A Chicken Dish For Cocktail Lovers

Plenty of sage and a splash of gin make this a winning chicken dish at this time of year.
Plenty of sage and a splash of gin make this a winning chicken dish at this time of year.

Imagine donning your best “Mad Men” pearls while standing at the stove nonchalantly sauteing chicken when — oops — you accidentally splash some of your gin martini into the pan.

That’s the happy accident Amy Thielen, a James Beard Award-winning food writer and cookbook author, aptly envisions when she makes her delicious “Crispy Smashed Chicken Breasts with Gin-and-Sage Jus.”

Whether you envision a martini or a favorite gin-and-tonic like I did, this dish delivers the herby, woodsy tastes of mint, menthol, and eucalyptus, along with a surefire technique for cooking moist chicken breasts on the stovetop.

The recipe is from her new cookbook, “Company” (W.W. Norton), of which I received a review copy.

Thielen lives in wooded, remote Northern Minnesota, where there are only three restaurants in town — a 25-minute drive away. As such, when she gathers with friends and families for a meal, it’s usually at her own home.

This is a woman who really likes to cook for others — and often. But she demurs at calling it “entertaining.” Instead, by taking a more informal and casual approach, she reminds us all that a dinner party need not be a complicated production.

The book includes more than 125 recipes, which are arranged in specific menus meant to serve six to eight, and all at once, buffet-style. For instance, there’s the “Pent Up Winter Grilling” menu of “Deviled Egg Dip,” “Bundt Pan Chicken with Bagna Cauda Butter,” “Fun House Baked Potatoes,” and “Sweet-and-Sour Marinated Peppers with Swiss Chard.” And the “Family Brunch Around the Fire Pit” menu of “Orange Julius with Basil,” “Grilled Garlic Bread with Bacon Fat and Smeared Tomato,” “Potato Tortilla,” “Smoked Sausages with Mustard-Miso Sauce and Arugula,” and “Muskmellon Caprese.”

Of course, you don’t have to make the entire menu, but hone in on just one dish like I did.

My home-grown sage.
My home-grown sage.

With a bountiful sage bush in my yard that somehow has defied my usual catastrophic gardening skills, I was more than ready to tackle this intriguing chicken dish.

The recipe states that three chicken breasts will serve 6, but I think it's more like 4, depending on the size you buy.
The recipe states that three chicken breasts will serve 6, but I think it’s more like 4, depending on the size you buy.

Admittedly, I rarely buy chicken breasts, favoring thighs for their more flavorful flesh. Plus, chickens are so lean these days that the breast meat is so easily prone to drying out when cooking.

Not so with Thielen’s method that involves cooking the chicken for the majority of the time on only one side.

Begin by pounding the chicken breasts slightly to make sure they’re an even thickness all around. They get marinated with salt, pepper, half a dozen garlic cloves, and a dozen sage leaves.

Fry up more sage leaves in a pan until shatteringly crisp. Reserve them for the garnish. Add the chicken breasts skin-side down in the pan with all their marinade aromatics. Then, let them be, allowing them to cook on medium heat for about 30 minutes. The skin will turn deeply amber and crisp up, and you’ll see the bottom half of the flesh start to turn white as it cooks. Finally, flip them over to cook through, before removing them to a plate.

As much as you may want to tip your martini glass into the pan, it’s safer to place the pan off the heat and carefully pour in the gin before letting the alcohol cook off. Stir in chicken broth, lemon juice, the now caramelized garlic cloves that cooked with the chicken, and a couple pats of butter to emulsify the sauce and leave it velvety.

Slice the breasts, arrange on a serving platter, spoon the sauce around everything, and top with the fried sage leaves.

The recipe states that three large skin-on chicken breasts will serve 6, but didn’t give the weight for them. My three chicken breasts from Whole Foods totaled 2.6 pounds, which I think served more like 4. So, if you do intend on feeding 6, you might want to look for larger chicken breasts or add an additional one.

A gin distilled from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
A gin distilled from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

I used a sample of Feather & Folly Gin in this dish. This unique gin is copper pot-distilled from Cabernet Sauvignon wine grapes grown at Goose Ridge Estate Winery, owned by the Monson family of Washington state. The gin, the second spirit they’ve released, is infused with six botanicals: Washington juniper berries, Angelica, black lime, coriander, licorice root, and orange zest.

Take a sip and licorice and pepper caress the palate first, followed by the citrusy, piney taste of juniper, before orange rind reveals itself on the finish.

It’s makes for a delicious gin and tonic, of course. Here, it marries wonderfully with all the sage in this dish. The chicken is incredibly juicy, the way you want chicken breasts to be, but rarely achieve. The pan sauce is full of deep poultry flavor with a vivid yet balanced wintery menthol-like whoosh.

I’ll drink to that.

A great cooking technique to ensure juicy chicken breasts.
A great cooking technique to ensure juicy chicken breasts.

Crispy Smashed Chicken Breasts with Gin-and-Sage Jus

(Serves 4 to 6)

24 sage leaves

3 large skin-on chicken breasts

6 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons butter, cold

1/4 cup gin

3/4 cup chicken stock

1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (to taste)

Lemon wedges for serving

Rinse the sage leaves and dry thoroughly with a towel.

If the chicken breasts have the rib cage attached, remove it — and any other bones — with a sharp knife. Don’t trim off any skin or fat. Set each chicken beast skin side down on a cutting board and pound with a large meat mallet to even out the hump, flattening the chicken to an even thickness.

Put the chicken in a bowl and add the garlic cloves, 12 of the sage leaves, the salt, and the pepper. Cover and marinate for at least 1 hour and up to 6 hours, refrigerated.

Heat the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter in a very large stainless steel saute pan over medium-low heat. When the butter melts, add remaining 12 sage leaves and fry, moving and flipping them gently with a fork, until crisp, about 3 minutes. Remove the crispy sage to a plate.

Turn up the heat slightly and add the chicken, skin side down, to the oil, along with its marinade aromatics. Gently cook the chicken over medium heat, slowly but steadily, taking care not to burn the oil, until the skin crisps and turns a deep caramel color, 25 to 30 minutes. Be prepared to stay stoveside, moving the chicken around in the pan, pressing on it with a spatula to force contact with the pan, and moderating the heat as necessary, until the white sign of doneness creeps two-thirds of the way up the sides of the breasts. As you saute, remove any garlic cloves that threaten to burn and save them for the sauce.

When the chicken skin has turned dark amber, flip the chicken, lower the heat, and cook gently until the internal temperature reaches 140 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. The temperature will carry over to a safe but still juicy 150 degrees while you finish the sauce. Transfer the chicken to a serving platter and add the gin to the pan, off heat. Return it to the burner and simmer for 30 seconds to burn off the sharpness, then add the chicken stock and cook, scraping at the browned residue on the bottom of the pan to loosen it, until the liquid has reduced by half. (You should have about 1/2 cup of sauce.) Add the lemon juice, any reserved garlic cloves, and the remaining 2 tablespoons cold butter, remove from the heat, and swirl the pan to emulsify the butter.

Move the chicken breasts to a cutting board and slice crosswise, taking care to cut neatly through the skin, then return to the platter. Pour the sauce around the perimeter of the platter — not over the chicken, which would dampen and soften the crispy skin — and top with the crispy sage leaves. Serve immediately, with a fork for spearing the meat and a serving spoon for the sauce. Garnish with lemon quarters.

Adapted from “Company” by Emily Thielen

More Sage-Infused Recipes to Enjoy: Bannock Bread with Browned Butter and Sage

And: Pumpkin, Sage, and Browned Butter Cake

And: Miso Brown Butter and Crispy Sage Pasta

And: Sage and Walnut Tagliatelle

And: Acorn Squash, Stracciatella and Sage

And: Sauteed Shiitake Mushrooms with Sage

And: Charred Padron (Or Shishito) Peppers with Goat Cheese and Sage

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