Get stuffed

Sometimes you want to have an all out,  pull-out-all-the-stops free-for-all, all day, special occasion, feast day, soup-to-nuts cook-a-thon. And sometimes (most of the time) you just want something tasty for supper that is neither an indulgence in time or in calories, something you can make in half and hour or so with ingredients that are easy to pick up on the way home from a busy day, something that doesn’t make you consider re-upping your gym membership and getting a cholesterol test taken again. I’m talking about “convenience food” in some shape or form, but I’m not talking about a blue box of mac and cheese or a bucket of fried chicken from a drive-thru.

I am talking about chicken, though. Boneless chicken breast is undeniably a convenience food. They are totally easy to find in any market, quick to cook, lean, and easy to portion. It’s not usually my favorite piece of chicken  for a couple of reasons: first, because it is so lean, unlike the legs and thighs, it tends to be pretty flavorless on its own, and second, it can go from undercooked to dry, stringy, and rubbery in a New York minute if it isn’t treated properly. But there are at least a couple of ways to take advantage of  the convenience factor without losing the good eats factor.

    Poaching is one cooking technique that will infuse flavor without drying the meat out. If I’m going to make chicken salad, I usually poach the chicken breast. For some reason, I usually prefer poached chicken when it’s eaten chilled.  Another option (the one I’m talking about here) is to slice a pocket into the chicken breast that will create as much surface contact as you can between the chicken and a flavorful filling, a filling that contains enough moisture to steam itself  through the blander chicken surrounding it, but not so moist that it ends up just turning everything into a puddle.

I guess traditionally I think of a bread crumb based stuffing-like for turkey at Thanksgiving – but if you think about it in terms of a savory tart filling, vegetables can really be the star. I probably had  spanakopita on my mind when I came up with this particular combination but if If you can think of a flavorful vegetable that would be good with chicken, it will probably be good in chicken. I usually quickly roast or saute my vegetables first to cook off a little of the water that they naturally contain, just to soften them and  concentrate their flavor, then add some seasoning and a little something to oomph the flavor (in this case, feta) and then while it’s still hot, stuff the chicken and stick it in the oven for a few minutes.

Chicken Breast stuffed with Spinach and Feta

-2 boneless chicken breast halves (I used skin-on, but boneless skinless may be easier to find)

– Oil to saute’ and oil the baking dish

-1 shallot, minced

-2 cloves garlic, minced

-6 ounces spinach leaves, rinsed and roughly chopped (frozen thawed spinach works well too)

-Pinch each of dried basil and oregano

-1/3 cup panko crumbs (or dry bread crumbs)

2 ounces crumbled feta

-Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 °

In a large saute’ pan or skillet, heat a splash of oil over medium low heat. Add the shallot and garlic  with a pinch of salt and cook until they begin to soften. Sprinkle the basil and oregano over and stir everything together until the herbs become fragrant. Add the spinach leaves to the pan. Don’t bother to dry the spinach when you rinse it; the water that clings to the leaves should be enough to wilt and steam the spinach. Once the spinach has shrunken and wilted, take the pan off the heat. Gently stir in the panko and feta chunks. The panko will absorb most  of the residual liquid in the pan, leaving you a moist but not soupy filling.

 Place each chicken breast on a cutting board, skin side up, so that it looks like an upside-down pear shape. With a sharp knife, make slit all the way down the center of the top of the chicken breast, starting just below the wide end so that it will still hold its shape after it is filled. Then use the point of the knife to slice pockets into the meat on either side of the slit, widening the cavity so that the stuffing is making as much contact with the chicken as possible. This is what will help keep the chicken from drying out while it’s cooking.

Divide the still-hot spinach mixture between the two chicken breasts. It should be a generous amount, enough to fill the pockets in the meat and mound up in the middle. Smear a tiny bit of oil in the bottom of a baking dish to keep the chicken from sticking to the bottom.  Bake the chicken for about 20 minutes, until the chicken is done and the filling is bubbling and beginning to brown on top.



Start from the beginning- Roast Chicken 101

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had been doing some  cooking lessons with my sister and a friend back East. Joy and Elisa are interested but inexperienced cooks. Since I’m not there in person to explain things verbally I realized that writing these lesson means writing from scratch; I begin from the assumption that every step, from ingredients, to tools, to the actual cooking should be broken down and presented as simply and thoroughly as I can.  I try not to assume that the reader will necessarily know the difference between a simmer and a boil, a mixer and a blender, a chef’s knife and a paring knife so that I am sure to explain it clearly.

It’s a little different when my brother Peter calls me with a food question (I’ve gotten several calls that begin “Hey, I’m at Trader Joe’s and I was wondering….”). Peter is an experienced cook- he made the turkey last Thanksgiving- and when I tell him to “blanch” something, he doesn’t think I’m talking about A Streetcar Named Desire. So I start explaining a recipe or technique from a different place with him.

Most of what I’ve written about on this blog assumes some knowledge of cooking. However, in the posts tagged “101” or “how to cook,” I’ve tried to include a little more explanation of a foundational technique or recipe. Learning the techniques has been the most important part of learning to cook for me. It’s like having a map so that if there is horrible traffic on the freeway, you can still find a way to get to your destination because you can see the big picture of how things work instead of being completely dependent on a recipe.

I wrote a lesson for how to make roast chicken for my sister that I thought I’d share; let me know if you think it’s user-friendly for a new cook:

“Roast Chicken-

First thing you do is arrange the oven shelves and turn on the oven. You will probably want to have a lower shelf for vegetables and a middle shelf for the chicken. It should be about 425°. Ask Mama if the oven runs hot or cool- you may need to adjust it a little depending on the stove, but it should be close to 425°.

What you will need-

-One whole chicken, probably around 3 pounds

-Salt, pepper and paprika (paprika is optional but very nice). You will need enough to season both the inside and outside of the chicken. It’s good to have as much as you think you’ll need separated into little saucers or bowls so that if you touch it with chicken hands, you don’t contaminate the whole container or have to wash your hands every time you need more salt.

-Oil or melted butter (probably 2 or 3 tablespoons, enough to coat the outside of the chicken)

-Optional- you can use a couple of cloves of garlic, or a cut up onion, or a lemon half, or herbs like one of the following: sage leaves, tarragon, or rosemary,  inside the chicken cavity  for  flavor. All are optional. Probably best to stick with the basics until you get the hang of it.

-Paper towels

-A pan to hold it in the oven. This pan should be close to the size of the chicken. I often use a cast iron skillet to roast chicken. If the pan is too big, the juices that come out will spread out too much and burn. If it’s too tight, the liquid will steam the chicken too much.

-A small paring knife

– A cutting board or plate to set the chicken on while you prepare it

While the oven heats, take the chicken out of the wrapper in a clean sink. Reach inside the cavity to check if there is a package of giblets and necks inside and remove it. Wash the chicken inside and out in cold water. Shake off as much as you can or put it in a colander to drain. Dry the whole skin of the chicken off with paper towels. The wetter the skin, the more difficulty it will have in browning, and crisp brown skin is one of the best parts of a well-roasted chicken.

Look at the large cavity opening where the legs are. If there are any big pieces of yellow fat there, pull them out.  Generously salt, pepper and paprika the inside of the bird. Turn it around to the neck end. If you stick your fingers into that smaller opening and feel right under the breast meat, there is a bone there. It is the wishbone and if you remove it now, it makes carving the chicken breast easier after it is cooked. You may need to slit through the meat a little with the paring knife, but then you should be able to just pull it out with your fingers. This is not necessary, but try it sometime.

Place the chicken in the pan and flip the wingtips inward and tuck them behind the rest of the wing to hold it closer to the breast and keep the tips from burning. Take the oil or butter and pour it over the top of the chicken. Use your hands to rub it over the whole surface to coat the chicken. If you have a basting brush, you can use that to brush the butter over the chicken instead. Now salt, pepper, and paprika the whole outside of the chicken, trying to evenly coat the skin. If you are going to add any aromatics to the bird’s cavity, now is the time to stick that lemon or garlic inside. Now it is ready for the oven.

It should start making a fair amount of noise in 10- 15 minutes. If not, turn the heat up 10 degrees. If it’s going crazy and the juices or skin are starting to burn, turn it down a bit. But the sizzling noise is normal. Chickens usually take me between 45 minutes to an hour to cook depending on the weight. Check it at about 45 minutes. Wiggle the leg and see how loose it feels. If you have a meat thermometer, use it in the thigh meat, or, if the joint feels really loose, use the little knife to jab a little hole in the thigh meat. If the juice is still coming out really pink, give it 10-15 more minutes, if it comes out mostly clear with maybe a little drop of reddish, it is probably done. It just takes a little practice to be able to tell, but with the nice crisp skin preventing evaporation, it shouldn’t get dry. If you have a meat thermometer, slide the tip into the thickest part of the thigh meat. “Done” is about 165°.

When the chicken is done, take it out of the oven and set it aside for 10 minutes. This will let it settle a bit so less of the juice flows out when you carve it.

I’ll link a video for carving a turkey which is the same concept, just bigger.”