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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.

CHICKEN
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

SAUCE
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 MY...it'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 broth...you 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, again...so 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
Salt
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...