By PAUL SIDORIAK
Ask 10 friends what their version of comfort food is and be prepared to receive a variety of answers. A common theme is that comfort food evokes passion, nostalgia, and memories of warm times spent with friends and family.
For me, a dish that brings back the fondest of memories is quite simple – baked, breaded, boneless chicken with seasoned, mashed potatoes and corn. Some sort of magic happens to otherwise bland chicken when baked in Italian breadcrumbs that transforms it into a vibrant novel with many chapters and plot changes. I know; this sounds excessive but the way the herbed breading mixes with the juicy chicken far exceeds the sum of the parts.
An interesting addition to my most comforting of meals is simply stuffing the chicken with ham and Swiss cheese. Chicken Cordon bleu. Stuffing baked, breaded chicken with the extra ingredients is like adding additional down to your favorite comforter. It probably doesn’t need the extra fluff, but chances are that it won’t hurt anything either. My idea was to attempt to improve on what was already a favorite dish, with the help of a modern method. The folks at svkitchen.com gave me a great idea on how to get started.
Substituting chicken thigh for chicken breast, my thought was to re-create the chicken Cordon bleu with the cheese still in the middle, but the salty ham would be on the outside. For the new version, the ham was replaced with prosciutto, and where normally Swiss cheese is used, this version used Gruyere.
Normal assembly would consist of slicing a pocket into the chicken and sliding a piece of cheese wrapped in ham into the pouch before breading. Here’s how my revision went:
Prep started by pounding the chicken thigh to a uniform thickness for even cooking. Two foot-long pieces of plastic wrap were laid down, overlapping and oriented like a cross, on a work surface. To start, I laid a couple of pieces of the prosciutto down in the center of the plastic. I topped the prosciutto with the chicken thigh, forming a second layer, and placed a chunk of the Gruyere cheese in the middle of the chicken. After a shake of seasoning rub, I grabbed two of the opposing corners of plastic wrap and brought them together. I repeated with the other two corners to form a makeshift hobo knapsack filled with meat and cheese. My thought here was to use the plastic wrap as a form to coerce the meat into a spherical orb of goodness by turning it in the plastic until it formed a tight ball. The plastic fowl ball of protein was then tied off with a string and vacuum-sealed with a food-sealing device.
Instead of baking the chicken in an oven, the new method of cooking would be to gently cook the chicken pouches in a water bath (sous vide) until done and finish them off by smoking with apple wood chips on the grill.
The chicken cooked for about 90 minutes in the water bath. Sealed pouches work well to prevent the loss of moisture during the cooking process but I still patted them dry in preparation for the grill. I wrapped a second layer of prosciutto around the chicken balls and then they went onto the smoky grill to finish for about 35 minutes. While they were on the grill, a couple of things happened. The chicken balls took on a sweet, rich, smoky flavor from the apple-wood smoke for an additional layer of flavor. The belle of the ball was the way the prosciutto rendered a bit, absorbing the smoke, and forming a crunchy outer shell.
The result was a fun and playful take on what I consider a classic version of chicken Cordon bleu. When you cut into the chicken ball, the cheese oozes out, reminiscent of the warm center of a soft poached egg sharing its rich flavor with anything it comes in contact with. The prosciutto works well in place of ham and provides a much-needed crunch as tastier replacement for the breadcrumbs.
I guess that one man’s comfort food is another man’s calamity. It was fun to play around with a dish that I find comforting and experience a new glow on its intrinsic warmth. I have yet to decide if it was comfort food re-discovered, or if I have learned that I just like to play with my food.
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Check out Paul’s other tasty grilling recipes for summer (or any season!) in his blog archive.
Paul moved to Montana in 1996 with about a dozen friends from Lyndon State College in Vermont. He is still reluctantly paying his student loans and has carved out a career working as a supplier representative for various food and beverage products.
Paul enjoys grilling after a day on the water or an afternoon in the garden, where he has been known to grow heirloom tomatoes and peppers out of spite. Often cooking for extended family and friends, he takes a whimsical approach to cooking simple, seasonal dishes, while not taking it too seriously.
Paul does all of his grilling on the Big Green Egg Grill, available in Missoula at the Axmen.
You can read more of Paul’s grilling recipes at his blog site, Grilling Montana.