Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Italian Hunter's Chicken

As previously noted, I have a deep rooted, possibly unbalanced devotion to all things Italian and food is certainly no exception. Maybe that explains my obsession with the Food Network’s Giada De Laurentiis. I don’t necessarily think everything she makes is spectacular (ok, maybe I do) but her bobble-esque head, tiny frame, sometimes overly done makeup…none of it actually bothers me. In fact, I think she is adorable, her pronunciation of pasta and all. So I do tend to gravitate towards a lot of her recipes. Having said that, in true A Girl and Her Kitchen fashion, I always ‘adjust’ them to make it my own.

One of my favorite go-to recipes for easy weeknight meals or even unexpected guests for dinner is Giada’s Chicken Cacciatore. The earthy spices, bright colors and homey flavors seem to just dance in this dish and when served over a big pile of whole wheat pasta, it is always without fail a major hit in my house. There are a ton of recipes out there for this classic Italian meal, but I honestly, putting my regard for Giada aside (yes, we are in fact on a first name basis), think this recipe tops all. And my additions and edits aren’t too shabby either.

In fact, this is a good time to make a major culinary secret of mine (and I am sure others) known and that my friend, is the Parmesan rind. Now I buy actual hunks of parmesan cheese (it is one of the kitchen luxuries I afford myself, though if we buy a house, husband says my Parmesan budget is going to have to get smaller :( .)  I don't want it pregrated by my cheese guy and I definitely never, ever buy the prepackaged (god forbid) stuff that comes from people like Kraft. I like to grate the good stuff myself when I need it, fresh. And the rind is totally crucial here. Once I’ve used up the hunk of cheese I cut the rind into big 1 inch chunks, throw them in a freezer safe bag and keep them frozen for when I need them. And I use them in everything from Chicken Cacciatore to homemade chicken soup to my pasta sauces. No need to defrost, just plop them right into whatever you are cooking. They will largely melt and infuse your food with a background of parmesan goodness.

Now Chicken Cacciatore literally means ‘hunter’s chicken’ so it is supposed to be rustic folks. When you are chopping your veggies for this one, don’t stress about size or perfection. Just chop those suckers up and toss them on in!

Chicken Cacciatore
(Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis)

• 4 chicken thighs and 2 chicken breasts with skin and backbone, halved crosswise (or substitute with 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts or any combination there of. Use what you like.)
• 2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
• 1/2 cup all purpose flour, for dredging chicken in
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 3-4 large red and orange bell peppers, chopped (may include yellow as well, whatever you like)
• 1 onion, chopped
• 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
• 1 cup dry white wine
• 1 ( 28-ounce) can diced tomatoes with juice (fire roasted diced tomatoes will add another layer of flavor if used)
• 1 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
• 1 nugget of parmesan rind
• 4 tablespoons drained capers (or more to taste)
• 2-3 teaspoons dried oregano leaves (or more to taste)
• 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes (optional)
• 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves

If using boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut each in half. Sprinkle the chicken pieces with 1 teaspoon of each salt and pepper. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour to coat lightly.

In a large heavy sauté pan (such as, Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron 5-1/2-Quart Round French Oven, Red)heat the oil over a medium-high flame. Add the chicken pieces to the pan and sauté just until brown, about 5 minutes per side. If all the chicken does not fit in the pan, sauté it in 2 batches. Transfer the chicken to a bowl or plate and set aside.
Add the bell pepper, onion and garlic to the same pan and sauté over medium heat until the onion is tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the oregano and red pepper flakes.
Add the wine and parmesan rind and simmer until reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, be sure to scrape up all the brown bits on the bottom of the pan. There is a lot of flavor in there.
Add the tomatoes with their juice, broth and capers. Return the chicken pieces to the pan and turn them to coat in the sauce. Bring the sauce to a simmer. Continue simmering over medium-low heat until the chicken is just cooked through, about 30 minutes for the breast pieces, and 20 minutes for the thighs. (Cooking time based on bone-in meat. If boneless, will take less time. Maybe 20 minutes for breast pieces.)
Using tongs, transfer the chicken to a platter. If necessary, boil the sauce until it thickens slightly, about 3 minutes. Spoon off any excess fat from atop the sauce. Spoon the sauce over the chicken, then sprinkle with the basil and serve with rice or pasta.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Roasted Vegetables + Cheesey Cream Sauce = Gratin Goodness

Roasting vegetables brings out deeper flavor and a crisp-around-the edges texture making them simply divine. It's like every veg always intended to be roasted. And I roast everything from broccoli and asparagus to tomatoes and squash, potatoes and eggplant, you name it, I will roast it. I usually add in a touch of vinegar be it red wine, balsamic, lemon juice, sherry vinegar or other, though in this particular recipe I leave the cauliflower alone. You can roast veggies well in advance and keep in airtight containers in the frige for snacking or dishes like this one.

Now a gratin is a seriously easy dish. It is creamy, hearty and definitely comfort food material. Serve as a side dish with a roasted meat or bulk them up with some chopped ham or tons of veggies and serve as a main course with salad and bread. For this gratin, I swopped out the roasted leeks for caramelized onions because I didn’t have leeks on hand. Just toss sliced onions into a sauté pan with a couple tablespoons of olive oil and salt and sauté on medium low heat for 20-25 minutes until they are dark brown (not burned) and sweet. You might also throw in a teaspoon or two of balsamic vinegar half way through cooking to add another layer of flavor to the onions. Then chop the onions and toss them with cauliflower for the gratin.

Overall, this recipe is really versatile so you could pretty much use anything you want. Once you master the art of making a béchamel (aka creamy white sauce), which is quite easy, just takes a bit of whisking, you will find it is useful for a whole host of dishes. Never shy away from anything that helps deliver more cheese to your food people :-) !

Roasted Cauliflower Gratin
(Adapted from the Working Cook)

Roasted vegetables
• 2 small heads cauliflower, about 3 pounds untrimmed
• 4 tablespoons olive oil
• Kosher salt and pepper to taste
• 3 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 large leek

• 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
• 1 1/2 tablespoons flour
• 2 cups low-fat milk
• 1/2 cup (generous) grated Parmesan, Gruyere or Manchego cheese
• Kosher salt and white or black pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
• 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• 1 teaspoon whole-grain Dijon mustard
• 1 to 2 ounces ham, cut into baton shapes (optional)
• 1/4 cup breadcrumbs

To make the roasted vegetables: Preheat the oven to 400°.

Cut the cauliflower into florets that are 1 1/2 inches wide. In a large bowl, toss the florets with 3 tablespoons olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, and spread out on a large rimmed baking sheet.
Roast until tender with a bit of bite and lightly browned, 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the garlic after 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, remove the coarse dark tops of the leek and cut lengthwise. Wash thoroughly by soaking in cold water, then cut each half into 2-inch lengths, discarding any more dark green ends and checking for hidden dirt. Separate the layers and toss with 1 tablespoon oil and some salt, then spread out on another large rimmed baking sheet and roast until crispy in some parts and thoroughly soft throughout, about 15 minutes. (You can roast the vegetables several hours ahead and refrigerate before completing the dish.) (OR see below for what I did with onions instead of leeks.)
To make the gratin: In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 2-4 minutes, taking care that it doesn't brown. Whisk in the milk until smooth, then bring to a gentle simmer whisking constantly. Maintain the heat so it's bubbling very gently; stir often until the sauce thickens and the flour cooks, about 10-15 minutes. You know it is done when the sauce coats the back of a wooden spoon and you can run your finger through it leaving a trail that doesn't go away. Take off heat. Add 1/3 cup of the Parmesan and stir until just melted. Add white pepper and nutmeg. Stir in the msutard and taste for seasoning. Add salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste.
When the vegetables are done, reduce the oven temperature to 350°. Toss the vegetables with the ham, if using, in a 13- by 9-inch baking pan, such as a Pyrex. Pour the sauce evenly over the vegetables. Combine the breadcrumbs with the remaining cheese and sprinkle over the top.
Bake until bubbly and lightly browned, 20 minutes. If you like, run the gratin briefly under the broiler to brown well. Serve warm.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Blue Cupcakes a la NYC's Magnolia Bakery

When I lived in NYC, getting to Magnolia Bakery was a major treat. Interestingly enough, I’m not one of those sugar addicts. I don’t actually like icing to be honest and I never ask for a birthday cake made of anything other than ice cream, but Magnolia Bakery is the rare place that makes a cupcake I actually crave. So when my friend decided to throw a BLUE themed birthday party, I figured Magnolia cupcakes with a major color flare would be right up her alley. That and the fact that these little devils are probably 99% sugar and butter and let's be honest, something with that much sugar and butter has to be good.

Magnolia's Vanilla Cupcake

• 1 1/2 cups self-rising flour
• 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
• 2 cups sugar
• 4 large eggs, at room temperature
• 1 cup milk
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• Vanilla Buttercream, recipe follows

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 (1/2 cup-12 capacity) muffin tins with cupcake papers. In a small bowl, combine the flours. Set aside.

In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar gradually and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the dry ingredients in 3 parts, alternating with the milk and vanilla. With each addition, beat until the ingredients are incorporated but do not over beat. Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the batter in the bowl to make sure the ingredients are well blended.  (Add a few drops of food coloring at this point ot change the hue of the batter. Check out the crazy blue I got!)
Carefully spoon the batter into the cupcake liners, filling them about 3/4 full. (I made both mini and regualr size cupcakes)
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cupcake comes out clean.
Cool the cupcakes in tins for 15 minutes.
Remove from the tins and cool completely on a wire rack before icing.

Vanilla Buttercream
The vanilla buttercream used at the bakery is technically not a buttercream but actually an old-fashioned confectioners' sugar and butter frosting. Be sure to beat the icing for the amount of time called for in the recipe to achieve the desired creamy texture.

• 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
• 6 to 8 cups confectioners' sugar
• 1/2 cup milk
• 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Place the butter in a large mixing bowl. Add 4 cups of the sugar and then the milk and vanilla. On the medium speed of an electric mixer, beat until smooth and creamy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Gradually add the remaining sugar, 1 cup at a time, beating well after each addition (about 2 minutes), until the icing is thick enough to be of good spreading consistency. You may not need to add all of the sugar. If desired, add a few drops of food coloring and mix thoroughly. (Use and store the icing at room temperature because icing will set if chilled.) Icing can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Yield: enough for 2 dozen cupcakes or 1 (9-inch) layer cake

Friday, January 22, 2010

Where's the Beef?!?

I was prepared for battle, armed and dangerous in my kitchen fatigues. I had assembled my mise en place army and was standing ready to take on the seemingly epic culinary undertaking that is (drum-role please) ......  BOEUF BOURGUIGNON!
 I hope you all read that in the deepest, darkest, rumbling from the depths kind of voice possible because that is exactly how I felt walking into this. I mean there are movies about this dish…movies! I’m trying to stack up to Julia and Anthony here people, no small task.

Now, I LOVE this dish. It’s one of those meals that when done well can be something you dream about for weeks after eating. Rich and smooth and earthy with that depth of flavor that can only come from having taken a bath in wine for 4 hours. I mean really, what doesn’t taste completely awesome after all that?

As it turns out, it’s just not that hard! Maybe it’s because I’ve been making a lot of stews recently. Or maybe it’s that I just can’t stop drooling over all the bacon, butter and winey goodness long enough to worry about the actual cooking part. Or maybe it was that damn Aaron Copland Rodeo music from the “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” commercials that has been running through my head all day. Whatever the reason, I made it through and it was A.W.E.S.O.M.E.!

It had a dark, full-bodied and luscious sauce that glistened (thank you copious amounts of butter). The beef just fell apart into these delicious silky morsels. In fact, one look at the fork and those damn beef chunks parted like Moses and the red sea. It was ambrosial. I kept looking up at my husband with the “I totally made this!” look in my eye but my mouth was too busy chewing so the words never made it out. I thought about serving the bourguignon over noodles or something but then decided that it was so rich and simply divine that all it needed was a bowl and a spoon. I will definitely be making this dish again and if you have a spare 5 hours to sit at home ;-) you should too.

Boeuf Bourguignon
(by A Girl and Her Kitchen, adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook)

• 1 tbsp olive oil
• 8 ounces pancetta, cubed
• 3 lb lean stew meat
• 3 large carrots, cut into 1inch pieces
• 3 shallots, sliced
• 1 tsp kosher salt
• ½ tsp freshly cracked black pepper
• 1 bottle (3 cups) red wine (any you like will do)
• 1 shot of cognac (such as Hennessey)
• 1 tbsp tomato paste
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 tsp fresh thyme, minced
• 1 bay leaf
• 3 ounces demi glace (if not available, swop out water and demi glace for 3 cups good beef stock)
• Water to cover
• 4 tbsp butter (unsalted), softened
• 3 tbsp flour
• ½ pound frozen whole pearl onions (optional)
• 1 pound fresh mushrooms, stems discarded & caps thickly sliced
• ½ tbsp sherry vinegar (optional)

Preheat oven to 325° with rack in lower third.

Heat olive oil in a heavy pot over medium heat. Sauté pancetta in oil until lightly browned. Remove pancetta with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Dry beef cubes with paper towel and season well with salt and pepper. Reheat fat from pancetta in the pot and brown beef cubes on all sides in batches, 3-5 minutes. As they brown, set aside with pancetta.
Sauté carrots and shallots in the same pot until shallot is golden brown. Add salt and pepper, then beef and pancetta back to the pot. Toss in the cognac to help deglaze the pan. Then stir in tomato paste, garlic, thyme and bay leaf and toss with meat until well distributed. Add the wine and demi glace. Using a wooden spoon, scrape up the brown bits at the bottom of the pot. Add the water just to cover. (Note: if you do not have demi glace, replace demi glace and water with 3 cups beef broth.) Bring to a simmer.
Cover pot tightly with liq and braise in oven for 3-4 hours. Meat is done when it pulls apart easily with a fork. 10 minutes before you take the meat out of the oven, add the frozen pearl onions if using. (Check out what 4 hours in the oven did to my pot top! I had to scrape some off to add to the sauce because it had so much flavor!)
While the meat is cooking in the over, sauté mushrooms in one tablespoon of butter until they are lightly browned and starting to caramelize. Do not over crowd the pan with mushrooms. Work in batches. Once all mushrooms are browned, add the previous batches back to the pan, season all mushrooms with salt and pepper to taste. Add sherry vinegar and cook until liquid is evaporated.
When the beef is ready, remove pot from oven and set on the stove. Combine the flour with 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter with a fork. Stir into the stew. This will help thicken it. Then add the mushrooms and mix well to combine but be gentle because that meat is ready to fall apart. If the sauce is too thin, boil rapidly to reduce for a minute or two. Serve with boiled potatoes, rice, noodles, or on its own.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Trick for Healthy Spaghetti is in the Squash

I am a sucker for pasta. Love the stuff. The trouble with pasta however, is in and of itself it’s just not all that good for you. Technically it’s not bad for you either, but if I gave into my stomach’s unending demands for a giant plate of al dente pasta piled high, topped with the Mount Everest of cheese every night, well, I’d probably need a serious exercise regimen. And let’s be honest, I’m kind of lazy and, well, just not that into sweating. So alas, I try (the key word being “try”) to watch what I eat. I’m not successful all the time, but this time, this time I got it right on the money.

Spaghetti squash:
This golden oval goddess of the mighty squash kingdom is my highway to guilt-free pasta happiness. I definitely missed the boat on the low-carb diet thing (ok, ok, avoided at all costs because seriously, carbs rule people!)  The spaghetti squash is like a blank slate for all my favorite pasta toppings. And I can have that massive bowl of it with a towering mound of cheese all the while smiling ear to ear because the damn thing is a vegetable and I don’t feel bad eating it!

The key here is flavor. And I mean FLAVOR! Big, bright, bursting at the seems kinds of flavors. And that is exactly what you get with my Italian Mediterranean Spaghetti Squash. It’s something I created one night rummaging in the frige, which truth be told can be dangerous, but as I said, sometimes I really nail it. And I tend to have a lot of these ingredients on hand; although, this is another one of those recipes that you could really play with. So if you don't like or have one thing, swop in another. Make it your own. And if you cook the squash and tomatoes a couple days ahead, this dish is a totaly snap to pull together on a busy weeknight.

Italian Mediterranean Spaghetti Squash
(a Girl and Her Kitchen original)

• 1 large spaghetti squash (or 2 small)
• 6-8 medium large vine ripened tomatoes (though really any tomato will do), chopped
• 1-2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
• 1 tablespoon Herbs de Provence
• 2 garlic cloves, smashed
• 1/2 cup fresh basil, rough chop
• 4-6 sundried tomatoes, rough chop
• 1/2 cup kalamata olives, halved
• 1-2 roasted peppers, rough chop
• 4-6 artichoke hearts (marinated and packed in oil and vinegar), drained (though you may want to save a couple tablespoons of the liquid), rough chop
• 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
• 1/2 cup of Pecorino Romano cheese
• 1/4 cup of Parmigianino cheese
• 3 tablespoons Olive oil
• Salt and Pepper, to taste

Rustic Roasted Tomato Sauce:
On an unlined, ungreased sheet pan toss the chopped tomatoes (I make big chunks) with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, herbs de provence, smashed garlic cloves, salt, pepper and sherry vinegar (can substitute any vinegar you like) until the tomatoes are evenly coated.

Spread the tomatoes into an even layer and roast at 300° for at least an hour, though 2-3 hours is best. The tomatoes should fall apart a bit and their juices should be largely gone. This can definitely be made a couple days ahead. Save in airtight container in the refrigerator and then warm up in sauce pan before assembling the condiment. (See below for before and after shots.)

Cook the spaghetti squash:
Apparently you can do this in the microwave and I may try that one day, but for now I use the oven. Pierce the squash all over with a long skewer.
Place it on a baking sheet and cook in a 375º oven for an hour. Use dish washing gloves (or oven mitts) to hold the squash steady. With a big sharp knife cut it in half around the equator (aka long ways), scoop out seeds and then use a fork to pull up the flesh into strands.

Dump strands into a big bowl and set aside. Note: If you need to warm up the squash, pop it in the microwave for a minute. This step can also be done in advance. Save in airtight container in the refrigerator and then warm up in the microwave before completing the dish.
Assemble the condiment:
Place the pine nuts in a small dry sauté pan. Put the pan on medium low and gently toast the nuts. Keep an eye on it. The oils in the pine nuts will quickly burn if you are not careful. Stir the nuts around here and there. They are done when you can smell them and they have turned a light golden color.
In a second sauté pan over medium heat, sauté the peppers, sundried tomatoes, olives, and artichoke hearts with the rustic tomato sauce and warm through, 6 minutes. If you didn’t have time to cook the tomatoes more than an hour in the oven and they have a lot of juice, bring the tomato sauce to a simmer in a separate pan to cook off some of the liquid before adding to vegetables.

Toss the sauce, vegetables and squash in a big bowl.
Add the cheese and basil and mix to combine well. I also tend to add a teaspoon or two of the liquid the artichokes were marinated in as well as the oil from the sundried tomato jar to loosen the sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Top with toasted pine nuts and more cheese to taste. Serve warm or even room temp.