In the whipped cream-light realm of reality TV, “Top Chef” is practically PBS. Conflicts rarely erupt into physical violence. The profanity is rather tame. And people say things like “feel the love” and mean it. (Okay, Carla may be the only one who says that.)
But what lends weight to the series (besides the fact that it’s actually about doing something that takes considerable skill) is that, every once in a while, you hear something smart and true.
The other night, chef David Lavitsky remarked that new recipes never come out perfectly the first time. By the third variation, however, he has generally nailed it, he said.
By this I didn’t take him to mean that the first attempt is inedible; most of us would probably think the dish was just fine, if not drop-dead delicious. But for a chef or home cook with high standards, the first try is rarely “it.”
Ideas that seem logical often don’t work as well as expected. Something — texture, the flavor balance — may be off because of the nature of the particular ingredients you’re using. If you’re working from a recipe, the dish might be just what the recipe writer intended, but not to your taste.
The quote came back to mind as I was developing a variation on a first course I enjoyed at Orso in Anchorage, where I recently traveled — pears stuffed with goat cheese, wrapped in prosciuott and with with figs and green olives.
My first effort to turn this into an entree by using chicken breast rather than pears was both gorgeous and eminently edible.
But it wasn’t “it.”
Here’s what I did:
STUFFED CHICKEN BREAST WITH FIGS AND OLIVES
Two skinless, boneless chicken breasts
4 ounces crumbled feta
4 ounces marscarpone cheese
6 paper-thin slices prosciutto
1/2 cup seedless green olives
1/4 cup pine nuts
8 small dried figs
Remove the tenders from the chicken (little medallions of meat that readily detach; they add thickness you don’t need; reserve for another use). Place the breast pieces one at a time on a piece of plastic wrap and fold wrap over. Pound with a meat tenderizer or the edge of a sturdy plate to flatten and thin the meat.
Straighten out the plastic wrap and lay out three pieces of prosciutto, very slightly overlapped along the long edge. Place a breast piece on top, centered crosswise. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Spread half the cheese mixture on the chicken. With the aid of the plastic wrap, roll chicken around cheese and bring up both sides of the prosciutto to wrap it around the chicken. Ttrim chicken edges if needed. Tuck in ends of prosciutto. The prosciutto will readily adhere to the meat; no need for skewers. But if you should have a problem, skewer with toothpicks.
In a frying pan, melt butter in olive oil — perhaps a tablespoon of each. Place chicken rolls, seam side up and fry until browned but not burned. With the aid of two spoons or spatulas, turn chicken seam side down and brown. Throw in olives, pine nuts and figs. Splash lightly with balsamic vinegar, cover and cook until heated through.
Serve hot with a light salad or green vegetable and desired starch.
Sound good? It was. Husband and I ate it all.
But was I happy? No. The dish was a bit too salty, I thought, and badly needed acid and maybe something with a little bite.
So here’s the plan for round 2. Eliminate salt. Use a tart, creamy chevre, not the feta/marscarpone mixture (I only used these because, for reasons I still don’t understand, Foodland Beretania had no regular French chevre). Place some chopped sun-dried tomatoes, tomato jam or roasted tomatoes on top of the cheese and sprinkle with finely chopped flat-leaf parsley. I might also add some chopped, firm fresh pear.
Add some additional tomatoes to the scattered nut-olive-fig mixture. Use halved fresh figs, if you grow them or can find and afford them.
Rather than finishing the cooking on the stove top, pan-roast the dish in a pre-heated, 350-degree oven, occasionally basting with pan juices. I’ll take care to that the prosciutto rolls don’t stick by shaking the pan and adding a bit more oil or balsamic vinegar. Perhaps even some chicken broth. (But DON’T drown it.)
I’ll let you know how Try No. 2 comes out.