Cooking Live: parmesan-encrusted chicken breasts with a stovetop paella (of sorts)

In mid-January, the New York Times published an article by Melissa Clark entitled Recapturing the Glory of Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts. The premice to the article was that this piece of chicken, lauded for dietary reason, was also a rather boring, as far as flavor and texture were concerned. With the help of some fine New York chefs, Ms Clark went on to demonstrate that it did not have to be bland and dry.

A couple of weeks after this inspiring read, I ordered some organic, boneless, skinless breasts from my CSA coop, and proceeded to prepare a recipe inspired by those provided alongside Ms Clark’s article.

Except that when I did a quick search for “boneless chicken breast”, what came up first was a blog post by Mark Bittman entitled New Life for Chicken Breasts dating from last spring. There, Bittman reminisced a dish he ate at his buddy Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant:

The chicken on my mind was a dish we ate at Jean Georges. It started with a skinless, boneless breast coaxed into near-constant thickness and near-perfect symmetry. Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Like something in the supermarket frozen-food aisle. It wasn’t, of course. It had a golden parmesan crust and two sauces and a little garnish of spinach.

He then proceeded to recount how he’d made a sort of stovetop paella, cooking the chicken breasts over a sort of paella – i.e., flavored rice, with broth, simmering slowly with the meat. That sounded great. Except he didn’t do the parmesan crust, which seemed sooo good.

Steaming the chicken, and then doing the crust seems like a fantastic way to get get a crisp surface while keeping the interior moist and the texture tender. So I decided to go all the way and finish the recipe with a little bit of pan-fried goodness.

About an hour before dinner, I started on the rice. As with risotto, I started with other ingredients, to provide taste, and proceeded to tweet this CookingLive recipe as it went along:

Diced onions, sliced oyster mushrooms. Tossing them in olive oil and butter, with espelette, pepper and thyme. #cookinglive

After the onions and mushrooms had cooked down, it was time to add the rice:

Adding baldo rice to the pan, coating with oil, letting it warm for a minute.  #cookinglive

Adding broth, white wine & water to the rice, & laying boneless chicken breasts on top. Kind of a stovetop paella. w/ a twist. #cookinglive

The amount of liquid should be enough to cover the rice completely, and generate enough heat and steam to cook the chicke. From this point, the idea is to simmer the rice, covered, and let the heat make its way up into the chicken. Regular stirring is still needed (though not as much as with a risotto), to avoid the rice sticking to the bottom and burning. Add more liquid as required, and turn the chicken breasts after 10-15 minutes, when you can see that the meat is getting cooked through well on the bottom side.

Now, the twist is that when the rice and the chicken breasts are almost cooked through, you take the chicken out, wiping off the rice and put the breasts on a cutting board. Stir the rice, add a little liquid if needed, to make sure the rice gets fully cooked and as tender as you want it. Adjust the spicing if need be, but normally, cooking it with the chicken breasts adds a fair deal of flavor, on top of the onions and mushrooms.

As for the chicken breasts, put a little butter in a pan, and do the following:

Cut breasts lengthwise, coat one side with beaten eggs, press that side in grated parmesan. Cook the parmesan side until golden #cookinglive

Then, turn around & finish cooking the breasts in the pan for a minute or two. Serve with rice. Crisp outside, moist inside. #cookinglive

The idea of cutting the breasts that way had two purposes, in this particular case. The breasts were sizeable, and cutting them made individual portions. It also allowed me to make sure that the breasts were fully cooked through – one particularly large breast wasn’t quite there yet, so that bit of pan-frying became essential. The main point of this last stage is flavor and texture, as the parmesan crust adds a bright, intense touch to the dish.

Dinner was a bit of a rush, that evening, so the photos didn't turn out too great. Despite rushed plating, this one at least shows the nice parmesan crust on the chicken breast and the tasty, tender "paella" rice.

The steaming-then-pan-frying approach has advantages for other types of delicate foods. For instance, I had plenty of rice left, but not enough chicken, after that first meal, so to make a full dinner out of the leftovers, I steamed and pan-fried shrimp, with the same parmesan coating. The shrimp needed about 30 seconds on each side to produce a nice, golden crust, without the shrimp getting stiff or dry. It made for a rather terrific surf and turf.

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