Fried chicken sandwiches aren't going anywhere. Especially the spicy ones.
Food writer and social activist Julia Turshen's book, "Simply Julia: 101 Easy Recipes for Healthy Comfort Food" (HarperCollins; $26), offers a recipe for jalapeno popper chicken that shows why the combination is so compelling.
"Simply Julia" is divided into categories, each with 11 favorite dishes, from make-ahead meals and memorable sweets to weeknight go-tos. Turshen's skill is to make routine ingredients and foods captivating without going overboard: Her white-pizza-style kale and breakfast nachos have practical amounts of toppings to balance the indulgence.
Although the word "healthy" is in the title, these recipes aren't counting fat grams and calories. "It's food that's not overladen, that makes you feel good when you eat it," she says.
And feel good making it. Her jalapeno popper chicken uses skinless breasts, which Turshen encourages people to flatten themselves with a heavy pan. "It gets out some aggression you might not know you have," she says with a laugh.
Once properly aggressed, the thinned-down breasts are spread with deconstructed jalapeno poppers — chiles, cream cheese and melty cheddar cheese — then rolled up "like a yoga mat." The stuffed chicken rolls are then coated with a powerful spice mixture and baked instead of fried, which creates a crust reminiscent of crunchy batter.
The outrageously good result boasts an oozy, spicy, creamy filling that punches up the chicken, plus a drizzle-worthy amount of bright-flavored, salty pan juices. Turshen recommends serving the dish with a stack of warm tortillas and avocado, and perhaps a salad. To conjure up poppers as a bar staple, consider guacamole and salsa, too.
Jalapeno Popper Stuffed Chicken
- 1 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 1/3 cup cream cheese, at room temperature
- ½ cup coarsely grated, sharp cheddar cheese
- 1 fresh jalapeno, stemmed, seeded and minced
- 3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
- Kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika or hot paprika
- Warm tortillas, salsa, and guacamole, for serving (optional)
Heat oven to 425 degrees.
Place one of the chicken breasts in a large resealable plastic bag and, using a meat pounder or the bottom of a small but heavy pot or pan, pound the chicken until it's about ¼-inch thick. Repeat the process with the remaining breasts.
In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese, cheddar cheese, jalapeno, cilantro and ½ teaspoon salt. Evenly divide the mixture among the pounded chicken breasts and, using wet hands, spread it over the chicken. Starting with one of the narrower ends of the breast, roll each one up as if it were a miniature yoga mat; if the edges are very uneven, trim them with a knife.
Secure each roll with a toothpick or two and arrange in a large baking dish or ovenproof skillet, seam side down.
In another small bowl, combine ½ teaspoon salt with the olive oil, cumin and paprika. Brush the mixture over the exterior of the chicken rolls. Pour ½ cup water around (not on top of) the chicken.
Roast until nicely browned, firm to the touch, and registering at least 165 degrees on a meat thermometer — about 30 minutes. Let rest for at least 10 minutes before removing the toothpicks. Slice the chicken breasts and serve hot with any extra juices from the baking dish poured on top, as well as tortillas, salsa, and guacamole, if desired.
Makes 4 servings.