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Chef's Hat: Be creative when making stuffed chicken breasts

Put in your favorite ingredients or use whatever you have on hand. You can put in a bit of marinara and Swiss cheese, cream cheese and sundried tomatoes, or pieces of ham and cheddar cheese. Almost any variety of fruit or vegetable can be used as stuffing. Metro Creative Graphics, Inc.

Even though the recipes can be quite simple, stuffed chicken breasts make an elegant dish and are great for gatherings as well as for every night family dinners.

What sets these recipes apart from a lot of dishes is the variety of ingredients used in the stuffing. Recipes I've seen use everything from smoked salmon and cream cheese to wild rice to pineapple and Spam in the stuffing. Granted, I know very few people who would use Spam, but it points out the endless possibilities!

Making that "pocket" to fill is often the hardest part of the entire recipe. But it is actually a simple process to slice the chicken breasts so they can be filled with your favorite stuffing. The easiest way to make that pocket:

• Hold the chicken breast flat against a board or flat surface with one hand on the top; keep your fingers out of the way of the knife so they don't accidentally get cut.

• With the other hand, use a sharp knife and slice down the middle of the breast.

• Slightly open the breast to see if you need to cut further into the breast. If the breast does not lie flat, continue with gentle sweeps until the breast is cut through enough to lie flat.

Then put in your favorite ingredients or use whatever you have on hand. You can put in a bit of marinara and Swiss cheese, cream cheese and sundried tomatoes, or pieces of ham and cheddar cheese. Almost any variety of fruit or vegetable can be used as stuffing.

Then close up the chicken. Use toothpicks if the chicken breast won't stay closed. Drizzle a little olive oil on top and then sprinkle a bit of salt and pepper over the olive oil. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes.

You have an impressive and easy dish in less than an hour.

If you aren't ready to experiment on your own, here are a few recipes to get you started. The thing to remember is to have fun and play around with the stuffing ingredients. If you don't like one of the listed ingredients - such as green chiles - substitute something else like green pepper slices.

If you thaw chicken breasts in the morning, when you get home from work you can have a hot, tasty dish in about 45 minutes. So forget that frozen pizza or that box of macaroni and cheese that's sitting on the shelf and make your family a great dinner. Happy Eating!

Mexican Stuffed Chicken Breasts

Adapted from bettycrocker.com

  • 1 cup shredded pepper Jack cheese (4 ounces)
  • 4 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1 4.5-ounce can chopped green chiles
  • 1 1-ounce package taco seasoning mix
  • 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, 6 to 8 ounces each
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

For topping:

  • ¾ cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • ¼ cup sliced green onions (4 medium)
  • ¼ cup parsley leaves

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with foil. Spray with nonstick cooking spray.

In medium bowl, mix pepper Jack cheese, cream cheese, chiles and 1 tablespoon of the taco seasoning mix. In thick side of each chicken breast, cut 3-inch-long pocket to within 1/4 inch of opposite side of breast. Spoon about 1/3 cup cheese mixture into pocket in each chicken breast. Secure with toothpicks.

In small bowl, mix remaining taco seasoning mix and the olive oil. Place chicken on rack; brush with oil mixture.

Roast uncovered 25 to 30 minutes or until stuffing reaches internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Top chicken breasts with mozzarella cheese; bake 3 to 5 minutes or until cheese is melted. Top each breast with green onions and chopped parsley.

Pesto Mozzarella and Tomato Chicken Breasts

Adapted from laughingspatula.com

  • 4 chicken breasts
  • 8 tablespoons pesto
  • 8 slices tomato
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 cup fresh spinach (if desired)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Pesto Yogurt Dipping Sauce (if desired)

  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons pesto

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut chicken breasts so there is a pocket in each one.

Spread 2 tablespoons of pesto into the chicken breast, then add 2 slices of tomato. Top with ¼ cup of mozzarella cheese and a few spinach leaves.

Close chicken. If necessary, use toothpicks to keep the chicken closed. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and then drizzle a little olive oil over the top of the chicken.

Heat oven proof skillet over medium high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil.

When olive oil is sizzling, carefully add chicken. Sear on each side for 2-3 minutes using tongs to turn.

Finish baking in oven for about 8 minutes or until meat thermometer reads 165 degrees.

For a dipping sauce: Combine yogurt and pesto; mix well. Serve over the chicken or on the side.

Cream Cheese and Broccoli Stuffed Chicken Breast

From kraftrecipes.com

  • 4 8-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 to 1 ½ cups broccoli florets, frozen
  • 1 8-ounce container whipped cream cheese (garlic/herb variety works well)
  • 8 slices bacon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pound chicken gently with a meat tenderizer until the breast is quite thin. Run broccoli under hot water to thaw. Chop the broccoli into small pieces. Mix broccoli with cream cheese until well combined.

Spread each chicken breast with cream cheese mixture and roll up, jelly-roll style. Wrap 2 pieces of bacon around each roll and secure with toothpicks.

Bake in oven for 25 minutes.

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