Spare a thought for the humble chicken breast. Often sliced from the frail bone of that saddest of spectacles, the battery chicken, this piece of meat is so often maligned. It's hacked up and tossed into curries and stews where its fibres are abandoned to toughness and aridity. It's baked in the oven, the noble cook erring so much on the side of caution, so much against the notion of juices running anything but crystal clear, that it ends up possessing the texture of leather. There it sits on the plate, a sad, withered relic of that former chicken, perhaps oozing an unpleasant looking substance as evidence that it has been injected with water during packaging and processing. No amount of flavoursome sauce is going to disguise the mouth-puckering dryness of this overcooked piece of meat; no amount of chewing is going to render it anything more than simply satisfactory.
I hardly ever buy chicken breast any more. The main reason for this is rather mundane: it's too damn expensive. Since I am unable to buy anything other than free range (my conscience won't let me, especially after my post on battery chickens), I just can't afford to buy it more than a couple of times a month. Two free range chicken breasts notched up an impressive seven pounds in Tesco the other day; I could get a whole chicken for not much more than that from a decent butcher.
I've also discovered thighs. Oh yes, people. Sweet, succulent, rich, meaty thighs. (We're still talking about chicken here). Chicken thighs are my cut of choice for most dishes now. This is nothing new in the world of cookery, as writers like Nigella have been saying this for years, but I never really paid attention until recently. I'm a complete thigh convert: the meat is cheaper, much more flavoursome, less likely to dry out, and stands up more readily to spices and other strong flavourings. If you take the skin off, it doesn't have much more fat than chicken breast, which often seems the cut of choice for a lot of people because of its leanness. Thighs, skinless or otherwise, retain their moisture better than breast, making them much more suited to long cooking in a stew or curry.
However, there is still a place for the chicken breast in my kitchen. Because of its high price tag, I've decided it's almost sacrilegious to hack up the poor thing for use in stews and the like. Instead, I feel a good, free-range chicken breast should be cooked whole, as you would a steak.
Yet there is a problem with this idea. As discussed above, a whole chicken breast dries out very readily in a pan or oven. Poaching it in stock can help, and then you can thinly slice it and add it to dishes such as risotto or Asian recipes, but another way around this is to stuff the meat with something to keep it moist. Not that this always works, mind - I remember a dinner event a few months ago at which we were served chicken breast stuffed with (I think) ricotta and basil. Nice idea, but the execution failed. The meat was incredibly dry, no doubt because the caterers had cooked it to death to avoid any salmonella scares. The stuffing had also become rather arid, and most of it had leaked out of the meat thereby making its purpose redundant. I rarely leave food on my plate unless I don't like it, but I recall leaving half of mine simply because I couldn't be bothered to chew my way through the thing. I may as well have taken off my shoes and tried to eat them.
However, careful cooking and a good choice of stuffing can turn the chicken breast into a thing of joy to eat. I think I've happened, here, on the best possible choice of stuffing: 'nduja, the super-trendy spreadable Calabrian salami that I blogged about recently. I've been thinking of recipes to use up the large quantity in my fridge courtesy of Unearthed, and this came to me out of the blue.
Combined with creamy ricotta, the 'nduja makes an incredible stuffing. Its piquant chilli heat is tempered by the cheese, meaning you don't burn your tonsils off, and it melts in the heat of the oven, flavouring the chicken meat around it while keeping it lovely and moist. I decided to wrap the chicken in parma ham, which helps to conserve even more moisture. At first I was worried that it might be pork overload, but actually 'nduja and parma ham have such different flavours that they complement each other - you get the spicy, rich mouthfeel from the 'nduja and then the crisp saltiness of the parma ham, which is a lovely contrast in texture with the chicken. It just works. The meaty texture of the chicken breast against the crumbly ricotta, fragrant with chilli and pork, is a thing of joy to eat.
I also added lots of fresh oregano to the stuffing, which worked really well. I don't think I've ever seen fresh oregano on sale over here, but it's a world away from the dried stuff that is synonymous with pizza topping. It's hard to describe its flavour; quite zesty and lemony, and very strong. We have loads growing in our garden (it grows like a weed), but you could substitute basil or lemon thyme very effectively - you want something quite citrussy and strong to cut through the richness of the 'nduja and parma ham. Even parsley would do.
I served this magnificent chicken on a bed of cannellini beans, roasted cherry tomatoes and spinach, again flavoured with lots of fresh oregano, as well as garlic-infused olive oil, salt and pepper. This recipe is incredibly simple, as it all goes in one dish in the oven. It takes 10 minutes to prepare, around 40 to cook, and you can do other things (like salivate in anticipation, or ceremoniously don a bib in preparation) while you wait. The spinach, with its iron tang, is the perfect match for the rich chicken, and the tomatoes go very well with the herbs, ricotta and pork. You don't need a sauce or anything, because the tomatoes, 'nduja and spinach release a lot of flavoursome liquid into the beans.
I should warn you - when you get a sharp knife and pierce the chicken breast at the thickest part to check it is ready, remember that you've stuffed it with a load of bright red salami. I was horrified when I did this to discover scarlet liquid pouring out of the chicken after 30 minutes in the oven. How on earth could it be so bloody after all that time? It took me a good few seconds to realise that this was not, in fact, the precious lifeblood of that noble bird, but in fact the chilli-infused oils from the 'nduja. Panic over.
Chicken stuffed with 'nduja and wrapped in parma ham (serves 4):
[If you like this recipe, have a look at my other recipe featuring 'nduja: octopus, fennel and 'nduja risotto]2 x 400g cans cannellini beans
A large handful cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tbsp garlic-infused olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
4 tbsp fresh oregano leaves (or another herb of your choice)
Half a bag of baby spinach (around 150g)
4 free-range chicken breasts
Salt and pepper
8 slices of parma ham
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/fan 170C. In a large baking dish, toss the cannellini beans with the garlic oil, cherry tomatoes, spinach, salt and pepper, and half the oregano.
Mix the rest of the oregano into the ricotta, along with salt and pepper. Slice each chicken breast lengthways, almost in half but not quite, to create a pocket for stuffing. Spread a quarter of the 'nduja into the gap, then a quarter of the ricotta. Place two slices of parma ham next to each other on a chopping board, slightly overlapping, then wrap the chicken in them. Place on top of the cannellini beans and spinach mixture.
Repeat with the remaining chicken, ricotta, ham and 'nduja. Season the wrapped chicken breasts, drizzle with a little more garlic oil, then place in the oven for 40 minutes or until the chicken is cooked and opaque at its thickest part, and its juices run clear (it's quite hard to tell because of the red 'nduja stuffing, so err on the side of caution). Serve immediately on a bed of more baby spinach.