As the composer George Gershwin once wrote, it’s summertime and the livin’ is easy. Or it should be, especially where making dinner is concerned. Now is the time to take advantage of foods that cook quickly and are easy to prepare. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts, for example. These light, low fat white meat fillets can be your best ally during the hot weather, especially if you can cook them outdoors on a backyard grill. Don’t despair if you don’t have a grill though; the breasts don’t take much time in an oven broiler either.
One advantage of boneless, skinless chicken breasts is that they are finished in about 2 to 6 minutes of grilling per side, depending on how thin or thick they are. I try to buy them about 1/2-inch thick; thin enough to cook quickly, but with enough bulk to stay moist and juicy.
It also helps that chicken breast meat is so mild it goes with practically every spice or herb you probably have in your kitchen, and then some. It means you can actually make the same dish over and over but it won’t be the same old thing because of the different seasonings you use each time you make it. I sprinkle the meat with chopped rosemary for one dinner, fresh thyme leaves for another. Sometimes I use a combination – parsley, chives, dill and mint, for example. Remember that packet of fresh herbs you bought for a recipe a few days ago? Here’s your chance to use it again. Brush the breasts with a film of olive oil or vegetable oil, sprinkle the herbs on top and place the chicken on the grate; that’s the recipe.
Other seasonings are useful too. Ingredients such as fresh lemongrass, ginger, chili peppers and shallots or condiments such as hot sauce, mustard, salsa and barbecue sauces give big flavor to chicken breasts. So use spices and spice combinations such as cumin, chili powder, curry powder, ras el hanout or garam masala.
If there’s time, consider marinating the breasts before grilling them. When I do this I usually reach for a simple vinaigrette dressing that I’ve prepared ahead. I mix olive oil plus wine vinegar or lemon juice and a bit of prepared mustard; herbs are optional. Most of the time I make plenty of extra dressing to have handy for salads of all sorts, and marinades for other foods too (keep the dressing refrigerated).
You could also try any of a variety of flavor-enhancing mixtures from Asian style marinades (mix soy sauce, sesame oil and ginger) to Mexican (olive oil, cumin and chili peppers) to Moroccan (vegetable oil, orange juice, cumin and cinnamon).
If you decide to marinate the breasts, let them absorb the flavors for at least a half hour before placing them on the grill. There’s a caveat here. Marinades are used only for flavor. If the marinade you use contains a large proportion of acidic ingredients such as vinegar, wine, lemon juice and so on, don’t let the chicken sit in the mixture for too long or the meat might become mushy or even tough (not more than 1-2 hours or so). Remember also that poultry is perishable, so be sure to keep it in the refrigerator while it rests in the marinade.
Chicken breasts are versatile and easy to prepare, but there are some tips for making sure they are fully cooked, yet succulent. First, try to buy them more or less evenly shaped, not thick on one side, thin on another. If this is impossible, place some waxed or parchment paper over the meat and use a meat mallet or the bottom of a heavy pot to gently pound the breasts to even them out. Second, be sure the grill or broiler rack is about 5-6-inches from the heat source. Next, cover the grill to get optimal smoky flavor and turn the breasts with tongs, not a fork, to preserve natural juices.
All three of my recipes are for grilled boneless, skinless chicken breasts, but demonstrate how versatile the dish can be. Two call for very different marinades, the third uses a quick-cooking barbecue sauce. One of the recipes lists agave among the ingredients; it’s a liquid sweetener that has a healthier glycemic profile than others, but if you don’t have it, honey is a good substitute.
Ronnie Fein has been a freelance food and lifestyle writer since 1980. She currently writes regular features for the food and community sections of daily newspapers and has written articles for Newsday, Cook’s Illustrated, Consumer’s Digest, Connecticut magazine, and many other publications. She operates the Ronnie Fein School of Creative Cooking in Stamford, Connecticut and is the author of three cookbooks, the most recent is Hip Kosher (DaCapo, 2008). Visit her website.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.