What do you call a stuffed chicken breast, with Havarti, pesto, and spinach, perfectly seared and cooked to tender perfection, served with a bacon pan sauce? Enchanted. Exquisite. Or maybe, decadent… There is a fair amount of butter involved there at the end. But hey! It’s low-carb and has fiber! And it tastes so very, very good!
When Steve and I first met, he would avoid chicken if he could, and he would never, ever order it at a restaurant. And his least favorite was the breast, which he described as dense, dry, and lacking in flavor. Over the years, he has learned to love chicken, and he does give me credit for changing his opinion about this particular animal protein.
Flavor is easily addressed when you add pesto and/or other seasonings. But the density and dryness is a function of preparation. As a young cook, I would get so frustrated when my chicken breasts prepared at home came out dry and dense, while all the ones I ordered at restaurants were moist and tender. Then I learned about pounding the chicken breasts during preparation. That was a game-changer. And now, we have chicken breasts quite often, much to Steve’s delight.
Here’s what we need to make Havarti, Spinach, and Pesto Stuffed Chicken Breast with Pan Sauce
I had this pesto left over from another meal. Even though I will not go over the steps to make it, I am including the recipe below because it is not a traditional basil pesto. Not traditional because, in addition to the basil, it also has fresh dill and sweet mint. Every once in a while, I like to make this pesto variation because it is a little subtler, a little more whimsical, a little less “in your face” than a basil-only pesto. It went very well with this dish.
I love Havarti. It is such a beautifully smooth and creamy cheese when it melts.
I bought the chicken breasts cut thin, according to the grocery store. Although, I think they were a little bit generous with the term “thin”.
Try to find large chicken breasts (long and wide) because they do a better job of holding the stuffing items. If they are not pre-cut “thin” for you, use a very sharp knife to cut the breasts horizontally into sections 1/2-inch thick. Do not stuff whole breast filets or you will be fighting that dense and dry thing.
You can use toothpicks to secure the stuffed breasts. Or, as I did, little antipasto skewers. They work well because they are as thin as toothpicks, but a little longer.
And here’s how we assemble the Stuffed Chicken Breasts
Get yourself a couple of big sections of parchment paper; one to cover your counter or your cutting board and the other to cover the chicken breast filet.
This is what the filet looked like before I pounded it down.
And this is what it looked like after I covered it with the second section of parchment paper and pounded it with my meat-pounding instrument of choice: a 6.5-inch cast iron skillet.
The small cast iron skillet is perfect for this task, namely because I have freakishly small hands and questionable upper body strength. It is just heavy enough, and has a nice, wide, flat bottom.
I grab it by the handle on one side, and the lip of the pan directly across from the handle, and then I smash down, working the length of the filet. It doesn’t take more than 3-5 hits for each filet to make it look like the picture above. Big difference, huh?
The pounding not only thins the meat, it also breaks down the muscle fibers. Those muscle fibers, if left intact, are what make the breast dense and dry.
I never cook chicken breasts without pounding them anymore. Not only is the end product better, but they cook more quickly and evenly. This is also a great technique for outdoor grilling.
I suggest using the bone side of the breast for the filling side, leaving the smooth side for browning.
First, season the outside of the breast with salt and pepper, then flip it over to stuff.
Next, layer 1 tablespoon of pesto, 2 slices of Havarti, a handful of baby spinach on each breast.
Then roll from the narrow end to the wide end, pressing down firmly and tucking any escaping filling back into the rolled meat.
To finish, secure with the skewer or toothpick. You can use more than one, if needed.
Remember, this is not a beauty contest. It’s more about holding the filling than making them beautiful.
Then, using a little butter, sear the outside of the stuffed chicken breasts in batches in a large skillet. Don’t worry about cooking the inside. Right now, you are going for beautiful, caramelized meat. About 2 minutes on each side.
While the stuffed chicken breasts are roasting, start your pan sauce.
Use the same skillet in which the stuffed breasts were seared. You want that brown butter in the bottom of the pan to add to your pan sauce.
First, brown the bacon, then add the onions. If you let the bacon get nice and brown, it will also add color to your finished pan sauce. Cook the onions until they are tender. Then add the chicken broth, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the chicken broth is reduced by half.
Then add 2 tablespoons of butter and stir it in as it melts. This will make the sauce silky and luscious.
When the chicken is ready, remove the skewers (or let your diners fend for themselves, just be sure to warn them), and plate with a heaping spoonful of pan sauce.
Finish with a fresh parsley garnish and you are set to go!
Melty, creamy cheese and wilted, flavorful spinach with pesto. Wrapped in tender, juicy chicken, covered in bacon buttery goodness. Can you see that glistening beauty? Trust me, not a dense or dry bite to be seen anywhere!
And this is one of the reasons Steve now loves chicken breasts.
- FOR THE STUFFED CHICKEN BREASTS
- 6 boneless chicken breasts, about ½-inch, pounded to about ¼-inch
- 6-8 tablespoons of multi-herb pesto (recipe below)
- 12 slices of Havarti
- 2-3 cups baby spinach
- 1 tablespoon butter
- Toothpicks or antipasto skewers
- FOR THE PAN SAUCE
- 2 slices low-sodium bacon, chopped into small ribbons
- ¼ cup finely chopped onions or shallots
- 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- MULTI-HERB PESTO
- In a food processor, mix:
- 1½ cups basil
- 4 cloves garlic
- 5 tablespoons pine nuts
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 8 tablespoons olive oil
- ¾ cup Parmesan cheese
- ⅓ cup fresh dill with stems
- ¼ cup sweet mint, leaves only
- 1½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- Pre-heat the oven to 350° F.
- Season the outside of the pounded chicken breasts with salt and pepper.
- Then turn the breasts over and fill each one with 1 tablespoon of pesto, 2 slices of Havarti cheese, and 1 handful of baby spinach leaves.
- Roll the breasts tightly, starting on the narrow ends, tucking any escaping filing back into the rolled meat.
- Finish assembling by securing each rolled breast with toothpicks or antipasto skewers.
- Heat a large non-stick skillet at medium or medium-high heat.
- Melt the butter and sear the stuffed chicken breasts in batches, no more than three at a time.
- Be sure to sear both sides, about 2 minutes per side.
- Then transfer to a roasting pan.
- Roast in the oven until the chicken is cooked and the filling is hot. About 20-25 minutes.
- Meanwhile prepare the pan sauce.
- Using the same large skillet, brown the bacon until well browned.
- Then add the chopped onions and cook until slightly tender.
- Next, add the chicken broth and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Boil at the same heat setting until the broth is reduced by half, about 10 minutes.
- Add the butter and stir to melt.
- Reduce heat to simmer.
- When the chicken is done, remove the toothpicks and serve hot with some of the pan sauce.