The name of this recipe refers to my inspiration, Chicken Cordon Bleu, and my challenge, reinventing the classic dish with a North Carolina twist, using NC products. I've made it with two different NC cheeses and two different NC meats, for a total of 4 variations. Although all four versions are richly satisfying and flavorful, my personal favorite is bacon and hoop cheese, an old-fashioned Southern cheese often found in country stores and even at rural gas stations. I've listed both cheeses and both meats in the recipe, so that you can mix and match as you wish and decide for yourself which combination you prefer.
Any dry white wine will work in this recipe, but because of the Carolina theme I made it a point to use a dry NC wine, which presented a challenge in itself because sweet scuppernong or muscadine wines are far more common in NC. Although Biltmore in Asheville makes some dry whites, their grapes are usually brought in from CA. Luckily there are a few wineries in the Yadkin Valley area of NC that produce decent dry whites. Rag Apple Lassie Pinot Gris was recommended to me at the wine store, and although I was rather underwhelmed by it as a drinking wine it was certainly serviceable for the purposes of cooking.
I'm convinced that this dish would be absolutely wonderful if served over fresh-baked, fluffy biscuits split in half, but I haven't tried it that way yet as my biscuit-making skills aren't up to par. Grits would also work, no doubt, as would a wedge of cornbread on the side. And a big mess of collards seasoned with ham and a few splashes of a genuine Carolina hot pepper sauce would be the ideal vegetable side dish, of course.
Have fun with this North Carolina themed recipe, and please leave a comment here to let us know what ingredients you used and what worked or didn't. I still consider it a "work in progress" and would love some feedback from other cooks out there.
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
8 oz thinly sliced NC cheese, such as mild hoop cheese (I also tried Calvander, an Asiago style cheese)
6 wide slices of bacon* OR 6 thin slices of country ham, cut to fit the chicken thighs
Whole-grain mustard (I used Lusty Monk from Asheville NC, available at Whole Foods)
3 Tbs whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp NC BBQ rub (I used Bone Suckin' Hot Seasoning)
4 Tbs butter (if using bacon, reduce to 2 Tbs plus the bacon drippings)
1/2 cup dry NC white wine
1/4 tsp black pepper OR several twists from your pepper mill
1 cup half and half
1 Tbs cornstarch
*Depending on the width of the bacon and how much it might shrink during cooking, you may need more than 1 slice per thigh. To be on the safe side, go ahead and fry some extra slices. If you end up not needing them, finish cooking them thoroughly and store in the fridge for BLTs or salads the next day.
If using bacon, cook the bacon in a large, deep skillet until almost done but still soft. Remove bacon from skillet and place on paper towels to absorb grease. Reserve the grease in the skillet for frying the chicken.
Spread the chicken thighs flat on a piece of plastic wrap, cover with another piece of plastic wrap and then gently pound until about 1/4" thin or so. Remove top layer of plastic and place one or more slices of cheese on each thigh to cover the surface. then spread a thin layer of mustard on each. Top with a slice or two of bacon, or a slice of country ham, Fold each thigh over and secure the ends with toothpicks. Mix together the flour and BBQ rub, then roll each thigh in the mixture to coat completely.
Melt the butter in the skillet over medium-high heat (together with the bacon grease if using bacon). Add the thighs and brown on all sides. Add wine and black pepper to the skillet, reduce heat to low, cover and cook until the chicken is done, about 30 minutes. Remove thighs to a heat-proof platter or tray and hold in warm oven while you prepare the white sauce.
For the sauce, whisk together the half-and-half and the cornstarch until completely blended. You can also place in a lidded glass jar and shake vigorously until fully blended. Stir into the skillet drippings, raise heat slightly and cook until thickened to desired consistency, stirring constantly. When sauce is ready, remove chicken from oven, remove toothpicks and serve topped with the sauce.