I know it’s the most popular cut of chicken in America, but I have never been a huge fan of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. When I was a kid, I was a drumstick girl all the way. In my adulthood, I have come to love chicken thighs for their deep, juicy flavor and versatility. White meat wasn’t bad, but neither was it terribly inspiring to me. Sure, it’s quick-cooking and low in fat, but I found that as often as not, eating chicken breast meant chewing through something dry and bland.
Enter my new favorite technique. Not only is en papillote fun and Frenchy to roll off the tongue, but it couldn’t be any easier to put together a neat little packet of aluminum foil, throw it in the oven, and have a nifty little culinary present to unwrap less than half an hour later.
My first attempt was based off a recipe in The Joy of Cooking, descriptively titled “Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts Baked in Foil with Sun-dried Tomatoes and Olives” (which about says it all, but lacks a certain pizazz). My first departure was chopping the whole thing in half, as I saw little point in making four servings for two people; we have not yet reached a level of feline exaltation that would prompt me to fix elaborate people food for them, much to their disappointment.
- Preheat your oven to 450℉ and make sure a rack is in the middle.
- Take about a foot square of aluminum foil, fold and unfold to mark the middle with a crease, and spray it with your favorite non-stick spray. Place your squares on a rimmed baking sheet.
- Plop a chicken breast on one half of each square and season to taste with salt and fresh ground black pepper.
- Now for the fun part: making your topping. I very nearly followed the recipe in the book, only halving all amounts and using dried Italian herbs in place of fresh, but you can pretty much do what you want with this technique. This version wound up containing:
- 5 Kalamata olives, pitted (important step, this) and chopped up fairly fine
- 4 sun-dried tomato halves in oil, sliced into wee strips
- 1.5 Tbsp of the oil from the sun-dried tomato jar, as this stuff is infused with yummy tomato flavor. Just make sure after you appropriate some, you have enough left in the jar to cover the remaining tomato halves. If not, replace with your own olive oil, because leaving those babies poking up out of the oil will lead to sadness when you have to pitch the rest of the jar into the trash because it grew a science experiment.
- A health half palmful of dried “Italian Seasoning” (make sure it doesn’t contain salt because you’ll throw off the balance.
- Top each chicken breast with half of your flavorful olive/tomato/what-have-you mixture, leaving a small border around the edge.
- Fold the foil over your chicken loosely (don’t want to mush down the topping) and crimp the edges to seal everything in.
- Slide the baking sheet containing those little packages of love into your oven, and spend the next twenty minutes contemplating how good your dinner will taste.
- When the timer buzzes, pull out the sheet and practice patience for five more minutes while you wait to unwrap your chickeny present. Do this part carefully unless you are dying to know exactly what a severe steam burn feels like.
I didn’t know what to expect when I took my first bite, but I knew I had never tasted a chicken breast like this before. Rather than disappointingly dry and flavorless, this was moist and tangy and damn near perfect. The next time we went to the commissary, we stocked up on chicken breasts to keep in the freezer, because variations on this technique are going to be in our mealtime rotation from now on.
I think en papillote cooking is worth trying for anyone, but there are a few reasons I think this is an ideal military family meal.
- It’s quick-cooking. With schedules both busy and subject to change by the minute, this is an important quality if you don’t want the need for a must-eat-now meal to result in take-out every time.
- It’s easy to scale down for a solo meal or up for a big squadron get-together. Scalability is especially valuable to me when I’m cooking just for myself, as I’m not a huge leftovers fan. (My husband, on the other hand, will happily attack leftovers for days. I get bored quickly unless I can transform ’em into a new dish.)
- On the subject of culinary boredom when one’s spouse isn’t around to take care of leftovers, I can switch up the topping every time. I’m thinking of going even simpler next time and experimenting with Trader Joe’s pineapple salsa.
- I can prepare the packets ahead and have them ready to slide into the oven whenever it’s convenient on days we know my husband will be home for dinner, just not exactly when.
- Did I mention the moist, juicy deliciousness? (Okay, that’s not MilSpouse-specific, but it’s still a bonus.)
Let me know if you try it out. I’d particularly love to hear about successful topping variations.