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SC writes: “I’d like to switch over to eating chicken breast instead of just wings, with the occasional leg or thigh, but every time I make white meat it tastes like ‘nothing’ and gets very dry. No matter how I prepare it. Please help.”

There is a follow up part to the question as I have been very slow in answering, in which she reveals that she has already tried brining but that the sugar and salt involved in brining seem counterintuitive to the whole trying to eat healthier reason for the dark to light meat switch.

Tooling around on this here Intarweb, I have discovered that brining chicken and, more so even, turkeys (I have not a vessel or a refrigerator big enough to even entertain this one) is very popular among cooks who like to brag, I mean, talk about it in their blogs. One fact that someone mentioned that I was unaware of is that the brine needs to be cool so the poultry doesn’t absorb too much salt. I thought it was so you didn’t set up a perfect incubator for salmonella. I guess that makes two reasons to get the brine cold before you toss in the chicky. Bork, bork, bork.

So, what we need here is a way to cook chicken breasts without brining them that doesn’t reduce them to dried out husks of things that formerly resembled chicken breasts. I do have a few thoughts on this. And as cooking chicken breasts all damn day was the focus of Culinary II and every production exam therein, I’ve had opportunity to put some of this crazy thought to the test.

The most crucial element with any of these methods is that the chicken not be over cooked. Over cooking can turn even a brined boob into pasteboard. Chicken, to kill off any trace of the salmonella bug, needs to be cooked to 165°F. Yes, your handy, dandy insta-read cheat sheet on the thermometer says 185°F for chicken and pork. These people are primarily covering their asses. To hit that magic 165°F you need to get the chicken to come to 155-160°F and let the magic of carry over cooking take it to the final target. That way you aren’t cooking the chicken to 165°F and carry over is taking it on to 170 or 175°F, making it in the immortal words of my father, dryer than a popcorn fart.

You do not have to add sugar to a brine. You can stick with salt and amp it up with herbs that match the recipe in which the chicken will be used. You can also add dried fruit to a brine for the hit of sugar without the refined white stuff. You can also skip the brine all together and marinate the bad boys, um, girls. Granted, a marinade is usually going to contain some fat, but if you use olive or canola oil it will be the good kinds of fat with good cholesterol boosting omegas.

Another technique that is going to help with not over cooking is evening out the playing field. Chicken breasts have a thick, rounded end and a thin, pointy end. By the time the thick, rounded end has hit the 155-160°F target the thin, pointy end will be upwards of 185°F and every bit of moisture will be lost to the surrounding ethers. One way to even things out is to pound the breast nearly flat and about 1/2″ thick with a meat pounder or the flat of a heavy sauté or a straight rolling pin (the dowel kind not the handled kind). This creates, in fancy cooking terms, a paillard, which in non-fancy cooking terms is a flattened piece of protein from some sort of animal. Paillards cook quickly and evenly and because they are thin, they absorb brines or marinades quickly and almost all the way through.

Another method that skips brining or marinating and pounding things flat would be to poach the breasts. I know. Poached chicken breast smacks of Junior League “Ladies Who Luncheon” but they can be saved from the realm of pineapple rings and cold ham. The trick is getting as much tasty aromatics as possible into the water. My personal favorite is lemon grass, ginger, lime slices and fish sauce. Poaching happens at about 180°F. At this temperature, you just want to see the occasional bubble, not a swiftly moving surface as with a boil or continuous bubbles as with a simmer. Still watch the breasts for that magic temperature of 155-160°F. It is still entirely possible to over cook and dry out a piece of chicken in water. Crazy but true. Since, I am assuming there will be no hosting of the Mrs. John Whoziwotsits and Mrs. George Wotzizfaces, you can skip the next abomination that usually occurs after chicken breasts are poached involving aspic or mayonnaise swathing. They will be pale, but up against some sautéed dark leafies or some roasted red peppers, pale is nice. If you go more continental with the flavorings in the water, you can sprinkle some smoked Spanish paprika over them for some cool retro kitsch with a contemporary kick. Oh, also if you poach the chicken on the bone, you will be making a light brothy type stock at the same time. The Asian inspired one makes a great base for miso soup.

My last method for keeping the moisture in those twisted protein fibers would be to set up a standard breading station with health consciousness as the main cue. Imagine this scene: On a plate are chicken paillards, dried with paper toweling. In the first shallow bowl is seasoned flour (AP flour, salt and pepper, and whatever dried herbs and spices go with the final destination recipe of the dearly departed fowl). In the second bowl is one egg well whisked with a tablespoon of water. In the third bowl are crunchy bits of choice, mine is usually panko (Japanese bread crumbs) or home made bread crumbs made by drying out bread in the oven and pulverizing it in the food processor. To the crunchy bits you can add more of the spices or dried herbs, but skip the salt and pepper. Finally on a baking tray that will go into a 375°F oven, there is a piece of parchment paper spritzed with canola oil. Dredge, shake off excess flour, swim in egg, drip off excess egg, coat in crunchy bits, set on a rack to air dry about 15 minutes. After the egg glue has dried and your coating isn’t going anywhere, arrange the paillards on said parchment layered, oil-spritzed tray and then spritz the tops with olive or canola oil and bake for ten to 15 minutes or until golden brown and delicious. Not the least caloric method but tasty and a fine alternative to going completely Southern-fried.

Chicken breasts seem to be the bane of the modern cook. We know they are good for us. They are the most easily purchased, though not the least expensive, cut of poultry to buy. Yet, yet… they are done to death as the light option at restaurants or smothered in cheese and canned mushroom sauce as the not-light option. They are stringy and dry more often than not and eating them seems to have become a chore we all endure in the name of not getting any fatter or in the hopes of getting thinner. Joylessness should not be part of our cuisine. Try the above and see if it helps. If not, the occasional well-trimmed, skinless chicken thigh won’t hurt.

Thanks for all the response. All the cookbooks are gone. Mwah.

The eBay auction ended with our lots unsold. If you are interested in receiving a surprise package of cooking and home keeping booklets and pamphlets for free, email me at victoria [at] foodieporn [dot] com, replacing the brackets with their appropriate symbols, of course. First come, first serve until I run out. I’d prefer they go to a good home. I just don’t have even a tiny nook to store all this stuff and as Mom of the Endless Storage is giving me a set of china, I need to find room for that as well.

In other news, I have new client whom I met with last night to make a Moroccan meal. She is a lovely nine-year-old. We cooked together with her mother in their gorgeous kitchen out in the non-burb outskirts of Nashville. They have racoons and skunks that dine regularly on leftovers placed on a stone wall. It was fascinating to watch them dig into the bowls of foodstuffs completely unbothered by five of us standing there watching them within ten feet or so.

We have our own critters even if we are much closer to the city center. Mostly rabbits and squirrels, but chipmunks, opossums, racoons, snakes and woodchucks, too. I love being so close to downtown but I also love that we are in an older trolley-burb neighborhood that has mature trees and resident wildlife. If we just had a little more sun I could grow herbs or tomatoes but we are in a deep enough dip in the world that the trees block most of the direct sun. I can walk out of the house to the car and not need my sunglasses until I get to the end of our street, even on the brightest days.

JC and I are plotting for more partying later in the month or early August. Kind of Caribbean/Keys food and drinks. There will of course be pictures and recipes.

This is actually an indirect “Ask Foodieporn” as no one has said, “Hey V, you mention this fabulous recipe in your post about cooking ephemera and then nothing” so much as several people have come to the site looking for that recipe via Yahoo! or Google searches. In an effort to give where I was neglectful:

Carrot-Pineapple Cake from “Unusual and Old World Recipes” by Nordic Ware

3 cups sifted [unbleached]* all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar [or evaporated cane juice]
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 8-ounce can crushed pineapple [in juice]
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups cooking [I used super canola] oil
2 teaspoons [Bourbon] vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups chopped nuts [pecans or walnuts]
2 cups raw carrots, grated and loosely packed [use large whole carrots, not “baby carrots” in a bag]

Preheat oven to 325°F.

Butter and lightly flour a traditionally shaped 12-cup Bundt® pan making certain to knock out all excess flour.

Sift together all dry ingredients. Drain pineapple, reserving juice. Add the reserved pineapple juice to dry ingredients, then eggs, oil, and vanilla; beat three minutes. Stir in pineapple, nuts, and carrots. Pour into prepared pan and bake for about one and half hours or until a wooden skewer tests clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10-15 minutes; turn out onto wire rack. After topping with glaze transfer to serving plate or cake stand.

The original recipe calls for lemon glaze but I prefer an orange glaze with the carrots and pineapple. ORANGE GLAZE: Combine 3/4 cup sifted confectioner’s (icing) sugar, 1/4 cup finely chopped nuts (same as used in cake) and one tablespoon of orange juice. While cake is still slightly warm drizzle over the glaze and allow to cool completely.

*I have tweaked the original recipe a bit and rewritten the directions, so I wanted to present the cake I made rather than the original without my notes. One of the main differences was that the original called for adding more grated carrot to the glaze instead of the nuts that I added. I just wasn’t keen on the idea of raw carrots on top of the cake and the pecans or walnuts look nicer and add a bit of crunch. Additionally, adding a teaspoon of cardamom to the batter with the cinnamon makes for a little mystery as most people can’t guess what it is but will love it.

A good cook can get by with a sharp knife, a sauté pan, a cutting board and a fork. There are things that definitely make it easier and there are certain things that cannot be produced without the right equipment. In the kitchen as in the workshop: the right tool for the right job.

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Crepes for Wizardress

victoria —  April 19, 2005 — Leave a comment

use the recipe out of my workhorse edition of The Joy of Cooking. It’s the one for basic sweet crepes, though I make a few adjustments occasionally.

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I heard about a pre-1984 Better Homes recipe for a refrigerator bread that you could make, say on Sunday, and leave in the fridge.

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The bane of the Western style of eating is the idea of meat on a plate surrounded by a starch and one or two vegetables. There are some ways around this that get us out of the “meat and three” (as we call it in the South) rut.

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Woodruff addendum

victoria —  September 20, 2004 — Leave a comment

This morning I received an email from the Divine Ms. M, my go-to person for all things gardening and herbal

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The boychick’s pizza making went well, though he acted more as executive chef than line cook. He read through the recipe and measured things while I grated cheese and all that good stuff. It turned into a lesson on dough making and why things work the way they do.

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Ask foodieporn: deviled

victoria —  April 23, 2004 — Leave a comment

what does ‘devilled’ mean in a foodie type context?

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