Sunday, October 30, 2011

Parmesan-Panko-Crusted Chicken Breast with Herbed Spaghetti Squash

While I spent my Saturday morning in a warm kitchen with Hungry Jack pancakes and cartoons, and my afternoon and evening at work, my parents braved the very out-of-character October snow storm and drove up to State College for the PennState v. Illinois game. Every time any of us is out that way, we always make a stop at Wegmen's, one of my all-time favorite grocery stores. We pick up flaky pastries, fancy cheeses, interesting international foods, and fresh veggies. This trip was no different—when my parents walked into the kitchen after they got back, my dad excitedly showed off a large, creamy yellow spaghetti squash, something that looks like a round squash-pumpkin hybrid that, when cooked, can be scraped with a fork into long spaghetti-like strands. I was immediately intrigued, having just recently seen a recipe online that included the squash, so I was really excited to pull together a meal tonight and work with this type of squash for the first time. I found a simple, delicious recipe from Emeril Lagasse and decided to pair the veggie-spaghetti with a crispy panko-breaded chicken breast, and the result was a fresh, flavorful dish that was easy to feel good about eating, because, really, it's pretty damn healthy. I definitely didn't miss having a starchy side—a couple big spoonfuls of squash, plus the chicken, turned out to be incredibly filling. This dish takes a little time to pull together, but it's definitely worth it!

Serves: 4-6
Prep. time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: About 1 hour for the spaghetti squash, and 10-15 minutes for the chicken
Difficulty: Easy-to-moderate


For the spaghetti squash:
  • 1 small spaghetti squash (about 2 lb., maybe a little larger), cut in half lengthwise
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 2-4 tbsp. finely chopped fresh herbs (a mix of chervil, sage, basil, flat leaf parsley, and chives is perfect, so I highly recommend that for the best results)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
For the chicken:
  • 2-4 chicken breasts, pounded to about 1/4 inch thickness (I serve each person a 1/2 chicken breast, and that's plenty for one person) 
  • 2-4 tbsp. olive oil, or enough to evenly coat the bottom of a large pan
  • Approx. 1/2 to 1 cup panko bread crumbs/flakes, or enough to bread the chicken breasts
  • 1/2 to 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, or enough to flavor the panko
  • 2 tbsp. dried basil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • Approx. 1/2 to 1 cup flour (enough to lightly flour both sides of each chicken breast)

Fresh herbs for the squash. Top, left to right: Basil, sage, Italian flat-leaf parsley. Bottom, left to right: Chives and chervil.

Preheat the oven to 375*F. Place the spaghetti squash halves cut side down in one or two (depending on whether or not you can fit both in the same dish—I couldn't) oven-safe baking dish. Add enough water to come about 1/2 up the sides of the dish(s) and cover with aluminum foil. Bake for 45 minutes, until the squash is easily pierced with a small, sharp knife. Turn the squash over, cover with foil again, and return to the oven to cook for another 15 minutes, or until tender (a fork should easily slip into the flesh of the squash and you should be able to run a fork along the flesh and scrape off strands of it). During that 15 minutes of cooking, prepare your ingredients for the chicken. Place the flour, seasoned with a little salt and pepper, in a shallow bowl. Put the beaten egg in another shallow bowl. In another shallow bowl or on a plate, toss together the panko, Parmesan, and basil.  Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Dredge the chicken breasts, one at a time, in the flour, lightly coating both sides, then dip both sides in the egg, then coat with the panko mixture, before adding it to the pan to cook. Cook the chicken breast until both sides are crispy and golden brown and the chicken is cooked through. Place the chicken in an oven-safe dish and place in the oven to keep warm. When the squash is done cooking, turn off the oven, leaving the chicken in it to stay warm, and remove the squash, allowing it to cool for a minute or two. Scrape out the seeds and the stringy bits around them with a large spoon, then take a fork and gently scrape the flesh of the squash away from the peel and place the spaghetti strands in a small pot (keep a lid on the pot when you're working on this so you can keep the squash warm). Once both halves of the squash have been scraped clean, add the butter and herbs to the squash strands and gently toss to mix. Serve the chicken alongside or on top of the squash and sprinkle with Italian cheese if desired (its saltiness perfectly compliments the subtle sweetness of the squash).

This is a delicately flavored, filling dish with great texture and nice coloring. The creamy yellow-orange squash is slightly sweet and has an al dente crispness when cooked properly. The mix of fresh herbs adds color as well as delicate, complex flavor to the squash that is enhanced by a little Italian cheese. The chicken is crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, and the perfect accompaniment to the squash. It's the sort of dish that, due to its lightness, would be great during the summer months, but the buttery, warm squash makes it perfect for the fall too. Spaghetti squash can be served simply prepared as in this recipe, or served just like the pasta dish, with a variety of sauces and seasonings—try it out! It's really fun to work with.

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