Sunday, April 13, 2014

Spring has Sprung the Garden the Farmers' Market ...on the Table

It is suddenly that busiest time of year for the gardener.  Although we probably still have a cold snap or two to go, the trend is finally fixed toward light ....and warmth....  The garden will not wait.  Any extra time I have is spent cleaning up the winter debris that is covering the insistent new growth and laying fresh mulch in preparation for spring planting and the heat of summer.  I work until I'm too tired to move.  But it is work that is also a pleasure.  Even though the pull of all the other commitments of life demands that I move as quickly as I can through the garden, I can't help but stop...  and stare...   and revel in the beauty that is unfolding around me.

The other sure sign of spring came yesterday morning: my first trip of the year to the farmers' market.  I almost always go the first weekend of April, but last weekend it was still really cold.  I preferred the warmth of my bed.  Besides, I knew there would be little (if anything) there.  I don't grow vegetables, but if the progress of my perennial garden is any indication, we are about three weeks behind where we would normally be in the growing season.

Yesterday though, after a week of warmth and a few days of working in the garden, I had to go.  As always, I was glad I did.  A few of the growers were there; it was so nice to get to say hello and see their familiar faces, back for another year.  The market is mostly plants at this will be for some time to come...but even so, I came home with a few edibles:  local greens and a few spring onions.

In keeping with my own personal tradition, I incorporated some of these first few purchases into our dinner last night....sort of my way of celebrating the return of Spring and my return to the market.  This first meal is often just a simple salad...maybe with roasted vegetables...or a round of baked goat cheese.  And we could have had something like that.  But after a long day working in the garden, I needed something a bit more substantial.  Fortunately, one of the things I came home with was a bag of young Red Russian Kale...perfect for a quick braise with a few of the Spring onions.  To go with it, I made a stuffed chicken breast and soft polenta (food doesn't get much more substantial than polenta), into which I folded a sauté of some of my remaining frozen corn from last year's market.

I'm surprised to discover that I haven't shared this chicken recipe before....I have been making it for years.  It is from an old issue of Food & Wine. I was first introduced to the recipe by my friend Nancy when we were working at the Culinary Center together.  The recipe was originally written for pan-seared, skin-on, boneless breasts.  At The Culinary Center, we prepared it using bone-in, split breasts.  Instead of pan-searing, we would roast the stuffed breasts, removing the bone for a quick reheat before service.   In general, this is a great way to prepare a simple roast chicken breast (particularly for large volume cooking)I use this method regularly at home.  But for some reason, when I make this particular dish at home, I prefer to go back to the original recipe.  If you are unable to purchase boneless breasts that still have the skin attached, simply purchase split breasts (on the bone) and remove the bone yourself.  Since the stuffing goes under the skin, the skin must be intact in order to prepare this recipe.

Removing the breast meat from the bone is an easy operation.  It is actually easier to do than to describe.  Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures to illustrate the process.  (Removing the bone takes two hands...and since this was a bit of a spur of the moment post, I didn't have anyone around to take pictures while I worked.)  Nevertheless, I want to take a stab at describing the process so that anyone who wants to try it will have a good place to start.  The most important thing is to remember that since the tip of the knife will always be between flesh and bone, you will avoid gouging into the flesh (which would waste some of the meat) if you always concentrate on gently pressing the flat side of the blade against the bonebasically using the bone to guide your cuts.  Begin by inserting the tip of your boning knife in between the flexible breast bone (if present...sometimes when the whole breast is split, the sternum will only remain attached to one side of the breast) and the flesh.  Run the tip of the knife along the length of the bone, using shallow, long strokes (don't forget to press against the breast bone as you cut), until the tip of the knife runs into the center portion of the rib-cage.  Then, lifting the flesh up as it is cut away from the bone, continue to slide the knife out and away from the breast bone (or where it was, if it is missing), always pressing the flat of the knife against the rib-cage and following its contour, until the flesh is completely released from the carcass.  Trim away any ragged edges of skin and flesh and you are done.  I encourage you to give this a try.  But if you would rather not, simply ask the butcher to do it for you.    

When I prepared our chicken last night, I did deviate in one significant way from the original recipe...and from the way we made it at The Culinary Center.  The original recipe called for a stuffing made of mascarpone.  At The Culinary Center we used soft goat cheese.  Over the years I have used both.  The mascarpone tends to melt into the sauté pan,  whereas the goat cheese remains in place under the skin.  I don't know what made me think of this particular recipe yesterday, but when I decided that this was how I wanted to prepare the chicken breast I had pre-salted the night before, it was too late (and I was too tired) to run to the store for goat cheese or mascarpone.  I did happen to have some whole milk ricotta on hand.  Since the combination of ricotta with greens of all kinds (chard...spinach...kale) is traditional...and delicious...I thought I would give it a try.  I'm happy to report that it worked beautifully.  

Our first market meal of the season was spontaneous, satisfying and delicious...just as it should be.  And as with the new growth in my garden, I hope it is a harbinger of the good things to come in the months ahead.

 Sautéed Chicken Breasts with Prosciutto & Fresh Cheese

1/4 c. ricotta, mascarpone or soft goat cheese (about 2 oz.)
1/2 T. finely chopped fresh thyme, sage or rosemary
zest of half a lemon
salt & freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 lbs. boneless chicken breast halves, skin-on and first wing joint attached if possible
1 oz. thinly sliced prosciutto (about 2 slices), cut in such a way that it will fit under the skin of the breasts in a smooth single layer
Olive oil

Ingredients for half of a recipe--the breast pictured is very large--11 ounces
after removing the bone...plenty for two people

In a small bowl, combine the cheese, herbs, lemon zest and salt & pepper to taste.  Set aside. Gently slide your index finger under the skin of each chicken breast to loosen (but not detach) the skin and form a small pocket.  Slide a half slice of prosciutto under the skin of each breast.  Divide the cheese mixture evenly among the chicken breasts, carefully stuffing the mixture between the skin and the prosciutto.  Massage lightly to spread the cheese evenly over the entire breast.  The stuffed breasts may be refrigerated overnight.

Preheat the oven to 450°F.  Heat a large oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat.  Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper.  Add a tablespoon or so of oil to the hot pan (it should slide easily over the surface of the pan and should be almost smoking).  Add the chicken breasts skin-side down.  Cook, regulating the heat as necessary to maintain an active sizzle, until golden brown—about 2 to 3 minutes.  Turn the breasts over and transfer the pan to the preheated oven.  Roast until the breasts are just cooked through—about 8 to 10 minutes for small breasts, 15 or more for large.  Remove the chicken to a platter and let rest for a few minutes before serving. 


Depending on the size of the breasts, you may serve each person a whole breast, or slice the breasts and fan attractively on the plates.  Serves 4.

One large breast...sliced to serve two.

  • If desired, prepare a quick pan sauce while the chicken rests. Drain off the excess fat and return the pan to the stove. Add a few tablespoons of water or some wine or stock (or a combination); over high heat, boil until the liquid has reduced to a few tablespoons, scraping with a wooden spoon to dissolve all of the browned bits. Serve as is, drizzled around the breasts, or add a squeeze of lemon juice and/or swirl in a bit of butter before serving. 
  • Even if you are not able to stuff the breasts ahead, the flavor and texture of the chicken is markedly improved by taking the time to season them with salt the night before you plan on cooking them

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