Passing the Smell Test–Grilled Goat Cheese Stuffed Chicken and Basil Tomato Marinara on Cinnamon Rice

I made a mistake recently. I asked some friends coming over for dinner if they had any requests. Normally, unless there’s an allergy at issue, I don’t pay attention to whether someone does or doesn’t like a particular ingredient. This a point of contention in my house. My wife says we are supposed to care about our guests’ enjoyment, whereas I like to look at them as guinea pigs.

But, I asked. So I was looking at either chicken or beef. I don’t normally like to cook chicken for company because I think of it as a bland food that needs a lot of dressing up. But we’d just had the family over for steaks the night before. Chicken it would be. I decided to adapt a recipe I’d made up for shrimp one evening a while ago. The problem was that the shrimp recipe occurred after we’d all had a few glasses of wine. I remembered that it had cinnamon rice, some sort of marinara, and goat cheese. Beyond that, I had no idea. I was going to have to find the right spice combination…again.

For the novice cook, spices are scary. Once we get past salt, pepper, and maybe oregano, most of us are afraid to venture deep into the spice cabinet. How do we know what will taste good together, and what will be a bust?

The answer is simple: your spices and ingredients have to pass the smell test. If you smell two ingredients, and they “battle each other,” then your food is going to have conflicting taste. If one of your spices overpowers the other in your nose, it will in your mouth, as well.

When I’m trying something new, the first thing I do is to smell the various spices and ingredients I plan on using. If I like the way they combine in my nose, then I’m pretty certain that I’ll like the way they all fit together as a meal. This way, even though I may use some exotic ingredients, or ingredients that don’t normally go together, I rarely end up with food that just flat out tastes weird.

If you try this recipe, prep all the ingredients before you mix anything together. Then sniff one ingredient after another in quick succession. I’ll bet you’ll like what you smell.

Grilled Goat Cheese Stuffed Chicken and Basil Tomato Marinara on Cinnamon Rice

What you need:

3 chicken breasts
8 roma tomatoes
3 ounces of goat cheese
1/8 cup olive oil
1 large clove of garlic
1 serrano pepper
3 large fresh basil leaves
1 1/2 tsp ground cardamon
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4-1/2 tsp lime juice
sea salt

What to do with it:

Get some charcoal going on the grill.

We’re going to start with the marinara. Start by peeling, seeding, and chopping the tomatoes. Chop the basil and place in a sauce pan with the tomatoes, olive oil, cardamon and about 1 1/2 tsp sea salt. Start cooking on medium low heat, stirring occasionally. You’re going to keep cooking this for a while, until the tomatoes are almost all liquid.

Mince the garlic and serrano (don’t seed it), and mix them and the lime juice into the goat cheese. Use a fork. Add about 1 tsp salt as you go.

Put some water on to boil for your rice.

Cut your chicken in half laterally so that you have two sides each about 1/2″ thick. Don’t quite cut them all the way through (you want a “hinge” on one side). Microwave the goat cheese mixture about 15 seconds so that it is a bit softer, and spread it on one half of each chicken breast. Now fold the two halves back together. Use a couple of tooth picks, and cooking twine if you’ve got it, to keep the halves of the chicken together.

Measure out your rice, and add the cinnamon to it.

At this point, your water should be boiling and your coals ready for cooking. Put the rice on. Check the tomatoes: if they’ve cooked down, turn down the heat to low. If not, keep going. Put your chicken on the grill. You’re going to cook it about 8 minutes per side, depending on your grill.

Once the chicken is done, slice it into strips about 1/4 inch wide. Plate the rice, top with marinara, and put the chicken on top. Serve with a buttery chardonnay, such as J. Lohr.

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