Saturday, February 9, 2008

Split Chicken Breasts

Ah, chicken. The great thing about it is that it’s so adaptable. It can be cooked in a million different ways and is a great base for any spice you can think to add and any sauce you can think to simmer it in. The downside is that you sort of have to add spices or simmer it in sauce, because if you don’t, chicken all on its own can be pretty bland.

When I was younger, my mom used to make stuffed split chicken breasts. I loved them. There was something about not just having stuffing alongside chicken, but actually having the stuffing tucked under the skin and nestled next to the chicken breast. I swear it made the stuffing taste better. The chicken meat itself was a bit dull, but that was okay. I just slathered it in ketchup.

Now that I’m an adult, I realize that that was disgusting. So instead, I eat them with the salt shaker right next to me, much like I eat a hoagie with a jar of mayo next to me. But I realize that's all wrong, too.

So I had to come up with a better way. Split breasts are pretty thick, and even if you can liberally season the outer-most part of the meat, it’s back to bland once you’ve eaten past that top layer. I needed a way to penetrate the meat and jazz things up throughout the entire breast.

That’s when I remembered all the brining talk that was going on around Thanksgiving. Brine your turkey!, everyone screamed. I was intrigued, but since I wasn’t making a turkey, I didn’t pay too much attention. But now, it all seems so clear. Don’t just brine your turkey, brine your chicken! No more ketchup! No more bland bird! This could be the answer!

I consulted Alton’s book for instructions. Alton’s recipes were for larger pieces of meat, so I just looked at them to get the approximate proportions of salt to water. According to his recipe for orange brine, you should use 1/4 cup of kosher salt per 1 quart of water, or 1 tablespoon per cup. So that's what I did. And you know what? It works. I was expecting the breasts to taste salty, but they actually didn't. The meat just came out so juicy and tender and perfect that there was no need to add anything extra to it. No more ketchup, no more salt shaker. As Blanche Devereaux once said, Why paint the peacock? Or something.

All you need is two split breasts, salt, water, and a gallon-size zip-top plastic back. Wash the chicken pieces under running water and place them in the plastic bag. Add two cups of cold water and two tablespoons of kosher salt. Seal the bag and massage the bottom a bit to distribute the salt throughout the water. Then put the bag in the fridge until you’re ready to cook. I need to experiment more to find out the limits of how little and how long you can brine for, but this time I did an hour and a half and it worked out well.

When time’s up, remove the chicken from the fridge and pat it dry thoroughly with some paper towels (Alton says not to rinse off the brine). Set the chicken aside, preheat the oven to 425 degrees, and get started on the stuffing. You can use whatever stuffing you like for this. I usually just jazz up some Stove Top, which is very easy and very semihomemade. Just sauté a little bit of onion, celery, garlic, and thyme in some butter, add the stuffing mix and sauté for a minute more, then pour in just enough chicken stock to moisten the stuffing. You can toss in some fresh parsley at the end if you have it on hand.

When the stuffing’s cool enough to handle, it’s time to stuff the chicken. Gently separate the skin from the meat by running your fingers beneath it until you have a little pocket. Then work in your stuffing. Stuff the pocket full, but don’t try to pack in more than will easily fit—you don’t want to tear the skin. Once the stuffing’s in, rub some EVOO into the skin and sprinkle it with some seasonings. You can use a special blend or even just some fresh cracked pepper. If you choose to use a seasoning blend, make sure you use one that isn’t too salty.

I use a thermometer when I make these. I can’t be bothered to try to guess when my meat should come out of the oven, especially since I’m no good at it. These should cook until a thermometer reads 180. It will be, roughly, about 45 minutes. These are bone-in breasts plus stuffing, so they take a bit of time. About half-way through the cooking time, cover the chicken with a piece of aluminum foil. You want a nice dark crispy skin—not a burned one.

Since you already have the oven cranked to 425, it’s the perfect time to make my favorite side—roasted Brussels sprouts. One pound is a good amount for two sprout-loving people. You’ll need to cook them for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on how crisp you like them to get around the edges. Wash the sprouts, trim the rough brown bit off the bottom, and remove any damaged leaves. Some people recommend cutting the sprouts in quarters, but I prefer halves—the more cuts you make, the more the leaves start to fall off. Pile your trimmed sprouts on a baking sheet, drizzle liberally with EVOO, and sprinkle with about a teaspoon of kosher salt and a 1/2 teaspoon of pepper. Place the Brussels sprouts in the oven about 20 minutes after the chicken, and everything should be finished cooking around the same time.

It occurs to me that this post is very similar to the stuffed Cornish game hen post I did around Christmas time. The difference, though, is that stuffed chicken breast is much more practical for every day. It’s inexpensive, it’s easy, and, with a little time allotted for a salt-water bath, it’s delicious, too.

1 comment:

MR*FM said...

Thanks for the ideas. I'll try brining my chicken breasts tonight. I don't have any brussel sprouts on hand, so I'll have to wait for another day to try your side dish, but they look fantastic.