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Eric Akis: Stuffed chicken breast with Italian flair

Boneless, skinless chicken breast gets a flavour boost from Italian-style ricotta and spinach filling
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Breaded chicken breast stuffed with ricotta and spinach is served on marinara sauce. ERIC AKIS

Boneless, skinless chicken breast is mild tasting, but that deliciously changes when you fill it with something that enhances its flavour and look. There are many ways to do that, but today I felt like making something Italian in style and filled it with a ricotta/spinach mixture.

To prepare the chicken, each breast used is cut, horizontally, spread open, and then pounded with a kitchen hammer until quite thin. Some of the ricotta/spinach mixture, which was tastily seasoned with such things as Parmesan cheese, garlic and oregano, is then set in the centre of each breast. The pounded chicken breast is then folded over the filling and pressed together into an oblong shape. The chicken is then coated in breadcrumbs, sealing the filling inside.

The last steps are to lightly brown the chicken in oil in a skillet, set it on a baking sheet, and then finish the cooking by baking it in the oven. When ready, you plate and serve the chicken on a pool of marinara sauce, creating a tasty Italian-style entrée.

There are a few steps involved in preparing the chicken, but you could fill and coat it in the breadcrumbs many hours before needed, refrigerate it and tidy of up your kitchen. When mealtime comes around, simply brown and bake the chicken as described in the recipe.

How to make Chicken Stuffed with Ricotta and Spinach

Step 1: Set chicken breast, smooth-side down, on a cutting board. Cut a deep horizontal slit through thickest portion of the breast. Spread chicken open where you cut it, cover with a double layer of plastic wrap, and use a kitchen hammer to pound it until it’s about 1/4-inch thick.

Step 2: Season chicken with salt and pepper. Set some of the ricotta/spinach mixture in the centre of the breast.

Step 3: Fold the sides of the breast over the filling. Press and form chicken into an oblong shape.

Step 4: Flour, dip in beaten egg/milk mixture and then coat the stuffed breast in breadcrumbs. Cook as described in the recipe.

Chicken Stuffed with Ricotta and Spinach

Chicken breast filled, Italian-style, with a ricotta/spinach mixture, coated in breadcrumbs, and then browned and baked until golden and flavourful. Serve the chicken with orzo, rice or risotto, and a vegetable, such as steamed broccolini.

Preparation time: 60 minutes

Cooking time: 25 to 31 minutes

Makes: four servings

1 bunch fresh spinach

1 cup ricotta cheese (see Note 1)

1 large egg

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 medium garlic clove, minced

1/2 tsp dried oregano

• pinches ground nutmeg and red pepper flakes

• salt and ground white pepper, to taste

4 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts (each about 175 to 200 grams)

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

• egg wash (1 large egg beaten with 2 Tbsp milk)

3/4 cup dried fine breadcrumbs

2 Tbsp vegetable oil

1 to 1 1/3 cups store-bought or homemade marinara sauce, warmed (see Note 2)

Remove stems from the spinach leaves. Wash the leaves well. Bring a large pot with a 1/2-inch of water in it to boil. Add spinach leaves and cook and stir until they just wilt. Spoon spinach into a colander, cool with cold water and then let drain. Now use your hands to very firmly press on the spinach and squeeze out as much moisture as you can. (This is an important step. If the spinach is overly wet, so will the filing be for the chicken.)

Set spinach on a cutting board, coarsely chop and set in a bowl. Add ricotta, 1 large egg, Parmesan cheese, garlic, oregano, nutmeg, pepper flakes, salt and white pepper and mix well to combine. Refrigerate this ricotta/spinach filling until needed.

Set one of the chicken breasts, smooth-side down, on a cutting board. With a sharp knife, cut a deep horizontal slit through thickest portion of the breast, without cutting all the way through. Spread the chicken breast open where you cut it.

Cover the breast with a double layer of plastic wrap. Use a kitchen hammer to pound the chicken until it’s about 1/4-inch thick. (When pounding the chicken, don’t do so too firmly, or it might break apart in places.)

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Set quarter of the ricotta/spinach filling in the centre of the breast. Fold the sides of the breast over the filling. Press the chicken together, creating an oblong shape, and sealing filling the inside. Cut open, pound, fill and fold the other three chicken breasts as you did the first one.

Place the flour, egg wash and breadcrumbs in separate shallow dishes. Coat one of the stuffed chicken breasts in the flour; ensuring its exterior is completely coated. Now dip, turn and coat the chicken in the egg mixture, ensuring it’s evenly and thoroughly coated. Set the chicken in the breadcrumbs, turning, pressing and ensuring it’s completed coated with them. Coat the other stuffed chicken breasts as you did the first one (see Eric’s options).

Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet pan with parchment paper. Heat the oil in a large skillet set over medium to medium-high heat. When oil is hot, cook the chicken, seam-side-down, until light to medium golden on that side, about 90 seconds to two minutes. Turn chicken over and cook until light to medium golden on that side, about 90 seconds to two minutes. Set the chicken breasts on the baking pan, seam-side-down. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until cooked through. Plate the chicken, serving each breast on a pool of marinara sauce.

Eric’s options: You can stuff and coat the chicken breasts many hours before cooking them. If you do that, set chicken seam-side-down on a wide plate, cover and refrigerate until ready to fry and bake.

Note 1: A 280 mL container of ricotta cheese should yield the amount needed here and a little bit more. Save the rest for another use.

Note 2: If you need a recipe for homemade marinara sauce, Google Eric Akis marinara sauce and you’ll find one.

eakis@timescolonist.com

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.