Friday, July 8, 2011

Defending the Chicken Breast

Good North American food.  Chicken with yellow mole, black beans seasoned with cumin and epazote, sweet potato, and sauteed spinach.  A little cilantro garnish.  The epazote is growing in the yard.  Just a really solid dinner.

When I was making this I kept thinking about an exchange a while back on the Cleveland Food and Wine Forum (remember that thing?).  One of the more experienced members was bashing a "lesser" foodie for being interested in eating a chicken breast sandwich at B Spot.  The experienced person mocked the other user, and based her position on the immutable fact that boneless, skinless chicken breasts were tasteless, and furthermore they must be awful because the chefs she knows (who are many) hate cooking them.

I didn't jump in on the FWF, as my internet soapbox is here.  However, that exchange stuck with me.  After all, putting aside the childish nature of the online spat, I was left thinking: do boneless, skinless chicken breasts really suck?  For sure they're not what I usually purchase--anyone who reads here knows I love the wings and am generally a dark meat, bone in, skin on kind of guy.  But tasteless?  That's just not true.  Maybe the flavor is more subtle than a deli meat topped burger, but really breasts just require a bit more work to bring our their best is all.

Plus have you been to B Spot? The majority of the clientele the one time I was there were not models of health and nutrition. Nor did they appear to be gourmands, but that's harder to judge.  Perhaps a comparatively healthy non-fried boneless, skinless chicken breast would at least provide some of those folks with an option to not eat themselves sick.

Which gets to the second part of that argument, that chefs hate cooking the naked breasts, so they can't be good.  Chicken breasts are supposed to be boring--right, everyone says that, we need fat, skin, pork, butter, celebrity endorsement. . . the breasts are too pedestrian . . . Anthony Bourdain would never eat them . . . .  But they're not boring, and they don't have to be pedestrian, and you're not Anthony Bourdain.  It just takes work to get them where they ought to be flavor wise.  Sure, they can be dull and even tasteless (when inferior birds are used), but they can also be the perfect foil for other flavors and contribute in their own right. 

I think a big part of why professional folks hate cooking the breasts is because they take a fair amount of work to make taste good and any screw up (dryness, rawness, lack of quality bird, improper seasoning) is easily detectable.  There's no hiding with a boneless, skinless chicken breast.  It's analogous to why Sockeye salmon doesn't make the rounds on restaurant menus the same way Atlantic salmon does.  Sockeye gets screwed up easily and leaves little room for error.  With Atlantic you can throw the thing on a grill or in the oven, take a smoke break, and come back to piece of fish that will be passable.  Atlantic salmon is bulletproof.  Like chicken thighs.  Although I'd argue that much Atlantic salmon is flabby and gross to begin with while well raised chicken thighs are inherently wonderful, but I digress . . . .

What I'm trying to say is that I feel that all chicken parts equally wonderful in their own special way.

So enough about the protein.  What about the sauce?
Some straight from Oaxaca (by way of long rest in the freezer) mole amarillo.  Mixed with chicken stock that got extra chickeny after being used poach a few of the aforementioned chicken breasts.  The moles from Oaxaca are so ridiculously delicious and complex I don't even know where to being talking about them.  If you or someone you know is going down there, grabbing these powders is a must.  Especially with poultry, there is no better sauce.  (and here's what looks to be a nice local recipe if you're interested in doing it the hard way)  It tastes like Mexico.

Pictured below is more of the boneless skinless stuff, this time seasoned with cumin and served with salad (Urban Growth), baby beets (Por-Bar via Tremont Farmers Mkt), and carrots (Urban Growth via Heart of the City CSA). 
I don't know why some peeps always be hatin' on healthy food. This stuff tastes really good.  Really, those beets are redic.  And how many of those meat topped burgers does one really need?

I'm not saying the boneless chicken breast is the be all end all--in all fairness it's probably my least favorite cut from the bird--I'm just saying that folks could lay off it a bit.  If it comes from a good animal and is prepared right it can be as good as just about anything else out there.


Adam said...

Amen brother, amen. I'm a skinless chicken thigh guy myself, but chicken breasts to have their rightful place on my plate.

Anonymous said...

I'd be more inclined to play with chicken breast if it didn't cost 2X-3X as much as dark meat quarters or wings per pound. With it costing so much more, and having a bigger chance of coming out mediocre or badly I ignore it just as much as I ignore the 93% lean ground beef.

The CFT said...

Thanks Adam.

Hard to argue with the value of wings. They've been going for around $1 per lb at the farmers mks around here. About screwing breasts up, there's way too much food I've never eat if I thought like that. Most experiments are at least edible--just add cheese, cream, etc.