Welcome to the first in our new recipe series, The Canal House Perfect Bite, by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, the award-winning food mavens behind Canal House.
It's early spring here in the Northeast. We may have just finished digging out from winter's last snowstorm, but daffodils are pushing up, and asparagus, fat and pencil-thin varieties alike, is on display front and center at the market. Though we won't see local beauties for another few weeks or so, we just can't help ourselves. We are ready to jump into the new season.
For an upcoming lunch at Canal House, our test kitchen and photo studio in Frenchtown, New Jersey, we decided to have the fattest asparagus we could find, and pair it with chicken, both ingredients poached to keep the flavors gentle and clean. For a sauce, we wanted a riff on a classic green goddess, folding the delicate and herbaceous dressing into soft whipped cream. We planned on serving the chicken and asparagus warm, but we knew that if the afternoon lingered, it would still be delicious at room temperature.
A whole poached chicken is lovely, but we didn't want to fiddle around with cooking the dark and white meat to the different temperatures they require. The breast meat lends itself particularly well to poaching, remaining incredibly tender and juicy, so here we opt for breasts, choosing bone-in, skin-on ones—we've always found that bones and skin lead to better flavor. To that end, we also add chopped carrots, celery, leeks, some fresh tarragon, black peppercorns, salt, and white wine to the poaching liquid, which will infuse the chicken with even more flavor.
Most poaching recipes have you drop the chicken into simmering or boiling water, then cook it until it's done. But, as tests on Serious Eats have shown, you get far better results if you start the chicken in cold water, then bring it up to a gentle 150–170°F (66–77°C) and hold it there until the breasts reach 150°F in the center of the thickest part, about 45 minutes. Because the meat's proteins aren't exposed to the higher heat of simmering water, they don't tighten up as much, and retain a far more tender texture and juicy interior.
We transfer the breasts to a cutting board and, when they're cool enough to handle, pull off the bones and skin and return them to the poaching liquid to flavor the stock some more. To keep the now-boneless and -skinless breasts from drying out while we finish preparing the rest of the dish, we cover them with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic directly against their surfaces. The poaching liquid simmers, its fragrance filling the kitchen. It has done its job of flavoring the breasts, but it's too good now to discard, so we'll have chicken broth for another day and another meal.
While the chicken is poaching, we have plenty of time to clean the asparagus and make the sauce. First, the asparagus. Whether it's from commercial producers and prewashed, or from the farmers market and in need of extra care to get rid of the grit, we always peel our asparagus (unless the spears are too thin to peel). Peeling solves one of the problems of cooking asparagus: the fact that the delicate tips cook faster than the woodier stalks. When you remove the skin, the spears cook evenly from end to end.
Kitchen lore says that you can snap off the woody end of an asparagus spear by flexing it, the idea being that it'll naturally break right above the unpleasantly fibrous part. But in practice, this isn't true—depending on how you flex a stalk of asparagus, it can break just about anywhere. Much better is to eyeball the spear and trim off the tough, woody bottom with a sharp knife.
Just before we're ready to eat, we bring a shallow pan of water to a boil, season it with salt, and gently poach the asparagus until it's tender throughout, cooked to just the other side of done, which usually takes about four minutes. (We prefer using water to poach the asparagus instead of the chicken broth from the chicken-poaching step, as we find that water keeps the asparagus flavor cleaner.) When they come out of the water, we drain the spears on paper towels, set them on a plate, and drizzle them with a little melted butter. Asparagus loves butter, and so do we. It adds a touch of richness to the delicate flavors of the meal.
The green goddess sauce couldn't be simpler to make. All the ingredients whirl together in a blender to form a smooth, bright-green-flecked sauce. The exact herbs in a green goddess can vary, but tarragon, chervil, and chives are among the most common, with the base typically a blend of mayonnaise and sour cream. We keep that base, along with the tarragon and chives, but add peppery watercress and some fresh green parsley to temper the intensity of the other herbs. And we include another classic green goddess ingredient—anchovy fillets, which contribute savoriness to round out all those bright herbal flavors.
We then whip some heavy cream by hand in a large bowl, being careful to keep the peaks soft and smooth. Then, at the last minute, we fold the sauce into the cream to make it pillowy.
When we're ready to serve, we spoon some green goddess sauce down the center of a large serving platter, then slice the chicken breasts and arrange them on top of the sauce, adding a few more spoonfuls of sauce on top of the chicken. We arrange the asparagus on either side of the chicken and scatter chopped fresh chives on top.
We like to serve family-style, since we love the tah-dah factor of presenting a beautiful platter of food to the table. Then there's all the interaction involved in passing: each guest serving the guest next to them, the chatting, and the civility of being together at the table. When we eat, the chicken is moist, the asparagus juicy, the mousse-like sauce full of green flavor. Tastes like spring to us.