Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Learning from the mistresses...

There’s a magnificent Katy Stewart recipe for chicken breasts and artichokes enrobed in a creamy sauce, then baked with a covering of crisp, buttery parmesan-encrusted bread cubes. Sadly, I'm not going to give it to you right now.

Not because I'm mean, but because it's only a slice of the back story for my main topic. The meal itself is ridiculously indulgent and involves a lot of different processes to prepare it, but one of the basics it has taught me is a fool-proof way of cooking tender, moist chicken breasts – sealing each side and then poaching them in chicken stock. When making the dish the first time, it occurred to me that just from this simple base alone, a plethora of chickeny recipes could be made.

One I concocted that I am particularly fond of (and readily, if not a little vehemently, pass on to others) is a chicken pasta dish. It requires little more than this poaching technique, but tastes like you’ve spent far more time and love on it than you actually have. The pasta assumes an intense chicken flavour from the stock-based sauce, which can be mellowed but enriched with cream, or left as it is, woody and rustic. By poaching the breasts whole and not cutting them up into pieces beforehand, the resulting meat is meltingly soft. I tend not to eat chicken all that much because for me, it needs to be free range and I refuse to buy mine from anywhere but the butcher. As this means I have to buy the entire chicken (albeit in pieces), it’s more of a treat than a weekly necessity.

This method is overly verbose so don’t be alarmed at the length of it – it is honestly very simple – fry chicken, poach chicken, take it out, reduce sauce, shred chicken, cook pasta, add chicken back to sauce and add the cooked, drained pasta. Painless. You could use the darker thigh meat for a more frugal approach to this recipe, bearing in mind that you’ll need two per person, and over all it will have a more matured taste, but be oily with it. Breast is best, I think.

Simple Chicken Pasta
(serves two)

  • 2 skinless, boneless free range chicken breasts
  • olive oil
  • 350ml chicken stock (I use a Kallo organic chicken stock cube for convenience – they’re fantastically rich for what they are)
  • 1-2 large cloves of garlic
  • 3 tbsp dry white wine (optional)
  • 1 level tbsp dried porcini mushrooms
  • 2 tbsp double cream (optional)
  • 1 tsp fresh parsley, chopped
  • 150g dried egg tagliatelle / pappardelle

Prepare your stock and chop the garlic finely and set aside. Heat a small drizzle of oil in a medium-sized non-stick frying pan that has a lid (if you’re not using non-stick then think about using a touch more oil) and when it’s ripplingly hot, place your two chicken pieces in and sauté for two-three minute until they are tinged with a pale burnished bronze. Flip the breasts over at this stage. Once this side of chicken has had a minute or so, fry the clove of garlic in a free bit of the pan, watching it doesn’t burn. When the chicken and garlic are sufficiently sautéed, pour in the stock and wine, checking it comes halfway up the breasts (add a little more if it doesn’t), add the porcini and lower the temperature to a gentle simmer in order to poach the chicken. After about 6-8 minutes, flip the fillet over and re-cover the pan. Give the chicken another 6-8 minutes and then check if the meat it cooked through (these breasts aren’t going to be used whole so do not fret about butchering them to see whether they're still pink inside). If not, cook for a further few minutes. Once the chicken has turned beige throughout the fillet, place on a wooden board and allow them to rest for 3-5 minutes at least. This stage will make for a more succulent chicken morsel as the flesh evenly reclaims its own juices . Whilst this is resting, turn your attention back to the liquid in the pan – this is going to become your pasta’s sauce. Keeping the heat as it is, or perhaps turning it a little higher (depending on the size of your pan – wider pans evaporate liquid faster but smaller pans require a little more heat) allow the liquid to reduce down in the uncovered pan. In another saucepan, heat and salt your water for pasta but don’t cook it yet. The chicken can wait for the pasta, but the pasta won’t wait too happily for the chicken. Now focus back on the bird. Once rested, the fillets need to be shredded. I use two forks, ripping with one (going with the grain of the flesh) whilst holding it down with the other. I shred the meat because I like the particularly fibrous feel from the natural form of chicken breast and also that it doesn’t result in uniformity – you get the full spectrum from big scraps to little filaments. However, if you want a more polished look, you can take a nice sharp knife to them and chop on the diagonal, which is probably faster, overall (but much less fun and I think the flavour of the chicken becomes less apparent with the meat’s lessened overall surface area). You can now cook your pasta because all the distracting things which result in overcooking it are gone. The sauce should be reduced by now, if not very nearly so and once it is, lower the heat right down, tip the chicken back into the sauce and add the parsley and cream if you’re using it. If you’ve got a while to wait, cover it so no further reduction takes place and the chicken and sauce keep hot. Check the seasoning – I tend to not add extra salt as the stock cube is salty enough but depending on what stock you’re using, you may need to pep it slightly. Once the pasta is cooked, tip into the pan, mix through and serve.