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Sort-of Cordon Bleu
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Sort-of Cordon Bleu

One of the many "classic" dishes of a generation past is chicken Cordon Bleu (literally, "blue ribbon"), a recipe that typically involves rolling a flattened chicken breast with a slice of ham and a slice of Swiss-type cheese, then breading the result and sauteeing or baking it until the cheese is melted and the crust crunchy golden-brown.

It's not a bad treat, especially by the standards of Franco-American dishes of the '70s and before, but it involves a fair amount of effort and brings a substantial stack of calories to the table.

The other night, trying to come up with a quick dinner that would make a good match with an exceptional Pinot Noir, I put a new spin on the old classic, dropping the flattening, breading-and-frying steps completely and switching from the usual Gruyere to a mild but earthy local goat cheese that I thought would sing with Pinot.

The result was fine, and took no more than a half-hour to put together. This makes it a blue-ribbon winner in my book!

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Black pepper
1 ounce butter
1 or 2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 ounces mild goat cheese
2 thin slices ham, cut to about the same size as the chicken breasts


1. Sprinkle the chicken breasts with a little freshly ground black pepper. I recommend not salting at this stage, as the cheese and ham are both salty, so this dish may not need additional salt.

2. Melt the butter in a sautee pan or skillet. Smash the garlic cloves to release their juices, and add to the butter. Put in the chicken breasts and cook over medium-high heat until they're browned on both sides. Then cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook for about 5 minutes more, or until it's almost cooked. (See note on "Chicken cooking safety" below.)

3. Stir in the lemon juice, turn the chicken breasts once or twice, then reduce heat to very low. Spread half of the goat cheese on each chicken breast, and drape a ham slice over each. Cover and leave over low heat for about 2 minutes, just long enough to warm the cheese and ham.

I served this with crusty rolls and a salad.

WINE MATCH: As noted, I designed this specifically for a Pinot Noir, and found that the combination of delicate chicken and salty ham flavors with the earthy goat cheese, browned butter, lemon and garlic made a fine match indeed. The Pinot was one of my favorites, a California bottling with a French name and more than a hint of Burgundian character: Au Bon Climat 1998 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir "La Bauge Au-dessus."

CHICKEN COOKING SAFETY: There's been a lot of cautionary publicity lately about serious food-safety concerns involving chicken and new strains of food-poisoning bacteria that may resist medical treatment. It makes sense to take special care in handling chicken at the store, in your kitchen, and in the skillet.

While I'm normally hesitant to copy published material, I hope the editors of Consumer Reports won't object to my sharing the following brief but important excerpt from their recent thorough investigation of chicken-safety issues:

What you can do:

Make chicken one of the last items you buy before heading to the checkout line.

Pick chicken that is well wrapped and at the bottom of the case, where the temperature should be coolest. Sell-by dates are not a perfect indicator of freshness. We found a few spoiled chickens with sell-by dates as far away as four to six days. If you can find a chicken with a sell-by date seven or more days away, buy it.

Place chicken in a plastic bag like those in the produce department, to keep its juices from leaking.

If you'll be cooking the chicken within a couple of days, store it at below 40 F. Otherwise, freeze it.

Thaw frozen chicken in a refrigerator or microwave oven, never on a counter. Leave it in its packaging and put it on a plate, so juices can't drip.

Separate raw chicken from other foods. Immediately after preparation, use hot, soapy water and paper towels to wash and dry your hands and anything you or raw chicken might have touched.

Cook chicken thoroughly to kill harmful bacteria. Whole chicken should be heated to 180 F, breasts to 170. Use a thermometer; chicken that is no longer pink can still harbor bacteria.

Don't return cooked meat to the plate that held it raw. And don't use a sauce in which raw chicken has been marinating unless it has been brought to a rolling boil for at least a minute.

Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours of cooking.

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Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Roast turkey (Dec. 5)

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Thursday, Dec. 12, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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