicken, for one, and bogglingly good Chinese-style red-cooked chicken thighs, for another. Both of these recipes are straightforward, and each requires only a bit of time and, yes, a bit of the requisite this and that with the raw parts.
Today, however, we're going to be dealing with the kind of chicken that basically leaps, pre-wrangled, from package to pan: boneless, skinless breasts. Now, the fact that you can buy them, like cotton balls, dry-frozen in a huge Ziploc should be your first clue that this is not a real back-to-the-earth food. It's like buying a bag of fish-tank gravel from the pet-supply store. It's like buying a bag of doll parts at the flea market--not that we actually bought it, but we did see it: all resin limbs, flesh-hued arms and legs, in a 50-cent Ziploc that made Birdy literally shudder. "I love dolls but I so don't want to buy that!" she said, and we said, "Okay!" (Actually, we said, "Well that's too bad, because you have to buy it!" and then felt bad because she didn't realize we were kidding and a look of abject horror passed over her rosy features).
Where was I? Have I mentioned yet how absolutely delicious this recipe is? No? Well let me mention it now: properly sautéed chicken breasts--using enough heat and enough fat--are completely excellent, and I'm going to offer you a sort of tutorial here for just that. You can do what you like with them when they're done: make the simple pan sauce and eat them as is, or slice them up to top a salad or pasta or to fill sandwiches or burritos. But the idea here is that it's dinnertime and what you need to make is dinner and there's no time for brining or braising or marinating. I'm showing an optional accompaniment of sautéed mushrooms because I happened to have them, they happen to go well with chicken, and they happen to be beloved by 3 out of 4 people in my household. The fourth person will gamely try one every time they're offered by nibbling a microscopic corner off of one and then nearly fainting from revulsion. Because mushrooms feed off of dead and decaying things and also poop, I take this fainting revulsion to be reasonable.
A few tips:
- Use very small chicken breasts or else cut each one in half to make 2 skinnier breasts. Thick breasts take too long to cook, and the middle insists on remaining bland. You could also pound them, but pounding meet always makes me feel like I'm in one of those grisly Roald Dahl stories; this may be my own personal quirk.
- In a non-stick pan, the chicken may be disinclined to brown correctly, and the brown is where the flavor is here. Try to use a non-non-stick pan.
- Use a mix of butter and oil: butter for flavor and oil to keep the butter from burning.
- Don't be afraid of heat. You want to brown the chicken very well, and you want to do this before the inside turns to quilt batting. The chicken will seem, at first, like it's sticking, but once it's properly browned it will loosen almost as if by magic.
- If you're photographing the chicken with a digital camera that you don't know how to use, then don't forget what you're doing and grab the hot, hot handle of the pan with your bare hand.
- Adapt as you will: add small amounts of chopped herbs (rosemary, say, or tarragon) to the pan sauce; add lemon juice and capers to the pan sauce to make a version of a piccata (we make it this way a lot).
- Slice each breast up crosswise before serving: this allows the sauce to get all over the bland inside, and also it's just much easier and more appealing to eat, for kids and grown-ups alike.
Perfect Sautéed Chicken
Buttered egg noodles make a great accompaniment, since the delicious juices seep over on the plate and season them perfectly.
1-1 1/2 pounds small boneless, skinless chicken breasts (4 or 5)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup dry white wine and 1/2 cup chicken broth (or just use 1 cup chicken broth or another tasty liquid of your choosing if the wine is going to be too wine-y for your kids)
A bit of chopped parsley
Begin by trimming the chicken breasts if they need trimming. I use my beloved kitchen scissors and snip off any shaggy bits of fat or gristle (even writing that now, I shuddered). If the breasts are large, take a large, sharp knife and cut each one parallel to the counter so that you end up with 2 skinny chicken breasts where once there was one thick one. Pat them dry with paper towels (this helps them brown) and sprinkle them with some kosher salt (I keep salt in small bowls and find it much easier to use that way).
Meanwhile, heat a very large pan over medium-high heat and add the butter, which should melt and foam, and the olive oil, which should stop the butter from burning. When the fat is all very hot but not turning black (recipes say "when the foam subsides"), add the chicken breasts in one layer. Now leave them alone for 5 or so minutes while the bottom gets nice and crusty and brown (if they seem at all disinclined to brown, then turn the heat up and leave them until they do). Use tongs or a spatula to flip them over as they're ready for flipping, and then cook another 4 or so minutes until the bottom is very brown and the chicken is cooked through: you may want to cut a piece open, but try pressing a cooked breast with your fingertip so that you get a feel for its doneness, which will develop over time into the skill of knowing when it's done without cutting it.
Pile the chicken on a heat-proof plate and pop it into a warm (200-degree) oven while you "deglaze" the pan: pour the wine in and scrape with a spatula to dissolve all the yummy browned bits while the wine bubbles and boils furiously in the hot pan. When the wine has cooked down about halfway, add the broth, turn the heat to high, and cook until the sauce seems syrupy and delicious. Taste it for salt, then drizzle it over the chicken, sprinkle with parsley, and serve. Sometimes, if the chicken has browned but doesn't seem quite cooked through, I leave it in the pan while I make the sauce so that it can simmer in there a bit longer; this is a perfectly fine way to do it.
Bonus Optional Sautéed Mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
3/4 pound mushrooms, sliced
optional: pinch of thyme and a bit of chopped shallot
1/2 cup wine (or broth)
In a cast iron pan, or another wide pan that's not non-stick, melt the butter over high heat. When it is very hot, add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt, and give them a toss and a stir to coat all the slices with butter. Now leave them alone for a few minutes while they begin to cook and release a lot of juice: they will look very unpromising at this point, like a panful of pale mushroom stew. Have faith! Stir them occasionally as the liquid begins to cook off and, after ten or so minutes, the limp mushrooms will be back to frying again, turning nice and golden and brown in the pan. At this point, add the optional thyme and shallot and a bit more salt as you see fit, and, when all is very browned and fragrant, pour in the wine or broth which will sizzle and steam furiously. Stir the pan as the liquid evaporates, then serve the perfect mushrooms to anyone sane enough to love them.