I have to admit that one of my favourite meals is a baked chicken breast. It's always easy to prepare, doesn't take long to cook and can be combined with just about anything you have in the fridge or pantry. The only trick to cooking a chicken breast is to make sure it is not overcooked; that will dry out the otherwise tender and juicy meat and turn something delicious into the exact opposite.
Searing the chicken in a hot pan before placing it into the oven helps to add flavour and to seal in the juices. Have your pan hot and ready to go before adding a bit of olive oil, just enough to coat the bottom of the pan. When the oil is almost smoking carefully add the chicken. Do not move it around for at least 5 minutes, then check to see if the bottom is brown and crisp...if the chicken does not lift easily, it is not ready to turn. When it is ready, flip it over, and proceed with your recipe...placing the chicken into the oven at the required point.
Cook the chicken until it reaches an internal temperature of at least 165F; or if the juices run clear when the breast is poked with the tip of a knife. Always test for doneness in the thickest part of the breast. Remove the chicken from the heat and allow it to rest for 5 - 10 minutes in a warm spot (usually the back of the stove top works well) before serving.
I was pairing my chicken with a leek, some asparagus, and the last bit of Cambozola cheese. I added in some sundried figs to add a bit of sweetness, and took yet another opportunity to use up some of the dry sherry, this time for a marinade.
To make the marinade, combine the ingredients in a resealable plastic bag:
1/4 cup dry sherry
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
pinch of chili flakes
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Place 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts inside the bag, removing as much air as possible while sealing it.
Place in the refrigerator for 4 hours.
Turn the oven on to 350F. Put a frying pan onto the stove to heat up.
Remove the chicken breasts from the marinade and place in the hot pan to sear.
There is enough olive oil in the marinade to prevent sticking, so I did not add any oil to the pan.
Sear both sides of the chicken, and then remove from the pan and set aside while you cook the leeks.
Finely slice and clean:
Add a bit of olive oil to the same pan that the chicken was seared in, and cook the leeks over medium heat until they start to soften.
Season lightly with salt and pepper.
Place the chicken breasts back into the pan, placing them on top of the leeks.
Scatter around the pan:
8 sundried figs, quartered
Place the asparagus spears on top of the chicken. I allowed 8 spears per person.
Place the pan into the oven and bake until the chicken is cooked. Turn the oven to broil. Remove the chicken from the pan and place it onto a plate, keeping the vegetables warm.
Place thinly sliced Cambozola cheese on top of each breast and place under the broiler to melt the cheese.
Allow the chicken to rest for 5 minutes. I served this with orzo. The sweet figs and the gooey, sharp cheese were a perfect were a perfect combination. The asparagus was still slightly crisp, and the leeks added a peppery kick to the sauce.
- By marinating the chicken before cooking it, you add flavour as well as moisture. Any alcohol can be used...rum, wine, brandy. Juice can also be used if you prefer.
- The flavours of the garlic, orange and fennel infused the chicken and added to the sauce without competing with the leeks, figs and cheese.
- The chicken can be marinated the day before, or placed in the marinade and frozen.
- Adding leeks to the pan before baking the chicken adds moisture, which helps to prevent the chicken from drying out while cooking.
- The figs I was using were very plump and moist. If your figs (or any dried fruit you choose to use) are dry, simply set aside a bit of the marinade for them to soak in. The figs can also be steeped in warm water, or juice before being added to the pan.
- Fresh figs can be substituted if they are in season. Other fresh fruit options are peaches, apricots or pear.
- Thinly slice and caramelize an onion, and use that in place of the leek.
- The Cambozola is optional; I decided to add it at the last minute when I saw that there was such a small piece in the fridge. It did add a creaminess to the dish, which was nice.
- The leeks can be turned into more of a sauce by adding a bit of whipping cream to the pan after the chicken and asparagus have been removed. Cook over a medium high heat to reduce the cream to a saucy consistency.