Stuffed Chicken Breast with Pesto Cream Sauce

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Simple, elegant, and not too labor intensive – what more could you ask for? Oh, did I mention it’s delicious? It’s delicious.

I don’t remember when the idea of stuffed chicken popped into my head, but it was one of those small thoughts that kind of drifts in, and you think it’ll be just a passing fancy, but then it sticks and hangs out at the back of your mind for awhile. Yeah, apparently I need to spray some Pam up there, or something.

It’s a little bit fancy, but not over-the-top shmancy, so I thought it the perfect excuse for inviting The Mom and Sister over for dinner. As is my way, I looked at recipes first, but then did my own thing. The results were definitely guest worthy, although next time I’d tent some foil over the chicken so it doesn’t dry out in the oven too much. A small complaint for a first time recipe, I’d say!

Stuffed Chicken Breast
(Serves 4)

4 chicken breasts, boneless/skinless
3-4 cups fresh spinach, packed down (I didn’t weigh this after wilting, but maybe the equivalant of 1 package of frozen, thawed and drained of course)
3 TBSP ricotta cheese
3 TBSP fresh Parmesan
1 TBSP butter, softened
5-6 leaves fresh basil, finely chopped (plus more for garnish, if you like)
2 cloves garlic, oven roasted (or fresh and finely minced, if you don’t want to bother roasting)
1/4 cup sun dried or oven roasted tomatoes
1 TBSP + 1 tsp. olive oil
Salt and Pepper

Method:

In 1 tsp. olive oil, lightly sauté spinach until just wilted (or thaw and thoroughly wring dry frozen).
In a bowl, mix spinach, basil (chopped), garlic (chopped), tomatoes (chopped), Parmesan, ricotta, and butter. Season lightly with 1/2 tsp. kosher salt and a few grinds of pepper.

Lay the chicken breasts out on your work surface – I suggest spreading aluminum foil or plastic wrap out first, to make for less mess (don’t use parchment, here, as the chicken juices can still soak through). Butterfly open each breast by setting them flat, and holding your knife almost parallel to the counter begin a slit through the side of the chicken. Once your knife is several centimeters in, you can hold the top flap of the chicken and gently pull it away from your knife as you slice through the center. Peel back this fold, and continue to cut, until you’re about 1/4 – 1/2 inch away from slicing the breast all the way through. Lay it flat like an open book, and repeat with the others.
Once the breasts have been flayed open, lay another piece of plastic wrap or foil over the top (if you don’t have a meat mallet, that is) and smash with the bottom of a heavy pot, pan, or measuring cup. Whatever has a flat bottom. Pound the breasts out until they’re no thicker than 1/4 inch, but don’t pound them too far or they’ll turn to burger meat. If that happens you can cry, or you can proceed with making burgers.
Once the chicken has been dissected and had the crap beaten out of it (yeah, don’t tell me you didn’t let out at least a little pent up frustration, there), it’s ready to stuff.
Split the spinach mixture evenly between the four cuts of chicken, smushing it into one strip down the middle of each. Roll each breast around the stuffing like a fruit roll-up, and tie both ends (and possibly the middle, if things aren’t holding together) with butcher’s twine.
If you happen to have particularly large breasts (congratulations), you might be able to secure them with toothpicks and forego the twine. Also, if they’re on the smaller side and not all the stuffing will fit, you can reserve any extra for later use or just let it ooze out the sides – it’s all good.
Now that everything is rolled up and good to go, season the chicken with a good pinch of salt and pepper.
Heat 1 TBSP oil in a skillet, and once the oil is nice and shimmering add the chicken. If you’re doing more than four or five breasts, do it in batches – you don’t want to over crowd the pan. I put mine around the edges of the pan, avoiding having any partially to the outside and partially in the middle where there might be hot spots. Once the chicken is in the pan, reduce the heat from high to medium-high, and don’t touch it for a good 3-4 minutes. When the chicken enters the pan, even with that bit of oil it is going to stick. As it sears, though, it will begin to form a bit of a crust and will detach itself from the pan. If you try to move it too soon, you’ll end up leaving meat behind.
After the meat has let go of the pan, you can check to see if it’s browning. Once one side is nice and golden, turn, browning all sides evenly.
While the chicken is searing, preheat the oven to 350f. As soon as all the sides are browned, transfer the breasts to a baking dish and back until the chicken is cooked through (165-170 in the center), approximately 20-30 minutes. This is where I’d tent aluminum foil over the baking dish, to hold in some of the steam and help keep the chicken moist. Not a crucial step, but I suspect a very useful one.

While the chicken is baking, you can move on to making the sauce.

Pesto Cream Sauce

1/4 cup store-bought or homemade pesto
1/2 cup half and half (or heavy cream or whole milk, whatever you have on hand should do)
1 TBSP butter
1 tsp. lemon zest (this is optional, but brings a nice brightness to an otherwise heavy-flavored sauce)

Method:

In the same pan the chicken was seared in, over low heat, add the butter and pesto and cook for about a minute, stirring and scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
Add the half and half, and increase the heat just enough to bring it to a boil. Then turn the heat off, and stir in the lemon zest. Let this sit until the chicken is done.

When the chicken comes out of the oven, there will be some lovely juices in the bottom of the pan (especially if you tented with foil). Pour these into the pan with your pesto sauce, and turn the heat back on to medium-low. Stir, and cook the sauce down (if necessary) to the desired consistency.
Spoon over chicken, and serve!

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This could easily be served with rice, roasted veggies, potatoes… you name it.
A friend of mine had just given me some green tomatoes, and I chose to caramelize them (hot pan until browned on both sides) and serve with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. A nice accompaniment!

One thing I like about this is how easily versatile it is – even for a party, the chicken could be cut into medallions and served by the piece. The stuffing and sauce are both easily customizable, or could be changed entirely. You could wrap the chicken in bacon and stuff it with broccoli and cheese! Or you could sit around drooling on your keyboard, instead… up to you.

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