27 January 2015

Chicken and vegetables veloute

Chicken and vegetables veloute

After a roof leak, a furnace replacement, a refrigerator breakdown, an influx of mold, and many bouts of sneezing, all within the past six weeks, I was more than ready to eat some serious comfort food last weekend.

We went to the store and got some basic ingredients: chicken, celery, carrots, onions. We put them all in a pot. We cooked them. We made a simple sauce. We mixed it all together and threw in some noodles. And then I ate an entire bowlful and trundled off blissfully to bed.

If you are currently buried in snow, you will definitely want some too.

This chicken and vegetable dish could not be easier, and yet it is the kind of food that completely satisfies. It's grandma cuisine: no-fuss, country-style, hearty, easy, tasty food, made of plentifully available ingredients, and offered in abundance. And yet you can absolutely make this for a big Sunday dinner and impress everyone at the table.

We adapted this from a Jacques Pepin & Julia Child recipe for chicken pot pie, which in itself is clearly a totally classic basic. Instead of making a pastry crust, we decided to toss the whole shebang with egg noodles, for a super-comforting and simple feast.

If you want to make an entire chicken, go for it. If there were any meat-eaters besides me in the house, we would have. Just double all the veg (or even triple them, for extra everything) and get going. Any leftover chicken, vegetables, and broth can be refrigerated and transformed into chicken soup (or sandwiches, or risotto, or an amazing variety of other things) the next day.

Chicken and vegetables veloute

Chicken and vegetables veloute
Adapted from Comfort Food. Serves 4.

1/2 chicken (at least half bone-in dark meat)
1/2 head celery
2 carrots
1-2 leeks
2 medium yellow onions
salt, pepper, thyme, bay leaf
2 cups dry white wine or dry vermouth
plenty of water
10-12 button mushrooms
4 tbsp butter
4 tbsp flour
egg noodles or rice to serve
parsley to garnish

Put your chicken into a large pot -- 5.5 quarts or more. We used a bone-in leg and thigh piece, skin on, and a separate breast. This was more than ample to make four servings. If you're doubling the recipe and cooking a whole chicken, leave it whole.

Wash and trim your vegetables. Cut the head of celery in half vertically. Scrub or peel the carrots. Split the leeks and rinse them well under running water. Tie the celery, carrots, and leeks into a bundle with a loop or two of butcher's twine. This will make it easy to remove them later.

Peel your onions and cut them into eighths. The mushrooms can wait a few minutes.

Put all your vegetables into the pot with the chicken. Season the pot with salt, pepper, a good palmful of thyme, and a bay leaf or two. Add the wine or vermouth.

Now fill the pot with enough water to just cover all the contents. Make sure the chicken is submerged -- weigh it down under some of the vegetables if necessary.

Bring your pot to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer for 20 minutes. While you're waiting, wash your mushrooms. You can cut them in half or leave them whole.

Next, add your mushrooms to the pan. Bring everything to a boil again, cover, and reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting. Leave the pot to simmer very gently for 45 minutes to an hour, or until your chicken is completely cooked through.

At this point you will have a lovely pot of chicken broth full of nicely poached delights. Taste the broth and correct the seasonings. Remove all the meat and veg from the pot and slice them into bite-sized pieces. (If you don't want to bother with the rest of the recipe, you can simply add the pieces back to the broth and serve it as soup right now.)

Make the veloute. In a separate pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk vigorously to create a roux. Let the roux cook for a minute or two, whisking occasionally. Then begin adding your poaching broth to the roux, whisking it in ladle by ladle. We used about 6 cups total, but you may want to use a bit more or less broth, depending on the amount and thickness of sauce you desire. Butter + flour + broth = sauce veloute.

Mix your chicken and vegetables into the sauce, taste and correct the seasonings one last time, and you are done.

Chicken and vegetables veloute

Serve over egg noodles, rice, mashed potato, or your choice of other grain, and garnish with a handful of chopped parsley.

You can also get fancy (sort of fancy, anyway) by topping a casserole dish of chicken, veg, and sauce with a pastry crust or a recipe's worth of drop biscuit batter, and baking the whole thing until lovely and brown. Or just ladle everything into individual bowls and butter a pile of toast for dipping. It's all good.

Are you relying on huge vats of hot, simple food to beat the storm? What comfort food are you eating this week?

23 January 2015

Top ten snacks at our house

Top ten snacks at our house

I'm so tired. As such, snacks are definitely the order of the day.

Here are some of my favorite snacks to eat when there has been too much life and house and other stuff happening, and all you want to do is sit down on the couch with a trashy novel and a glass of wine. And snacks. There will be snacks.

- Stovetop popcorn, buttered, salted, and minimally seasoned with some paprika and mustard powder on occasion. We should probably break out the nutritional yeast one of these days. A simple caramel corn with nuts and sesame seeds is excellent for a sweet version.

- Pretzel sticks dipped in a mix of half sour cream/labneh/greek yogurt and half prepared horseradish, with a good grind of pepper. Use more or less horseradish depending on your spice preferences. Related: switch out the horseradish for the spicy mustard of your choice. Or just dip your pretzels in cashew cheese if you happen to have the tail end of a batch on hand.

- Cold leftovers out of the fridge. This one is all me; if John eats leftovers, they have to be hot. I am way more likely to eat a piece of cold pizza or some cold pasta fagioli right out of the fridge.

- Quesadillas. This one can cross the line from snack to meal, depending on whether we have beans and rice hanging around. The basic formula is refried beans, cheddar, a light sprinkle of cumin and oregano, and some chopped scallion if there happens to be any in the crisper. Rice bulks it up substantially. Various other veg (such as bell pepper or jalapeno) can make an appearance too. I like to do a streamlined one with mozzarella and red pepper flake. I will also make them with cream cheese on occasion. Quesadillas are cooked in the toaster oven, aligned carefully so they can't bend through the wire rack.

- Raw veg. Carrots, broccoli florets, grape tomatoes, bell pepper, etc. I will dip these in hummus if there is any, but I am actually not especially into hummus, so more often than not there's no dip. I used to use commercial caesar dressing that we'd get with our delivery pizza & caesar salad combo, but we have since stopped ordering from that pizza place. So. Plain veg it usually is.

- On a related note, fruit. Bowls of berries can vanish with astonishing rapidity. Sliced apples or stone fruit are a pretty frequent dessert here.

- Cheesy toast. Decent bread, spicy or dijon mustard, optional chopped veg, cheese of choice (mozzarella or other white cheeses preferred), all layered up and stuck in the toaster oven to brown. This one is also good for lunch.

- I will also totally do an abbreviated ploughman's lunch-type plate with bread or crackers, sliced cheese, mustard, and various pickles. Apples work here too.

- Cream cheese or labneh-related snacks are some of my favorites. First of all, BAGELS BAGELS BAGELS. A good bagel with cream cheese is such a satisfying creation. Crackers with labneh or cottage cheese and some chopped herbs and veg work well too.

- A batch of scones is an excellent plan. Sweet scones are good, but I find that a neutral scone is more versatile. You can make a batch and eat them for the next few days, with your choice of jam, peanut butter, or cheese.

I think the house stuff is actually done this time. Hopefully I will regain some energy and get going in the kitchen again soon.

What snacks do you like to eat when you are too tired to make much of anything?

11 January 2015

Hot citrus drinks for cold winter nights

Hot citrus drinks for cold winter nights

You guys, we finally have a fully operational furnace. YAY.

So now is the perfect time to talk about what I was drinking to combat the creeping cold over the past few weeks.

When you're trying to use a beverage to keep warm, tea is the clear winner. Coffee is way too full of acid and caffeine for constant consumption, hot chocolate is super sweet and can become oddly filling, hot toddies are a bad idea in any quantity over two. Tea, in contrast, includes a great variety of flavors and levels of caffeine, and is neither sweet nor alcoholic unless you actually add sugar or alcohol.

But even tea can pall when you're drinking it constantly for weeks at a time. I needed to find some other hot drinks.

At the same time, a storm front came through California, and the wind and rain knocked quite a bit of citrus (not to mention leaves and branches) off the neighborhood trees. Our backyard was suddenly full of oranges, ranging from tiny and green to black and shriveled. In between, an overabundance of perfect oranges needed to be eaten.

So, after eating a lot of oranges and drinking a lot of tea, I decided to combine the two into a new hot drink, and it was good. I tried it with a white grapefruit, and that was good too. And so the hot citrus drink was born.

Hot citrus drinks for cold winter nights

These drinks are the easiest things ever and provide a nice change from whatever else you might be drinking this winter. All you have to do is mix the freshly squeezed citrus juice of your choice with hot water, and adjust to taste. Bonus: they are perhaps the most frugal drinks possible if you happen to have an orange or grapefruit tree!

These do bear a strong resemblance to the traditional morning hot water with lemon that has become a byword with many detox programs, but I'm not using them to detox! They're tasty, warming, and a welcome addition to my hot beverage library, and that's plenty for me.

Hot citrus drinks for cold winter nights

Hot water with orange

Put your teapot on to boil. Juice a large orange and pour the juice into your mug of choice. Fill the rest of the cup with just-boiled water. If your orange is very sweet, add the juice of a quarter of a lemon too. Stir and drink.

Hot water with grapefruit

Put your teapot on to boil. Juice a large grapefruit (white or red -- our local grapefruits are white) and pour the juice into your mug of choice. Fill the rest of the cup with just-boiled water. If your grapefruit is particularly tart, swirl in a spoonful of honey. Stir and drink.

Hot citrus drinks for cold winter nights

What are you drinking (or eating, or otherwise doing) to keep warm and toasty this winter?

06 January 2015

Minimalist chicken fingers

Huzzah! This week we are getting an entirely new housewide furnace system!

After a full month with no heat, this is MORE than welcome.

Characteristics of the furnace-impaired

- When you check the temperature at 8 am, seeing "54F" is a huge relief. (It's been as low as 45F.)
- Your laptop is too cold to carry around for more than about 30 seconds.
- Blankets are acceptable evening wear. Also day wear and morning wear.
- You have to warm up your deodorant before it's soft enough to apply.
- Your daily tea intake zooms from 5 cups to 25.
- You're wearing more than half your wool clothing at any given time. In fact, you look through knitwear patterns while wearing at least two hand-knitted things already.
- Going for a walk around your neighborhood doesn't chill you down -- it warms you up. It's also a great excuse to put on a full coat.
- Space heaters. Even the tiny desk handwarmer is running all day. Of course, you have to be careful not to turn on the bathroom light, or you could blow a fuse.
- You start fantasizing about which foods could bake for four hours at a time.
- When the new furnace is installed, you plan to set the thermostat to a luxurious 62F.

So. That.

Having no heat in the house has really lowered my energy. All I want to do is eat something hot and go to bed. Simple food is definitely the order of the day around here.

And it works for new year's too! Who doesn't want a minimal approach to eating in the new year? A plate of tasty, easy chicken, plus a pile of wilted greens (with mashed potatoes if you have the willpower), and you are set.

Unlike a lot of chicken finger recipes, this one requires the most minimal of dredging. Highly seasoned flour is the one and only thing I use to coat these chicken fingers. This means you can absolutely make chicken fingers when you have neither eggs nor breadcrumbs in the house, and the results are still delicious, if a bit less crusty.

Also, this cooking experience made me really internalize just how superior high-quality organic and cage-free chicken is to the typical factory chicken. I mean, clearly I knew this before, but this made it hit home.

I don't cook chicken often, largely because I find the smell of raw chicken overwhelmingly vile. But this time? I got the best quality chicken I could, and the smell was just about nonexistent. The difference was astounding. There's nothing like the evidence of your own bodily reaction to reinforce your previously held academic opinions.

Minimalist chicken fingers
Serves one.

a chicken breast, boned and skinned
salt, pepper, cayenne
vegetable oil or your choice of frying oil
mustard or your choice of condiment to serve
plastic wrap or bag (I use the bag from the butcher counter)
meat mallet or other pounding equipage

Start by putting the stainless steel or cast-iron frying pan of your choice over medium-high heat. You want to make sure your pan is good and hot before you start cooking.

Prep your chicken breast by trimming off any extra fat and membranes. Put it in between two sheets of plastic wrap (or in a plastic bag) and pound it gently to achieve a uniform thickness of about 3/4 of an inch. I generally use my rolling pin to pound meat, but a real meat mallet is probably easier.

Cut your chicken into strips about an inch and a half wide, working across the grain. Do your best to make the strips uniform in size.

In a shallow dish of your choice, mix a few handfuls of flour with a seasoning of salt, pepper, and cayenne. I don't measure, obviously, but you'll want to be fairly liberal with the seasonings. For one chicken breast, you'll probably want about 3/4 cup of flour and 1/2 tsp of each spice. It really depends on your spice tolerance and preferences, though.

Dredge your pieces of chicken in your flour mixture, turning to coat all sides.

Add a quarter-inch layer of oil to the bottom of your pan. Give it a few minutes to heat up before you start cooking. You can test with a scrap of breaded chicken; if it sizzles, it's ready.

Fry your chicken for approximately 3-4 minutes per side, or until nicely golden brown. The timing will depend on the size of your chicken pieces. Smaller pieces take less time. When you think they're done, they're probably done. Test by cutting a thick piece in half.

Serve with spicy mustard or the other dipping sauce of your choice. Anything that works with chicken is straight-up delightful here.

Barbecue sauce? Yes. Ketchup? If you like ketchup, I'm not going to judge. Caesar salad dressing? Yes, although in that case you might consider serving these directly on top of a romaine heart salad. Homemade ranch? Tzatziki? A garlicky tahini sauce? Yes, yes, and yes.

Serve some pickle spears on the side for a true diner experience, or just stack up a tower of cucumber slices. And if you have the energy, the aforementioned wilted greens or mashed potato -- both with a nice pat of butter and some salt -- are a good plan.

Go to town. It's a pretty nice town.

01 January 2015

New Year's cucumber pickles

New Year's cucumber pickles

Is cucumber in season? No. Do I have one anyway? Yes.

Our christmas and new year's morning traditions do not include the typical big pan of cinnamon rolls or stack of crisp waffles. Instead, we have plenty of bagels. I have mine with cream cheese, John has his with hummus, and we both have several big handfuls of crispy vegetables and fresh herbs -- various sprouts, red pepper, green pepper, red onion, spinach, parsley, and chives have all made appearances.

And what do you need to top off a big sandwich like that? PICKLES.

We lost a good four or five half-eaten jars of assorted pickles when the fridge went out a couple weeks ago. Yeah. It was not pretty. Replenishing the pickle supply was very high on the list of things to do before BIG SANDWICH MORNING arrived. So I bought a cucumber, simmered up some brine, and got going.

This is a crispy, tangy refrigerator pickle that cures quickly overnight. It takes about five minutes to make and produces some excellent results. If you want to fill your fridge with pickles, doubling or quadrupling the recipe is simple. And then you will have all the pickles in the land, for plenteous and delightful future sandwich-eating purposes.

Get pickling!

New Year's cucumber pickles

New Year's cucumber pickles
Makes 1 pint

3/8 cup water
3/8 cup apple cider vinegar or white vinegar
1 tsp pickling salt
1 English cucumber (or your choice of cucumber with few seeds & no wax)
4 peppercorns
2 cloves garlic, peeled & halved
1 tsp dill seed
1 pint jar and lid
optional canning funnel

Make your brine by combining water, vinegar, and salt in a small saucepan. Heat until the salt has dissolved. This should take 5 minutes or less.

Trim your cucumber's blossom and stem ends and cut into slices or spears. You'll need about half the cucumber to fill one pint jar if you cut it into spears, and about 3/4 of the cucumber if you cut it into slices. If you're using a smaller cucumber, such as an Armenian, you may need two to fill your jar.

Put your peppercorns, garlic, and dill seed into your jar. Pack your cucumber into the jar, pushing gently to fill as full as possible.

Using your funnel, pour your brine into the jar. Use a chopstick or rubber spatula to release any obvious air bubbles. Cap, cool, and store in the refrigerator. Age for at least 24 hours before eating.

Now you are ready to make the best possible sandwiches! FORWARD.

What are you eating for your first meals of 2015?