“I’ll bet a dollar we get something this time besides [fried chicken] ribs and
neck,” said Leon. “How do you suppose breast would taste?”
[Later ….] “He gave me a big bite of breast. It was sort of dry and tasteless; I didn’t like it.
“Why, I think neck or back beats that all to pieces!” I said in surprise.
“Fact is, they do!” said Leon. “I guess the people who ‘wish to choose breast,’ do it to get the biggest piece.”
I never had thought of it before, but of course that would be the reason.
From Laddie, by Gene Stratton-Porter
In Stratton-Porter’s 1913 quasi-autobiographical novel about her childhood on her family’s Indiana farm, for Leon and Little Sister (a.k.a. Stratton-Porter) the most exciting thing about their older sister’s wedding was the opportunity to try white meat chicken for the first time. In those days, adults were always served first, and as the youngest of 12 children, by the time the platter got down to their end of the table those big pieces were always gone. My grandfather, one of nine children, had similar memories of chicken dinners at his family’s Springfield farm.
But when they ate chicken breast, they discovered what every chef I’ve ever encountered as well as any “foodie” knows: white meat chicken is bland and often dry; the dark meat has the best flavor. That’s even more true with today’s industrial chickens produced in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). The white meat has almost no taste, and the dark meat isn’t much better, because the birds can’t exercise and are given growth hormones so they can be slaughtered at a younger age.
Why is it that Americans make such a big deal about “white meat chicken”? I’m more than a little irritated with what seems to be almost a fetish. “All white meat” is touted in ads and predominates in published recipes, except in “foodie” magazines such as Gourmet and Saveur. It’s gotten so extreme that food industry “scientists” developed a method to convert dark chicken into white. It involves centrifugal force and chemicals. Sounds disgusting to me! Do folks want blandness? “Tastes like chicken” really means something doesn’t taste like anything. Do they just want that biggest piece? Do they think that “white” is better, somehow purer or more healthful than “dark”?
Yes, white chicken meat does have a few less calories. Exact calorie counts
differ somewhat, but on average say that skinless dark meat has between 15 to
30 more calories per 3 oz. serving than skinless white meat. (It would be
interesting to compare calorie counts for CAFO chicken and free-range). But the
dark meat also has many more nutrients — including iron and B vitamins.
In my family the competition was always for the tastiest parts, no matter how
the chicken was prepared. Any pieces left on the platter were usually breasts.
My husband, Peter, always chose breasts when I first met him. Flavor had
nothing to do with it; his mother didn’t allow eating with fingers, and the breasts were much easier to manage with
knife and fork. I’ve since corrupted him.
Since I prefer dark meat does that mean I never eat chicken breasts? Not at all.
Because they’re large, they’re especially suitable for stuffing, as in the recipe below or for recipes
requiring a cutlet. Even though they’re less flavorful than dark meat, the breasts from sustainably raised birds are
tastier than even the dark meat of those sad CAFO chickens. If you’ve never had a truly free-range chicken, try one from the farmers’ market or Food Fantasies; you’ll be astonished at the difference.
I’ve been making this recipe ever since I found it in a Gourmet magazine shortly after I was married. For years it was my standard dinner party entrée, served on a bed of wild rice pilaf. Although I’ve broadened my repertoire considerably since then, it remains a favorite. Not only is it delicious, the breasts can be stuffed a day or two ahead of time, making it ideal for entertaining. I’ve altered it somewhat over the years. The original recipe left the skin on the breasts, broiling them lightly after baking, but I think the pancetta makes them especially attractive — and adds extra flavor.
CHICKEN BREASTS STUFFED
WITH RICOTTA AND SPINACH
6 boneless skinless chicken breasts
¼ c. Kosher salt, plus additional for seasoning
2 c. ricotta, preferably whole milk
¾ c. cooked chopped spinach
1 T. lemon juice
1 tsp. minced garlic, or more or less to taste
¼ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
½ c. freshly grated aged asiago or parmagianno reggiano cheese, or ¾ c if using a
¾ c. minced proscuitto or other ham
Freshly ground pepper to taste
12 paper thin slices pancetta, or substitute
very thinly sliced bacon
Approximately 1 c. chicken stock
Approximately 1 c. dry white wine
6 T. unsalted butter, chilled and cut into bits
Coarsely chopped fresh parsley, preferably
flat-leafed, for garnish, optional
Place the ¼ c. Kosher salt in a large resealable plastic bag and add 4 c. cool or cold water. Seal the bag and squish and shake gently until the salt is dissolved. Add the chicken breasts, press to get out as much air as possible, then refrigerate for 2-4 hours.
In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta, spinach, lemon, garlic, nutmeg, asiago and ham. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Drain the chicken breasts and pat them dry with a paper towel. Place the chicken breasts between sheets of parchment paper or plastic wrap and lightly pound to an equal thickness (approximately ½ inch) with a mallet or heavy skillet. It’s OK if there are some ragged ends. Place the breasts cut side up and place equal portions of the ricotta mixture in the center of each.
Shape the ricotta mixture into a flat oval and fold the sides and ends over to make a package that will look a little like a baking potato, tucking in any ragged ends. It’s OK if it’s not completely sealed. Refrigerate them if not baking immediately. Let come to room temperature for 1-2 hours before baking.
Preheat the oven to 450º. Very lightly butter an ovenproof and heatproof vessel that will comfortably hold the chicken breasts without cowding. (It’s better to use two vessels than cramming them into one.)
Place the chicken breasts, seam side down, in the container. Top each breast with two pancetta slices, overlapping them slightly.
Pour in equal parts of chicken stock and wine so that the liquid comes up to a depth of between ¼ and ½ inch The pancetta should not be submerged.
Place in the oven and bake until the chicken is cooked but still moist and the
stuffing is hot 20-30 minutes, depending on the size of the breasts. Check
after 20 minutes.
Remove the chicken breasts from the pan, cover, and keep warm.
Strain the pan juices or not. (There will probably be shreds of spinach in it — I usually only strain it if company’s coming.) Place the pan with the juices on the stove over high heat and reduce the liquid by about half. When it is just right, you’ll see and hear a change in the bubbles.
Remove the pan from the heat and let set for about 15 seconds. Whisk in the chilled butter, a few pieces at a time. The butter should emulsify into the liquid, but not completely melt, creating a creamy sauce. Season to taste.
Drizzle some of the sauce over the chicken breasts, sprinkle with the parsley and serve immediately, passing the extra sauce separately.