Chef Fehmi: Mastering the art of cooking chicken

Chef Fehmi Khalifa

Since its domestication, chicken is perhaps the most popular animal protein that has been served in almost every home in the United States. This is because it is so versatile.

It can be sautéed, grilled, roasted, stewed, steamed, fried or poached. Most people like it because it takes on flavorings very quickly, it cooks relatively fast, and it is available in just about every grocery store.

By comparison to other meats, chicken is still more affordable than beef, lamb or pork. Unlike duck, quail or pheasant, chicken has dark and white meat, which is an extra feature that makes it all that much more attractive than its gamier relatives.

Mastering the art of cooking chicken is not as easy as it seems, as this ever-so-versatile bird is mismanaged in private homes, restaurants and rotisseries alike. This is because the delicate white breast and the rugged dark meat of the legs reach their unique roasting perfections in two totally different cooking environments.

In fact, to achieve succulent dark leg meat enveloped in crispy skin, the roasting temperature must not exceed 300 degrees Fahrenheit. By the same token, a crispy skin on a tender, juicy and caramelized breast calls for high searing heat at the start, followed by a much lower cooking temperature to finish. It is only when the chicken reaches internal temperatures of 165 degrees will it be fully cooked.

It takes the breast of the chicken nearly one third of the time to cook than it does the legs. Therefore, unless the breast and the legs are dealt with separately, a whole chicken should not be cooked in the oven. The truth is, most people have accepted low expectations and serve dry, shredded, easy-to-choke-on chicken breast as part of their whole bird-roasting experience.

Since the warm weather is upon us and summer will be here soon, I take full advantage of the whole chicken cooking method, as grilling outdoors is one of my favorite ways to enjoy the seasons. I usually butterfly the chicken by removing the whole backbone and I save it for stock. Regardless of the model or type, the heat of any grill can be regulated by section: hot, warm and cool zones. In this way, it is quite feasible therefore to grill, not roast, a whole chicken masterpiece. 

Before handling raw chicken, it is imperative that you are aware of the potential hazards that exist when it is mishandled. Food borne illnesses such as salmonella and E. coli can result when eating raw or undercooked chicken. Therefore, it is crucial to apply the utmost precautionary measures when handling this bird if you are to avoid any health disasters.

The No. 1 health problem emanating from handling raw chicken is cross contamination, which is the transfer of harmful bacteria from one area to another or from raw meat to ready-to-eat products such as salads. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of hand and tool washing in between tasks. However, one of the easiest ways to help avoid cross contamination is to use a separate cutting board and knife for your raw chicken. 

When buying raw chicken, you should look for certain telltale signs that show a healthy, quality chicken. Look for a chicken that has a bright color and is firm to the touch, not dull and mushy. Whenever possible, buy organic or free range chickens as they are raised on farms the way nature intended, roaming freely and feeding on natural grains and field insects.

If you cannot buy organic or free range chickens, another way, in addition to using the methods above to make sure you are buying a quality chicken, is to check the sell-by date on the package; this is the first clue of how long the chicken has been on display. This date will guide how long the meat can be kept in the refrigerator. If a quality, fresh chicken has been chosen, usually a three- to five-day period in the refrigerator is safe enough from the sell-by date. 

When I buy, I usually buy the whole chicken because I utilize the whole bird in at least three different ways: breasts, legs and stock. By buying the chicken whole, you’ll get a good return on the money you spend and can stretch your family’s food costs at least threefold.

I hope I have given you the necessary knowledge you need to choose a quality chicken and to cook it safely and deliciously. All you need now to get inspired to create your own chicken masterpieces is to follow the delicious recipes I have created for you below.

Chicken Roulade

4 boneless and skinless breasts of chicken

1 roasted red pepper peeled and seeded

3 tablespoons harissa (see note)

4 Swiss chard leaves blanched and chilled with the stems removed (see note)

8 fresh basil leaves

2 ounces shaved Parmesan

1 tablespoon olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 Fahrenheit.

Using a meat mallet, gently pound the chicken to 1/8 inch thickness.

Brush the breasts with harissa on both sides. Spread out the chicken (smooth side down) on a sheet tray or cutting board.

Arrange one chilled Swiss chard leaf on each chicken breast. Divide the roasted red pepper among the four breasts in a single layer. Using a vegetable peeler, shave about half an ounce, (two or three strips) of Parmesan cheese on each breast. Top the cheese on each chicken with two basil leaves.

Using both hands, roll the chicken over the filling like a jelly roll and secure the seal using wooden skewers or plain toothpicks.

Preheat a heat-resistant sauté pan or cast iron skillet, add the olive oil and sear the roulades two minutes on each side for four minutes total.

Once the chicken has been seared, transfer the pan directly into the oven and roast the chicken for 20 minutes or until an internal temperature of 165 Fahrenheit is reached.

Transfer the roulades to a plate and allow them to rest for 10 minutes. Slice them on a bias or diagonal direction and serve them with the three mushroom sauce below.

Notes: Harissa is a North African spicy condiment made of hot red dried chiles, sun dried tomatoes, fresh garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. All ingredients are blended together into a smooth paste. Harissa is used in marinades, sauces and spreads. To blanch Swiss chard, bring a pot of water to the boil, add salt and submerge the green leaves for one minute. Drain the water and quickly chill in an ice bath.

Three Mushroom Sauce

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup shiitake mushrooms

½ cup crimini mushrooms

½ cup white mushrooms

1 tablespoon chopped fresh garlic

½ cup dry white wine

1 cup of homemade chicken stock

½ cup heavy cream

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

Using the same pan in which the roulades were roasting and using caution not to burn your hands, add the olive oil and sauté the three mushrooms for two minutes.

Add the fresh garlic and sauté one more minute. Splash the white wine around the pan (deglaze) to loosen up the brown particles.

Reduce (cook down) the wine by half.

Add the chicken stock and reduce by half again. Add the cream and season with salt and pepper.

Finish with fresh thyme and serve hot with chicken roulade, Mediterranean barley pilaf and sautéed baby corn.

Mediterranean Barley Pilaf

12-ounce package of pearled barley

1 cup dried apricots, finely diced

1 cup diced roasted red bell peppers

½ cup chopped scallions

4 cups water

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a medium saucepan, bring the water and the salt to a boil. Add the barley, reduce the heat to low and simmer covered for 45 minutes.

Fluff with a fork and fold in the apricots, the red peppers, the olive oil and scallions. Finish with the freshly ground pepper. 

Serve hot as a pilaf or chilled as a salad with chicken roulade, three mushroom sauce and sautéed baby corn.

Sautéed Baby Corn

1 pound of fresh baby corn

1 tablespoon chopped fresh garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a sauté pan or cast iron skillet set on medium heat, add the olive oil and the fresh baby corn and sauté for two minutes. Add the garlic and toss for one additional minute. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot.

Herald News contributor Chef Fehmi Khalifa, “Your Own Personal Chef and Caterer,” runs a personal chef and catering service in the southeastern Massachusetts and Providence areas, offering a healthy alternative to fast foods for today’s busy families. For more information on Chef Fehmi, log on to,

e-mail or call 508-951-4901.