Do you remember one of the first dishes you really, truly mastered? There’s the euphoric rush of actually finishing it, the bliss when you taste it and just the outright satisfaction. I had all those feelings the first time I nailed my family’s chicken with mushrooms.
This was not long after college, in my first apartment, when I was actually old enough to, you know, buy wine. It was a pretty simple dish, passed down from my grandmother to my mom, and like many family recipes, exact provenance unknown. Coat boneless, skinless chicken breasts with breadcrumbs in a skillet, transfer to a casserole dish, pour on a can of mushrooms, a bunch of wine, and bake. That was it. I started making it all the time.
There was a lot I didn’t know about cooking then — that this dish would be called a braise, that you could actually overcook the breasts, that maybe cheap pink “white” zinfandel wasn’t the ideal bottle for making it. In other words, pretty much everything I know now, about 15 years later.
So it was an interesting endeavor when I decided to cook it again after too many years of not making it. The food writer voice in my head started racing through all the things I could tweak, while the loyal daughter voice said, “Stop, you’re ruining the family recipe!” I nervously told my mom about my project, and, bless her, she seemed more pleased that I was writing about her mom’s recipe than annoyed that I was adapting it.
But the changes keep the recipe true to its original spirit. I found I preferred bone-in chicken thighs (skin removed) for ultra-tender meat and rich flavor. Fresh mushrooms replaced the canned — cremini are fantastic, but white button are good, too. Using mustard to adhere the breadcrumbs streamlined the dredging process and added a zippy flavor that complemented the wine, as did a few cloves of thinly sliced garlic. I also moved the entire operation to a Dutch oven, firmly ensconcing this dinner as a one-pan meal.
It goes from stovetop to oven, where I pull the lid off the pot partway through cooking to concentrate the braising liquid into a delectable elixir that just begs for crusty bread to soak it up. It’s light enough to enjoy even on a warm day but hearty enough to please in cool weather, too.
Tasting my revised version, I knew the end result was something my family would recognize. And, yes, I still felt that same ripple of pride as when I first made it.