Chicken cordon bleu is often mistakenly assumed to be a signature dish from the illustrious Cordon Bleu culinary school, implying that it should be fit for the 16th century French knights who wore the famous blue ribbon. In fact, cordon bleu is classic American diner food, perfectly complemented by simple, unpretentious sides.
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Chicken cordon bleu is an American spin on European schnitzel and chicken Kiev, surging into popularity in the late 1960s, but somewhat waning in influence as restaurants opt for brighter, spicier Asian, Cajun and Italian chicken dishes. Nevertheless, it is cheap and easy to make. Cooks merely need to pound a chicken breast between sheets of waxed paper or in plastic wrap, butterfly it and stuff the middle with ham and cheese. The breast is then tossed in flour and breadcrumbs, wrapped tight and deep-fried or baked.
The result is moist chicken breast that oozes melted cheese, with a pleasant crunch on the breadcrumb. Originally, prosciutto and Swiss cheese provided the filling, but deli ham and mozzarella are suitable substitutes. Since the breast can be a little dry, the chicken can be served with a cheese sauce, perhaps boosted by mustard and chopped mushrooms, according to taste.
Toothpicks inserted through the chicken make a handy resource for holding the breast closed, since the breadcrumbs can sometimes make the seams vulnerable to falling open.
Despite its name, chicken cordon bleu is not a dish with a fearsome tradition, so nothing is off the table when it comes to suitable side dishes. Essentially, though, this is comfort food, so it makes sense to choose something that can be cooked in the 20 minutes it takes the chicken to bake in a 350-degree Fahrenheit oven, or less if deep-frying.
Ultimately, deep-fried chicken oozing melted cheese is a rich proposition. For that reason, rice or pasta can be too heavy, and neither can really claim a close affinity with the original concept. Instead, chicken cordon bleu offers a perfect opportunity to steam a zesty spread of vegetables, drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with herbs, finished with a dash of lemon juice. Broccoli, spinach, peas and green peas all bring color and moisture to balance the chicken and cheese.
Similarly, a light green leaf salad of baby spinach or lettuce will support the chicken without imposing itself. Incorporating some fried bacon and mozzarella cheese into the salad will also echo the ingredients in the chicken stuffing.
For those who cannot do without a blast of starch, potatoes give a nod to the German schnitzel, a close cousin, which is often served with a salad of new potatoes in sour cream and dill. Add some chopped fresh celery and red onion for crunch. Mashed potatoes, too, complement the chicken pleasantly, particularly if the cheese sauce is included. Pulses, too, showcase the chicken flavors. Try white cannellini beans with plenty of herbs and some chopped bacon to match the ham.