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Jesse Jones with his new smothered chicken and creamy grits, a variation on his mom's traditional Southern meal.
Posted: Tuesday March 27, 2012, 10:46 AM
By Elisa Ung

They're not particularly flavorful. They're easily overcooked. And they carry a premium price tag.

But that doesn't stop the boneless, skinless chicken breast from remaining the king of the home refrigerator. Americans ate 6 billion pounds of them last year, and half of all of the money spent on chicken in grocery stores went to purchase the convenient, lean, nutritious breast meat, according to the National Chicken Council.

But in restaurants? You'll most often find chefs gravitating toward on-the-bone preparations and fattier cuts with more flavor. On so many menus, the chicken dish is guaranteed to be a snoozer — and that's with bones and skin.

But we still wanted to see what two of the area's most prominent chefs could do to help home cooks spice up their boneless, skinless dinners.

That concept wasn't so foreign to Ralph Perrotti, executive chef of the Ho-Ho-Kus Inn & Tavern, whose blood pressure recently shot so high that he had to radically change his diet, cutting out caffeine and junk food.

When Perrotti wants a quick meal, he often finds himself broiling thin chicken cutlets rubbed with cumin and dressed with a lively honey-lime sauce, and whipping up a lemony tabbouleh salad filled with tomatoes, cucumbers and bulgur wheat.

The dish is full of bold flavors and textures — and the healthier way of eating has helped Perrotti lose 20 pounds and lower his blood pressure.

Jesse Jones, who was Chef Central's 2010 Ultimate Chef Bergen County and frequently caters events in the Bergen area, can relate. He grew up eating rich Southern foods, including his mother's smothered chicken — which always started with bacon or lard and included chicken legs.

Today, Jones specializes in modern twists on his childhood favorites. He responded to our challenge by using chicken breasts in one of his signature dishes, a "new" smothered chicken that starts with a paprika-spiked marinade and ends with an herb-flecked chicken gravy.

Served with grits, it's indulgent for sure — though significantly less so than Jones' mother's version. And it's so zesty, so satisfying, that you may forget you're eating, you know, chicken.

RALPH PERROTTI'S HONEY-LIME CHICKEN WITH TABBOULEH

For the tabbouleh:

1/2 cup fine (or "quick cooking") bulgur wheat

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Pinch of cracked black pepper

1/4 cup chopped red onion

1/4 cup chopped mint leaves

1/4 cup chopped parsley leaves

1 cup cherry tomatoes, cut in half

1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped

Þ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon

Pour 1 cup boiling water over bulgur. Cover and let sit for about 20 minutes. Fluff with fork.

Sprinkle salt and pepper on red onion. Let sit for 5 minutes.

Combine bulgur, herbs, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, olive oil and lemon. Stir in onion.

Chill at least 1 hour and up to overnight.

For the chicken:

1/4 cup olive oil

4 tablespoons honey

Zest and juice of 1 lime

6 mint leaves, roughly chopped.

1 clove garlic, crushed

Salt and pepper, to taste

4 thinly sliced chicken cutlets (or two chicken breast halves, cut in half lengthwise and pounded, if desired)

1/4 teaspoon cumin

Whisk together the olive oil, honey, lime, half of the mint, garlic, salt and pepper. Place half of the sauce in a separate bowl.

Heat broiler. Rub chicken with cumin on both sides. Using a pastry brush and one of the bowls of sauce, brush sauce on one side of chicken and broil for about 4 minutes, monitoring carefully.

Turn over chicken, brush with more sauce and broil until cooked through, about 4 minutes.

Place chicken on two serving plates and spoon the second bowl of sauce over chicken. Garnish with remaining mint and serve with tabbouleh.

Serves: 2.

JESSE JONES' NEW SMOTHERED CHICKEN AND CREAMY GRITS

For the chicken:

1 1/2 cups grapeseed or canola oil, divided

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1 teaspoon granulated garlic or garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, pulled from stem and minced lightly, divided

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, pulled from stem and minced lightly, divided

1 teaspoon fresh sage, pulled from stem and minced lightly, divided

4 6-to-8-ounce chicken breast halves, cleaned, trimmed of fat and pounded to about 1/2-inch thickness

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 1/2 cups Wondra quick-mixing all-purpose flour, divided

10 fresh pearl onions, peeled and cut in half, or one medium onion (preferably Vidalia), thinly sliced, or four medium shallots, thinly sliced

5 cups low-sodium chicken broth

In a bowl or Ziploc bag, combine 1/2 cup of the oil, paprika, garlic, cayenne, black pepper and half of the thyme, rosemary and sage. Add the chicken, mix to coat, then marinate at least 4 hours and preferably overnight.

Remove chicken and season with kosher salt on both sides.

Place 1 cup Wondra flour into a shallow plate. Dredge chicken on both sides in the flour, shaking off excess. Place in single layer on plate until ready to pan-sear.

In a heavy skillet, heat 1/2 cup of oil over medium-high heat. Place chicken breasts into the skillet and cook until golden brown, about 2 1/2 minutes on both sides. Remove and drain on a paper towel.

Over low heat, add the last half-cup oil to the skillet. Add the onions and sauté for 2 minutes, until transparent.

Add the last half-cup of Wondra flour. Stir well for about 2 to 5 minutes, until you have a deep golden-brown roux that resembles peanut butter.

Meanwhile, heat chicken broth until hot. Whisk two cups of the broth into the roux, until thickened. Then add 2 1/2 cups of the remaining broth and stir. Add chicken breasts, turn heat up to medium-low, and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until chicken is cooked through and gravy forms a semi-thick consistency. Stir in more broth if needed.

Mix in the remaining thyme, rosemary and sage. Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary.

For the creamy grits:

1 teaspoon of kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

4 cups water

1 cup of old-fashioned or quick-cooking grits

1 cup 2 percent milk, warm

In a saucepan, add salt and pepper to water and bring to boil.

Gradually whisk in the grits, whisking repeatedly so they do not stick. Cover pot and lower heat to medium.

Cook for the time the package specifies, stirring frequently.

Add warm milk and cook for 5 more minutes. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Serve hot.

Serves: 4.

Email feedback to me at ung@northjersey.com. If you include your name, town and phone number, your thoughts may be included in future columns. Twitter: elisaung Blog: northjersey.com/foodblog

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