If you cook the same thing over and over and over again, eventually you get really good at it.
That’s what happened with me and chicken: I’m really good at cooking it. And though there are many who find chicken boring, that’s usually because chicken, when stripped of its skin and bones, is, indeed, very boring. So the first rule is: never cook chicken without the skin or bones. The second rule is: be generous with salt. I’ve quoted this often, because I never forgot it; when Mario Batali had his old Food Network show he showered a raw chicken with salt and said: “No one ever says ‘this chicken’s too salty.'” He’s right–and that salt makes a huge difference.
Another rule: always use a thermometer to cook a chicken to the right temperature. That would be 165 degrees. (Nothing worse than dried out chicken meat.)
Final rule: if you cook the chicken by itself in a pan (and unless you’re making this, you should), it’s pretty much a criminal act not to turn the brown bits that collect at the bottom of the pan into a sauce. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Our trio of improvised chicken recipes begins with a Meyer lemon-stuffed chicken breast. As you may recall, we have a Meyer lemon tree in front of our apartment. Knowing that, I bought chicken breasts at the store (with the skin and bones still attached, of course) and picked a fat Meyer lemon off the tree.
Then I sliced the Meyer lemon into thin rings and stuffed those rings directly under the skin of the breast. I seasoned the breast aggressively with salt and pepper:
I preheated the oven to 425 degrees and got a cast iron pan very hot with a splash of olive oil in it. I laid the chicken breast in, skin-side down, and it sizzled loudly–always a good sign. I cooked it like this for a few minutes, until it formed a beautiful, crackly, golden brown crust. Then I flipped it over with a pair of tongs and stuck it in the oven for another 20 to 30 minutes until it registered 165 degrees on a thermometer.
I removed the chicken breast to a plate and then, in that pan with all the brown bits, I added about a cup of water and a tablespoon of butter. I turned up the heat and whisked furiously until I had a beautiful sauce. (This would also work, probably better, with white wine or chicken stock in place of the water.)
Behold the finished dish: chicken (those Meyer lemon slices are fully edible), sauce drizzled on top, served with a side of Ssam Bar Brussels Sprouts:
I won’t lie, it was a meal fit for a king. Or a queen, as the case may be.
Next up, we have a recipe I spied in Food & Wine Magazine last month by the previously mentioned Mario Batali; a recipe for Italian Sweet and Sour Chicken (click those words for the recipe).
This is essentially a braise and, as many of you know, I love braising. What that means is you brown your chicken here (in this case, a whole chicken cut up):
Take the chicken out, add your aromatics (carrots, celery, onions):
Then–here’s where the recipe gets fun–you add red wine, red wine vinegar, orange juice, sugar, almonds and capers:
You add the chicken back in and braise it until it’s done, about 35 minutes:
I cooked up some cous cous to serve it with so it would soak up all the sauce:
It was, indeed, a delightful dish with surprising flavor–only the capers I used were cheapo capers that smelled like lye when I opened the jar. I should’ve left them out but something compelled me to include them. And they almost spoiled the entire dish; but the sauce itself, with the sweetness from the sugar and the acidity from the vinegar, won the day. I’ll definitely make it again, only I’ll use better capers.
Finally: this nice company, Florio, recently sent me two bottles of their Marsala wine.
One bottle is a dry Marsala, the other’s a sweet Marsala. And I’ve been using the dry Marsala to make the most incredible sauce for a roast chicken.
It works like this: I roast a chicken in my cast iron skillet. (Salt and pepper, stuffed with thyme–that’s it. 425 degrees for an hour until it reads 165. That simple.) When the chicken’s done, I remove it to a cutting board and in that skillet, with all the drippings and brown bits, I add a big spoonful of flour. I crank up the heat and toast the flour and fat to make a roux:
Then when it’s just brown enough and smelling great, I add a big glug of the Marsala–like a full cup of it and whisk that in to make a sauce:
If it’s too thick, I’ll add some water, but usually it’s just right. And the flavor is slightly sweet, slightly acidic, and ever so chickeny from those chicken bits. Here’s that sauce spooned over some cut-up chicken pieces and lentils:
A marvelous meal by a maestro of chicken cookery.
So practice making chicken–do it the right way–and soon you’ll be whipping up dinners like these in no time. Chicken isn’t boring; only people who make chicken boring are boring. Be one of the good guys and do chicken right.