Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Persian inspired Spiced Cornish hens and Sweet Rice with pepper cardamom sauce

During this time of year I try to plan my vacation trips and my acute sense of travel envy kicks in.  I want to go everywhere, I feel like the least traveled person on earth and I wildly resent having to pick travel destinations based solely on a price of an airline ticket.  I scan the web for possible itineraries only to experience a shock at how much it would cost for a family of four to go anywhere interesting.  So instead of booking tickets and tours I book spice orders from all the faraway places I still hope to see and taste someday.  The need for spices has created the world we live in today, pushing the boundaries of exploration.  Just to think, if it wasn’t for a grand need of a little cumin in the stew, the Americas would still be enjoing its true identity.  And if spices can change the lives of whole continents, can they  change my life?  I am not sure how life changing is ripping open yet another UPS package to find a jar or a pouch, but it certainly makes for interesting Sunday dinners….
Lately I have been pre-occupied with creating dishes that capture all of our senses.  As important as taste is to a meal, it can’t stand alone, sight, smell and touch all have important parts to play if you are to succeed in ultimate food experience.  We eat with our eyes first and next with our noses.  Food’s texture plays on your sense of touch and as a cook your goal is to engage all of these faculties into a composite adventure.  A sense of smell is most fascinating, you can take a whiff of something and immediately be transported to a different time and place, be it your childhood or a faraway place.  It is said that aromas have the most powerful effect on our ability to recall memories.  I once followed a stranger for two city blocks because her perfume reminded me of my mother’s, which I haven’t smelled in years ( She must have dumped a bottle of that stuff on her head because you could smell it a mile away, otherwise I would have looked freakishly strange and stalky following her close).
So with my new found quest for making “all sensory” meals, combined with my inability to travel to anywhere fascinating and endless supply of spice packages at my front door, I take my family on “virtual” vacations pretty much every Sunday night.  Last week a newly bought spice mix of lime zest, cardamom and garlic and a recipe for Persian flat bread send me in the direction of the Middle East.
Here is this pretty simple Persian inspired meal that truly engaged all the senses, it was perfumy, a little salty, a little sweet, a little spice, a great crunch from the flat breads and some very vibrant colors from the sauce…
Persian Spiced Chicken with Sweet Rice and pepper cardamom sauce.
Served with Persian flatbread and Eggplant and fig stew.
For the Cornish Hens
4 Cornish Hens
2 tbs grilled chicken seasoning (any brand will do I use Montreal Grill)
1.5 tbs of Ispahan seasoning mix ( I get this spice blend from La Boite spices at the, but you can make your own by combining cardamom, dried Persian limes and garlic)
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil
For the stuffing
This stuffing is meant to be discarded before serving.  It is meant to perfume the hens and flavor the meat.
1 lime cut into small pieces
4 cloves of garlic roughly chopped
1 small shallot roughly chopped
2 tbs of dried peaches chopped
½ cup chopped fennel
3 tbs fresh ginger chopped
1 tbs chopped parsley
1 tbs chopped fresh mint
For the Cardamom pepper sauce
½ cup orange juice
½ cup chicken stock
4 large black cardamom pods ( or 6-7 small ones) – crushed with the back of the knife
1 large slice of fresh ginger
½ tbs of harissa
1 tsp of honey
¼ cup roasted red peppers chopped
Combine all of the stuffing  ingredients in a bowl and mix to combine.  Salt and pepper the inside cavities of the hens generously and stuff with the stuffing mix.  Rub a generous amount of olive oil on the outside of each bird.  Season with chicken seasoning and Persian spice mix generously.  Rub the spice mix into the skin, then add a little more olive oil and salt the outside of the bird one more time.  Let the stuffed hens sit outside of the fridge, covered for 40 min to 1 hr. 

Make the sauce.  Combine the orange juice, stock, cardamom and ginger in a small sauce pan and simmer until reduced by 2/3.  Strain the mixture into a blender discarding the cardamom pods and the ginger.  Add harissa, roasted peppers, honey and salt and blend until smooth.  You may want to adjust the seasoning by adding more salt or a squirt of lime juice.
Preheat the oven to 425F, bake the hens for 45 min to an hour until the skin is nicely browned and crispy and juices run clear from the thigh.
For the sweet rice
2 Cups of Persian stile rice
4 cups of water
1 small shallot finely chopped
1/3 cup of finely diced dried peaches
1/3 cup of golden raisins
3 cup of pignolli nuts
Zest of two limes
2 -3 table spoons of olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large deep skillet heat some olive oil.  Add the shallot and reduce the heat to medium, cook shallot until softened than add the nuts, raisins and peaches.  Sauté on med-low heat until the nuts are lightly toasted.  Add the rice and 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil.   Increase the heat to medium, stir well making sure all of the rice is evenly coated in oil, toast the rice for few minutes until it begins to smell nutty.  Add the lime zest, salt, pepper and water.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cover.  Simmer for about 15 min ( or as per package instructions).  Fluff with a fork before serving.

Eggplant and Fig stew.
This is more of an eggplant bruschetta recipe; it would go great as an appetizer with any type of chips and toasts.  You can make this chunkier or smoother depending on the size of your chopped vegetables.
½ large red onion chopped
3 cloves of garlic chopped
½ fennel head chopped
1 large eggplant cubed
1 cup of cherry or grape tomatoes chopped
1/3 cup of chopped bell pepper (any color)
1/3 cup of chopped dried figs
1 tbs chopped capers (drained)
¼ cup of chopped basil
¼ cup of chopped fresh mint
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp fennel seeds
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil
In a large deep skillet heat some olive oil, add the onion and fennel and cook on medium heat until softened.  Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute.  Add the eggplant and tomatoes and cook stiring often until the eggplant is soft and browned (you may need to add a little more olive oil along the way).  Add bell peppers and capers, cook for a few minutes than add the vinegar.  As the vinegar cooks out, add the oregano, fennel seeds, salt and pepper and chopped figs.  Reduce the heat to low and cook the vegetables stirring occasionally until very soft 10-15 minutes.  Cool sklightly before stiring in basil and mint.  Serve at room temperature with toasts or flat breads.

The recipe for Persian flat bread can be found at Food and Wine -- follow the link here.
Any meal that can take you on a little mental trip is worth the hassle.  Now fed and happy I can go back to my little virtual hell of scanning the discount airfare sites for the perfect trip…maybe I will get lucky this time.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Light as Air Gnocchi


I am slowly knocking things of my ‘to-cook’ board, which seems to contain only winter comfort food, the rich, the fatty, the kind that send you straight to hibernation, which is exactly how I feel.  I wish I can cozy up in my pajamas, wrap myself in the fluffiest blanket and burry my head under the softest pillow, close my eyes and wake up when everything is in bloom and I don’t have to wear 20 things just to go walk the dog…. But spring will mean that I have to paint my deck… and I am not looking forward to doing that either…
Since blankets and pillows are on my mind too much these days, and sleeping till spring is not an option, I decided to try my hand at Gnocchi, which is the food equivalent of your favorite pillow.  All I knew about making gnocchi is that they must come out tasting light, if they are heavy and dense, you must have gone wrong.  For an ultimate starchy treat of combining my two favorite vices, potatoes and pasta, lightness is hard to achieve.  After reading numerous recipes I decided to rely on my own judgment so the recipe below is more of a reference than an exact.  I also wanted to toss the gnocchi with a very simple sauce that would not mask the gnocchi taste or texture, so I can really taste test this recipe
 And for a little spring nostalgia I shelled some fresh peas into the sauce.
So if you are still looking at a snow out of your window, before you hibernate for the weekend, I strongly recommend you try this dish…it will give you pleasant dreams.

For the Gnocchi
3 lbs russet potatoes
2 eggs
1.5 tsp of kosher salt
½ tsp nutmeg
Approximately 2 cups of Pasta flour plus more for dusting ( I use King Arthur “perfect Pasta” flour but any other ‘00’ flour should be ok, you may need to adjust the amount)
6 tbs of butter for pan frying

For the sauce
1 lb of sweet Italian sausage
2 cups of slow roasted or fresh tomatoes
1 cup green peas (fresh or frozen)
1 shallot (chopped)
3 cloves of garlic (minced)
1.5 cups dry white wine
½ tsp of red pepper flakes
1 tsp dried oregano
½ cup of fresh chopped basil
Salt and pepper to taste
Grated parmesan cheese
Boil the potatoes unpeeled until easily pierced with a fork.  Drain the water and cool them slightly until they are not too hot to handle.  Peel the potatoes and press them through a potatoes ricer onto a wooden board.  You want to do this while they are still very warm.  You can use a potato masher if you don’t have a ricer, or a fork, just don’t put them in a food processor, or they will become gummy.
Spread the riced potatoes in an even layer and let them cool a little more, but not all the way to room temperature.  When you add the eggs the potatoes should be just cool enough not to cook the eggs.  Whisk the eggs, salt and nutmeg in a bowl.  Make a mound of the potatoes very gently trying not to mush them too much.  Make the well in the middle and pour the egg mixture.  Sprinkle one cup of flour on top.  On a floured board knead the dough adding more flour as needed.  As soon as the dough stops sticking to your hands and the board, stop adding the flour.  The dough should feel very soft, warm and resemble more of a pillow than cohesive dough.  Form the dough into a loose ball, dust with a little flour and cover with a kitchen towel.  Let the dough rest 10 – 15 minutes.
To roll the gnocchi, divide the dough into 4 parts, about the size of a baseball.  Gently roll with the palms of your hand to form an even rope ½ inch in diameter ( or smaller if you want smaller gnocchi).  Cut with a knife or dough cutter into ½ inch “pillows”.  Dust with flour and lay out on a baking sheet covered with wax or parchment paper in a single layer.  Let the tray sit on your counter for an hour to dry the dough a bit or you can set it under a low fan for 15 minutes.
In the meantime, make the sauce.  Heat a large skillet and brown the sausage with a few tsp of olive oil.  Lower the heat and add shallot and garlic and sauté until soft.  Add the tomatoes, red pepper flakes, oregano and white wine.  Season with salt and pepper.  Sauté until ½ the white wine evaporates than add the peas.  Cook for 1 -2 more minutes than turn lower the heat all the way, you just want to keep the sauce warm while you cook the gnocchi
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt the water generously, as if you were cooking pasta.  In a skillet, gently brown the butter and keep it on very low heat so that it does not burn.
Boil the gnocchi until they float plus 30 seconds, if you are making a lot, you may have to do it in batches because if you dump too many into the water they will stick to each other.  With a slotted spoon transfer the gnocchi form the boiling water to the skillet with brown butter, increase the heat to medium and toss fry them until slightly brown on both sides.  Toss them with the sausage mixture and keep warm while you are working on boiling and frying the next batch.
When ready to serve, garnish with fresh basil and parmesan cheese.
This dish may not be light as air in calories, but it feels like it is…
Cuddle up with a big bowl of that in front of a good movie and don’t think about the snow in the forecast!
Now if you execuse me I am going to go ponder my next off-the-board project..."Asian noodles with duck meatballs in a spicy broth"...No idea what I had in mind when I put that on a board but it sounds good and it's up there in chalk, which means I better come up with the recipe...


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Fried Chicken and Waffles

This dish was grossly overdue.  I had meant to make it in October of 2011(!) when just back from California, the taste was still vivid in my memory.  We had the most marvelous chicken and waffles at the Bonney Doon winery, which prompted me to buy a waffle iron and experiment with various fried chicken recipes.  I just never got around to putting them together.  It is funny how this process works, you can carry a desire and an idea around for a long time, try things in your head, try individual components or similar dishes and then make the actual recipe a year or two later.  It helped that my husband kept reminding me that I solemnly swore that I would try to re-create this peculiar but delicious dish.
Chicken and waffles is an ultimate “soul” food, rooted in the South’s slave history.  The origins of the dish are questionable, ranging from an idea of scraps left over from the slave owners to the fact that the chickens are slaughtered in the morning and fried for breakfast and then served with whatever kind of bread.  There is a very similar dish with Dutch origins that serves pieces of poached chicken over waffles and is smothered in gravy.  The reason this combination is so successful is because it literally encompasses all you ever want in a perfect dish.  You got your briny saltiness from the chicken meat, crisp, crunch and a bit of heat from the batter, soft and savory waffles sap up all the chicken juices, and the butter and maple syrup add the creaminess and the sweetness.  Perfect food!  Not for the dieting though… just saying…
I took the liberty of refining the traditional approach a bit, just to make the flavors more vibrant, but this is pretty much as classic as it gets.  The recipes can of course stand on their own, and the biggest secret is that the chicken has to be as fresh as possible (mine was slaughtered that morning) and of the best quality (free range, naturally fed…etc).  Brining the chicken overnight is essential and ensures that the bird will not be dry or undercooked when fried. 
I also played around with the maple syrup, making into more of a sauce by adding orange notes to it with orange juice and zest.  For a little freshness a little side salad of arugula and basil dressed simply with salt, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil.  It cuts through the heaviness of the dish and provides a touch of acidity.
For the brine
1 fresh chicken cut to 8 pieces (the drumstick and thigh should be separated and the breast should be split in 2)
1.5 gallons of water
¾ cup of kosher salt
1 lemon cut into pieces
3 bay leaves
A handful of fresh thyme and parsley
2 tbs black peppercorns
2 garlic cloves
In a large pot combine all the ingredients (except the chicken) and bring to a boil.  Simmer for 3 min than cool to room temperature.  Place the chicken in the brine, cover and refrigerate overnight.

 For the fried chicken
1 Brined chicken
2 cups buttermilk
1.5 cups all-propose flour
1 tbs garlic powder
1 tbs onion powder
½ tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp paprika (not smoked)
Peanut oil for frying
Rinse the brine off the chicken with cold water.  Pat dry with paper towels and set on a tray lined with paper towels skin side up.  Allow to air dry for at least 1 hr.  Add all the spices to the flour and whisk to combine. 

Dip each piece into the seasoned flour; shake off the excess, than dip into the buttermilk and again into the seasoned flour.  Lay the pieces on a baking sheet covered with wax or parchment paper and let rest for 1.5 to 2 hrs.  This helps to develop the “crust”.

In a deep cast iron skillet or a Dutch oven heat the oil to 325F -  345F.  Fry a few pieces at a time, trying not to crowd the pan.  Fry until golden brown.  Cool on a wire rack or on paper towels.  The chicken can be kept warm in 250F oven until ready to serve.
For the waffles
2 cups of all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tsp of sugar
3 eggs separated
2 tbs unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cups buttermilk
½ cup milk
½ cup sour cream
2 tbs of chopped basil or parsley (optional)
Melted butter for the waffle iron
Whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and sugar.  In a bowl of a standing mixer, stir the buttermilk, milk, sour cream and egg yolks. Add the melted butter.  Stir in the flour mixture and fresh herbs until just combined.  Whip the egg whites until medium peaks.  Fold the egg whites into the rest of the batter until mostly incorporated.  Brush the waffle iron with melted butter and bake as per your model’s instructions.  The waffles can be kept warm in a 250F oven until ready to serve.
Orange Maple sauce
¼ cup fresh squeezed orange juice
1 cup maple syrup
2 tbs of bourbon
Zest of one orange
Combine all of the above and bring to a boil, simmer for 3-5 minutes.  Serve warm

Who says comfort food cannot be elegant!