Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mini Pecan & Apple-Maple-Bacon Pies (Take 1)

In my desire to best pie crust, I’m putting more effort into making pies, particularly mini pies. I like the mini pies because they offer the perfect little bite of pie and, because of their shape, offer a higher crust to filling ratio than a regular pie. Mark Bittman recently made a rather divisive comment about pies, saying that the crust offers nothing more than "heft and calories." Love him though I do, I have to vehemently disagree with Mr. Bittman here. As far as I’m concerned, filling is a vehicle for pie crust and not the other way around. I eat pie for the crust. And though I've yet to master this art, I surge forth in my quest to make the perfect pie crust.

The title of this post is followed by “Take 1” because neither of these pies turned out perfectly. Therefore, I’m not going to provide the recipes to my sub-par pies, but I am recounting these trials because I believe you can learn just as much about cooking from your failures as you can from your successes. In all, they were ample starts on the road to good pie.

Maple Pecan Pies 

I’ve recently decided that I want to try to make pastries if not, in actuality, healthier, then at least less bad. I’ve read a lot about white whole wheat flour and, though I’d never used it, wanted to see how it fared in a pie crust application. I also wanted to see how pecan pie would be with maple syrup accounting for part of the sugar and a decrease in the overall amount of sugar in the filling. The recipe I used was just a slight variation on the recipe that comes on the back of the Karo corn syrup bottle: instead of the Karo I used 1 cup of maple syrup and only ½ cup of brown sugar, instead of 1 cup of each, thereby decreasing the total sugar by 25%. The filling turned okay, if a bit typical. I was surprised that I didn’t taste maple at all, just sweetness, and that with even ½ cup of sugar less, I still felt that I could have easily cut more sugar without sacrificing taste. It was good, but it wasn’t any different from pecan pie fillings I’ve made in the past.

The crust was another story entirely. The main problem with using whole wheat flour, I found, was that whole wheat flour drinks up a lot more water than white flour and in pie crust, more water equals a less tender, less flaky, less scrumptious crust. There was also a distinct wheaty flavor that was out of place in a pie crust. It wasn’t inedible – in fact, I got rave reviews of the pies at work, though I suspect that had more to do with the fact that I made them and no one’s going to tell me I made a crap pie – I wasn’t happy with it. It took me a while, but I finally realized what the crust tasted like that made it so disappointing: it tasted like frozen pie crust. For this crust aficionado, that was a no-go. I shall head back to the drawing board on the Maple Pecan Pies. 

Apple Maple Bacon Pie 

The impetus of this pie was the Sautéed Apples & Bacon recipe I picked up from JoC a few months ago. My thought was, wouldn’t apple pie be great if it were sweetened by maple syrup instead of sugar and studded with little bits of bacon? What’s not to like about that?

I decided to use two Braeburn apples and a Golden Delicious in my filling. I chose the Braeburns because they have a very hearty apple flavor (I do not like them raw…I only like Fuji apples raw because they don’t actually taste like apples, but that quality is not so great for a cooked apple) and the Golden Delicious because, well, I don’t know but it seemed like a good idea to get a Golden Delicious. Perhaps because I used them in the Sautéed Apples & Bacon I knew they stood up well to heat and wouldn’t get mealy.

I sliced up the apples thinly and cut the slices into thirds so they would fit in the muffin tins better. I cooked up and finely chopped a couple slices of bacon (I used Hormel Black Label because it has a nice, assertive smoky taste) and then sautéed the apples in a bit of the rendered bacon fat. I then stirred in about ¼ cup of maple syrup and 1 teaspoon of ground ginger. I didn’t use cinnamon because the idea of cinnamon and bacon did not appeal to me; the spiciness of ginger seemed like it would meld with the bacon much better. I gave the mixture a taste and found it lacking something. I added a pinch of salt and then surveyed my spices to figure out what I could add to punch things up. Cinnamon was still out and allspice seemed wrong, so I threw in a dash of nutmeg. I gave everything another taste and knew immediately that nutmeg had no place in this filling. It didn’t taste terrible, but it was obviously not what the apples needed. Although good, Apple-Maple-Bacon Pie filling perfection will have to wait for another time.

As for the crust, I used 50% all purpose flour and 50% white whole wheat flour this time. The result? Not much different from 100% white whole wheat flour. I was able to get away with less water, but when I rolled out the dough it cracked and tore miserably. I patted the torn circles of crust together in the muffin tin, but my plan to have a full upper crust was completely dashed and I just fashioned together a makeshift lattice with strips of dough. For a bit of crunch and extra flavor, I sprinkled some turbinado sugar and some grey sea salt on top of the crust.

The pies came out of the oven all bubbly and golden looking. I let them cool for a little and took a bite. They were…okay. Most notably the filling needed more sugar. What tasted good in the pan was not sufficient for a pie filling nor did it provide the right texture. See, when I eat apple pie, first I eat all the apples. Then I eat the top crust. Then I eat the luscious, gooey, bottom crust covered in all that sweetness that bleeds out of the sugared apples in the oven. Sadly, there was no apple-y goodness on my bottom crust here. While the bacon did add a lovely smoky, saltiness to the filling, the ginger was entirely absent. And the crust? Well, it seems that even at an equal split of white whole wheat and all purpose flour, there was still that unmistakable wheaty flavor. Even though it may be healthier, it’s not what I want in my pie crust. I’d rather savor a small serving of pie with perfect, unhealthy crust than a lackluster pie that satisfies none of my pie desires.

It’s back to all white flour crusts I go. As for the filling, I’m thinking maybe some freshly grated ginger could turn up the flavor a bit. I’m also curious to see how some sage would work with the apples and the bacon, although I don’t know that I could mix sage with ginger. We shall see, for mark my words, I am not done with apples, maple, and bacon yet.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Chocolate Chipotle Cupcakes

About a year ago I went to Paciugo, a gelato shop in my neighborhood, with the intention of sampling a plethora of different gelato flavors. Little did I know that I would have the best gelato (or ice cream, for that matter) of my life and be haunted by the memory from that point on. The flavor: Chocolate Chipotle Butter Pecan. I know, I know…that doesn’t sound spectacular, but bear with me here. Just imagine the flavor of deep dark chocolate augmented by the smoky, subtle heat of the chipotle, with the nutty, buttery pecans cutting through all the richness. It was unexpectedly fantastic.

I’ve been in love with the chocolate-chipotle combination since. During a recent Chicago Women Cooks-in-Training meetup, I ventured to the Spice House in Evanston for the first time where I snagged some grey sea salt, dried lavender, green tea powder, and, of course, ground chipotle. I’d copied a recipe from one of my mother’s Sunset magazines some time ago – Mexican Chocolate Cakes – and I knew immediately that I would substitute their use of cayenne for the chipotle. The recipe itself is pretty simple, though I admit that I was impressed by their forgoing of creams and lots of eggs for oil, milk, and vinegar to create moistness and softness. I teetered a bit on whether or not to double the amount of ground chipotle, given that cayenne provides much more direct heat than chipotle, but remembering the moral of the Acorn and Butternut Squash Pie, I trusted my instincts and threw in another dose. I must say, I’m glad I did.

Upon first bite, you’re immediately greeted by the tender, rich chocolate cake, followed by a hint of smokiness, and ending with just a touch of the heat. Just a ¼ teaspoon of chipotle would have been too little. There’s also a hefty dose of cinnamon in the mix, giving the cake a nice rounded spiciness. I love that there are three distinct sensations here, hitting three different areas of the mouth. I don’t know that you’d be able to specifically identify the chipotle if you didn’t know it was there, but you would definitely be able to pick out the different flavors occurring therein.

If I were to serve this to someone, I think I’d top it off with a thin layer of dark chocolate ganache, sprinkled with some toasted chopped pecans. But for me, in my must-experiment-with-ground-chipotle-NOW! state, a dusting of powdered sugar was all I needed before devouring more cupcakes than I’d like to admit.

Oh, chocolate and chipotle. You are my new favorite flavor combination. (Don’t tell peanut butter.)

[I’ve decided to start sharing my recipes, so here you go:]
Chocolate Chipotle Cupcakes 
The original recipe was designed for a two-layer cake, but I halved it for my experiment and found it easily makes 16 standard cupcakes.

½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ¼ cups plus 2 tablespoons flour
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
½ cup packed light brown sugar
¾ tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground chipotle
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup olive oil
1 large egg
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
¾ tablespoon vanilla extract

powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line a standard muffin tin with paper liners.

Whisk cocoa, flour, sugars, cinnamon, baking soda, chipotle, and salt in a bowl to blend. Add milk, oils, eggs, vinegar, and vanilla; whisk until smooth. Pour into muffin tins, filling no more than ¾ full.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in each cake comes out clean. [Okay, here is where I’ve goofed because I didn’t record how long I let the cupcakes bake. The original recipe calls for the cakes to bake for 45 minutes, but cupcakes take less time, rarely more than 20 minutes. Add to that the fact that I have one of those ¾-sized, small apartment ovens that makes thing bake a little faster than normal. I would say let them bake for 9 minutes, rotate the pan (You always rotate your baked goods, right? Good.), let them bake for another 7 minutes or so, then start checking them for doneness. The idiosyncrasies of your own oven always determines the final baking time.]

Let cupcakes cool in pan for 10 minutes. Invert on a wire rack and turn right-side-up to cool. Sift powdered sugar onto cupcakes or top with the frosting or icing of your choosing.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Roast Turkey Breast & Mini Sweet Potato Pies

It’s November and few things are more associated with the month than turkey. Except in my family, where we’ve never had turkey at Thanksgiving. We usually do a beef rib roast, which has always been fine in its own right, but as I’ve gotten older and been inundated with visions of beautiful golden roasted turkeys, I start to crave it at this time of year and don’t stop until I break down and go to a diner and get some turkey and mashed potatoes. No more this year! I decided. I want turkey at Thanksgiving. 
Since not everyone in the family is a turkey-lover, I asked my mother to get just a small turkey breast. This way we wouldn’t have spent tons of money or have a lot of meat go to waste if the Great Turkey Experiment failed. Due to many years of watching Good Eats, and going on Cinnamon’s advice, I decided to brine the turkey breast. I mixed a half-gallon of apple juice with a half-gallon of water and two cups of kosher salt and let the turkey sit in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning I dumped out the brine, patted the turkey down with some paper towels, and put it back in the refrigerator to sit uncovered for a few hours (one of the Food Network chefs – I think it was Anne Burrell – said that this would help the skin crisp up in the oven). When roasting time came I slathered the breast with some softened butter and improvised a rub of rosemary, sage, paprika, thyme, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure if I should add salt to the rub, but I had always heard that brining doesn’t make meat salty, so I threw it in.

A couple of hours later (I wasn’t really keeping track of time as I had my handy-dandy digital thermometer to gauge the meat’s doneness), this beauty came out of the oven:

After a good 30-minute rest, I picked up a knife and a giant fork and went at the turkey Alton Brown style. Which is to say, instead of cutting off slices of breast, I removed the entire lobe from the bone, then cut that horizontally into slices. The meat that came off that bone was divine – juicy, tender, flavorful, and…well…salty. Oof. It occurred to me that two things could have been at fault here. 1) I shouldn’t have added salt to the rub. Obviously. 2) I brined the turkey for too long. While brines themselves do not make meats salty, over-brining can and a good 10 hours for a 4-pound breast does seem a bit like overkill.

The skin didn't really stay on, but that was a perfection I wasn't striving to reach on the first go.

The saltiness aside, the meat was still delicious and enjoyed by even the most turkey-reticent amongst us. I would say that deems this experiment a success, worthy of repeating for years to come. Just, a little less salt next time.


Riding high on my pie feat from a few weeks ago, I decided that I would try my hand at sweet potato pie for Thanksgiving. Pumpkin pies are so common as to be almost boring (although I still love them), but sweet potato pie is sort of its forgotten cousin. I made the pie almost identically to my winter squash pie, roasting the sweet potatoes until soft, mashing them, then letting them cool before adding them to the egg and spice mixture. However, I did make a few changes to make pie a bit healthier. Instead of 1 ½ cups of heavy cream, I used a cup of fat free evaporated milk, in the hopes that this would make the center a bit denser and produce a more pronounced sweet potato flavor. I used Splenda for baking (white and brown sugars), which lessens the sugar content quite a bit, for those with diabetic needs. Finally, instead of making one big pie, I made ten mini pies, cutting the unbaked dough into rounds and fitting them into cupcake tins. 

Mashed, baked sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes mixed with evaporated milk and spices
On the right you can see the glass I used to create my circles of dough
I forewent the blind baking, as well, and just added the filling straight to the unbaked pie cups (from a large measuring cup, at the oven this time…no more carrying liquid pies across rooms).  About 40 minutes later, I pulled these out:

Once the pies had cooled, I whipped up another batch of my bourbon whipped cream and piped a little bit on top:

Pretty, yes, but how did the pies taste? The crust, I must say, was fantastic, so kudos to me on that, but otherwise I’m a little disappointed to say that they tasted exactly like pumpkin pie. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t exciting either. Firstly, I’m not exactly sure that lessening the liquid content of the filling was for the best. Yes, I wanted to be able to taste more of the filling and less of the cream, but with just one cup of evaporated milk, I missed the fluffiness that the cream imparted. I’ll have to play around with ratios of milk and cream and see if I can get the texture I want without loading the pie up with calories. Secondly, while the flavor of the filling was perfectly fine, it was just that: fine. Nothing more, nothing less. I used the standard combination of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice in the mixture, but the final pie begged for something more, maybe some grated fresh ginger or a sprinkling of paprika for a hint of smokiness (I like it on my mashed sweet potatoes). I’m not sure what, exactly, the pies lacked, but you can bet that I’ll tinker around with it until I get the superb flavor that I want. Sweet potato pie hasn’t seen the last of me.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Acorn and Butternut Squash Pie with Bourbon Whipped Cream

On Saturday I went to my first Chicago Women Cooks-in-Training meetup. I discovered the group through A., a girl I met at my first Spanish meetup, who explained that the group was a bunch of women who were interested in learning to cook. I consider myself a semi-decent cook already, but I’m always down for learning more and sharing dishes with others. The theme for this particular meeting was autumn fruits and vegetables, a celebration of all the wonderful produce that comes at end of the summer season. Once I saw the theme I knew exactly what I would make: an acorn and butternut squash pie.

Now, have you ever made an acorn and butternut squash pie, you may ask? The answer would be no. But wait, have you ever even tried acorn squash, you may also ask? Again, the answer would be no. But how different could the two winter squashes be from pumpkin? Not that I’ve ever made a pumpkin pie, either, but I’ve seen my mother do it a thousand times. And I’ve heard much about how sweet acorn squash can be, so I figured it would probably pair well with the butternut, which I already know and love. And to top it off, I’d make bourbon whipped cream. The idea seemed simple enough to me.

The basis of the pie was JoC’s recipe for pumpkin pie. The first step was to make the crust, which I’ve made before and still have some issues making. Mainly, I can’t seem to roll out the crust evenly. I dealt with this by cutting off some of the thicker part and putting it behind the thinner parts to create the fluted edge (the edge was done just by pressing in on one side with a knuckle and pressing out on the other side with two knuckles). The instructions then said to brush the crust with some egg yolk, then follow the general instructions for pre-baking crusts, which are to dock it with a fork, cover it with foil, and weigh it down with beans or pie weights. I’ve seen this method on TV before, but I thought it was odd that I was being told to brush the pie with the yolk prior to covering it with foil. How would that allow the crust to brown and wouldn’t the yolk just stick to the foil? Yeah…those ended up being good questions because the crust did not, in fact, brown and it did, in fact, stick to the foil. I was sorrowed by the thin layer of what should have been crispy crust adhering fervently to the foil. 

Beautiful, golden, yolkiness that could have been all over my crust

Sigh. But, oh well—that part would be covered by the filling anyway. I had already baked the two squash and run the flesh through my potato ricer (I think the texture you get using a ricer is much smoother than what you get just using a masher). It was at that point that I took my first taste of acorn squash, which I can only say made me a little weak in the knees. It was so good, so sweet, so freakin’ wonderful. Why have I never had acorn squash before? Lord. One cup of the mashed acorn squash met one cup of the mashed butternut squash, joined by a couple eggs, some brown sugar, some white sugar, and some heavy cream. The spices were your standard cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice. 

Baked acorn squash

Acorn squash puree

Baked, seeded butternut squash
Butternut squash puree
Upon pouring the filling into the baked crust, I noticed that it seemed like it would be too much. I filled it almost to the top, let it settle, then decided I could fit the remaining filling in. And fit it did, but when I picked up the pie to put it into the oven, the filling sloshed over the crust and started dripping down the foil guards I had placed around the edges. Even worse, once I set the pie in the oven, the rack tilted a little and a little bit of the filling spilled out onto the oven floor. With some quick maneuvering, I managed to put a cookie sheet underneath the pie to catch the drips and wipe up the filling with a paper towel before it started to burn. And I only touched bare skin to oven wall once—pretty good for averting disaster if you ask me.

The pie took forever to bake. It was at least 30 minutes past the suggested baking time before the center stopped trembling whenever I pulled out the rack to check on it. There was definitely too much filling in there and the liquid that had spilled over the crust resulted in a lovely blackened hue. Yeah, it burned. 

 It wasn’t pretty, but it smelled good, and it seemed a shame to waste it. I had planned to make bourbon whipped cream to accompany the pie, so I said to myself: Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to pipe whipped cream over the top and no one will ever know. 

And that’s just what I did. I had planned to make the whipped cream at A.’s place since I was going to the Spanish meetup first and couldn’t have whipped cream sitting out for that long. With a fifth of Jack Daniels in my bag, some sugar, a measuring spoon, and my giant star tip, I picked up a half-pint of cream at Jewel before heading over to A.’s where I proceeded to “photoshop” my pie. In the rush to get everything together for the meetup, I forgot to put my camera in my bag so I wasn’t able to get a good shot of the final pie, but you can see it in the group photo below.

That's mine on the left, all covered in whipped cream.
Apparently my photoshop skills were so great that when I introduced myself and my pie, I heard one girl comment that she’d thought it was store-bought. Truthfully, though, piping that whipped cream was the easiest thing I’d done through the entire pie-making process.

But, how did it taste? Fantastic. Fluffy, subtly flavored by the two squashes, and topped by the not-overly-sweet whipped cream with just a hint of the bourbon kick, it was easily one of the best things I’ve ever made. This was a great idea.

Even though this pie wasn’t a 100% success, I decided to share it anyway because I think an important part of any type of cooking is knowing that not everything turns out right the first time you try it. Hell, sometimes things don’t turn out right the tenth or the fiftieth time you make it. What’s important is that you learn from your mistakes and try it again. There were two main things that went wrong here. 1) I thought it was odd to brush the crust with egg yolk, then cover it with foil, yet I did it anyway and ended up with a less than crispy, browned crust. 2) It seemed like there was too much filling to pour into the crust, yet I DID IT ANYWAY, and ended up with ridiculously long baking time and a burned crust. The upside is that these are mistakes I now know not to commit when I make another pie of this nature again; I couldn’t have figured these things out without trying to make the pie.

There are two morals to the story here. 1) Trust your instincts when baking. They probably won’t do you wrong. 2) Don’t be afraid to try new things and share them with others. Not everything will turn out perfectly, but sometimes you just may surprise yourself.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Well, Butter My Biscuits!

Back in the summer I signed up for several cooking-related meetup groups, one which being What's Cookin' Chicago?, one of largest of its kind. It took me a while, but I went to my first meetup with this group last month, a class about making biscuits. Now, I love me some biscuits. If I’m being honest, I love me some KFC biscuits, but the part of me that believes that anything home-cooked is a million times better—and usually better for you—than anything born from a fast food freezer tries to pretend that isn’t true. But, every time I’ve tried to make biscuits I’ve failed to produce that wonderful, fluffy, buttery, golden goodness that comes from behind that chicken counter.

Unfortunately, the day that I showed up to take my biscuit class, the studio’s oven wasn’t working. This meant that while we would learn about composing the biscuit dough, we wouldn’t actually get to bake it and taste it. To account for this snag, Joelen, the group’s organizer, had baked some beforehand so we would know what the doughs would produce.

I learned two important things at this biscuit class. 1) There are two types of biscuits: fluffy and flaky. 2) I prefer fluffy biscuits. While I did realize that some biscuits have that lovely, all-encompassing, melt in your mouth kind of feel and others do not, I never realized that it was due to two specific baking methods. The main difference is that the fluffy biscuits contain cake flour and are formed by lightly shaping the dough into balls and then pressing down on them to flatten them a little. Flaky biscuits use only all-purpose flour and are rolled out. The dough is then folded in on itself, then rolled again, then folded, then rolled, so you end up with layers of dough with thin sheets of butter in between, much like with puff pastry. (So, I’m told. I’ve never made my own puff pastry.) Both samples of the finished biscuits were good, but I knew immediately that it was the fluffy variety that I had been searching for all along.

Although we didn’t get to bake any biscuits that night, Joelen sent us the recipes she had used so we could try them at home. And try them I did. I decided to make two variations of the fluffy biscuit, the first with nice savory dill, and the second with sharp cheddar and bacon. Because what’s not better with bacon? The basic ingredients were all-purpose flour, the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, salt, butter, and buttermilk. You can then change up the biscuits anyway you choose—add some thyme or some green onions or some blue cheese or some crumbled sausage, whatever you like.

The biscuit method of baking is similar to the pie method of baking wherein you mix your dry ingredients, cut in your cold butter, and then mix in your wet ingredients and any of the special add-ins. I did just that, mixing in my dill and my cheddar and bacon in last. There seemed to be some dry parts of the dough that didn’t mix in well with the addition of the buttermilk and had crumbled at the bottom of the bowl, but I just tried to incorporate them as much as I could. As instructed, I divided the dough into 12 portions and shaped them into balls, pressing down on them lightly when I placed them on the baking sheet. The biscuits got one more brushing of buttermilk before going in the oven.

 And when they came out? Heaven. Beautiful, hot, meltingly good, scrumptious biscuits. I think I used a bit too much dill, because the flavor was slightly over-powering, but other than that both varieties came out amazingly well. I shall never want for tender, fluffy biscuits again. At only $25, the class was well worth it. I definitely plan on taking more.

With dill

With sharp cheddar and bacon

Monday, October 10, 2011

Balsamic Chicken with Polenta

My food photography skills notwithstanding, this dish was awesome.

After the previous week's cooking class, I immediately wanted to try my hand at some of the recipes that I didn't get to work on. One of the dishes that I loved there was the first recipe in the pack: Balsamic Chicken with Polenta. Being that I'm a huge fan of balsamic vinegar, this one jumped to the head of the line.

Once you get all the ingredients ready, the dish itself is fairly easy to execute. It does take some time to cook - 30-40 minutes once everything is in the pan - so you may not want to get this started on a hectic weeknight when all you really have time for is a grilled cheese, but if you've got a good solid hour to cook, you can easily bang this out. After all, you're not doing anything for half of it.

You can use any part of the chicken you like for this recipe, but I've always been a bigger fan of white meat so I picked up a couple of breasts on the bone at Whole Foods and asked the butcher to hack them in half so I'd have four, more reasonably sized pieces. This is a dish where getting chicken on the bone is superior to getting your regular boneless, skinless chicken. There's just that extra amount of flavor that the bones add when braising (and the extra amount of fat from the skin) that makes the addition worth it. There's always the option to skin and bone the chicken after cooking, so you can easily dispense with these later when it comes time to serve.

Preparing the chicken is easy. Pat the skin dry, give it a good shake in a bag with some flour, and set it in a preheated pan with some olive oil for about eight minutes on each side for a good browning. Once that's done (and you can do it batches if your pan isn't big enough for all of the chicken to brown in a single layer), throw in some chopped onion and sliced red bell pepper until those get soft and slightly brown. Then, throw in several cloves of chopped garlic and wait until your kitchen gets that wonderful home-cookin' smell that only onions, bell peppers, and garlic can produce. Follow that by putting a mixture of fresh rosemary, red pepper flakes, balsamic vinegar, and a nice-bodied red wine - I know nothing about wine, so I just used a Merlot on sale for under $10 - and nestle the chicken back into the pan. Lower the flame so the liquid is just simmering, cover it all up, and go watch an episode of Community. Once the chicken is done you'll want to reduce the sauce to thicken it a bit, but that's it. Yes, the chicken takes some time, but the preparation is incredibly simple and the result is ridiculously delicious and tender and so full of herb-y, wine-y flavor. I'm telling you, it's worth it.

The finished dish serves the chicken and sauce on top of prepared, tubed polenta sliced into rounds and sauteed until crispy. You could just as well do that, but because I had a half of a bag of Bob's Red Mill in my cabinet and didn't want to spend the money on more polenta, I just whisked up a fresh batch and dolloped it on the bottom of my plate. Making your own polenta takes a little bit more effort (I just follow the directions on the package), but if you've got the time you can easily do this while the chicken is cooking and still have everything ready at the same time.

With a glass of red wine on the side, this is a dish that easy to execute but is impressive in its taste. It would be perfect for the first time you have that new gentleman or lady friend over for a home-cooked meal...with a dusting of flour in your hair, the stain of wine and vinegar on your fingers, and the scent of
sautéing aromatics filling your apartment, you could easily feign hours spent in the kitchen preparing something special for your paramour. Which, of course, you wouldn't have spent, but, hey, there's no harm in reaping the rewards for your apparent efforts.

Monday, September 26, 2011

World Kitchen: Make Mine Chicken

Most people make New Year's resolutions. I've decided to make 30th Year resolutions. 

I know I've been a bit lax in my 20s. I'm lucky to have a good job, but it's not in a field where I want to make my career. There are a number of things I've wanted to do, but my general introvertedness has kept me stuck in a rut. And, my friends are all awesome people, but a lot of them have moved from this fair city in the past few years. To that end, my resolutions, thus far, are as follows:

1) Do work that inspires me.
2) Try new things.
3) Meet new people.

On the first count, last week I met with a local adult education non-profit to get started doing literacy tutoring again. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while and although it’s not what I’ll be doing for my 9-to-5, I hope to at least feel that some work I’m doing is making a difference somewhere.

I entered into count #2 in two ways.  Last weekend I put aside my feelings of intimidation and went to a Spanish Language Meetup. I’ve studied Spanish for years, but still can’t speak it and I know that being around people who speak Spanish would be the best way to sharpen my skills. Classes cost money, but Meetup is free, making it an obvious choice. To my relief, I was not the only struggling speaker there and I felt completely at ease attempting to speak in a language I only moderately know.

I also took my first cooking class this weekend. I've always wanted to take a cooking class, but the ones I've seen at the Chopping Block or the Wooden Spoon are a bit too expensive for me. World Kitchen, however, is a mere $30. The only hitch is that you have to be quick on the uptake when registration opens. I missed the opening by a day, but was still able to squeeze into a class that I was really interested in.

I had a very busy Saturday, but it was all fun and all worth it. And, hopefully, all of the above strategies will help me move forward with count #3.


“Make Mine Chicken” was that name of Saturday’s class. Upon walking into the culinary studio I picked up a packet of eight recipes, from Roast Chicken with Mushroom Sauce to Quick Curry Chicken to Chicken with Feta Vinaigrette & Orzo. After discussing the basics of chicken – safe cleaning practices, organic vs. processed, the meaning of “free range,” etc. – and going over each recipe, we broke into five groups and headed to tables containing our group’s ingredients.

Along with two other girls, I was tasked with putting together the Yucatan Spiced Chicken and the Apricot & Goat Cheese Spirals. The instructor described the sauce for the Yucatan chicken as like a mole sauce and in some sense it was. The sauce was made of the zest and juice of a lime and an orange, garlic, oregano, olive oil, and ancho chile powder. When blended it was thick and dark, spicy and citrusy, with a kick in the back of the throat from the chiles. It didn’t taste like a mole, but I could see the similarity in the color and consistency. I cut some slits into several pounds of split chicken wings and poured the sauce over, tossing the mixture with my hands and massaging it into the cuts.

As an accompaniment to the chicken, we roasted some onions, poblano peppers, and chayote. According to some online articles, chayote is mostly common in Mexican cuisine, which makes sense since I was the only one in our group who knew what chayote was, let alone eaten it before. I explained that it was a squash and had somewhat of a bland flavor, that I had only eaten it boiled with a little butter, the way my mother cooked it, and didn’t much care for it. For this dish, we cut up the veggies, drizzled them with olive oil, and sprinkled them with salt. They went into the oven with the chicken pieces. Aside from needing a little more salt, our Yucatan Spiced Chicken was wonderfully tasty when it was done and the roasted veggies, even the chayote, were a sweet complement to the spice. These wings would make an interesting departure from the usual buffalo wings at a party.   

While those two items were cooking, we started in on the Apricot and Goat Cheese Spirals. These employed the use of some butterflied, pounded chicken breasts which we wrapped around a mixture of goat cheese, toasted pine nuts, chopped dried apricots, and lemon juice. Once rolled, the chicken was browned on the stove and finished in the oven with some broth. The spirals didn’t quite stay together when sliced, but if you were to serve this as a dish and leave the spiral intact on the plate, that wouldn’t be as much of an issue.

The nice thing about this recipe is that the instructor included several variations that we could try on our own, so if the current filling wasn’t to our liking the recipe wasn’t all for naught. This proved to be helpful for me, because while the goat cheese created a lovely aroma while the chicken was cooking, I have never, and still do not, enjoy the cheese’s taste. Perhaps I will try mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes if I make this on my own.

With the spirals done, the Yucatan chicken came out of the oven, and the two were added to the table with the other groups’ efforts. We had quite the spread before us and even though I only took a little bit of each dish, I ended up with far too much on my plate to finish. In the end, the class was a fantastic way to spend a part of my Saturday. I learned some new dishes, ate some fantastic food, and had a great time chatting with the two girls in my group.  I can’t wait to have the opportunity to take another one.