Monday, June 18, 2018

The End of Dry Chicken

I recently started reading “The Food Lab - Better Home Cooking through Science” by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, a James Beard Foundation winner. At nearly 1,000 pages, it’s a veritable encyclopedia. As its name implies, the author delves into the science of cooking, unravelling the mysteries of cooking. Kenji is a self-proclaimed science geek who luckily found an outlet for his nerdy tendencies at Cook’s Illustrated, where he worked in the test kitchen and got to play mad scientist with food all day long. From his experience he put together this book of what really goes on with your food once you start cooking it. It’s incredibly enlightening. If you are at all interested in the science behind cooking, this is the book for you. With its over 300 recipes, complete with explanations of why he does what he does to make the dish incredible, you cannot help but improve your cooking.

When it comes to chicken, he says we all tend to overcook it. That’s because the USDA has scared us with dire warnings to cook it long enough to kill everything that might be lurking in it. But Kenji explains that's not necessary. We’d avoid getting stuck with a bird that’s dry if we’d simply stop overcooking it. We really can allow it to reach a lower internal temperature than the 165 degrees F the USDA recommends and not die!! The result is a juicier, moister chicken devoid of bacteria. The key is to let it rest for a period of time after cooking it.

For example, rather than allowing the bird to come to 165 before we stop the cooking process, we cook it until it reaches 150 and then allow it to rest for 2.7 minutes, and we’re good. I’m not kidding. This is how scientific he gets. He really is a geek. In his book he has a whole table of how many minutes the meat needs to rest if you bring it only to 145, or 150 or 155 and explains what the chicken would be like at each of these temperatures. Most importantly, stop buying boneless, skinless breast. For moist, juicy birds, get the breast with skin and bones. Makes all the difference in the world.

“The Food Lab” explains that the most important tool to use in the kitchen or when grilling, especially when cooking meat, is an instant read thermometer. I have a probe for my oven and a regular inexpensive guage that takes a while to get to temperature, so I bought an instant-read one. Why keep guessing, when a simple tool can tell you within 4 seconds what the internal temperature of your meat is?

So last night, I used my new thermometer and made Chicken with Basil and Garlic and it was
magnificent...truly. The chicken was perfectly moist and juicy and flavored so beautifully with fresh basil and garlic.

Ingredients:
Chicken with Basil and Garlic

4 chicken breasts or thighs, with skin on and bone-in
Fresh basil leaves
3 garlic cloves, sliced
3-4 whole garlic cloves, unpeeled
1/2 cup chicken broth
2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 Tbsp heavy cream
Salt and pepper

Directions:

Take your chicken and stuff the sliced garlic and a few fresh basil leaves under the skin of each piece. Set aside for now.

Start your sauce: cook a few cloves of unpeeled garlic in the chicken broth for 15 minutes. Add wine and cook 10 minutes longer. Stick a meat thermometer or your oven’s temp probe into the thickest piece and bake until the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees.

While that’s cooking return to your sauce: remove the garlic and peel it. Place garlic in food processor with fresh basil leaves and whirl. Return it to the broth/wine in the sauce pan and add cream, salt and pepper and reduce for about 10 minutes. If you like a smooth sauce, strain out the chunks of garlic and basil, or use an immersion blender to whirl it even finer. If the sauce is too thin to your liking, add a little corn starch or arrowroot powder in a little water first to dissolve it, then add to thicken the sauce, cooking it for about 10 minutes longer.

When chicken is done, cover with foil and let it rest for the requisite 2.7 minutes to ensure its safety. Plate and pour the sauce over the top of each.

Delicious with mashed potatoes, and a side of roasted vegetables with a sprinkling of good quality balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Serve with a glass of a good quality oaky Chardonnay or my preference, Viognier. If you prefer red, choose a lighter one such as a Pinot Noir or Gamay Beaujolais.

This is a tasty, delicious, juicy dish that’s dinner party-worthy. What more could you ask for on a Sunday night?

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Lentil Salad of lentil salads

Lentils have been a staple of Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine for thousands of years. In fact, records show people have been eating them for over 6,000, maybe even 13,000 years!

They come in all sorts of colors: black, yellow, brown, green and red!

And they are incredibly healthy. Their benefits include being alkalizing (whereas meat is acidic), they contain lots of fiber, encourage heart health, lower cholesterol, improve digestive health, contain a good amount of minerals, help us maintain blood sugar balance, can help us with weight loss, and improve our immunity.

And, they’re really inexpensive!

They are also quite versatile. You must cook them, but you can eat them warm or allow them to cool and make them into salads, or puree them into dips for veggies, either of which I do during warmer months. In the cooler months, I turn them into soups.

So the other day, I was contemplating what to make and decided to make a lentil salad with lots of veggies and some feta cheese for some additional protein. While lentils are usually the one legume that they say doesn’t require soaking, I’ve seen recipes that have you do it anyway, and I do it every time, to help my digestion. Plus it helps cook them a bit faster. This shouldn’t take you much more than half an hour to prepare.

Lentil Salad

Ingredients:
Green lentils
Bacon fat or butter
1/2-1 chopped Onion (sweet, like a Vidalia)
1 Carrot
1 stalk Celery
a couple cloves Garlic
1/4 cup Red wine
1 Bay leaf
Dried basil and oregano, 1/2 tsp each
Extra virgin olive oil and acid of your choice (see below)

Toppings (as much as you want):
Feta cheese crumbles
Roasted red peppers in a jar
Walnuts
Avocado
Tomatoes, preferably cherry or grape, cut in half

Directions:
Soak 1 to 1-1/2 cups of lentils in the morning in some warm water. Let them sit out while you go to work.

In the evening, warm up some bacon fat or butter in a deep, cast iron skillet or Dutch oven. Saute chopped onions for a few minutes while you chop the celery and carrots into a nice dice. Add the carrots and celery to the onions and cook for about 8 minutes more. A little browning is good - it adds flavor. Towards the end, add 2 cloves chopped fresh garlic - don’t burn it!

Drain lentils and rinse. Add to the pot along with enough water to cover. Add a bay leaf and the dried herbs. Cook 20-25 minutes uncovered, depending on preferred level of doneness. For easier digestion cook them longer. (Frankly, al dente lentils aren’t very nice, but it’s also important not to overcook them till their mushy).

Add a little (1/4 cup) red wine towards the end. Trust me, this makes a big difference in taste. Especially good to add if you need a little more liquid.

Taste the lentils at 20 minutes and see how they are. If done to your liking, remove from heat. If not, keep cooking another 5 minutes or so. By then, hopefully most of the liquid has evaporated. If not, remove your lentils/veggies from the pan with a slotted spoon and cool in a bowl. When nearly room temperature add olive oil and either apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar or (my favorite) lemon juice, season with salt and pepper. Then add your toppings: crumbled feta, chopped roasted red pepper from a jar, chopped walnuts, diced avocado and a freshly chopped tomato.

This salad is so loaded with nutrients, it’s crazy! Toss, and enjoy!

NOTE: If you can’t eat it all and need to store the leftovers, make sure to eat at least all of the avocado, else it turns yucky brown. Everything else will store with the lentils just fine for a few days.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Lemon Artichoke Spinach Pasta

I’ve been enjoying lemons for months now, thanks to my husband’s co-worker who’s willing to share. He must have a gigantic tree in his backyard because I get 30-40 lemons at a time from him and this year alone I’ve received at least 5-6 bags from him (love you, Rick!). His tree seems to put out an endless supply.

I realize my last post was also about lemons but it seems I’m still not done talking about them.

So my story is this: my work organized a luncheon for us last week and one of the things on the menu was a pasta with chicken and mushrooms drowning in some goopy sauce. It was “meh” and didn’t finish it. But it got me in the mood for something like it that I knew I could make much tastier. So on the way home that day, I went to Trader Joe’s and purchased everything I needed for this dish I wanted to put together. I envisioned lemons and artichokes, chicken and spinach in a light sauce, all coming together in a lovely marriage of flavors.

What I bought at Trader Joe's:
Lemon Pepper Pappardelle (see photo below but get GF pasta instead if you’re gluten-free)
Crimini mushrooms
A bag of pre-washed spinach
A jar of the artichoke antipasto shown here on the right --->
A can of artichokes in water (or get the marinated kind if you prefer)
Parmesan cheese, grated
Chicken breasts *
1 lemon
Fresh thyme

You should already have these at home:
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1-2 garlic cloves or garlic powder
Butter, about 2 tsp.

I used about 1/2 of each of the items I bought, which makes about 2-3 servings.


Directions:
Start 1 pot of water to cook the pasta and another pot where you’re going to poach a chicken breast (if you didn’t buy their Lemon Chicken). While those pots of water are coming to a boil, wash and slice the mushrooms and chop the garlic. Add these to some butter you’ve melted in a sauce pan over medium heat. When the mushrooms and garlic are nearly cooked, add a few handfuls of spinach to wilt. Turn off the sauce pan and remove from the heat.

When the pots of water are boiling, add the pasta to the 1 (cook per the directions) and add the chicken to the other (it’ll cook a bit faster if you cut the chicken breast in half). Add a pinch of salt to each pot. To the chicken, I also added 1/2 lemon. I squeezed the juice into the pot and then threw in the actual lemon to the pot as well. I also added a sprig of thyme and a garlic clove to the chicken. When the water comes back to a boil, turn down the heat to simmer and poach for about 10 minutes. When cooked, remove from poaching liquid and slice the chicken.

Browning the artichokes would add another
dimension of flavor. Mmmhh...next time!
Turn the sauce pan with the ’shrooms, garlic and spinach back on. Add the pasta and chicken. Give it all a good stir until it’s good and warm. Add the artichoke hearts and a few tablespoons of the antipasto and continue stirring until just heated through. Add salt and pepper to taste. Unload onto a plate, squeeze some lemon juice over the whole thing, sprinkle on some parmesan cheese and OMG! Enjoy!

*You can either cook some raw chicken yourself or get their pre-cooked Lemon Chicken if you’re short on time. You can poach the chicken, like I did, or grill it, or just bake it. But know that that will all take a little longer than poaching it.

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