Labor Day, summer’s last hurrah, is a feast day. And mostly – Tell the truth! – we tend to overdo it. Ribs, steaks, burgers and hot dogs? Check, check, check and check.
Vegetables and other light fare? Not so much. The standard routine amounts to the summer version of Thanksgiving, except that after the meal everyone collapses onto the lawn rather than a couch.
Allow me to propose an alternative – a dish that’s simultaneously light and refreshing and substantial: chicken paillard. Paillard is a French culinary term referring to a piece of meat pounded thin, then grilled or sautéed. In this case, we’re going to marinate and grill chicken breasts, then top them off with a peach and arugula salad glorified with a full-fat blue cheese dressing.
Where do you find these skinny cuts of chicken? Chances are you can pick up thin chicken breast cutlets at the supermarket. Or you can buy chicken breasts of average girth, pop them in the freezer for 30 minutes, then cut them horizontally into two thin cutlets.
Whatever kind of breasts you start with, you’ll need to pound the cutlets to the desired thinness. And you’ll want to avoid shredding them in the process, which happens sometimes.
Here’s a little trick to avoid any shredding. Sprinkle both sides of the cutlet with cold water before putting it between two sheets of plastic wrap (or in a zip-close plastic bag). Then pound away, as planned, with a meat pounder or a rolling pin. You’ll notice that the water cushions the meat, preventing it from sticking to the plastic and shredding.
Next, it’s time to bathe the cutlets for an hour in a simple marinade of olive oil, lemon and garlic. Their thinness helps them to soak up the flavor fast. Grilling the cutlets takes almost no time at all, about 1 minute a side. Let them rest for 5 minutes, and they’re good to go.
They also happen to be delicious at room temperature an hour later, which gives you the option of grilling up the chicken ahead of time, thus cutting down the stress of cooking while the party people are swarming the grill.
However you do it, remember to save the juices from the plate on which the cutlets were resting; you’ll want to drizzle in it onto the chicken before topping it with the salad.
And the salad is a cinch – sliced fresh summer peaches and baby arugula (or your favorite greens) tossed with a blue cheese dressing. Happily, a little bit of full-fat blue cheese goes a long way. In this recipe, 1 ounce serves four people. Indeed, it’s so rich that I’ve combined it with low-fat mayonnaise, Greek yogurt and a little bit of water to thin it out. Toasted walnuts (a king among nuts, health-wise) provide the final touch.
See for yourself if this dish doesn’t allow you to kiss off the summer with abandon without knocking you to your knees in the process.
Grilled Chicken Paillards With Peach And Arugula Salad
Start to finish: 1 hour 20 minutes (20 minutes active)
2 pounds chicken breasts, pounded 1/16-inch-thick
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup extra-virgin oil
4 teaspoons minced garlic
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
8 cups baby arugula
4 large peaches, thinly sliced
1/2 cup fat-free plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup light mayonnaise
2 ounces finely crumbled blue cheese
1 cup chopped toasted walnuts
In a large zip-close plastic bag, combine the chicken with the lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, 1 teaspoon of salt and several grindings of pepper. Mix, then chill for 1 hour.
Heat the grill to medium-high. Use an oil-soaked paper towel held with tongs to oil the grill grates.
Remove the chicken from the marinade, letting the excess liquid drip off. Grill the chicken until it is just cooked, about 1 minute per side. Transfer to a plate, cover with foil and let rest for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl combine the arugula and the peaches. In a small bowl combine the yogurt, mayonnaise and blue cheese. Stir in enough water to achieve the desired consistency (about 1/3 cup), then season with salt and pepper. Add the dressing to the salad and toss well.
To serve, arrange one of the paillards on each serving plate and top with salad and nuts.
• Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She stars in public television’s “Sara’s Weeknight Meals” and has written three cookbooks, including “Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners.”