Friday, March 13, 2009

Chicken alla Parmagiana My Way

I love chicken parmesan but I never order the gooey, overly cheesy versions found at most restaurants since coming up with this version. I made this last night with some really delicious creamy mozzarella, but I missed the smoked mozzarella that I usually favor here. My recipe uses all the typical components but instead of frying the breaded chicken breasts in oil, I crisp up the breadcrumbs by broiling the breaded chicken breasts for a few minutes, then topping with the sauce and the cheese and putting it back under the broiler. The result is a much lighter variation of the original with all of the crunch. I've grown to prefer the meaty almost bacon like flavor of smoke mozzarella in most situations that call for mozzarella since discovering a purveryor at my farmers market, but any kind of mozzarella will do, whether artisanal or pre-shredded from the bag.

This is one of those rare recipes of my own that I posted to Epicurious in my own recipe box. When I first started making this I sort of enjoyed bashing the heck out of those breasts using a frying pan. Now I just butterfly them open which is a lot less hassle.

Chicken alla Parmagiana
Serves 4

2 chicken breast halves, about 12 ounces each
salt and pepper
1 cup flour
2 eggs beaten with 1 tablespoon water or milk
1 1/2 to 2 cups bread crumbs or panko bread crumbs seasoned with 1 tablespoon dried thyme or oregano
2-3 tablespoons of olive oil, optional
2 cups of your favorite pasta sauce (homemade is ideal)
4 ounces smoked mozzarella, cut into 6 to 8 slices

grated parmesan, optional
chopped parsley, optional

First, pound out the chicken breasts to a half inch thickness. I place the chicken breasts in a zip top bag or between to sheets of plastic wrap and whack at it with a small fying pan. Pounding out chicken breasts can be enormously stress reducing but don't be too overzealous as you want to keep the breast in one piece. Alternatively carefully butterfly the breast halves by slicing them in half: place your hand on top of the breast, place the knife blade parallel to the cutting board and carefully slice into the breast but not all the way through. Open the breast like a book and you've got a butterflied breast, as demoed here on Youtube.

Place an oven rack at the second level down from your broiler element (assuming you've got an oven like mine with the broiler element in the top of the oven) and turn on the broiler. Line a large baking sheet with foil and smear with a thin film of olive oil if you feel like it. Season each chicken breast generously on both sides with salt and pepper. Set up your breading station in three large flat bowls or baking dishes: first flour, then the egg, and finally the bread or panko crumbs. Drizzle a tablespoon or so of olive oil over the bread crumbs and mix in before dredging. This will help the bread crumbs to crisp up nicely. Dredge the flattened chicken breast in flour on both sides and shake off the excess. Next, coat the same piece in the egg wash, letting the excess drip off. Finally, lay it in the bread crumbs. Use your fingers to spread bread crumbs on top of the chicken breast, pressing down to make sure the crumbs stick and that the breast is completely coated. Place on the baking sheet and repeat with the other flattened chicken breast. Drizzle the top of the chicken breast lighltly with olive oil if desired.

Broil the two breasts for five minutes, keeping an eye on them to make sure they brown but do not burn! Turn them over and broil for another three minutes on the second side. Remove from the oven.

Spoon about 1 cup of sauce all over each chicken breast and lay the slices of mozzarella on top of the sauce. Place the chicken back under the broiler for another two to three minutes until the sauce is heated and the cheese is melted and browned slightly. Remove from the oven and move the chicken to a cutting board. Cut each piece in half, garnish with grated parmesan and parsley if using and serve immediately with a side of spaghetti, sauteed broccoli rabe, and a glass of chianti! A red checkered tablecloth is also optional. Buon Appetito!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Break Out the Pasta Maker: Jamie Oliver's Pappardelle with Braised Leeks and Dried Mushroom Pangrattato

Jamie Oliver is another kitchen genius who keeps simplicity at the fore when providing cooking instruction. I have recorded and saved every episode of his Food Network show Jamie at Home. His cooking style is just fresh and innovative and completely unfussy. I can hardly believe it's been over a year since I first made his recipe for "cheat's" pappardelle with braised leeks, which is pure poetry. When I saw the Food Network episode where he made this recipe. I stopped what I was doing and stood in rapt attention as he explained what he was cooking. The ingredients are so basic, as is the technique. But the final dish is sublime.

Jamie loves his veggies especially given that his show is centered around his garden. Occasionally I fall in love with vegetables myself. There was the year that I started cooking Brussel sprouts and amassed quite a repertoire of sprouts recipes that never failed to impress my guests. I would then regale them with how much this poor vegetable has been abused if all one remembers is boiled frozen sprouts from one's youth. My sister's then boyfriend who grew up hating sprouts himself had a transformative experience when I served him roasted sprouts
with chili powder. The outer layers had become so crisp that they most reminded me of chili fried potatoes and I'm not lying. Another year after buying a 5 pound head of cauliflower at the farmers market and using it to make cauliflower soup, it was another light bulb moment as I felt as though I was tasting this typically bland white vegetable for the first time, which brings me back to my mantra: so many recipes, so little time!

And now, the leeks. They're great grilled, braised or as the base for soup. Who would have thought that something from the alium family could yield so many possiblities? But then thinking about onions themselves, they are also delicous in the same way as leeks, perhaps with just a bit more bite. Leeks don't have nearly as much of the sulfur compounds that form sulfuric acid and make you cry. In Japan, leeks are the preferred "onion," and what we think of as onions are basically called "round leeks." When combined with wine and stock as in this recipe, leeks yield a unique flavor that is so soft and subtle, no wonder the first step in the French Women Don't Get Fat regimen is a weekend of leek broth!

Readers of this blog know that I am mad about braising, the slow cooking method that tenderizes whatever is being cooked even as it maximizes and concentrates flavor. I've also adopted the technique advocated in my first ever braised ribs recipe as well as by my braising maven Molly Stevens of placing a layer of parchment just above the top of the food being cooked to trap steam and condensation closest to the food. Rather than use parchment, in this recipe Jamie Oliver uses thinly sliced prosciutto to the same effect. The prosciutto will shrink as it cooks so it won't form a completely intact layer, but needless to say, the flavor of the prosciutto will meld with the leeks. This was the part of the recipe that stopped me in my tracks with my jaw agape. It was just so simple and delicious looking! Jamie said that the Italian chef he learned the recipe from would discard the prosciutto after it had done its work, but Jamie makes it part of the dish and why the hell not?

And finally the pangrattato, which my online dictionary translates as "bread crumbs." I believe it was Mario Batali on a food network episode who once said that in lean times Italians used crisped up bread crumbs as a substitute for grated parmesan or some other hard cheese. A layer of crispy bread crumbs atop mac 'n' cheese, roasted cauliflower, or even meatloaf just adds that right bit of crunch to give a dish just the right finish. Jamie jazzes this dish up with some pulverized dried poricini which add an earthy note to the bread crumbs. And as I am taking part this week in Eating Down the Fridge/Pantry, I was happy to make use of a package of dried porcinis that had been bought on sale who knows when! My method for preparing the pangrattato differs from Jamies only in that I whiz the bread crumbs, garlic and mushrooms in the food processor with the olive oil so that the oil is evenly distributed. I then cook the whole mixture in a hot saute pan, the same one that will subsequently be used for the leek braise.

And one more thing before I get to the recipe. This recipe made me want to break out my hand crank pasta machine that I received as a gift more than 15 years ago. Jamie recommends cutting fresh lasagne sheets into pappardelle, but I've never seen fresh lasagne sheets for sale and making fresh pasta in the food processor is one of those things that I learned to do long ago that I'd put aside for a decade or so. Now it's back in the mix though I confess I want to replace my hand crank pasta maker with the Kitchen Aid version! Jamie reasons that making the dish with fresh pasta allows you to create a dish that's more personal (and of course) more impressive than using store bought pappardelle or some other noodle. But homemade pasta is one of those things you can make once and get a couple of meals out of by dividing the dough and freezing half of it. The second half of my pasta dough will be used to make fettuccine for some dinner guests who will be dining on chicken alla parmagiana when they come over later this week.

Pappardelle with Braised Leeks and Prosciutto with Crispy Porcini Pangrattato
Adapted from Jamie Oliver
Serves 4 to 6

For the Pangrattato:
1 small handful dried porcini mushrooms [I used all of a 1.4 ounce package]
1/2 ciabatta bread, preferably stale, cut into chunks [I pulled out two whole wheat hamburger buns from my freezer that I wanted to get rid of as part of Eating Down the Fridge]
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed [I didn't crush mine as I minced them in the food processor with the bread crumbs]
1 sprig fresh rosemary [I roughly chopped the rosemary and pulverized with the bread crumbs]

For the main event:

5 big leeks, outer leaves trimmed back, cut in to half inch pieces, and washed well
Olive oil
2 good knobs butter, divided [I used 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter]
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
A few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked
A small wineglass white wine
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pint good-quality vegetable or chicken stock
12 slices ham, preferably Parma
2 (8-ounce) packages fresh lasagne sheets [I made homemade pasta using 4 eggs and used half the dough as a first step; 16 oz of dried pasta is a fine alternative also]
All-purpose flour, for dusting
2 handfuls freshly grated Parmesan, plus extra for serving

  • Optional First Step: If making the pasta from scratch, in a food processor fitted with the steel blade place 400 grams of all-purpose flour and 4 large eggs. (According to Mario Batali, Italians make pasta from scratch this way using a ratio of one large egg for each 100 grams of flour. Two egg yolks can be substituted for one whole egg, which I did to replace one of the eggs) Add a half teaspoon of salt and pulse to combine until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Stream in 1 to 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive until a ball of dough forms. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for a minute or two. Divide and wrap each half separately in plastic. Leave one piece to rest on the counter while you go about making the rest of the dish and refrigerate or freeze the other piece for later use.
  • To make the pangrattato: Whiz the mushrooms and bread with a pinch of salt and pepper in a food processor until the mixture looks like bread crumbs. Heat a generous glug of olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the garlic cloves and the rosemary and cook for a minute, then fry the bread crumbs in the oil until golden and crisp. Keep shaking the pan - don't let the bread crumbs catch on the bottom. Drain on paper towels, discard the rosemary and garlic and allow the bread crumbs to cool. [The only thing I did differently when making the bread crumbs was I minced the garlic in the food processor. With the machine running, I dropped the garlic cloves into the food processor until finely minced. I then scraped down the bowl and added the cubed bread and dried mushrooms to pulverize. I streamed in a tablespoon of olive oil to moisten the crumbs and then added this mixture to the saute pan, no additional oil needed.]
  • For the braised leeks: Wipe out the saute pan with a couple of paper towels and heat over medium high heat. Add the oil and butter, and when you hear a gentle sizzling add the sliced garlic, thyme leaves and leeks. Move the leeks around so every piece gets coated. Pour in the wine, season with pepper and stir in the stock. Cover the leeks with the slices of Parma ham, place a lid on the pan and simmer gently for 25 to 30 minutes. Once the leeks are tender, take the pan off the heat.
  • For the pappardelle: Bring a big pot of salted water to the boil. Lay the lasagne sheets [or the rolled out pasta] on a clean working surface and sprinkle with a little flour. Place the sheets on top of each other and slice into 1/2-inch strips. Toss through your fingers to shake out the pappardelle, then cook in the boiling water 2 minutes or until al dente. [If using dried pasta, cook al dente according to package directions.]
  • The finish: Remove the prosciutto from the saute pan, slice up and stir back into the leeks. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then stir in the Parmesan and the rest of the butter [I had a bit of crumbled gorgonzola to get rid of--Eating Down the Fridge--so I threw that in also]. Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the cooking water, and add the pasta to the leeks. Add a little of the cooking water if need be, to give you a silky, smooth sauce. [I found that I had a lot of liquid still in the pan so I mixed in some bread crumbs to absorb the liquid.] Serve quickly, sprinkled with some pangrattato, extra Parmesan and any leftover thyme tips. Serve the rest of the pangrattato in a bowl on the side.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Molly Stevens' Coq au Vin

Today was a snow day up and down most of the east coast--though the DC school's chancellor is loathe to ever call a snow day--so thoughts turned to comfort food. A half finished bottle of cabernet sauvignon meant some sort of wine braised preparation and I knew it would involve my Dutch oven and turning on the oven. I was leaning towards hunter style chicken (either the Italian cacciatore or the French chasseur), chicken stemperata, or coq au vin. Having made and enjoyed boeuf bourguignon a couple of weeks ago, Brian was eager to try chicken cooked in wine, though I was leaning towards Mario Batali's chicken stemperata, which is a delicious chicken braised in wine with all kinds of vegetables and olives that I blogged about last year.

The preparation for the French dishes boeuf Bourguignon and coq au vin couldn't have been more similar, even though for the beef I followed Julia's and Jacques' recipe from Cooking at Home and for the chicken I used a recipe from Molly Stevens' All About Braising. Once again I looked up Julia's recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking and chose to go with Ms. Stevens because the preparation was not only simpler, but also quite similar to Julia's revised Bourguignon technique in J & J Cooking at Home. I barely changed anything except that I cooked the mushrooms and onions together rather than separately in the same way as I did for the Bourguignon. I also did not place the aromatics and herbs into the cheesecloth as J & J describe in Cooking at Home, but in the future that will be my method going forward. Having the bits of chopped onion and carrot in the final sauce was tasty but I liked the smoothness of the Bourguignon sauce vs. the coq au vin sauce. This dish was delicious when first prepared for dinner, but was of course even better the next day for lunch, proving once again that making a braised dish is the perfect justification for serving leftovers to company!

Just a quick word about the "coq" in coq au vin. In France, the dish may be prepared using a rooster (coq = cock) or a stewing hen. American supermarkets are not likely to have either for sale. The stewing hen makes the most sense to me really in that a braise is really a slow cooked dish using a tough cut of meat. As the meat cooks collagen and connective tissue are incorporated into the sauce thickening it naturally with the gelatin that forms. Stewing hens if you find one are most useful for making stock, and as I've never cooked one, I'd just take the easy route and use a roaster, and not the stewing hen, especially if you plan to make and serve the dish in the same evening. The dish will finish quickly and the meat won't be tough. On the other hand if you feel like making the dish in a slow cooker with a stewing hen, let me know how it turns out!

Coq au Vin
Adapted from Molly Stevens' All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking
Serves 4 to 6

4 ounces slab bacon, rind removed and cut into 1/2 inch dice [I used 5 slices of unsmoked bacon]
1 4 to 5 pound chicken cut into 8 pieces, wing tips, back, neck, and giblets (except the liver) reserved [I quartered my chicken and separated the wings from the breast. I did not reserve the other chicken pieces for cooking in the stew as directed. I always reserve those pieces in my freezer for making chicken stock at a later time, which on this day I was making during the day in my slow cooker]
salt and pepper [I used fennel spice rub]
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
1 tablespoon paste
1 bottle of dry, fruity red wine
2 garlic cloves smashed
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried
1 cup chicken stock

10 ounces pearl onions, about 15-25, fresh or frozen and thawed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter and/or olive oil
3/4 pound cremini mushrooms [I used 10 ounces of assorted portobello, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms]
course salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons brandy

1 tablespoon butter at room temperature
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley

  1. Prepare the bacon and chicken: In a 6 to 8 quart Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium high heat and then add the bacon, stirring occasionally until the fat is rendered and the bacon pieces have become crisp, about 5 to 7 minutes. While the bacon is cooking, salt and pepper the chicken all over and then dredge in the flour, shaking off the excess. Remove the bacon to a plate lined with paper towels and set aside. Add half the chicken in a single, uncrowded layer skin side down and let brown well on the first side without moving it, about 5 minutes. Check to see that a nice crust has formed, and then turn the pieces over to brown the other side, about another 4 minutes or so. Remove the browned chicken to a platter and repeat with the second batch.
  2. Prepare the aromatic veggies for the braise: Lower your oven rack to the bottom third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Pour off all but two tablespoons of the accumulated fat in the pan and return the pan to medium high heat. Add the onion, carrot, and the garlic cloves and cook until soft and slightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook with the vegetables for a minute or two. Deglaze the pan with one third of the bottle of wine, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the rest of the wine and bring to a boil. Add the thyme and bay leaf. [I'm lazy and just tied together 6 thyme sprigs and added to the wine and vegetable mixture. The thyme leaves will come off into the liquid.] Reduce for about 15 minutes to about a cup and a half of liquid. [I confess I started with half a bottle of wine and just skipped the wine reduction to no negative consequences.] Add the cup of stock and bring to a boil. Ladle out about 3/4 cup of the braising liquid and reserve for cooking the mushrooms.
  3. The braise: Add the bacon and chicken back to the pot, including any accumulated juices on the platter, with the legs and thighs on the bottom and breast on top. The liquid should only come up about half way or so to the level of the chicken but that's OK because braising is about the simmering and the steam that is trapped in the Dutch oven to cook the meat. Cover the meat with a piece of parchment paper larger than the diameter of the pot. Push down on the paper so that it is just above the top of the chicken and cover the pot with its lid (the edges of the paper will overhang the pot). Place this pot into the oven and bask in the aromas of this dish as it simmers away. After 15 minutes, check the pot to make sure that it's not boiling too rapidly. Adjust the oven temperature down or up to maintain a simmer. After another 30 minutes, check the chicken again and stir everything around so that the pieces on top are immersed in the liquid and the pieces immersed are now on top. The total braise should take about 60 and 75 minutes.
  4. The mushrooms and onions: While the chicken is braising in the oven, prepare the mushrooms and onions. Heat the butter and/or oil in a large saute pan over medium high heat. Add the mushrooms, stirring to coat with the oil and butter. Let cook for 5 minutes undisturbed. Check a mushroom to see if it's browning nicely, and if so stir the mushrooms around and let them cook for 4 more minutes. Meanwhile, if using fresh pearl onions (as I had to), bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Blanch the onions in boiling water for 1 minute and remove to a bowl of ice water. Trim off the ugly part of the onion root, keeping the onion layers in tact as best as you can. Squeeze on the onion skin to pop out the onion pearl. You'll probably have to sacrifice a layer of onion, but it's not worth the frustration to try and peel just the outer layer. Trim the other end if necesary. Set the onions aside on paper towels to dry as you finish the mushrooms. Stir in the pearl onions and season the combination with salt and peppers. Let the onions caramelize and cook with the mushrooms for 8 more minutes, stirring once or twice so that the onions brown evenly. Deglaze the pan with the reserved braising liquid, scraping up all the browned bits and bringing to gentle boil. Stir in the brandy and ignite if you're feeling dramatic, otherwise just cover and reduce to a simmer for 5 more minutes. (Note: NEVER pour the brandy directly from the bottle, especially if cooking over gas as the alcohol could ignite and cause an explosion. Best to pour off the measured amount and add just the amount needed.) Remove the lid, raise the heat and reduce the liquid to a quarter cup or so. Put the mushrooms and onions aside until ready to finish the dish.
  5. The finish: Remove the coq au vin from the oven and place the chicken pieces on a plate. When cooled slightly, strain the sauce and vegetables into a fat separator, reserving the vegetables. Or alternatively, strain the vegetables and braising liquid into a bowl using a sieve and skim off some of the fat using a wide flat spoon. Return the de-fatted liquid to the Dutch oven and bring to a boil. You should have about two cups or so. Combine the softened butter with the flour and stir to combine into a beurre manie, making sure there are no flour lumps. Whisk the beurre manie into the liquid and boil for a few minutes, thickening the sauce. Add the chicken, reserved vegetables, mushrooms and onions back to the pot to reheat everything. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings with additional salt and pepper if necessary. Serve the chicken with the onions and mushrooms on your favorite platter, garnished with parsley and pass the sauce on the side.
This dish is perfect with a simple starch side like mashed or boiled potatoes. Haricots verts would complete the picture perfect French bistro dinner! Voila!