Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Spring Pasta...with Artichokes and Mushrooms

The artichoke fest continues....  Today, in a quiet pasta along with mushrooms, spring onions, asparagus and prosciutto.  It is quiet because there is no noisy sautéing...just gentle stewing.  Quiet also in that the flavors are subtle...all coming together in a harmonious whole without one jumping forward and shouting for attention.  If you have an artichoke...or two...on hand—and some white mushrooms (delicious with artichokes)—the idea of this pasta can be adapted to whatever spring ingredients you happen to have in your kitchen. 

To begin, add the thinly sliced artichokes and mushrooms to a pan of melted butter.  I added finely sliced spring onions too, but a small leek...a shallot....or even some green garlic...would be good too.  If you have some thyme, that would be a fine addition, as well as a sprinkling of lemon zest.  But on this particular day, I chose to leave it simple.... 

Once the artichokes and mushrooms have begun to soften, add a splash of water, cover the pan and cook at a gentle simmer until the artichokes are tender through.  I debated adding wine...and reducing it to a glaze....before I added the water, but opted for the less layered, cleaner flavors of just the vegetables.  On another evening, I might add some wine....but water alone really is just fine.  If you have chicken stock, that would be delicious in place of the water, and like the wine would add layer and depth.  No matter what liquids you choose, as the vegetables cook, keep an eye on them to make sure they don't simmer dry...add water to supplement as necessary. 

When the artichokes and mushrooms are tender, uncover and add some asparagus (blanched in the water in which the pasta will be cooked), julienned prosciutto and roughly chopped parsley.  These additions were a function of what I had in my kitchen, but they could (and will) be varied to suit my ever changing spring pantry.  Peas...or fava beans (which unfortunately I almost never have)...would be good in place of—or in addition to—the asparagus.  For the herb, parsley is a staple in my kitchen, but as we move further into the growing season, I might choose to use any number of the soft, young herbs that will be showing up at the market and in my garden...arugula, basil, chives...even mint.  As for the prosciutto, I don't think it is adds richness, tang and salt.  I finished the pasta with Parmesan, but if you omit the prosciutto, I would recommend a nice salty Pecorino instead.

As always, save some of your pasta water to help extend the "sauce".  As you toss in the noodles, add a pat of butter—I love butter with the green vegetables of spring, but its purpose here is also to thicken and enrich the sauce.  Cream would be another option (add this to the artichokes and mushrooms before adding the green vegetable and bring to a simmer)....or perhaps a blob of mascarpone, swirled in, just as if it were butter. 

If you—like me—love artichokes with mushrooms, you will love the idea of this simple...adaptable...spring pasta.  I hope you will try it and make it your own.

Pasta with Artichokes, Mushrooms & Spring Vegetables

1 artichoke, turned, halved and sliced cross-wise 1/8-inch thick and tossed with a squeeze of lemon
4 oz. white mushrooms, halved if large and sliced cross-wise 1/8-inch thick
1/2 bunch very small spring onions (scallion-sized)—white, pale-green and equal amount of green—thinly sliced (you'll have about half of a cup)
2 T. unsalted butter
2 oz. (trimmed weight) asparagus, sliced 1/8-inch thick on a long diagonal (to make 2/3 to 3/4 cup)
1 1/2 oz. thinly sliced prosciutto, cut in 1/4-inch julienne
2 T. chiffonade flat-leaf parsley or arugula
1/2 to 1 T. butter
8 oz. penne, farfalle or fettuccine
finely grated Parmesan

Melt butter in a medium, wide sauté pan set over moderate heat.  Add the artichokes, mushrooms and spring onions along with a generous pinch of salt.  Stew gently until the liquid is released from the mushrooms and everything is coated in a buttery liquid—about 5 minutes.  

Add enough water to come about half way up the vegetables (1/4 cup or so) and bring to a simmer.  

Cover and cook over very low heat until the artichokes are tender (about 20 minutes).  Check the pan occasionally to make sure it hasn't simmered dry...add water as necessary.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil.  Salt should taste salty.  Add the asparagus and cook until just tender—because of the way it has been cut, this should only take a minute or two.  Lift the asparagus out of the pot and add it to the pan of artichokes and mushrooms. Scatter the prosciutto and parsley over all and toss to combine.  Set aside in a warm place while you cook the pasta in the water the asparagus was cooked in.  When the pasta is al dente, drain—saving some of the pasta water—and add to the pan of vegetables along with a pat of butter.  Toss to combine, adding as much pasta water as is needed to lightly film the pasta and vegetables with a light, buttery film of liquid.  Serve topped with finely grated Parmesan.  Serves 2 to 3.

  • Instead of spring onion, use one small shallot (finely diced), a small leek (halved, cut cross-wise into a fine julienne and well-rinsed).  If you have access to green garlic, you could add a small head, coarsely chopped or thinly sliced.
  • Add some picked fresh thyme and/or the zest of half of a lemon with the artichokes, mushrooms and spring onions.
  • If you like, add 3 or 4 tablespoons of white wine to the artichokes and mushrooms when they are tender.  Reduce to a glaze before adding the water.
  • Use a quarter cup of chicken stock instead of water.  When replenishing the liquid though, use water or the sauce will be to rich.
  • If you would like to have a cream based sauce, when the artichokes are tender—and before adding the asparagus—add a quarter to a third of a cup of heavy cream and bring to a simmer. 
  • Substitute peas or fava beans for the asparagus (or use a combination of any two of the three)
  • Replace the parsley or arugula with another favorite herb—chives, basil, mint...
  • Replace the final addition of butter with a large spoonful of mascarpone
  • Omit the prosciutto and replace the Parmesan with Pecorino
  • Recipe may be doubled to serve 4 to 6...simply choose a larger, wider pan to cook the vegetables.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Reward that is the Artichoke...and a recipe for an Artichoke & Potato Frittata

I am having my own personal artichoke fest this spring.  I'm not sure what precipitated it.  If I were to guess, I would say that it has something to do with the length and intensity of the winter.  In a normal year I enjoy artichokes for a brief moment—from the point in early March when they typically show up in our stores until mid-April when the farmers' markets begin to fill with local asparagus, lettuces and spring onions.  Artichokes don't grow in the Midwest, so they aren't to be found at the farmers' markets.  Once local produce begins to come in, I seem to forget about them.  But this year, even though it is the end of April, we are still quite thin on local produce.  I don't remember a year when I have purchased so much California asparagus.  I have even begun purchasing spring onions at the grocery store...something I have never done before.  In any case, since I continue to see the artichokes whenever I am at the store...I have continued to bring them home.  And they have been so good. 

I mentioned in my last post that canned, jarred, frozen and otherwise preserved artichokes cannot hold a candle to the fresh.  It is true that it is an effort to prepare trimmed artichokes...but it is a task that can be learned and the more you do it, the easier it becomes.  It is truly worth learning how

I did not grow up eating artichokes.  The people I knew who did grow up eating them didn't eat them "turned".  Instead, their artichokes were steamed or boiled in their entirety...and then served that way.  Apparently you tear the leaves away at the table, dip the base of each leaf into a sauce and scrape this between your teeth to get at the meat.  You then discard the leaf.  When you are done with this tearing and teeth scraping, you will have a large pile of vegetable refuse at the table...but you finally get to eat the delicious heart (or the bottom)—which is where most of the edible portion resides.  Not only does this process create a mess at the table...the whole activity strikes me as a bit unseemly.  Furthermore, it is an odd activity for Americans who can almost never be induced to pick up their food with their hands or negotiate bones or pits of any kind while dining at a formal table (which is where whole artichokes most often show up).  For the sake of the diner, it is more than worth learning how to trim the artichoke down to its delicious edible core...before it is cooked.

It is also more than worth it for the sake of the cook!  Artichoke bottoms (as they are called) are amazingly versatile from the cook's perspective.  They can be poached, stewed, braised, sautéed or roasted.  They are a vegetable that neatly bridges the divide between late winter produce and early spring—taking well to the flavors and treatments of root vegetables as well as making a magnificent companion for the green vegetables of spring.  Their season is lengthy and during that time they can go into pastas, grain pilafs, and well as gratins, stews and vegetable ragouts.  They are wonderful on a pizza or in a savory tart.   They partner well with almost any animal protein you can imagine...fin fish and shellfish, as well as lamb, chicken, beef, and cured meats like ham.  They are also delicious with eggs and cheese.  And it is with these accompaniments that I present them today, in a frittata.  Along with a simple salad of the beautiful lettuces that are just now showing up at the market and a warm crusty loaf of bread, this frittata makes a perfect light well as a pretty great lunch of leftovers the next day. 

Artichoke & Potato Frittata

8 or 9 oz. baby Yukon, Dutch or new potatoes, scrubbed
2 to 3 T. Olive oil
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
2 large spring onions, trimmed, halved and thinly sliced (about a half cup)
2 large artichokes, turned and rubbed with lemon
1 oz. thinly sliced prosciutto (~2 slices), cut cross-wise into 1/4-inch ribbons
1/2 T. picked fresh thyme
1 1/2 T. minced Italian flat leaf parsley
6 large eggs, preferably at room temperature
1 oz. grated Parmesan (1/3 cup)

Place the potatoes in a small saucepan and cover with salted water.  Bring to a simmer and cook until tender when pierced with the tip of a knife.  Drain and set aside until cool enough to handle.  Peel the potatoes slice 1/4 to 1/3-inch thick.  Drizzle with a bit of olive oil, season to taste and set aside. 

Heat a tablespoon or so of oil in a medium-sized sauté pan.  Add the onion, along with a pinch of salt, and sweat until softened...5 minutes or so.  While the onions cook, halve the artichokes and cut the halves cross-wise into 1/4- to 1/3-inch thick slices.  When the onions are soft, add the artichoke pieces to the pan along with a pinch of salt.  If the pan seems dry, add a drizzle of oil.  Increase the heat to medium and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the artichokes begin to sizzle.  Add a splash of water (or white wine, if you prefer) to the pan (liquid should just cover the bottom of the pan) and bring to a simmer.  Reduce the heat and cover the pan.  Cook the artichokes at a gentle simmer until they are tender to the tip of a knife...15 to 20 minutes (check the pan occasionally to make sure there is always a small amount of liquid present, supplementing with more water as necessary). When the artichokes are tender, uncover and increase the heat so that any remaining liquid will evaporate.  When the artichokes are once again sizzling in the oil (i.e. all the liquid is gone), add the prosciutto and herbs.  Continue to cook for another minute or so, stirring/tossing to make sure the prosciutto and herbs are evenly distributed among the artichokes.  Taste and season.  Set aside.

To prepare the frittata, preheat the broiler and place a 10-inch non-stick sauté pan (I prefer French steel pans) over moderately high heat.  Break the eggs into a bowl and beat just to break them up.  Season with salt and pepper and fold in the potatoes and artichokes.  Add a half tablespoon or so of oil to the skillet.  When the skillet is hot (the oil should be almost smoking), add the egg mixture.  The eggs should begin to set immediately.  Shake the pan back and forth with one hand, while with the other you alternately stir in the center and lift at the edges (in order to let the uncooked egg run underneath those that have coagulated) using a heat-proof rubber spatula.  Continue cooking—stirring, shaking and lifting—until the eggs are mostly cooked but still a bit liquid-y (there will be large curds of coagulated egg and some liquid eggs). This should only take a couple of minutes.  Reduce the heat to very low and allow the frittata to sit without stirring for a minute or so (sliding the pan back and forth a couple of times to make sure the frittata isn't sticking).  This will give the frittata the opportunity to set up into a solid cake. 

When the frittata is mostly set, place the skillet under the broiler and broil just until the surface is no longer moist—about 30 seconds.  Sprinkle the cheese over the surface and broil again until the cheese melts—another 30 seconds.  Slide the finished frittata onto a platter or cutting board and let sit for a minute or two.  Cut into wedges and serve.  The frittata may also be served at room temperature.  Serves 4.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Ragoût of Spring Vegetables for Easter

It was not my intention to write a blog post when I prepared this spring vegetable ragoût for dinner the other evening. occasionally was so very good that I wanted to share it.  Besides, the fact that almost all of the work can be done ahead makes this an ideal dish to serve for a large holiday gathering....  like Easter.   So, for all of you who have not finished planning your Easter spread—and still need to come up with a special green vegetable side dish—this post is for you.

The recipe for this ragoût is really just a detailed example of a classic restaurant method for reheating vegetables.  Any single vegetable—or combination of vegetables—can be treated in this way.  To begin, simply cook all of the vegetables for your ragoût ahead using vegetable specific and appropriate methods:  Green vegetables should be blanched and then shocked in ice water when they are cooked to your liking.  Shocking will stop the cooking process and preserve their bright green color.  Other vegetables—most commonly small or baby root vegetables, artichokes, new potatoes or small onions—can be poached or braised to the point of doneness.   All of this can be done several hours...or even a day...before you plan to serve them. 

Reheating the vegetables is easy.  If you have time, let them come to room temperature.  Then, wilt some minced shallot in a small amount of butter or olive oil.  To the shallots add the vegetables and a thin film of water (or stock) and heat through.  When the vegetables are hot, season with salt and pepper, swirl in some butter—and herbs if you like—and serve. 

For an even more streamlined vegetable side, you may leave the shallot out.  Just film the pan with a bit of water (or stock), add the vegetables and proceed with the reheat.  The herbs should be altered to compliment the specific vegetables you are reheating...but they too, may be left out.  Whenever possible, I like to include both shallots and fresh herbs since these add so much to the final flavor.  For a large dinner, the shallots and herbs can both be minced a few hours ahead.

If you happened to see the salmon with asparagus and peas that I posted last month, the process of finishing the vegetables with butter will sound familiar.  In the case of the salmon dish the vegetables were not pre-cooked.  The cooking and finishing were all done in one step.  I mentioned briefly in that post that the finishing process worked the same whether you were reheating a vegetable, or cooking and finishing them all in one step.  That post was an example of the latter, today's is an example of the former.  As mentioned in that earlier post, the only trick to this finishing method is that you need to be careful to add roughly as much butter as there is liquid left in the pan so that the butter will emulsify easily into the simmering liquid, creating a light buttery sauce.  (You can actually add more butter than liquid, but the higher the proportion of butter, the thicker the sauce...and I prefer a more fluid sauce).  Agitation of the pan and its contents will encourage the emulsification process, so after adding the butter, gently slide the pan back and forth...or swirl in a circular motion...until the butter has disappeared into the ragoût.

For those interested in technical/professional terms, the French call this process of finishing a liquid/sauce by gradually adding  butter monter au beurre.  Not only does this process increase the volume of and enrich the sauce, the emulsification of the butter into the liquid adds a lovely sheen, a fluffier texture and a pleasant mouth feel.  It will also soften strong and/or acidic flavors.  If you don't know what to do to round out a sauce...or a vegetable...or a pasta could do worse than swirling in a small amount of butter.  Butter does indeed make just about everything better. 

In the ragoût I am sharing today there are multiple vegetable components.  And as noted above, they each require different methods of pre-cooking.  The asparagus and peas are simply blanched and shocked.  The artichokes are turned and poached in acidulated water.  If you have never "turned" a globe artichoke, you should give it a try.  I wrote a "how to" post a few years ago.  I know that turning artichokes can be a bit of a daunting task, but practice will make it easier.  You can of course use canned or frozen hearts, but there is truly no comparison between the taste of fresh artichokes and canned or frozen.  To me, the work involved in trimming a fresh artichoke is more than worth it. 

As for the spring onions, 

they are given a classic French treatment.  They are braised until they are soft, tender and beautifully glazed.  To prepare them, trim away the roots and all but the pale green.  If they are very small, they may be left whole.  Larger ones may be halved or quartered through the root.  

To cook, place them in a pan that is just large enough to hold them in a snug single layer.  Add water to come a third to half way up the sides of the onions.  Season lightly with salt.  Add a pinch of sugar and dot with butter.  

Bring to a simmer, cover and cook gently until the onions are tender to the tip of a knife.  Uncover and increase the heat slightly.  Continue to cook until the liquid has evaporated and the onions are glazed with the butter and sugar.  You may remove them from the heat at this point, or continue to cook them until the sugar caramelizes a bit.  

Glazed spring onions--cooked until lightly caramelized

These onions are a delicious addition/ finishing touch to any vegetable ragout or stew.  The same process may be applied to pearl onions, shallots or cipollini onions.

I love the composition of this particular ragoû just seems to shout "Spring!" with the dark green of the asparagus and peas, the paler green of the artichoke and the translucent white of the onion. You can include all...or only a few...or add/substitute other Spring vegetables (fava beans, for example).   The herbs too can be varied to suit your taste.  But I especially love the mint in this adds just the right bright, clean and refreshing note.  And in the end, that's what this dish on your Easter table should be all about...a refreshing and bright addition to a feast simultaneously marking the advent of Spring and the promise of new life.    Happy Easter.

Spring Vegetable Ragoût

6 spring onions, white and pale green parts only, roots trimmed away
unsalted butter
Salt & freshly ground black pepper

Juice of half a lemon
4 globe artichokes, "turned"
1 c. English (shelling) peas, fresh or frozen
1 lb. medium asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths on a diagonal

2 to 4 T. unsalted butter
1 shallot, finely minced
3 or 4 sprigs of thyme, picked
water or stock
2 T. coarsely chopped Italian flat leaf parsley
2 T. coarsely chopped fresh mint

Vegetable Prep

Halve (or quarter, if very large) the spring onions through the root.  Place in a pan that is just large enough to hold them in a snug single layer.  Add water to come a third to half way up the sides of the onions.  Season sparingly with salt and pepper.  Add a pinch of sugar and dot with butter.  Cover and bring to a simmer.  Simmer until the onions are just tender to the tip of a knife.  As the cook, check occasionally to make sure there is still some liquid in the pan.  Add more if necessary.  When the onions are tender, remove the lid and increase the heat.  Simmer briskly until the onions are sizzling in the butter and are coated with a syrup-y glaze.  You may leave them without color, or cook them until the sugar begins to caramelize a bit.  Do not burn.  Transfer to a plate and let cool.

Add the lemon juice to a large pot of water and bring to a boil.  Season with salt.  Cut the artichokes into 8 wedges each and add to the boiling water.  Cook until tender—about 15 minutes.  Drain and set aside.

In another pot of boiling salted water, blanch the peas until just tender—this should only take a couple of minutes.  Scoop out and cool in an ice bath.  Transfer to a plate.  If using frozen peas, simply thaw.

In the same pot of water the peas were blanched in, blanch the asparagus until just tender.  Scoop out and cool in an ice bath.  Transfer to the plate with the peas.

Cooked vegetables, along with shallots and herbs
...ready for a final reheat 

 Prepare the Ragoût

Place a wide sauté pan—one that is large enough to accommodate all of the vegetables—over medium heat and add a tablespoon or so of butter.  When the butter has melted.  Add the shallots and thyme—along with a pinch of salt—and sweat until softened.  This will only take a minute or so.  Add the vegetables and enough water to just coat the bottom of the pan—maybe 2 or 3 tablespoons.  Increase the heat and bring to a simmer, tossing the vegetables occasionally, until they are heated through.  Add the butter and swirl and toss to help it emulsify into the water (the goal is a light, emulsified butter-y sauce).  Remove from the heat and season with salt & pepper.  Toss in the mint and  the parsley.  Serve hot.  Serves 4 to 6.

(Recipe adapted from Frank Stitt's Southern Table)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Spring has Sprung the Garden the Farmers' Market ...on the Table

It is suddenly that busiest time of year for the gardener.  Although we probably still have a cold snap or two to go, the trend is finally fixed toward light ....and warmth....  The garden will not wait.  Any extra time I have is spent cleaning up the winter debris that is covering the insistent new growth and laying fresh mulch in preparation for spring planting and the heat of summer.  I work until I'm too tired to move.  But it is work that is also a pleasure.  Even though the pull of all the other commitments of life demands that I move as quickly as I can through the garden, I can't help but stop...  and stare...   and revel in the beauty that is unfolding around me.

The other sure sign of spring came yesterday morning: my first trip of the year to the farmers' market.  I almost always go the first weekend of April, but last weekend it was still really cold.  I preferred the warmth of my bed.  Besides, I knew there would be little (if anything) there.  I don't grow vegetables, but if the progress of my perennial garden is any indication, we are about three weeks behind where we would normally be in the growing season.

Yesterday though, after a week of warmth and a few days of working in the garden, I had to go.  As always, I was glad I did.  A few of the growers were there; it was so nice to get to say hello and see their familiar faces, back for another year.  The market is mostly plants at this will be for some time to come...but even so, I came home with a few edibles:  local greens and a few spring onions.

In keeping with my own personal tradition, I incorporated some of these first few purchases into our dinner last night....sort of my way of celebrating the return of Spring and my return to the market.  This first meal is often just a simple salad...maybe with roasted vegetables...or a round of baked goat cheese.  And we could have had something like that.  But after a long day working in the garden, I needed something a bit more substantial.  Fortunately, one of the things I came home with was a bag of young Red Russian Kale...perfect for a quick braise with a few of the Spring onions.  To go with it, I made a stuffed chicken breast and soft polenta (food doesn't get much more substantial than polenta), into which I folded a sauté of some of my remaining frozen corn from last year's market.

I'm surprised to discover that I haven't shared this chicken recipe before....I have been making it for years.  It is from an old issue of Food & Wine. I was first introduced to the recipe by my friend Nancy when we were working at the Culinary Center together.  The recipe was originally written for pan-seared, skin-on, boneless breasts.  At The Culinary Center, we prepared it using bone-in, split breasts.  Instead of pan-searing, we would roast the stuffed breasts, removing the bone for a quick reheat before service.   In general, this is a great way to prepare a simple roast chicken breast (particularly for large volume cooking)I use this method regularly at home.  But for some reason, when I make this particular dish at home, I prefer to go back to the original recipe.  If you are unable to purchase boneless breasts that still have the skin attached, simply purchase split breasts (on the bone) and remove the bone yourself.  Since the stuffing goes under the skin, the skin must be intact in order to prepare this recipe.

Removing the breast meat from the bone is an easy operation.  It is actually easier to do than to describe.  Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures to illustrate the process.  (Removing the bone takes two hands...and since this was a bit of a spur of the moment post, I didn't have anyone around to take pictures while I worked.)  Nevertheless, I want to take a stab at describing the process so that anyone who wants to try it will have a good place to start.  The most important thing is to remember that since the tip of the knife will always be between flesh and bone, you will avoid gouging into the flesh (which would waste some of the meat) if you always concentrate on gently pressing the flat side of the blade against the bonebasically using the bone to guide your cuts.  Begin by inserting the tip of your boning knife in between the flexible breast bone (if present...sometimes when the whole breast is split, the sternum will only remain attached to one side of the breast) and the flesh.  Run the tip of the knife along the length of the bone, using shallow, long strokes (don't forget to press against the breast bone as you cut), until the tip of the knife runs into the center portion of the rib-cage.  Then, lifting the flesh up as it is cut away from the bone, continue to slide the knife out and away from the breast bone (or where it was, if it is missing), always pressing the flat of the knife against the rib-cage and following its contour, until the flesh is completely released from the carcass.  Trim away any ragged edges of skin and flesh and you are done.  I encourage you to give this a try.  But if you would rather not, simply ask the butcher to do it for you.    

When I prepared our chicken last night, I did deviate in one significant way from the original recipe...and from the way we made it at The Culinary Center.  The original recipe called for a stuffing made of mascarpone.  At The Culinary Center we used soft goat cheese.  Over the years I have used both.  The mascarpone tends to melt into the sauté pan,  whereas the goat cheese remains in place under the skin.  I don't know what made me think of this particular recipe yesterday, but when I decided that this was how I wanted to prepare the chicken breast I had pre-salted the night before, it was too late (and I was too tired) to run to the store for goat cheese or mascarpone.  I did happen to have some whole milk ricotta on hand.  Since the combination of ricotta with greens of all kinds (chard...spinach...kale) is traditional...and delicious...I thought I would give it a try.  I'm happy to report that it worked beautifully.  

Our first market meal of the season was spontaneous, satisfying and delicious...just as it should be.  And as with the new growth in my garden, I hope it is a harbinger of the good things to come in the months ahead.

 Sautéed Chicken Breasts with Prosciutto & Fresh Cheese

1/4 c. ricotta, mascarpone or soft goat cheese (about 2 oz.)
1/2 T. finely chopped fresh thyme, sage or rosemary
zest of half a lemon
salt & freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 lbs. boneless chicken breast halves, skin-on and first wing joint attached if possible
1 oz. thinly sliced prosciutto (about 2 slices), cut in such a way that it will fit under the skin of the breasts in a smooth single layer
Olive oil

Ingredients for half of a recipe--the breast pictured is very large--11 ounces
after removing the bone...plenty for two people

In a small bowl, combine the cheese, herbs, lemon zest and salt & pepper to taste.  Set aside. Gently slide your index finger under the skin of each chicken breast to loosen (but not detach) the skin and form a small pocket.  Slide a half slice of prosciutto under the skin of each breast.  Divide the cheese mixture evenly among the chicken breasts, carefully stuffing the mixture between the skin and the prosciutto.  Massage lightly to spread the cheese evenly over the entire breast.  The stuffed breasts may be refrigerated overnight.

Preheat the oven to 450°F.  Heat a large oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat.  Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper.  Add a tablespoon or so of oil to the hot pan (it should slide easily over the surface of the pan and should be almost smoking).  Add the chicken breasts skin-side down.  Cook, regulating the heat as necessary to maintain an active sizzle, until golden brown—about 2 to 3 minutes.  Turn the breasts over and transfer the pan to the preheated oven.  Roast until the breasts are just cooked through—about 8 to 10 minutes for small breasts, 15 or more for large.  Remove the chicken to a platter and let rest for a few minutes before serving. 


Depending on the size of the breasts, you may serve each person a whole breast, or slice the breasts and fan attractively on the plates.  Serves 4.

One large breast...sliced to serve two.

  • If desired, prepare a quick pan sauce while the chicken rests. Drain off the excess fat and return the pan to the stove. Add a few tablespoons of water or some wine or stock (or a combination); over high heat, boil until the liquid has reduced to a few tablespoons, scraping with a wooden spoon to dissolve all of the browned bits. Serve as is, drizzled around the breasts, or add a squeeze of lemon juice and/or swirl in a bit of butter before serving. 
  • Even if you are not able to stuff the breasts ahead, the flavor and texture of the chicken is markedly improved by taking the time to season them with salt the night before you plan on cooking them

Monday, April 7, 2014

"Leftover" a Potato Gratin...and on a Potato & Mushroom Pizza...

In my last post I wrote about how I used up the remainder of a head of cabbage that was originally purchased to make soup.  The cabbage was only part of the story—making the soup also left me with the remains of a package of ham.  Even though the batch of soup was large, my situation is illustrative of the purchasing conundrum of small households everywhere: how to efficiently use up odds and ends of ingredients left from preparing scaled down recipes.  The progression of meals that I prepare in the process of using up these odds and ends—purchasing just one more thing to use up the end of the last thing—sometimes feels like the tale of the old lady who swallowed the fly (with the exception of the ending...of course).  Because even large households experience this kind of thing every now and then, I thought I would share this recent progression.  And since Easter is coming up, lots of households—of all sizes—will have leftover ham in their pantry that they will want to use for something besides ham sandwiches (tasty as those might be...). 

Soup is a great place to start when you are using up leftover ingredients.  If you have a ham bone from your Easter ham, there is nothing better than a simple ham and white bean soup.  But if all you have are slices (or a chunk), then the cabbage soup I made recently would be delicious.  (And you'll have cabbage left to make Gemelli with Italian Sausage...)  The cabbage soup is also good for using up the end of your winter stash of dried beans...and possibly an extra potato or two you might have on your counter.  Although, to me, potatoes are more of a staple and I always have them on hand.  In fact, they figure prominently into the two recipes I want to share today. 

Shortly after I made my cabbage soup, I received a request from a client for an Easter brunch menu.  As I considered the menu, one of the things that came to mind was some kind of potato gratin.  Potato gratins make wonderful holiday side dishes.  Whether made of just potatoes, cream and cheese, or potatoes with other vegetables and adornments, everyone loves them.  They are always a good idea.  

I must have been thinking about this menu...and gratins....around the same time I began to think about my dinner one afternoon because it occurred to me that a gratin with some ham...and maybe some sautéed onions...would make a very nice dinner that night. 

Ham and potatoes "au gratin" is a fairly common American dish.  It is typically made with layers of ham, potatoes and cheddar cheese—all bound with a thick cream sauce.  The sauce is almost always a flour-bound white sauce—either a béchamel (all milk) or a velouté (chicken stock and a little milk)—and is occasionally enriched with a little cream. 

There is nothing wrong with this style of dish, but when I made my gratin, I went back to the potato gratin's French roots.  Instead of cheddar cheese, I used Gruyère (the traditional cheese for a French potato gratin).  And instead of a velouté or a béchamel, I simply poured a mixture of heavy cream and stock over the layered components before baking.  You don't really need the flour.  The starch inherent in the potatoes will thicken the liquid a bit.  Further thickening occurs as the cream reduces during the long baking process. If you aren't familiar with potato gratins as the French make them, I describe the process in a bit more detail in a post I wrote several years ago about a Sweet Potato, Yukon & Turnip Gratin.

Because I wanted to serve my gratin as the entrée for our dinner, I made a trip to the store to pick up some asparagus and salad greens.  I thought the asparagus would be particularly nice with the components of the gratin...and it was.  

You may do as I did and make this gratin with leftover ham for a post holiday dinner, but if you happen to be serving something besides ham as your Easter entrée, this gratin would make a fabulous side dish.  Add some bread, an asparagus side dish, a big green salad and a beautiful dessert and your meal is complete.

After I made the gratin, some ham still remained. Now I had leftover asparagus too.  So... I decided to make a favorite asparagus and mushroom pasta that happens to include a little ham.  (Salty ham really is a perfect complement to asparagus.)  Until recently I had always made this pasta with prosciutto.  Then, in an effort to use up last year's Easter ham, I discovered that it is just as delicious with American-style ham.  This is one of my favorite spring pastas—with American-style ham or any delicious air-cured, European-style ham. 

The astute reader has probably already guessed that after this meal I now had a handful of mushrooms left over (I grabbed a box at the store out of habit, rather than purchasing them loose....).  And of course there was still a very small amount of ham left.... 

As I mentioned at the start, potatoes—like pasta and grains—are a staple at my house...and, it just so happens that they are delicious with both mushrooms and ham.  As I eyed the tiny amount of ham and the few mushrooms, I remembered that I had potatoes.  I also remembered that I still had a small amount of Gruyère left from the gratin.  Pizza seemed the obvious thing to make.  

I supplemented the Gruyère with some Goat Gouda I had purchased for snacking purposes (I always have snacking cheese in my fridge), but you could use any mix of delicious cheeses that you like (see my post on pizza from the remains of the cheese tray).  Not only did this pizza use up the last of the ham...and the mushrooms...and even the Gruyère, it was exceptionally good.  As with the ham and potato gratin, it is a keeper.  I will definitely be making it again.  

Now I am out of ham. Of course I couldn't resist the big beautiful bunch of asparagus I saw during my last trip to the grocery store.  So, it begins again.  I love to cook.  What else is so endlessly creative? deeply satisfying?  Asparagus is delicious with ham....   Perhaps I should purchase some more....

Ham & Potato Gratin

3 T. unsalted butter
1 large onion (10 to 12 oz.), peeled and very thinly sliced
8 oz. Ham, sliced 1/4-inch thick and cut into 1/2-inch squares
5 to 6 oz. coarsely grated Gruyère
1 c. Heavy cream
3/4  to 1 c. chicken stock
2 to 2 1/4 lb. russet potatoes
salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste

Melt the butter in a wide sauté pan set over moderate heat.  Add the onion along with a pinch of salt and toss to coat in the hot fat.  When the onion begins to sizzle, cover and cook on low until the onions are soft & tender—about 20 minutes.  Uncover and increase the heat a bit.  Cook until any liquid in the pan has evaporated and the onions are sizzling in the butter.  It's OK if they caramelize in a few spots.  Set aside.

Generously butter a 2 1/2 quart shallow gratin.  Warm the cream and 3/4 cup of stock until hot.  Season with salt and pepper.  Peel the potatoes and slice thinly (about 1/16th inch thick). 

Build the gratin:  Ladle in a quarter cup or so of the hot stock/cream mixture.  Shingle in 1/3 of the potatoes.  Season lightly with salt & pepper.  Scatter in half of the onions, half of the ham and 1 1/2 oz. of the cheese. 

Add a ladle full of cream/stock.  Repeat these layers once.  Finish with a layer of potatoes and pour the rest of the liquid over.  Season lightly with salt & pepper.  To find out if you need to add more liquid to the gratin, press down firmly on the potatoes with a wide spatula or your hands.  When you do this, the potatoes should only be partially submerged in the liquid.  If you can't see any liquid around the edges when you do this, add more of the liquid. 

Place the gratin on a baking sheet and cover tightly with foil.  Transfer to a 350° oven and bake until the cream is bubbling around the edges—about 45 minutes.  Uncover.  Scatter the remaining cheese over the top and return to the oven.  Continue to bake until the cream is bubbling thickly (the gratin should not be soupy), the top is golden brown and the potatoes are completely tender—another 35 to 45 minutes.  If time allows, let the gratin rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.  Serves 8 as a side, 4 to 6 as an entrée.

Potato, Mushroom & Ham Pizza

6 to 7 oz. New, small Yukon or baby Dutch potatoes, well-scrubbed
Olive oil
4 oz. mushrooms, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 clove of garlic, minced
2 oz. ham, sliced 1/4-inch thick and cut into 1-inch batonettes
a generous tablespoon of minced Italian flat-leaf parsley
pinch of red pepper flakes
5 oz. coarsely grated cheese (I used a mix of 3 oz. Gruyère and 2 oz. Goat Gouda)
Pizza dough for one pizza (see below)

Place the potatoes in a small saucepan and cover with salted water.  Bring to a simmer and cook until tender when pierced with the tip of a knife.  Drain and set aside until cool enough to handle.

While the potatoes cook, heat a medium sauté pan over moderately high heat.  Add oil to coat the pan (about a tablespoon).  When the oil is hot, add the mushrooms. Sauté, regulating the heat to maintain an active sizzle, until the mushrooms are browned and tender—about 5 minutes.  If the mushrooms seem dry, add a bit more oil.  Season with salt & pepper, reduce the heat slightly and add the ham. Cook until the ham is sizzling and any water it has released has evaporated—it will begin to turn golden in spots.  Add the garlic, parsley and pepper flakes and cook briefly—just until fragrant.  Remove from the heat. 

Peel the potatoes and slice 1/4-inch thick.  Place in a small bowl and toss with a drizzle of olive oil.  Taste and salt if necessary. 

Build the pizza:  Roll or stretch the pizza dough out into a 12- to 14-inch round and transfer to a floured baking sheet, pizza pan or peel.  Brush the dough round with 2 to 3 t. olive oil.  Scatter half of the cheese over the dough.  Scatter the potatoes over the cheese, followed by the mushroom mixture and then the remaining cheese.  

Bake the pizza: If using a pizza pan or baking sheet, place the pizza in the pan on a pre-heated pizza stone in a pre-heated 500° oven. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is tinged with golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes. To insure a crisp crust, slide the pizza off of the pan and onto the pizza stone as soon as the crust is set (after 4 or 5 minutes).

If using a peel, slide the pizza directly onto the preheated baking stone. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is tinged a golden brown color—about 8 to 12 minutes.

When the pizza is done, transfer to a cutting board and cut into wedges and serve.

 Pizza Dough

1/2 cup warm water (100º-110º F)
1 1/8 t. active dry yeast
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 T. olive oil
1/2 t. salt

Place the water in a large bowl and add the yeast. Let soften for a minute or two. Add 3/4 cup of the flour and whisk until smooth. Add the oil, salt and another half cup of the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough that holds its shape, adding more flour if necessary. Sprinkle some of the remaining quarter cup of flour on a smooth surface. Scrape the dough out of the bowl and sprinkle with a bit more of the flour. Knead the dough, adding just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, until the dough is smooth and springs back when pressed lightly with a finger—about 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise until it has doubled in size—about 1 hour. Punch down the dough and turn it onto a lightly floured surface and form into a ball. Cover with a towel and let rest for 15 to 20 minutes. The dough is now ready to be shaped, topped and cooked or frozen.

Food Processor Method: Place the water and yeast in a small bowl and let sit until the yeast has dissolved. Place 1 1/3 cups of the flour and salt in the food processor fitted with the metal blade and pulse to blend. Add the oil and yeast/water mixture and pulse until the dough is homogenous. Begin to run the mixture in long pulses (five to 10 seconds each) until the dough is smooth and elastic—it shouldn't take more than a minute. If the dough seems wet and sticky, add some of the remaining flour a tablespoon at a time, pulsing after each addition. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and give it a few kneads by hand.

Variation for a Whole Wheat Crust: Instead of unbleached all-purpose flour, use 3/4 c. bread flour and 1/2 to 3/4 c. whole wheat flour (the new “white” whole wheat flour is a good choice).