Four ½ breasts of chicken, filleted
¼ pound black forest ham, sliced very thinly
½ cup salt
¼ cup sugar
1 cup white wine
3 stalks celery
1 medium shallot
1 white onion
8 oz. crème fraîche
plenty of freshly-chopped parsley
plenty of freshly-chopped chives
ground white pepper
Zest both lemons thoroughly, conserve zest.
Begin the day before your meal by brining the chicken breasts overnight in plenty of water with ¼ cup of sugar, ¼ cup of salt, a bay leaf, and the juice of about ¼ of one of the lemons per chicken breast.
The next morning, slice the remaining lemon into thin rounds. Bring the white wine to a boil to remove the alcohol, cool rapidly in freezer. Vacuum-seal each brined breast with an equal distribution of the lemon wedges and wine, and moderate amounts of the herbs and spices (reserve some herbs for later). Sous vide at 63.5°C (145°F) for at least 4 hours and no more than 12 hours.
Meanwhile, clean the celery, carrots, and onion, and then purée them together with some salt. Set aside.
Shortly before service, skin the cucumber and clean the shallot. Purée cucumber and shallot into crème fraîche, along with the reserved lemon zest, a pinch of the powdered garlic, and the balance of the chives and parsley. If preparing in advance, keep crème fraîche sauce refrigerated until immediately before service.
About half an hour before service, begin to sautée the vegetable purée. Remove chicken from sous vide oven; allow meat to rest. Fold conserved liquid into vegetable purée, reduce until about half of the liquid is boiled away.
Place chicken breasts on grill for finishing and curing. Using silicone brush, generously coat both sides of each breast with the vegetable reduction, while on the grill. Allow heat from grill to adhere vegetable coating to breast and to lightly brown the chicken, roughly 60 seconds per side, turning twice. After the third turn over, drape the top of each chicken breast with a thin slice of the black forest ham.
Plate and dress with the crème fraîche sauce. Serves well with whipped potatoes with roasted garlic, pasta dressed in olive oil, or a fresh baugette, alongside steamed, blanched haricots verts.
If no sous vide is available, roast the chicken until it is cooked through but not dried out, and finish over medium-high heat in sauté pan with a smaller amount of the vegetable reduction than described here, adding your own chicken stock as the liquid for the reduction. The objective is to coat the chicken with the purée so as to blend the meat and vegetable flavors.
I suppose if you're a big mushroom fan, or you don't want to eat the ham for some reason, you could add mushrooms to this at some point, possibly swapping out the ham to make room for the fungus. If you try this, beware the devoid-of-flavor white mushrooms Americans claim to love so much unless they are also sautéed in butter, in which case you're really overpowering the chicken and the sauce. Similarly, the stronger earthy flavors of varieties like criminis, portabellas, or shitakes would weigh down the otherwise light feel of the dish. Of course, if you don't mind a heavier dish, then maybe you go for both mushrooms and ham. When you make it, it's your dish, do what you like. But for me, using mushrooms in French-inspired cooking says "autumn" or "winter", and with this dish, I'm trying to say "summer."
As far as I'm concerned, there is no substitute for crème fraîche -- yogurt, sour cream, and buttermilk are all sort of similar, but not really the same thing as crème fraîche. There is a product sold in some California markets I've seen called crema Mexicana which is about as close to crème fraîche as I've seen in the States; Wikipedia claims that there is a dairy product made in Appalachia called bonny clabber that is similar, but I never saw anything like that in Tennessee and it's not wise to believe everything you read on Wikipedia anyway. But I just couldn't bring myself to name the dish after the delightful French town where I first encountered crème fraîche.