Here's something simple based on a recipe in Gourmet mag this month.

1 large or 2 med zucchini
1.5 lbs boneless chicken breast (skinless or skin on)
1 T olive oil
2 garlic cloves
1/4 C white wine or vermouth
1/4 C water

  1. Trim ends of zucchini and slice into paper thin slices - 1/16 to 1/8 inch thick. They'll look like wide ribbons. If you have an adjustable blade slicer, this will take about 30 seconds. If not, try a cheese slicer. Last resort - very carefully slice with a large chef's knife. Trim one long edge to make a long flat surface. Place flat end down on cutting board. Trim the skin from each side, then cut long slices down the length of the zucchini.
  2. Place zucchini strips into a large bowl.
  3. Cut each chicken breast crosswise into thirds. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken and saute 12-16 minutes, turning. Keep heat high enough to allow the chicken to brown.
  4. Remove chicken pieces and cut each in half and immediately place in bowl with zucchini. Gently toss together. Note: if chicken not cooked through fully, return to pan for another minute, placing cut side down. Add garlic to pan keeping heat med-high. Stir for 1 min to soften garlic.
  5. Add wine and scrape bottom of pan to pick up any remaining browned chicken bits. Add water an continue to reduce. When liquid is reduced to about 1/4 C, pour sauce over chicken and zucchini. Season with addtional salt and pepper if desired.

Why this recipe is good:

  • Heart healthy. Just chicken breast and zucchini with a few simple flavors and only 1 T of oil.
  • Simple technique - a pan sauce made in this manner is surprisingly flavorful.
  • Unique look of zucchini - the ribbons make for a dramatic presentation.
  • Not cooking the zucchini - the heat from the chicken and small amount of sauce is all that's needed to wilt the zucchini. Raw or overcoked zucchini will kill a dish and this approach is easy and effective.

Improvements from the original recipe:

  • Called for just water to make the pan sauce. Wine or vermouth will improve the flavor considerably.
  • Cutting chicken pieces after cooking. 1/3 of a chicken breast is an awkward size. Cutting in half again allows you to check for doneness and also creates more warm pieces to distribute among the zucchini, improving the wilting action.

Grilled Octopus....or "Why would you do that???"

At our crawfish boil last weekend I felt extra pressure having a few born and bred Southerners join us. And while it did result in having more than one rig to cook with, I was a little disappointed that the boil was far less spicy than it should have been......which was a nod to the Northern newcomers in attendance.

What attracted the most attention was the grillled octupus. When Lynn saw it on the grill she was a little unsettled, and asked "Why would you evah do thaaat?". Cracked me up, she did. Everyone seemed intrigued and the people who were familier with grilled cephalopods were excited at the prospect.

Unfortunately, I fell prey to the cardinal sin of grilling squid and octopi, I got distracted and let them over cook. Dogs, dogs, dogs. Well, at least the marinade was tasty. Here's the recipe

  • 2-3 whole octopus, thawed (as they are usually sold frozen)

  • 1 lemon, sliced into 1/4" thick slices

  • 1T black peppercorns

  • 1 T kosher salt

  • 1/2 C olive oil

  • fresh oregano (dried will suffice if necessary

  • 2T red wine vinegar

  • 1/4 C rice wine vinegar, unseasoned

Trim the octupus so that about 1" of the head (bulb) is removed, then cut about 1" lower than that cut, being sure to keep all legs intact.

Place octopus in medium pot and cover with water by about an inch or two. Add lemon, 1 T black peppercorms, 1 T kosher salt. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes.

Rinse ooctopus under cold water, then scrap dark purple skin off body and legs as best you can. It will not come all off (and make a mess under your fingernails).

Whisk remaining ingredients then combine with cooled octopus in a ziplock bag. Press out air and let marinate overnight or 24 hours.

Reserve marinate. Over high heat, grill octopus 8-10 minutes, until slightly charred. Do not over cook. Cover with reserved marinade.

Sichuan Dipping Sauce for Dumplings.....or anything!!

Using some authentic Sichuan ingredients, this sauce is reminiscent of the side dish of spicy sauce served with Sichuan Hot Pot. It also is a far step above the typical pot-sticker sauce and side dish of spicy oil served at most American style Chinese restaurants.

1 T Chili Bean Paste, preferably a Sichuanese brand found in Chinese markets
1 T Sichuan Green Chili Oil
1/2 Sesame oil
1 T Shaoxing Rice Wine or Sherry
2 t scallions, green and white parts, finely choppped
2 t ginger, finely chopped
2-3 T soy sauce

Combine all ingredients. Sauce holds for approximately 2 weeks refrigerated.

White Chili - Turkey, Chicken, Garbonzo and Barley

I've been making white chili for about 15 years or so now. The original recipe came from a Gourmet Magazine "You Asked for It" request. It got transferred onto a little scrap of paper that I used to use to have a concise version of recipes, so I could line up five or six of them at a time while cooking. Over the years it got crumpled, stained and waterlogged - and now it's time to transfer the recipe, in my own variation, to the blog so it can be more safely preserved. Here's the original scrap.

We last made this on New Year's Day, served with fresh bread, of course. Here's my version of the recipe, which is very close to the original, updated to highlight a couple key flavors.

White Chili with Barley and Garbanzo Beans
1 1/2 - 2C Onion, chopped (1 large)
2 T Garlic, chopped
2 T Olive oil
2 lb boneless chicken thighs, chopped into 1/2 to 3/4 inch pieces
2 T cumin
1 lb ground turkey

1-2 Jalapeno's, seeds removed, finely chopped
1 C Barley
2 - 1 lb cans of garbanzo beans (aka chick peas), drained and rinse in a sieve
6 C Chicken or Turkey stock. A rich homemade stock is very beneficial in this recipe
2 t marjoram
1 t savory
Salt and white pepper to taste
2 T Arrowroot or cornstarch
1/2 C water

3-5 Scallions, chopped
1 C Monterrey Jack, grated
Fresh Bread

  1. In a large dutch oven or stock pot, soften onion and garlic over medium heat, approximately 5 minutes
  2. Saute chicken thighs over medium high heat until cooked through. Remove chicken and vegetables. Drain excess fat if necessary.
  3. Saute ground turkey with cumin until cooked through. If necessary, drain excess fat.
  4. Return chicken and vegetables to pot.
  5. Add jalapeno's, barley, beans, stock and herbs. Bring to a boil and simmer 45 minutes.
  6. Combine starch and water in a small bowl. Add to pot and simmer 5 minutes to thicken. Adjust S&P.
  7. Serve piping hot in bowls, topped with scallions and cheese and a chunk of fresh bread.

What makes this recipe work?

First - it's not just turkey or chicken in a traditional chili configuration. Rather, it is truly a white and yellow dish, with flecks of green from herbs and jalapeno. It's in the chili family, but is a standalone, unique entry into the chili category.

Next, it's not spicy or sharp tasting. Though there is jalapeno (quantity to your taste, of course), and a little bit of cumin, again, it departs from traditional chili flavorings. The tiny amount of herb and the important contribution from a good, preferably homemade, stock is what imparts a unique flavor.

Third, the interesting combination of barley and garbanzo beans. There are not a lot of barley based dishes out there, especially ones that are not an ethnic staple of some sort. Though, I do have a wonderful recipe that includes milk-roasted corn, barley and leek, topped with shrimp. I'll have to pull that one out again soon - it's great.

Finally, like any good chili, it is both very filling and improves with age. The dish is slightly improved on day two, and we often make a batch and a half, or double batch to ensure plenty of leftovers. It also freezes relatively well, but needs an extra shot of pepper and herb if frozen.


Appetizer Throw Down

While our simple, family-only New Years celebration started with modest goals, it began to get out of hand when we devised the Appetizer Throw Down. Rather than a Bobby Flay style competition of chef against chef, our throwdown was conceived as appetizer against appetizer. Over the course of New Years Eve and New Years Day (and even beyond as it turned out), we would use a family panel to judge 6 appetizers that ranged from simple to fancy - with both adults and kids doing the judging.

The throwdown menu was composed in order of fanciness:
Round one got off to a start with the first three items - and you'll notice the kid friendliness. The judging criteria were:
  1. Presentation: 1 to 3 points
  2. Taste: 1 to 5 points
  3. Would you like to eat more? 0 or 3 points
  4. Should we make it again? 0 or 3 points
Well, the key to round one was presentation. I put the three cheeses on a marble cheese board and then stick a cheese knife vertically into the center wedge of cheese. As it turned out, that was the difference between winning an losing - a dangerous looking knife in prominent display. The problem was that the kids all wanted to keep stabbing cheese in a dramatic way. While French Onion Dip was a clear favorite over Cheddar Horseradish Dip, the cheese stood alone - eventually impaled with not one but two cheese knives.

Oh - the cheddar dip is very good - different from most other dips, since the base is shredded radish. Even radish lovers wouldn't know it's in there, since the horseradish is the dominant flavor. It's got a summertime feel and reminds me of a sophisticated version of pimento cheese.

Round two involved the Puffs we had at Christmas dinner, the family favorite Bacon and Corn Gougeres which we've been making for about a year now, and a purely Mom and Dad appetizer of tapenade with Goat Cheese. The six appetizers were too much, so we used New Years Day and the following few days to taste the rest, with the pretty much expected result of Gougeres winning out. However, that was only because the kids outnumbered the adults.

The Goat Cheese Tartines with Tapenade were the best of the bunch, and are quite easy to make. Note that I used less goat cheese than shown in this picture, since if you have decent goat cheese, you don't need that huge portion.

One thing to be sure to do is make your own tapenade. It takes nothing more than a couple minutes with a food processor, and will be far more economical and WAY better tasting than a jarred commercial tapenade. I used this recipe from Wolfgang Puck that was made exceptional by the well balanced proportion of black to green olive, judicious amount of capers and anchovy, and most importantly fresh herbs. Fresh oregano, a greatly underused but easy to grow herb is present again. This tapenade is a definite keeper and will become a background staple going forward.

New Years Feast - Lobster Thermidor, Pasta with Monkfish and Zucchini

Well - the downscaling continued a bit at New Years. Well, at first it did. NY Eve dinner was somewhat straightforward, mostly by keeping the number of dishes small. Again, at first. Once we hit upon the Appetizer Throw Down, things started getting a bit more involved. More on the throwdown in the next post.

New Years Eve Dinner
Lobster thermidor is a classic dish from another era, and as stated by the Gourmet editors, it's surprising how good it remains. Of course it follows the rule of excess butter and cream: how can it be bad with that much butter and cream? Actually, it's not even those ingredients that are the secret - nor is it even the lobster. An effective quantity of reduced sherry is what adds the intense flavor to this rich blend of lobster and dairy. Finished under a broiler to add slightly browned top and it can't fail.

Though the flavors can't fail, there are technique aspects that can. I wasn't pleased with the consistency of my butter/cream sauce, so turned up the heat to let it reduce a bit. Turning my back to work on other dishes, I let it simmer too long and the cream sauce broke. By that,
I mean that it broke down from a creamy sauce to a buttery/oily sauce. Now this could be a disaster if the consistency of the dish were paramount - but fortunately this is not the case here. Simply filling the lobster shells with the resulting mixture still lead to a luxurious and still rich blend of lobster and sauce flavoring.

Given the richness of this dish, there was more than we could eat, and even the leftovers lasted for a while. Tossed over pasta or rice it was great. Also a little bit at room temp spread onto a cracker turned into a nice instant appetizer.

The pasta with monkfish, thyme and zuchhini turned out to be more than I had expected. More as in "more better", not more work. This recipe is now about the 5t
h or 6th straight hit dish from the Molto Italiano cookbook. It requires a tomato sauce to also be made, but that too was an outright success. Here's why:

When I started cooking seriously right after college, one of the things I was trying to grow past was "college student tomato sauce". By that I mean a simple saute of onion, cans of tomato sauce/paste/tomatoes with dried basil and oregano added. From there I graduated to sauces made with fresh herbs, whole peeled fresh tomatoes, some simmered for hours (the Italian-American kitchen stereotype). In fact, over 25 years I've made all manner of sauces. Rarely are the complex and long simmering ones really that much better than a sauce made simply with high quality ingredients. I know I've made several from Cooks Illustrated that were very good.

However, the Batali Basic Tomato Sauce was successful on all fronts. It had few ing
redients, little technique, little babysitting, and MAXIMUM flavor. He calls for whole canned tomatoes. A well known fact is that canned tomatoes imported from San Marzano near Naples are generally a superior product for tomato sauces. In fact, they're close to the quality of fresh grocery store quality Roma tomatoes, without the hassle of peeling. I've been using this one, branded as San Marzano, for many years with good success. Sorry to see that an online specialty site is selling them at $5.50 for a 28 oz can, as I get them for about $2.75 in a local grocery store.

Back to the recipe. Simply saute onion, fresh thyme then two cans of tomatoes. Then simmer down to a thick sauce. I was sceptical that it would thicken appropriately without assistance. Not a problem. The thyme gave it all the flavor it needed.I broke the whole tomatoes in half while cooking so they would release their juices.

Added to the monkfish and zuchini the sauce was superb. Once spread through the whole pound of pasta, it was not the typical thick coating (picture jarred sauce - yuck) - but more a thin sheen of tomato everywhere, with large chunks of tomato halves interspersed throughout. Wonderful.

The simplicity of the sauce and the finished dish were impressive, as was the taste. Many layers of flavor from very few ingredients. I have to admit, I've become quite impressed with Mr. Food Network Star Batali, and look forward to cooking and eating my way through more of his creations.

2008 Christmas Menu

At the request of Ms. Finn, the Christmas menu was downscaled. Totally appropriate after the blowout Thanksgiving and lots of other great holiday meals. I did try a few new recipes, with a couple being keepers, and one not to bother with again.

Let's start with the bad news. The dinner roll recipe is far too much labor for an adequate result. Since this menu was essentially pretty simple (I know, it doesn't look simple - but the quantities were small since it was just our family, and some things are easier than they look)....anyway, I was willing to invest some time in a pretty complex technique for dinner rolls. Not only were there multple kneading steps, but there were multiple cooking steps. The rolls were first baked in a cake pan, then broken apart and baked at a different temperature on a sheet pan. I was expecting something really sublime - like the crusty exterior and delicate interior promised in the recipe. But no luck. The rolls were ordinary and the preparation process was anything but. So no go on this one.

The Pork Roast is a variation of a Gourmet recipe from this December's issue. Instead of a straight roast, I use a crown cut, which really just means it was trimmed in order to be tied into a circle for impressive presentation. Here's picture prior to cooking.

This recipe is quite nice - a blend of apricots, prunes and granny smith apples is combined with shallot, onion and port, then stuffed into a cavity in the center of the roast. A port / shallot reduction becomes the sauce, which would be better thickened in another manner than cornstarch. But very nice nonetheless, and a GREAT presentation. In the first picture above, you'll see the circle of stuffed fruit in the middle of the chop.

The parmesan puff appetizer is totally simple and delicious. The only downside is the mess (and hassle) of dee
p frying. I used a very shallow depth of oil in a pretty small pan to reduce the amount of oil. The only way I committed to frying was that I used the same oil for frying shallots for the Brussels sprouts dish. Unless I kept a mini deep fryer around, I don't have much desire to fry. But if you've got oil going, this is a good recipe to add to a menu.

Wild rice and mushrooms were standard - roast mushrooms in high heat with garlic and oil, added them to wild rice cooked with sauteed onion, thyme and chicken stock. Solid complement to this menu, as were the simple green beans to please the kids (few sprouts eaten by the younger crown in this house). It's a risk to add herbs and lemon zest, but sometimes I can get away with it at a holiday meal.

The Brussels Sprouts and Wild Mushrooms recipe is totally awesome - and simple if you skip the fried shallots. I didn't think they were worth the extra effort, and will continue to simply roast shallot slices with the sprouts or mushrooms. Instead of sauteing the mushrooms separately, I also roast them in the oven, separately from the sprouts but same technique. Toss with thyme and finish with some butter. To match the recipe, a quick saute of shallot, reduced white wine and thyme could be tossed to finish this dish.

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