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November 23-29, 2005

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The Noble Coq: After the turkey, turn your attention back to chicken.

Chicken Delight

Technique and timing secret to panéed bird

By Richard Paul Hinkle

For some strange reason, I still love chicken. I love it roasted, broasted and toasted. I love it broiled and I love it baked, and I especially love it barbecued.

Why, you ask, would that be strange? Well, when I was a beardless high schooler, I worked at Chicken Delight for three years. Perhaps you recall their sing-song musical slogan: "Don't cook tonight, call Chicken Delight." For three years, I fried chicken, managed the store, mopped the floors and delivered hot (OK, warm) batter-fried chicken in a rusty white Corvair that shimmied at 60 mph and had a fiberglass chicken on top. For three years I ate chicken five nights a week.

And yet I still delight (forgive me) in eating chicken. Aside from "Daddy's Famous Chicken"--my twin teens' favorite at our house--my all-time favorite chicken dish is served up some 10 or 15 times daily at Santa Rosa's local bistro Checkers. They call it panéed (pan sautéed) chicken, and the recipe was developed by owner Mark Young from a similar dish at Emeril's in New Orleans. It is a chicken breast, pounded flat, then coated in dried bread crumbs. It is juicy and spicy and utterly delicious, and Checkers recommends it be served with Alois Lageder's Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige, the South Tyrol area of Italy. The complement is heaven, the sharp Cajun spices cut perfectly by the orange peel and incisive mineral stoniness of the wine. It is one of the most perfect wine-food combinations I know.

I dropped by the other day to meet Checkers' manager Katherine Castillo and chef Manuel Chavez and learn more about this exquisite exposition of the ol' pollo. Soft-spoken and assured, Chavez demonstrates his technique with the panéed chicken, imparting a couple of little twists that seem to make all the difference.

But let's start with the ingredients, in proportions to serve four. Begin with four chicken breasts, boneless and pounded flat. I use a serrated hammer at home, which allows all sorts of crevices to capture maximum bread crumbs. The bread crumb mixture starts with a couple of teaspoons of Creole seasoning (recipe to follow if you can't find one you like in your spice rack). Two cups of bread crumbs (Chavez uses about one-third of a loaf of not-too-sourdough French bread), 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, 1/4 bunch each of parsley, basil, thyme, tarragon and oregano (fresh is best), 1/8 cup olive oil, and a pinch each of salt and pepper.

His Creole seasoning (a little trade secret here) is straight out of Emeril's Pantry Cookbook: 2 1/2 tablespoons paprika, 2 tablespoons salt, 2 tablespoons garlic powder, 1 tablespoon black pepper, 1 tablespoon onion powder, 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper, 1 tablespoon dried leaf oregano and 1 tablespoon dried leaf thyme.

But it's the technique, and the order of the process, that seems to make the difference in terms of keeping the breading on the chicken breast and in keeping the finished product moist and juicy inside, crisp and tangy on the outside.

Chavez first takes the pounded chicken breast and dusts it in flour, then he moistens it in a mixture of well-whipped egg and heavy cream. (I have always egged it first, then dusted it and rolled it in the breading.) He then drops the chicken into the breading mix, and literally pushes the breading into the chicken. In this manner, the breading seems to adhere far better than mine ever has. One more little trick: He doesn't simply go to the fry pan to finish off the cooking. He does sauté the chicken in extra virgin olive oil, but only for 30 seconds on each side. Finally, he puts the chicken in a 550 F oven for 10 minutes. That's it. The shorter, hotter oven cooking time successfully keeps the entrée moist and juicy inside.

"We recommend the Pinot Grigio with this dish because it has that crisp mineral and pear quality," says Castillo. "But some people really like the Mark West Pinot Noir with it and others like the Seghesio Zinfandel for its inherently complementary spiciness."

The panéed chicken is clearly one of the most popular items at Checkers, with some 300 to 350 servings ordered each month at the Santa Rosa restaurant (there is another Checkers in Calistoga). "We actually took it off our menu once, a couple of years ago," says Castillo, "because it is a rather labor-intensive dish to make. But our customers were outraged, and quite vocal about it, and so we put it back on right away. Orders for the panéed chicken are usually split pretty evenly between in-store and takeout. It is, along with the butternut squash ravioli, one of the most popular items we've ever had on our menu."

Castillo says she only cooks a little at home--she's got a 17-month-old, DJ, who keeps her hopping--but she does admit to a love of baking and a notable apple crisp recipe, with a cream cheese and sour cream filling. For his part, Chavez loves to work his garden tomatoes into various versions of pizza at his casa, with pesto, goat cheese, a little mozzarella, smoked chicken and sautéed mushrooms. What do you think: his house for the pizza, then hers for dessert? Makes sense to me.

Checker's Restaurant, 523 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707.578.4000, and 1414 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga, 707.942.9300. Rich Hinkle's own 'famous' chicken features sautéed mushrooms layered over a bleu cheese dressing and sprinkled with capers. His newest book is 'Good Wine: The New Basics.'

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