A Velvet Touch With Chicken

 , The New York Times  |  Updated: October 31, 2014 16:55 IST

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A Velvet Touch With Chicken
Cooking chicken breasts can be tricky, especially the "skinless boneless" kind. No matter if they are pan-fried or grilled, they are apt to be dry and unappealing if left to cook even a minute too long.

Yet most supermarkets and butcher shops stock these naked breasts in great quantity. Fear of fat may be the reason. Never mind that we all need a little fat in our diet or that fat is where the flavor is.

A chicken breast, the leanest part of the bird, needs protection from the fire that cooks it, and that's what chicken skin provides. I say remove the skin afterward. I would also say that a bone-in breast is less likely to be dry.

Nonetheless, a moist, tender skinless-boneless chicken breast is absolutely possible if you borrow a Chinese technique called velveting. Your chicken breast will also be low-fat and low-carb. Make a quick marinade by whisking together egg whites and cornstarch, and let the chicken bathe in it. Instead of a dry and cottony texture, you will get one that is, well, velvety.
Chinese cooks do it all the time with chicken, pork and fish, but usually it is cut into strips or small cubes. The meat is lightly fried in oil for just a minute or so, and, as if by magic, the moisture is sealed in even if the meat is subsequently simmered in a sauce.

I decided to try the method for a Western-style dish, using small chicken breasts, fairly certain that the result would be felicitous.

I trimmed the breasts to make sure they were the same size, shape and thickness so they would cook evenly. After seasoning with salt and pepper, I coated them with the cornstarch mixture and let them rest in the fridge a while. The next step was to saute them very lightly, without browning, over medium heat for 30 seconds a side. Finally, they were simmered ever so gently in a chicken broth mixture enlivened with Dijon mustard and horseradish, but only for three minutes. I then removed the breasts to a serving platter and reduced the cooking liquid over a high flame to quickly make a pleasantly assertive mustard sauce.I waited for my guests' reaction to my skinless-boneless offering. The consensus? Like velvet, they said.

Velvet Chicken Breast With Mustard Sauce
Time: 1 hour
Yield: 4 servings

4 small skinless-boneless chicken breasts, about 6 ounces each
Salt and pepper
2 egg whites (about 4 tablespoons)
4 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons whole-grain Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon dried mustard
1 tablespoon grated horseradish
1/2 cup creme fraiche
1 cup chicken broth
3 tablespoons melted butter or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon roughly chopped thyme leaves
2 tablespoons snipped chives

1. Trim chicken breasts to a uniform size and shape and season generously on both sides with salt and pepper.

2. Velvet the chicken: In a medium-size mixing bowl, whisk egg whites until frothy, then whisk in cornstarch until lump-free. Add chicken breasts and coat well with cornstarch mixture, then cover and marinate for 30 minutes. (Chicken may also be marinated several hours ahead and refrigerated.)

3. Meanwhile, in a small mixing bowl, stir together Dijon mustard, whole-grain mustard, dried mustard, horseradish and crème fraîche. Set aside.

4. Put butter or oil in a skillet over medium heat. Lay chicken breasts in the pan and sauté very lightly for 30 seconds a side without browning. Remove breasts and blot on paper towels. Discard remaining oil and wipe pan.

5. Return skillet to stove and add mustard and crème fraîche mixture and chicken broth. Whisk together to make a thin sauce and bring to a gentle simmer. Add breasts and simmer for 1 minute, then turn breasts over, cover pan and simmer for 2 minutes. Turn off heat and leave covered for 1 minute more.

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6. Transfer breasts to a warm platter. Bring sauce to a boil, add chopped thyme and reduce until slightly thickened. Spoon sauce over breasts, sprinkle with chives and serve.

© 2014 New York Times News Service

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