I know, a lot of the food I write about here is vegetarian. I live with a vegetarian, I cook a lot of vegetarian food. I don’t apologize. And one of the things I’ve found endlessly fascinating, if not a little short-sighted, is that I am constantly asked–once it is made clear that I am NOT a vegetarian–how on Earth I manage to survive in such a meat-deprived household. To those people I say:
1. Do you see me? I’m clearly not in the habit of missing meals, and
2. Get over your meat-saturated selves.
With that being said, I do enjoy having a lean protein handy that I can add to a meal if I so choose. I just feel better when I feel like my protein is in balance. Hence I often cook up a panful of chicken that I can eat from during the week; the trick is to make it delicious enough to stand on its own if I just want a sandwich yet receptive and/or complementary to a variety of cuisines so the flavors don’t clash if I choose to add it in. I’m not putting curried chicken in my parmesan, dig? And how do you achieve this sort of chickeny goodness, you ask? Where can you find a recipe with such a capacity for multi-tasking?
I’m here to help.
This is a recipe I came up with in my kitchen, though I’m sure there are hundreds of close versions of this out there. Here’s what you need:
- Salt & Pepper (to taste)
We’ll discuss proportions in a minute.
Since I’m usually cooking this just for me, I try to find the smallest pack of chicken possible but if your grocery store is anything like mine then they’ve discovered that people will buy the bigger packs regardless of what they “need”, and I’m sure it generates less waste for the store. So your onion and garlic should correspond to the amount of chicken you have to start with. The smallest pack I could get this week was about a pound and a half…
…so I used an onion that was roughly the size of a grapefruit and maybe three or four cloves of garlic (they were small!). For smaller packs of chicken, use a smaller onion and less garlic. Or not, it’s your kitchen.
Note: yes, when I work with meat I put my salt and pepper in a small Pyrex bowl and season out of that. It’s so much less likely to cross-contaminate your supplies this way. And…moving on.
I like to use the boneless, skinless, thin-sliced chicken breasts when I cook largely because that means I literally have zero prep work to do with the meat; I just open the container and go. But caveat emptor! This will get wicked dry after a few days so if you don’t eat all of it right away (as in, you feed it to your family that night), be prepared to chop it up and add it to soup by the end of the week. Or you could use less thin, skin-on, bone-in chicken, which will preserve moisture in the meat. Again, it’s your kitchen. I simply choose to use this particular cut of meat because I am laaaaazeeeeeeeeeeeee.
Maybe that’s not entirely true, especially in the kitchen. But the objective behind this is to have something that is flexible, and on the meat scale what is more flexible than boneless, skinless chicken breast? Nothing, I tell you. Nothing. And I’m lazy. Yeah, I’m sticking with that.
Anyway. Season the up-facing side of the chicken breasts with salt and pepper, and then put them in a nice, fairly hot pan. You don’t want your pan to be screaming hot, you’re not trying to blacken your chicken. You just want to get a nice sear on it pretty quickly.
When the first side is browning, season the second so it’s ready to be flipped. Once both sides are browned, take the chicken out, sit it on a nearby plate and drop the heat to a nice, mid-range saute level. Add your onions and garlic. You can dice the onions if you want; I tend to cut them into half-moons for no other reason than it is faster and doesn’t expose as much surface area of the onion. Less onion-cutting time makes me cry less, and this really is all about me. After about a minute I like to add in the thyme. How much thyme?
No, I don’t measure, not really. I’m more of a, dump it in my hand until it feels like the right amount, kind of girl. But this much thyme worked for this much chicken, so use, you know. This much. Accordingly. You’ll start to have a lovely pan that will look something like this:
Remember! Very important! The gnarly brown bits at the bottom of the pan are not indications that you’re burning dinner! (Not until they smell burned, that is.)
The gnarly brown bits are small nuggets of concentrated deliciousness. It’s the potent combination of caramelization from the meat and the onions (meat people, relax, I know that the meat doesn’t caramelize but rather that the chicken’s browning comes from the Maillard reaction…so put down the food dictionary and take a deep breath) combined into lumps of goodness aching for release.
And you’re just the person to give it to ’em. Once the onions brown a little, if you think you’ve taken them as far in the pan as you can without risking a burn, then pour in some vinegar to deglaze the pan. If you have leftover white wine, that also works very well (and I’ve made it with leftover Prosecco; it was amazing). However, what I generally and quite happily use is white balsamic vinegar. It’s light, it’s fruity but not overpowering. If you don’t have white balsamic, basic white wine vinegar or champagne vinegar would be fine. Other flavors of vinegar have the potential to irrevocably settle the flavor so the chicken won’t adapt well to whatever you chose to pair it with. Long story short: if you want to preserve the dish’s versatility avoid a vinegar that’s profoundly fruity or pungent.
When you deglaze, pour about a quarter-cup of vinegar into your hot pan. Stir stir stir, until all the delicious browned bits have been pulled off the bottom of your pan and have incorporated themselves into the beginnings of a pan sauce.
Let that cook for about thirty seconds or so–maybe a minute–just long enough so the vinegar has a chance to mellow. Put your chicken back in the pan.
And dump whatever has collected in the bottom of the plate, back in the pan too. Then add some stock for the chicken to simmer in. I like to use the smaller box of stock for this.
Pour that whole thing in and if you want, add a little more water to just barely cover the chicken. The meat itself will be finished cooking within a matter of minutes (especially if you use the thin cuts, like I do) but the flavors get extracted out of the onions and garlic and it becomes extraordinary. Start with this:
Yes, just keep it at a saute, it will take a while. No, don’t cover the pan, you want everything to cook out. Yes, cook the rest of your dinner while you’re waiting for this to finish. Or do the sudoku, or read a book. Whatever. Everything should cook down completely in about a half an hour; it will take less time to cook if you don’t want the sauce to reduce all the way to a beautiful mahogany glaze.
But me, that’s how I like it.
I make this all the time. It always pays off, and I’m not kidding when I say it will go with pretty much anything you’ve cooked. Italian? Yep. Thai? Mmm hmmm. Mexican? No problem. And so on, and so on.