Chicken Breasts with Fennel and Walnuts

Make this dish in the autumn when the first of the walnuts are available.

Ingredients

  • 4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
  • 2 tbsp walnut oil
  • juice and grated zest of 1 orange
  • 1 small fennel bulb
  • 2–3 garlic cloves
  • 2–3 tbsp chicken stock or water
  • 2 oz / 60 g fresh wet walnut halves
  • 2 tbsp fromage frais
  • freshly ground white pepper
  • salt
  • finely chopped walnuts or mild paprika, to garnish (optional)

Method

Brush the chicken breasts all over with walnut oil and pour half the orange juice over them. Allow to marinate for at least 30 minutes while you prepare the sauce. Trim any discoloured portions from the fennel. Remove and reserve any nice, fresh-looking feathery tops for garnish, and slice and dice the bulb. Peel and roughly chop the garlic. In a non-stick pan, sweat the vegetables over a very low heat until soft. Moisten with the rest of the orange juice, and the chicken stock or water and the orange zest. Remove as much skin as you can from the walnuts. (Fresh wet walnuts are relatively easy to peel, and it does improve this delicate sauce if you can remove the bitter skin.) Put the soft vegetables in the blender with the cooking juices, the walnuts and the fromage frais. Blend until smooth and sieve or not, as you prefer. Put the sauce in a double saucepan, or a heatproof bowl set over a pan of hot water. Let the sauce heat up gently as you cook the chicken. This is simply done by putting the breasts in a single layer in a non-stick frying pan, covering with a lid or foil and letting them cook in their own juices for 12–15 minutes. (β€˜Sweating’ really is the best word to describe this method of cooking done without fat.) When the chicken breasts are done, drain the cooking juices into the, by now, hot sauce and season it to taste. Transfer the chicken breasts to a heated serving dish or individual plates. Serve the sauce separately or poured over the chicken, or indeed in a pool under the chicken. Garnish with the reserved fennel leaves and some finely chopped walnuts if you like, or more simply with a fine powdering of mild paprika.