We had friends to dinner the other night, a nice little party with flowers and wine and Josie upstairs. These days I like making it nice but not stiff, special without fuss – but just a few years back it was all fuss all the time – to a newly minted chef girl, married girl, grown-up girl, hosting meant acrobatic recipes, exotic combinations, an absurdly high drive to please.
Our first true guests were from my husband’s office, a funny and casual couple who were treated to undercooked, over-garlicked lamb and several under-mixed, over-ginned martinis. The evening would feature a clogged sink, dishwater buckets, our crotch-poking Dalmatian and one seriously wailing fire alarm. The last thing they saw was Greg broom-whacking the smoke detector and me at the sink, right hand down the drain and left hand in the air. Bye, great having you!
Everyone meets these horrors, but why? When you turn 25 they should hand you a pamphlet called Hosting! Relax and Don’t Try Anything New. Let’s face it, the clues were there – the oven temp was off, I’d never mixed martinis, I tied that lamb loose as a blind butcher. I could have seared steaks or made cheese fondue or even flipped omelets. I could have used a standby.
A lot of people say they don’t do standbys, they prefer something new, something dazzling, an unknown mushroom or an expensive hunk of cheese. Okay, dazzlers: I don’t care if you’re Julia Child, there are people coming at seven. That mushroom could taste like dung and the cheese might hit the floor, so do what you know. Do what you do well, be comfortable and your guests will be comfortable, do a standby.
This I’ve learned, and so I do. Ask any French chef what they serve dinner guests, and nine out of ten times you’ll hear roast chicken. Their maman’s roast chicken – a five-star version, perhaps, but a standby nonetheless, meaning easy, reliable, perfect. I have a rotating cast of things I like, stress-less menus that let me shop ahead and even – oh yes – put on a clean shirt. And lip gloss. My friends, if there are flowers and chicken and time to look in the mirror, you are at the top of your dinner game.
That is how I’ve come to prepare Cherry Chicken, aka Extra-Good Chicken I Can Make in My Sleep – for guests. Feel free to name it what you like – “Linda’s Super Shallot-Cherry Chicken” or “Jean’s Company’s Comin’ Chicken” or whatever. Like most things I cook, it’s more technique than recipe: sauté the chicken, remove the chicken, put some stuff in the pan for flavor, then put back the chicken. That’s it. Follow those moves, substituting as you wish, and you’ll find that reliable isn’t dull, it’s deliciously drama-free.
Company Cherry Chicken
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 shallots, chopped medium-fine
1 cup (or more) dried sweet cherries
2-3 cups red wine
1 cup flour
butter, few tablespoons
salt and ground pepper
Slip chicken breasts into large Ziploc bags and using a meat mallet, pound each to even, ¼ – ½” thickness.
Toss flour with salt and pepper to season, and spread on a plate. Dip each chicken breast (both sides) in flour, patting to remove excess, and set chicken aside.
In large sauté pan (preferably non-stick) heat oil to medium-high. When sizzling, add chicken breasts, cooking each side to nicely browned, 1-2 minutes per side. Turn heat to medium-low and remove chicken breasts to clean plate; tent with foil to keep warm.
Toss chopped shallots into the same pan, sizzling and moving about 30 seconds, until cooked through and transluscent. Add about 1 cup of the red wine, sizzling with shallots until wine begins to reduce. Add dried cherries all at once, moving with spatula to blend with shallots and wine.
When cherries start heating up, add the remaining red wine. Increase heat to medium and cook cherry mixture, stirring occasionally, until cherries are softened and a small amount of liquid remains. Turn heat off. Using a spatula or whisk, swirl in butter, mixing to form a rich, red blend. Season with salt and a generous amount of fresh ground pepper. Test and adjust seasoning to taste, adding more butter, salt or pepper as you wish.
Turn heat back on to low. Place cooked chicken breasts in the pan, turning to coat each side in cherry mixture. Remove from heat, plate chicken and top with cherry-shallot mixture.
note: this is more of a cooked, reduced cherry mixture than a true sauce. If you’d like more liquid in your sauce, add more red wine and reduce a little less.
Serves 4, and is perfect with blue-cheese mashed potatoes and steamed asparagus.
…and don’t forget that standby dessert!