I thought I might do something different and add a bit of variety (and spice :)) to An American Editor by adding the occasional cooking and baking column. After all, even editors need to eat and deserve to eat well.
I like to cook and bake. At one time in my youth I thought of going to culinary school, but that meant I would have to become a night person. I was dissuaded after I experienced working the midnight (third) shift as a short-order (diner) cook during college. I quickly learned that I really am an early morning person, not a night person.
I never lost my interest in cooking and baking, and for years Carolyn and I argued over who was going to do the dinner cooking or the cooking for guests. Now, instead of arguing, we share the cooking based on our personal interests. We still occasionally argue over who is going to bake dessert, but for the most part we have settled into a division of labor based on the type of dessert.
Recently we had guests for dinner and the question was what to make as the main dish. It had to be something that would appeal to everyone, which meant that it couldn’t be pork or beef or fish, leaving chicken, if we wanted a meat dish as the main course.
We settled on chicken, which led to the next question: How would we prepare it? Meat dishes are my job (Carolyn is more interested in vegetable dishes) and so I thought about it and decided to make chicken with cheese and olives. It is a quick-and-easy recipe that is easily modifiable depending on your preferences. The following recipe will serve at least four adults (the number of servings depends on the amount of chicken and whether you want seconds available; I like to always have seconds available, so a recipe that is designed for more than four becomes a recipe for four) and takes about 45 minutes total (that’s preparation and cooking).
Note that the recipe has two parts. The first part is the basic recipe; the second part gives some suggestions for variations.
Chicken with Cream Cheese & Olives
I. Basic Recipe
- 1 teaspoon flavorful extra-virgin olive oil (or butter; do not use margarine)
- 1 2.25-ounce can of sliced black olives, roughly chopped
- 1 8-ounce package of cream cheese, softened (leave at room temperature for a couple of hours)
- 1 cup of finely chopped parsley (including leaves and stems) (NOTE: If you are a parsley lover like me, you can add more parsley to the recipe. I often like to have some extra chopped parsley that I can sprinkle over the finished chicken just before serving. Sometimes I put a small bowl of chopped parsley on the table so guests can add more if they want.)
- 6 to 8 skinless and boneless chicken breast halves
- 1 cup sugar (light brown sugar is preferred)
- ½ cup Dijon or other dark, strong mustard
- 1 to 2 cups (start with 1 but you may need to have more available) of roughly chopped nuts (walnuts, pistachios, or cashews, or some mix of these; pistachios are particularly nice)
- Preheat the oven to 450° F (230°C).
- Prepare an oven pan for the chicken. I use a baking sheet with low sides on which I put no-stick aluminum foil (no-stick side up). You can do that or use a regular baking dish. I find using the no-stick aluminum foil greatly eases cleanup.
- Finely chop the parsley, including stems. Much of the flavor that parsley has can be found in the stems, so no need to waste them.
- Chop the olive slices roughly.
- Chop the nuts roughly and put in a bowl large enough that the chicken can be rolled in them.
- In a separate bowl (one large enough to dip the chicken in), mix the sugar and mustard. Mix until smooth.
- Pound the chicken breasts until they are “flat” and approximately ¼-inch thick. I put the breast in plastic wrap when pounding; some people prefer putting the breast between pieces of wax paper. I find that wax paper shreds too easily, so I prefer the plastic wrap. I often find that the pounded breasts are too large, so I cut them in half after the pounding.
- In a skillet on medium-low heat add the olive oil (or butter). When heated, add the olives and parsley and mix/stir constantly for about a minute.
- Reduce the heat to Low and add the cream cheese. Stir constantly until melted and well mixed with the parsley and olives.
- Remove from heat when well-mixed and melted.
- Take 1 pounded chicken breast and lay it flat. On half of the breast spread the cream cheese-parsley-olive mixture. Then roll up the breast. (I sometimes find that I can’t really roll it up, so folding it works, too. Just fold the half without the mix over the half with the mix.) Take the rolled/folded breast and dip it into the sugar-mustard mix so the breast is covered. CAUTION: If the cream cheese mix is leaking out, do not dip the breast in the sugar-mustard mix; instead, spoon the sugar-mustard mix over the breast and spread it with your fingers or a spatula to make sure the whole breast is covered. Then roll the breast in the nut mix.
- Repeat step 11 for all of the breasts.
- With the breasts in the pan, I find I usually have leftover sugar-mustard mix. I usually take a spoon and drizzle some of the sugar-mustard mix over the breasts in the pan. Not too much, just a little.
- Bake the chicken breasts for 15 to 20 minutes. The time depends on how thick the breasts are. Just be sure that the chicken is cooked — no pink juices flowing.
- Serve fresh from the oven.
One of the things I like about this recipe is that it is easy to modify and create a different taste. What follow are some options.
- Add a layer of Swiss cheese to the half of the chicken breast on which you will put the cream cheese-parsley-olive mixture in Step 11. The addition of the Swiss cheese makes for an interesting flavor combination.
- Add some turkey bacon. This would be Step 5a. Cook some turkey bacon (1 strip of bacon per chicken breast) in a separate fry pan on medium heat. Do not let it get overcooked/overcrispy in the pan. When cooked, place on paper towel to absorb the excess fat and to crisp. When all the bacon is cooked and “dried,” roughly chop the slices so that you have crumbles. Set it aside until Step 8. Add half the bacon to the olives and parsley in Step 8 and blend the parsley-olive-bacon mix with the cream cheese in Step 9. The rest of the bacon should be put in a small bowl and placed on the table so people who want more bacon flavor can add additional bacon. Whatever bacon is left over can be used with other meals or frozen for future use.
- Like spicy foods? There are a couple of options. (a) Add ½ teaspoon of Tabasco or other hot sauce to the parsley-olive mix in Step 8. If not spicy enough, add more Tabasco to taste. Or (b) add 1 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes to the parsley-olive mix in Step 8. If not spicy enough, add more red pepper to taste. Or (c) add some hot pepper, like jalapeño, to the parsley-olive mix in Step 8. Use 1 small jalapeño pepper finely chopped.
- Use different olives than the black olives. Avoid very salty olives.
- Use several types of olives.
- Add 1 teaspoon of dried mint (be sure to crush the mint to get the most flavor) and 1 teaspoon of dried dill weed to the parsley-olive mix in Step 8.
- Add 1 tablespoon of Chambord liqueur to Step 9. The Chambord adds a nice raspberry touch.
- Add a small amount of a flavorful cheese, such as blue cheese or French feta (Greek feta is too salty), to the mix in Step 9. You want to add just enough to give a hint of the other cheese flavor, not to replace the cream cheese.
- Combine two or more of the above variations.
Leftover chicken reheats well in the microwave. As is true of most recipes, the dish is best when first made, but a dish that is still enjoyable, like this one, when reheated is a treasure.
I hope you enjoy the recipe. It is easy to make, so give it a try.
Richard Adin, An American Editor