Monday, February 20, 2006

Am I Doing This Right?: Three Incidents / Accidents

1. Tonight I cooked some boneless, skinless chicken breasts for use in a soup I'm making tomorrow. I cut all the fat off the breasts and dipped them in flour, then I set some olive oil sizzling in a pan and dropped them in one at a time, flipping them often. This technique has worked beautifully for thin cutlets in the past, but these big thick three-quarter-pounders got brown and tough on the outside long before they'd cooked all the way through on the inside. I cut all the tough bits off and diced the remainder up for my soup, and it'll be fine, but I feel surely there's an easier, smarter way to cook thick chicken breasts. Dear Readers: Any suggestions?

2. Still working on my presentation for next weekend . . . Like all writers, half the time I think I'm a genius and half the time I feel like the sheep author from The Far Side: "Forget it! Forget it! Everything I write is just so much bleating!"

3. I was running on Saturday on the dirt track in Prospect Park, listening to Bono sing "Light My Way," picking up speed, 15th Street in sight, determined to pass through the gates before the song was done, right at those glorious final "Baby baby baby"s -- and I tripped and fell flat on my face, all that momentum ending both in a bang and a whimper. Fortunately I wasn't hurt, other than a few sore muscles in my shoulders, but my beloved Kate Spade-framed glasses snapped right across the nose. I ordered a new pair of specs today, but I'm still consigned to my uncomfortable contacts for the next week or so . . . So if I meet you at Asilomar and tears start running from my eyes, rest assured -- it's really not you.

Baaa-ck to work!

(Sorry. It was right there.)


  1. Do you have a steamer, or a steam-enabling saucepan insert (you can get v. cheap bamboo ones)? A chicken breast will steam cook (lid closed) in about 7 minutes and if it's not done you can pop it back in without it going tough.

    Good luck with the soup (and the talk!)

    -- Kate

  2. Hmmm... Big chunky chicken breasts... Jamie Oliver cuts four slits in them so that they look like a hand with fingers. That evens out the cooking time. Throw in a handful of cherry tomatoes, garlic and small olives and you'll have meat worth eating.

    I make "Big chunk chicken noodle" for my guys, which means softly poaching the chicken in a can of broth with some small pasta like orzo. (If you want to go for total comfort food throw a can of biscuits in to the boiling broth for dumplings.

    If all else fails you can bisect the big slabs into two thin pieces and cook as usual.

    And sorry to hear about your glasses and the face plant. Ouch! So is the moral of the story that exercise is bad for you or that Bono just makes women lose control of their feet?

    Do post the talk when you get a chance. I'm sure your bleat will be neat. My guess for younger children is that their capacity for catharsis is like food choices. Small kids aren't all hot for peppers, wasabi or cumin but instead prefer blander flavors, breaking out by choosing ranch instead of catsup. Younger readers prefer blander stories that resolve nicely with an ordered worldview. Eventually the little bookworms will develop a taste for tales that rock that house, have "Negative Capability" like Keats blathered about and endings that aren't neat and tidy.

    Enjoy the pines and salt air!


  3. Why not butterfly the breast before putting in the skillet?

  4. Hmm...with respect to the chicken, it sounds like your flame was on too high and maybe you didn't have enough oil. As a result, the outside cooked much faster than the inside.

    What many of the commenters suggested doing, poaching, makes sense because you control the heat of the cooking (212 degrees, the temperature of boiling water). Steaming your chicken works on similar principles. Similarly, in deep frying, you have a relatively steady temperature with the oil. Also, with respect to deep frying, the flour interacts with the oil to form a shell and the food inside actually cooks through steaming. I, however, am not sure why mayonaisse should work.

  5. Steaming is good, although all it does it strictly cook the meat. Lots of the flavor you get from good chicken is from the surface treatment. (The same goes for poaching, although it does cook well and adds flavor, it often ends up rubbery. And as Alton Brown says, that's not good eats.)

    Cutting them up (fingers/butterflying) may be good for fast cooking, but you again lose a lot of flavor - this time from lack of juice. By keeping the breast intact, you keep all the juices and flavor inside.

    Depending on your final chicken destination, I would suggest searing and baking.

    Rub olive oil, salt, and pepper (and any other herbs if desired) on each breast and then cook on medium-high heat in a flat bottomed frying pan. (Make sure the pan is flat. If your pan is crowned, all the oil will make its way to the edges and then everything you cook ends up burnt in the center and gooey on the edges.) Cook the chicken in the pan till it is perfectly brown on both sides. Transfer browned (but not thoroughly cooked) chicken into a olive oiled glass baking dish. Bake said chicken-in-dish at 350 degrees for twenty minutes (or if you have a Polder thermometer, until it reaches 160 degrees).

    The results generally turn out well. Because you sear it first, you get lots of good flavor on the outside and you create a good outside seal which keeps all juices inside during the baking.

    For example, I make chicken parmesan by dredging chicken breasts in milk, flower, egg, and breadcrumbs. After browning in a oiled pan, stick the breasts in a baking dish, top with a dollop of pasta sauce and some mozzarella/parmesan cheese and bake for 20 minutes. Serve atop linguine and you're done! Delish. Hope it helps!

  6. Or just get yourself a little George Foreman grill. Olive-oil the chicken & season it however it wants, throw it on and close the grill for 7 minutes. Nice & crunchy brown on the outside, juicy on the inside. Make extra, wrap in plastic wrap and freeze.

  7. What is it about food?

    From what I've seen, your blog is full of interesting topics considered with intelligence and style. But the number of commenters is generally small.

    Then you disclose your Chicken Breast Experience, and almost ten folks speed to the rescue, proffering their culinary know-how.

    Bless 'em all. But what does this volume of response say?

  8. Welcome to Brooklyn Arden, Ms. Chief! I think it's that a pretty diverse group of people read this blog . . . The commenters above include at least three writers, a friend in architecture school, a friend who's a corporate lawyer, and my cousin, who's a landscape architect -- and that's just the ones I know. So most of the time the non-children's book people don't say much on my posts about children's books, and the children's book people don't say much on my posts about my personal life, because most of them don't really know me. But we can all talk about food at great length, so off we go.

    The most comments I ever had, btw, were 19 on a book youyou. One of these days I'm determined to break 20. :-)

  9. But ... but ... no one commented on the horror of falling on your while WHILE LISTENING TO U2!!!

    Bono would be sad.

    Just a U2 Fan