[2018 Update: I’d never have seen it coming in 2008, but this recipe has become a star of our meal routine, especially in the summer, when we can grill the chicken, or when we are coming off week of heavier foods. The kids like crunchy lettuce and grilled chicken; throwing in croutons seals the deal. We often put it out unassembled so they can make their own bowls. So, I’ve given it a refresh with tighter recipes and more details.]
It has been almost a year since I told you that I don’t like boneless, skinless chicken cutlets, I never had and I never would. Furthermore, I did not understand the American obsession with them (in sandwiches! on pizza! in pasta! on salad! in 54-packs at Costco!). “They have the texture and excitement of pressed sawdust,” I believe were my exact words, and even though I knew I was in a distinct minority on this, I knew I couldn’t rest soundly until I got it off my chest.
But The People wouldn’t let it go. “You must try brining,” they whispered into my inbox, “brining is much better,” they said in the comments, “brining will change you life,” one went as far as to say, at which point I stopped listening entirely. Why should I have to work so hard to make something taste good? Obviously, it is not inherently tasty, or it wouldn’t require all of these extra steps and seasonings. Pressed sawdust, I said; case closed.
I know what you’re thinking right now: Poor Alex. Does he really have to put up with this every single day? Didn’t he, like, live on chicken cutlets when he was single? Can’t she cut them a little slack? And you’d be right: I really am impossible. But if we flash forward to last week’s pork chops, you’ll notice a little step that got squeezed quietly in there: the b-word. The other one. And what it resulted in were the juiciest pork chops I have ever eaten; I could scarcely believe my mouth, and soon enough, there I was, offering to try the same with chicken cutlets. To be chopped into a salad. As if there were not two things I detest more.
Caesar salads are a perfect example of one of those items that always disappoint me when I order them somewhere, so I decided to take them into my own hands a few years ago, my very serious hands. I make the dressing and croutons, I select only the best-looking leaves of Romaine heart, I freshly grate the best Parmesan we have on hand, all the while Alex baffles that a salad his deli can put together in one minute takes me so long. With my recently piqued interest in well-rounded meals, I’ve been looking for a protein to add to it. I tried a chopped hardboiled egg last week but, eh, it just didn’t work for me, which brings us back around to that brined cutlet.
We soaked two chicken cutlets in a half-batch of brine for 30 minutes, and seasoned them before frying them in a pan, only one of the dryest of all dry preparations and seriously? Have you waited long enough for me to tell you this? Brining is a whole new world. I never knew that chicken could be so juicy. However, I’m not going to lie–moisture is not flavor, and these still did not have the flavor profile of darker meat. But it was a start, and a very promising one at that.
Chicken Caesar Salad
This isn’t the fastest way to make a chicken caesar salad, but I consider it the ultimate: really good croutons, the best way I know how to make chicken for salads that isn’t dry or tough, my favorite hopelessly inaunthentic caesar salad dressing.
Serves 4 to 6
For the chicken
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 cup water
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
A squeeze of lemon juice
For the croutons
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large garlic clove, minced
A few fine gratings of lemon zest
Scant 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 cups fresh or day-old bread, cubed (sourdough, ciabatta, or a white country bread work well here)
1/4 cup grated parmesan (optional)
For the dressing
2 tablespoons (25 grams) mayonnaise
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon worcestershire sauce or 1 to 2 anchovies, minced
1 teaspoon smooth dijon mustard
1 to 2 tablespoons (15 to 30 ml) lemon juice
1/4 cup (60 ml) olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 “hearts” or 2 full heads of romaine, chopped to the size you like
Additional grated parmesan
Prepare the chicken: At any point up to 2 days in advance, but even 15 to 20 minutes will have a positive effect, combine the water, salt, and sugar, if using in the bottom of a smallish dish. Nestle in chicken breasts and put mixture in the fridge for as long as you have.
Cook the chicken: When you’re ready to cook the chicken, drain it and pat it dry on paper towels. Rub lightly with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Grill on high heat until cooked through, flipping once. It rarely takes more than 8 to 10 minutes. Set aside to rest for 5 to 10 minutes before slicing thin. Squeeze a little lemon juice over once you do.
Make the croutons: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Mix the bread cubes with the oil, garlic, zest, salt, and pepper; stir in parmesan, if using (I promise they’re good either way) and spread on a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake, stirring once or twice, until the croutons are crisp and lightly colored on the outside but still soft within, about 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Make the dressing: Whisk all the ingredients in a small bowl and whisk until smooth. Don’t skimp on the salt and pepper; they’re going to wake the whole thing up.
Assemble right before you want to eat it: Toss lettuce, chicken, and croutons with about 2/3 of the dressing (reserve the rest if it needs more), plus parmesan, until everything is evenly coated. Season with more salt and pepper if needed..