Chicken breasts don’t have to be boring

By Bill Colvard -
Chicken with mushrooms and cream cheese sauce is the feed a crowd version of “Engagement Chicken,” a dinner for two which often results in matrimony, according to legend. - Bill Colvard | The News
Chicken with mushrooms and cream cheese sauce starts off with mushrooms being browned in fresh herbs. - Bill Colvard | The News

Boneless chicken breasts have a lot going for them. They’re a lean protein, low in most of the stuff doctors warn against, and lately, they’ve gotten quite inexpensive. While several years ago they could set you back as much as four or five dollars a pound unless you found them on sale, you can take them home nowadays for $1.99 a pound almost any day of the week.

And perhaps that familiarity has bred some contempt. Whether boneless breast is grilled, blackened or fried, there are only so many times a week you want one on top of a salad, or thrown willy-nilly into some pasta or over some rice. Those are great things to do, but by this point, some thought needs to go into preparation to stave off boredom.

Dryness, also, can be an issue. It seems like the window between pink and deadly and dry and rubbery is only milliseconds of cooking time. And to be frank, it is a very small window. But experience helps. Err on the side of underdone. You can always throw it back on the fire if you miscalculate. And if you overcook the chicken and it’s dry, well, that’s what the sauce is for. Why else do you think they throw armloads of ranch out through the drive-through window with your chicken tenders? You’re not the only one who finds it challenging to find the sweet spot.

But tart it up just right, and boneless chicken breast is good enough for a company dinner. The recipe that follows for chicken with mushrooms and cream cheese sauce is expanded from a recipe for two that’s often called “engagement chicken.” The story goes that the meal is so good that if one prepares it during the course of courtship, an engagement will result by the end of dinner. Or soon thereafter.

It’s hard to say if this has actually happened or is a bit of culinary legend, but if so, the one impressed enough to propose based on this dinner has been subjected to a bit of false advertising. The cream cheese sauce, though delicious, is a sleight of hand shortcut for a cook who doesn’t feel their cream sauce is up to snuff.

The baked chicken stuffed with pesto and cheese is one of those ‘good for you’ recipes that is actually just plain good. It’s baked because, well, healthier than frying and the breading is made from almonds and Parmesan instead of flour or bread crumbs for less carbs. Possibly even gluten-free. But instead of seeming like boring, healthy food, it’s luxurious with almonds and cheese and pesto. And it’s stuffed. Which always seems like a party. That’s a secret every nonna knows.

Chicken with mushrooms and cream cheese sauce

1 lb. dried angel hair pasta

4 tbsp. unsalted butter

10 sprigs fresh rosemary or thyme

1/2 lb. sliced mushrooms

black pepper


4 boneless chicken breasts

4 tsp. olive oil

1 -1/2 cup dry white wine

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 cup half-and-half or cream

In a large not non-stick skillet, melt the butter and fresh herbs over medium heat. Add the sliced mushrooms to the skillet, and stir to coat in butter. Leave them to cook for a few minutes undisturbed so that a nice crust forms. Stir, and repeat until the mushrooms are golden brown. It will take about 15 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the mushrooms from the pan, leaving the butter and herbs in the pan. Add the oil to the pan. Salt and pepper both sides of the chicken breasts. Turn the heat up to medium-high, and sear the chicken breasts on both sides in the same pan that the mushrooms were in. Again, let cook undisturbed so that a nice crust forms. If the chicken is sticking to the pan, it’s because the first side isn’t done searing. It will release when it’s golden brown. While the chicken is cooking, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the spaghetti noodles. Remove the chicken from the pan, and cover to keep warm. Turn the heat down to low and add all of the wine. Allow the wine to cook down slightly while scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to get all of the brown bits into the wine. Add the cream or half-and-half and heat til boiling. Dice the cream cheese and place in a large bowl. Discard the herb sprigs from the pan, and then pour the hot sauce over the cream cheese, and stir until it melts. There might be a few small pieces, but the hot pasta will dissolve them. When the pasta is done, drain it, and immediately pour it over the wine-cream cheese mixture. Toss the noodles to melt and evenly distribute the cream cheese sauce. Stir the mushrooms into the pasta bowl. Slice the chicken, and serve on top.

*This pasta is best served immediately after making it. The cream cheese will set up if allowed to set. Not that you can’t re-heat it, but it will be thickk. Plan accordingly. If pasta is too dry for you, a cup or so of reserved pasta water will loosen it up. Or you can heat equal parts white wine and cream in the hot chicken skillet and pour over pasta to sauce it up a little more.

Baked Chicken Stuffed with Pesto and Cheese

2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 tbsp. basil pesto

2 tbsp. sour cream

2 tbsp. grated mozzarella cheese

(You don’t need to measure too carefully. Heaping tablespoons of pesto, sour cream and cheese will do fine.)

2 eggs, beaten

3 tbsp. finely grated Parmesan cheese

3 tbsp. almond flour (or almond meal, or just grind up some almonds in the food processor)

black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375F. Spray a small casserole dish with non-stick spray. Trim any visible fat from chicken breasts, then put them one at a time inside a heavy plastic bag and pound with meat mallet until the chicken is as thin as you can get it. Don’t worry too much about the shape or whether there are some loose pieces, you can tuck them in when you roll up the chicken. In a small bowl mix together the basil pesto, sour cream, and grated mozzarella. Use a rubber scraper to spread a thin layer of this mixture over each chicken breast, stopping about 1/2 inch from the edge of the chicken (so it doesn’t run out so much as it cooks.) Roll up the chicken breasts and secure them with a couple of toothpicks. Roll them so the finished piece is as thin as you can get it so they will cook quickly.)

Prepare two bowls, one with the beaten egg and the other with the grated Parmesan-almond flour mixture, seasoned with black pepper to taste. Dip each chicken breast roll first into the egg mixture and then into the Parmesan-almond flour mixture, patting it on so the chicken breast roll is well-coated with the mixture. Put chicken breasts into the casserole dish and bake until the chicken is firm and lightly browned. (Start checking after about 25-30 minutes; total baking time will be 30-35 minutes.) Serve hot.

Chicken Cutlets with Charred Peppers

2 tbsp. unsalted butter

2 large white onions, very thinly sliced

1 cup heavy cream

Kosher salt

4 large eggs, beaten to blend

2 cups plain dry breadcrumbs

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (about 8 ounces each)

2 tbsp. vegetable oil, plus more for frying (about 3 cups)

12 ounces small peppers (such as Padrón and/or shishito)

1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Heat butter in a small saucepan over medium. Cook onions, stirring often, until onions are very soft but haven’t taken on any color, 14–18 minutes. Add cream and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced by half, 6–8 minutes. Let cool slightly, then transfer to a blender and purée until smooth. Season onion purée with salt. Keep warm. Place eggs, breadcrumbs, and flour in 3 separate shallow bowls. Line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels and set a wire rack inside. Place 1 chicken breast on a cutting board. Holding knife blade parallel to board, cut breast in half, slicing along a long side, to make 2 pieces. Place inside a large resealable plastic bag, seal, and gently pound to about ½” thick. (You aren’t flattening cutlets very much; you just want to make sure they are uniform in shape). Repeat with remaining chicken breast. Working with 1 cutlet at a time, season with salt on both sides, then dredge in flour, shaking off excess. Dip in eggs, letting excess drip back into bowl, then coat in breadcrumbs, pressing to adhere before shaking off excess. Place on a rimmed baking sheet. Heat 2 Tbsp. oil in a large heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high. Cook peppers, shaking pan occasionally, until lightly blistered and charred all over, about 5 minutes. Transfer peppers to a medium bowl and toss with lemon juice; season with salt.

Wipe out skillet and pour in oil to come 1” up sides. Heat oil over medium-high until an instant-read thermometer registers 350°–365° (don’t let the tip of the thermometer touch the bottom of the skillet). Carefully lower 1 cutlet along the side of skillet closest to you and let slide away from you into the oil. Use tongs to submerge it and cook just until golden brown underneath, about 2 minutes. Carefully turn cutlet and cook, spooning hot oil over any areas that may be poking out of oil, until golden brown on the other side, about 2 minutes. Transfer to wire rack in prepared baking sheet. Season lightly with salt while still hot. Repeat with remaining cutlets. Divide cutlets and warm onion purée among plates and top with charred peppers.

Chicken with mushrooms and cream cheese sauce is the feed a crowd version of “Engagement Chicken,” a dinner for two which often results in matrimony, according to legend. with mushrooms and cream cheese sauce is the feed a crowd version of “Engagement Chicken,” a dinner for two which often results in matrimony, according to legend. Bill Colvard | The News

Chicken with mushrooms and cream cheese sauce starts off with mushrooms being browned in fresh herbs. with mushrooms and cream cheese sauce starts off with mushrooms being browned in fresh herbs. Bill Colvard | The News

By Bill Colvard

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.