Stuffed Chicken Rolls: Score One for the Improvisational Cook

Reader Contribution by Cindy Murphy
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Welcome to “An Evening at the Improv.” The stage is my kitchen, and our guest tonight is stuffed chicken rolls. I hope it doesn’t get heckled and booed off stage before the performance is over.

The girls aren’t what I’d consider the pickiest of eaters (I’ve heard horror stories of worse, anyway), but they definitely each have their quirks. Shelby’s palate is texture driven; if it feels funny in her mouth she won’t eat it. “Funny feeling” foods include, but are not limited to, things like cottage cheese, apple sauce, Jello, tomatoes, and all fruits with the exception of apples and bananas. Strange, but vegetables top her list as favored foods. Shannon is the opposite; she likes fruits of all sorts, but usually struggles with vegetables except for the Big Three: green beans, carrots, and broccoli. To find something they both like can be a challenge. Keith’s roast beef, spaghetti, and homemade chicken noodle soup, they both like. My meatloaf, baked macaroni and cheese, and baked chicken are favorites, too. But I get tired of having the same things for dinner all the time. This winter, I’ve decided I’m going to cook at least one new dish each week.

No, I’m not going to blog about each recipe in some cheap, poorly written imitation of the “Julie/Julia Project.” I am nowhere as ambitious as Julie Powell when she blogged about her experiences cooking the 524 recipes in one year from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And with all due respect to the late Ms. Child, I don’t believe I have the gumption to master the art of anything French except possibly those French Toast Sticks that come in the freezer section of the grocery store. I don’t want to go out and hunt down ingredients at specialty shops to cook. And if the recipe doesn’t have “Quick and Easy” in its title, it will by the time I’m finished. I have never in my life – whether by design or accident – followed a recipe exactly as it’s written.

Every once in a while I find a recipe that fits all my criteria as being an exceptionally good one: it’s quick; it’s simple; no special shopping trips required, and the girls will eat it. “Chicken Roll-Ups” was one I randomly pulled from a stack of magazines I’ve been meaning to get to since last summer; Stuffed Chicken Rolls sounds better to me, so that’s what I’m calling them.

Stuffed Chicken Rolls

I should probably list the actual ingredients and measurements the recipe calls for, because a lot of what I used only falls in the ballpark, and I did not measure anything.

¼ cup all purpose flour
¾ cup plain bread crumbs
2 eggs
4 ounces smoked mozzarella, cut into 6 pieces about 2 inches long
6 boneless, skinless, thin-sliced chicken breasts (about 4 ounces each), pounded out to ¼ inch thickness
¾ (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon dried parsley
¾ teaspoon dried thyme
¼ plus 1/8 teaspoon salt
½ cup dry white wine
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

What no vegetables? There’s gotta be vegetables; even Shannon the affirmed vegetable hater expects vegetables. Ok, I’ll chop up some broccoli and roll it, along with the cheese, up into the chicken. Chicken breasts where the only ingredient I didn’t have on hand, but I was going to the grocery anyway and chicken was already on my list. They weren’t thin-sliced, I have no idea if they were 4 ounces each, and neither did I care. Nor was I concerned about them being way more than a ¼ inch think. Because I had a meat mallet!

In my woefully sparsely equipped kitchen without a mixer, a blender, food processor, or any of those other “must-haves” most people own, I somehow acquired a meat mallet. I can’t imagine how I came to own this shiny metal hammer with its dimpled head; I would never have purchased it myself. It’s highly unlikely it was a gift – not like the toaster my brother brought us during one visit, because he got tired of making his morning toast in the oven. Ah, but that was nearly 15 years ago, and I’ve been carrying this meat mallet around through our different moves for probably just as long as we’ve owned the toaster. The only thing I ever remember it being used for was letting Shannon pound her Play Doh into flat, dimpled pancakes with it. Pounding these chicken breasts into dimpled chicken pancakes, I decided I didn’t know what fun I was missing all these years. After the pounding of the breasts (that sounds rather caveman like, doesn’t it? Except I didn’t bellow while I was doing it.), I moved on to the next step in the recipe.

“Heat oven to 350. Coat a 13-by-9-by-2 inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.” For those of you who don’t have numbers on your oven dial because you’ve scrubbed them off in a fit of cleanliness when moving into your house, 350 degrees is about half-mast on the dial. Don’t ask how I know this; I just do. Half-mast though, I figure is appropriate – a symbolic gesture of mourning considering some of the stuff that comes out of my oven.

“Place flour and unseasoned bread crumbs in separate shallow plates. Beat eggs in a medium-sized bowl.” No plain bread crumbs; mine had Italian seasoning – no difference as far as I’m concerned.

“Place a piece of mozzarella on one short end of each chicken breast and roll up tightly. Tuck loose ends in.” Shoot, when I glanced at the recipe ingredients before going to the store, I could have sworn it said “Swiss cheese”. We already had Swiss, and it was already pre-sliced, shaving about a minute off the prep-time. I decided this might qualify the recipe into the “Quick and Easy” category.

“Coat each chicken roll with flour, dip in the egg and roll in the bread crumbs. Place seam-side down in prepared dish.” Messy fingers; of course the phone rang. Sometime between “Hello” and getting goo on the phone receiver and in my hair, I realized I’d forgotten to add the chopped broccoli before I rolled the chicken. I made a mental note to just toss it with the pasta later on.

“Melt butter in a small saucepan and stir in parsley, thyme and ¼ teaspoon of the salt. Pour mixture over the chicken rolls.” To me, this seemed like a totally wasted effort. The bread crumbs were already seasoned; I sprinkled a little paprika on the chicken to make it look pretty. One and a half sticks of butter?! I could feel my arteries clogging at the thought. A few blobs of butter on top of the pretty paprika-ed chicken rolls saved my family’s arteries, and also saved me from having to wash another pan.

“Bake at 350 for 15 minutes.” I covered the dish with foil so it didn’t become dry; given my rough guess on what temperature my oven was actually set, I didn’t want the chicken to have the texture of compressed saw-dust. Shelby would never eat it then; saw dust, I’d guess, is on her list of “funny-feeling” foods.

“Pour wine over the chicken and bake for an additional 25 minutes.” What wine? Darn it, somehow I missed this one on the ingredient list too. Rummaging through the cupboard and fridge, I came up with a few white wine-like colored substitutes: vodka, white balsamic vinegar, and draft hard apple cider. I opted for the cider, pouring approximately 1/3 of the bottle over the chicken, and slugging back the rest.

“Meanwhile, prepare angel hair pasta following package directions. Drain and place in large serving bowl.” Meanwhile, while continuing the phone conversation, getting the goo off my fingers, the phone, and every other thing I’ve touched since the dipping step, helping Shannon with homework, letting the dog out, and opening another bottle of hard apple cider, I prepared the vermicelli (I didn’t have angel hair pasta) with relative ease without even once glancing at the package directions. (Eye-roll.)

“Remove chicken from baking dish and place on serving platter. Season with remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt. Pour butter-and-wine mixture from baking dish over pasta and toss with Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.” No salt; I rarely cook with it. Amend to read butter and hard apple cider mixture. This was also when I would have added the broccoli … had I not forgotten it again. Good stuff that hard apple cider.

Despite the way this looks in the photo (blame it on poor lighting, a cheap camera, a lack of photography skills…and maybe a little bit too much hard cider), it was actually delicious. The girls even asked for seconds. The great thing about this recipe is its versatility. I can imagine the chicken filled with mozzarella, baby spinach and mushrooms; chopped fresh tomatoes would be tossed in the pasta. How about using cheddar and Monterey Jack inside the chicken, and serving it with fresh salsa. Ooooo, fontina and sun-dried tomatoes! Havarti and red peppers! Fresh sweet peas, and baby carrots! Provolone or asiago!

The possibilities are endless. And any of variation, of course, would go well with draft apple cider.

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