Sunday, December 21, 2008

fancy-lookin chicken

While I'm home visiting my folks, I usually like to cook them a few nice meals. For one, my dad pays me back for groceries, so I can go all out and get the fancy stuff. Also, they have a lovely kitchen (though I may be biased... it is the kitchen I learned to cook in). In any event, I wanted to whip something up for them tonight, but lacking access to a car (and this being a lovely suburban area where the nearest store is a 45 minute walk away), I decided to fridge forage and figure something out.

After a brief search, I found some chicken breasts, feta cheese, jarred (marinated) artichoke hearts, and other assorted goods. It's just begging to turn into stuffed chicken breasts, one of my favorite renditions of this often bland and belittled cut of meat. Not only does it come out completely juicy, but it is a stunning presentation that makes you look like a total kitchen stud, when very little skill is actually required. Let me show you!

First, lay a chicken breast flat on a cutting board. Take the knife parallel to the board, and make a shallow slit almost down the length of the breast, making it about an inch short on both ends so that you have a pocket. Work your thumbs into the slit (don't be afraid) and peel the meat apart so you enlarge the pocket to almost the other side:

So now we need to make a stuffing. This can be almost anything you like. Most people make cheesy based pastes including some aromatic herbs or spices. I like to think of this as "kitchen sink" time, where you can mix up pantry stragglers, small portions of leftovers, whatever flavor combination moves you. Tonight I wanted a mediterranean flavored meal. I was using some chopped onion in a side dish, so I just scooped out some extra I had been softening and added it to the stuffing. It could be just as good with some raw onion. Strong flavors are great because that will infuse the chicken with yummy aromas during the cooking. 
Here is a rough recipe:

Mediterranean Chicken Stuffing:
Mix the following in a bowl:
1 cup feta cheese (crumbled)
5-6 fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 small jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained and coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp sun dried tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup onion, diced and sauteed to translucent 
salt, pepper to taste

Take about 1/4 cup of the stuffing, and gently but firmly stuff into the pocket cavity. Make sure it gets all the way in to the back of the space. You don't want to pack it tightly, it should be loose as we'll want to close things up for cooking. Add more or less depending on the space available.

The next step is to close up the pocket so all the cheesy goodness stays inside. To seal things up, some people use some cotton string or toothpicks. I had some long skewers on hand, so I coated them in olive oil (otherwise burning ensues, ick) and weaved them back and forth to create a seam:

OK, almost done. That was all the fussy set up work, and really it wasn't so bad, was it? We're on to the last two steps: browning and baking. Simple!  Heat up a skillet (bonus if it's oven safe) with little olive oil. Lay the breasts in the pan and cook about two minutes per side, until lightly browned.

After it is nice and seared, either transfer the meat to an oven-safe container, or if using an oven-proof skillet, simply pick up the whole thing and cook it uncovered in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 12-15 minutes until the meat is cooked through. If I had leftover stuffing, I sprinkle it over the top before I put it in the oven.

Once the meat is cooked and the topping is looking melty, remove from oven and let it rest for about 5 minutes. This helps the juices redistribute so it doesn't all come rushing out as soon as you poke it with something sharp.

Fabulous!! Seriously, this is a definite crowd-pleaser. I served it with steamed asparagus and a roasted-cauliflower risotto (which I will post about tomorrow).

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