For me, using fresh herbs, especially whole leaves, in a savory dish adds both flavor and visual impact. Who can miss that entire sage leaf resting atop a butterflied chicken breast, the leaf of basil seemingly sprouting from your margherita pizza, or a whole sprig of rosemary tucked beneath the skin of a roast turkey breast. They all have one thing in common: cell walls. In plants, those wall are composed of a matrix of cellulose microfibrils and polysaccharide chains. These give plant cells structural rigidity, and those of us cooking with them a bit of a problem.
Those rigid cells wall hold the flavors and aromas inside each cell, and we want it outside the cell where we can taste and smell it. Of course we can chop, mash and mince the herbs to release their flavors, but then we no longer have that beautiful leaf to please our visual appetite. What’s a cook to do?
My solution is to roll the whole leaves with a small wooden rolling pin on a smooth wooden board. Immediately the aromas of the fresh herb under the pin are apparent. If you can hear the plant “crunching” as you roll over it, you’ve applied the right amount of pressure. Only one or two passes are all that is necessary to break down many of the cell walls.
Since rosemary is an evergreen, the rolling pin may not suffice. I’ve rinsed, and then frozen whole sprigs in ziptop bags for a few weeks. When I take them out of the freezer, they are much more tender than the fresh sprigs, and miles more fragrant. Even without cooking them, they fill the entire first floor with the scent of autumn.
For herbs that nestle between layers of food, and are never exposed to direct cooking heat, try giving them a very quick sauté in butter first. The heat will dampen those sharp flavors that fresh herbs provide. With a whole leaf, that sharpness may be a bit over powering and unpleasant. And the sautéing heats the leaf, especially if you’re preparing a quick-cooking meal like the recipe I’ve chosen to illustrate this technique.
So let’s get out the rolling pin and the fresh sage for a simple, yet deeply delicious plate of Chicken Saltimboca, which translates literally, to “Jump-in-the-Mouth Chicken.”
- 2 chicken breast cutlets for each person
- fresh bunch of sage leaves, 2-3 leaves per piece of chicken
- 1-2 slices proscuito de parma per piece of chicken
- 1-2 slices of provolone per piece of chicken
- 4 T. butter
- salt and pepper
- flour for dusting
- ½ c. dry white wine or sherry
Place the chicken cutlets between two layers of plastic, or in a ziptop bag and pound each chicken cutlet until it is ¼-inch thick, being careful not to tear the meat. Season the chicken with the salt and pepper, to taste, and then dust it with the flour, shaking off any excess. Set the chicken aside.
Pinch whole sage leaves off the bunch and roll them with a wooden rolling pin being careful not to tear the leaves. Melt 4 T. of lightly salted butter in a large non-stick skillet over medium high heat. Once the butter has melted, lightly sauté the whole sage leaves on both sides for about 30 seconds or until they wilt. Do not let them fry or burn. Remove them from the heat and set those aside. Fry chicken cutlets in the butter, turning once, about 3 minutes a side. Do not overcook. Fry the chicken in batches if necessary.
Once the chicken is cooked, return all the chicken to the pan (if necessary): crowding the pan is fine. Lay 2-3 sage leaves on each breast cutlet, 1-2 pieces of the proscuito, and top with the sliced provolone. Pour the wine into the pan along the side, or in between chicken pieces. Don’t pour it directly on the chicken. Turn the temperature to medium low and cover the skillet with a pizza pan, or other lid with holes to release the steam. Heat for about 4 minutes or until the cheese has melted. Serve with a simple Dijon vinaigrette over spring greens.