Sunday, November 30, 2008

Chicken dinner

Going along with the theme of good cold weather food, I thought I'd share a recent roast chicken dinner I made that came out particularly well. I don't roast a whole chicken very often, but it's really one of the best things to cook--it's super easy, makes the whole house smell amazing, and inevitably leaves behind some versatile leftovers--I always freeze the carcass for making stock, and I made some killer black bean and avocado quesadillas with the extra meat from this chicken.

The method for roasting a chicken couldn't be simpler--I wrote about it in a previous post here but basically all you need to remember is to rinse the chicken inside and out, dry it thoroughly so that the skin will crisp up in the oven, roast it in a preheated 425° oven for about 10 minutes per pound, season it heavily with salt and pepper inside and out and let it rest, covered, for about 10 minutes after you remove it from the oven. You can apply a light coating of olive oil or butter to the chicken before seasoning it if you want to, but in this case I didn't and the skin still crisped up nicely.

I wanted some nice, hearty sides to go along with the chicken and decided on roasted potatoes (a natural pairing) and slow-cooked green beans with garlic and tomatoes. I halved or quartered some red new potatoes, depending on their size, tossed them with olive oil, salt, pepper and dried oregano, and arranged them, cut side down, on the bottom tray of a broiler pan. This is a great method for roasting potatoes because the pan gets super hot in the oven and the cut sides of the potatoes get incredibly dark and crispy. I also tossed a couple of unpeeled garlic cloves in with the potatoes. Here they are pre-roasting:

After laying out the potatoes on the broiler tray I positioned the broiler rack directly over them and placed the trussed, seasoned chicken on it. This adds even more flavor to the potatoes, as the rendered fat and juices from the chicken drip onto the potatoes throughout the cooking process. The potatoes will take the same amount of time as the chicken; toss them halfway through cooking and use that opportunity to rotate the chicken, too. Here are the roasted potatoes, served with chopped fresh parsley:

For the green beans, as I mentioned above, I decided to go the slow-cooking route. It seems to me that green beans are almost always served al dente--either steamed or briefly sauteed. I like those OK, but they often taste grassy and somewhat raw--good tossed in a salad, but somewhat underwhelming on their own. I prefer to cook the beans a little longer, until they soften and develop a little more flavor. For this rendition, I started by cooking a lot of chopped garlic in some olive oil in a large, wide pan set over medium heat. Then I added the rinsed, trimmed and halved green beans, some salt and some red pepper flakes. I followed up with a small can of peeled plum tomatoes, crushing the tomatoes by hand as I added them to the pan along with all of their liquid. Once that came to a simmer, I lowered the heat and allowed the mixture to cook for about 15-18 minutes, or until the beans were tender and the tomato liquid had reduced. I served these with parsley as well:

And here's the chicken, out of the oven, post-resting and pre-carving:

And a piece of white meat plated up with the sides:

Comforting, homey and perfectly complemented by a nice glass of red wine. What more can you ask from a simple weeknight dinner?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Winter fare

Recent falling temperatures have had me craving hearty, warming dishes like soups, braises and stews. In fact, those are my favorite kinds of dishes to prepare--they can take some time, but they're usually simple, utilizing basic ingredients (root vegetables, wine, stock) and elementary techniques (chopping, stirring) and relying on low, slow cooking--not hard-to-source products or fanciful knife skills--to develop their flavor. For the (usually) minimal amount of effort that goes into making such dishes, the payoff is big.

Last night when shopping for dinner ingredients I had no ideas beyond wanting to make the type of meal described above. Inspiration seized me when I spied a package of chicken thighs for $1.70, an offer too good to pass up. Browsing the produce section of the market, I rounded out my haul with a some button mushrooms, a bunch of parsley, and a few leeks. When I went to grab a can of peeled plum tomatoes I spotted a bag of egg noodles and decided that my stew would be better complemented by those than by the long-grain brown rice I had been planning to serve underneath.

The cooking process itself was just as easy and intuitive as my shopping had been. First I browned the chicken thighs in my roommate's beautiful old Le Creuset pan, removing them to saute the mushrooms and leeks--and a little bit of garlic--in their flavorful residual juices. I deglazed with some red wine, added some tomatoes that I had crushed by hand, and slipped the chicken pieces back in the pan. Then I lowered the heat and let everything bubble away, partially covered, for about a half hour. By that time, the noodles were cooked, tossed with butter and chopped parsley, and awaiting their flavorful counterpart. I welcome winter if it means food like this.

Braised Chicken Thighs with Mushrooms, Leeks and Red Wine
Serves 2-3

1. Set a large, wide, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat and add about 2 tbsp. olive oil. Generously season skinless chicken thighs (4-5 should come in a package) with salt and freshly ground black pepper, then brown them well, cooking for about 3-4 minutes per side. Set aside.
2. Add one package of button mushrooms, quartered, to the pan. Cook them until they've browned and lost most of their moisture, about 6-8 minutes. As they cook, halve 3-4 leeks lengthwise and slice them into thin half-moons, using the white and light green parts only. Rinse them well in cold water to remove all grit. Mince 2 cloves of garlic.
3. When mushrooms are browned, lower heat slightly and add leeks, garlic, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks have wilted. Increase heat and add about 1/2 cup of dry red wine, stirring vigorously to deglaze the pan. Lower heat to medium-low and add 4 or 5 canned peeled plum tomatoes to the pan, crushing them by hand as you add them. Add about 1/2 cup of the tomato liquid to the pan and stir to combine.
4. Add the chicken thighs and their accumulated juices back to the pan. Cover partially and allow to simmer over low heat for about half an hour. In the meantime, set a large pot of water to boil, salt it, and cook the egg noodles to al dente. When they are done, drain them and toss them with about 2 tbsp. of butter, salt, pepper, and about 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley.
5. Over each portion of noodles, serve 2-3 chicken thighs and a generous spoonful of sauce. Top each plate with more chopped parsley, if desired.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sick food

I've been so busy lately that I've barely had time to breathe, let alone cook. And recently, when I finally had some time off and a chance to kick back, I was waylaid by bronchitis and--well--couldn't breathe. But given that I didn't leave my apartment for a few days, I did get to do some cooking. Sadly, my usually robust appetite deserted me while I was sick, and I only managed to eat little bits of things, sort of grazing throughout the day. When it came to dinner, I wanted something warm and nourishing but not too filling. I knew exactly what to make: revueltos. Revueltos are, essentially, Spanish scrambled eggs--doesn't sound too interesting, does it? But, like most things the Spanish do (especially with food), they do scrambled eggs well. The magic of revueltos lies in their texture: smooth, creamy and barely set--which, in turn, comes from the technique used to cook them: a well-oiled, barely warm pan over a very low flame, and constant stirring to encourage the curds to form.

And how to flavor them? Revueltos are the perfect match for leftovers. If you've got a little bit of cooked greens, or some roasted or boiled potatoes, or even some chunky tomato sauce hiding out in your fridge, just saute it in a little oil (and a lot of chopped garlic) before lowering the heat and adding your eggs. I used frozen peas, which happen to be my favored partner for revueltos (and one of my favorite ingredients in general). Just remember the Spanish mantra: everything is better with pork (i.e., some chorizo, ham or pancetta thrown into the mix can only serve to improve things).


Serves 1

1. In a small bowl, lightly scramble two eggs. Season with salt and pepper.
2. In a small, heavy-bottomed pan coated with olive oil and set over medium heat, saute your choice of fillings. You can use anything you would enjoy eating with eggs; some of my favorites include chorizo; cubed ham; frozen peas; chopped scallions; cooked potatoes; and canned or marinated artichoke hearts (drained). I like my revueltos very garlicky, so I always add a good amount of chopped fresh garlic.
3. Lower heat to low and add more oil if neccessary (you want the pan to be very slick). Using a wooden spoon or a heat-safe rubber spatula, gently stir the eggs as they cook. By keeping the heat very low and cooking the eggs longer than is usual for convential scrambled eggs, you will create a creamy texture.
4. When eggs are just barely set, remove them to a plate and garnish with chopped fresh herbs, red pepper flakes, or grated cheese, if desired.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Beef: it's what's for dinner

And thank god for that. Working in a vegan organic restaurant three times a week and consuming a wider range of tofu and tempeh products than I ever knew existed, I find myself visited, on occasion, by the sharpest and most intense cravings for red meat. Probably a response to my body's decreased intake of iron, they're impossible to ignore. I experienced such a craving one night last week while trying to figure out what to cook for dinner for me and my roommate. When she called to ask what to pick up at the store, I had to restrain myself from just shouting "MEAT!" into the phone, instead composing myself and asking for a few red bell peppers, some light green, mild Cubanelle peppers, a bag of frozen peas, and a couple of pounds of a quick-cooking cut of beef like sirloin. With these ingredients--plus a bag of onions that I already had--I would make a sort of beef, peppers 'n' onions saute to be served over rice; it's not the type of thing I usually cook, but earlier in the day I had seen a coworker heating up the remains of this kind of dish for her lunch. It smelled really good, and the idea must have stored itself in my head.

When my roommate got home, grocery bags in hand, I got to work. First I sliced the beef into thin strips--I used a long, flat piece of sirloin tip, though something like flank or skirt steak would have worked well, too--and placed it in a bowl of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and soy sauce to marinate. Then I sliced two red bell peppers into slender strips and did the same with two or three Cubanelle peppers. Small and thin-skinned, Cubanelles have a more mild flavor than green bell peppers, which I have a huge aversion to, especially when cooked. Actually, cooked green bell peppers are just about the only food aversion I have, so that's saying a lot. But I digress. The point is, by using the Cubanelles I was still able to get some variety of texture, flavor and color into this dish without having to use the dreaded green bell pepper. I completed my mise en place with about two large white onions, sliced.

To execute the dish I first drained the meat of its marinade, seasoned it with a little kosher salt and a lot of freshly ground black pepper, then sauteed it in a large pan to near-doneness. I then removed it from the pan, added a little more oil, and fried the onions and peppers, along with three cloves of minced garlic, over medium heat for a good amount of time--you want to get the vegetables soft and caramelized. As they wilted, I seasoned the vegetables with soy sauce and balsamic vinegar. Finally, I added back the beef and its accumulated juices as well as a good handful of frozen peas, for some color and sweetness. At this point I needed a little cooking liquid to pull everything together, and, lacking any chicken broth or an open bottle of wine--either of which would work well in this dish--I found myself reaching for the bottle of pale ale that I had been sipping throughout the cooking process. I used about half a bottle of it and it coalesced the flavors wonderfully. After all, what's a more perfect union than beef and beer?

Steak, Pepper 'n' Onion Stirfry
Serves 4

1. Select a 1.5 - 2 lb. cut of quick-cooking beef, such as sirloin tip or flank or skirt steak. Slice the meat against the grain, creating long, thin strips. Place the meat into a large bowl and add equal amounts (about 1/4 cup each) of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and soy sauce, creating a marinade. Stir to combine.
2. Core 2 large red bell peppers and 3 Cubanelle peppers (or substitute 2 large green bell peppers). Slice them into long, thin strips. Halve 2 large white or yellow onions, then slice those, too, into long, thin strips. Mince 3 cloves of garlic. Set the vegetables aside.
3. Drain the beef of its marinade and season it with a little salt and a lot of freshly ground black pepper. Heat 2 tbsp. of olive oil in a large, wide, heavy-bottomed skillet set over medium heat. Add the beef and cook, stirring, until nearly cooked through, about 5-6 minutes. Remove the beef from the pan and set it aside.
4. Add a touch more oil to the pan; keep it over medium heat. Add the onions, the garlic and some kosher salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions have wilted, about 5-6 minutes. Add the peppers and continue to cook, stirring, until all the vegetables are quite soft and have begun to caramelize, about 10-12 minutes more. Season them with balsamic vinegar and soy sauce to taste; you should be aiming for about a 1/4 cup of each.
5. Add the beef and its accumulated juices back to the pan, along with a handful of frozen green peas. Stir to combine. If some cooking liquid is needed, add some chicken broth, dry white or red wine, or light-bodied beer to the pan, about 1/2 cup. Continue to cook until most liquid has evaporated and a thick sauce has formed, about 5-6 minutes. Remove from heat and serve over long-grain white or brown rice and garnish with chopped fresh parsley, if desired.