‘This Is the Best Chicken I’ve Ever Had’
When Amy Thielen was a child, she was a gabber: someone who needed to verbalize the thoughts out of her head before they overwhelmed her. To “pour the foam off,” as she put it. While her mother cooked at the stovetop, the young Thielen sat on a yellow vinyl-padded swivel stool at the kitchen island, twirling and talking her mother’s ear off about seventh grade. This proximity to the “action” of cooking, a sort of learning by absorption, would form the foundation of Thielen’s culinary education as she moved through her life later as a restaurant line cook and cookbook author. Details like how to cut the mushrooms and when to flip the chicken, and what to do with the fond that collects on the bottom of the pan (make a sauce, of course). “It was like I could be watching Food Network,” she said to me over the phone, “but it was live.”
Years later, Thielen would surmise that attention to such details was the key to what I consider her best chicken breast recipe to date, from her forthcoming cookbook, “Company.” Here’s the idea: If you treat something as humble as a chicken dinner with the care you would, say, a butter-basted rib-eye or a miso-glazed cod fillet, then the end result will be restaurant-quality. The best cooking requires attention — to your guests, to your food, to yourself and your movements. “Be prepared to stand stoveside and watch the bottom of the pan with predatory focus,” she advises in the recipe’s headnote, “because if you let yourself be called away, the precious browned foundation will burn and the whole sauce will be thrown.”
Though she fondly recalls her mother cooking in sturdy Club Aluminum pans, these days she recommends using stainless steel, something “semistick.” That’s how you get what Thielen’s grandmother used to call pan schmutz (and what Thielen calls, in her first cookbook, “The New Midwestern Table,” pan smut, “that delicious stuck-on crud, the pure flavor shellacked to the bottom of the pan”). This simple feat of magic is the basis of many a stew, sauce and chicken supper.
Most pan sauces rely on stock or wine for deglazing, but this one has a twist. “If someone were to stand over a pan of sautéing chicken holding an ice-cold martini and happen to slosh it into the pan, you would have this sauce,” Thielen writes. The gin idea came from her time cooking on the line at the French restaurant Bouley, which closed in 2017. But that version used duck, and the broth was a concentrate that took forever to make. (Thielen’s chicken is a little more streamlined, though still detailed.) The dish is, as she learned in restaurant kitchens like Bouley, a culmination of all the minute details that make something good great.
As with any recipe, this golden, crispy-skinned chicken — complete with killer pan sauce — could be considered more of a general technique than a strict formula, one you can adapt to your own kitchen. But there’s one caveat: The breast should still have its skin. In most supermarkets in the United States, chicken breasts are sold either boneless and skinless or bone-in and skin-on. Boneless works, but “if there’s no skin, there’s no recipe,” she told me. That’s because the chicken cooks almost entirely on the skin side, relying on the insulation, and fat, to keep the meat moist, not to mention that you end up with the most crackly crust. To achieve this, Thielen advises carving the meat off the rib cage of a bone-in breast, or do as she does in the remote woods of northern Minnesota, where she lives with her family: Remove the breasts from a whole bird yourself. If we want nice things, sometimes we have to work for them a bit.
When I made this chicken for the first time, for my boyfriend and me, he sat at the kitchen island talking to me while I cooked. I’m a terrible multitasker, but I can listen. Like a good true-crime podcast on a long road trip, his chitchat helps me maintain my focus, and when I don’t have a third or fourth hand to dry the sage leaves before I fry them in the butter or to pound the breasts into an even thickness, I know I can turn to him. Every cook needs a gabber, someone to keep you company in the kitchen, but even better and more useful are their taste buds. When he took a bite, he said, “This is the best chicken I’ve ever had.” I agreed. The perfectly cooked white meat with the savory, juniper-pierced jus, in between chomps of crispy sage leaves, is full of delights and surprises you can achieve only by paying close attention.
This is, for me, the chicken dinner of chicken dinners, comforting and familiar but fancy enough to cook for company, or for Valentine’s Day. Even better if your date is sitting at the kitchen island gabbing.
Recipe: Crispy Smashed Chicken Breasts With Gin and Sage