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Archive for March, 2010


My Roasted Chicken Phase

I’ve always known I like to eat things in phases. I remember, for instance, the first time I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at my neighbor’s house; fireworks were going off in my mouth — sweet and salty fireworks. I was only seven, maybe eight at the time, but I was convinced that I could eat pb&j’s for the rest of my life and be very happy. We didn’t have pb&j at my house. The closest thing we had was Dibis wa Tahini (دبس و طحينة), which is essentially carob molasses mixed with tahini sauce, served with warm pita bread for dunking. It was good; a less glamorous, slightly messier version of a pb&j, but still not the same. I’ll have to blog about this sometime.

I’ve gotten better about changing things up. My food blog definitely helps with this, but I still find myself cooking favorites every now and then. Lately, it’s been this chicken. It’s not just any chicken, it’s roasted chicken. Actually, it’s roasted chicken that’s been smothered in butter mixed with Herbs de Provence and it’s absolutely delicious. In fact, I don’t think it’s humanly possible to make this dish only once. It’s too good.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve made this chicken in the past month, but I own up to it: My name is Tony, and I’m addicted to this roasted chicken.

mise en place

There are only three ingredients to this recipe; five if you count the salt and pepper separately. It’s simple and that’s part of its appeal. What makes this dish taste incredible, however, is the chicken. It’s imperative, if you want fireworks to go off, that you use good quality bone-in, skin-on chicken breast. I think there’s a wide-spread illusion that boneless, skinless chicken is more convenient. It’s not. I say this because I was under that illusion for a really long time; twenty two years, to be exact. Bone-in, skin-on is tastier and just as convenient. In fact, if I didn’t have to tuck butter underneath the skin, I would claim that I could make this dish with one hand tied behind my back. On that note, let me tell you about the butter.

soft butter

Butter, as any French person will tell you, makes everything taste amazing. I use it sparingly, partly because I haven’t been blessed with the French gene to metabolize butter into thin air, but also because I’m accustomed to using extra virgin olive oil (it’s in my Middle Eastern blood). For this dish, however, butter is important. You want to use softened butter so that you can mix in Herbs de Provence to make a delectable herb cream to spread underneath the skin of each chicken breast. As the skin begins to crisp in the hot oven, the butter will continuously baste, help develop flavor and thus keep the meat incredibly moist.

quick! hide ze buttah!
ready to roast

Before the chicken goes into the oven, you want to make sure that it is seasoned well on both sides with salt and pepper, and that your oven is preheated to 450 degrees.

roasted chicken

Some people like to eat the skin because it tastes amazing, and I agree (even though it’s not the healthiest thing in the world). If I think about it too much, Pleasure and Reason appear out of nowhere and start arguing from opposite shoulders. Pleasure usually crawls over and knocks Reason around pretty badly. Reason will eventually strike back, punching Pleasure a couple times in the guts while muttering medical jargon after each blow. Eventually though, Pleasure laughs it off and knocks Reason into oblivion. That’s how it usually ends, to the delight of my cheering taste buds. To avoid this drama, I’ve come up with a compromise for myself. Out of the four chicken breasts that come in the family-size pack, I eat one piece with the skin on. I store the remaining three in the refrigerator, without the skin, for sandwiches, salads, and pasta throughout the week. This works for me, and also seems to keep Pleasure and Reason in check.

Roasted Chicken Breast

Yields 4 servings

Components

  • 4 chicken breasts, bone-in skin-on
  • 3 tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 tbsp herbs de provence
  • salt and pepper

Putting them all together

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
  2. Take out the chicken breasts from the refrigerator 10-15 minutes prior to roasting.
  3. Mix softened butter with herbs de provence and a little salt and pepper, to taste.
  4. Very gently slide your finger in between the skin of the chicken, making sure it doesn’t fall apart.
  5. Spread a quarter of the butter/herb mixture under the skin of each breast.
  6. Sprinkle the top and bottom of each breast with salt and pepper.
  7. Place the chicken breasts breast-up on a baking sheet and roast in the oven for 25-30 minutes or until the skin is crispy golden brown, and the juices run clear.

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clear juices = ready to eat

Boeuf Bourguignon: an homage to Julia Child

Do you remember the game where you get to name one person, dead or alive, to hang out with for a day? If I were to play that game right now, I would chose Julia Child, and the first thing I would tell her is thank you. Then I would hug her, if that’s allowed.

Since that’s only a game, however, I thought I’d express my gratitude to the great Julia Child in a blog post hoping that in some cosmic and mysterious way she’ll be reading from wherever she is; probably in a version of culinary paradise where she has more duck fat and copper pots than any mortal would know what to do with.

The idea for wanting to thank Julia started last week when I decided to make her recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon. It made sense. The sky had been gray for over a week, and continues to stay that way, which makes me wonder if we’ll ever reach spring, but that’s beside the point. The weather was simply an instigator in this chain of events, maybe even orchestrated by Julia herself (that would be funny). In French mathematics, you see, Boeuf Bourginioun equals classic comfort food — the wool socks of French cuisine. It’s a tough cut of meat braised in a full-bodied red wine for hours until it begins to fall apart and your entire house takes on the scent of a cozy French bistro on a rainy Friday evening.

For the record, this is the first time I’ve made anything of Julia’s. To me, this was a revelation. Her recipe was divided neatly into different sections so as to make the entire process of cooking French food appear less daunting. This is one of the things Julia was known for: she made French food accessible, if not easy. I had heard this, but was never fully convinced anyone could make something like Boeuf Bourguignon seem simple. French food, I thought, had to be complicated. I also noticed that, stylistically, Julia wrote her recipes in narrative form, and included the ingredients along the sidebar, in order of appearance. Almost as if she were directing a movie and was crediting her cast members — the mushrooms, beef, parsley — for their outstanding performance.

I remember re-reading sections of the recipe thinking that I had missed something. While the recipe did have plenty of steps, they were all fairly basic. Sear the meat; brown the vegetables. These were all things I had done before. After I read the recipe a couple more times to make sure I wasn’t going to be ambushed by a militia of French cooking terms half-way through, I started to prepare the ingredients for my mise en place shot.

mise en place

If there’s one thing I have learned from cooking, and I’m pretty sure Julia would agree, it would be the importance of mise en place, or having everything in place. I include these photos on my blog for different reasons; one of them is so that I can maintain a certain degree of order in my kitchen. It took me a while to get into this habit, but it has helped me tremendously. A less pragmatic reason for why I do mise en place is because, like Julia, I like to highlight the ingredients that I use. It’s my quirky way of crediting the ingredients that make up the dishes on my blog.

give your beef room to sear

Julia is very clear about this step: there has to be enough room for the pieces of meat to sear in the bacon fat in order to get a nice crust — otherwise the meat would steam and the dish would be ruined. This was very important, so I did it in three batches.

now it’s turn for the veggies

The onions and carrots got the same treatment: a good five to seven minutes in bacon fat. In France, bacon fat, or more accurately, pork fat called lardon, is synonymous with flavor. If you have access to lardon from a local butcher, I would go with that, otherwise, bacon seemed to do a pretty good job if you don’t mind the subtle smokey undertone that it adds to the dish. I didn’t mind one bit. Once the onions and carrots develop a golden brown color you’ll want to pour out the bacon fat.

saute the onions and mushrooms sepeartely

To make things go quicker, I sauteed pearl onions and crimini mushrooms in a separate pan. These ingredients also need room to sear so they develop a golden brown color.

cover everything in red wine

Once the meat is seared and the vegetables have been browned, you’ll want to add everything back to the original dutch oven, and submerge its contents in red-wine. The French are masters at this; make sure, however, to save at least one glass for yourself.

Boeuf Bourguignon

Although the recipe says to braise the beef for three to four hours in a low oven, I actually set my oven cook-time to four hours and went to sleep. I woke up seven hours later, fully rested, to the most heavenly smell. I’m sure Julia would’ve been proud.

In the words of the great chef herself, bon appétit!

Boeuf Bourguignon

yields approx. 6 servings

 
Recipe adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
 

Components

  • 6 oz bacon
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 lbs chuck, cut into 2-inch cubes
  • 2 carrots, sliced
  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 4 cups red wine, full-bodied young wine
  • 1-2 cups beef stock
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 1/2 tsp thyme, dried
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 18-24 small white onions
  • 1 lb mushrooms, quartered
  • 3 sprigs of thyme
  • 3 sprigs of flat leaf parsley

Putting them all together

  1. Cut the bacon into thin sticks (1/4 inch thick and 1 1/2 inches long) and simmer in water for 10 minutes. Drain and pat dry.
  2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
  3. Sauté the bacon in olive oil for a couple of minutes or until lightly browned. Set aside.
  4. Reheat the bacon fat until it is almost smoking. In the meantime, pat your cubes of beef dry so you can get a good sear.
  5. Making sure not to overcrowd the pan, sear the beef cubes on all sides, in separate batches if necessary.
  6. Brown the sliced onions and carrots in the same bacon fat and then discard the bacon fat.
  7. Peel the skins off the pearl onions. They peel relatively easily if you submerge them in boiling water for 30 seconds and then shock them in ice water. Be sure to pat the onions dry.
  8. Heat 2 tbsp of butter in a large saute pan and cook the pearl onions until golden brown, then set them aside.
  9. Add the remaining 2 tbsp of butter to the saute pan and sear the quartered mushrooms, making sure not to overcrowd the pan.
  10. Make a bouquet garni (bouquet of herbs) by tying together the sprigs of parsley and thyme together with butchers twine. This will help you fish them out in the end.
  11. Slice the head of garlic cross-wise so as to reveal the midsection of all the cloves.
  12. Return the beef, bacon, sliced onions and carrots to the pot. Sprinkle in the flour and lightly toss to distribute the flour.
  13. Set the uncovered dutch oven in the middle position of the pre-heated oven for 4 minutes. Toss the meat and return to the oven for 4 more minutes.
  14. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees F.
  15. Add the pearl onions and mushrooms, bouquet garni, sliced head of garlic, tomato paste, thyme, salt and pepper to the pot. Pour in the red wine and add enough beef stock so that all the contents in the pot are barely covered — this will prevent the meat from drying in the oven.
  16. Cover the dutch oven with a lid and return it to the oven (at the reduced temperature) to braise for 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
  17. The meat is done when you can pull it apart with a fork with very little effort.

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Food for the mind: Middle Eastern Za’atar Pizza

A couple weeks ago I saw a lot of snow; more snow than I had seen in my entire life. That doesn’t say much since I grew up in Miami, but it was a big heap of snow. Around 50 to 70 inches total, according to the Washington Post. My car was completely covered and I was snowbound for almost 10 days. It was the perfect excuse to stay in my PJs, not shave, tweet about snowmageddon, snuggle in bed with a few good books, knock movies off my Netflix queue, and cook — I kept busy.

za’atar (زعتر) from Aleppo

My pantry is usually well-stocked with boxes of pasta, cans of tomato, rice, chickpeas, Oreos and other essentials; probably enough food to last me an entire month, but I wasn’t in the mood for any of it. As much as I love Oreos dunked in cold milk, or an over-sized bowl of pasta, I was craving something different. I wanted something warm and billowy, chewy and filling. I was thinking bread. I had all the ingredients for dough and the obscenely large bag of za’atar that I had brought with me from Aleppo. With these, I was going to make manaqeesh.

If you’re Middle Eastern, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Manaqeesh (pronounced mana-eesh) is the Middle Eastern equivalent of pizza, usually eaten for breakfast, and probably one of my favorite foods of all time. This is what I grew up eating. I remember my mom used to tell my brothers and me that za’atar is food for the mind and good for your memory, so we happily ate. I’m not sure whether the za’atar lost its effects on me, but it was delicious: a combination of tangy flavors from the herbs and a warm nuttiness from the toasted sesame seeds. It’s something you have to try. While I was in Aleppo, my most memorable breakfasts included za’atar manaqeesh (مناقيش بالزعتر) or mamounieh (مأمونية), but I’ll probably talk more about the latter in a different post.

typical breakfast in Aleppo, Syria

Bakeries in the Middle East offer different types of manaqeesh. Some have cheese, others have meat. My grandmother likes ones that are topped with a slightly spicy red pepper paste. Those are good, but my favorite are the traditional manaqeesh slathered with a mix of olive oil and za’atar.

mise en place

The preparation for this dish is exquisitely simple. The dough is the same as the one I used for the spinach fatayer I blogged about a couple months back. I’ve also gotten away with using pizza dough when I’m in a bind, but the results aren’t the same as the original manaqeesh dough that uses oil and milk. If you’re pressed for time you could do what my mom often did, which is mix za’atar with extra virgin olive oil and roll it up on pita bread as an afternoon snack or sometimes as a quick breakfast whenever my brothers and I took too long to get ready for school.

za’atar + extra virgin olive oil

The word za’atar (زعتر) in Arabic literally refers to a variety of wild herbs in the same family as thyme, marjoram and oregano. What is commonly referred to as za’ater in the Levant is the spice mix made from this dried herb after it is combined with toasted sesame seeds, sumac, salt and other spices.

before baking

I never measure how much oil I add to the za’atar. You just need to make sure that it’s enough to make a smooth paste so that it doesn’t dry up in the oven.

Za’atar Manaqeesh (مناقيش بالزعتر)

The trick to making the manaqeesh, like any pizza, is to add the dough to a scorching hot oven. If you have a pizza stone, that is ideal. Otherwise you can pre-heat an upside down baking sheet in a hot oven and add the manaqeesh to the reverse side. Once the dough cooks through, remove the manaqeesh from the oven and enjoy. Saha w hana (صحة و هنا), bon appetit!

Za’atar Manaqeesh

yields approx 16 small pies

Components

  • 1/2 recipe of fatayer dough
  • 3/4 cup za’atar
  • 1/2-1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Putting them all together

  1. Prepare the dough as described in the fatayer recipe
  2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
  3. Mix together the za’atar and the olive oil
  4. Roll out 1/4 inch thick disks and top with za’atar and oil mixture.
  5. Bake for 7-10 minutes or until the dough is golden brown

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