An unfortunate fact: Even given her innate cooking skills -- and with full measure of my appreciation for her instilling in me a love of a well-made meal -- I still poke fun at her from time to time. About her penchant for blowing off recipes completely, adding and subtracting ingredients at will and fully disregarding measurements, Dad is fond of saying, Mom doesn't need the recipe. It's not like she'd follow it if she had it. All she needs is the title of the recipe, just the idea. Now this is, when you think about it, a compliment. Mom knows food well enough that cooking is second nature. She doesn't need to think about precisely what goes into a dish or what specific method to follow. She creates, and improvises, and the result is always delicious.
What is not quite as complimentary is the relentless ribbing we've been giving Mom since the mid-'80s about her habit of finding a single dish, enjoying it, and then cooking it over and over and over again to the exclusion of all other recipes. I've written about this before. First it was the phyllo chicken. Then, when friends and family could not take one more meal of phyllo chicken, it was the chicken in sun-dried tomato and cream sauce (this was at the height of sun-dried tomato mania, when the ingredient was "new" and trendy). When nobody could eat even one more bite of chicken with sun-dried tomatoes, Mom moved onto the black bean tostada. And then the lobster-stuffed tenderloin. I should not complain; we were eating well. Very well. But still, I think daughters are contractually obliged to make fun of their mothers.
So I thought today -- in belated honor of Mother's Day and with a nod to the mind-blowing finale of the fifth (time-traveling) season of "Lost" -- I would travel back to the 1980s to celebrate the first obsessively oft-cooked dish that I can remember Mom making: mustard chicken in phyllo. Thankfully, my trip to an earlier time shall not include witnessing the birth of Ethan or having a hootenanny in the Dharma security command or detonating a hydrogen bomb because my boyfriend made eyes at a comely fugitive. My trip shall include only chicken. And phyllo. And champagne mustard. And a few jabs at Mom. I tease because I love.
Mom says, "I made this for every dinner guest I had in the late '80s." She also says, as I carefully measure the mustard, "Oh, see, I would never measure that." Dad says, "The only things that are for sure in this recipe are the chicken and the phyllo. You never know what else she'll put in there." I say, as I ask Mom at least 15 questions to clarify her written recipe, "Why does the ingredient list include items that are not mentioned in the method and why does the method refer to ingredients are not on the ingredient list?" Mom replies, trying to get the words out with a straight face, "I see nothing wrong with this recipe as written." Figures.
All mocking aside, once I was able to decode her recipe I had to admit that this dish does make an easy and elegant meal. The creamy chicken filling is divine, the phyllo flaky and pleasing. Rounded out nicely by a crisp salad with lemony dressing, phyllo chicken is a pleasant change of pace for a weeknight supper. And as Mom proved countless times in decades past, it truly is a great dish for entertaining. I understand why she reached for it so often: it is really tasty, and surprisingly quick to make. An attractive option when you've got a kitchen full of guests and you'd rather drink wine with them than attend to complex last-minute dinner preparations.
I asked Mom if her fab '80s guests ever got tired of eating the same dinner each time they visited her. She insists that all her guests were different and were therefore immune to the dangers of repeated phyllo chicken. "I knew a lot of people in the late '80s."
MUSTARD CHICKEN IN PHYLLO
1/4 c. olive oil
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2 lbs.), cut into bite-sized pieces
5 T. cornstarch
1/4 c. champagne mustard (I used Stonewall Kitchen's champagne shallot mustard)
2 c. heavy cream
1 T. chicken soup base
1/3 c. red pepper, chopped
Pinch kosher salt
Pinch white pepper
About 20 sheets of phyllo
3/4 c. butter, melted
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 c. panko or other bread crumbs, divided
Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place the olive oil in a large skillet and sauté the chicken until cooked through, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle the cornstarch over the chicken and stir to combine. Add the mustard, heavy cream, chicken base, red pepper, salt and pepper and stir to combine. Cook until the mixture simmers and the sauce is thickened, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat.
Place two sheets of phyllo on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush the top sheet with melted butter, then add two more sheets. Butter again, then add two more. Repeat until you've used 10 sheets, buttering between every two sheets. Do not butter the top sheet. Spoon half of the mixture lengthwise into the center of the parchment, leaving at least 3 inches of phyllo all the way around the chicken.
Fold the long sides over the chicken, then fold in the ends. Carefully turn over the whole parcel, then brush with more melted butter. Brush with beaten egg, then sprinkle with 1/4 c. of panko. Repeat with the remaining phyllo sheets and chicken mixture.
Bake for 12 minutes, until the parcel is golden brown.
Using a serrated knife, slice into 4 pieces and serve.
Serves 8. Note: If you are using the smaller phyllo sheets, make 4 small parcels instead of 2 large ones. That said, I prefer to use the larger sheets (14" x 18") -- the larger parcels make a more communal dinner party-esque final result.