Monday, December 11, 2006

Chicken Fricasee for the 21st Century

When I first glanced at one of The Best American Recipes series several years ago, I didn't find much I cared for, and I ignored subsequent editions. That must have been a bad year (or a bad day for me), and I'm so glad I browsed through [and then bought] the 2005-2006 edition -- it's loaded with delicious soups, main dishes, veggies, and desserts we've tried in the last month, with lots more Post-its marking pages for the future.

[I predict the next edition will have a lot of recipes calling for corn meal -- that seems to be the product of choice in magazines and books this year...] The series is edited by Fran McCullough and Molly Stevens. Molly is a contributing editor to Fine Cooking and author of All About Braising, a celebration of slow food -- the fragrant stews, pot roasts, and melanges that are the definition of winter comfort food.

Mairose, our local grocer/butcher around the corner on Monteith Ave. (in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Cincinnati), has the best chicken we've eaten in a long time -- unfailingly fresh, juicy, and flavorful. Eating chicken no longer feels like punishment for trying to cut back on red meat. I've been buying whole birds, and practicing my knife skills. It's a lot more economical than buying precut parts, and yields backs, wingtips, and odd bits for stock. Using the Cooks Illustrated technique for stock takes only an hour or so, and makes the house smell wonderful. A great little project for a wintery Sunday afternoon.

I borrowed The 150 Best American Recipes (the best of the best) from the library, and immediately found half a dozen recipes to try.

The fabulous Cincinnati Public Library makes it very easy to find and request books and music, so I'll never have to buy a cookbook without checking it out first. Sometimes a book will sound great, or have a mouthwatering cover, but then turn out to have nothing new, have dubious techniques, or recipes that try to combine too many conflicting flavors.

Carole Peck is a renowned chef/restaurant owner in Woodbury, CT, but I didn't particularly enjoy her food -- yes, it was beautifully prepared, fresh, and as local as possible -- but I found it impossible to put together a meal there; we tried twice, then never went back. It seemed like every single appetizer, entree, side, and dessert was loaded with at least half a dozen Asian and Mexican herbs and spices. The menu felt like the culinary equivalent of the Tower of Babel. Delicious elements, but kind of a mess when you throw them together. I don't want ginger and cilantro on everything, just one thing. And in the case of cilantro, only on alternate Tuesdays. I enjoy it when I have it, but that's rarely.

The Best American Recipes series caters to my prejudices -- the recipes are designed for home cooks, not professional chefs; they're tested rigorously; and they're pretty easy to prepare, with excellent instructions. Some are more complicated than others, I suppose, but nothing seems onerous. Although not very difficult, the recipes are loaded with flavor.

Last night, I made Chicken Fricasee with Lemon, Saffron, and Green Olives, which was heavenly -- complex flavors in a light sauce finished with some heavy cream. I made mashed Yukon Gold potatoes to serve as a bed for the veggies and chicken, but a nice crusty bread would also be tasty -- you definitely want to sop up that cream sauce. I served the dish in shallow soup bowls, to make spooning easier.

After my kvetching about Carole Peck, this ingredient list is going to sound long -- but there's no dissonance, just a bright note or two. Of course, I omitted two ingredients because I didn't have them -- no preserved lemons, just ordinary ones, and no cilantro, because I just don't keep it in the fridge -- I used Italian parsley instead. And Ed limited his olive intake -- I love the salty burst with just a touch of bitterness, so I enjoyed them.

Chicken Fricasee with lemon, saffron, and green olives
From The 150 Best American Recipes

1 - 3 1/2lb chicken, cut in 8 pieces
coarse salt and fresh black pepper
1/4 c olive oil (I used a lot less)
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1 large onion, diced
1 rib celery, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 c dry white wine
1/2 c chicken stock
2 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped. [I used what was left of a can of crushed tomatoes from another recipe, which made the sauce a lovely orange color]
2 ounces pitted green olives (1/4 c)
1 tablespoon freshly crushed coriander seeds
1-2 large pinches of saffron
juice of one lemon
3/4 c heavy cream [I used less]
1 preserved lemon, quartered and sliced; or a small fresh lemon, not peeled, thinly sliced
1 bunch fresh cilantro, leaves only, chopped [I used Italian parsley]

Serves 4

(My instructions are briefer than the book's)

Season the chicken with salt and pepper and sauté in oil over medium-high heat, browning on all sides. Add carrots, onion, celery, and garlic and sauté until vegs are limp but not browned. Add wine and bring to a boil. Add the chicken broth, tomatoes, olives, coriander seed, saffron (and lemon slices if using fresh) amd return to a boil.

Cover tightly, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for about 45 minutes, or until chicken is tender.

Transfer chicken to a serving platter and keep warm. Increase heat to medium-high, add lemon juice, and scrape up any fond on the bottom. Add the cream and preserved lemon slices and boil until sauce is reduced by high or until lightly thickened. Season with salt and pepper to taste, pour over chicken, scatter cilantro over top and serve immediately.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Whole Grain Muffins

Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan.

Dorie Greenspan has written many cookbooks with famous names in the world of food, but I think this is her first just for herself. As the title implies, the book is about her favorite recipes, the ones she makes for herself, family, and friends. Breakfast sweets, cookies, cakes, pies, tarts, and "spoon desserts" -- puddings, crisps, and such.

Each recipe has a little intro about its uses, its history, or cooking tips. The directions are very detailed -- I think this would be a great book for a new cook interested in learning how to bake.

We tried Tartest Lemon Tart for Thanksgiving (you grind up one and a half lemons in a blender with eggs, sugar, etc) for a tart with a jelly-like filling, very different from the usual lemon meringue. Excellent.

This week, I browsed the breakfast section, looking for ideas for the holidays. Instead, I made something much simpler. The Great Grains Muffins have only 1/3 c cornmeal (I used a coarse, stone-ground variety), yet the cornmeal shines through, in the slightly sandy texture, and even the look of the muffin tops. These are not icky-sweet -- the maple syrup comes across more as a fragrance than a taste. I had dried apricots on hand, so I diced them up -- actually, cut them with kitchen scissors -- much easier than using a knife to cut sticky dried fruit. Each chewy apricot bite really shone with sweetness against the hearty muffin.

Great Grains Muffins
1 c all-purpose flour
1/3 c whole wheat flour
1/3 c yellow cornmeal
1/3 c old-fashioned oats
1/4 c sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/3 c maple syrup
2 large eggs
1 stick (8 tbsp) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3/4 c quartered moist dried prunes or other dried fruits and/or chopped nuts.

Dorie Greenspan gives extensive, detailed directions -- boiled down here.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Butter or spray 12 cups of regular-size muffin pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together all dry ingredients. In separate bowl, whisk together all wet ingredients. Pour liquid into dry and gently stir just to blend; batter will be lumpy; don't overmix. Stir in dried fruit and nuts, if using.

Divide among muffin cups and bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until tops are golden and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool on rack for 5 minutes, then remove muffins and place on rack to cool.