Pity the poor chicken breast. It is contorted into all manner of shapes to appeal to the eye, stuffed with an endless array of fillings to appeal to the palate, and then hopelessly overcooked.
Too often overlooked in even the most comprehensive cookbooks is this issue of overcooking the most delicate part of the chicken.
Overcooking creates dry, mealy white meat. A ladle of gravy or sauce may salvage it, but this is no way to treat a perfectly honest, relatively expensive piece of poultry. Avoid overcooking in the beginning and you avoid the unnecessary time (and calories) taken for the remedial sauce.
When braising--or simmering chicken breasts in liquid--the meat takes no longer than 15 minutes to cook to juicy succulence. If the chicken breasts are boned and pounded, they take only minutes per side, until the translucent pink has become opaque. If your recipe calls for browning chicken pieces, add the dark meat first and remove it last. If you are braising the meat, think of chicken breasts the way you do seafood, and add them to the liquid during the last few minutes of cooking. Most stew recipes that call for braising can be adjusted easily with this basic tenet in mind.
This type of cooking yields a chicken breast with the slightest hint of pink -- disconcerting at first but sure to elicit some remark resembling, "Where did you get such good chicken?"
If barely pink chicken breasts affect you the way barely pink pork affects you, cook them 20 minutes, but no longer.
Every kitchen should have flour, sugar, salt, pepper and butter (or oil) within easy reach.
EXPRESS LANE LIST: chicken, shallot, mushrooms, cream or evaporated milk, sherry, broccoli, garlic and rice.
CHICKEN BREASTS IN MUSHROOM CREAM (4 servings) 1 pound mushrooms 2 tablespoons butter 4 chicken breast halves 1 shallot, minced 1 cup cream or evaporated milk 2 tablespoons sherry
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Clean the mushrooms and slice or chop them. Heat butter in a large skillet and add the chicken breasts, skin side down. Brown on both sides over medium heat. Remove chicken breasts and set aside. Add shallot to the skillet and cook, stirring, 2 to 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook until they have given up all their liquid and are quite dark. Add the cream or evaporated milk and turn the heat to high. Boil rapidly, stirring, until the liquid thickens the consistency of a sauce (add more liquid to get a greater proportion of liquid to mushrooms, if desired). Add sherry, salt, pepper and chicken, covering the chicken with some of the sauce. Cover the skillet and cook 15 minutes. Serve with rice and broccoli.
BROCCOLI WITH GARLIC (4 to 6 servings) 1 bunch broccoli 2 cloves garlic, minced 3 tablespoons vegetable oil (preferably olive) Salt and pepper to taste
Trim tough, woody ends of broccoli and cut gashes into thick stalks that remain (or chop the broccoli for faster cooking). Add it to a saucepan with 1 inch of boiling water. Cover the pan and cook 10 to 15 minutes. In a separate pan, heat olive oil and garlic together for about 3 minutes. Toss this with drained broccoli. Salt and pepper to taste.