Friday, December 18, 2009

Mediterranean Chicken

If you're like me, during the holiday season you don't have a lot of time to spend on the every-night dinners (sigh, or on your blog either)--too much baking, cleaning, wrapping, and shopping to do! During this time of year, I rely on tested meals that take 30 minutes or less to cook. Martha's Mediterranean Chicken is one of my favorites in that category. It's simple (which translates to affordable) and doesn't require a lot of time or babysitting. It's gorgeous when it comes out of the oven: a sizzling pan of gold and crimson and deep, olive purple.

I use an iron skillet because you can transfer it from the stove top to the oven. I also use skinless chicken breasts, and I don't feel I've been missing out...

I usually serve this with cous cous and a salad or green vegetable.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Redeeming Biscuits

Have you ever tried to make biscuits? Most of the recipes I've tested in the past have yielded rock-hard nuggets that only the dog could choke down. I usually make biscuits about once every other year because, inevitably, most of them sail straight into the trash can. I'm left with a breakfast-less table and a strong feeling of defeat. Still, I can't help trying to win the biscuit battle. Biting into a warm, buttery, fluffy biscuit is a rare and delicious treat; so far, I have only been able to daydream about the triumph of baking one.

Last week I saw this recipe and I was caught by the biscuit bug again. The limited number of ingredients--cream being the only binder--sparked my curiosity. The simplicity of it just made sense. Weapon in hand (spatula), I folded the flour and cream together, stopping just when the flour was moistened and the dough began to form. I didn't use a rolling pin, but flattened the dough with my hands.

The biscuits cut from the scraps are what we call "uglies." There's always a little courteous competition over these biscuits (you dear, no you, no you--I insist...) I think it's because of the way the uglies fall apart in nicely segmented bite-size pieces when you tug at them--perfect for buttering bit by bit.

These biscuits are the best I have ever had, and I still can't believe they emerged from the very oven installed in this old apt. Each biscuit had a light velvety crunch on the outside that gave way to a fluffy-soft inside. After my knock-down, fish-and-chips failure, it felt good to get on my feet again with these redeeming biscuits.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Bad Fish

This past Wednesday, I tried my hand at fish and chips. When I saw a recipe in my new Cooking Light mag., I had visions of paper bags filled with deliciously crisp, white, flaky fillets of haddock wreathed in chipped potatoes and dotted with malt vinegar--the kind of fish you can get in the UK and nowhere else. When I saw the recipe's gorgeous accompanying photograph, I thought--ha! I'll show London!

Mistake number one, I purchased a bag of frozen cod from Wal-mart. When I cut open the bag, soggy, grey fillets slid from their individually wrapped packets into a shallow dish. The fillets seemed to be disintegrating as I handled them, at which point I began to have second thoughts about the whole ordeal. Then I looked at the picture again and thought, surely the difference is that these fillets are raw and those are cooked. Onward ho! But I really should have stopped there.

I turned back to my heating skillet of oil and my bowl of flour. I added the called-for beer and whisked it into a frightening brown froth. I submerged each piece of fish beneath the bubbles and it came up dripping with a mix of what looked like a concoction of latex paint and scuzzy sea foam.

I plopped the fish into the oil, keeping the tearing pieces together with the flour/beer glue. After the alloted three minutes per side, the poor fillets looked as though they'd been beaten to a pulp. Like bad pancakes, I slapped them onto our plates, flung them on the table, and force fed myself and my family a truly abominable dish. Even the oven chips turned out poorly . . .

Lesson learned--never buy cheap fish! And also, I am no match for London.

(I tried to provide a link to the recipe, but found out that it had been removed from the Web site! Ha!)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Fennel-Dusted Chicken and Mashed Potatoes with Caramelized Shallots

Last Friday, our apartment was cold and dark when I came home. I heard the jingle of our dog's tags as she came to the door, and I gave her a blind pat. With the light flicked on, I strapped an apron around my waist in the glow of the kitchen. And from outside, the corner of our first floor place, enclosed by the quiet, early night, shone like a firefly to Brandon and Rosie who would've been driving towards it once I had already lit the burners on the stove.

That evening, I made Fennel-Dusted Chicken with Brown Butter and Capers--my favorite new recipe of the season. As you already know, I love brown butter, but I also love capers. Capers are flower buds plucked from shrubby plants found on the cliff sides of the Mediterranean. I feel like some sort of kitchen nymph serving flower-bud-speckled sauces on my fillets beef or chicken or fish to an audience unsuspecting of the little treasure they're about to eat.

Anyway, this chicken tastes impressive and you can make it in under 30 minutes (well, if you don't have a little baby crawling around to distract you!) The elegant butter sauce is tangy and aromatic with a touch of citrus-sweet. If you can't find ground fennel (I couldn't), just buy the whole fennel seeds. Grab a hammer (rolling pin will not do in this instance), place the fennel in a bag, and pound pound pound on the cutting board. It makes a lot of noise, but does the trick.

I paired the chicken with mashed potatoes with caramelized shallots. When you put these two on the plate, let the mashed potatoes lean into the caper sauce. A little extra butter never hurt a potato...

I kind of make up the potato recipe as I go along, but below are some guidelines. Please note that these are guidelines only.

8 large potatoes (white or russet) cleaned, mostly peeled, and cut in half or thirds depending on size
4 tablespoons of butter (or more)
3-4 shallots, thinly sliced
Olive oil as needed
1/2 cup of buttermilk
1/2 cup of milk, plus more as needed
salt and freshly ground pepper
kosher salt
(other yummy additions are freshly grated parmesan cheese and sour cream)

Boil a large pot of water with plenty of salt. Add potatoes to the water and boil until they can be easily pierced with a fork--about 20 minutes for big potatoes.

While potatoes are boiling, bring some olive oil (about 2 tablespoons) in a small skillet to medium heat. Add shallots, decreasing heat if necessary. Season with a little kosher salt. Saute for 15 - 20 minutes until deep golden in color. Remove from heat.

Preheat broiler with rack in the middle or upper third of the oven.

Drain potatoes and mash by hand with a potato masher, until the pot of potatoes is broken up. Add butter, mashing to encourage it to melt. Add buttermilk, mashing a little more. (If adding cheese or sour cream, add here.) Then add enough milk to reach your desired consistency, mashing a little as you go. With a slotted spoon, remove the shallots from the oil and add them to the potatoes, folding them in with a spoon. Season with salt and pepper.

Spoon potatoes into a ceramic baking dish. Make six swirls in the top of the potatoes, leaving pools for butter. Cut pats of butter and place in the empty pools. Broil for a few minutes until some of the swirled peaks begin to brown and the butter has melted.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Weeknight Staples: Easy Northern Italian Pasta

This one is a staple for us. I stumbled upon this recipe after we returned from our honeymoon in Umbria, Italy. I've had a lot of fantastic Italian food (thanks to Nanny and my mom!) in my life, but I found the cuisine of the region we visited much different. The sauces really stumped me. I couldn't figure out what was different, aside from the exceptional quality of fresh ingredients. I could only describe them as, well, surprisingly buttery! This was true even in Rome, where we stayed for a couple of days lapping up cappuccinos, chocolate tortes, and, of course, plenty of pasta. When I saw this recipe with butter in it, I tried it. This sauce doesn't quite match up to the heavenly dishes I was treated to overseas, but it is the closest I've come so far. That aside, Brandon and I have really grown fond of this one . . .

The addition of milk and a hint of nutmeg might have a few southern Italian food lovers turning up their noses (eh hem, Dad!), but I promise, this is a great dish and won't taste either milky or nutty when you're done.

This is a perfect weeknight recipe. It's inexpensive; it makes a lot; and it gets better with age (next day is better than the first!)

* Usually needs a little extra salt once plated.
* Serve with plenty of fresh grated parmesan cheese.
* Add a little finely grated cheese (1/4 cup) to the sauce to thicken it up a bit.
* While sauce is still in the pan, add some of the pasta water and cook a bit of it off so that the sauce is not so runny.
* Leftovers: reheat in a large skillet, adding a little water to freshen up the sauce.

I can't wait to try this next summer with sun ripened tomatoes from the garden!!