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Monday, December 17, 2007

The Agony and the Ecstasy

My hands were hurting and I was feeling surly. Not a single present was wrapped, a dozen errands were waiting and I had been rolling out cookie dough for over an hour. Steve and the dog hightailed it out of the apartment, no doubt trying to get out of the way of Angry Baker. What possessed me to make roll-out, decorated cookies?
I have a very complicated relationship with baking,
and these cookies were not helping matters. After much wrestling with a tricky dough, which was unhappy as it warmed up and made me miserable trying to roll it out when properly chilled, I realized the job was not over. There was icing to make and decorating to do. Aaargh…

To make things worse, the results were a major disappointment. The vanilla cookies were bland and hard and the chocolate version not much better. Definitely not worth all that trouble.

That’s the thing about holiday baking. It’s a ton of trouble. And all that trouble comes tangled up with too many other things to do, in a month that has started to feel like one big hangover. With store decorations up in October, and holiday festivities beginning mid-November I am already cranky by the first week of December…with weeks of merrymaking to go.

For the past five or six years my angst over holiday overload has found an outlet through baking. Not only do I end up with wonderful, edible gifts for friends and loved ones, but the process itself, puttering alone late at night in the kitchen, gives me a small oasis of peace and quiet in the midst of all the holiday madness. The key is finding the right thing to bake, and here it is: biscotti. They keep for a long time and can be packed with a half-pound of your favorite coffee for a delicious gift to be enjoyed for weeks.

The outstanding biscotti recipe I have been making for years now (friends and neighbors want nothing else!) originated with my childhood friend, The Uber-Baking Goddess, Michaela. She is like the Tiger Woods of baking – making it all look effortless…with grace and good humor. To stand over one of her freshly baked, homemade stollen, inhaling the intoxicating aroma is to understand that she is a true master.

Years ago, Michaela mentioned that she was making cookies as gifts for her daughter’s teachers at school and that she had an excellent biscotti recipe. (We seem to talk about food a lot...big surprise.) They sounded delicious…packed with dried apricots, white chocolate and toasted almonds. A unique, tasty-sounding combination and something I thought would make me happy if I got it as a gift. Michaela had made some genius tweaks to the original, sent along the recipe and I’ve been making them every year since, to universal acclaim.

The weekend before Christmas is when I begin “biscotti production”, making two batches at a time. The extra trouble with biscotti, of course, is that they are baked twice. First, in long logs and then after being sliced, a second time, to dry them out. The first couple times I made them I couldn’t believe how much work they required. (Angry Baker, yet again…) There’s a whole lot of chopping…sticky apricots and messy chocolate and hard-to-control almonds rolling around the cutting board, then a dry-ish, crumbly dough to be shaped into logs, some baking, then slicing the crumbly logs and then baking a second time, with extra time to turn the cookies so each side toasts.

But do not let this deter you!! Yes, there is all that trouble…but you will be rewarded with something amazing. The texture is chunkier than a store-bought biscotti and the flavor combination is divine. Believe me…people will be genuinely moved by the fact that you’ve taken the time to make them something. And…they will not let you forget how much they love them, hinting…the following November, how they are looking forward to having those incredible biscotti again.

On those biscotti-baking nights…near midnight usually, I’ll look out my kitchen window at the city lights twinkling, marveling at how much work this all is, but then picturing my first cup of coffee in the morning, accompanied by a biscotti from the small stash I’ve saved for myself. Angry Baker, mellows and becomes Satisfied Baker…because they are sooooo worth it.

Almond-Apricot Biscotti
adapted from Bon Appetit
Makes about 40

2 3/4 cups sifted all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3 1/2 ounces imported white chocolate, chopped by hand
1 2/3 cups whole almonds, toasted and chopped coarsely, by hand
2 large egs
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon apricot-flavored brandy
2 teaspoons almond extract
6 ounces dried apricots, diced

Line 18 x 12 x 1-inch cookie sheet (or jelly roll pan) with foil. Butter and flour foil.

Combine flour, sugar, butter, baking powder, salt and ground ginger in a food processor. (The bowl of a standard processor will be pretty full, so I insert a layer of plastic wrap between the lid and bowl to keep a tight seal.) Process until a fine meal forms.
Add white chocolate and pulse 4-6 times to combine. Add chopped almonds and pulse again, 4-6 times.

Beat eggs, brandy and extract to blend in a large mixing bowl. Add flour mixture from the food processor and apricots. Using a flexible plastic dough scraper if you have one (it makes combining the dough much easier), stir until a moist dough forms, and you feel your bicep bulging!

Drop dough by spoonfuls in three 12-inch-long strips on the prepared baking sheet, spacing evenly. Moisten fingertips and shape each dough strip into 3 inch logs. Refrigerate until dough is firm (this is important -- don't skip it!) 2-3 hours, or even overnight.

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Bake until logs are golden, about 30 minutes. Transfer sheet to rack and cool completely. (If you are making more than one batch, bake the sheets one at a time.)

Reduce heat to 300 degrees F. and once the logs are completely cooled, peel from the foil-lined pan and transfer to a cutting board. (I made the mistake once of putting them on a cutting board used for chopping onions. Big mistake. All the biscotti ended up with a faint, mysterious whiff of onion.)

Using a heavy, sharp knife, cut each log, crosswise into 3/4-inch wide slices. Arrange half of cookies, cut side down on a cookie sheet. Bake 10-15 minutes. Gently turn cookies over and bake 10-15 minutes longer. Transfer cookies to racks to cool. Repeat baking with remaining cookies. Cool cookies completely before packing in airtight containers.
(Large, glass mason jars look charming with the biscotti packed vertically.)

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Bakery Unlike Any Other

MAKE LOAVES, NOT WAR, says the banner stretching the width of the Arizmendi Bakery in San Francisco. Two cyclists in serious riding gear are filling their travel coffee mugs. A woman in the corner is reading The Art of Persian Cooking as she sips her coffee. I’m munching the most amazing cheese roll, ever… and pondering how it is that San Francisco has such an abundance of wonderful bakeries. My neighbor back in Chicago told me about Arizmendi, and now I understand why she and her family come every day when visiting friends here.

That cheese roll, for example. Chewy and yeasty, with a golden crusty top, it looks like it is made with whole wheat flour. I’m hungry now, just thinking about it.

For years, there was one cheese bread which held first place in my heart. It was a cheese and bacon roll, mind you, so it had that bacon thing going for it. My friend, Darcy, introduced me to it one day when I was visiting her in London. She lived a few blocks from Harrods and we’d wandered through the legendary food hall, where she steered me to the baked goods. We bought two Cheddar Bacon Twists – gorgeous, golden brown, knotted rolls speckled with cheddar and bacon – and proceeded to a park bench nearby. There was silence as we ate. I announced that this was the most delicious bread I’d ever had. Darcy guiltily admitted to eating them on a regular basis during her first few months in London. I was prepared to move there, just to be near the Cheddar Bacon Twists. Well, more plotting trips to London, just to have one of those twists. I'm all about this tiny, worker-owned, cooperative bakery in the Inner Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco. Made in the U.S.A. baby!

I move on to the currant scone.

Oh my. The scone is sensational. Not too dense, with a gorgeous, crunchy, melt-in-your-mouth top. I've drifted away from scones these past few years, but this! This scone will renew one's faith in the power of baked goods to produce pure, elemental joy!

I'm still sitting there in a state of quiet, scone-induced happiness, thinking I really should get going, when I hear a woman in line telling her friend about the incredible pizza they make here come lunchtime.

Wait, they make pizza too???
Hmm, maybe I can work out my schedule to be able to return tomorrow, for lunch...

Arizmendi Bakery
1331 9th Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94122
(415) 566-3117

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Thanksgiving Salad for Winter

Shockingly enough, one of this year’s Thanksgiving hits was – you won't believe this – a salad. Imagine that. Originally concocted by a bunch of Brits and composed of an unlikely mix of ingredients it was a perfect foil for the turkey and other sides, and had the extra benefit of booting boring old green beans from the menu.

I first had The Salad at an amazing Thanksgiving meal in London, hosted by some friends at Soho House . It was a magical evening. (No, this is most certainly not an everyday occurrence and I/we do not lead an even remotely glamorous life…it’s just, you know how sometimes things happen? You luck into a wonderful invitation…and there you are.) Anyway…there was a convivial group of people, a cozy private room and a menu that was entirely original. Yes, there was turkey, but there was roasted fish too! And, stuffing, of course, but shaped into croquettes and deep-fried (oh, heavens that was good!!) I remember a wild mushroom risotto I couldn’t seem to get enough of (furtively glancing around while taking a third helping to make sure no one was watching and secretly pleased that Stephen was sitting down at the other end of the table completely under the spell of a gorgeous, sassy Brazilian woman) AND, there was…
The Salad. It was perfect, in all respects.

Maybe I was enchanted by the swanky surroundings and the multiple glasses of champagne…maybe I loved it because it was part of a fabulous meal that I did not have to prepare! I studied it as I ate my, umm, second helping (?). It was composed of simple ingredients -- arugula, roasted sweet potatoes, crumbled goat cheese and toasted, whole almonds -- that sang together on the plate. I resolved to attempt recreating it at home. On our way out that evening, I cornered the delightful Soho House manager, complimenting him on the beautiful meal. He seemed genuinely pleased, sharing that he had invited a handful of American members the week before just to “test” some of the Thanksgiving dishes he had planned. Sigh. I’d spend every Thanksgiving there if I could.

Since that marvelous evening, I have made The Salad on scores of occasions and it wins raves each and every time. This year, looking for a way to bump those dull green beans from the roster, the big light bulb went on over my head: why, The Salad, of course!

I don’t quite remember the dressing very well – ahem, maybe the champagne is to blame – so, I use a rich, balsamic vinaigrette that pairs well with the rustic, charred sweet potatoes.

After spending several evenings and most of last Thursday in the kitchen, I found myself smiling dreamily as I sat amidst the chaos of Thanksgiving Dinner with the family. A bite of The Salad and memories of a London Thanksgiving had come flooding back.

Soho House Salad
Serves 6

For the Salad:
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into long spears and then roasted
1 bunch/bag of arugula
1 cup whole almonds, toasted
goat cheese, crumbled (about 2.5 oz, or more if you like)

For the Vinaigrette:
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
pinch of salt
1 shallot, finely minced

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Toss the peeled, cut sweet potatoes with a tablespoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper in a small roasting pan or ovenproof skillet. Roast for approximately 20-25 minutes, turning the potatoes several times with a spatula so they become evenly browned. Remove from oven, cool and chop into 1 inch chunks.

2. Place whole almonds in a small pan and toast for approximately 10 minutes, or until fragrant, alongside the potatoes.
**Keep a careful eye on the almonds -- they can burn quickly.** Cool on a separate plate.

2. Prepare the vinaigrette, using a small jar with a tight fitting lid, combine the salt with the vinegar, stirring to dissolve.
Add minced shallot and let sit for five or ten minutes to soften.  Add mustard and olive oil, cover with lid and shake to mix.

3. Layer the arugula on a large platter and sprinkle with a tablespoon or so of the dressing. Layer the chunks of sweet potato, followed by a scattering of the crumbled goat cheese. Drizzle again with tablespoon or so of the dressing.

4. Top with toasted almonds and serve.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Thanksgiving Traditions

The beauty of Thanksgiving is how many different ways one can choose to celebrate a glorious concept – gratitude -- with food. Everyone has traditions and favorites. My friend, Didier, is making beef tenderloin for his guests. Steve’s Louisiana-born boss will be deep-frying his family’s turkey. Friends on the East Coast will be firing up their grill for the bird. We’re going the standard oven roasting route. There’s something I love about the fragrance of a roasting turkey wafting through the apartment. I will tell you that years ago, we cooked two turkeys – one on the grill and one in the oven, and the grilled bird was picked clean at the end of dinner, while there were plenty of leftovers from the oven version.

Sides are what makes the meal, in my book, and the week before Thanksgiving, I have my nose buried in “research”: back issues of Gourmet, Cook’s Illustrated and, yes, Martha Stewart Living to see if there’s anything new to put in the rotation. I have a tried and true stuffing recipe, which I stray from every so often, much to the dismay of family and friends. There was the sad oyster stuffing experiment, one year. (Hmm, stuffing with bits of chewy something…the oysters, lost and overwhelmed by bread. Not good.) Then a cornbread stuffing another year.... (Too bland and well, kind of Puritan in style.) So, I stick with a Savory Apricot-Sausage stuffing cobbled together from two different recipes…it’s perfect according to my loved ones.

The one thing everyone seems to crave, and the item that is simply delightful to have around to accompany leftovers is Golden Pear Chutney. Years ago, Jeffrey Steingarten published a recipe in Vogue after a visit to Charleston with John Martin Taylor, a talented local cook. It prompted me to buy Taylor’s book, Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking, and fed a fascination I’ve had with all types of Southern cooking. About the chutney, Taylor writes, “Lowcountry cooking is full of ideas that seem foreign to outsiders.” To this outsider, the chutney is the perfect companion to roast turkey. The tang of crystallized ginger is what I think gives a warm, mysterious sort of depth to this sweet and spicy relish and served with warm, or cold, turkey, it is out of this world. He recommends sealing the chutney in sterilized jars, etc.., which I did one year when I was giving pints of chutney as Christmas gifts, but for Thanksgiving I just put it in a large mason jar and keep it in the fridge, where it keeps perfectly well for at least a week.

It’s funny…the chutney has become a Thanksgiving tradition at our house, and more often than not, in the week or so before…my mother will call and ask me, a worried tone in her voice, “did you make the chutney?”
Yes, Mom, I made the chutney.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Golden Pear Chutney
adapted from Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking

NOTE: I tend to use light brown sugar most of the time, and the resulting chutney is a gorgeous amber hue. This year I used dark brown sugar instead and the color is a deep golden mahogany. I can't detect any difference in flavor.

makes about 5 pints

3 pounds hard, underripe pears, peeled, seeded, and chopped (about 6 cups)
3 cups light or dark brown sugar
3 cups apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1/4 pound crystallized ginger, chopped (about 2/3 cup)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon Quatre-Epices (oooh, that sounds so Southern!)
(I used a pinch of each of the following: white pepper, grated nutmeg, ground cloves, ground cinnamon and ground ginger)
1 cup dark raisins
1 cup light, golden raisins
2 cups chopped Vidalia, or other sweet onion
1 lemon, peeled and thinly sliced

Cook the pears in a large, non-reactive pot, in water to cover until they are medium-soft. (They should still have some firmness when you slip a knife through. Don't overcook, otherwise they'll fall apart and turn into mush further along in the cooking.)
Strain out the pears and toss in a large bowl with remaining ingredients.
Boil the cooking water down until thick -- about 20 to 30 minutes.
Return pear mixture to the pot with syrupy water and cook for about 30 minutes, or until the raisins are softened and the onions are transparent. You want the chutney to have a nice, thick consistency.

Let cool and then store in a mason jar or glass bowl with a lid in the refrigerator. Keeps at least a week.
Also can be transferred to sterilized jars and sealed; process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

France, Je t’aime

There was that very first time I heard French being spoken on the street, in France. I will never forget it. A tidal wave of happiness washed over me. It was thrilling for this Francophile, let me tell you.

Since the sixth grade when a family tree school project led to the discovery, far back on my father's side, of a great uncle who had been married to a French Woman, I have been obsessed with All Things French. (A typical sixth-grader...there had been a swift change of allegiance--fourth and fifth grades were dominated by a fascination with All Things Egyptian, more specifically, All Things Cleopatra. My dream was to see Egypt. But then in the blink of an eye, it was time to move on. C'est la vie.) French classes started in seventh grade and continued all the way through high school and I dragged the same dreamy, soft focus poster of the Eiffel Tower with me from high school, to college, to my first apartment in Boston. (Of course, then there was that embarrassing realization in my late twenties that posters, were...well... not really 'home decor'. Sadly, the poster hit the dustbin. But wait! A handsome, FRAMED, vintage photograph of the Tour d'Eiffel took its place!)

So it will come as no surprise when I tell you how much I love crepes. It has already been established that I adore pancakes and, um, well, these are French pancakes, people! But, I have been reluctant to make them at home. Not really sure why, except that somehow I was convinced you had to have a special crepe pan. In my tiny, urban kitchen, real estate is precious, so there is no wok, no rice cooker, no ice cream maker, no crock pot. The I-have-only-one-purpose appliance or pan is pretty much off limits.

Perhaps it was The Magic Pan that made me think a special set-up was required to make crepes. Does anyone remember The Magic Pan? My mother would sometimes take me there for crepes and it was as if I had died and gone to heaven. There were savory crepes, sweet crepes…the entire menu was crepes! It was a creperie, and the ultimate sophistication for my teen-aged self. At the front of the restaurant, there was an interesting gas flame ring, above which circled maybe a dozen crepe pans. A chef-guy standing in the middle would dip a pan into crepe batter, set it on the ring, where it would slowly rotate over the gas flames, and by the time it had circled back to the guy, he would toss a hot, finished crepe on a stack. Witnessed at an early, impressionable age, this could perhaps be the foundation of my belief that crepes are only to be made with fancy pans.

Then there were the trips to Paris, where the tantalizing fragrance wafting across the sidewalks from the crepe street vendors would torment me regularly, until I would eventually buckle (I’m not really a big street food person), order a crepe with Nutella and eat it standing on the curb. The street vendors there use those large hot, plate/griddle crepe-making things. Basically, it’s a large, hot disk on which batter is spread in a thin layer. The smell of a crepe sizzling on this griddle is nothing short of divine.

Lately, I’ve been yearning for crepes. The craving had only grown stronger recently when I placed my usual Zingerman’s order for olive oil, vinegar and (for no real reason) a jar of Dulce de Leche from Argentina. Initially I had no plan for the jar of rich and creamy caramel, but as I kept seeing it sitting on the pantry shelf, it dawned on me that this could be the perfect crepe filling.

As far as I know, my beloved Magic Pan has long been out of business and Chicago has yet to develop a strong crepe-making street vendor corps. I was describing this grim scenario to my French friend, Nathalie, while we sat at Wrigley Field not long ago, polishing off a plastic tray of tortilla chips and what looked to be microwaved Velveeta. Nathalie, gave me one of her wonderfully expressive French shrugs, waving away my making-crepes-at-home apprehension. (If I studied this shrug for years, and practiced it every day in front of a mirror, I could never hope to achieve a fraction of the range of meaning she so effortlessly tosses off with one shrug. It’s something to see.)

According to Nathalie, French people make crepes at home…and, get this…IT IS SO EASY. I listened eagerly, hanging on her every word. (If it includes the term “easy”, you know I’m in.) She said you basically whirl up a simple batter in the blender, whenever convenient, earlier in the day, and then keep it in the fridge until you are ready to whip out a few crepes. No fancy pan, needed…just a simple non-stick. Wow. This was big.

So, last week, ready to take the plunge, I grabbed Mark Bittman’s book The Best Recipes in the World, and sure enough, there was a simple recipe for a crepe batter. Bittman also suggests using a blender AND resting the batter in the refrigerator. (That Bittman! How does he know all these things?!) Well, I made up the batter one afternoon and just took the blender jar and put it in the fridge. Voila, as they say. I was ready to make crepes at the drop of a beret.

After dinner, Steve and I wandered into the kitchen and I heated up my trusty non-stick skillet. The key is to find the right amount of batter to swirl into the skillet. I used a soup ladle, and it turned out to be half a ladle-full. And that's it. That glorious crepe aroma filled our kitchen. We ate them as I flipped them out of the skillet. They were remarkable. Light and tender with a delicate flavor. The Dulce de Leche crepes were fantastic, as I suspected they would be. But, Steve was filling his with fresh raspberries and a drizzle of honey and they were equally good. Bittman suggests a sprinkle of lemon juice and powdered sugar, which I tried with the first one out of the pan and the simplicity was stunning, and delicious.

In a few weeks, I am planning to take my mother to see Paris for the first time. There will be the plenty to see and experience. All those places that have meant so much to me...museums, monuments, churches, beautiful walks...and of course, my favorite chocolatier, fromager and patissier. But somewhere along the way, rest assured that we'll take a moment to stand on a sidewalk and enjoy a freshly made crepe. Vive La France.

Sugared Crepes
adapted from The Best Recipes in the World

makes 6 to 8 servings

Earlier in the day, or the night before (up to 24 hours), make up the batter:

1 cup flour
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon sugar, plus sugar for sprinkling
1 1/4 cups milk (I used whole milk)
2 eggs
2 tablespoons melted and cooled butter, plus butter for cooking
Fresh lemon juice for sprinkling

1. Blend the first 6 ingredients until smooth. Cover blender jar and place in refrigerator until ready to use.

2. Put a 6- or 8-inch non-stick skillet over medium heat and wait a couple of minutes; add a small pat of butter. Stir the butter with a large spoon or ladle; add a quarter- to a half-ladle of batter to the skillet. Swirl it around so that it forms a thin layer on the bottom of the pan.

3. When the top of the crepe is dry, after about a minute, turn and cook the other side for 15 to 30 seconds. (The crepe should brown only very slightly and not become at all crisp. (Don't worry if the first crepe doesn't really "work" -- you know how it is...a first pancake is always kind of messed up.)

4. Slide the crepe on to a plate and fill as you like. A sprinkle of lemon juice and powdered sugar. Spread some Nutella, or preserves...or Dulce de Leche.

These can be kept in a low oven, but really, you just want to eat them as they come off the skillet. That's part of the fun.

Bon Appetit!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Thank Heavens

One could feel a collective sigh of relief in the neighborhood this week as fall FINALLY wandered in a month late. I overheard someone on the bus say that it was incredible that a person could get both heat stroke (yikes! Can you say Chicago Marathon?!) and frostbite within a week in the same city.

I’ve been a frustrated cook for the past month or so – my CSA box keeps delivering squash and apples and gorgeous autumn veg and I can’t stand to turn on the stove or oven. The calendar says I should be making roasted vegetables and meat braises and yet every single air conditioner is on full blast. So you can imagine the minute I felt a chill in the air on Tuesday morning, my mind was racing ahead and plotting dinner.

There was going to be some roasted squash for sure. We’ve had a variety of squash sitting on the counter for several weeks, crying for attention and there’s nothing easier. Halve the squash, brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper…thirty to forty minutes in a hot (400 degrees) oven and you have gorgeous, caramelized, meltingly tasty flavors of autumn.

And, there was going to be chicken. On the bone. Don’t ask me why, but I crave it every so often. You may think I am anti-chicken but that’s not completely true. I’ve always enjoyed gnawing on a piece of bone-in chicken, especially if it has been grilled and smothered in BBQ sauce. Yum.

The craving required a good sauce for the chicken, and I turned to my beloved Cooking Nerds for advice.

There it was. On page 322. Exactly what I felt like eating. Pan-Roasted Chicken Breasts with Sage-Vermouth Sauce. The basic recipe is stellar and is going to be part of my repertoire forever. You sear the chicken pieces in an ovenproof skillet on the stovetop, and then throw the whole thing in the oven to finish. Once the chicken is cooked, use the accumulated bits and drippings in the pan to create the most incredibly flavorful sauce. I changed things up a bit on the sauce ingredients, since I never have any fresh sage in the house (shocking, I know...) and thought white wine sounded nice in place of vermouth.

Steve arrived home moments after I had put the pan in the oven and noted that the house smelled wonderful. Outside our front door the enticingly hearty aroma of seared beef hovered in the hallway. Turns out, as I compared happy kitchen notes the next day, our neighbors downstairs were making fajitas. They were planning for chili next and we were all giddy at the prospect of cold weather cooking. Welcome fall!

Pan-Roasted Chicken Breasts with Shallot-White Wine Sauce
serves 4

Definitely go for the "quick-brine". It's only thirty minutes and the chicken ends up beautifully seasoned and perfectly moist.

1/2 cup table (not kosher) salt, dissolved in 2 quarts of cold water
2 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts, halved --poultry shears really help with this
2 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
Ground black pepper
1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1 large shallot, minced
3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup white wine
1 tablespoon dried herbs (I used a "parisian" mix a friend gave me...thyme, chives, dill and tarragon)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 3 pieces
Salt & ground pepper

1. Immerse the chicken in the brine/saltwater and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Remove from brine, rinse under cold water and pat dry completely with paper towels. (Drying is key, so you can get a nice golden crisp crust.)

2. Adjust an oven rack to the lowest position and heat the oven to 450 degrees.

3. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed 12-inch ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat until beginning to smoke; swirl the skillet to coat with the oil. (It is REALLY important that the skillet is hot!!! Otherwise, chicken will stick. Let it preheat for a couple minutes.)
Brown the chicken, skin-side down, until deep golden, about 5 minutes; turn the chicken pieces and brown until golden on the second side, about 3 minutes longer.

4. Turn the chicken skin-side down again and place the skillet in the oven. Roast until the juices run clear when the chicken is cut with a paring knife or the thickest part of the breast registers 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 15-18 minutes.

5. Using a potholder or oven mitt, remove the skillet from the oven and transfer the chicken to a platter, letting it rest while making the sauce. (If you skip making the sauce, although I don't know why you would, it's soooo good, let the chicken rest before serving anyway.)

DON'T FORGET -- HOT HOT HOT pan handle!! Use that mitt.

For the sauce:

6. Using your oven mitt, pour off most of the fat from the skillet; add the shallot, then set the skillet over medium-high heat and cook, stirring until the shallot is softened, just under 2 minutes. Add the chicken broth, white wine and herbs, increase the heat to high and simmer rapidly, scraping the skillet bottom with a wooden spoon to loosen the browned bits, until slightly thickened and reduced to about 3/4 cup -- about 5 minutes.

Pour the accumulated juices from the chicken platter into the skillet, reduce the heat to medium and whisk in the butter, once piece at a time, until incorporated.

Spoon the sauce around the chicken and serve immediately.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Deserted Kitchen

MY MY's been a nutty couple weeks. The pots and pans look neglected and the stove is silent...err, the HOOD is silent, actually. Those of you with commercial grade hoods know of what I speak.

First, there was a weekend on my own and the Indian food takeout place up the street was calling my name. Why can't I order just one thing from there? Maybe it's the beguiling trio of flavors that make up my favorite combo: dal, tandoori chicken tikka and raita. The cool, yogurty raita balancing the spice of the tandoori condiments all mixed with the zing of the dal. Delicious! I ate Indian food all weekend...two dinners and a lunch actually, and I was very happy.

Then a Cubs game on a warm and sunny picture-perfect afternoon. The Cubs won their final regular season home game and we walked home, our bellies full of Wrigley Field Jumble: hot dogs, pretzels, popcorn, nachos, beer, twistee-cone ice cream, oh...and some cotton candy.

A string of birthday dinners out followed after which I realized I had not cooked in days. A momentary breath of autumn blew through town. The air was crisp. I grabbed the opportunity to make a chicken soup. Um, the abundance of carrots accumulated over a couple week's worth of CSA boxes had something to do with it as well.

This soup is something of a miracle. In an hour-and-a-half, you get a rich golden stock that is unlike anything that comes from simmering chicken parts in a pot for hours.

I used to think that's what you did. You got a chicken. You cut it up and chucked it in a pot with cold water to cover. Then you simmered. And simmered. And simmered. The final result was a disappointingly watery, just-as-bland version of what comes in the familiar red & white Campbell's can. I've tried different recipes and the soup always turned out somewhat disappointing. For a while I made a version called New York Penicillin, from Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook. Essentially, it was the above method, but included a turkey wing for some mysterious reason and no discernable difference in the results.

Then, The Cooking Nerds showed me a way to get gorgeous, intense stock in a relatively short amount of time. It is tremendous soup eaten in the moment -- with some sauteed carrot and celery -- and truly, it has healing properties. We make The Soup whenever either of us is feeling under the weather, and it has the amazing power to transform a sniffling, achy, feeling-sorry-for-themselves person into their original, cheerful, healthy self.

Perhaps it was a little early to be jumping into the chicken soup season, but it was that autumnal nudge I tell you. The crunchy leaves under foot, and paw...and, I figured I'd freeze some for risotto. (People, you simply would not BELIEVE the risotto to be made with this stock!)

The main thing with this recipe -- and it comes as a slight shock initially -- is that you toss the bones and meat from the chicken, after you've strained the soup. I know. It seems wasteful. I know, I know. I almost couldn't do it, the first time I made The Soup. But what you realize as you're looking at the gray, sad hacked up bits of chicken--because that is the TRUE SECRET of this hack the bird up into two inch bits--and you realize, there is nothing left. All the richness is in the broth. The meat and bones are entirely used up.

The heat has returned--nearly ninety degrees for the past few days--and I'm relieved we were lazy and left the window units in for a few more weeks. Too hot to cook, we've been eating salad. But there is some liquid gold in our freezer just waiting for that next cold snap.

Some Notes:
The flavor comes from really hacking up the chicken into small pieces. And I mean small. It doesn't have to be precise, but for example, a drumstick or thigh should be in three, or even four pieces. I dream of getting a Chinese cleaver for this express purpose some day, but have yet go ahead and buy one. They seem intimidating.

You can also give this soup different twists, once you have your broth made. The recipe below is for a traditional chicken noodle soup.
Asian--add some shrimp, chopped cilantro, bean sprouts and hot peppers, sliced into thin strips
Spring--sauteed asparagus, leeks, carrots and sugar snap peas with some orzo

(Amazing) 90-minute Chicken Soup
adapted from Cook's Illustrated

Makes about 3 quarts, serving 6 to 8

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 whole chicken (about 4 pounds), breast removed, split, and reserved;
remaining chicken cut into 2-inch pieces
2 medium onions, cut into medium dice
3 quarts boiling water
2 bay leaves
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 celery stalk, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
2 cups hearty, wide egg noodles
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
Ground black pepper

Browning chicken and onions:
1. Heat oil in a large soup kettle. When oil shimmers and starts to smoke, add chicken breast halves; saute until brown on both sides, about 5 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Add half of chopped onions to kettle; saute until colored and softened slightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to medium bowl; set aside.

Add half of chicken pieces; saute until no longer pink, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with cooked onions. Saute remaining chicken pieces. Return onions and chicken pieces (excluding breasts) to kettle.

Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until chicken releases its juices, about 20 minutes. (This makes the house smell REALLY good.) **Good time to put the water on to boil in a separate pot.**

Remove the lid and increase the heat to high; add boiling water along with both breast halves, 2 teaspoons salt, and bay leaves. Return to simmer, then cover and barely simmer until chicken breasts are cooked and broth is rich and flavorful, about 20 minutes.

2. Remove chicken breasts from kettle; set aside. (This will be the meat that does end up in the soup.)
When cool enough to handle, remove skin, then remove meat and shred into bite-size pieces, discarding skin and bone.

Strain broth and discard bones and meat (it's all gray and sad). Let broth cool a bit and then skim fat, reserving 2 tablespoons for sauteeing your veggies.

3. Return soup kettle to medium-high heat. Add reserved chicken fat. Add remaining onions, along with carrot and celery. Sautee until softened, about 5 minutes. Add thyme, along with the broth and breast meat and simmer until vegetables are tender and flavors meld, about 15 minutes. Add noodles and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley, taste for seasoning and serve. (This is where you can adjust ingredients for the Asian style soup, or the spring vegetable soup, etc...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Perfectly Plum

As you may already know, I don’t have terribly fond childhood memories of the Eastern European-style desserts that are my heritage. As opposed to the heavy tortes laden with liquor and nuts, I've always liked Things Baked With Plums. Maybe baking with plums is a Euro thing? I don't know. It just seems like you see plums being used more frequently in desserts there. Anyway, there was a kind of Plum Cake (a Kuchen really…) baked always with those pretty, dusky purple Italian plums. And plum dumplings, best eaten straight out of the oven. Once cool, they would become extra dense and the cornflake crumb coating would lose its crunch. (This always mystified me…how did this recipe evolve to include cornflake crumbs?) They were by no means “light”. When eating one of these dumplings, I always wanted to somehow avoid the dough part and get right to the meltingly juicy, purple-y plum center and I loved how the vivid juice would stain the surrounding dough.

Last week’s CSA box included a bunch of beautiful Mount Royal Italian prune plums. I ate one right out of the box and it was quite juicy making it an excellent candidate for a galette. I usually make a fruit galette with berries, but this was a perfect opportunity to try my own version of a Thing Baked With Plums.

The results were exactly what I had hoped for… a perfect combination of pastry and fruit. I’m absolutely wild about this crunchy, yet tender, pastry that is oh-so-easily made in a food processor. In this case, I used some leftover crème fraiche I had in the refrigerator (same thing as sour cream really). Whether you use sour cream or buttermilk or yogurt (I've tried all these variations and I think sour cream is best) I believe that the tangy creamy element is the secret to this wonderful crust. Then, I actually rolled out, and used, both rounds (the recipe makes enough for two) and made them on the thicker side. When baked, the plums release some of their fuchsia liquid and the folded up corners of the galette contain them beautifully.

Finally, what I thought was the greatest was delicious cold, the next day.

The Dough:

3 tablespoons sour cream (or yogurt or buttermilk)

1/3 cup ice water

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup yellow cornmeal

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

7 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 6 to 8 pieces

To make the dough in a food processor, stir the sour cream and 1/3 cup ice water together in a small bowl; set aside. 
Put the flour, cornmeal, sugar, and salt in the processor work bowl, fitted with the metal blade; pulse to combine. Drop the butter pieces into the bowl and pulse 8 to 10 times, or until the mixture is speckled with pieces of butter that vary in size from bread crumbs to peas. With the machine running, add the sour cream mixture and process just until the dough forms soft, moist curds.

Chill the Dough:

Remove the dough from the processor, divide it in half, and press each half into a disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for at least 2 hours. 
(Storing: The dough can be kept in the refrigerator for a day or two, or it can be wrapped airtight and frozen for a month. Thaw, still wrapped, in the refrigerator. It is convenient to roll the dough into rounds, place parchment between each round, and freeze them wrapped in plastic; this way, you'll need only about 20 minutes to defrost a round of dough at room temperature before it can be filled, folded into a galette and baked.)

The Filling:
1 1/2 cups quartered, or halved, Italian plums
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter

Position a rack in the lower thrid of the oven and preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Put the dough on a lightly floured work surface and roll it into an 8- to 10-inch circle that's about 1/4 inch thick. Since the dough is soft, you'll need to lift it now and then and toss some more flour under it and over the top. Roll up the dough around your rolling pin and transfer it to the prepared baking sheet.

Spread the plums over the dough, leaving a 2-inch border. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar over the fruit and drizzle with honey. Cut the butter into slivers and scatter it on top of the fruit. Fold the uncovered border of dough up over the filling, allowing the dough to pleat as you lift it up and work your way around the galette. Because you're folding a wide edge of dough onto a smaller part of the circle, it will pleat naturally--just go with it.) Dip a pastry brush in water, give the edge of the crust a light coating, and then sprinkle the crust with the remaining teaspoon of sugar.

Baking the Galette
Bake the galette for 35-40 minutes, or until the pastry is golden and crisp. Transfer baking sheet to a cooling rack for 10 minutes. Remove galette to cooling rack and serve warm or at room temperature, cutting the tart with a pizza wheel or sharp knife.

  Best eaten the day it is made.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

High Noon in Oklahoma

I'm driving down a desolate stretch of highway just outside of Tulsa for work. It's raining. The car is a rental...a hulking Dodge Charger in an odd shade of minty green. (The man at the Avis desk seemed disappointed by my blank look when he told me the type of vehicle I was getting as an upgrade. )

There isn't much around. Some refineries. Occasional scraggly trees and mildly rolling hills. And those mysterious rural aluminum structures that resemble oversized tool sheds.

I'm starving and with 20 minutes to get to the location for a shoot, and no prospect of eating in the next 8-10 hours, the outlook for lunch is dicey.

Normally I pick up a bag of nuts at the airport, or just carry my own in a little ziploc and of course, I forgot to pack them on this trip. But what looms on the horizon virtually every couple miles? That tall McDonald's sign. The one they put next to highways so you can see it from really far away. I sort of know I'm doomed. There is no choice. I ask a guy at the gas station if there is a grocery store anywhere nearby since the deli counter can be a good alternative in small towns. Nope, but he tells me, but there IS a SuperWal-Mart a couple towns over. Yeaayy.
So, I make the decision. I'm going to go for it. It's been some time...probably four, maybe five years since I've eaten McDonald's. Why not treat it as an experiment? Or, epicurean research? I've heard that McDonald's has changed. They have salads now.

Since I'm short on time, it makes perfect sense to just go the whole nine yards, and do the drive-thru. As I sit in the car, studying the very busy board/menu, the kid on the other end of the microphone is getting edgy. I am clearly taking too long. The more I ponder the options, the less I know what to order so, starting to panic, I see a familiar phrase. The Quarter-Pounder. Right. Sign me up. The speaker crackles something unintelligible, but I figure not much has changed and I am supposed to pull around. I pick up my meal and pull into a parking space. You KNOW it. I am eating in my car. That's part of the deal, right?

The fast food experience is hard to resist. It's cheap. You don't have to leave your automobile. The food is hot. In this case, I am happy to note, it is impeccably packaged in biodegradeable, recycled cartons and paper. Oh, and, it is soooo bad-good.

The first thing I notice is how salty it all is. Maybe that's what contributes to the sudden rush of greedy hunger that prompts me to eat much faster than I normally do. (Or, maybe it's that odd, furtive feeling I get eating in the car.)
Anyway, I am gulping down big bites of the burger like I have not eaten in days.

And the fries. They are magnificent. Perfectly hot and crisp and, yes, salty. (You may already know that rarely do I meet frites I don't like.)

There is also a gigantic Coke, of which I am only able to drink about a third. How do people manage to put away such quantities of liquid? Admittedly, the carbonated sweetness pairs nicely with the fries.

My solitary lunch is consumed in about four minutes. I quietly belch in the privacy of my vehicle.

Time to go to work.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Anniversary Brunch

Perhaps it was last year's wallet-busting dinner at Spiaggia that made the case for a thriftier anniversary celebration or maybe it was just being in the mood to celebrate without a big fuss. Either way, we decided to try the new (this summer) brunch at Green Zebra as this year's anniversary treat. As we sat in our comfortable banquette in the serene dining room, perusing the menu, I realized that my eyes kept searching for the word "bacon"...d'oh! Green Zebra is a vegetarian restaurant, but let me assure you...not at all in the rustic, brown-rice way. Since this is early September, we thought it would be an optimal time to try a restaurant which prizes seasonality and freshness as vehicles for delivering vibrant flavors, and we were right. It's always a good sign when you can't decide what to have because you'd like to somehow attempt eating everything on the menu.

Helped along by the complimentary toasty warm madeleines, butter and summer plum preserves on our table, we made our choices.

Steve was all about having grits, and these were amazing -- surrounded by sauteed collards and smoky wild mushrooms, all topped with a poached egg.

I'm sorry, but if I just SEE the word "frites" on a menu, I get excited and these were of the excellent shoestring type, accompanied by truffle mayo...mais bien sur!

My choice was the good ol' Fried Egg Sandwich -- yes, that is a mimosa in the background....for what would brunch be without mimosas?! The sandwich was terrific...grilled-crispy bread encasing peppery greens, a perfect heirloom tomato, sharp, white cheddar and said fried egg -- perfectly cooked of course...not too oozy and not too done.

And, to wrap things up...we shared a lovely German pancake with peaches, accompanied by a stellar cup of coffee.

sigh. As we were polishing off every morsel of what we'd ordered (oh my!) I noticed the couple next to us nibbling delicately at their food. The server came by to see if they were finished. They were, and as I saw them send away most of a gorgeous plate of french toast with raspberries, I felt like crying out "Wait! Bring that back...I'll finish it!".

Green Zebra
1460 W. Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Tomato Glutton

Oh the annual paean to The Tomato! I wonder… does any other fruit, or vegetable for that matter, achieve this much attention and such worship? So much is written about the glory of a summer tomato that I will humbly keep this short and offer you a couple of my favorite ways to eat them. The season for garden-ripe tomatoes is something I look forward to every year, and when they first begin to appear at the market, I simply can’t bear to cook them. Instead, I come home throw all the bags on the counter, root around to find the one with the tomatoes and then slice, sprinkle with salt and eat… while standing at the counter. Only after a few weeks am I willing to start cooking with them.

So, here we are in early September and I’ve been getting tomatoes in the CSA box for several weeks now. Call me crazy, but I supplement this with a weekly visit to my farmer’s market for a second batch of tomatoes each week. Hey. It’s a very small window of opportunity for a tomato lover, and I’ve got to make the most of it!

If you’re still in the I-Can’t-Get-My-Fill-of-Tomato-Salads period…here’s a beauty that I’ve been making for years. It’s from The Union Square Café Cookbook and it is both gorgeous and tasty. Can’t ask for much more than that! I make this regularly every summer, and it's unbelievable to me that it comes from a restaurant cookbook. I mean, where are the 48 steps? the obscure ingredients? the list of wacky kitchen equipment necessary to complete the recipe? (just so you know... the sight of the word chinois gives me a headache.) This is simplicity one can love.

Summer Tomato and Goat Cheese Salad
adapted from The Union Square Cafe Cookbook

(Servings are variable. One tomato glutton could, in theory, eat this whole thing...
or it could feed four, well-behaved people. Tomato varieties are also up to you...I like to mix it up a little with what I find at the market.)

2 red tomatoes -- go for that Brandywine you were eyeing at the market!
1 Green Zebra, if you can find it
1 yellow tomato
10-12, or a couple handfuls of grape/cherry yellow and red tomatoes
kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
1 small red onion, sliced thinly and soaked in ice water for 20 minutes (this works wonders at taking out the bite and crisping them up!)
12 basil leaves, thinly sliced into ribbons
5 oz. fresh soft goat cheese, crumbled
a drizzle of your best extra-virgin olive oil
a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, or red wine vinegar, if you prefer

Arrange the tomatoes on a platter, slicing the large ones into thin circles, and halving the small, cherry/grape tomatoes.
Season with salt & pepper to taste.
Drain the onions well and blot with a paper towel. Arrange over the tomatoes.
Sprinkle evenly with basil and crumbled goat cheese.
Drizzle with vinegar and oil.


If you've moved on to the next stage of Tomato Gluttony and are willing to use a little heat, here are two of my favorite summer pasta recipes.

When faced with the prospect of hosting a meal in our overheated apartment in mid-August, a 'no-cook' sauce is, well, err, a no-brainer for me. A zesty mixture of tomatoes, olive oil, and, wait for it....brie cheese chunks (!) sits on the counter for a few hours, patiently waiting for some cooked linguine before serving. It's that easy. Pair it with some good Italian sausage, broiled or grilled, and you've got yourself a heavenly meal -- and minimal paper towel brow mopping. This version is from my original copy of The Silver Palate Cookbook, and it really is fantastic. Kids like it too. My four-year old nephew, Michael, wanted to know if this was "mac-and-cheese". I thought about it, and said, well, actually, yes, it is. He proceeded to demolish an enormous serving.

Summer Linguine with Tomatoes and Basil
adapted slightly from The Silver Palate Cookbook, original edition

4 ripe large tomatoes, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 pound Brie cheese, rind removed, torn into irregular pieces (put the cheese in the freezer for 10-15 minutes to make rind removal easier)
1 cup large fresh basil leaves, sliced into ribbons
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1/2 cup olive oil
2 t. salt
1/2 t. freshly ground pepper
1 lb. dried linguine
freshly grated Parmesan cheese, approx. 1/4 cup

Combine the tomatoes, Brie, basil, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper in a large pasta serving bowl, at least 2 hours before serving and set aside, covered, at room temperature.

Cook the linguine until tender but still firm, drain and immediately toss with the tomato sauce. Adjust pepper to taste, and toss with Parmesan cheese, to taste.

And, finally, my hero, Nigel Slater, roasts small grape or cherry tomatoes under the broiler until they're charred and blistered and oozing carmelized tomato goodness, before combining with pasta, basil and a dash of creme fraiche. This is one that I make sometimes in the winter when the little grape tomatoes from Florida show up at the store and I crave a bit of tomato sunshine.

Orecchiette with Roast Tomato and Basil Sauce
adapted from The Kitchen Diaries

serves 2-4

I got this book while in the UK so we're talking metric measurements and fun British ingredients. My copy is covered with notes and adjustments. In this dish he called for "double cream", and I've used creme fraiche as a replacement. Sigh...all those glorious British dairy products...

3-4 cups of cherry or grape tomatoes
4 fat cloves of garlic, sliced thinly
a drizzle of olive oil
1 lb. dried orecchiette
30 large basil leaves
4 tablespoons of creme fraiche
grated Parmesan or pecorino, to serve

Put the tomatoes and the slivered garlic in a roasting pan, drizzle with a little oil and place under the broiler. Leave them in until their skins are golden brown and black here and there and they are juicy and ready to burst.
As Nigel says...don't pussyfoot around here -- really let the tomatoes develop a good char... it will intensify the flavor.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a deep pan with generously salted water.

Remove the tomatoes from the broiler, and crush with a fork, skins and all. Drop in the basil leaves whole and stir to wilt. Add the creme fraiche, stir and taste for seasoning.
Eat straight away with a spoon or two of grated Parmesan or pecorino.


Monday, August 27, 2007

The Great Chicken Breast Boycott

There was a time in the early 90s, when I felt compelled to make a stand against the ubiquitous “boneless, skinless” chicken breast. Chicken breasts were inescapable. Their low-fatness had been revealed to the world and the nation was clutching at this “healthy” ingredient like a life preserver. There was nowhere to hide from the rubbery tasteless stuff that had taken over. It was a staple at large weddings and charity events, restaurants featured countless variations on the “grilled chicken sandwich” and all the airlines in the land had a pathetic chicken pasta dish on offer. Grocery store meat departments made up marinated chicken kabobs, the chicken fajitas craze came and went and who knows how many dinner parties featured chicken-cloaked-in-some-sort-of-sauce.

I decided I had eaten my lifetime’s quota of chicken breasts, and I was done.

Time passed and with the exception of an occasional wedding or fundraiser, I successfully managed to avoid the boneless, skinless chicken breast. It was a nice respite.

Then on a hot summer day a few years ago, I simply had a craving for an old-fashioned chicken salad. The kind with cool, green grapes, maybe a little celery and some toasted nuts. An old memory tickled the back of my brain.

Years ago, when I was working at a law firm in Boston (see me in my little suit, floppy silk bow tie and running shoes for walking to the T?), my office mate raved about a chicken salad recipe. She was an excellent cook and I remember being impressed by her tales of preparing entire dinner parties from the Silver Palate cookbooks. So many exotic ingredients! Crème fraiche, sorrel, caviar…yikes! It was the 80s, people! Sensing my culinary inexperience, one day she brought in a cookbook just for me – The Open House Cookbook. The author, Sarah Leah Chase, was a contributor to one of the SP books, and also ran a small food shop on Nantucket…Que Sera Sarah. There were no glossy, styled photos on heavy paper. It was simply illustrated with small pen & ink drawings, but as I flipped through it I was hooked. I wanted to make EVERYTHING in it! (And, since that day, I think I have.)

That day, my office mate suggested starting with the chicken salad. (This was pre-Boycott, of course…) There were several variations listed, but what made the book worth its weight in gold, was the poached chicken used as a foundation for all the salads. You pile the ingredients into a pot, bring to a boil, turn off and set aside for several hours to cool. The slow cooking of the residual heat keeps the chicken incredibly moist and allows you to go about your business for the afternoon or day and then make up the salad when you’re ready.

Now, I swear to you, I am not a slacker. It’s just that when I come across a recipe that provides incredibly delicious results with minimal effort I find it difficult to contain my glee. There are few things that make me happier than making something wonderful by barely lifting a finger. This poached chicken method is the real deal. In fact, when I started thinking about doing this blog, the chicken salad recipe was mainly what I wanted to share.

Let the Poached Chicken be your canvas. I'll list several variations below, including the Classic Chicken Salad, but I really feel this can be endlessly adapted.

So here it is…the recipe that ended The Great Chicken Breast Boycott. Maybe it was discovering kosher chicken…maybe it was just giving the taste buds a vacation. I’m not really sure what made me abandon the boycott. It’s just hard to hate chicken breasts when you’ve got a recipe like this. (The variation in the picture is my version of Chinese Chicken Salad--I know...SO 90's!!)

Master Poaching Recipe
adapted from The Open-House Cookbook
(for 4-6 servings)

Two sets (four single) boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 rib celery, cut into thirds
1 large carrot, cut into thirds
small onion, or a whole large shallot, halved
4-6 stems of flat-leaf parsley
1 T. whole peppercorns
splash of vermouth, or dry white wine

Place everything in a large saucepan or pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, turn off the heat, cover and leave on the burner for several hours or until cool.
Drain and chop or shred the chicken for salad.

Here are some variations...add or subtract ingredients as you like:

Classic Chicken Salad
4 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups seedless green grapes, cut in half
2 T. chives, chopped
1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped (almond slivers work well here too)
1 cup (or less) mayonnaise
Salt & pepper to taste

Toss grapes, celery, nuts and chives with chicken. Mix in the mayonnaise 1/3 cup at a time -- depending on how moist you like your salad, you may not need the full cup.
Season with salt & pepper.

Curried Chicken Salad
4 ribs celery, chopped
2 Granny Smith apples, cored and cut into chunks
3/4 cup golden raisins
1 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons ground gingner
2 to 3 tablespoons curry powder
1 cup mayonnaise

Toss the celery and apples with the chicken.
Place the raisins and wine in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Add the raisins and the liquid to the chicken and toss to combine.
Add the lime juice, ginger and curry powder and toss again. Slowly add the mayonnaise 1/3 cup at a time.
Salt to taste.

Italian Chicken Salad
1 green or red bell pepper, chopped
1 1/2 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced in half
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
artichoke hearts, chopped, optional
1 zucchini, chopped

1/2 cup pesto sauce (more often than not, I will use the stuff out of a jar here)
1 cup mayonnaise

Toss the bell pepper, tomatoes, zucchini and/or artichokes and basil with the chicken. Whisk pesto into the mayonnaise and add to the chicken mixture. Sprinkle with pine nuts and salt and pepper to taste.

Chinese Chicken Salad
1 green or red bell pepper, chopped
1 cup snow peas, whole or sliced
1 cup thinly sliced red cabbage
2-3 scallions, chopped
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup bean sprouts
1/2 cup roasted peanuts
1/2 cup peanut butter
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 cup mayonnaise

In a blender, combine the peanut butter, soy sauce, sesame oil and mayonnaise. Toss the bell pepper, snow peas, cabbage, cilantro and bean sprouts with the chicken. Add mayonnaise mixture and combine. Sprinkle with peanuts.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

A Heavenly Goat Cheese

Just a quick note about one of my favorite goat cheeses! I found this cheese a couple years ago…it’s called Camellia and it’s made by the artisan cheesemakers at Redwood Hill Farm. Here in Chicago, I buy it at both Fox & Obel and Whole Foods. By the way, the name, Camellia, is after one of the owners' beloved goats.

Let me just say that the first time I tasted this tangy, lush Camembert-style cheese, I was in love. It has a gorgeous, robust flavor and beautiful, fragrant rind…like a cheese you would find in France, and that is saying something. Crucial, of course, to let it ‘breathe’ and come to room temperature, but when that’s all taken care of, have a couple olives and some crusty bread on hand and just see if you don’t polish off the entire round. Sancerre or any Sauvignon Blanc is a delicious accompaniment.

Italian Genius

The smell of a handful of fresh basil brings joy to my heart. Even the two or three small sprigs I buy in the dead of winter…you know the ones…they come in those horrible little plastic containers. I chop them into a chiffonade and scatter them on a pizza or that old standby, vodka pasta… and presto! The entire dish comes alive. Behold the Power of Basil!

So, when summer comes, and I spy those gigantic bunches of basil at my local farmer’s market, it’s like something lets loose. As with tomatoes, I wait all year to indulge my more gluttonous tendencies with basil. No parsimonious sprinkles here and there. When there’s an abundance of basil, it means it’s time for pesto.

Because I can’t help myself, I turned to my cookbook shelves and, using two hands, hoisted The Silver Spoon, aka the Italian version of Joy of Cooking, from the shelf. It weighs a ton and if I were to cook from it every day it would take a decade to make it through all the recipes. (we’re talking some 1,200 + pages.) Yet, I’m extremely fond of this book. It is lovable in its odd translations and puzzling quantities (maybe the metric conversions?). And, it begins with the preface, in giant bold letters: EATING IS A SERIOUS MATTER. I think I will make this my personal motto.

In the Primi Piatti (First Course) section was a recipe for Linguine with Genoese Pesto, alongside a stunningly gorgeous photo of a verdant green tangle of pasta with string beans and small chunks of potato. There were some yellow string beans and funky Italian green beans (flatter and wider than a regular string bean) in the fridge from the CSA box, so I figured, I’m in!

The genius of the recipe is this: you throw the beans, the pasta and the potatoes, which you’ve cut into the right-sized pieces all into boiling water, and when the pasta is done, so is everything else. Sort of a one-pot meal. Toss it all with the pesto you’ve whipped up in the food processor and you’ve got a replica of that gorgeous photo. If there is such a thing as summer comfort food…this is it. sigh… I’m known to fall hard for any recipe that is this easy.

Just for kicks, thought it might be nice to gild the lily and toss a few sauteed shrimp on top.

I used the entire batch on one pound of pasta, but if you choose to exercise restraint, the pesto will keep in the fridge in a small jar, with a thin layer of olive oil poured on top.
I have heard of people putting pesto into ice cube trays for freezing, and then having a ready supply throughout the winter. Whatever…that’s just never going to happen here…not with a pesto glutton around.

Linguine Al Pesto Genoese
Adapted from The Silver Spoon

Serves 4

1 lb. linguine
2 yellow boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into two-inch chunks
2-3 big handfuls of yellow or green string beans, trimmed

For the pesto:
2 cloves of garlic
2 cups of fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons pine nuts or walnuts
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup freshly grated romano cheese
Approx. 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil and add the pasta, beans and potatoes. Cook for approx 10 minutes, but start checking the pasta around 9 minutes, if you're using linguine.

While the pasta cooks, get out the food processor, and In the work bowl process basil, garlic and pine nuts until well-chopped. Add cheese and pulse 3-4 times. Then, with motor running, add the olive oil through the feed tube in a thin stream. Watch as the pesto starts to form, you may need to stop the machine and scrape the sides down and check the consistency. If you like it thicker, don’t use all the oil…thinner, use more.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Dinner and a movie

The Netflix pile sits, ignored. Nothing has moved in our “queue” in months and Steve is making lukewarm threats of canceling, or switching to only one dvd (horrors!). I’m not sure why, but I lose interest in all things video or television in the summer. It just feels right somehow. Maybe it’s a kind of vacation. Summer evenings should be for lazily flipping through magazines, turning the pages of a detective story or just drinking cold wine and enjoying the dusk.

Yet, the other night I felt like watching a movie. I was looking forward to an evening to myself and had made a stop at Fox & Obel to stock up on some delectable charcuterie—a favorite dinner option during dog days of summer—and their excellent bread. Was thinking that some sort of salad might be nice with the jamon Serrano and cheese I was drooling over, and we had the most beautiful yellow string beans in this weeks box. Now, I don’t know much about three-bean salads, except that they remind me of college dorm food – not good. What I came up with is a Two-Bean Salad, if you will…and it made for the most perfectly crunchy sidekick to my cold plate.

The movie…Children of Men was ehh. Gloomy and grim, I stopped it at about the halfway point, refilled my glass of chilled Sancerre and reached for the August issue of Vogue.

Two-Bean Salad
(enough for 4, or 2 with excellent leftovers)

1 lb. yellow, or green, string beans
1 can chickpeas, well-rinsed
1 small red onion, sliced
2 ribs celery, sliced
½ large red bell pepper, sliced
1 handful Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped

combine in a small jar with a lid (or, whisk together in a bowl)

2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
a squirt of lemon juice
4-5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
salt & pepper to taste

Steam the string beans until just barely tender (I like them with a bit of crunch) and then blanch in bowl with ice water.
Drain, and pat dry. Combine beans with remaining ingredients in a large salad bowl, and then toss with vinaigrette.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Essence of Summer

The story of The Peach has taken on near-mythic proportions. Everyone has stories they bring out on occasion and for the two of us, whenever any conversation includes discussion of organic produce or buying fruit in season, we feel compelled to tell the story of The Peach.

It was the early 90s, we were on Martha’s Vineyard for our annual summer vacation and thought we’d pick up some fruit and veg at a local produce market one afternoon. I strolled past a crate filled with peaches and then stopped. The fragrance wafted by me, like a caress…or something from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, where the aroma glides past like a hand. It was the smell of summer. The sign said “organic” peaches. Back then, organic was most definitely not something one could find at Wal-Mart. To me, it meant someone had spent some time and energy growing these peaches. The smell confirmed it with a most unsubtle advertisement. These peaches were ripe and completely unlike the rock hard, fragrance-free specimens at the grocery stores. Oh, I had been burned by ‘pretty’ peaches before. They’d catch my eye, all golden and streaked with pink, only to get them home and then realize they were some sort of cardboard, masquerading as fruit. Well, this was the real deal. I could tell. I put one in my basket.

At the register the cashier put the peach on the scale. The peach rang in at $7. Steve nearly had a stroke. I gulped. There was silence for a moment. She looked at as. “Do you still want it?” I coughed. My stomach clenched. The peachy bouquet rose to my nostrils…tantalizing. Steve glared. I said “yes”, my face burning. $7 for a peach? It defied imagination.

We headed back to our rental house, arguing over The Peach.

The moment we got in the door, I defiantly pulled it from the bag, took a plate and a knife and sat down at the table. Steve seemed shocked. Just sitting down to eat The Peach, so casually? I cut into the fruit and the perfume exploded into the room. Glorious peach nectar, ran down my fingers and pooled in the plate. I was giddy. I popped a slice in my mouth…juice dribbling down my chin, breathing in…swimming in… essence of peach. I could have cried. Steve sat down and had a slice. We agreed. It was the best peach we’d ever had.

I was reminded of The Peach recently when chatting with my neighbor, about our farmer’s market. She described going every week for her fix of peaches, which she puts together in a deliriously good salad. We both agreed that it was expensive, but worth it during this tiny window that is peach season. The salad she described sounded familiar. Turns out it was from Naked Chef. I remembered seeing it somewhere and yet, being hesitant…maybe given my history with peaches, or maybe the unfamiliar pairing with fresh mozzarella. I was inspired. Peach season is in full swing.

So, last week’s visit to Green City Market was for the express purpose of obtaining fine peaches and there were fragrant lovelies at Seedling. Pretty with that glorious ripe, peachy smell. Eating this salad is the perfect way to celebrate the season, as well as a few other perfectly delicious ingredients that, together, create lovely harmony-on-a-plate. Fresh mozzarella and prosciutto I buy from my favorite cheese shop, Pastoral. Even the guy who sliced the prosciutto was hesitant when I described the components of the salad—noting, “you’d have to have a really good peach though.” (If you live in the area, I highly recommend a visit to Pastoral. Just stepping inside creates the sensation of being in Europe, as well as other happy, warm feelings I associate with seeing piles of cheese.)

So, it’s July-heading-into-August and here’s my recommendation: if you can find a really good peach, take a deep breath…open your wallet and go for it. You won’t regret it.

Summer Peach and Mozzarella Salad
Adapted from The Naked Chef Takes Off

Quantities are approximate, depending on how many you’re feeding…
For 2

One ball/ovoline fresh mozzarella, torn into pieces
Two medium-sized peaches, sliced into quarters, or smaller
2, or 3 slices prosciutto, torn into pieces
two handfuls arugula, or your favorite greens
several fresh mint leaves, torn
salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil and lemon juice

Layer the mozzarella and sliced peaches on a plate. Sprinkle with salt and pepper (Naked Chef also says you can sprinkle with a pinch of hot pepper flakes, if you’re so inclined…)
Scatter the torn prosciutto over the peaches and mozzarella.
Dress your greens with a sprinkling of the best olive oil you’ve got and squeeze of a lemon juice.
Scatter the greens over the plate and, as Jamie Oliver likes to say, ‘tuck in’.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Success & Failure

Wow. Who would have predicted Cookie Triumph again – this time with Peanut Butter cookies —and so soon after last month’s achievement of baking nirvana?

And, who would have guessed that just a few short days later, I would find myself peering, prodding and poking at a dismal mess in a pan…an Italian vegetable pancake gone awry.

Here’s how it unfolded…

This weekend, to satisfy a weeklong craving for peanut butter cookies, I found myself back in the kitchen, sigh…yes…firing up the oven, again. So, as the mixer whirred away, I thought, "what is up with this infatuation I have with good, old American-style cookies.

Desserts in my house, growing up, were of two styles. There were the typical heavy, Eastern European ‘fancy desserts’ my mother made for guests. These always seemed to involve ground nuts. And booze. Not exactly the sort of tastes a kid yearns for…
Then there were the store-bought desserts that made my brother and I wild with joy. Twinkies. Ho-Hos. Ding Dongs. YUM. When my aunt , bless her, would visit, she’d bring a box or two, just for us. They were everything the leaden-nut-and-rum-soaked tortes were not…light and fluffy with that sugary, chemical-tang we adored. There was also that period of time when my father spent time on an engineering project at Sara Lee, so he would come home in the evenings with boxes of delicious, frozen desserts from the factory outlet store: cheesecakes topped with strawberries (which I enjoyed barely thawed – like ice cream cake), dark chocolate cakes with thick frosting and dense, buttery pound cakes.

Typical, American cookies, were elusive. My school friends’ mothers would make the mysteriously named Toll-House Cookies. LOVED those. I was especially enamored with the notion of mothers stocking large ceramic jars, to be plundered at will when one came home from school. There was something lovely, warm-feeling and homey to me about the old-fashioned, classic cookies: oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, sugar and snickerdoodle.

So, that’s mainly what I find myself craving when I want something sweet. No whip-creamy or fancy-pants desserts here…I hunger for cookies, pies and cobblers instead.

My neighbor and I have been passing Dorie Greenspan’s book, Baking: From My Home to Yours—as well as the tasty results--back and forth between our two kitchens trying various recipes. Everything so far has been outstanding. So, given this penchant I seem to have for cookies, I figured I’d give the Peanut Butter Crisscrosses a try…

Oh my!!!!! Crunchy, almost-but-not-quite shortbread-like and delectably salty-and-sweet…they were amazing. It felt as if I had achieved some sort of baking pinnacle, and took every ounce of will power not to pull up a chair and eat half the batch in one sitting as they came out of the oven. The recipe called for rolling the dough in balls and tossing them in sugar before placing them on the baking sheet, giving the cookies an almost professional look. All I can say is wow.

So, okay, I was feeling plucky…
And, I’ve been yapping on about pancakes
And, there was a pile of zucchini and summer squash from the CSA share sitting in the fridge.
And, I’ve been itching to try my hand at savory Italian Vegetable Pancakes, as suggested by Mark Bittman in the Times a few months ago.

Oooh, it seemed to be a good idea. I grated the squash and zucchini. (Is it me, or is summer squash kind of slimy?) Mixed them with eggs, parmesan and onion. (err, the batter seemed very wet…) Added bread crumbs. (hmm, still too wet…) Added flour. (A bad feeling about it…but, exasperated…I continued…) Dropped spoonfuls in hot oil. And then things went from bad, to worse. The gloppy, too-wet pancakes were burning on the exterior and remaining stubbornly soggy and uncooked in the center. Turning the pancakes was a wretched experience I won’t even go into, except to say it prompted a second attempt with a non-stick skillet. Disaster again. The Peanut Gallery (aka. Steve, between forkfuls of ragged, pancake scraps I kept dumping out of the pan) advised a thinner layer of batter. It just made thinner, scraps of ‘pancake’. Nothing worked. So, yesterday evening we ate the piles of tattered pancake with some cold grilled chicken and agreed they didn’t taste that bad, but there was something left to be desired with their appearance. It left me feeling glum.

Yet, today, writing this…I feel resolute. I will try to make vegetable pancakes again. You remember…I love pancakes and I feel there’s something good there.

Meanwhile, I think I'll comfort myself with another peanut butter cookie…

Note: It’s suggested not to use the freshly-ground, all-natural peanut butter here. Skippy Crunchy is what I used.

Peanut Butter Crisscrosses
adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan
makes about 40 cookies

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup peanut butter—crunchy or smooth
1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
¾ cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup chopped salted peanuts (you can add an additional ½ cup if you want even more crunch – I was just out of peanuts)

About ½ cup sugar, for rolling

Position racks in oven to divide into thirds and preheat to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and nutmeg.

Working with a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed for a minute or two, until smooth and creamy. Add the peanut butter and beat for another minute. Add the sugars and beat for 3 minutes more. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 minutes after each addition. Scrape down the sides and bottowm of the bowl and, on low speed, add the dry ingredients, mixing only until they just disappear. Mix in the chopped peanuts. You’ll have a soft, pliable (mushable, actually) dough.

Pour the ½ cup of sugar into a small bowl. Working with a level tablespoonful of dough for each cookie, roll the dough between your palms into balls and drop the balls, a couple at a time, into the sugar. Roll the balls around in the sugar to coat them, then place on the baking sheets, leaving 2 inches between them. Dip the tines of a fork in the sugar and press the tines against each ball first in one direction and then in a perpendicular direction—you should have a flattened round of dough with crisscross indentations.

Bake for about 12 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back at the midway point. When done, the cookies will be lightly colored and still a little soft. Let the cookies sit on the sheets for a minute before transferring them to cooling racks with a wide metal spatula. Cool to room temperature

Repeat with remaining dough, making sure to cool the baking sheets between batches.