grilled chicken for breakfast

By 7 am this morning I was on the patio grilling the chicken I’d marinated overnight. You see, there are no Fruit Loops in my pantry. Or CoCo Puffs. Or even Corn Flakes or Rice Krispies or Grape Nuts. No Pop Tarts. In my freezer there are no toaster waffles, frozen cinnamon buns or pre-made-egg-product-and-mystery-meat sandwiches. Given this dearth of conventional and much-desired-by-most-kids breakfast fare, I face the daily mission impossible of getting my 14-year-old daughter, Lily, to eat something substantive for breakfast. And it must be accomplished in the four minutes between her mega-grooming for another day on the battlefield that is 8th grade, including shower, blow-dry, flat iron, eyeliner, mascara, lip gloss, and countless outfits that have to be tried on, but not including any lifting of discarded items off the bedroom floor, and her dash for the bus that picks her up at the end of the culde-sac. So, I’m pressed for time. Still, I stop and smell the pop-up roses in my yard as the chicken is charring.

My Breakfast of Champions has to include these components: 1. some kind of protein 2. something live that grows from the ground and hasn’t been processed into a form unrecognizable by the body. 3. A glass of water. 4. A multiple vitamin.

The protein because she leaves the house at 7:20 and she hasn’t had a mid-morning snack time in school since 3rd grade. So, whatever she eats before she leaves the house has to sustain her focus and energy until her 11:20 lunch slot. That’s 4 hours. If you add the previous 8 hours of sleep, and maybe a couple of hours before that since her dinner the night before, we are talking about fifteen hours or so without any food or water if I don’t get her to eat something in the morning. Fifteen hours! So, even though she has said every single morning since she could talk, “I’m not hungry” first thing in the morning, I find a way to make it happen. I know Lily will need the slowest burning fuel possible because she will be trying to absorb information, solve problems, (i.e., algebra and how to get that geeky guy from the 7th grade to stop texting her between classes), sit still in her seat, keep her jeans and tank top adjusted so that she remains in compliance with the school dress code at all times and navigate the deep and dangerous crevasses between the social cliques.

I want her to eat something that grows live from the ground because any fruit, vegetable or whole grain is going to give her the slow-burning carbohydrate or energy component she needs WITHOUT the sugar rush and crash by 9 am that would follow any of the typical breakfast fare mentioned above that most American kids eat.

I will say it here and say it loud. Most store-bought cereal is not real food. It’s tasty. It’s sweet. It’s familiar. It has friendly cartoon characters, bucolic farm scenes and heroic sports figures associated with it. But, it’s basically candy. Even the “healthy” ones are high in sugars, processed grains, sometimes enriched with synthetic vitamins to make up for the total lack of nutrition, and are a poor choice to start the day. They are dessert, at best, and who wants it for that? If I’m going to eat empty calories that are really fattening, I’m not wasting it on cereal. And I’m not giving it to my baby girl!

That’s why I give Lily chicken. And brown rice. For breakfast. Sometimes her favorite mashed sweet potatoes substitute for the rice. I keep a ready quantity of these items (along with steamed veggies and salad greens) in the fridge so that at any time of the day, including breakfast, a satisfying, balanced, nutritious meal or salad can be thrown together by anyone (without my help, thank you very much!) I change up the marinade on the chicken depending on my mood, but nothing fancy, as you’ll see. Salt, pepper, garlic, some acid of some sort, some good olive oil and I grill them the way my family likes them: charred. I heat slices of the chicken up in a nonstick pan with a little butter or olive oil, less than a minute, then the same with the rice… and voila…the perfect brain food to send a kid off to school with.

It hasn’t always been easy to get my kids to eat well. They have had their share of tantrums in the cereal isle over the years. Off at college, or out at sleepovers I don’t want to think about what they are eating. My daughter has declared Velveeta as one of her favorite foods. (Hence the multiple vitamin to make up for the many meals she has with little or no nutritional value.) Yet, this morning as she ate the buttery, toothsome rice and freshly grilled chicken (in the car, at the bus stop, while texting…please, I know!) she made a little “mmm” sound. I heard it. It was very faint. If I gave her a choice, at 14, between that plate and a brimming bowl of fruity neon o’s saturated with sugar floating in milk that’s turning purple because of the dye in them, I don’t know if she would choose the dinner-for-breakfast option. I can only hope. But then…that’s why I don’t give her a choice.

Lemony Herby Grilled Chicken

6 boneless chicken breasts (anti-biotic and hormone free whenever possible!)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup white wine
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar/white wine vinegar/apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice or juice of one small lemon
1 teaspoon of lemon zest
4-5 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
1 tablespoon dried tarragon (or fresh, chopped)
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves (or fresh, chopped)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (or fresh, chopped)
2 teaspoons Kosher salt (or 1 teaspoon table salt)
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

It depends on the size of the chicken breasts, but I usually opt to butterfly them. It makes for more even cooking, makes smaller more manageable portions, and more of them. To butterfly without slicing your hand open: lay the breast flat on your cutting board and flatten one palm over the top of the breast. With your other hand, run your sharpest knife through the middle or the breast, horizontally, starting at the thickest point of the breast (picture cutting a kaiser roll or a bagel in half). Keep the fingers of your stabilizing hand straight and out of the way! Place the breast pieces in a large zipper bag or other container that can be stored airtight in the fridge.

Mix all the other ingredients, except the oil, together in a small bowl. Let it sit for a few minutes to infuse the liquids with the flavor of the herbs and garlic. Slowly incorporate the oil into the wine/vinegar/lemon mixture with a small whisk or fork. Pour the marinade over the chicken breasts and mix to coat them thoroughly. If in a zip bag, remove as much of the air as possible and zip shut. Refrigerate, but bring to room temp if you have time before grilling.  I like to marinate for a minimum of 30 minutes, but I’ve left them marinating for up to 24 hours if I can’t get to them. If I plan to leave them that long in the marinade I might hold off on the salt until the last minute to keep the chicken from releasing too much moisture while marinating.

You can play with any combination of herbs that you like or have on hand. Switch up dried herbs with fresh, just remember dried herbs will have more concentrated flavor so use more than the indicated amounts if you are using fresh herbs…and chop or crush the fresh herbs in a mortar to release their flavor. Play with types of acid: vinegars, citrus juices, wine. Play with types of pepper from black to red hot. For a tex mex variation add cumin, chili powder, onion powder or chopped onions in the marinade. For a Moroccan feel use Ras Al Hanout or Harrissa.  If you want it to get more breakfasty you could use cinnamon, cloves, allspice, apple juice, apple cider vinegar and a little honey in the marinade and go for an “apple pie” grilled chicken. I could go on, but will stop here. Blog posts are not supposed to take all day!

Warning: Once a guest who was so enthusiastic about the chicken marinade I was preparing in front of him, dipped his finger in to taste it AFTER I had mixed it in with the raw chicken. I yelped at him and told him to spit it out and wash out his mouth and he, manly man that he was, scoffed. He was duly down for the count with the runs and pukes within twelve hours and it lasted for the following 48. Avoid bacterial contamination by keeping your hands clean of raw meats and their juices, and properly cleaning and separating utensils, cutting boards, etc. exposed to raw meats. Elderly folks and young kids are especially at risk for serious consequences with this kind of contamination. Above all…do not taste the marinade after it is mixed in with the raw chicken. Use clean utensils and a clean plate to gather the cooked chicken from the grill.

Grill Skill: I always start grilling by wiping down the grate with a paper towel drenched with some vegetable/canola oil. It cleans any black residue off the grate and serves to grease it a bit to keep your items from sticking. Heat your grill to super hot before placing the chicken on. This way you’ll get a good sear and the meat is less likely to stick. If you’ve butterflied these breasts they will cook fast. You only need a few minutes on each side before they become firm and done. Use a metal spatula to turn the chicken, gently sliding under the meat to loosen it from the grill. Skewering it with fork to flip it will puncture the meat and you lose juices…using tongs can tear the meat and do the same.

Check for doneness: I use the “poke” test for meats on the grill or when pan frying, something I learned in culinary school. Make a loose fist with your left hand. With your right index finger, poke the fleshy part of the fist directly to the left of the base of the thumb. If your fist is loose, this muscle is soft. This is what meat on the grill feels like when it is rare. Now, try tightening up the fist a bit…and poke. This is how meat feels at “medium”. Tighten the fist all the way and this is the feel of meat when it is cooked through. With chicken you are going for this feel. With beef or other meats that your prefer rare to medium, you can go for a softer feel to indicate it’s done.