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.


Lisa Michelle said...

OK...I'm so glad your brownies turned out better this time..and they look amazing, but you have to try these brownies (link below). They truly are the quintessential, chewy, fudgy, shiny crust brownie we remember from childhood. That said, the stew looks amazing..bookmarked!

Anne said...

The only brownie recipe I've ever used, because it always turns out perfect, is the one on the box of Baker's chocolate squares. I use butter and they always have a crunchy crust. I don't use a pyrex dish but that might make them even chewier.