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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.