Chicken is kind of like tofu, these days. Ubiquitous, bred and fed to be devoid of any taste, stripped of any offending skin or fat that might make it juicy. "Chicken breast" in restaurants is usually a slab of dessicated pectoral tissue, painted with canola oil, sprinkled with bitter "secret blend" spices, and grilled to the consistency of shoe leather. I usually become bored with chewing long before I can ingest any threatening calories, which may be the point.
On the other hand, I can look at the chicken breast as a naked canvas: a solid building block of amino acids waiting to support bright herbs, fragrant spices, gooey cheese and sultry ham.
Here are two versions of chicken cordon bleu (literally, "blue ribbon chicken," derived from the original recipe of the Cordon Bleu institute in France). The first version is simple, quick, tasty, good to throw together for a crowd. The second takes a bit more time and makes quite a mess, but is an elegant dish to make for your in-laws, boss, lover, or anyone else you may want to impress. The one-dish version is especially easy to size up or down, keeps well and is actually better for lunch the next day.
|(or more)boneless, skinless chicken breasts|
| ||BUTTER--did I say margarine? You ought to read how they make that stuff some time--you'd never eat it again|
| ||some good salty cooked ham, either deli-sliced or pre-formed, cut into 1/4 inch thick slices, enough to cover each chicken breast|
| ||slices provolone or swiss cheese. For deli-sized slices, usually one-half of a circular slice is enough for each breast.|
| ||whole wheat bread: toasted, dried and reduced to fine crumbs|
| ||black pepper, parsley, sage, mustard power, and salt or chicken bouillion (I like Wyler's bouillion beads, but their "Shakers" powder with herbs is good, too.)|
As I said, this is a very simple, inexact recipe. You may always add more or less of anything, according to your tastes.
Butter the bottom of a deep, 9-inch pie plate or baking dish. Trim off any offending bits from the chicken breasts. Place in a single layer in dish (they can overlap a bit).
Sprinkle chicken with the spices and herbs above. If you want onion flavor instead of mustard, feel free to substitute. If you dislike parsley, leave it out. We're easy, here.
Cover the seasoned chicken with thin slices of ham, as many or as few as you want. Probably one 1/4 thick slice of ham per breast is enough. You can shape the ham slices as desired.
Cover the ham with the cheese. Fill in the edges with extra cheese. You can never have too much cheese, in my opinion.
Process the toast slices into fine crumbs. Melt about 1/3 stick of butter and combine with toast crumbs to make them cling together. Sprinkle buttered crumbs over cheese/ham/chicken strata.
Bake at 350 degrees, uncovered, for about 25 minutes. Don't overcook. The buttered toast will start to smell really good just before it's done. Cut into one of the thicker breasts to test doneness.
This would probably be excellent with a little Dijon mustard--a natural fit for both ham and chicken. If desired, you could layer a bit of Dijon between the chicken and ham before baking. You could also combine some grated Parmesan cheese with the bread crumbs.
The success of this recipe depends largely upon finding large, firm, good-quality chicken breasts, preferably organic. Find them in your grocer's butcher case. Make sure the meat has not been mutilated by a clumsy knife, nor shot full of "flavor-enhancing" liquid. Your meat must have tissue integrity or it will fall apart.
Butterfly (cut open lengthwise through the fattest part of the meat, but leave the last bit uncut so it opens like a book) each breast. Lay open on a cutting board or covered countertop. Cover with a piece of heavy plastic or waxed paper. Pound lightly with a mallet or handle of a rolling pin until meat thickness is uniform, about 1/2 inch.
Sprinkle each flattened breast with seasonings. Layer with ham and cheese. Fold in half (this is tricky, so don't worry if it's not perfect) and skewer shut with bits of dried spaghetti.
In a large skillet, melt about 1/3 to 1/2 stick of BUTTER (I'll say it one more time, people, animal fat is NOT bad for you--not nearly as bad as the heavy metals and trans fats in margarine).
Beat egg and milk together in a plate or shallow bowl.
In another plate, combine toast crumbs with flour, and a little parmesan if you like.
You know what comes next, right? Salt and pepper the chicken on the outside, dip into the milk/egg, slough off excess, coat with crumbs, and lay in skillet.
Cook slowly, over medium-or-slightly-above heat, turning occasionally. Keeping it covered will help it cook more uniformly. The outside will get brown before the inside is done, but that's okay. No need to remove spaghetti sticks; they will cook up soft and no one will notice them.
Serve either of these with some good blanched or steamed vegetables: carrots, broccoli, asparagus; and a green salad. With honey-mustard dressing, of course.