Friday, April 16, 2010

Pollo all'Americano--Chicken Stew with Polenta, Celery Root, and Sage, and a Brownie Redemption

I will not be defeated by brownies. I've tried Alton Brown's recipe, Cook's Illustrated's recipe, a Saveur recipe, and Thomas Keller's recipe for brownies, and every one of them has resulted in a fail. After this last spectacular failure, I was determined to once and for all conquer this unassuming dessert.

I had enough ingredients available to once again attempt Thomas Keller's recipe, and because the problem seemed to be with me as opposed to the recipe, I decided to go Ad Hoc.

This time, I decided that I would let the batter rest for a while, as is all the rage with chocolate chip cookie dough these days. This, I hoped, would help with the seeming lack of cohesiveness of ingredients that I experienced last time. Not wanting to poison my friends and family, I figured I had better let it rest in the fridge.

This, of course, meant that when I took it back out, it was rock solid and was therefore not about to be poured into a baking pan. Genius.

So I put the bowl of batter on top of the oven while it was preheating, but I kept envisioning melted and ruined batter. So I took it off. It was taking too long. I put it back on. I took it off.

Eventually, it was somewhat spreadable, but still had a fudgy texture. Good enough; it had to go in the oven. "Wow," Hunter said, "How did you manage to get brownie batter to be like fudge?"
"Shut up."

So far, brownies seem to exist just to torment me. But you know what? After only a short time in the oven, it became obvious that the brownies were going to develop that crackly, crispy crust that I so love and desire in my brownies. That flaky exterior is one of my favorite brownie attributes, and I have never yet been able to achieve it. Every time I've slid a pan or brownies in the oven, whether they be homemade or (gasp!) boxed, I say to them, "You better get crusty this time, damnit."

And they never listen. At best, I get maybe a square inch of cooperation, so I could have wept for joy when I saw this:

Nonetheless, Nick continued to say, "They're burning. They're going to burn. But they'll still be raw in the middle."
"Shut UP."

So it's true that they were a tiny bit chewy/overcooked around the edges, and while the middle was cooked just right, for whatever reason, the bottoms were a bit chewy, as well.

These brownies have chunks of chocolate in them, which, in the first batch, became little pockets of molten chocolate. That didn't consistently happen this time, perhaps because the batter was cold, but it didn't really bother me. Plus, perhaps I got my long sought-after crust because of the temperature of the batter. If anyone ever reads this and knows the answer, feel free to let me know.

So, overall, they were not the perfect brownies, but they were pretty good. My Dad argued that they're not cost effective and perhaps not worthwhile on that basis, but I argued that while a box of brownies may have been a quarter of the price, and it may have tasted almost as good, these brownies are less likely to give you cancer. He conceded the point, and he did admit that these were worthy of a Brownie Redemption.

Before all this brownie madness, however, we had some dinner. I had worked the night before and was therefore feeling relatively unmotivated, so I sought out a relatively simple recipe. Mario Batali's Chicken Stew with Polenta, Celery Root and Sage fit the criteria, so I went to the store.

What's that? I was just whining about how I didn't want to eat a wintery, chickeny, stew thing? True. In my defense, it was a really cold day, and I do admit that I can be rather contrary.

Nick won't go to Whole Foods with me because the crowded isles filled with non-paying-attention people make him want to punch someone. I can usually handle it, but I knew it was a bad sign when I walked up to the front door and noted that there were no carts. 'Okay. Deep breath. You can do this.'

Well, there was no celery root to be found, but I thought that it was rather brilliant of me to get some parsnips and fennel instead. Close-ish, right?

And then there were no whole chickens. Because I'm lazy, I had ideally hoped to get one of those packs of chicken that have been cut up into 'serving pieces' the way I was supposed to have done to a whole chicken, but that was not going to happen. So I had to get all mad scientist and buy the separate chicken pieces in order to make a whole chicken. Somehow, this way, it didn't seem like much chicken, so I figured I'd get a couple bone-in thighs. Well, they only had huge 'family packs' so I guess we'll just have to do our chicken and chorizo thingy later this week.

They also didn't have fine cornmeal or quick cooking polenta, and I've heard that the pre-made tube-packaged polenta is not really worth bothering with. I had some cornmeal at home, but it didn't say whether it was fine or not fine, and I couldn't really tell. I thought about sending it for a spin in the food processor the way some recipes will instruct you to make superfine sugar out of regular sugar if you're unable to find the superfine stuff, but that was just getting too complicated, and I was feeling way too lazy.

My solution was to attempt the polenta with the cornmeal I had on hand, but bring some couscous in case I achieved a Polenta Fail. The problem, though, was that I've never made polenta, so wasn't really able to judge what constitutes a Fail. Polenta can be a rather scary and fabled culinary objective, although less so than souffles, which are on the List of Things Leah Can't Make. Molly of Orangette writes amusingly and eloquently of the Polenta Dilemma.

It's true--it does require a lot of stirring, to which Nick and his sore arm can attest. Mario says that you can bring some water to a boil, dump in the cornmeal, and stir until it reaches the consistency of "molten lava," whatever that is. Well, it was soon obvious that it was not as magically simple as he makes it out to be, so back on the heat it went.

The description 'molten lava,' while poetic, is not very helpful, so when I got tired of dealing with the stuff, the polenta went into a pan to cool, as instructed. In retrospect, the consistency was correct for normal polenta, but not for polenta that was to be cut into squares. Or maybe it just didn't get cool enough. I don't know.

The solution was to leave it as un-cubed polenta and use it as a bed onto which we would nestle the braised bits. Those braised bits started off as chicken pieces dredged in flour, which were seared until golden.

The veggies were then cooked until golden, and 2 cups of red wine, a cup of Mario's standard tomato sauce, and 8 sage leaves were added to the pot.

Okay, I confess--I used a jarred sauce rather than Mario's sauce. My Dad was rather scandalized, and my Italian grandmother would have been ashamed of me, but in my defense, this is some of the best pasta sauce I've ever tasted. Numerous times, I've attempted to make my own tomato sauces, and while they've been pretty good, none of them have been as good as Classico's Fire Roasted Tomato and Garlic. I swear they're not paying me to say that.

This all simmered for a while and was then plated on top of the polenta and garnished with some parsley and lemon zest. While the meal was very good, it could have been tastier had I salted it better. As I've mentioned, I've been rather scared of salt lately and have yet to achieve the happy medium between tastelessness and mouth-puckering saltiness. Mario didn't even mention adding salt to the polenta, but I added a bit anyway. I'm glad I did, but it wasn't nearly enough.

So while the lack of salt lent the dish a rather bland taste, Nick and I were also a little bit bored with it because it tasted like just about every other braised dish with meat, wine, and vegetables. We therefore concluded that there's something to be said for the 'deconstructed' approach. For example, Hunter was impressed by the fragrance of the raw parsnips, but in the finished dish, there really could have been any root vegetable in there. If we make this again, perhaps we'll take a Keller-esque approach and cook the parsnips separately.

So overall, we had fun making this meal, it was delicious, and, best of all, I almost conquered those pesky little brownies.

This is how we'll make this stew if we ever make it again:

Polenta with Chicken Stew with Root Vegetables and Sage
(Adapted from Mario Batali's Pollo all'Americano)

  • 5 cups water
  • 1 cup quick-cooking polenta or fine cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • one 3 1/2 to 4 pound organic chicken, cut into serving pieces and skinned, rinsed and patted dry
  • 4 bone-in skinless chicken thighs, rinsed and patted dry
  • 6 TBSP olive oil
  • 1 large sweet yellow onion, diced
  • 4 large parsnips, peeled and diced
  • half of one small fennel bulb, diced
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 1 cup jarred, good quality tomato sauce
  • 8 fresh sage leaves
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest

In a large sauce pan, bring the water to a boil. Add the polenta or cornmeal and reduce heat to low. Stir almost constantly (as you would a risotto) until the polenta achieves a pudding-like consistency; salt to taste while cooking. It will probably take an hour to an hour and a half to cook the polenta.

Season the flour with salt and pepper and place in a large bag or Tupperware container. One at a time, add the chicken pieces and shake to coat evenly with the flour. Pat off excess and set aside.

In a large Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking. In batches, without crowding the pan, brown the chicken pieces. If necessary, wipe out any burnt bits from the bottom of the pot.

Add more oil if necessary, and sauté the parsnips and fennel until golden.

Add the wine, tomato sauce, and sage leaves, and return the chicken to the pot. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the thighs are cooked through, about 35 minutes.

Remove chicken pieces to a plate and briskly simmer sauce until it is reduced to a thick sauce; season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Return chicken to the pot to re-warm if it has cooled.

Spoon 1/4 of the polenta onto each plate, and top with a thin sliver of butter. Place a piece of chicken on the bed of polenta, and spoon sauce over. Sprinkle with parsley and lemon zest, serve immediately.

Possible alternative: First, preheat oven to 425 degrees. Peel and dice parsnips into 3/4 inch chunks, and toss with olive oil and salt on a baking sheet. Roast until parsnips are tender and browned, about 20-40 minutes, depending on the parsnips. Add to the stew 10 minutes before the end of cooking time.

(adapted from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home)

  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup unsweetened alkalized cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 3 sticks butter (3/4 lb), cut into tablespoon-sized pieces
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 6 ounces Ghiardelli (or a similar brand) semi-sweet chocolate chips

Stir together the flour, cocoa powder, and salt.

Melt half the butter in a small sauce pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Put the remaining butter in a medium bowl. Pour the melted butter over the butter in the bowl, and stir to melt. The butter should look creamy, with small bits of unmelted butter, and be at room temperature.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix together the eggs and sugar on medium speed for about 3 minutes, or until thick and very pale. Mix in the vanilla. On low speed, add about one-third of the dry ingredients, then add one-third of the butter. Continue alternating butter and dry ingredients until they are incorporated into the batter. Add the chocolate chips and mix to combine.

Put the batter in the refrigerator for at least a few hours, and up to a week. When ready to cook the brownies, preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and allow the brownies to sit at room temperature until they are spreadable. Butter and flour a glass or metal 9x13 inch baking pan.

Spread the batter evenly in the pan and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until a toothpick poled into the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached to it. If the pick comes out wet, test a second time, as you may have hit a chocolate chip, which will be molten.

Cool brownies in the pan, on a rack, until they are a bit warmer than room temperature. Cut into squares and serve.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Old School Week--Chicken Saltimbocca, Pizza, and a Brownie Fail

Nick and I had been feeling rather old-school this past week. I was craving some of the recipes that first got us into cooking, I suppose because I was craving comfort and familiarity as a result of not feeling well. These meals are comfort food in the literal sense, but also in that they have sentimental value.

These are the kind of meals that we can make with a minimum of conversation, as we each basically have our assigned jobs. If that sounds boring, let me assure you that it is not--it leaves our brains free for talking about other things, and it's helped us develop a sense of teamwork and effortless cooperation that's useful in other areas of our lives.

Plus, when we make these meals, it reminds me of all the other times they were made, which were, for the most part, really good times. Like the time I was really worn out from school and work, and had asked Nick to make the dough before I got home so that we wouldn't have to wait for it to rise. What happened? He sliced off the tip of his finger on the blade of the food processor--see what I mean about having our assigned jobs?--he doesn't usually do that part. So I guess that wasn't a 'good time' for him, but it was memorable.

First up was Giada De Laurentiis' Chicken Saltimbocca. Now, this is not a traditional saltimbocca like
this one, and it might even be offensive to some purists out there. It is, however, delicious, relatively healthy, and fun to make.

We start by slicing chicken breasts in half and pounding them thin (the bunnies really hate this part). The breasts are then salted and peppered, topped with a slice of prosciutto, defrosted frozen spinach that's been tossed with olive oil, and Parmesan cheese.

These little rolls of goodness are then pan-seared until golden, at which point chicken stock and lemon juice are added to the pan and simmered for a few minutes until the chicken is cooked through.

The chicken is then removed to a plate while the sauce reduces. The finished dish is possibly good enough for casual company, and it's lovely when paired with any number of sides, from baked potatoes to pesto-tossed pasta. It's also delicious as leftovers, to which my spreading waistline can attest.

Speaking of expanding waistline, next up was pizza. We were having some friends over for dinner, and pizza sounded delicious and relatively stress-free. We've always used the Cooks Illustrated recipe for Pizza Margherita, although I have recently been tempted to use Jim Lahey's dough recipe. In this case, there wasn't time for a 24 hour rise, so we went with the classic.

The standard Pizza Margherita is simple and delicious, so we made a standard one of those. We also made a Margherita topped with prosciutto and black olives. For the other pizzas, we used the Cooks Illustrated dough, but went with different toppings.

I used a white pizza recipe from Epicurious and added some shrimp and chopped parsley for a scampi-esque flavor. My family used to say that the Margherita was the best pizza they'd ever had, but when I made this white pizza recipe a few years ago, they said that it was the new Best Pizza Ever.

The last pizza was a tribute to Nick's love for barbecue chicken pizza. We used barbecue sauce as the base and topped it with Jack cheese, grilled chicken, and crunchy bacon. It was all garnished with the chives that are growing so abundantly in our garden.

For dessert, I had decided to stick with the casual-fun vibe and make some brownies. I managed to get everything I needed in just one trip to the store, we were on time, the batter came together far, so good.

Nick tasted the batter and proclaimed it yummy, to which my response was, "It's yummy now, but brownies are kind of sort of on my
List of Things Leah Can't Make."

"Really? Now you tell me?"
"Ummm...yeah. Maybe today will be my lucky day."

Alas, it was not to be. I really should have listened to that little voice, 'That sure is a lot of batter for a 9-inch square pan. You don't like thick brownies. This won't work. You'll have dry edges and raw centers.'

Oh, little voice. You are so much smarter than I. Why do I not listen to you?

The center of the pan was downright raw, so I salvaged the edges, and it was Nick's bright idea to put them in some cute little bowls. They were topped with homemade coffee ice cream and Grand Mariner whipped cream, and disaster was averted. The brownies were rather tasty, but I felt that somehow the butter didn't meld with the chocolate, which was quite curious. These brownies are in need of a retry, and perhaps the second go-round will result in picture-worthy brownies, because belive me when I tell you that this was not a pretty dessert.

So. Lessons learned this week:
Don't get sick in April. It sucks.
When adding toppings to a pizza, remove the stone from the oven so that the oven doesn't get cold, resulting in less-than-perfect pizza.
Don't cook brownies in a small, square pan. It hasn't worked in the past, so why would it magically work this time?
Don't mess with romesco sauce while wearing a white shirt and think that you won't get any on the shirt. You will.
Do not eat all of the leftovers in the fridge. You will feel fat, especially when face-stuffing is combined with the sedentariness imposed by illness.

Question: Does this person have too much time on their hands, or is this a work of genius?

Chicken Saltimbocca
(Adapted from Giada DeLaurentiis' Everyday Italian)

  • 3 chicken breasts
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
  • 2 10 ounce boxes of frozen chopped spinach, thawed
  • 3 TBSP olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
  • 6 paper-thin slices prosciutto
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
Lay the chicken breasts out flat on a work surface. Insert a knife horizontally to the work surface into the thickest part of the chicken breast, and cut the breast in half, first one way, then the other. Or, you can butterfly the chicken and cut all the way through, rather than most of the way through. Pound the resulting halves of chicken breasts into thin cutlets so that you have 6 thin pieces of chicken.

Lay the cutlets out on a work surface so that the cut side is facing up. Thoroughly salt and pepper the chicken. This dish is best when it is very salty, so don't skimp on the salt, even though you may think that because prosciutto can be a little bit salty the whole dish is in danger of being too salty. It's almost impossible to make this too salty.

Squeeze the frozen spinach to remove excess water. In a small bowl, toss the spinach with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Season with 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper.

Lay one slice of prosciutto on top of each chicken cutlet. Spread an even layer of spinach on each cutlet, and top each cutlet with the Parmesan. Beginning at the short tapered end, roll up each roll up each cutlet and secure with toothpicks.

In a large, heavy skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over high heat. Add the chicken rolls and cook until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes on each side. Add the broth and the lemon juice and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover, and simmer until the chicken is just cooked through, about 4 minutes.

Transfer the chicken to a plate, and increase the heat to high in order to reduce the sauce to about 2/3 of a cup; this will take about 5-8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, pour sauce over the chicken, and serve.

Pizza Margherita
(From Cook's Illustrated)


  • 1 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1 cup water at room temperature
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup cake flour
  • 2 teaspoons table salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar


  • 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 small garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced fresh basil leaves
  • Salt
  • 8 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced into 1/4 -inch slices and dried on paper towels
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Extra virgin olive oil

For the crust: In the measuring cup, whisk the yeast to dissolve. In a food processor, process flours, salt, and sugar until combined, about 5 seconds. With the machine running, slowly add liquid through the feed tube. Continue to process until the dough forms satiny, slightly stick ball that clears the side of the work bowl, about 30 seconds. 

If dough is not the proper consistency, add more flour or water as needed. Divide the dough in half and shape into smooth, tight balls. Place on a baking sheet, spacing them at least 3 inches apart; cover loosely with plastic wrap coated with non-stick cooking spray and let rise until doubled in volume, about 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

For the topping: In clean bowl of food processor, process tomatoes until crushed, two or three one-second pulses. Transfer tomatoes to fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl. Allow them to drain at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to release liquids. Just before shaping pizza rounds, combine drained tomatoes, sugar, garlic, half of the basil, and a 1/4 teaspoon salt in the bowl.

To shape and cook the pizzas: When dough balls have doubled in size, dust dough liberally with flour and transfer to a well-floured work surface. Press one ball into 8-inch disk. Using flattened palms, gently stretch the ball into a 12-inch circle, working along outer edge and giving dish 1/4 turns. Occasionally use the tips of your fingers to make divets on the surface of the dough--this will help it stretch.

Lightly flour pizza peel; lift edges of dough round to brush off any excess flour, and transfer dough to peel. Spread half of the tomato topping over the surface of the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Slide onto pizza stone and bake until the crust begins to brown, about 5 minutes. 

Remove the pizza from the oven, close the oven door, and top the pizza with half of the cheese slices. Return the pizza to the oven and continue cooking until the cheese is melted and the dough is golden brown. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. Spread half of the remaining basil over the top. Repeat with the second pizza. Cut into wedges and serve.

White Pizza
(Adapted from Epicurious)

  • Half of the dough recipe from above
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 6 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices, then coarsely chopped
  • 3 ounces soft fresh goat cheese, crumbled
  • 1/2 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil
Follow above instructions for making and forming the dough. Mix 2 tablespoons olive oil and garlic in small bowl. 

When you've gotten to the part where the pizza is on the stone, brush it lightly with some of garlic oil. Cook for 5 minutes until the dough looks like it's beginning to set, and remove from the oven. Top with mozzarella cheese and goat cheese, leaving 1/2-inch plain border. Crumble ricotta cheese over, then sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake pizza until crust is golden brown and cheese melts. Drizzle remaining garlic-oil over pizza. And sprinkle the basil over the top. Cut into wedges and serve.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Daring Cooks' Brunswick Stew

Nick gave me a flower:

Blog checking lines--The 2010 April Daring Cooks challenge was hosted by Wolf of Wolf's Den. She chose to challenge Daring Cooks to make Brunswick Stew. Wolf chose recipes for her challenge from the Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook by Matt Lee and Ted Lee, and from the Callaway, Virginia Ruritan Club.

I have to confess that when I read this month's Daring Cooks Challenge, my initial reaction was not one of overwhelming excitement. First of all, I thought, "Aaaahhh! That uses rabbit!" I should probably explain that while I'll eat just about anything in the whole wide world, rabbit is on the tiny Do Not Eat List, as we own a pair of the fuzzy little critters.

On the other hand, one of them is a bad, bad bunny, so I found myself threatening her when she was being evil, "Would you like to be in some Brunswick Stew? Yes you would, you bad bad rabbit." Don't worry--she's alive and well and continues to wreak havoc and destruction.

As I read the challenge instructions, I was relieved to find that the Daring Cooks stipulated that rabbit is not required. The more I thought about it, though, all I could think about was how much I really didn't feel like eating a hearty stew in the beginning of spring.

"Stop your whining," I finally said to myself, "and find a way to make it yummy." So after some brainstorming, my initial impulse was to once again make a deconstructed sort of thing. I swear that I don't always do this to recipes, but I was inspired by Thomas Keller's recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon. In this recipe, Keller basically makes a stew, and then strains out all of the vegetables. For the final product, vegetables are separately cooked and then recombined with the flavorful meat and liquid. In this way, each vegetable is cooked in an herb and spice-infused cooking medium until it reaches the perfect doneness, and when it is added to the final product, the stew acquires a new level of perfection and sophistication.

When I mentioned this month's challenge to Nick, he immediately hit upon the same idea, without me even mentioning it. We talked some more about what kinds of meats to use, how to cook the vegetables, etc. I mentioned that I thought it would be delicious to use pork shoulder, but keep it separated in a cheese cloth, a la Keller. That way, when it came time to shred the various kinds of meat, this portion of pork shoulder could be shredded and then tossed in a hot pan with some barbecue sauce. That, I figured, would make this dish way more interesting. Funnily enough, when researching Brunswick Stew, I learned that it frequently includes barbecue sauce. What can I say? I'm a genius.

The best part is that for all my whining about not wanting to eat something so wintery--"I would like this in the fall, but it's not the fall, it's spring, and I want to eat something springy...," we ended up having one last icky, cold, blustery day. So we built a fire, made some stew, and had a little send-off to winter dinner, and it was quite nice.

The final product was a thick, thick stew made of duck, pork shoulder, lima beans, and chicken stock. Rather than adding the carrots to the stew near the end of its cooking time, we made Alton Brown's Glazed Carrot recipe, and put those on top of the stew. We would highly recommend this recipe, by the way.

The corn was likewise not added to the stew--we sauteed it with some onion (which is a delicious way to cook corn, especially with fresh corn cut off the cob). On top of the carrots and corn went the barbecued pork, which was topped with some diced roasted poblanos. In the beginning of the stew recipe, you're instructed to saute some bacon and discard it. Discard bacon? No way. That went on top.

At one point, our 'deconstructed' approach meant that there we had a lot of different things going on. Nick said, "This is where it gets fun." Breaking down a whole duck, by the way, was not fun. They're some tough little buggers.

The stew was delicious, and we loved our choice of modifications. In fact, this was so delicious that we might even make it again. The recipe says that at one point, "It should taste like the most flavorful chicken soup you've ever had." And it did! In the future, I might even start off my chicken soup with the methods suggested in this recipe.

This recipe is a good example of why we're liking the Daring Cooks' challenges--you're given a set of rules that you have to work with, but at the same time, you can think outside of the box a bit and get creative. Ultimately, you make the best of what you're given, and I think that's a good way to go about life in general.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Sunday Suppers at Lucques Easter: Grilled Asparagus with Prosciutto; Leg of Lamb with Chorizo Stuffing, Romesco Potatoes, and Olives; Meyer Lemon Custard Cakes

(The Mister)


The bunnies would like to wish you a happy belated Easter or Passover.

When I started planning for the family Easter dinner, I knew that I wanted to make a leg of lamb because for some reason the burgeoning life and bloominess of spring makes me want to eat a baby animal. I looked in Sunday Suppers at Lucques first, and I have no idea why I bothered to look in any of the other cookbooks. I mean, Leg of Lamb with Chorizo Stuffing, Romesco Potatoes and Black Olives just sounds like lamby perfection.

So I started by covering the leg of lamb in a thick rub that consisted of garlic, parsley, black pepper and rosemary, and it went into the fridge to marinate for the next 24 hours.

Note to self: do not mess with raw lamb, go running in the woods, and then get back in the car--when you get back in the car and smell your arms, you will likely feel like puking.

Easter Eve's preparations also included making Jim Lahey's ciabatta bread dough, making Suzanne Goin's Olive Oil Cake with Candied Tangerines, and making the romesco sauce. If you've never had romesco, I highly recommend that you try it. It's a sauce made from fried bread, toasted nuts, dried peppers, garlic, and tomatoes. It's delicious on all kinds of stuff from pork to grilled meats, fish, and vegetables.

The olive oil cake started with creaming egg yolks and sugar together for about 7 minutes until they reach 'full volume,' whatever that means. The other ingredients were then folded into the egg yolks. The thing is, 'full volume' is apparently a whole lot-it almost filled the bowl of the stand mixer. This was mightily confusing, as there was just no way that the resulting batter was going to fit into a 9-inch cake pan. Perhaps Suzanne meant a 9-inch springform pan, but because I didn't want to end up with a cake that had dry edges and a raw interior, I went with two 9-inch cake pans. This resulted in one ugly cake. There's a good reason SSAL is lacking a picture of this recipe.

The candied tangerines were rather pretty, though. I actually used clementines, but don't tell Suzanne. Maybe that's why the dessert sucked, but I doubt it--more on that later.

The clementines were candied by melting sugar with water and half of a vanilla bean.

The clementines were added when the mixture was simmering, and they were cooked until they became puffy and shiny.

Suzanne Goin suggests that this be served with creme fraiche whipped cream, but I decided that I wanted to go with ice cream instead. Initially I was thinking that I wanted to stick with the sweet/savory thing, so honey pine nut ice cream seemed like a good idea. But then I thought that maybe I should do just honey, or pecan, or butter pecan, or rum, or bourbon, or creme fraiche ice cream. Oh, I was confused.

So I sought out Nick's help. 'Here,' I said, 'Try this and tell me which of those ice cream flavors would work best with this dessert.'

His response was, 'Mmmmmm...' eyes bugging wide, 'Bleghhh!!!' as he ran to the sink to spit out the mouthful.

Wow. I hadn't been too crazy about it and had been considering making a backup dessert, but I didn't think that it was that bad.

'So I guess the answer is that no ice cream flavor will work well with that disgustingness, right?'


Nick actually thought that the cake was okay, and it was the candied clementines that he found so objectionable. He said that they were too tart, but I think that part of the problem might have been the very strong flavor of the vanilla pod. Vanilla beans, as opposed to vanilla extract, have an extraordinarily heady aroma. They're almost intoxicating, partially because they actually smell alcoholic. And, I admit, the candied clementines had a very strong vanilla flavor.

Other people seemed to like the cake, but I thought that the olive oil was a bit too strong, which makes sense, as there was a whole cup of the expensive stuff in there. I was also not crazy about the way the semolina flour lent the cake a somewhat gritty texture. In the future, if I want to make an olive oil dessert, I'll make this one.

Interestingly, my coworkers ate most of the cake when I brought it to work the next day. I've brought in delicious desserts that have not been finished, so I don't really know what's up with that. Maybe they were just particularly ravenous that night.

So back to the ice cream. At the very least, I figured it would give us something dessert-like to eat if everyone found the cake to be inedible. Ultimately, I decided to make a rum ice cream, as my brother had left some rum at my house over the holidays and he's in California, so he can't do anything about me using it. Kidding, Garrett!

Unfortunately, it turned out to be spiced rum as opposed to dark rum, so it couldn't really be tasted in the ice cream. That led me to decide to add some buttered pecans to the mix. As I was browning them in the butter, I figured that I might as well make the butter brown, because that's pretty tasty. Only later did I realize that it wouldn't go so well with the cake or the backup dessert. Oh, well.

Better yet, I burnt the pecans. I didn't notice at the time, so I dumped them in the ice cream. Only later, when it was time for dessert, did I notice their rather unpalatable roastiness. Nick said that the ice cream tasted like popcorn, which was probably a diplomatic way of putting it.

I mentioned a backup dessert--I had seen the recipe on Epicurious, it got good reviews, I had the ingredients, and I could whip it up in a jiffy. This particular fluffy lemoniness reminded me of this dessert, and it was likewise delicious. If you want a fast, economical, yummy dessert, I would highly recommend these little guys.

So how was the lamb? Awesome. Even people who don't normally like lamb claimed to enjoy this specimen. I made a 5 pound leg of lamb last year and had a pretty good amount of leftovers. This year, none.

It was stuffed with a mixture of chorizo sausage, breadcrumbs, rosemary, a chile de arbol, onions, thyme, and parsley. There was supposed to be some mint in there, but I think that fresh mint is kind of icky, so I didn't feel like buying it.

The stuffed lamb was baked until it reached an internal temperature of 120. Like last year's recipe, this leg o' lamb was supposed to rest for 20 minutes. Unlike last year's recipe, I didn't let it get ice-cold before serving it. Last year I comforted myself by telling myself that a lot of cultures intentionally do not always serve lamb while it's hot. That way I could almost pretend like I meant to do it.

The stuffing was awesome by itself, and the earthiness of the chorizo perfectly complimented the gaminess of the lamb. Rather than emphasizing the sometimes unpleasant mustiness of the meat, it made the lamb play nice.

The herb rub and romesco potatoes likewise brought out all of the best aspects of the lamb, and the romesco sauce was demolished. It was eaten as a dip, tossed with the potatoes, and passed on the side with the lamb. Man, that stuff is good.

It was all topped with black olives, which were also absolutely perfect with all of the other flavors. I have to admit that it was supposed to be a black olive salad made with parsley, mint and olives, but I just served some chopped up olives. My excuse was that I had been afraid that there would just be too much going on if I used the herb salad. 
I actually probably should have trusted Suzanne on that one, but again, I just didn't really feel like messing with mint.
As an appetizer, I made prosciutto with grilled asparagus and whole grain mustard. It was super-simple and super-delicious, so it was perfect for a party. All I had to do was put some prosciutto on a platter (I just used the baking sheet that I had used to toss them with oil), grill some asparagus for a couple minutes, and put it on top of the prosciutto. The sauce was just creme fraiche with whole grain mustard stirred into it; it was supposed to be drizzled on top, but I kept it on the side.

My aunt had decorated the table with some Peeps, which I thought was a rather fabulous touch.

Earlier this week, my co-workers thought that I was a bit strange when I confessed that I like to bite the heads off of Peeps. I suppose it's a genetic trait, though.

You know what else you can do with Peeps? Smash their heads in.

Guess what else you can do with Peeps--you can make Peep shots. That's a chewed up Peep in some bourbon, which is actually rather disgusting, so I wouldn't necessarily recommend that one.

You know what I would recommend? Peep Wars. I'll let this website do the explaining.
I found this bit of wonderfulness while I was at work one night. I of course shared it with my co-workers, so the next time I saw one of my work friends, she said to me, "Thanks, Leah. My microwave is ruined. It was SO worth it, though. Peep Wars are awesome."

Prosciutto and Grilled Asparagus with Whole Grain Mustard

  • 1 1/4 pounds asparagus
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons whole grain mustard
  • 1/2 cup creme fraiche
  • 5 thin slices prosciutto de Parma or San Daniele
  • 1/2 a lemon, for juicing
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Light the grill 10 minutes before you're ready to cook if you have a gas grill, and 30 to 40 minutes before you're ready to cook if you have a charcoal grill.

Snap the ends off the asparagus to remove the tough woody portions. Toss the asparagus on a baking sheet with the olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and some pepper. Stir the mustard and creme fraiche together in a small bowl and set aside.

When the grill is ready, drape the prosciutto over a platter. Grill the asparagus 2 to 3 minutes until slightly charred and tender. Arrange the asparagus on the prosciutto and drizzle the mustard creme fraiche over the top.

Leg of Lamb with Chorizo Stuffing, Romesco Potatoes, and Black Olives

  • One 2 1/2 pound boneless leg of lamb, butterflied
  • 6 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1/4 cup rosemary leaves, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus 1/4 cup whole parsley leaves
  • 2 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper
  • Chorizo stuffing (recipe below)
  • 1/2 sliced Kalamata olives
  • 1/4 cup chopped mint leaves
  • 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 lemon, for juicing
  • Romesco potatoes (recipe below)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the lamb in a baking dish and coat it well on all sides with the smashed garlic, rosemary, chopped parsley, and black pepper. Cover, and refrigerate overnight.

Take the lamb out of the refrigerator 30 minutes before stuffing it, to bring it to room temperature. Reserve the marinade.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Season the lamb on both sides with salt and a little freshly ground black pepper. Lay the meat on a cutting board, fat side down, and open like a book. Spoon as much of the chorizo stuffing as you can (about half, or a little more) on the right side of the lamb.

Fold the left side over the stuffing, as if you're closing the 'book.' If some of the stuffing falls out, stuff what you can back in. Tie the lamb with butcher's twine at 2-inch intervals to hold it together while roasting. Carefully place the lamb on a roasting rack set in a roasting pan. Drizzle the leftover marinade over the lamb. Put the remaining chorizo stuffing in a small baking dish and set aside.

Roast the lamb about 1 1/4 hours, until a meat thermometer inserted into the center of the meat, not the stuffing, reads 120. Remove the lamb from the oven and let it rest for about 15 minutes before slicing. While the lamb is resting, heat the rest of the stuffing in the oven until it's hot, about 10 minutes.

Toss the olives, mint, and parsley leaves with a drizzle of the olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Taste for seasoning. Arrange the romesco potatoes on a large warm platter.

Slice the lamb into 1/4-inch thick slices, removing the butcher's twine as you go. Using a spatula and a spoon, arrange the meat over the potatoes. Scatter the herb salad over the top, and serve the extra stuffing and romesco on the side.

Chorizo Stuffing

  • 2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large sprig rosemary
  • 1 chile de arbol, broken in half
  • 2 cups finely diced onions
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 2 teaspoon thyme leaves
  • 3/4 pounds fresh Mexican chorizo, casings removed
  • 3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Toss the breadcrumbs with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Spread them on a baking sheet and toast for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring once or twice, until they are golden brown.

Heat a medium pot over high heat for 1 minute. Add the remaining 6 tablespoons olive oil, the rosemary sprig, and the chile; let them sizzle in the oil for about 1 minute. Stir in the onions, garlic, and thyme, and season with salt and pepper. Turn the heat down and cook for about 10 minutes, until the onions are translucent. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and discard the rosemary and chile.

While the onions are cooking, heat a medium sauté pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Crumble the chorizo into the pan, and sauté about 8 minutes, until the sausage is crisp and cooked through. Drain the chorizo of excess oil and add it to the bowl with the onions. Stir in the breadcrumbs and parsley, and combine well. Taste for seasoning.

Romesco Potatoes

  • 1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 to 5 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
  • 2 bay leaves, 6 sprigs thyme, plus 2 teaspoons thyme leaves
  • 1 cup romesco
  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Place the potatoes in a roasting pan and toss well with 2 tablespoons olive oil, the garlic, bay leaves, thyme sprigs, and a heaping teaspoon of salt. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and roast the potatoes about 50 minutes, until tender when pierced (the time will really depend on size, age, and variety of potatoes).

When the potatoes have cooked, reserve the garlic, discard the bay and thyme, and crumble the potatoes into  chunky pieces with your hands. Squeeze the garlic out of its skin and set aside.

Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for a minute. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, turn the heat to medium high, and allow the oil to get to the shimmering point. Add the crumbled potatoes, and season with thyme leaves, salt and pepper. To get the potatoes nicely brown and crisp, don't overcrowd them. You might have to use 2 pans or sear them in batches. Sauté the potatoes 6 to 8 minutes until they are crispy in one side. Don't try to move them if they are stuck to the pan--they will eventually release themselves.

After they've browned nicely on the first side, turn them to let them color on all sides. Once they're nicely browned on all sides, spoon the romesco and reserved garlic into the hot potatoes. Toss and stir to coat them well. Taste for seasoning and toss in the parsley.

Or, if you're not yet ready to serve the dish, turn off the heat and leave the potatoes in the pan; then, just before serving, reheat for a few minutes and toss in the parsley at the last moment.

Meyer Lemon Custard Cakes

(From Epicurious)

  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 1/3 cups whole milk
  • 2 large eggs, separated
  • 1/3 cup fresh Meyer lemon juice or regular lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons finely grated Meyer lemon peel or regular lemon peel
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter eight 3/4-cup ramekins or custard cups. Whisk 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, flour, and pinch of salt in medium bowl to blend. Combine milk, egg yolks, lemon juice, and lemon peel in large bowl; whisk until blended.

Add flour mixture to yolk mixture and whisk custard until blended. Using electric mixer, beat egg whites in another large bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually add remaining 1/4 cup sugar to whites and beat until stiff but not dry. Fold 1/4 of whites into custard. Fold remaining whites into custard in 2 additions (custard will be slightly runny).

Divide custard equally among prepared ramekins. Place ramekins in large roasting pan lined with a dish towel. Pour enough hot water into pan to come halfway up sides of ramekins. Bake custard cakes until golden brown and set on top (custard cakes will be slightly soft in center), about 27 minutes. Chill custard cakes uncovered until cold, at least 4 hours, then cover and keep refrigerated.

Custard cakes can be made 1 day ahead. Keep chilled.
If you like, run a small knife around each custard cake to loosen and invert each cake onto a plate. I kind of liked them in the ramekins, though, so you can serve them as is if prefer.