Thursday, August 28, 2008

Baked Chicken with Apricots and Raspberry Honey

In Monday's post I mentioned how there's always one fruit and vegetable that stand out to me every season. Well, the runner up in the fresh fruit event (sorry, too much Olympics) this year is the apricot.

I have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with apricots. Growing up, all we ever saw came dried in a bag, in halves. Halves that looked like ears. And, to my tender tongue, tasted a little like I imagined ears tasted, too. They had a sharp tartness that bit into the back of my jaw, and they were more tart than sweet. I guess apricots are to peaches what kumquats are to oranges.

One year a friend of my mother's brought over some treats she had made from a new recipe. When I found out they were apricots, I was less than enthused. But one bite was all it to took to convert me. Turns out apricot jam is nice and sweet - not even a hint of the tart. But while I loved anything made with apricot jam (including buttered toast), I still avoided dried, and can't recall ever seeing fresh.

I ran into my first fresh apricots after I moved to Chicago. They were so pretty that I bought a couple, curious to see what they tasted like when fresh. They still had that bite, but it was not as strong. And the flavor was lighter and a little sweeter than the dried as well. They were actually pretty good.

And they are all over the green market this year. I brought some home with me a couple of weeks ago and admired them while I thought about what I wanted to do with them.

I knew I wanted to put them with something savory, like chicken. I also knew they might need a little sweetness to round out the flavor. I also knew that I had this beautiful jar of raspberry honey Nicole had given me.

And there I had the beginnings of an idea. Baked chicken with apricots and honey.

After turning on the oven to 350 degrees F., I chopped two onions into large chunks and laid them into the bottom of a 13 x 9 baking dish. I cut the apricots in half, removed the stones, and then cut each half into slivers roughly the size of mandarin orange sections.

I also took a head of garlic apart and peeled the cloves, arranging them between the onions and the apricots. I seasoned it all with salt and pepper.

I had the butcher at the Apple Market cut up a whole chicken for me. I washed and dried the pieces and then layered them over the apricots, garlic and onions. Then I seasoned the chicken with salt and pepper, took the leaves over some more fresh thyme, chopped them up and spread them over the chicken. I also added some dried marjoram.

I drizzled about 1/4 cup of the raspberry honey over the chicken, being sure to let it slip between the pieces so it would cook into the apricots and onions. I covered the dish with foil and baked it for about 45 minutes, then took off the foil and cooked it for another 1/2 hour to let the skin crisp.

When it was done, I took the chicken out and picked all of the thyme sprigs out of the apricots and onions, which I then put into a 3-quart saucepan with all of the chicken drippings and let it come to a boil. After it had cooked down for a while I blended it with my hand blender and then strained it.

While it was baking I cooked up some brown rice and the Boiled Fingerlings with Lemon, Garlic and Parsley I wrote about here.

This turned out really well. The apricots and honey were the perfect blend of sweet and tart, and made a wonderful accompaniment for the chicken. It was all beautifully rounded out by the thyme and marjoram. Rice and potatoes might have been one more starch than was necessary, but that's what happens sometimes.

The only thing I would do differently is that I would put the honey in before I added the chicken. The skin browned a little too well, on the verge of burning, with all of that sugar on it.

Monday, August 25, 2008

How to Cut Corn from the Cob

What you see on the plate above you is my version of a dish I recently had at a restaurant called Mado, which opened recently in Wicker Park. The emphasis there is to use local, sustainably grown foods. I read that they also use whole animals which they cut up themselves, and use completely. Which would explain the delicious hangar steak I first heard about from Kevin over at Consumatron and tasted for myself. It was as delicious as Kevin said it was, although the gorgonzola-polenta could have been a little better blended. But that's a minor complaint.

But for me, the main star of the meal was a simple little dish consisting of grilled corn kernels served with butter and smoked sweet paprika. One bite of that and my "duh" factor kicked in - I have all of the ingredients in my kitchen and I have been buying corn like it's going out of style for the past few weeks - why didn't I think of this?

No problem - it's become a staple on my table ever since. And I get a little kick knowing that my corn comes from the same green market as the corn Mado uses, if not from the same purveyors.

You don't really need a recipe for this dish. Just cut the kernels from the cobs (I used my microwave method instead of the grill), add some butter or Sonoma lemon-infused olive oil, smoked sweet paprika and salt and pepper to taste and you're in heaven.

What's that? You've never cut corn from the cob and you're afraid you'll end up with little yellow kernels all around your kitchen, a trip to the emergency room when your knife slips and slices down your thumb instead of the cob, or both? Never fear. It's surprisingly easy to do. Here's how:

Here are four cobs just out of the microwave. I trimmed off the bottoms, rinsed them under cold water, and cooked them on high for five minutes.

You want to peel them right away. Simply peel them under cold running water and you won't burn your hands, but the cobs stay nice and hot if you want to eat them whole with butter melted all over them. Yum!

Another advantage to cooking the corn in the husks is that the silk comes off much easier after they're cooked, especially under the cold running water.

If you want to cut the kernels off, however, let them cool off .

This picture is mostly gratuitous, but I wanted you to see how fresh this corn is. See how thick and green the cornsilk is? And that's one day after I brought these babies home. Imagine how old the fresh corn is that you are bringing home from the grocery store.

Next, you need the proper equipment. I had to search high and low for the perfect corn kernel remover - oh wait! I didn't. I simply used a pyrex pie plate and custard cup, both of which I've had for years.

If you don't have these two items, simply find a shallow (preferably glass but it's not necessary) plate-size dish and a small invertible bowl.

Grabbing an ear of corn and holding it firmly in both hands, snap it in half. It might feel like some of the kernels are getting squashed, but don't worry about that. Just keep going until the ear breaks.

Set one of the halves on the inverted cup. The broken center helps keep the ear steady. If it is leaning a little too much to one side, just remove some of the kernels on the other side. You can put those into the dish, but I just eat them.

What knife you use is important. You want a sharp knife. As you can see from my knife, it is a thinner one. I don't know the technical term for it, but it really doesn't matter because you're going to use whatever knife works for you. As long is it is sharp and has enough heft for you to hold it steady in your hand, it should work.

Holding the upright ear steady with one hand, take the knife and apply it just under the top row of kernels. Run it down the edge of ear, applying just enough pressure to keep the knife where the cob meets the kernel. Move the knife slowly down the cob (or the kernels will fly all over your kitchen), letting the kernels fall over the knife into the dish.

Here's one half of an ear finished. Put the other half on the bowl cut side down and cut the kernels off of it.

And here's the last ear. Every once in a while, as the dish fills up, just empty the kernels into a bowl.

Some people save the husks for making corn soup. Someday I will do that, but for now I just eat all the kernels my knife missed off of the cobs and then throw them away. :sigh:

This is a six-cup bowl, so you can see that I have a nice amount of corn here. There was enough for me to make a lovely corn casserole. I used the rest for the corn with lemon-infused olive oil and smoked sweet paprika up at the top of this post.

So what are you waiting for? Now that you see how easy it is get yourself down to your local farmer's market, buy a bunch of corn, cook it up, shuck it, cut off the kernels, and have yourself a beautiful corny time.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Summer Melon

Every season there is at least one fruit and one vegetable that pop up and grab my attention. And for the whole season, while they are around, they are crisper, juicier, fresher, riper, smoother, softer - and most of all more flavorful - than ever before.

I'm not sure what makes it happen. Sometimes I think it's just something I never really noticed or bothered with before, but mostly I think maybe it's that all of the optimum growing conditions converge for that one season, and they just taste more like themselves because of it.

And I also suppose some part of it is because I am buying more of my produce at the green market, and therefore what I'm buying is more in season. But even within seasonality, it just seems like every year there's that one thing whose taste transcends the sum of its parts.

It should surprise no one who has been reading my blog lately that my vegetable this season is the beet. I have already written about it a couple of times, and there are more recipes I am ready to share with you, along with a little tutorial on how to cook and peel them. They are firm, deeply richly red, and as sweet as sugar. The orange and golden ones are delicious too, but what I can't seem to get enough of is the red.

The fruit I can't get enough of this summer is melons. When I first moved here, I was completely and totally underwhelmed by the local cantaloupe. They were hard and, even when sweet, had the kind of crunch that I associate with unripe fruit. There are only a few things that I consider to truly be better in Texas, and cantaloupe is one of them. There's a little city on the northeast side of Texas, not far from Roswell, New Mexico, called Pecos, and apparently the soil and climate conditions create the perfect environment for the most lusciously sweet cantaloupe in the world. I didn't really know this at the time, I only knew to look for the Pecos label. If I bought a cantaloupe with the Pecos label on it I knew I could trust that it would be soft, sweet, creamy, and delicious. Every time.

Hard for any poor soil-deprived local melon to compete. Until this summer. It started with the honeydew melon I bought to wrap in prosciutto for my picnic with Bob on my birthday. It was so soft and sweet that I had to try another one. Which was just as soft and sweet.

I thought maybe if the honeydew was so good, maybe the cantaloupe would be, too. So the next time I was at Treasure Island I checked them out. I picked up each one and smelled the stem end. Nothing. I don't know how true it is, but it always works for me with any produce. It's a trick I learned from watching the Two Fat Ladies on FoodTV. On the subject of tomatoes, Clarissa Dickson Wright said something along the lines of: "If it doesn't smell like a tomato, it won't taste like a tomato." Ever since, I have been sniffing and smelling my way through the produce stalls at the green market, and I have to say that so far my nose hasn't let me down.

And while the cantaloupe has not been smelling so sweet, I decided to check out the other melons that are always on the other side of the counter. You know the ones I mean - the melons that are oddly shaped, a little puckered, or a brighter shade of orange. I always noticed them, but I never really considered them. I don't know what made me decide to check them out. Maybe it's because they looked firm and fresh, and I was heady from the unexpected flavor of the honeydew. I picked one of the orange-skinned melons, put it to my nose, and inhaled a sweet melon scent. I put it in my basket and brought it home.Imagine my surprise on cutting it open and discovering that it was green. Even more, it was soft, sweet, moist and fruity. There was a hint of cantaloupe in the flavor, and maybe a hint of honeydew, but it was an altogether new flavor.

And now I can't get enough of them. I can't wait to see what new kinds are out there. And if you want some sweet succulent refreshment this summer, I recommend you try out some of the different varieties too.

I have no recipes to share - when they're this good they don't need anything more than to be cut up and eaten.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Instant Gazpacho

As someone who hates the hot humid summer months, I must say this year has not been too bad. I usually stop cooking sometime around mid July, and don't start again until mid September. But this summer there have not been that many days that I have been unable to stand the heat and have opted to get out of the kitchen. In fact, I can't really think of any.

Which is good, except that there are some old no-cook summer standards that I haven't made yet. Once it gets too hot to cook, I start relying on absorption pasta, salads, sandwiches, and anything else that does not require flame or heat to be made fit for human consumption.

And while I hate those hot sweaty months, I am secretly thrilled that I have the perfect excuse to make nothing but this gazpacho recipe I got from Lynda, who got it from The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook. It's the perfect time of year - the tomatoes and cucumbers are ripe, you can always find onions and green peppers, and the biggest sweat I work up is when I'm chopping up vegetables.

And ever one to look for an easier way to do things, I have figured out how to expedite the gazpacho process. It's called - are you ready - the hand blender (TA-DAAAAAA!).

Instead of chopping up all of the vegetables, filling up the blender, mixing it all up and then having to find a container big enough for it all, I simply cut up the vegetables to the basic ratio of the master recipe and throw them into whatever container I want to use. A simple pass of the magic wand and - abracadabra - liquid heaven!

I know I've mentioned many times before how much I love my hand blender, but this makes it that much more precious to me.

And there's nothing better when that hot sun is just beating you down than sitting back with a chilled cup of gazacho to cool you off.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Boiled Fingerlings with Lemon, Garlic and Parsley

Potatoes have made their debut at the green market, and I am finding it hard to resist picking them up every week. My favorites are the little baby fingerlings and the purple potatoes, but I am running out of ways to prepare them and I don't always want to turn on the oven to roast them, especially right now in the middle of summer. I could use the slow cooker method I recently discovered, but that's only good when I have a whole mess of potatoes I need to cook up.

Lately, I have been boiling them. It's quick and easy and doesn't involve a lot of thought. I just wash them and put them in a pot of cold water, bring it up to a boil, add salt, lower the heat, cover, and let it cook for 15-20 minutes, until a knife inserted into one of the potatoes goes in and out smoothly, without any resistance. After that it is a quick matter to dress it up in something fancy and take it out on the town.

These boiled fingerlings with lemon, garlic and parsley make a quick side dish to make any entree proud. It's a quick take on gremolata, with which I have long been intrigued.

1-2 lbs. small potatoes, fingerling, new or purple
a nice, fruity extra virgin olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 Tbsp lemon zest
juice of 1/2 a lemon (1-2 Tbsp)
1 Tbsp fresh thyme or any other fresh herb
1/4 - 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper to taste

Wash potatoes and place in 3-quart saucepan with cold water. Bring to a boil. Add generous amount of salt, lower heat, cover, and cook for 15-20 minutes, until a knife inserted into a potato goes in smoothly and comes out easily.

Drain potatoes. Depending on their size, either leave them whole, cut them in half, or slice them into 3/4-inch pieces and put in a large mixing bowl. While still hot, add oil, garlic, lemon zest and juice, parsley, salt and pepper and mix well. Serve immediately.

Full disclosure: The potatoes in the above picture were made with garlic powder and without the lemon zest, but you get the idea.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Zucchini Blossoms Redux

It took a few weeks, but I did finally find some more zucchini blossoms at the green market. Only these were male flowers, which are on stalks and do not have baby zucchini growing out of them like the females do. I didn't know about that difference before.

Because of that, there were more blossoms in this bunch than the female bunch I bought previously. The flowers seemed bigger and sturdier this time, but that might be because it was a little later in the season than due to any difference between male and female. If I were going to stuff them with anything, these were the perfect shape and size for it but, as I mentioned in my previous post, I thought the flavor of the cheese stuffing overpowered the blossoms and I was not particularly impressed with it.

I decided to use the same recipe/method this time as I did the first time. Here you can see the blossoms with their flour and baking powder coating, waiting to go into the skillet:And here they are in the skillet:
I had to cook these in batches, and I cooked the first batch a little longer than I would have liked - you can see which ones those are in the top photo. Luckily, they were not burned beyond all recognition, but the ones form the second batch came out pret' near perfect.

Which ones did I like more? Well, that's a tough one. The female blossoms had a more subtle flavor that was punched up by the little bit of zucchini that was attached to it. The male blossoms seemed a little sweeter to me, and had a more concentrated zucchini flavor.

But I would happily take either one if it were offered to me. I might even steal one from your plate even if it weren't offered to me.

I'm not going to repost the recipe. You can find it here if you want to give these a try.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Corn, Zucchini and Mozzarella Salad

When I am not obsessing over beets this summer, I have been more than usually attentive to zucchini and fresh corn. Since I started blanching zucchini (and broccoli too, by the bye), I have had much more success in using it without overcooking it. And this summer there has been a beautiful abundance of summer squashes.

I had a few ears of fresh corn and some zucchini that I picked up at the green market, and I wanted to do something cool and refreshing, like a salad. I also seem to have become obsessed with salads this season, and have taken a particular pleasure out of being as creative as I can in trying to come up with combinations of flavors of which I would not normally think.

Now corn, zucchini and tomato are not all that unusual together; in fact, summer seems to demand that they be brought together at least once. I did not have the tomatoes so I hopped on down to Treasure Island to see if they had any of the pear tomatoes that I have come to love so much, and I was lucky enough to find them. At the deli on the way to the produce section (it's at the other end of the store, actually, but the deli is always on the way to everything else at Treasure Island), they had beautiful small mozzarella bocconcini that I just knew would be the perfect protein to add.

I chopped and blanched the zucchini while I microwaved the corn. By the time the corn was cooked, husked, and left to cool enough to be handled, the water for the zucchini was boiling and I dropped it in, turned off the heat, and let it sit for four to five minutes. While it was blanching I cut the kernels off the cob, halved the pear tomatoes and chopped up some red onions, basil and parsley. It only took a minute to put together the vinaigrette, and in a short period of time, with little fuss, muss (and heat), I had a delicious dinner salad. Add a nice crisp-crusted piece of garlic bread and it's the perfect summer meal.

2-3 ears corn, still in the husk
3-4 medium-small zucchini, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 small red onion, finely diced
1 pint pear tomatoes, cut in half on the diagonal
1 container (8-oz.) mozzarella bocconcini, cut in half
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 Tbsp freshly-squeezed lemon juice
3 Tbsp white wine vinegar
8 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
salt and pepper to taste

Rinse corn and put on a microwaveable plate, with the husks still on. Cook on high for 4-5 minutes. While still hot, peel under cold running water then leave to cool off enough to handle.
Blanch zucchini by dropping it into a pot of boiling salted water, turning the heat off, covering, and letting it sit for 4-5 minutes.

Combine the corn, zucchini, onion and garlic in a large bowl and mix well. Add the tomatoes and the cheese and mix a little more gently.

In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Whisk well to combine, and pour over salad. Mix well, then let sit for at least half an hour before serving. After it's been in the refrigerator, be sure to bring to room temperature before serving.

The salad will keep for a few days in the refrigerator; after that the cheese takes on an unappetizing texture.

created 7/23/08

Monday, August 04, 2008

Ground Pork and Eggplant Sauce with Orzo and Feta Cheese

This is what I did with the rest of the meat sauce and eggplant, and to tell the truth, I'm having a hard time saying which came out better. It's always nice to come up with one new use for a meat sauce, but it's even better to come up with two uses.

Pasta seemed the obvious choice to use with the rest of the sauce, but I didn't want to just cook up any old pasta I had lying around the house. I wanted something that would highlight the Grecian aspect. So I started thinking about the Greek restaurants I have eaten at here in Chicago. Many of them offer meat sauce and pasta. And the only pasta I could remember seeing on the menu was orzo.

If I ever thought of orzo, I always just thought of it as a different kind of rice, and was never really tempted to try it. I had nothing against it; I just didn't really see any reason to use it. My only experience with it was in the avgolemeno soup I used to choose at the Greek diner up the street that was always one of the options with the lunch special. They had a really good chicken marsala too, now that I think of it. Note to self - I should see if it's still as good as it used to be.

As far as I could taste, the orzo neither added nor detracted from the soup. Now that I think of it, it was better than rice would have been in terms of texture, but I never noticed it in terms of taste.

But when I started thinking of pasta to use with the sauce, and wanting to keep a Grecian theme, orzo seemed to be the only way to go. I stopped at Dominick's on the way home from work to pick up a box. I couldn't find any whole wheat orzo, but I really wanted it, so I bought the regular.

This came out really well. The sauce coated the orzo perfectly, and the feta cheese I added made it smooth and creamy. Fresh parsley gave it a lovely splash of color and freshened up the flavor. And it doesn't take long to put together, so it's great for a weeknight dinner if you have some pre-made sauce in the freezer. It travels well, too, for lunch at work.
Meat sauce with pork and eggplant (recipe here)
4 oz. crumbled feta cheese
fresh parsley, chopped
1 package orzo
Parmesan cheese for garnish (optional)

Heat sauce in skillet large enough to hold the sauce and pasta. While it is heating, cook the orzo two minute less than the package directions. Add to the sauce and cook about two minutes more, until everything is heated through. Turn off the heat and add the cheese and parsley.

Garnish with parmesan cheese and serve.
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