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Chicken a la pasta? - Ex Nihilo / Livejournal Comments
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Chicken a la pasta?

There is no pasta in this recipe, but I thought of this after reading this pasta recipe over in Cucina Italiana. I won't claim originality for this one - one can find things like this all over Chicago.

You want to use a cast iron pan for this. Aluminum just won't distribute the heat well enough. Take two chicken breasts. They must have the bones still in them and the skin still on. If they don't, go make something else, because this won't work.

Heat up some extra virgin olive oil; the other kind is good only for deep frying and making soap. Not 1/4 of a cup, that is for sure, that is too much for this. Exactly how much, I can not say, because the oil is there as a lubricant, and every pan is different. Pour enough to maybe coat the pan from the center to halfway out, heat the pan until you can see a faint mist rising above the oil, then drop the heat to medium low. Roll the pan around and see if the whole pan can be coated with what you have. If not, add some more oil. The reason for this strange maneuver is that olive oil is saturated enough to thicken as it cools, so if you coat the pan while it is cold, you'll use too much oil. Watch the heat, because this isn't peanut oil we're playing with. While olive oil won't burn as easily as butter, it will smoke at a much lower temperature than peanut oil. The feel in your lungs will make you wonder how our ancestors ever managed to bear being in rooms filled with lamps burning such a substance, through an evening's entertainment, but then, perhaps some of them had the good fortune to be slaves. It's an experience best missed.

Pat the chicken breasts dry, quickly, put them in the pan, quickly, reach for a wooden spoon, quickly, and shove the household member who will choose to make small talk at that inopportune moment to one side, decisively. You don't have time to wait. Start the browning of the chicken by moving the breasts around until they've had a chance to get lightly seared all over the side facing the oil. This, you must always do, and you will do it again, as you turn the chicken in a little while. Cookbooks never tell you this, and this is important - once the chicken starts to stick to the pan, and leaves a little bit of itself behind on the metal, things are going to get worse in a hurry. The oil will lose more and more of its effectiveness as a lubricant, the skin will end up being stuck to the pan, little shreds of meat will be torn off a surface which will no longer hold in the juices, and the meat will end up dry. With care, you can avoid carbonizing what is stuck to the pan, and recover much of it through deglazing, but it won't be the same and if you do get carbonization, you'll have an unholy mess on your hands. So, if your deeply wounded housemate protests, asking you if you don't have time to be polite, answer him with an unapologetic "no."

Don't take the searing on faith. As you press down on the breasts a little, moving them around - you do this, so the underside of the ribs will be browned, after maybe ... three minutes or so, I guess ... you quickly lift a breast up, without turning it over, and look underneath. The color you're looking for is white, not golden brown, but the latter would not be bad news. If the surface of the underside of the chicken is now white, wherever the chicken rests on the oil, you can now let that breast sit without being moved, as it browns. Don't worry so much about the underside of the ribs. That part of the chicken doesn't stick so easily. If you see whiteness, let the chicken breast sit in the oil, to gently sizzle away for a while until it turns golden brown. It won't ever turn golden brown under the ribs - opacity is all you ask for out of that surface. What will turn golden - and a light gold is all you want - is that little bit of meat underneath the bones at the edge of the breast. Yes, a darker gold would be prettier, but it would be achieved at the cost of a diminishment in flavor - the part of the meat closest to the bone is where most of the flavor it to be found. So, if when you lift the first breast up to check the color, you see that light gold, you want to turn the first breast over, quickly, swirl it in the oil swiftly to seal the surface, as you did before, then, seeing that the now hotter pan and hotter oil have turned the surface white in seconds, let it rest in the oil, turning the heat as low as it will go without the flame going out, then moving the other breast a little, and checking to see if it is whitened or golden underneath as well.

The reason you're dropping the heat, at this point, is because while you're looking at one breast, there is the danger that the other will start to stick, so we play it safe. Is the other breast whitened or goldened underneath? If the answer is no, this might be because the heat isn't being distributed well enough, maybe because you're using too small of a burner or, G-d forbid, an electric range. Aren't you glad you weren't using aluminum? Believe me, things would have been worse. At least, there has been no burning at the bottom of your pan. Move the unbrowned breast to where the browned breast was, bring the heat back up to somewhere between medium and medium low - just high enough to get a nice sizzling sound going, no more - and give both breasts another few minutes of benign neglect.

You don't want to work too energetically at this. We are not stir frying. The quick movement in the oil is done to prevent sticking, but the real browning, in which the flavor that will be given to the sauce, develops when the chicken is sitting still. Keep it moving through the whole browning, and you'll get a sickly color, and a chicken that will be overcooked before it even begins to look brown. Have your pan lid off to one side, so that if one chicken breast is golden all over - except under the ribs, where that won't happen - while another still needs work, you'll be able to lift the breast that is browned out of the pan, and out of the heat, to rest until the other one is done.

When both breasts are browned nicely - grey is not good enough, and is a sign that the heat was far too low - they are removed and put to one side. Two sliced medium size carrots are put into the pan, and cooked until soft. A chopped medium sized onion is put into the fat with them, cooked soft, and then one minced clove of garlic, after the onions have started to brown, slightly - and the carrots, too, by the way. The onions cook more quickly than the carrots, and burn more quickly, too, the garlic doing both the most quickly of all, so this is why there is an order to doing this.

At this point, you will probably have seen why I insisted on not adding oil to excess. What you're frying the vegetables in really isn't olive oil, any more. It's a mixture of olive oil and chicken fat, and the chicken had a lot of fat to give. The oil was just there so that chicken would have a chance to give it. Yes, you can pour off excess fat, but you'll lose flavor by doing that, so it's best not to have more fat in there than you must, in the beginning.

You could run some tomatoes through a food processors, but why work so hard? Ever see the blades on those things? They don't look like something that anybody should want to scrub. In most of the United States, you've probably had to settle for using canned tomatoes, anyway, because the supermarket variety in the fresh vegetable aisle is pink, dry, unripe and hard, not suitable for this. Even at the farmer's markets held in Chicago, where the produce is supposedly fresh and "locally grown" one sees fruit that would serve better as softballs than as seasoning, picked supermarket hard because the upper class customers from Lincoln Park think that they're supposed to be like that and will make a fuss if they aren't, and because unripe tomatoes are easily to transport up from Kentucky in the back of a pickup truck. Really, the whole thing's starting to turn into a bit of a fraud, as good things in Chicago almost always seem to, in the end. So, we settle for the Contadina, and since it's canned anyway, why not save a little time and buy the puree?

One could also buy green tomatoes, which will be much better than the fake red tomatoes for sale anywhere, except for maybe one or two stands left at Green City, if you are in Chicago and can find them. The tip to finding them, seemingly against all logic, is to look for the cheapest tomatoes, because they're usually the best. The rich cook to impress, the poor cook to eat. So, whose do you want to go shopping with, really? But you probably won't be so lucky, so as we usually have to in America, you're probably going to have to settle for getting a higher grade of trash.

About half of a 28 oz. can of puree would seem right. One sprinkles some hot red pepper flakes over the vegetables, puts the tomato puree in, cooks it down until the moisture is gone and the puree is little more than a paste, the oil being visible where the puree no longer covers the pan. You put the chicken breasts back in the pan, and add enough dry red wine to bring the liquid in the pan up to the side of the ribs, no higher. We're not braising this chicken, exactly. A bay leaf is tossed in, to balance the sweetness of the carrots and onions and to give a little more depth to the sauce, and then a light sprinkling - maybe 1 1/2 teaspoons each - of basil and marjoram. The pan is covered, with the lid slightly ajar, because we're not steaming the chicken, either, and the chicken is left to cook over low heat.

This should take about half of an hour. About halfway through, when the sauce is starting to dry out, you'll want to add another 1/2 of a cup of red wine. When a fork penetrates the breasts, meeting no serious resistance, the chicken is done. You take it out of the pan, put it on a plate, and deal with the sauce, which it was sitting in just a moment, ago. At that point, if the sauce isn't thick, it should be swiftly reduced until it is about as thick as heavy cream is, when it comes out of the refrigerator - a little thinner than the usual gravy, but not by much. If the sauce is too thick, a splash of red wine followed by a quick simmering should thin it nicely.

If you have concerns about consuming alcohol, there is always the option of burning off the alcohol by heating the wine in a saucepan, lighting a match and - making sure that nothing flammable is near the stove and that you are leaning back, touch the match to the side of the pan. Careful! The flames will leap several feet, higher than you heat, so I wasn't kidding when I told you to lean back. You really do not want to be directly over the pan when you do this, if you do this. I haven't bothered for years, and haven't found myself getting a buzz off of the chicken, but this is an option.

Pour the sauce - or pan gravy, if you wish to nitpick - over the chicken. You're done. Go eat some chicken. This is not going to be fine dining. Jug wine is more than good enough for the sauce - please don't waste a vintage on this. This is just basic home cooking, so grab some club soda to drink on the side - it goes much better with this than tap water - and don't expect too much.

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