Grilled Lemon Garlic Chicken Breasts

The Memorial Day weekend in the United States is the unofficial start of summer. It’s also the weekend that grills across the nation — having lain dormant under feet of winter snow — get dusted off, cleaned out and fired up. If you’re on the hunt for an easy grilling recipe that is both adult and kid-friendly, raises the bar over traditional hamburger and hot dog fare, and takes no more than five minutes to cook once it hits the flame, this is the recipe for you.

Marinating meat does several things to it by adding flavor and tenderizing the meat fibers. But be careful: not all marinades are created equal. Here are some of the things we’ve learned along the way that you’ll need to be aware of when marinating meat (check out the subscription site Cook’s Illustrated for great scientific explanations of what happens during the marinating process):

  • Acids: break apart the meat and collagen fibers on the meat surface which allows it to better retain moisture. But if you use too much acid in a marinade, or marinate the meat for too long in an acidic marinade, the meat will become mushy as the meat fibers break even further apart.
  • Oil: carries oil-soluable flavors and coats the surface meat fibers in the flavoring agent (in this case, lemon and garlic).
  • Salt/high-sodium ingredients: add flavor, but also work as a brining agent to pull moisture from the marinade into the meat.
  • Flavoring agents like garlic and herbs: once the acids and salts have worked their magic on the meat and collagen fibers, these flavors combine with the oil to penetrate the outermost surface of the meat and add complex and complementary tastes.

This particular recipe uses highly-acidic lemon juice in combination with salt to quickly tenderize and brine the outer surface of some thinly-cut chicken breasts. The olive oil and garlic, in combination with the citrus flavor of the lemon juice, then works its way into the chicken. These chicken breasts are very tender and flavorful as a result, the perfect complement to a Memorial Day spread.

A great recipe for grilling season: lemon garlic chicken breasts

A great recipe for grilling season: lemon garlic chicken breasts

Keep reading for our easy Grilled Lemon Garlic Chicken Breast recipe!

Toasted Antipasti Sandwich: Bring On The Picnic

It seems fitting that, as March draws to a close, we start dreaming of warmer weather here in the Northeast. Heaven knows we’ve earned it, as have those lucky souls in just about every region of the world feeling the effects of the 2014 polar vortex and this season’s uncharacteristically cold and snowy winter.

There are a couple of things that come to mind when I think about spring. Our garden, for instance, which will soon be covered, as it is each year, in a tangle of unruly mint and whatever other veggies we threaten to introduce to that jungle. I’ll also be happy to banish our winter coats to the furthest most reaches of the hall closet. I’m just about done having battles about who is going to wear theirs, how “bunchy” coats are when sitting in a car seat, and whether whatever temperature we wake up to is “warm enough” for just a jacket.

Spring also means picnic baskets piled high with sandwiches. Get our toasted antipasti sandwich recipe here.

Butternut Squash and Chicken Risotto with Sautéed Leeks and Mushrooms

Risotto, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of our go-to dishes. Our daughters will reliably devour bowls of this stuff. It’s as much a comforting family meal as it is a crowd pleaser and it takes no more time to prepare a monster pot than it does four servings, give or take the slight amount of extra effort to chop a few more veggies. This past summer we had it with fresh corn and herbs and now, with autumn squarely upon us, we’ve reinvented it with more hearty seasonal ingredients like butternut squash, leeks, mushrooms and sage.

The mushrooms and sage put this risotto over the top

The mushrooms and sage put this risotto over the top

As I wrote in my earlier risotto post, I’m a pressure-cooker convert when it comes to cooking risotto. The whole “four minutes and it’s done” thing won me over at a time when every meal-prep minute was precious. And even though I’m spending more time now cooking family meals — sometimes even WITH the family — time is no less precious. I can almost guarantee that something will come up over the course of an evening to derail even the best timeline. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had to stop cooking to dress a Barbie, or undress a Barbie, or mediate a good old-fashioned round of “torment your sister by putting the Barbie somewhere she can’t reach.” Which is only bested by “retaliate by whacking your sister with the remaining Barbies,” by which time I’m challenged to even get a bowl of cereal on the table in time for dinner. But four minutes…that’s hard to beat. And so risotto wins again. Take that, Barbie! (But you and that big T-Rex friend of yours are still invited for dinner….)

Hey big boy, come here often?

Hey big boy, come here often?

We picked up most of the ingredients for this version at the West Windsor Community Farmer’s Market in our own back yard. I’m kind-of bummed that this coming Saturday is the last day the market is open for the season, but was really happy to hear that there will be a slow food winter market opening soon to get us through the colder months. The butternut squash and the leek were from Jeff’s Organic Produce in Monroe, NJ, and the mushrooms from Davidson Exotic Mushrooms in Kennett Square, PA — that mainstay of mushroom production.

Davidson Exotic Mushrooms at West Windsor Community Farmer's Market

Davidson Exotic Mushrooms at West Windsor Community Farmer’s Market

Butternut squash at Jeff's Organic Produce stand

Butternut squash at Jeff’s Organic Produce stand

I’ve got to admit that risotto was not on my mind as I shopped, but I’m also a believer in the “things that grow together, go together” philosophy…both geographically and seasonally. So with these goodies in the larder and some leftover baked chicken to use up, a plan came together quite nicely if I do say so myself.

By the way, I baked the butternut squash in advance as part of another dish, but if you either don’t have the time or don’t want to go through the effort of baking a whole squash for a measly half-a-cup of squash flesh, you can use about half-a-cup of frozen butternut squash cubes and this dish will turn out just as well. You can also increase the amount of butternut squash in this recipe (either from a baked squash, or the frozen cubes) quite easily if you’re a fan. Our girls are still working on their squash taste buds so I held back a bit. Maybe it would help if I told them Barbie LOVES squash (she does, doesn’t she?). I was also judicious in how we incorporated the mushrooms, but more on that in the recipe below.

Anyway, with apologies to Mattel, here’s the action-figure-approved version of our autumn risotto:

Butternut Squash and Chicken Risotto with Sautéed Leeks and Mushrooms

5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 leek, sliced down the middle and cleaned very well to remove any grit between the layers, white and light-green parts sliced into thin half-moons
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil, canola oil, or another neutral vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup roasted butternut squash flesh or 1/2 cup frozen butternut squash cubes*
1/4 cup dry white wine or vermouth
3 1/2 – 4 cups chicken stock (homemade if you have it)
2 cups shredded cooked chicken breast (from leftover baked chicken…or you can pre-cook one chicken breast for this recipe)
1 1/2 cups freshly-grated Parmesan cheese, plus additional for garnish
1/2 cup grated cheddar (or cheddar/Monterey Jack blend)
1 pint fresh mushrooms (we used a mix of criminis and shiitakes), cleaned and sliced into 1/4 inch slices
4 – 5 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped, plus additional for garnish
2 tablespoons good-quality dry (fino) sherry
Kosher salt and freshly-ground pepper

Begin by melting 2 tablespoons unsalted butter in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. When bubbling, add the leeks and a generous pinch of salt. Sauté, stirring often, until the leeks are quite soft. Do not allow the leeks to burn or scorch or they will be bitter. Reduce the heat to medium-low or low if that begins to happen and stir to redistribute the leeks in the pan.

When the leeks are soft and almost done cooking — this could take 10 minutes or so — heat the grapeseed oil and 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat in a pressure cooker. (If you don’t have a pressure cooker, take a look at this Laid-Back Risotto recipe from Mark Bittman on the New York Times web site and adjust this recipe accordingly for the stove top…it will take a little longer, but not too much.) Add the Arborio rice and sauté for about 1 minute, until the outer covering of the rice grain turns slightly translucent. Add the leeks, stir, and then deglaze with the white wine or vermouth — whichever you are using. Allow the wine to evaporate slightly and add the butternut squash, stir, and then add 3 1/2 cups chicken stock. Place the lid on the pressure cooker, secure, and bring the pressure cooker to high pressure for 4 minutes.

Meanwhile, wipe clean the sauté pan used to sauté the leeks and, over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon butter. When foaming, add the mushrooms and a generous pinch salt. Sauté, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms start to brown. Continue to cook until all the mushrooms are golden, adjusting the heat as necessary to keep them from burning (you can add a little more butter if necessary). Add the chopped sage, stir, and deglaze the pan with the sherry. Allow sherry to evaporate and take the mushrooms off heat.

Mushrooms - crimini and shitake

Mushrooms – crimini and shiitake

When 4 minutes are up on the pressure cooker — and this will probably happen at some point as you are sautéing the mushrooms — carefully release the pressure and remove the lid. Stir the risotto, adding more chicken stock over medium heat as necessary until the rice is tender but al dente. If you’re making this on the stove top instead of a pressure cooker, just keep adding warmed chicken stock to the rice until it is creamy and al dente.

Add the shredded chicken to the risotto and mix well. Off heat, add the Parmesan and cheddar cheeses and remaining 1 tablespoon butter and stir well. Add salt and pepper to taste.

There are several options for plating this dish. You can either fold the mushrooms into the risotto at this point, or you can serve the risotto topped with a scattering of mushrooms and a sprinkle of Parmesan and a sage leaf or two. Which is what we did, since our girls don’t care for mushrooms very much. The parent portions got mushrooms, the kid portions did not.

Serves: 4 as a main course, 6 as appetizer or side-dish portions

Big bowl of risotto - are you sure there is squash in here?

Big bowl of risotto – are you sure there is squash in here?

Parent rating: four and a half stars. If we didn’t love risotto so much we probably wouldn’t make it as often as we do. This version is especially warming and comforting without being too heavy. The mushrooms, with their buttery, sage-y, slightly sweet finish really enhances the overall dish for the adults in the house. I think this was on the table in 30 minutes, even with the Barbie distractions.
Kid rating: four stars. Daughter 1 asked me more than once whether there was actually any squash in this dish, and she said that in a good way. Which probably means there was not enough squash in the dish if you know what I mean. We got a thumbs up from her. Daughter 2 ate almost her entire portion and didn’t seem to care about the squash one way or the other. One clean and one almost-clean plate equals success. We can now get back to the Barbie wars.

* To bake a butternut squash, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Halve the squash lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, oil the cut side of the squash and place it, cut side down, on a baking sheet. Place the baking sheet in the oven for 45 minutes to one hour, until you can easily pierce the skin of the squash with the sharp tip of a knife and meet no resistance. Remove from oven and allow to cool before scooping flesh out of the squash shell.