Saturday, May 16, 2015

Spring Pasta with Sugar Snap Peas, Mushrooms, Pesto, Pine Nuts & Goat Cheese

When I purchased some sugar snap peas (first of the season!) at the market last week, I knew that one of the things I was going to make would be a quick pasta.  I wanted to share the recipe for this particular pasta the first time I made it (one...maybe two...years ago).  But I didn't.  I post so many pasta recipes that I am almost always hesitant to post another.  But the reality is that I love pasta…..and I eat a lot of pasta.... and if I am going to post things that I love to make and serve at my own table, it will often be a recipe for pasta.  Ultimately, I have to assume that if you visit my blog regularly, you like the kinds of things that I like...and that another seasonal recipe for pasta (particularly one that includes some fresh young sugar snap peas) might be just the thing you are hungry for right now.

If you don't yet have sugar snap peas in your region, you can still make a version of this pasta.  I have made it with asparagus...and have also used it as a way to use up odds and ends of spring vegetables

(a little asparagus...a few sugar snaps...a handful of English peas).  I like it best with the sugar snaps...they go particularly well with the tangy goat cheese...but it is very good with asparagus too.   All of these spring vegetables are delicious with mushrooms and pesto.  The pesto itself is a very nice addition, but if you don't have any (and don't want to make it), the addition of a little garlic....some chopped fresh herbs (basil, arugula, parsley and/or mint)...along with a handful of finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino will do just fine.  

Even though I have posted many pasta recipes, I have not posted too many recipes that include sugar snap peas.  As a consequence, I have never posted any kind of commentary on their preparation.  If you have never prepared them there are a couple of things you should know.  The first is that sugar snap peas frequently have tough strings that run the length (or nearly so) of the pod on both sides.  Removing them may seem like a pain...or a detail that only the most persnickety of cooks would attend to... but I assure you it is a necessary step.  When present, the strings can be as tough as dental floss and just as inedible.  You (and your guests...) will end up either picking them out of your mouth or simply pushing the peas aside to eat the other things on the plate rather than deal with them.  It is best to go to the trouble to remove them before you cook them.

To remove the strings, simply pinch off both ends of the pod (the stem and the blossom), pulling down one side—and then the other—as you do so.  Sometimes the strings are so tough that when you bend and snap the first end (I start with the stem end) the strings on both sides will come away as you pull down.  On other occasions, you will find that the strings have not developed at all.  If this is the case—you have hit the sugar snap pea jackpot—and you only need to pinch off the stem.

The "string" on the flat side is typically thicker and stronger
 than the one on the curved side.

This one has thick, tough strings on both sides...
they will both come away with one pull.

The'll be so glad you removed them...

Sugar Snaps without their strings...ready to eat!
The second thing about sugar snap peas is that they are best eaten when they are just barely cooked....or raw (as a crudité or in a salad).  Part of their charm is their pleasant crunch...and their sweet and ultra fresh pea flavor (just as the name "sugar snap" would imply...)...both of which are preserved by minimal cooking.  When cooked, sugar snap peas go from crunchy to mushy in a cook them just long enough to soften the crunch....this will only take about a minute when dropped into boiling salted water.  After their quick blanch, the peas are ready to be dressed with butter or olive oil (to be serves as a vegetable side), tossed in a salad....or added to the "sauce" of a fresh, Spring pasta....

Gemelli with Mushrooms, Sugar Snap Peas & Goat Cheese

olive oil
2 or 3 spring onions, thinly sliced (white and some of green)
1/2 T. butter
4 oz. crimini or white button mushrooms, brushed free of dirt and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/3 lb. sugar snap peas, strings removed and sliced on a long diagonal into 2 or 3 pieces each
8 oz. gemelli pasta
2 to 4 T. pesto (basil or arugula)—see note
2 T. toasted pine nuts
2 oz. crumbled goat cheese

Heat some olive oil (about a tablespoon) in a medium sauté pan over moderate heat.  Add the spring onions along with a pinch of salt and cook at a gentle sizzle until just tender (3 minutes or so).  

Increase the heat slightly and the butter to the pan.  When it has melted add the mushrooms along with a pinch of salt.  Cook until any liquid the mushrooms have released has evaporated and the mushrooms are sizzling in the fat and beginning to brown around the edges.  Set aside.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to the boil. Salt generously (at least a teaspoon per quart of water).  Add the snap peas and cook for one minute.  Taste one to make sure it is cooked to your liking.  If so, scoop the peas out of the water and add them to the pan with the mushrooms...toss to combine and set aside. 

Add the pasta to the same pot in which the peas were cooked and cook at a rapid boil until al dente.   Drain, reserving some of the cooking water.  Add the pasta to the pan with the vegetables and toss to combine.  Thin a few spoonfuls of pesto with some of the pasta water and add this to the pasta along with the pine nuts and a drizzle of oil.  Toss well.  If the pasta seems dry, add some of the cooking water.  Divide among serving plates, drizzle with more olive oil if desired.  Crumble the goat cheese over and serve immediately.  Serves 2 generously.

  • I prefer arugula pesto in the spring, but have made this dish with basil pesto too.  Both are good. If you don't have any pesto on hand, you may leave it out. To replace some of the flavor, add a small clove of minced garlic to the pan and cook briefly when the mushrooms are finished cooking. Then, add a handful of julienne/chiffonade arugula or basil leaves to the pan with the hot pasta. Finally, toss in a few tablespoons of Parmesan or Pecorino just before serving. 
  • This recipe is easily doubled...simply use a large sauté pan (large enough to hold the mushrooms in a single layer...and ultimately all of the pasta ingredients).
  • Substitute asparagus for the some or all of the sugar snaps.  Trim the tough ends from the asparagus and cut into 2-inch lengths on a short diagonal.  You will probably need to blanch the asparagus for a little bit longer...maybe 3 minutes, or so.
Printable Recipe

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Sour Cream Coffee Cake with Chocolate, Cinnamon & Pecans

This past Sunday I volunteered to bring “something sweet” as my contribution to a brunch that was going to have a south of the border kind of feel.  As I thought about what to bring, I decided I wanted to bring a big sour cream streusel coffee cake (doesn’t everyone likes sour cream coffee cake?).  I wanted the cake to feature the Mexican flavor combination of cinnamon and chocolate….with pecans… and I wanted a cake that was baked in a large tube pan so guests would be able to help themselves to a thin sliver….or a big fat chunk. 

As I looked through my recipe files and cookbooks, I was unable to find one that matched what I had envisioned (…surprising when you consider that neither my recipe file, nor my cookbook collection, is particularly small….).  Ina Garten’s Sour Cream Coffee cake from Barefoot Contessa Parties was a possibility.  It is a big tube cake….and includes a streusel….but has no chocolate.  I was also intrigued by Claudia Fleming’s Chocolate Marble cake in Rose Beranbaum’s Rose’s Heavenly Cakes.  This one is a small sour cream bundt cake (alas, without streusel) that features a ribbon of soft cinnamon scented chocolate running through the middle of the cake. 

Neither was exactly the cake I was looking for, but of the two, I was more drawn to Fleming’s cake.  The cake batters are actually nearly identical, but Fleming’s has a higher percentage of sour cream and a lower percentage of egg.  These proportions make for a softer crumb…which is what I wanted.  In the end, because I wanted a tad more structure to support a streusel, I made a cake that struck a balance between Garten’s and Fleming’s: more egg than Fleming’s, but less than Garten’s…and more sour cream than Garten’s, but less than Fleming’s. 

And I have to say that I really liked the resulting cake (as did everyone at the party!).  It is tender and slightly soft…but still has the nice, neatly sliceable crumb one expects of a sour cream bundt/tube-style cake.  

The mixture of cocoa and brown sugar that makes up the marbling liquefies in the oven and stays soft even after the cake has cooled.  It is an unusual and delicious addition. 

The streusel that I added...adapted from another cake in Beranbaum’s book… is somewhat of a revelation.  If you have made streusel-topped coffee cakes, you know that sometimes the streusel sinks into the cake a bit.  Or the cake doesn’t rise as much in the center as it does on the edges.  With this cake, neither of these things is a problem because the streusel isn’t added until the cake has been in the oven for half an hour.  At that point, the cake has enough structure and loft that it doesn’t sink under the added weight of the streusel.  Furthermore, just enough of a crust has formed on the cake that the streusel adheres, but doesn’t penetrate into the cake itself.  I was skeptical about the streusel having enough time in the oven to brown properly.  But I was pleasantly surprised.  The streusel crisped nicely and turned a lovely, golden brown. 

Since I am a firm believer that one can never have too many recipes for coffee cake, I am so pleased to add another “keeper” recipe to my file.  Because it is baked in a large tube pan, it makes a cake that is big enough to feed a crowd…and beautiful enough to set out on a buffet.  And while I love the flavor combination of chocolate, cinnamon and pecans (it was perfect for the brunch), I have no doubt that other combinations of flavors (different nuts, dried fruits, zests, other spices…) will make an appearance in future renditions of this cake.

Sour Cream Coffee Cake with Chocolate & Pecan Streusel

60 g. (4 T. plus 2 t.) golden brown sugar
18 g. (3 T plus 1 t. ) non-alkalized cocoa
3/8 t. cinnamon

300 g. (2 1/2 c.) all-purpose flour
3/4 t. salt
2 1/4 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
170 g. (12 T.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
300 g. (1 1/2 c.) sugar
2 t. vanilla
3 large eggs, at room temperature
325 g. (1 1/3 c.) sour cream

100 g. (1/2 c.) golden brown sugar
40 g. (1/3 c.) all-purpose flour
3/4 t. cinnamon
1/8 t. salt
2 T. unsalted butter, at room temperature
55 g. (1/2 c.) toasted and finely chopped pecans
55 g. (1/3 c.) finely chopped bittersweet (60%) chocolate

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Butter and flour a 10-cup capacity tube pan.  Set aside.

Combine the first three ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

Combine the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a small bowl and whisk to blend.  Set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy—this will take 3 to 5 minutes at medium-high to high speed.  Stop the mixer and scrape the bowl occasionally. Beat in the vanilla. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl in between each egg and waiting until the previous one is fully incorporated before adding the next.  Stir in a third of the flour mixture.  Stir in half of the sour cream.  Fold in half of the remaining flour, followed by the remaining sour cream, followed by the remaining flour mixture. 

Dollop half of the batter (about 625 g) into the prepared pan.  Use a spatula or palette knife to spread evenly so that the bottom of the pan is fully covered.  Sprinkle the brown sugar-cocoa-cinnamon mixture evenly over the batter, leaving a quarter inch border of batter showing on both the inner edge and outer edge.  

Dollop the remaining batter over all and spread to smooth out, making sure all the cocoa mixture is covered.  Place in the center of the preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes.

While the cake bakes, make the streusel (or, you may make it ahead and set it aside).  

Combine the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl and whisk to blend.  Rub in the butter until well distributed.  With a fork, fluff in the chocolate and pecans.  If the room is very warm, store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

When the cake has baked for 30 minutes, carefully remove the cake from the oven

and quickly scatter the streusel evenly over the cake—a large spoon or a measuring cup makes this easier.  Or, place all the streusel in a sheet of parchment and use it as a make-shift funnel to quickly and evenly strew the streusel over the cake.  

However you choose to do it, work quickly and hold the spoon, measuring cup or parchment funnel close to the surface of the cake so that you can lay the streusel down lightly on the surface (rather than dropping it heavily from height).  Return the cake to the oven and continue to bake until the cake is golden brown, springy to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean….another 20 to 30 minutes. 

Let the cake cool for 20 to 30 minutes before running a spatula around the outer edge and removing the sides from the pan.  Let the cake cool completely before attempting to remove the center ring of the pan.

Makes one large cake, serving about 16 people.

(Adapted from two cakes:  Sour Cream Coffee Cake in Barefoot Contessa Parties by Ina Garten & Claudia Fleming’s Chocolate Streusel Coffee Cake as adapted by Rose Beranbaum in Rose’s Heavenly Cakes)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Soup for a Cool Spring Day…Minestra Verdissima

We are having one of the most beautiful Spring seasons in my recent memory.  There have been no late freezes to nip back the early blooming bulbs, trees and shrubs….and we haven’t had a lot of the unseasonably hot days that tend to force the cool season flower progression into warp speed.   Spring has been long, mild and delightful.  We have probably had what many people would consider too many cool, cloudy and damp days….but I don’t mind them at all.  They encourage all the lovely blooms to linger and they have a calm, quiet beauty that forces you to take time…and look …and absorb.  And they make the sunny days seem all the more lovely.

This past weekend we were cool enough that it was downright chilly.  As the day progressed I became hungry for a warming bowl of soup.  Since I had a batch of freshly made arugula pesto on hand, the soup that immediately came to mind was a Spring soup called Minestra Verdissima….or “a very green soup”.  Minestra Verdissima is a light minestrone made with all green Spring and early Summer vegetables.  Like minestrone it is finished with pesto…usually arugula or spinach pesto since these are both abundant in the Spring. 

Because I didn’t have all of the traditional ingredients on hand, I decided to improvise a little…using what I had on hand (going to the grocery store on a Sunday isn’t my idea of fun).  For the soup base, I used a bunch of the spring onions I had purchased at Saturday’s farmers market.  If I hadn’t had them, I could have used onion or, even better, leek.  Most recipes for Minestra Verdissima are finished with the addition of some cooked shell beans or rice or small pasta….or some combination thereof.  But instead of adding these at the end, I decided to follow Judy Roger’s method for a delicious asparagus and rice soup in her Zuni Café Cookbook: she cooks the rice in the water which ultimately becomes the soup’s broth.  And since I had some pink-eyed peas in my freezer (frozen during the height of the season last summer) I decided to add these along with the rice rather than adding the more traditional cooked dried beans at the end. 

Pink-eyed Peas from the market...last August.
I always purchase extra for the freezer...

For the remaining additions, I again simply used what I had:  Asparagus (from the market) and English peas (like the pink-eyed peas, socked away in my freezer last summer).  I chose again to follow Judy Roger’s lead and stew the asparagus and peas in a bit of fat (I used butter, but if I had had some pancetta, rendering it and cooking the vegetables in the rendered fat would have been a delicious way to go) before adding them to the soup when the pink-eyed peas and rice were done cooking. 

You could of course just add the raw vegetables to the soup during the last five to ten minutes of cooking, but I think you get a richer vegetable flavor if you cook the vegetables in some fat first.  (Don’t forget to rinse out the pan the asparagus and peas have been cooked in with some of the soup broth…you don’t want to lose any of the flavor.)

I imagine it is obvious, but I want to point out that this soup can be made with almost any combination of green vegetables that you have on hand:  Artichokes….fennel…green beans….zucchini….broccoli…and of course, asparagus and English peas.  Simply cut your chosen vegetable in uniform (smallish) pieces and add them at an appropriate moment—stewing the artichokes and fennel for perhaps 20 minutes or so (until almost tender) before adding the other, more yielding, green vegetables.   The idea is to achieve a soup that is a tapestry of greens… 

with touches of ivory, white or beige from the additions of pasta, beans, rice…or even farro or diced potatoes.  The pesto…swirled in at the table…is the crowning touch.  It magically turns the soup a vibrant spring green….

Over the years I have come to believe that eating seasonally is about so much more than eating what the earth around me is currently producing.  It also has to do with (among other things) eating foods that are in sync with the weather and my mood.  On Sunday I was hungry for a homey soup because of the chill in the air and the slow, lazy pace of my afternoon.  But while a hearty, traditional minestrone might have seemed perfect, to me it would have seemed jarring with its bold flavors and deep colors.  But my little minestra was just perfect.  It was filled with ‘seasonal’ produce… was warm and soothing to ward off the chill in the air….and was at the same time permeated with the subtle vibrancy of a cloudy and cool spring day.

Minestra Verdissima

2 T. unsalted butter (or olive oil)
5 or 6 spring onions, halved and thinly sliced (white and pale green only) to make 1 cup—substitute thinly sliced leeks (white and pale green only), or finely diced onion, if spring onions aren't available
1/4 to 1/3 c. Arborio or Carnaroli rice
1/2 c. frozen shell beans (pink-eyed peas, crowder peas, lady peas, etc.)
3 1/2 to 4 c. water or light chicken stock
1 T. unsalted butter (or olive oil)
4 oz. trimmed asparagus, cut into 1/4-inch lengths on a short diagonal (a generous cup)
1/2 cup English peas (fresh or frozen)
Arugula (or Spinach) pesto, room temperature

Heat 2 T. butter in a medium saucepan set over medium-low heat.  Add the spring onions and a pinch of salt and sweat until very tender and translucent—about 5 minutes (leeks or onions will take 10 to 15 minutes…don’t shortcut this step).  Add the rice, shell beans and 3 1/2 cups water (or stock) and bring to a simmer.  Cover and cook until the rice and beans are  tender (about 15 minutes). 

About 10 minutes before the rice and beans are done, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter in a sauté pan set over medium heat. Add the asparagus and peas along with a pinch of salt, stirring to coat the vegetables in the butter.  Let the vegetables gently sizzle until they are tender, stirring occasionally.   

When the rice/beans are cooked, scrape the asparagus and peas into the soup.  Swirl a ladleful of the broth around the sauté pan to get all the flavorful bits and add it back to the soup. Bring the soup to a boil and let simmer for a minute or two to allow the flavors to blend.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  If the soup seems too “crowded” with vegetables, add more water or stock.

Ladle the soup into bowls and place a dollop of pesto in the center of each bowl, allowing each person to swirl the pesto into their soup at the table.  Pass more pesto on the side if you like.

Serves 3 or 4. 

Notes & Variations:
  • Recipe is easly doubled, tripled, etc. 
  • When making this soup, carefully season at each step. Because it is subtle and mild, it will taste bland if not seasoned well. 
  • Add a couple of ounces of minced pancetta. To add, place the pancetta in the sauté pan and cook until rendered and beginning to crisp—adding some olive oil or butter only if the pancetta is very lean. When the pancetta is rendered, add the asparagus and peas and proceed with the recipe. 
  • As noted in the post this soup can be made with many combinations of starches and green vegetables…I like the soup best when the total quantity of cooked starches (rice, potatoes, beans, pasta) is roughly the same as the quantity of green vegetables…with maybe a little more green vegetable than starch….. 
  • You may use leftover/previously cooked rice or beans (and of course, pasta…choose something small, like soup shells or orzo…). To do this, add the green vegetables to the cooked onion, cooking until just tender before adding water or broth. Bring the broth to a simmer and then add the cooked grain, beans or pasta (adding any bean cooking liquid you might have along with the beans). Bring back to a simmer and serve.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Spring Salad…Arugula, Mint, Beets & Asparagus…dressed with Orange Vinaigrette

Spring salad.  ….Two little words that conjure up images of exactly what I’m craving this time of year:  the light and fresh greens—and green vegetables—of the new season at the farmers’ market.  I have been visiting my Farmers’ market now for almost a month.  And although the offerings are still a bit thin, I have been able to find all of the ingredients I need to make one of my favorite spring salads….arugula with beets and asparagus. 

I first ran across this unusual combination of beets and asparagus years ago in an article in Bon Appétit featuring representative dishes from the various regions of the French countryside.  I have made this salad many times over the years…and I am always struck by how good it tastes.  If you are dubious, I encourage you to give it a try.  The original salad included hazelnuts…but I sometimes replace them with walnuts or pistachios.  Often I add olives…or goat cheese…but the salad is delicious without them.  I don’t remember what kind of vinaigrette was on that original salad, long ago I discovered that an orange vinaigrette (and a handful of fresh mint) lights up this flavor combination better than just about anything else. 

You can make an orange vinaigrette with fresh orange juice and orange zest, but you get a more intense flavor…and better emulsification….if you reduce the orange juice down to a thick syrup.  Reducing the juice is easy…it just takes a bit of patience.  The temptation to boil it rapidly is great, but usually results in a scorched or caramelized reduction.  The best results are achieved by bringing the orange juice to a boil and then reducing the heat to very low and patiently letting the juice reduce.  The liquid doesn’t really even have to simmer…it just needs to steam.  Occasionally, run a heat proof rubber spatula around the sides and bottom of the pan to make sure that none of your precious reduction is sticking to the sides and burning.  Your goal is a thick syrup….you will get a generous 2 tablespoons of reduction from 2/3 to 3/4 of a cup of fresh juice.  Towards the end of the cooking, watch it very carefully—even over low heat, it will eventually scorch if allowed to cook too long.

When I made this salad last week, I was unable to find Valencia oranges....which I prefer because they produce abundant, sweet juice.  Instead I purchased a couple of Honeybell tangerines (also known for their abundant, sweet juice).  

The tangerine vinaigrette was excellent.  Since the availability of citrus fruits is quite variable this time of year, you should purchase whatever member of the orange/tangerine family you are able to find that is juicy and sweet.  When you make the vinaigrette, take the time to make a full batch.  Since it is delicious on all kinds of ingredients (not just beets and asparagus), I can’t imagine that it will go to waste.   Shaved fresh fennel…raw and cooked carrots….poached artichokes…fresh peas…. all are  delicious dressed with this vinaigrette. 

The vinaigrette itself takes well to all kinds of additions and variations.  Sometimes I add Dijon…   sometimes a few minced shallots or spring onions.  As far as the choice of vinegar is concerned, you have many options.  I prefer something with a lighter color—champagne, white wine, white/golden balsamic…or, going a bit darker, sherry.  But a little red wine vinegar…or even a small amount of balsamic would be fine.  Minced fresh tarragon and mint are nice additions too…as is a little toasted and ground fennel or coriander seed. 

When I made this salad last, I had intended to serve it garnished with a few wedges of hard cooked egg.  (I had on hand some very fresh eggs—a lovely gift from a couple of women who attend my classes and who keep a flock of hens.)  But while the eggs were cooking, I decided I wanted something more substantial, so I made egg salad instead…and spread it on crisp little toasts.  It was the perfect touch.  

I would give you the recipe….but I honestly don’t have one.  I have been making egg salad since I was tall enough to reach the counter.  I never measure….and I still make it the same way I always have…chopped hard cooked egg, enough mayonnaise to make it creamy, and mustard, salt and pepper to taste.  At some point in time I graduated from yellow mustard to Dijon…but it is delicious either way.  This last time, I added a smidge of minced spring onion…and a sprinkle of chives.  Although neither is necessary…egg salad should be all about the eggs.

I love this time of year.  The light… the colors… the new growth all around…  and the beginning of the market season.  If you have not made your way to your market yet, I hope you will soon.  You can’t help but be inspired.  While you’re there, be sure and pick out some beautiful greens….mint (if you don’t have your own little patch)…some asparagus….a few beets….and some local eggs…. 

Spring Salad of Arugula, Mint, Beets & Asparagus
with Orange Vinaigrette

1/2 lb. Beets, scrubbed & stemmed
Red wine or Balsamic vinegar, to taste
3/4 lb. Asparagus, tough ends trimmed
Orange Vinaigrette (below)
Several fresh mint leaves, torn or cut into a wide chiffonade
4 small handfuls arugula, stemmed
1/3 c. pistachios, toasted & coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 400°.  Place the beets in a roasting pan and add a quarter inch of water.  Cover the pan with foil and roast the beets in a pre-heated oven until they are tender all the way through—30 minutes to an hour, depending on the size and age of the beets.  When the beets are cool enough to handle (although they should still be a bit warm), trim the roots and stems off and gently rub the skins off using a paper towel.  Leave baby beets whole; cut medium-sized beets in wedges; dice large beets.  Toss the beets with red wine or balsamic vinegar to taste.  Set aside.

Bring a pan of salted water to a boil.  If the asparagus are very fat, peel the lower 2/3 of each stalk.  Add the asparagus to the boiling water and cook until just tender.  Drain and refresh under cold running water.  Pat dry and set aside.  (If you are serving the salad right away, simply spread the drained asparagus on towels to cool slightly and steam dry.)

To serve the salad:  Treating each separately, season the beets and asparagus with salt and pepper and dress with the vinaigrette.  Arrange attractively on individual plates or a platter.  Place the arugula and mint leaves in a bowl.  Drizzle with some of the vinaigrette and season with salt & pepper.  Gently toss to make sure all of the leaves are lightly dressed with the vinaigrette—add more vinaigrette as necessary.  Arrange the dressed greens, on the plate(s) with the beets & asparagus.  Sprinkle the toasted pistachios over all. 

Garnish the salad with wedges of hard cooked egg or egg salad toasts.   Serves 4

  • If you have never roasted beets for a salad before, there is a more detailed description of the process here.
  • Similarly, you can find out how I hard cook an egg in this recent post.

Orange Vinaigrette

2 T. Sherry vinegar
2 T. White/Golden Balsamic vinegar
1 medium shallot, finely diced (3 to 4 T.)
Salt & Pepper
1 T. Dijon
Strained juice of 2 Valencia Oranges or Honeybell Tangerines (about 2/3 to 3/4 c.), slowly reduced until syrupy
3/4 c. extra virgin olive oil (or use a neutral oil, if you prefer)

In a small bowl, combine the vinegar and shallots.  Season to taste with salt & pepper.  Let sit for a few minutes (to soften the shallots).  Whisk in the mustard and reduced orange juice.  Gradually whisk in the oil, adding it in a thin stream.  Taste and correct the seasoning and the vinegar balance.

(Vinaigrette adapted from recipes in The New Making of a Cook by Madeleine Kamman and The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook by Michelle & Philip Wojtowicz et al)

Friday, April 17, 2015

Beautiful Boneless Chicken Thighs

The thigh is my favorite part of the chicken.  I think I have always been of this opinion (I have always preferred dark meat turkey, too…).  For many years I was in the minority…the poor thigh was out of favor with most…no doubt a victim of the fear of fat.  In recent years, this most flavorful and moist part of the chicken has been gaining some ground….but mostly in its boneless, skinless form.  This new preference may have something to do with a still ingrained fear of fat (much of the fat resides in the skin), but I also suspect the fact that people want to purchase boneless thighs may have something to do with the fact that a thigh…when cooked surrounded by some kind of delicious liquid (which is one of the best ways to prepare and eat the thigh)….is not the neatest thing to eat.

A fried or roasted thigh is of course easily eaten with ones hands.  But most Americans…self included… are a bit disinclined to pick up a saucy piece of meat with their hands when in polite company.  Trying to remove all of the meat from the bone with a knife and fork can be done….but it takes more time and effort—and creates more of a mess on the plate—than most people seem to be willing to deal with at the table. 

Poulet à la Fermière

Despite all this, I still prefer to cook thighs on the bone…with the skin.  It is an undisputed fact that meat always tastes better when cooked on the bone.  Just as bones give flavor to a stock or broth, they impart flavor to the meat as they cook together.  I would also maintain that meat cooked on the bone is ultimately moister and juicer than corresponding boneless cuts.  As for the skin….besides being delicious in and of itself…I am convinced that since it provides a natural protective coating of fat, it is also responsible for a juicier and tastier final result. 

But just because something has been cooked on the bone doesn’t mean it must be served on the bone.  We routinely carve large roasts in order to serve the meat without the bone—a whole chicken, prime rib, leg of lamb, etc.  There is absolutely no reason not to treat chicken thighs the same way…removing the bone before it ever gets to the table so that you…and your family or your guests….can eat and enjoy a delicious, boneless piece of meat. 

Poulet Basquaise

So today, instead of posting a recipe, I thought I would explain the simple process of de-boning a cooked chicken thigh.  I hope no one minds the lack of a recipe (I have posted several in the past…and have provided images and links throughout this post—you can also find a list under the chicken section on my “recipes” page).  But if the popularity of my other basics posts (as tracked by my new “popular posts” feature below) is an indication, this is actually the kind of information that many people are looking for.    

Before I get started, for safety reasons I want to mention that when you are boning a piece of meat…whether raw or cooked… you should always keep the hand that is holding the knife (your “working hand”) clean and dry.  Use your other hand to handle the meat as you work.  If you allow your working hand to get wet or greasy (by touching the meat) your hand might slip on the knife handle, possibly causing you to cut yourself. 

To de-bone a cooked chicken thigh:  Let the thighs sit until they are cool enough to handle (they don’t have to be cold…in fact, the meat comes away from the bone more easily if it is still slightly warm).  Pick up a thigh with your non-working hand and lightly scrape any sauce clinging to the meat back into the cooking vessel using the back side of your boning knife.  Place the thigh on a cutting board skin-side down. 

While stabilizing the thigh with your non-working hand, 

use the tip of your boning knife to make a shallow incision from knuckle to knuckle along the length of the bone. 

Continue to run the tip of your knife over the incision until your knife is scraping the bone.  This should only take one or two passes with the knife—the idea is that you are “searching” for the bone with your knife tip so that you can actually scrape the bone clean of meat with the tip of your knife without making unnecessary cuts into the meat itself.     

When the bone is exposed, use the fingers of your non-working hand to grab one end of the bone.  Twist slightly while you simultaneously use the tip of the knife to slice and scrape the cooked flesh neatly away from the bone.  If the thighs have been cooked properly (until the meat is fork-tender), the meat will pretty much release itself from the bone.  You may need to do a bit of knife work on the opposite side of the bone from where you started…but not too much.  

Next, lift the bone up and away from the meat. 

Then, using the fingers of your non-working hand, gently probe the portion of the thigh where the knuckles of the bone were attached.  It is likely that the hard white cartilage that covered the knuckles has detached itself from the bone and is still attached to the meat.  If this is the case, simply pinch it away from the meat and discard it.  Check both ends.  

Now, tuck any bits of meat that have been separated from the main piece of meat back into the interior of the thigh (where the bone was).  Flip the thigh back over so that it is skin-side up. 

By way of encouragement...  I have been de-boning chicken thighs for years.  And because I like to serve chicken thighs to my classes, I have lots of practice.  Even with all of this practice, the bone does not always come away beautifully and cleanly.  

But rest assured, if you tuck all of the bits of meat back into the cavity that has been left by the bone, when you flip the thigh over, no one will ever know the difference.  You will still have a beautiful, boneless thigh.  

Since most of the saucy sorts of dishes that will benefit from this process are even better in taste and texture after they have had time to cool and sit awhile (overnight…or even just a few hours) it makes sense to take the few minutes necessary to remove the thigh bones.  If the sauce needs de-fatting, do this before you return the meat to the sauce.  After any de-greasing, place the boneless thighs back in the cooking vessel (skin side up), nestling them down into the sauce.  Refrigerate until an hour or so before you want to serve.  If you are serving your dish family-style, instead of putting everything back in the pan the dish was cooked in, take a minute to transfer the entire contents of the pan into a clean dish (preferably one with a lid) that is oven-safe and table-worthy.  As long as your pan is covered, there is no need to worry that the meat will dry out—one of the wonderful things about thighs is that unlike white meat, there is enough fat and collagen in the dark meat to keep them moist and juicy—even when reheated.

The beauty of this process is that it produces a beautiful portion of meat that still resembles a whole chicken thigh.  A chicken thigh that is cooked from its boneless skinless state may taste good…but the nubby and lumpy portion of meat that results is not terribly attractive.   Once you get the hang of it, removing the thigh bones is fast and easy to do….and in every way that matters—taste, texture, ease of consumption and appearance—it is totally worth the effort involved.  Certainly any guests you have will notice and appreciate the difference…and I would be surprised if even your family won't notice a difference too.  

Baked Chicken with Garlic, Leeks & Thyme