As a graduate student in the mid-seventies, I was living in a fifth-floor walk-up studio on New York City’s, not-yet-gentrified, Upper West Side. The apartment was on the top floor of a converted brownstone and consequently had a tiny kitchen, my very first, maybe 6-feet long by 3-feet wide. Yet it was here that I began to take a serious interest in cooking.
Living on a limited student budget, I typically cooked pasta dishes (and frittatas from their leftovers) that were inspired by my Sicilian mother and my Neapolitan aunt. Since one cannot live on pasta alone, however, I started to read cookbooks, as well as food magazines and newspaper columns.
One of these columns was Pierre Franey’s, titled “The 60-Minute Gourmet,” which began to appear in The New York Times’ “Living Section.” One of my favorites was Poulet Saute Beausejour, chicken pieces sautéed with wine and herbs. I must admit that I was never able to execute any of these dishes in sixty minutes, especially in a kitchen without any counter space. Nevertheless, my efforts were more often than not rewarded by tasty meals that, as my confidence in my culinary skills increased, I went on to prepare for friends.
Recently, the Times’ 21st -century, on-line equivalent of the “Living Section,” now called “Cooking,” published a 1992 recipe from Franey column for “Chicken Breasts with Lemon.” It had a link to the paper’s Time Machine, which had a photo-copy of the column. Seeing it brought back so many memories that I had to make it.
It’s a relatively simple recipe with minimal ingredients, together with straight-forward cooking directions, and yields a totally delightful dish, especially when served with the chef’s recommended side of mashed potatoes with garlic and basil. The chicken is moist, tender, and lemony, napped in a silky-smooth buttery sauce richly flavored by thyme, shallots, and garlic. Along with the potatoes, it had a sort of retro look that during our pandemic provided some measure of comfort.
I pretty much followed the recipe but adapted it for two. My chicken breasts were also twice the weight of those listed in the recipe, so I pounded them to flatten and make more even in size. Keeping one’s eyes on the cooking temperature is essential for this dish, so I’ve added a little more detail about it in my adaptation. One step of the recipe where minding the temperature is essential is while reducing the sauce and after adding the butter. If the heat is too high, the butter may melt before it’s incorporated into the sauce.
One final note. As was the case 45 years ago, I wasn’t able to execute the dish in 60 minutes, despite having loads of counter space. Including the prep, it took me a full 80 minutes to get it on the table.
Chicken Breasts with Lemon (adapted from a recipe by Pierre Franey from the New York Times’ “60 Minute Gourmet” column)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour for dredging
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, about 8 ounces each
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried
3 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup chicken broth, fresh or canned
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. If chicken breasts are thick and uneven, cover with plastic wrap and pound them to even them out.
2. Pat the breasts dry with paper towels.
3. On a plate, season the flour with salt and pepper.
4. Dredge the chicken breasts all over. Shake to remove any excess flour.
5. In a heavy skillet large enough to hold the chicken pieces in one layer over medium heat, heat the oil.
6. Add chicken and cook, uncovered, over medium to medium-high heat for 5 minutes or until lightly browned.
7. Flip the chicken and cook for an additional 5 minutes, or until cooked through.
8. Remove the chicken to a plate. Carefully pour off the oil from the skillet and discard it.
9. Return the chicken to the pan and any juices that may have accumulated on the plate.
10. Add the thyme, shallots, and garlic, and cook for about a minute over medium heat. Be careful not to burn the garlic.
11. Add the lemon zest, the lemon juice, and the broth.
12. Still over medium heat, scrape the bottom of the skillet to dissolve the brown particles that cling to the bottom.
13. Add the butter, and cook for 3 minutes longer adjusting the flame so that the sauce thickens but doesn’t break.
13. Serve immediately on warmed plates.
Wine Pairing: Chardonnay