Q. Why did the chicken cross the road?
A. To get to the other side.
Q. Why did the duck cross the road?
A. Because it was the chicken’s day off.
Q. Why did the turkey cross the road?
A. To prove that he’s no chicken.
Q. Why couldn’t the chicken find her eggs?
A. Because she mislaid them.
Q. Why did the boneless, skinless, chicken breast cross the road?
A. To reach the supermarket and become America’s most popular protein food.
It’s as if the chicken has come full circle. There was a time when it was raised only on small farms, produced eggs for the family to eat and, when it got old, became the centerpiece of Sunday dinner. Roast chicken and biscuits, chicken fricassee, chicken and dumplings and chicken soup were all examples. But it was usually a special occasion when it was served.
Eventually, chicken became industrialized like other farm products and the era of mass production began. The rise of fast food, especially Kentucky Fried Chicken, created a huge demand for chicken that was already processed and cut into portions. The supermarkets followed suit and began selling chicken parts individually instead of just the whole chicken.
Finally, the chicken breast emerged as the part of choice: It was lower in fat, easy to handle, quick to cook and lent itself to many creative recipes. The now popular skinless, boneless chicken breast even eliminates the skin, which, though flavorful, is high in fat. What is left is tender protein with little flavor of its own but the ability to absorb many other flavors. It has become America’s most popular protein.
The only problem is that along the way toward mass production, growth hormones were added, antibiotics were used and the chicken coop became a tiny cage. Animal cruelty, exposure to disease and lack of texture and flavor became new issues. We are now seeing change where free-range, hormone-free, antibiotic-free and all-vegetable diets are seen on the labels. It is a good thing to see in one of our favorite foods.
Here are three chicken recipes that have been longtime favorites of mine.
MEDITERRANEAN CHICKEN AND PASTA
Cut 1 1/2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breast into uniform 2-inch chunks. Prepare a mise en place as follows: Trim and slice 1 bunch of scallions; peel and chop 4 cloves of garlic; rinse, drain and coarsely chop 1 bunch of broccoli rabe; thaw out 1 package of artichoke hearts; measure 1/2 cup of pitted Kalamata olives; quarter 1 package of cremini mushrooms; and cut in half 1 cup of grape tomatoes.
Bring to a boil 4 quarts of water in a large pasta pot and cook 1 package of whole wheat linguine. When the linguine is just cooked, add the broccoli rabe to the pot and continue to cook for 3 minutes before draining the pasta and broccoli together.
Separately, heat a large sauté pan to high heat and add 3 tablespoons olive oil. Toss the chunks of chicken in flour and add to the pan, being careful not to crowd. Remove the lightly browned chicken with tongs before it is fully cooked.
Reduce the heat to low and add the scallions and garlic. After 3 minutes, add the mushrooms and turn up the heat. When they have cooked for 5 minutes, stir in the artichokes and add 1 cup white wine. Let it reduce for 3 minutes, lower the heat and add 1 cup chicken stock. Add the olives and grape tomatoes and continue to cook until the chicken is fully cooked, about 5 minutes.
Dissolve 1 tablespoon cornstarch in 2 tablespoons cold water and stir into the mixture to lightly thicken. Season with 1 teaspoon sea salt, 1 teaspoon ground black pepper and 1/4 cup chopped basil. Combine with the pasta, broccoli rabe mixture and serve with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Place 1 1/2 pounds of thin chicken cutlets between two pieces of plastic fi lm on a cutting board and pound them out with a cast iron skillet or mallet to less than 1/4 inch thick. Refrigerate.
Soften 1 stick of unsalted butter and put it into a small bowl along with 1 teaspoon minced garlic, the zest and juice of 1 lemon, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon and 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives. Stir this mixture and spread it out on a piece of foil. Roll the foil to make a cylinder, sealing the ends. Freeze the seasoned butter for 20 minutes.
Measure out 2 cups of cornflakes and pulse them in a food processor until they become coarse crumbs. Pour 1 cup buttermilk into a shallow bowl and 1 cup flour in a pie tin. Put the cornflakes in a second pie tin.
Place the chicken on a cutting board and season with coarse salt and pepper. Cut pieces of the seasoned butter from the roll and put a piece on each cutlet. Fold the ends of each cutlet over the butter and join the sides together to seal. Fasten with a toothpick to secure. Dip each piece in flour, then in the buttermilk and then in the cornflakes. Repeat until all chicken is breaded and refrigerate.
Peel 8 red potatoes and slice as thinly as possible. Rub some of the remaining seasoned butter over a shallow casserole and spread the potatoes in the bottom, overlapping each other. Season them with salt and pepper and place the chicken on top of the potatoes. Do not crowd the chicken, using 2 casseroles if necessary. Put the casserole in a 400-degree oven and bake for 45 minutes. The chicken will release some of the butter, but it will season the potatoes.
Lay 1 1/2 pounds thin chicken cutlets on a cutting board and season with 2 teaspoons coarse salt and 1 teaspoon pepper.
Melt 2 sticks of unsalted butter and combine it with 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard in a shallow bowl. In a food processor pulse 1 cup pecans to coarse pieces and combine with 1 cup panko crumbs. Dredge the chicken in the butter mixture and then in the crumb mixture. Press the pecans into the chicken with your hands and set aside.
Heat a large sauté pan and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. When oil is hot, cook the chicken at medium heat until golden on each side, about 10 minutes total. Cook in batches if necessary, but do not crowd. When chicken is all cooked, place it on a platter and pour off excess oil and any burnt pieces from the pan.
Add 1 cup sour cream and 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard to the pan and whisk it over low heat. Serve with the chicken along with white or brown rice.
John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years.