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Sunday Suppers: Moroccan-Spiced Braised Chicken

We launched our Sunday Suppers tradition last weekend with an absolutely delicious braised chicken dish from none other than “Sunday Suppers at Lucques” by Suzanne Goin. Granted it was prepared and served on a Monday, not Sunday, but it was a holiday. Still counts, right? Dear friends joined us for the meal and it was beloved by all, including the little ones.

I loved this recipe for so many reasons and wanted to share it with all of you. First of all, for a restaurant-quality main course, it was surprisingly low-key to make at home. This adapted recipe will hopefully smooth out the kinks I experienced and make it even simpler.

Second, no one can argue with the ease of braising – provided you have a large ovenproof pot and a bit of time, you are guaranteed to end up with a tender, deliciously moist result, especially if you use legs and thighs. Our family is slowly learning to love dark meat, and this recipe is sure to become a standard in the repertoire.

More importantly, thighs and legs are the most affordable cuts of chicken, especially when compared to boneless/skinless breasts. This makes buying organic or sustainably-produced options that much easier. Here is more information on why it is so important to buy sustainably-produced chicken and how to do so without breaking the budget.

I served the chicken alongside the Italian couscous suggested in the original recipe, which was an interesting but not beloved choice. I would stick with a regular cous cous, which will be a perfect compliment to the Moroccan-inspired flavors. Add a vegetable side dish (I made a chicory salad with fennel, toasted almonds and satsuma slices) and you’re all set.

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My Favorite Food Books of 2011

Life has been a whirlwind the past few weeks since Thanksgiving, filled with traveling spouses, busy weeks at schools, and wonky injured lower backs. I would love to share with all of you details of my experiences learning how to make delicious challah from scratch, and how my kids reacted to roasted pumpkin Thai curry I decided to try out in the midst of the madness. But that wonky lower back is still with me, and time in front of the computer is scarce this week. So instead, in the spirit of the holidays when we all tend to cook/bake more, as well as wrack our brains for those perfect gifts, I though I’d share my favorite food book acquisitions from this year.* I hope this provides inspiration on various fronts.

Happy days to all of you!

Lena

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Bi-Rite’s Eat Good Food: Chicken Soup with Fennel, Chickpeas and Kale

San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Market, opened in its current incarnation in 1997, is one of the most thoughtful and enjoyable grocery stores in the Bay Area, and my hands-down favorite for shopping and browsing. Bi-Rite’s new book, Eat Good Food, is an accessible, concise and beautifully photographed primer for the home cook. It provides well-curated and informative recommendations on how to create a sustainable, healthy kitchen, with recipes to inspire. It is a perfect extension of Bi-Rite’s foundational philosophy: creating community through food.

This is a grocery store that prides itself on operating like a restaurant, made evident by its attention to detail when it comes to food and service. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the emphasis throughout this book is on how quality and simplicity of ingredients make for better home cooking. But the book, and the market, take things a step further, piecing together stories that illustrate the importance of how food is produced, and how to prioritize practices and farmers that create a healthier food system.

Focusing on themes like “How to Use,”How to Store,” and “How to Buy,”  the book’s chapters are organized much like any market you would encounter: the deli case, the produce department, dry goods. I imagine this book serving as my go-to for remembering which type of flour works best for what purpose, the difference between salt-packed and oil-packed anchovies (remember how much I love anchovies?) and how to make informed food choices in any grocery store. The recipes, interspersed throughout the chapters, are inviting, diverse, seasonally inspired, and for the most part, simple enough for any home chef to tackle.

I selected one of the Winter recipes to try because it is a creative version of a family staple: chicken soup. It also reminded me to step out of our usual routine and try something new. My plan was to start with a familiar food, a sure thing, and take it up a notch by adding unexpected ingredients. Worst case, I assumed they would pull out the additions and stick with the basics. But it turned out to be a best case sort of evening: this soup was a total hit!

Preparation

Adapted from Bi-Rite Market’s Eat Good Food

Prep time: 10-15 minutes

Total time: 35-45 minutes

  • 1/2 bunch of kale (or chard, spinach, escarole, etc), ends removed and thinly sliced into ribbons
  • 1 medium head of fennel, thinly sliced
  • 3-4 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 8 cups of chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 cups diced cooked chicken or as desired
  • 1/2 – 1 cup diced carrots (and/or celery)
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas
  • 2-3 teaspoons fresh herbs if on hand: parsley or marjoram are great options
  • 1 lemon
  • Optional: Several handfuls of croutons, 1 -2 cups cooked brown rice, etc.

Note: The vegetable amounts listed here are meant to be recommendations. Feel free to adjust proportions based on what you have on hand and personal preference.

Using a 4-5 quart Dutch oven or similar pot, heat 1-2 tbsp. olive oil and saute fennel for 2-3 minutes. Add garlic, then washed and thinly sliced kale. Cover and cook the kale-fennel mixture, stirring occasionally, until the kale softens, about 5 minutes. Add diced carrots, bay leaf, herbs and broth, adjust heat to medium-high and bring to a gentle boil. Once at a boil, turn down the heat to allow the soup to simmer for 25-30 minutes until the kale is tender and wilted. A few minutes before the soup is done, add in the cooked chicken and garbanzo beans to warm up. Remove from heat, then add in a squeeze of lemon juice if desired, along with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve as is or throw in some croutons, rice or pasta for a heartier version. Don’t forget to save some leftovers for lunch!

Done, at last!

Roasted Cauliflower with Capers and Anchovies

Yes, that says anchovies. Don’t stop reading! They are the “secret ingredient” in this dish, one that elevates something very simple to another level. But more on that in a minute.

Cold weather began in earnest about a week ago, and my trusty oven has been operating in full force ever since. Roasting is my cooking process of choice this time of year, especially on rushed weekday evenings. Part of the attraction is that its relatively passive, leaving hands and minds free for dealing with stovetop cooking, squeaky kids, and other urgent matters. The other great benefit of roasting is that it can transform even the most humble vegetable – cauliflower a perfect case in point – into something sweeter, more flavorful, and tender.

This recipe is one of our family’s favorite cauliflower preparations. The girls love olives and capers (anything pickled actually) so I always overload one or the other into the roasting pan. The anchovies completely disappear in the roasting process, leaving behind tons of tangy flavor, nothing fishy. Throw in garlic too if you like. My goal is to also integrate dried chilies in the future, but I’m not sure how Talia will feel about that. This also makes for an excellent and easy Thanksgiving side dish.

Now if only I could rig a way to remotely preheat the oven so its ready exactly when I need it….

Preparation

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 40-50 minutes, depending on oven

Serves 4-6

Preheat oven to 425°.

Starting with two medium-sized cauliflower heads (preferably a mix of white, orange and/or purple), wash and cut the florets into bite-sized pieces. Spin or toss to dry a bit, then place into a roasting pan of choice. One hint here: in my oven, it will certainly take longer to cook this dish in a ceramic pan, as opposed to a baking sheet with parchment paper. So opt for the latter if you are in a rush.

Toss cauliflower pieces with a generous amount of olive oil, 1-3 tbsp. rinsed capers (amount based on personal preference), a head of garlic with the cloves separated (optional), a small handful of crumpled, dried chilies (optional), and 4-6 anchovy fillets torn into small bits.

Season generously with pepper before putting it in the oven but hold off on the salt until the vegetables are done. The anchovies inherently add a lot of salt.

Roast for 30-40 minutes, until caramelized and tender to the bite.

Ready for roasting!

Done, at last!

If you're feeling purple...

Note: If you prefer faster cooking time in exchange for a little more clean up, steam the cauliflower florets until they are just tender. This will cut the roasting time by at least 10 minutes if not longer (oven dependent).

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Birthday Request: Spaghetti and Meatballs

It all seemed very reasonable. Spaghetti and meatballs for a Tuesday night birthday dinner.  One hour is all it takes to whip up the tastiest version of this dish and yet this hour was not to be had on May 31st when Talia turned 4. Facing a choice between a birthday meltdown over the cancellation of expected plans, or alternatively, serving dinner an hour late to a “hangry” preschooler, I opted for the latter. The risk was well worth it! Meatballs couldn’t be served fast enough. Spaghetti was slithering all over the table, the floor, the shirt, on its way to the mouth. But the entire affair was sufficiently celebratory despite the inauspicious start to the afternoon.

Preparation

Adapted from Chez Panisse Café Cookbook

Serves 6

Cooking time: 1 hour

(The sauce with cooked meatballs freezes nicely – double the recipe and have some on hand for a quick evening meal).

1. Take 1/4 cup of milk and add 1/4 cup of soft bread crumbs (I used half a slice of whole wheat bread and run it quickly through a small food processor) and mix gently. Soak until bread has softened, the drain through fine sieve, squeezing out most of the milk.

2. Sauteé 1 finely diced small yellow onion in olive oil until soft, about 5 minutes, in large pan (which you will also use to cook meatballs). Season with a bit of salt and set aside to cool.

3. In a medium-sized bowl, combine: 1 pound of fresh ground beef, bread crumbs, onion, 3 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese,1 beaten egg, 2 tbsp finely chopped parsley, 1 tsp finely chopped thyme, 1/8 tsp cayenne (the mild heat from the cayenne won’t be an issue for kids but adds great flavor), black pepper to taste, and 1 tsp salt (use a bit more if working with kosher salt).

4. Sauteé 1 thinly sliced red onion in large pan until soft, about 5 minutes.

5. Boil water for spaghetti. Don’t forget to add a generous helping of salt to water once it comes to a boil.

4. Mix ingredients gently but thoroughly until beef reaches an even consistency. Shape mixture into walnut sized balls with wet hands – this is a great kid task! If cooking meatballs immediately, add to pan with onions over medium heat. The uncooked meatballs can also be placed on a plate or baking sheet and refrigerated for a few hours before cooking.

5. Add spaghetti to boiling, salted water. It is should cook in 8-10 minutes, about the time it takes for the meatballs to finish cooking.

6. Cook meatballs with the red onion, over medium heat, shaking the pan to prevent sticking. Gently turn and toss the onions and meatballs so they brown slightly. Add 2-3 cloves chopped garlic and cook for a few seconds, making sure it doesn’t burn.

7. Add 2 cups simple tomato sauce (look for one in a glass jar with few ingredients – tomatoes, onion, garlic, olive oil, basil perhaps), 1/2 tsp fresh (1 tsp dried) chopped oregano, 2 tbsp finely chopped parsley to sauce. Season with salt and pepper.

8. Simmer gently, uncovered, occasionally stirring the meatballs to coat them with sauce. Check for doneness in about 8-10 minutes.

Serve with grated Parmesan cheese and hot chili flakes if desired (and don’t forget the birthday cake!).


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Tis the Season: Matzo Ball Soup


Matzo ball soup is ALWAYS, without question, a huge hit in our family. Ava happened to eat three bowls worth as a first course at our Seder this week – a certain record for one whose eating habits typically resemble a small bird. Why I don’t make this more often, why save such a simple and delicious meal for Passover? I have no answer but I committing myself to make more of an effort to integrate it into the soup rotation over the next few months. After all, during a cold San Francisco summer, who wouldn’t appreciate chicken soup?

I’ll be the first to admit that there are endless variations to the basic matzo ball technique – and now that the store mixes have eliminated MSG from the ingredient list, they seem like a good option. But I happen to be partial to the version published about 5 years ago. Leave it to Martha Stewart to solve the fluffy matzo ball dilemma! Her secret? You may be able to spot it in these photos: separating egg whites and yolks, then whipping egg white and folding them gently into the mix.

I also used this as an opportunity to make a huge pot of chicken stock to freeze in batches – this time, working with raw wings, thighs and legs rather than starting with a roasted carcass. This creates a lighter broth which compliments the heft of the matzoh balls, but any stock will work, even vegetable.

Preparation

Adapted from Martha Stewart Living circa mid-2000′s

Serves 10

  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • ¼ cup chicken fat, melted (or substitute vegetable oil)
  • 12 ½ cups chicken stock
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons coarse salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 1 cup matzoh meal
  • ¼ cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • coarsely chopped fresh dill for garnish (I added chives as well)

Whisk yolks, fat, 1/2 cup stock and salt in a medium bowl. Season with pepper. Stir in matzo meal and parsley.

Transformation of a humble ingredient

Beat egg whites in a mixer on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form. Add matzo mixture, whisk until smooth. Refrigerate until slightly thickened, about 30 minutes.


Bring remaining stock to a boil in a large pot. Form 1 1/2 inch balls with wet hands and add to stock. Reduce heat. Cover and simmer matzo balls until they are slightly firm and cooked through, about 15 minutes. Garnish soup with dill.



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Homemade Burgers with Sweet Potato Fries

Who knew that burgers and fries are almost as easy to make at home as they are to eat out? This simple and delicious dinner only made it into our repertoire last year, when Ava suddenly decided she was cool with meat prepared this way. Once I realized that you can pull this together in 30 minutes flat, I would regularly stock the freezer with grassfed ground beef from the farmers’ market, which comes conveniently Cryo-Vac’d in 1 pound packages. Pull the meat out in the morning and its perfectly defrosted by dinner time. Pair the burger with baked sweet potato fries, regular potatoes, a vegetable, a salad, etc. I rarely bother to make real french fries but have tried on occasion (though the 30 minute meal factor gets thrown out the window anytime deep frying is involved).

We are still struggling with finding the right bun because no matter what we’ve tried so far, whether its sliced ciabatta, baguette, smaller whole grain buns, etc.,. the kids leave half uneaten (yet insist on the complete burger of course). Our local burger joint has these perfectly spongy versions that I wish were available for purchase. I suppose I could try making my own but that is beyond the scope of my life at this very moment!

Preparation

Serves 4

  • 1 – 1 1/2 lbs grassfed ground beef
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 buns
  • 2 large sweet potatoes
  • Good olive oil
  • chopped parsley for garnish

Burger

Heat an outdoor or indoor grill on high. Salt and pepper the ground beef generously with kosher salt, gently mixing it. Careful not to overwork the meat when mixing or shaping the burger – according to many sources, this is the key to tasty burgers. Gently shape the ground beef into appropriately sized patties and make a thumbprint in the middle.

This allows the burgers to end up flat after cooking as opposed to rounded, since they plump when they cook.  Cook on high heat for about 3-4 minutes per side for medium (adjust depending on preference). Sprinkle cooked burgers with salt and pepper to finish. Toast buns on the warm grill and serve.

Sweet Potatoes

Preheat oven to 400°. Slice the sweet potatoes in half cross-wise, then create about 1/4 inch think lengthwise slices. Finally, cut sticks out of the slices. Place on parchment or Silpat-lined baking pan, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and bake for about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with finely chopped parsley as garnish, if desired.

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Pasta with Ragú Bolognese

Now that our most welcome February spring has yielded to a round of huge rainstorms, its time to start cooking comfort food again. And no comfort food is more welcome in our home than pasta with ragú Bolognese (also known as noodles with meat sauce for the younger set).  What separates this dish from a more typical (and admittedly quicker) meat sauce is time. It takes at least 1.5 – 2 hours to prepare, due to the slow cooking process which yields an incredibly delicious result. This is not the dish to start at 5PM on a weeknight. However, make a large batch on a weekend and you’ll never regret it. The ragú freezes beautifully, lending itself to easy weeknight cooking when all you have to do is defrost, make some pasta and veggies and indulge. Because the sauce is so versatile, you could also make lasagna with it, serve over polenta and vegetables, or other grains.

Before I delve into specifics, I will admit that there are hundreds, even thousands of variations and approaches to this classic Italian sauce. Feel free to search for more options or amalgamate a few, as I do here. You’ll likely find that the basic ingredients and techniques are similar but the nuances do vary.

One additional note: Though I could not find a written recipe for this Wine Spectator video of Mario Batali making Bolognese sauce, it is really helpful in terms of technique. He breaks down the basics beautifully.

Preparation

Inspired by recipes from the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, and Mario Batali via the Food Network

Serve 8-10

  • ½-1 cup sliced mushrooms, as available and if preferred OR 1/3 c. dried mushrooms*
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced fine
  • 2-4 ounces of diced pancetta
  • 3-4 ribs celery, diced fine
  • 2-3 carrot, diced fine
  • 1 pound ground beef or pork
  • 1 pound ground lamb or veal
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 4 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1- 1½ cups milk
  • 1 cup white wine
  • kosher salt, black pepper
  • Parmigiano-Reggianno cheese and chopped parsley for grating

If you are using dried mushrooms, soak them in boiling water for 15-20 minutes until soft, drain and reserve the liquid. Chop either soaked or fresh mushrooms finely and set aside.

Using a wide, heavy-bottomed pot (this would be a good time to bust out that Le Creuset pot if you have one. We just invested in a large one and I’m in love!), heat a few tablespoons of olive oil and add the diced pancetta. After it releases some fat, add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic and a little salty. Cook until the vegetables are translucent and soft but be sure not to brown them – about 10-15 minutes.


Add the ground meat to the vegetables, season with salt, then cook on a medium to medium-low heat to render the fat and slowly brown the meat. This will take about 45 minutes, with frequent stirring. Move around the sticky bits from the bottom of the pan, then add tomato paste, stir it together with the meat and cook, stirring often, for about 30 minutes. At this stage, the meat and tomato paste will have combined completely in a caramelized mix.

Add the milk and cook until it evaporates completely and leaves the meat silky smooth, about 5 minutes. Then add the wine and reduce on a medium heat until the alcohol is cooked off (you’’ll know when that happens by the smell). After the alcohol has cooked off, add the mushrooms, bay leaves and thyme, and cover the pan. Simmer on medium-low heat for about an hour, then season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve over pasta of your choice and enjoy!

Roast Chicken with Veggies

Favorite Roast Chicken (aka Flickin’ Chicken)

Someone once said that the greatness of a chef should be determined by the taste of their roast chicken. It could’ve been Tom Colicchio of Top Chef, during a most memorable Season Two episode when the awesome Elia seriously impressed all of the judges with her version of said main course.

My relationship with roast chicken started during the early years, with my mother’s version which tends to be moist and tender but lack the accompanying crispness that is the holy grail. I spent most of my 20’s as a social carnivore, happy to partake in all things meat and poultry when someone else makes them (especially if that someone else is an experience restaurant chef). But at some point during my first pregnancy, at a time when I generally started to feel more “adult”, I decided it was high time to tackle the roast chicken challenge. The recipe details escape me, but I distinctly recall it being a fairly low-brow affair, as good friends sat around our coffee table courteously and cautiously sampling the results. Disastrous is a strong word but I would say that this chicken was pretty darn close. I gave up for the next few years.

Then, a good friend introduced me to the ways of Zuni roast chicken. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of sampling this delectable entrée at one of SF’s most venerable restaurants, I highly recommend doing so. And if you are nowhere near SF, go ahead and try making it at home – with the panzanella salad if time permits. We gave it a go several times over the course of a year. The results were fabulous – but the lead time is 48+ hours because that is the required salting time. And these days, with two young kids and a two-career household, that level of planning is damn near impossible. So Zuni chicken was a rare treat. But by then my older daughter was hooked on what she started calling “flickin’ chicken.” Her version of finger-lickin’ perhaps, it’s a term that has landed in the family lexicon.

Flickin’ Chicken was requested almost weekly all of a sudden so I had to come up with a plan that didn’t require too much prep time, was flexible in terms of flavor and yielded delicious results of course. Enter that fateful Epicurious search for roast chicken and Thomas Keller. I know most people don’t associate Thomas Keller with simple home cooking but he delivers with Simple Roast Chicken. My slightly adapted version is included here. Feel free to add whatever herbs/stuffing you see fit. The brilliant part is that anything works with the basic technique, be it thyme, sage, lemon and rosemary or thyme/sage with mirepoix inside the cavity. But remember, the simpler the stuffing and herb combo, the better to use the cooked carcass for homemade chicken stock, which I view as a major reward for taking the time to roast my own bird.

The key to a successful execution here is a combo of proper salting (Kosher salt is my favorite for this purpose), trussing the bird, and using high heat. If I do decide to plan ahead and buy the bird in advance of cooking, I always dry it, salt it and throw it in the fridge until about 30 minutes before putting it in the oven. But this is not a must, just an extra (and a good reminder to pre-salt any chicken you make. You’d be surprised how delicious even simple grilled chicken breasts will taste if they are pre-salted for 30 minutes or an hour).

Flickin’ Chicken, adapted from Thomas Keller’s Simple Roast Chicken (2004) on Epicurious.com

Preparation

  • One 2- to 3-pound chicken, preferably sustainably raised and/or organic
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Paprika (adds a bit of color)
  • Several sprigs of thyme, sage, rosemary; lemon halves; all optional
  • 2-3 sticks of carrot and celery, ½ an onion cut into two pieces.
  • Kitchen twine

Preheat the oven to 450°F for at least 30 minutes. This is best cooked in a shallow pan – a cast iron skillet works great, as does a stainless steel sauté pan. Go ahead and set the pan in the over for about 15 minutes right before roasting as well.

Dry the chicken very well with paper towels, inside and out. A dry bird means the less it will steam. With roasting, the drier the heat, the better the result

Salt and pepper the cavity, stuff the bird with the mirepoix (the carrot and celery sticks plus onion). If you want to lift the skin over the breast and create a pocket for herbs, this is the next step. But it is optional. Use lemon or orange in the cavity if you like instead of the mirepoix. Then truss the bird (this is a KEY step). Trussing is not difficult, but YouTube always helps. When you truss a bird, the wings and legs stay close to the body; the ends of the drumsticks cover the top of the breast and keep it from drying out. Trussing helps the chicken to cook evenly, and makes for a more attractive result.


Now, salt the exterior of the chicken—a nice uniform coating will result in a crisp, salty, flavorful skin (a couple of teaspoons of Kosher salt is sufficient). When it’s cooked, you should still be able to make out the salt baked onto the crisp skin. Season to taste with pepper and sprinkle a bit of paprika over the top.

Place the chicken in a sauté pan or roasting pan that has been warming in the over (careful, it will be HOT) then put the chicken in the oven. At this point, you have the pleasure of leaving said bird alone for the 50-60 minutes it will take to roast to perfection. There is no need to baste it or slather it with butter/olive oil, which will just create the unwanted steam. If you are using a larger bird (over 3 lbs ) you may need to add 10-15 more minutes of roasting time. When it is done, remove the bird from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes or so on a cutting board. Some juices will release – feel free to baste with those. If you like, add some fresh chopped herbs and white wine to the roasting pan to deglaze and make a simple sauce.
Serve with a side dish of your choice. In our house, Flickin’ Chicken comes with a variety of sides, including mashed potatoes, roasted root vegetables, baked sweet potato fries, rice, quinoa, salad, Brussels sprouts, etc.