Summer Cooking Shortcuts

June 30, 2011

by Margaret Cabaniss

I have to say, I’m loving all the summer food posts this week. (I am definitely planning a ceviche and basil lemonade picnic in the near future.) This has got to be the best time of year for eating — when fresh produce is exploding everywhere and we have hours of sunlight in which to enjoy it…

Of course, all this outdoor frolicking poses some challenges for me: When it doesn’t get dark until close to 9, I tend to forget about dinner until somewhere around 8:30 — by which point it’s a little too late to start planning a proper meal. I may have a crisper drawer full of fresh salad greens, but all my meat is still frozen… and if it is remotely hot outside, turning on the stove is the very last thing I want to do anyway. But I can’t just chuck it all and eat sandwiches every night.

And so, knowing my own slacker cooking habits, I’m trying to give myself a jump on last-minute summer weeknight meals by cooking up some meat in advance to use in a few different dishes throughout the week.

Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, I know — but I recently learned a cooking technique for chicken breasts that slashes hands-on time and, if anything, actually increases flavor, giving me juicy, tender chicken that I can use throughout the week, whenever the yen for dinner strikes. It’s a little crazy, but hear me out on this one…

I found this method via The Kitchn, Apartment Therapy’s sister food blog. It works like this: Get a couple pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, and pound them until they’re an even thickness. Season them with some salt and pepper, then ever so lightly dredge them in a little bit of flour.

Meanwhile, heat a sautee pan (that has a tight-fitting lid) over medium-high heat. When quite hot, melt a half tablespoon each of butter and olive oil in the pan. Turn the heat to medium, put the breasts in the pan, and count down a minute on your timer. You’re not going for browned here, just enough to take the pink off.

After a minute, flip the chicken breasts, and — here’s where it gets weird — turn the heat down to low, cover the pan, put 10 minutes on the timer, and walk away. Seriously. Resist the urge to peek.

I know it doesn’t look like much, but I promise they’re cooking in there. After 10 minutes, turn the heat off, put another 10 minutes on the timer, and leave it. Don’t even think about lifting the lid. I know, I know, it’s insane! Just trust me. It’ll be ok.

After the final 10 minutes, your chicken breasts will be perfectly cooked through: tender and juicy, not at all tough or rubbery. Best of all, you didn’t spend any time over the hot stove flipping breasts back and forth, obsessively checking for doneness. Oh no — you spent 20 minutes outside soaking up every last minute of sunlight while your chicken cooked itself to perfection. And that’s how you make dinner in the summer.

At that point, you can save or use the chicken however you want — but, of course, I have a few suggestions, including one of my favorite summer dinners: curried chicken salad.

I often find traditional chicken salad to be a little flavorless and a lot heavy on the mayo. But the sauce here is tart and tangy, with lemon, mustard, and curry powder, mixing beautifully with the sweet crunch from celery, onion, and grapes. And if you have the cooked chicken already on hand in the fridge, you can be sitting down to eat inside of ten minutes. This recipe is adapted from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook.

Into a large bowl, add:

  • 1 ½ lb cooked chicken breast, cooled and cut into ¼-inch cubes
  • 1 cup of seedless red grapes, sliced in half
  • 4 scallions, sliced thin
  • 2 ribs of celery, chopped small

In a separate bowl, mix:

  • ½ cup of mayo
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper

Pour the sauce over the other ingredients and combine. This is great on sandwiches, over salad greens, or even cold pasta, and is best enjoyed outside with a magazine and glass of lemonade.

Speaking of pasta: If chicken salad isn’t your thing, try using your chicken over cold pasta, with whatever toppings you like (pesto, cherry tomatoes, grilled veggies) — or slice it up for fajitas or sandwiches. The idea works for other meats, too, of course: A skirt steak is one flavorful, inexpensive cut of meat that cooks in no time and can be used the same way as the chicken. Whatever you decide on, cook up more than a single batch, and you can create a different meal each night of the week in just a few minutes.

What other ways do you save time and energy cooking in the summer months?

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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