Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Playdate Special: Simple Chicken Piccata

The spindly sage plant just outside my front door has been enjoying the warmth of spring, setting out new leaves and transforming from woody twigs to lush, leathery, green-leaved branches. But it’s still early spring, and today was a breezy, cool exception to the warm weather we’ve been enjoying. I needed something to bridge the seasons. The garden bounty is meager: a handful of carrots, some small lettuce heads, cabbages, spring garlic, a few herbs, and a dismaying amount of re-seeded chamomile and rampaging mint taking over empty beds.

I decided to focus on herbs and turned to Jerry Traunfeld, whose simpler recipes have proven tasty and readily adaptable. I went with chicken piccata, a quick-cooking dish with an easy sauce. Traunfeld’s original recipe calls for dill as a primary flavor, but dill and I don’t get along. I used a mix of English and lemon thyme for the sauce, accenting the lemon zest and juice — it seemed the right note for spring. I followed Traunfeld’s recipe exactly, but the chicken lacked oomph. It was partly my fault for rushing to put the chicken in the cast-iron pan before it was hot enough. When I tried it again a few nights later, I made sure the pan and oil were hot, and I dredged the chicken in white whole wheat flour first. Perfect.

I needed another dish with strong herb flavor to lead into it. I opted for the sage, whose earthy flavor lends itself well to more traditional cool-weather dishes. I played around with Traunfeld’s Smoky Tomato Bean Soup: Wow. Yum.

Simple Chicken Piccata

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup flour
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
lemon zest, thinly sliced from 1/2 a lemon
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, English or lemon, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

Place each chicken breast half between 2 pieces of plastic wrap and pound gently until 1/4-inch thick. Cut each piece in half. Dredge pieces briefly in flour, shaking off excess. Season both sides with salt and black pepper.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until the oil begins to smoke. Place the chicken breasts in the oil and cook until lightly browned on the underside, 2-3 minutes, then turn and brown the other side 2-3 minutes or until fully cooked. Transfer chicken to a plate and keep warm.

Pour off any oil in the skillet, then pour in wine, stirring to loosen any browned bits in the skillet. Cook over medium heat until the wine is reduced by half. Add the lemon zest, juice, and butter; stir until butter is melted and incorporated. Stir in herbs; add salt and pepper to taste. Spoon sauce over chicken to serve.

Optionally, add 2 tablespoons drained capers to the sauce with the wine.
Replace thyme with your favorite herbs, alone or in combination.

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