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Fried chicken sandwiches aren’t going anywhere. In January, McDonald’s Corp. announced a new lineup of them, while Burger King Corp. has promised one would arrive this year. Meanwhile, Taco Bell Corp. introduced crispy chicken sandwich tacos.
In February, Wendy’s Co. made a play to stand out by adding a jalapeño popper option. In a March 3 earnings call, Chief Financial Officer Gunther Plosch said the sandwiches were “off to a good start in the first quarter, and we are going to continue to build that business.”
Food writer and social activist Julia Turshen hasn’t tried the Wendy’s sandwich. But her brand-new book, Simply Julia: 101 Easy Recipes for Healthy Comfort Food (HarperCollins; $26), does offer a recipe for jalapeño popper chicken that shows why the combination is so compelling.
“It’s the most useful book I’ve done,” she says. “I know, from talking to home cooks on Instagram and other spaces, what stresses out people about cooking at home.”
Simply Julia is divided into categories, each with 11 favorite dishes, from make-ahead meals and memorable sweets to weeknight go-tos. Turshen’s skill is to make routine ingredients and foods captivating without going overboard: Her white-pizza-style kale and breakfast nachos have practical amounts of toppings to balance the indulgence.
Although the word “healthy” is in the title, these recipes aren’t counting fat grams and calories. “It’s food that’s not overladen, that makes you feel good when you eat it,” she says.
And feel good making it. Her jalapeño popper chicken uses skinless breasts, which Turshen encourages people to flatten themselves with a heavy pan. “It gets out some aggression you might not know you have,” she says with a laugh.
Once properly aggressed, the thinned-down breasts are spread with deconstructed jalapeño poppers—chiles, cream cheese, and melty cheddar cheese—then rolled up “like a yoga mat.” The stuffed chicken rolls are then coated with a powerful spice mixture and baked instead of fried, which creates a crust reminiscent of crunchy batter.
The outrageously good result boasts an oozy, spicy, creamy filling that punches up the chicken, plus a drizzle-worthy amount of bright-flavored, salty pan juices. Turshen recommends serving the dish with a stack of warm tortillas and avocado, and perhaps a salad. To conjure up poppers as a bar staple, consider guacamole and salsa, too.
If Turshen wants to consider starting a jalapeño popper chicken war with Wendy’s, we say go for it. Our money is on her.
The following recipe is adapted from Simply Julia, by Julia Turshen.
Jalapeño Popper Stuffed Chicken
Four 6- to 7-oz boneless, skinless chicken breasts
⅓ cup cream cheese, at room temperature
½ cup coarsely grated, sharp cheddar cheese
1 fresh jalapeño, stemmed, seeded, and minced
3 tbs minced fresh cilantro (a little stem is fine)
2 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika) or hot paprika
½ cup water
Warm tortillas, salsa, and guacamole, for serving (optional)
Preheat the oven to 425F.
Place one of the chicken breasts in a large resealable plastic bag and, using a meat pounder—or the bottom of a small but heavy pot or pan—pound the chicken until it’s about ¼-inch thick. Repeat the process with the remaining breasts.
In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese, cheddar cheese, jalapeño, cilantro, and ½ teaspoon salt. Evenly divide the mixture among the pounded chicken breasts and, using wet hands, spread it over the chicken. Starting with one of the narrower ends of the breast, roll each one up as if it were a miniature yoga mat; if the edges are very uneven, trim them with a knife.
Secure each roll with a toothpick or two and arrange in a large baking dish or ovenproof skillet, seam side down.
In another small bowl, combine ½ teaspoon salt with the olive oil, cumin, and pimentón. Brush the mixture over the exterior of the chicken rolls. Pour the water around (not on top of) the chicken.
Roast until nicely browned, firm to the touch, and registering at least 165F on a meat thermometer—about 30 minutes. Let rest for at least 10 minutes before removing the toothpicks. Slice the chicken breasts and serve hot with any extra juices from the baking dish poured on top, as well as tortillas, salsa, and guacamole, if desired.