Monday, January 31, 2011

Chicken Challenge

Martha Stewart Collection Dinnerware, Kensington 4 Piece Place Setting
At one point, I was weighing the option of leaving Chicago to live in East Lansing, Michigan, home of the Michigan State Spartans and a “certain someone” who I had taken up with.  Convincing me that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with this person was easy.  Convincing me to sell my downtown Chicago loft and move to a college town in my home state of Michigan was a bit of a harder sell.
But there was one restaurant, nestled in a strip mall of all places, that helped make the whole proposition of moving a lot more appealing.  And that restaurant is Dusty’s Wine Bar, located just outside of East Lansing in Okemos.  From the macadamia encrusted pork loin, to the whitefish with truffled grits, every dish I had there was delicious.  It’s been about five years since I have eaten at Dusty’s but one of my favorite dinners there has been on my mind so much lately, chicken breasts stuffed under the skin with herb gourney cheese, sun dried tomatoes and spinach.   
Since that dish continued to haunt me, I started Googling for recipes that would help me re-create it, unfortunately nothing came close.  But when I sat down to read the sale fyliers Saturday morning and make my shopping list for the week, I saw chicken breasts, organic spinach and gourney cheese all on sale.  It was like I was being called out to just make the dish.  I mean, how hard can stuffed chicken be?
Fast forward a few hours and I was unwrapping chicken breasts from Whole Foods.  They were perfection, air-chilled and pink like the inside of seashell.  De-boning while maintaining the skin was the first task.  I suppose I could have asked the butcher, but that would have felt like cheating.  And with that complete I set about stuffing the breasts with the mixture I made of sautéed spinach and sun dried tomatoes, roughly chopped and blended with the gourney cheese.   Next, I carefully tucked the ends of the skin under in the hopes of preserving the seal.
But it was not the assembly that made me nervous about this dish.  It was the actual execution.  Dusty’s always managed to serve chicken that had that perfectly golden crispy skin, a lovely pocket of filling and moist tender meat.  How was I going to manage to get that kind of sear on the outside without oozing cheese everywhere to burn in the pan?  How was I going to roast off in the oven to finish the cooking process without drying out the meat, especially now that I have removed the bones?  Pre-heating the oven to 400 degrees, I decided on a sear in the pan for 2 minutes and 14 minutes of roasting time to complete the dish.     
I selected vegetable oil for its high smoke point and heated my All-Clad fry pan at medium high-high.  While I waited for the oil to ripple, I popped my chicken back into the refrigerator.  I wanted that cheese mixture as cold as possible once it hit the hot pan.  I figured the only way this was going to work was if the skin cooked fast enough to get the necessary seal before the cheese heated up to ooze everywhere.
Double-checking that the skin was dry as possible, the chicken went in skin side down.  I set my timer for two minutes and resisted all temptation to lift the chicken to check on it once it went down, to avoid tearing the delicate skin.  While the skin sizzled at a somewhat alarming pitch, I made sure my range exhaust was turned on high and felt that there was a good chance of setting off the smoke alarm.  As the last seconds ticked on and I got down to eye level, I was pleased to see a golden amber color creeping up the sides of the meat.  For the first time since I started, I felt like I just might pull this off.  I used tongs to grab the chicken and flip it with confidence then thrust the whole pan into the oven.  The skin looked like amber, crispy perfection now, but how was it going to hold up in the oven to finish the cooking?  With the pan still sizzling loudly and drops of oil smoking in the pan, the thought of starting a grease fire in my oven crossed my mind.
I paced the kitchen like a father outside of the delivery room.  Those 14 minutes seemed like an eternity.  To pass the time, I grilled asparagus and dressed it simply with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice.  Finally the moment of truth, the timer went off.  I removed the pan and let the chicken rest on a plate.  There was no way I was going to foil tent it and run the risk of steam ruining that perfect skin.
Cutting into the breast anticipation turned to excitement.  And, with the first bite my excitement turned to elation.  The chicken’s skin was crispy, the cheese filling perfectly intact, the meat moist, tender and juicy.  With one bite, I was back at Dusty’s and in heaven.
What about you, have you ever tried to re-create a favorite dish?

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