- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

To avoid post-holiday letdown, my husband suggested that we have a few friends over for supper to start the new year. It would be a good way to catch up because many of our pals are out of town with family during the Christmas season.

My first response was to say no because I had done a fair share of holiday cooking for our own clan, but like my spouse, I love inviting people to our home. All I needed was a quick and easy entree like the pan-seared chicken breasts topped with tomato tapenade that follows.

This recipe takes just about 45 minutes from start to finish to make and calls for readily available ingredients. A classic tapenade prepared with coarsely chopped Kalamata olives, chopped red onion and garlic, plus flavorings of thyme and dill, is jazzed up with an addition of chopped sun-dried tomatoes.

You can make the tapenade and serve it right away, or you can assemble it a day or 2 ahead and store it in the fridge. Either way, it will be delicious. For the chicken, boneless breasts are marinated in lemon juice for half an hour, rubbed with seasonings and then pan-seared and popped into the oven for a few minutes. For serving, I spoon some of the colorful olive melange atop the breasts, then add a sprinkling of crumbled goat cheese.

For sides, I am planning to offer sauteed spinach and saffron-scented rice, but a salad of winter greens tossed in a vinaigrette sauce and some roasted red-skin potatoes also would make tempting garnishes.

As it turns out, this chicken entree is not laden with calories, a fact that definitely will please my guests, all of whom are likely to be dieting at this time of the year. They never say no to a home-cooked meal, and they can eat this one without guilt.

Pan-seared chicken breasts with tomato tapenade

Makes 6 servings.

1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained well and coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon capers, drained well and coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon chopped red onion

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon dried dill

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Freshly ground black pepper

6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 6 to 7 ounces each)

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup goat cheese (about 2 ounces), crumbled

Several thyme sprigs for garnish, optional

In a nonreactive bowl, mix together olives, tomatoes, capers, onion, garlic, dill, thyme and several grinds of black pepper. Cover and store in the refrigerator until ready to use. (This tapenade can be made up to 3 days ahead. Bring to room temperature when ready to use.)

To prepare the chicken, place breasts in a shallow nonreactive dish and toss with lemon juice. Marinate, turning once or twice, at room temperature 30 minutes.

Arrange a rack at center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Mix together thyme, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Pat chicken breasts dry and coat on both sides with some of the thyme mixture.

Heat olive oil in a large, ovenproof skillet set over medium-high heat. Saute chicken until golden on both sides, 2 minutes or more per side. Place pan with chicken in oven and bake until juices run clear when chicken is pierced with a sharp knife, about 10 to 12 minutes.

To serve, spoon some tapenade on top of each breast and sprinkle with some goat cheese. If desired, garnish each serving with thyme sprigs.

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