The worst part of making this dish is having to stand in front of a glass case brimming with well-larded red meat and request, out loud, that most anonymous and constant lobe: boneless, skinless chicken breasts please. I’m always tempted to substitute adjectives; tasteless and soulless seem more accurate anyway. I can almost hear the butcher’s inner dialogue as he wonders, once more, why his customers pass on the richest fruits of his labor in favor of the dullest. Allow me to offer a reprieve to both parties. Ask instead for several chicken cutlets, pounded to a 1/2 inch thickness and separated by wax paper. There are enough specifics there to suggest a more interesting preparation than mere health food. Those morsels are the start of that most ignored classic, chicken paillard.
I say ignored because, of the dishes that begin with pounding flat a piece of meat, the paillard is usually unfamiliar to guests at my table. What drove the world’s schnitzels and Milaneses, the saltimboccas and tonkatsus to popularity over the humble paillard is a mystery to me. I’ve nothing against the breading and subsequent frying that most flattened meat undergoes, although if blindfolded, I wonder how many diners would be able to say which similar cutlet was pork, chicken or veal. Perhaps that’s why I love paillard; it is singular in resisting the fryer.
But back to the pounding. Why lay into a cutlet with a mallet anyway? Is it the crudest, fastest way of tenderizing less prime cuts? Is it a way of thinning meat for quick, a la minute cookery? Can a flattened cutlet be stuffed or rolled around some filling? Does a flattened piece of meat look bigger and fill a dinner plate? Yes to all of the above, with the common principle being manipulation. I could tell half a dozen stories of using frying pans, Champagne bottles, rolling pins and pestles to flatten meat, a few of which ended humorously, but the more interesting anecdote is this: I have it on first-hand authority that butchers are secretly thrilled to flatten whatever you request. No doubt something to do with getting back to the fundamentals of the profession—or perhaps it’s a release for the accumulated anger behind the popularity of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. In any event—leave the pounding to the professionals.
A considerably gentler touch is required for cooking. Begin with the marinade. I find an oily mixture of herbs, crushed garlic, salt, pepper and white wine is the best, as long as at least half of the result is olive oil. Let the pounded chicken sit refrigerated in this mixture for an hour or so, but bring it back to room temperature before cooking. Prepare a very hot grill. Place each paillard at a 45 degree angle. Close the lid for two minutes. Rotate each paillard 45 degrees and close the lid for another two minutes. Flip and close for another two minutes. There is no need to rotate again; the first side is for presentation.
Witnessing this dish from start to finish, one might be struck by the brutish, almost unrefined method. The results are anything but though. This is elegant, light fare—the sort of thing well-turned-out guests at good hotels order for lunch, or, as it might be put, luncheon. Oh, and in case your grade school French is rusty: chicken pī-ˈyär. There's no place for embarrassment at luncheon.