Poor rhubarb. Not only does it suffer an identity crisis but also it can’t always stand on its own. It’s thought of more often as a fruit even though it’s technically a vegetable, and a sour one at that – needing to be paired with something sweet to make it bearable to eat.
As a kid, I ate rhubarb to get sugar into my mouth. With an overspilling cup of sugar, my brother and I would beeline to our yard, snap off the long red stalks and plunge them into the cup. With every bite, the sugar promised to rescue us from the sour burst of the crunchy stalk. If the sugar ran out before the rhubarb, one of us ran back into the kitchen to replenish it knowing it was impossible to eat one without the other. Its pH level of 3 puts it in the same category as lemons and limes and that’s a lot of pucker power. No wonder sweetness is its ally.
So I figured it was time to do something savory with rhubarb. It just makes sense to incorporate it into a main dish rather than always thinking of it as dessert. My goal was a recipe that would take 30 minutes or less. Not a difficult task as rhubarb is 95 percent water lending itself perfectly to softening and naturally falling apart to make a suitable thickness for a sauce. The rhubarb relies on a little sauteed onion and garlic for base flavor, brown sugar to counteract its tartness and fresh thyme for a warm kind of woodsy herb flavor. The pounded or thinly sliced chicken breasts browned in a combination of olive oil and butter begin the flavor process for the sauce. They’re removed then nestled back into the sauce to finish cooking and pick up flavor.
Let me emphasize the importance of pounding the chicken or even slicing it in half lengthwise so it cooks quickly. I’ve even found some chicken breasts in the grocery store that are already sliced into “cutlets” if you can find them. This thickness makes it so much easier to cook the chicken evenly and quickly and helps insure a more moist breast.
- 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 5-6 ounces each (see note)
- Kosher salt
- Fresh ground black pepper
- ½ cup all purpose flour, optional (see note)
- 2-3 tablespoons butter
- 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ cup chopped sweet onion (yellow onion can be used)
- 2 cups chopped rhubarb (2 medium stalks, about ½ pound)
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic (1 medium clove)
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 cup chicken broth or stock
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- ½ teaspoon lemon zest
- Place each chicken breast between two pieces of wax paper or plastic wrap and pound to ½-inch thickness or cut in half widthwise; sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper; dredge in flour and shake off excess.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, melt butter with olive oil. When butter starts to sizzle, add chicken and cook for 3 to 4 minutes (do not move chicken – allow it to brown). Turn chicken and cook until browned on other side, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove chicken to a plate and keep warm (if you do not have a large enough skillet, cook chicken in two batches, dividing butter and olive oil in half for each batch).
- Add onion to the same pan (adding additional 1 tablespoon of olive oil if needed) and cook and stir until softened, about 2 minutes, then add garlic and cook and stir an additional 1 minute. Stir in rhubarb and brown sugar, then add chicken broth and thyme; bring to a simmer, then return chicken to the pan (chicken on top of rhubarb), cover partially, and cook on low just until rhubarb is softened and chicken is cooked through, about 5 to 7 minutes.
- Transfer chicken to serving plates or a platter. Lightly mash part of the sauce with the back of a spoon, leaving some of the rhubarb in the sauce in pieces, then add lemon zest and season with salt and pepper. Spoon sauce over chicken (chicken can also be thinly sliced and sauce spooned on top of it).
- Makes 2 cups sauce.
Dredging the chicken in flour can be eliminated for those avoiding flour.