Chicken & Polenta

Monday, May 5, 2008

This post is, as much as anything, to let you all know I'm not dead. I've just fallen out of the habit of blogging, and furthermore the site needs work if I'm going to continue -- that table of contents is too long now, and while I'd like to make it a nice dynamic little widget that you can expand and collapse with plus signs and all that goodness, I haven't the foggiest idea how to go about doing that so for now, I'm just not adding to it.

Chicken & Polenta

Alright, here's another sub-30-minute meal (like the homemade pasta and tomato sauce) that tastes super gourmet.

But first, a rant. Most restaurants woefully under-salt everything they cook. In fact, I'd go so far as to say most of the difference between your average OK restaurant and most high-end/"gourmet" restaurants is just that the gourmet places aren't afraid to use enough salt at the right times, and then bring your food out promptly while it's still the right temperature and texture.

Salt has to be applied at the right times, though; you can't just cook a chicken breast with no salt and then salt the living hell out of it right before you serve it. You need the salt to help pull the liquids out during cooking, and you need the salt to dissolve a bit so it's not such a punch to the face when you bite into it. For example.

This whole meal needs salt. The chicken needs salting during cooking, the polenta needs salting during cooking, and the cheese itself is salty. Getting those all in the right portions is, while not trivial, also not exactly rocket science, and it makes all the difference in the world. Poorly-salted polenta is like eating Elmer's glue, and poorly-salted chicken is just bland.

Salt doesn't just make food taste salty; up to a point, it actually amplifies the flavor of the food itself. At the cellular level, salt disrupts the water potential around cells and causes them to burst, which has a lot to do with the way it enhances flavor and draws out juices. (This is also related to its preservative properties, since it makes an environment inhospitable to spoilage bacteria.) You want to get as much of this effect as you can, and so generally speaking, you want to put as much salt in food as you can without actually making the end product taste salty. The right amount of salt will just make the food more flavorful without becoming a prominent flavor in its own right.

This threshold is higher than most people think. Last year when I was at the French Laundry, amidst all the amazing food I was eating, the thing that struck me the most was actually very mundane: They use much more salt in their food than most places would dare, because they've got balls up there in Yountville, and also the chops to pull it off. Every dish had the perfect amount of salt, and it raised it above comparable preparations I'd had anywhere else.

Now, with chicken, I actually go a bit heavy on the salt, because I actually do want the skin to taste a little salty, but that's personal preference. With polenta, though, like most grains, you don't want it to taste salty; that'll ruin it. So I salt as I go and to taste. With the sauce, take it easy; it already has the salt from the cooking chicken, and too much salt in this sauce will just make the whole meal nauseating.

But for the love of all that is holy, salt is your friend, and you probably need to use more of it.

Start with:
  • half-breast of chicken
  • butter, olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, onion, thyme (or whatever herbs, rosemary or sage would be good too)
  • beef stock (I freeze mine in ice cube trays and store it in bags in the freezer)
  • polenta
  • parmigiano reggiano or other comparable cheese
Combine 1/2c polenta with 2c water or so and bring to a boil in a small saucepan. Turn the heat down immediately to medium-low or just so it's very slowly simmering. Add a 1/2t of salt or so. Stir occasionally with a sauce whisk or something that'll break up clumps and continue to cook as the water is absorbed.

In the meantime, heat up some butter and olive oil (a tbsp of each or so) in a skillet over medium-high heat. Toss the chicken breast in and pan-fry for about 5 minutes on each side so it's nice and golden and crispy. Turn the heat down to medium-low, generously salt and pepper the chicken breast (both sides), throw in half a chopped onion, 2 cloves minced garlic, and some thyme leaves, and continue to cook until its internal temperature is 155F, or it's not translucent when you cut into it, or however you like to tell your chicken is done.

The polenta should finish roughly when the chicken is done. You want the polenta still relatively liquid because it congeals when it cools off a bit. I mean, do whatever you want, it's your polenta. I like mine very soft, so it's creamy, not gooey.

Remove the chicken breast to a plate and immediately throw a few ice cubes of stock in the pan, turn the heat back up to medium-high, and stir while they melt, and then splash some marsala or other wine into the pan. As the stock starts to bubble at the edges, whisk in maybe 1/2t of flour or just enough to get it to thicken up a little (it doesn't take much.)

Portion the polenta (it makes about two servings but you can't really cook 1/4c of polenta by itself unless you have a saucepan from a dollhouse.) Put half of it in the fridge for later. To the remainder, add 1T butter and a generous grating of parmesan, and stir as they melt.

Plate and sauce and eat.

Since the chicken and polenta take roughly the same amount of time to cook, and neither requires much attention, this one is easy and quick, and pretty easy cleanup, too (both pans wash out easily.)

I've been buying whole chickens but then quartering them before cooking rather than roasting them whole, lately, because I realize how much more I like chicken when it's freshly cooked. Mostly I broil the legs, but pan-frying the breasts yields really delicious, juicy meat.


At May 5, 2008 10:00 PM , Blogger Noel Llopis said...

Sounds delicious and healty! I'm a big fan of polenta, but mostly for breakfast. I'm definitely giving this one a try this week. Thanks!

At May 6, 2008 8:22 AM , Blogger Darius Kazemi said...

I am TOTALLY with you on the salt thing. My goal for this year is to learn how to properly season things at the right times. And I'm thinking I'll just learn it by tasting. A lot.

At May 7, 2008 2:48 PM , Blogger Brian said...

holy shit freezing stock as ice cubes is fucking brilliant.

At May 7, 2008 2:51 PM , Blogger brian said...

Thank my mom for that one. I had the same reaction. That reminds me, I have like 7 chicken carcasses in my freezer I need to cook down for stock.

And Carol over at French Laundry at Home did a big walkthrough of veal stock, made me want to try making it myself. I should do that; God knows if there's a place in the world it should be easy to find 12lbs of veal bones, Austin would be high on the list.

At March 16, 2009 7:06 PM , Anonymous Shannon in Ohio said...

Just made this and it was very tasty! Thanks.


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