(NYTIMES) - When it comes to boneless, skinless chicken breasts, there are few problems that a good pounding cannot fix.
For years, I thought I inherently disliked boneless chicken breasts, but I realise now that it was not the chicken’s fault. It was mine for not taking enough care to properly prepare the breasts.
Proper cooking begins with a proper pounding – that is, hitting the meat with a mallet, a rolling pin or a big heavy frying pan until it compacts into a cutlet. The point is not so much punishment as it is a corrective measure.
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts have two major strikes against them: unevenness of form and leanness of flesh. Fixing the shape helps ensure the meat’s juiciness. When pounded, the tapered shape of a chicken breast (bulging in the middle, slimmer at the ends) flattens out into one even layer. You can whack them thin (one-quarter inch) or thicker (1.2cm or so), but thinner breasts are more apt to overcook. Always keep an eye on them while they are on the heat.
Once you have an evenly sized piece of meat, it is much easier to control the cooking, no matter the method. Whether grilled, broiled or sauteed, a
chicken breast is done just as soon as it turns opaque on the surfaces, but stays slightly pink in the centre – well before it has a chance to dry out.
Because there is so little fat, the juices are the only thing moistening the meat. Lose those and the chicken breast turns rubbery.
Like brining, marinating the chicken with salt and other seasonings helps the meat hold on to its juices. Here, I use a combination of salt, olive oil, garlic, lime zest and paprika. Even a 30-minute stint makes a big difference in terms of taste and texture.
I like to serve this dish with a vibrant, spicy cucumber salad dressed with pureed jalapeno and cilantro. Just note that as soon as the cucumbers hit the dressing, the rounds soften, turning translucent and a little slaw-like. So do not mix the two until just before serving. Thin-skin Persian cucumbers, which do not need to be peeled, are nice here, staying crisp and green at the edges. But any cucumber variety will work; just scrape away any large, gloppy seeds.
This combination of juicy, garlicky chicken and spicy, herbal cucumbers is satisfying in any season, and particularly perfect in summer.
Grilled Chicken Breasts With Spicy Cucumbers
For the chicken:
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (170g to 220g each)
1¼ tsp fine sea salt
1 tsp black pepper, more as needed
½ tsp smoked sweet paprika
Finely grated zest of 1 lime
2 garlic cloves, grated on a Microplane
2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil, more for drizzling
For the sauce:
⅓ cup packed fresh cilantro leaves
⅓ cup packed fresh parsley leaves
3 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
2 to 3 jalapenos, seeded and chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely grated or minced
½ tsp fine sea salt, more to taste
1 tsp fresh lime juice, more to taste
3 Persian cucumbers, thinly sliced (about 2¼ cups)
1. Place a chicken breast between a layer of parchment paper or plastic wrap and use a mallet, rolling pin or the flat side of a heavy knife to pound to a thickness of about 1.2cm. Repeat with remaining breasts.
2. Season chicken with salt, pepper and paprika. Place in a bowl and toss with lime zest, garlic and oil. Cover and marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes or overnight in the refrigerator.
3. Meanwhile, prepare the sauce: In a blender, combine cilantro, parsley, oil, jalapenos, garlic, salt and lime juice. Blend until smooth, adding 1 or 2 Tbs of water if necessary to blend. Taste and add more salt and/or lime juice if needed.
4. Heat the grill to medium-high or heat up the broiler or a grill pan. Grill or broil until chicken is lightly browned at the edges and just cooked through, about two to four minutes a side.
5. In a medium bowl, toss cucumbers with a pinch of salt. Let sit for five minutes. Right before serving, toss cucumbers with sauce and serve alongside
chicken, drizzling chicken with any leftover sauce from the bottom of the cucumber bowl, and a little olive oil.