Wednesday, July 30, 2008
PANCETTA-WRAPPED CHICKEN BREASTS WITH LEEKS AND THYME
I’ve long admired Jamie Oliver from a cuteness standpoint, but this is the first of his recipes I’ve actually made. I must say, I’m impressed, even though I’ve tried this twice and not yet managed to execute it perfectly. Don’t worry—the fault is not with the recipe, which is of the simple mix-things-together-and-throw-in-dish-then-bake variety—but with my supply chain. Namely, the pancetta. I think of it as a fairly common ingredient, but neither my beloved Trader Joe’s nor my usual big corporate grocery store carry it sliced, only cubed. So the first time I attempted this recipe, I went to a new Italian market near my house (which I’d been looking for an excuse to visit, but it turned out to be lamer than I’d imagined—mostly an overpriced sandwich shop with a half-assed selection of imported groceries), walked up to the meat counter, asked for a half-pound of pancetta, and watched as the guy cut it off the big marbled chunk in the glass case and wrapped it in paper for me. But I guess I wasn’t really paying attention, because it wasn’t until I got home that I realized the pancetta wasn’t sliced. (Not really the Italian market’s fault, but I still don’t think I’ll be going back there again.) I had to slice it myself, which resulted in thick, rather stubby strips I sort of had to lay awkwardly across the top of the chicken breasts instead of wrapping them around. It worked OK, but it wasn’t the thin, crisp, elegant layer of meat I’d imagined.
I wondered if one might substitute good-quality bacon, and so I tried that the second time I made this recipe (documented in the photo shown above). Bacon did indeed work much better for wrapping, but surprisingly, I didn’t notice the same depth of flavor in the finished dish. Also, the bacon released a lot more fat than the pancetta, so that my leeks were basically swimming in grease by the end of the cooking time and had to be lifted out with a slotted spoon.
Obviously the answer is to embark on a thorough search for proper sliced pancetta (I’m hoping Whole Foods might be the solution to this conundrum) and try this a third time, but I wanted to share the recipe with you now because regardless of all my ingredient problems, I can still tell that it’s a great recipe. This is the kind of dish that takes barely any effort to make and yet produces food delicious and sophisticated enough to serve at a dinner party and spend all night basking in the compliments. The pancetta and thyme do much to spruce up boring chicken breasts, but it’s the leeks that are the superstars here, cooked until they’re meltingly tender and sweet, with winey and porky undertones. Served with a refreshing green salad, it’s an easy yet impressive meal—quick enough for a weeknight, yet worthy of a special occasion.
The original recipe served just one person and was written in Jamie’s casual, almost careless style—few precise measurements, just a knob of this and a pour of that. So everything is pretty much to taste, but in increasing it to serve four, I’ve tried to quantify things as best I can. The one thing that befuddled me about the original was that it called for 6 or 7 pancetta slices for just a single chicken breast (and you’ll notice that in the accompanying photo, that chicken is pretty well blanketed). This seemed excessive, especially when multiplied by four, unless those slices are super-short or something? With the bacon, I found that two slices wrapped around each breast covered it adequately, and for my own serving (shown above) I only used one—both for health reasons and because I like the spirally look of the single slice with peeks of chicken showing through. So I’m leaving the pancetta quantity totally to your whim, along with the oil (you don’t need much) and the wine. Experiment—I think no matter what, you’ll be impressed with the result.
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (if the breasts are large, as they all seem to be nowadays, I like to use just 2 and slice them in half to make 4)
4 large leeks
about 12 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tablespoon butter, cut into pieces
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
enough sliced pancetta (or good-quality bacon) to wrap around the chicken breasts
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Place chicken breasts in a bowl. Wash and trim the leeks, remove outer leaves, and cut white and light green parts into ¼-inch-thick slices. Add leeks to the bowl along with leaves from about 6 thyme sprigs, a splash of olive oil, the butter, salt and pepper, and a swig of white wine. Toss everything together.
3. Remove the chicken breasts from the bowl. Pour the leek mixture into a baking dish just large enough to hold the chicken snugly (an 8- or 9-inch square glass dish works well). Wrap each chicken breast in a single layer of pancetta and place in the dish. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and scatter remaining thyme sprigs atop and around the chicken.
4. Bake in the center of the oven for 25 to 35 minutes.
Time: 45 minutes