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.