Twice in recent editions of The New Yorker magazine, I read about folks out to eat in the city so big they had to name it twice ordering Chicken Paillard. That struck me as odd, because that’s not even remotely a modern dish. You won’t find it on the menu in Seattle or Boston, I’d bet, (Although now that it was in the New Yorker twice, you just might). The dish got me thinking, and then, naturally, I felt compelled to dive into it a bit.
That Chicken Paillard is going to arrive at your table as a thin cutlet, most likely pan seared or butter poached. You’d think, at first glance, that this will be a fairly unremarkable dish. Yet when you take that first bite, your surprise and delight alarms go off – This chicken is tender, juicy – Remarkable, in fact. How does that work in something that looks so pedestrian? What we have here is a classic example of making something look simple. There’s more than meets the eye.
Paillard is a relatively old French term, and the really odd thing is that the root meaning is ‘bawdy’. How that segued into a trendy dish, I don’t know – the culinary variant refers to a thinly sliced or pounded piece of meat. Nowadays, the process is most often called escalope, (or escallope, if you like). That term first appeared in French cooking back in the 1600s, and harkens back to the mollusk that shares the name. A l’escalope meant, in the style of an escalope, such that whatever was being prepared thus was flattened to resemble that noble sea creature.
Doing this to a piece of flesh has practical benefits other than visual legerdemain. Thinning chicken, beef, or pork to an even thickness equates to even cooking, which is of course, always desirable. Secondly, thinner also means faster cooking, and that means easier; also a desirable thing. Thinner also, as strange as it may sound, equals juicier as well; faster cooking time enables that trick. And finally, the amount of pounding I’ll advocate for does indeed tenderize your proteins as well. All of that means that this is a technique definitely worth doing.
The process of escalloping is generally perceived as whacking on a hunk of protein until it’s flat, but that’s frankly not a best practice. Take a nice plump chicken breast like the one I’ll work with herein. That thing is a good 2″ thick as it comes from the butcher; flattening that out with a meat hammer would wear out a veteran roofer, let alone a home cook. Secondly, that much pounding goes well beyond tenderizing and enters the realm of making meat jelly – not very appealing, that. With all those warnings in mind, here’s how it’s done right – A slicer or carver works best for this operation, but any well sharpened blade of 5″ or more will suffice.
On a cutting board, lay the chicken breast skin side down.
Carefully remove the breast from the bone, (bag and freeze bones for future stock production.)
Trim any excess fat, skin flaps, etc.
Make a single cut, lengthwise, roughly half way through the thickness of the breast.
Turn your knife 90°, (parallel to the breast), and slice evenly from that first cut toward the outer edge of the breast, stopping when what’s left uncut is roughly equal to the thickness of the remaining breast.
Repeat that cut on the other half of the breast.
Now you can gently unfold the breast to one roughly uniform butterfly.
Cover with parchment or waxed paper, and use the flat side of a meat hammer to gently pound the beast to uniform thickness.
Turn meat hammer to the pointy side and very gently, evenly tap the top surface of the breast to tenderize.
You can and should keep skin intact if you’re going to butter poach or pan sear, for added flavor and moisture retention.
If you’re doing a roulade, remove the skin and save it for making schmaltz.
There you have it – a perfectly escalloped breast ready for cooking. Again, the method allows you to cook the protein as is, or roll it up into some thing a bit fancier if you wish. Here are a couple recipes covering both options. Another fringe benefit of the method is that it notably stretches your yield – A single, plump chicken breast will feed two well, potentially with leftovers remaining.
Classic Chicken Paillard
1 – 2 fresh Chicken Breasts, bone in and skin on.
1 small Lemon
3 Ounces Unsalted Butter
1 Tablespoon Wondra Flour
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil
Pinch fresh Lemon Thyme
Grains of Paradise
Escalope the chicken breast(s) as per above directions.
Chiffonade fresh sage, (dried is fine too).
In a heavy sauté pan over medium heat, combine butter and oil and melt/heat through.
Slice breast into halves lengthwise.
Season lightly with sea salt and grains of paradise.
Lightly dust breasts evenly with Wondra.
Carefully place breast skin side down in hot sauté pan, and gently press to create full contact with the pan.
Allow to cook for about 2 minutes, then lift one side of pan slightly to pool the butter and oil blend.
Spoon hot butter and oil evenly over the top of the breast for about another 2 minutes, until pan side of breast is nicely browned.
Remove breast from pan and allow to rest for 3-5 minutes, and serve.
There’s the deceptively simple way to take advantage of this wonderful method. Now, here’s one that sounds fussy, maybe even difficult, but truly is neither – It’s easy, fun, and oh, so rewarding. Roulade en Croute means simply rolled and covered with a crust. It’s delicious, offers myriad variations, and quite lovely. While house made is always preferable, I’ll share a dirty little secret about pie crust – Check out Pillsbury refrigerated crusts – There’s virtually nothing bad in them, they taste great, and if you’re pressed for time, they’ll more than do in a pinch.
Chicken Roulade en Croute
1 Large Chicken Breast
Single Pie Crust
1/2 Cup Aged Provolone, shredded
1/2 Cup chopped dried, sweetened Cranberries
1/2 Cup roasted, chopped Hazelnuts
2 teaspoons fresh Sage, (dried is fine)
Jane’s Crazy Salt
Fresh ground Pepper
Prepare escaloped chicken breast.
In a dry sauté pan over medium heat, toss chopped hazelnuts until lightly browned. Remove from heat, set aside to cool.
Spread even layers of cheese, nuts, cranberries, and sage over the breast.
Preheat oven to 350° F.
Roll out pie crust to roughly 10″
Gently grab one of the long edges of the breast and form a roll.
Transfer rolled breast to center of crust.
Lap edges of crust over breast, seal with a little water.
Fold crust ends in on themselves neatly.
Place breast on a heavy skillet.
Lightly rub a little butter over surface.
Season with Jane’s and pepper.
Poke a few lines or holes in crust – You can also cut some small pieces and do a nice design over top – a flower, plant, etc looks pretty cool when done.
Place pan on a centered rack in oven.
Bake for 20 minutes, then check internal temperature with an instant read thermometer. When temp reaches 155° F, remove roulade from heat and allow to rest in the pan for 10 minutes.
Cut generous slices and serve.
Although you won’t need it, a simple pan sauce certainly doesn’t hurt anything.
Over medium heat, deglaze the pan you cooked the roulade in with a half cup of dry white wine. Stir up all the little cooked bits, then add a quarter cup of chicken stock, (or demi glacé, if you heeded our stock making post). Allow that to simmer and reduce for a couple of minutes until the sauce thickens slightly.
Melt in and incorporate a tablespoon of butter, and drizzle hot over the roulade.