Friday, November 9, 2007

dinner with Bill, and a chicken dish for those who don't like white meat

You've met Matt. Now meet his brother, Bill.

Bill is one of the few people I know who can out-talk me on the subject of food, though that might just be because he's been at it for longer. Bill is an enthusiastic amateur chef who loves to eat. He does a glorious spicy fried catfish with shrimp hollandaise, and a Caesar salad that is better than sex.* The first time I ever met Bill, we discussed the finer points of baking meringues. He didn't recognise me the next time I met him - but he did remember the conversation about meringues.

At dinner with Bill last night, the conversation followed a meandering route, beginning at ways to prepare Thanksgiving turkey, wandering through Jeffrey Steingarten's essay on the perfect bread, detouring at the wines of Bordeaux, passing through the impossibility of obtaining fresh garden peas in Boston, and finishing up somewhere around the best way to prepare lamb sweetbreads. Matt was in charge of the menu: pasta with fresh basil pesto, and - despite my initial misgivings - a dish made with boneless, skinless chicken breast.

As a rule, boneless, skinless chicken breast is not my idea of good eating. It's dry, it's bland, it's, well, unappetizing. My personal hierarchy of chicken cuts is something like the following: thighs > drumsticks > wings > breast. Dark meat is better than white, and meat on the bone is preferable to meat off the bone. Boneless, skinless chicken breast is usually something I'll eat only if the alternative is, say, tofu casserole.**

But take a boneless, skinless chicken breast, pound it translucent, sear over very high heat, and serve it with a lemon-caper sauce, and you suddenly have my full and undivided attention. The result is called chicken piccata, and it is wonderfully succulent and flavorful.

Chicken Piccata

Cheap white wine is fine for the sauce, but use fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and don't skimp on the quality of the chicken or the capers. Fussy imported French or Italian capers in white vinegar work best.

(Serves one, with leftover sauce that goes nicely on pasta with a grating of fresh parmesan.)

Take your fresh boneless, skinless chicken breast and butterfly it completely, so that you have two separate pieces of chicken. Pound out the chicken between sheets of clingwrap or greaseproof paper, whichever you have on hand. You want the pieces thin and lovely and translucent.

If you'd like your chicken with added crunch, sprinkle it with flour or fine cornmeal (both sides) and shake off the excess. Heat a small quantity of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan until barely smoking and put the chicken in. Sprinkle with salt. Cook the pieces until they start going white around the edges, then turn them over. The chicken should be an appealing shade of golden brown. Move the pieces to a plate; cover and keep warm.

Turn down the heat on the pan, and add a tablespoon of butter. (For a thicker sauce, add half a teaspoon of flour, and whisk it with the butter until smooth.) Add a splash of white wine and the juice from two lemons. Stir. Bring to a simmer, and reduce until you can no longer smell alcohol fumes when you stick your head over the pan. Add a few teaspoons of capers with their juice (exact number determined by how much you like capers), and simmer for a few minutes longer. Salt to taste.

Serve the chicken with the sauce spooned over, and a dusting of finely chopped parsley if you feel like being fancy. Spaghettini or polenta is a good accompaniment.

*Should you wish to try a Caesar salad that is better than sex, and you haven't made the personal acquaintance of Bill, you might consider an excursion to Frankie and Johnny's in Cape Neddick, Maine.

**Tofu is good, tofu is great, tofu is not a direct substitute for meat. It doesn't belong in casserole any more than cheese curds do in stir-fry.


Wing said...

Honey, the only reason you hate tofu casseroles is because people are stupid and don't make em right.

You need pork in those things.

In fact, I'm thinking of making a pork / tofu casserole now...

adele said...

I think that probably defeats the purpose of a tofu casserole.

Wing said...

The purpose of a tofu casserole is to make a casserole featuring tofu.

Adding pork for flavoring is not destroying the focus of tofu. It is in fact enhacing it.

Go to *any* Cantonese place and look at the casseroles. Almost every single tofu casserole has meat or fish in it. Yet in each casserole the tofu is the best part. The exception to this is the vegetable tofu casserole, which actually can work very well.http:

adele said...

I think we're operating under different definitions of "casserole."

I'm talking about the sort of thing that tends to involve a can of Campbell's soup.