Thursday, March 10, 2011

Food: Chicken Baked on Bread

Chicken. Baked on bread. "Hmmm…," you might say. "That sounds a little bland and boring. Are you talking about plain white bread topped with plain white chicken, baked together in the oven? I don't know about that…it sounds interesting?"

But keep reading…you know I'm not the type to give you soggy, sad, blah recipes (at least I hope you don't view my posts to be such!). Maybe I can convince you that chicken baked on bread is actually a quite wonderful thing - simple yet sophisticated and surprisingly flavorful and savory.

So I probably should give you a little background on the inspiration for the recipe below. Food & Wine's Melissa Perello came up with this (I've modified it slightly from her version) while thinking about Judy Rogers' brick oven chicken. For those of you unfamiliar with Judy or her San Francisco restaurant (the Zuni Café in Hayes Valley), Ms. Rogers is famous for her dry brining technique for poultry (in fact, her turkey recipe is the one I've used the past two Thanksgivings with sublime results). It seems practically everyone has posted the Zuni roast chicken recipe (or a version of it) on their blog. If you do a search, tons and tons of websites show up. So, yes, the chicken is that good -and- that popular. So why settle for an alternative?

A couple of years ago, my friend Christine and I actually visited Zuni and ordered the famed "Chicken for Two." It's a meal that's really an event since you place your order and wait an hour for the chicken to bake…drinking a glass (or two) of wine and conversing over appetizers. In the end, we decided that although brining does make chicken wonderfully juicy and delicious, we were a little disappointed in how salty it was (you definitely wanted to drink a lot of water afterwards) and it was a rather long time to wait for dinner. The experience at home is not much different.

When deciding to brine a chicken for roasting, you have to plan ahead. To brine is a couple-day process requiring dry rubbing salt on a bird, wrapping it up, placing it in a refrigerator, turning it over after a day or so, and so forth. Besides that, to make a perfect roast chicken, you have to find a very small, whole frying chicken - which many grocery stores unfortunately don't like to carry, meaning a trip to your local butcher. Also, the bread salad is made separately…i.e. once you do get around to cooking you're stuck with multiple pans and oven temperatures (not super handy if you don't have two ovens at your disposal). As you can see, although the recipe results are generally wonderful, the prep work is not.

Whew! So after all that, this is where I get to the part about the ingenuity behind chicken baked on bread. First, Melissa's recipe calls for using pieces of chicken (rather than an entire bird), significantly reducing the overall cooking time. Second, there's no brining involved and the chicken is skinless, meaning a lower fat and lower sodium dish. Third, it's a one-dish meal (less mess in the kitchen!). And to top it all off, baking the chicken on top of the cubed bread gives the sourdough a wonderfully crispy, caramelized outer shell with a dense, chewy, savory inside. What could be better?!?

So if you're looking for an elegant, relatively simple, modern take on chicken and stuffing, chicken baked on bread could be for you. It'd be fantastic for a casual dinner shared with friends and is snap to throw together. It's also something that could be served any time of the year - Summer, Winter, Spring, Fall...Just add different ingredients to compliment the seasons. Send out the invitations!


Chicken Baked on Bread
Adapted from Food and Wine (December 2010)


INGREDIENTS

  • 1 small loaf day-old sourdough, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup salted capers, rinsed well
  • 1/4 cup golden raisins, coarsely chopped
  • 1 large bunch of Baby Spinach (about 1 1/2 pounds) torn into pieces
  • 3 shallots, thinly sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon minced thyme
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 large, boneless, skinless chicken breasts

DIRECTIONS

  • Preheat the oven to 350°.
  • In a large bowl, toss the bread cubes with the olive oil, capers, raisins, spinach, shallots, garlic and thyme. Season with salt and black pepper. Spread the bread in a large enameled cast-iron casserole (MM: My enameled cast-iron pot wasn't quite big enough...so I ended up using a tagine - which worked out fine but upped the cooking time slightly).
  • Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper and arrange them over the bread. Cover the chicken with a piece of parchment paper and close the casserole with a heavy lid. Bake the chicken for 40 minutes.
  • Remove the lid and parchment paper and increase the oven temperature to 400°. Bake the chicken for 12-15 minutes longer, or until golden on top and cooked through. Remove the casserole from the oven and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes. Serve the chicken with the bread and greens.

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