Sunday, February 28, 2016

Three Little Words: Chicken Pot Pie

An easy answer to the favorite "What's for dinner?" question

It seems that the men in my life like to utter the same three, little words: "What's for dinner?" When I was a harried mom of a school-age child, rushing to meet writing deadlines, driving carpool, attending committee meetings, the innocent question  would send my blood pressure rising. I often had no idea what I would put on the table.  Later, when I asked my ex-husband why he liked to utter those three little words, he sheepishly admitted, "It gives me something to look forward to."

I always try to remember that when the current love of my life asks the same question. Sometimes, I'll reply with the description of an elaborate meal. Often, I'll offer a choice. But other times, when I'm feeling just as harried as when I was driving car pool, all I need to say are three little words in reply: chicken pot pie.
Five extra pies ready for the freezer

I make a giant batch and bake five extra pies for the freezer. So when I have no idea what's for dinner, I can pull one out. With a side of roasted vegetables and a glass of red wine, it's a satisfying answer to that age-old question.

Recipe (This makes enough for 12 servings, either two pies, or six two-person portions. The recipe can easily be cut in half)

Chicken Pot Pie

2 cups cooked chicken (about 2 whole breasts)
2 cups diced par-boiled potatoes
2 cups diced carrots
2 cups chopped onion 
1 large shallot diced
1 1/2 C frozen peas
1 T olive oil
4 T butter
1/2 C flour
3-4 C chicken broth
3/4 C half and half
2 T fresh herbs (sage or thyme)
1/2 tsp. turmeric
salt and pepper to taste
2 refrigerated pie crusts (I like Trader Joe's)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. 

- Peel and dice two medium potatoes and parboil. Potatoes should be slightly cooked, but still firm. They will continue to cook in the pot and oven. 
- Meanwhile, heat the olive oil and butter in a large, nonstick skillet or a dutch oven. 
- Add the onion, shallots and carrots. Saute for about three minutes or until translucent. 
- Add the flour and stir for about one minute. 
- Pour in the chicken broth and continue to stir for about three minutes. 
- Add in the potatoes and diced chicken.
- Pour in 3/4 C half and half and continue to stir until desired consistency is reached. 
- Add the frozen peas. 
- Season with salt, pepper, turmeric and fresh herbs, such as sage or thyme. If using dried herbs, reduce amount to 1 tsp. 
- Use a ladle to scoop the mixture into two pie plates or, as I do, in six rectangular aluminum containers. Top with crusts and cut a few slashes for venting. 
- If using the rectangular tins, simply use the tin as a template to cut the pie dough. 

Bake at 400 degrees for 40 minutes or until golden brown.

To reheat frozen pies, bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. 

NOTES: You can use roasted chicken or poached chicken breasts. After Thanksgiving, I didn't have enough leftover turkey, so I used turkey plus one poached chicken breast. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Remember the Pig's Head?

Not the most photogenic, but certainly one of the most memorable meals.
I once thought that everyone had a story about a pig’s head. I believed this because, as it happens, I have two.

I was around 11 when I had my first swine encounter. My grandmother, who lived in rural West Virginia, couldn’t believe her good fortune when a neighbor offered her the head of the hog they were butchering. “Don’t they know that’s the best part of the pig?” she asked in disbelief.

Her excitement was so contagious that my two brothers and I were giddy when the neighbors brought over the freshly severed head in a galvanized-metal washtub. I can still picture the head with its glistening eyeballs, perky ears and flared nostrils. I expected it to snort any minute.

After we got a good look at the beast, the hijinks began. Daddy reached down and casually plucked out an eyeball. I squealed like a pig as he and the eye chased me around the yard. (I wonder now about my recollection of the easy eye extraction. I just read an essay in which Christopher Kimble, former editor of Cook’s Illustrated, described the arduous ten minutes of sawing with a sharp paring knife to perform an “eye-ectomy” on a calf’s head.)

My grandmother, watching the chase scene, must have muttered something like, “Enough horseplay (or hogplay). We have work to do.”

Then came the serious job of turning the head into “good eatin’.” My grandmother, with my Japanese mother’s help, cranked out hog’s headcheese and sausage. The best part for me was the brain. I can still remember the texture and taste – a little crunchy on the outside from frying but sweet and succulent on the inside. Even then I knew that I was experiencing a delicacy. It’s taken a few decades and a few pages of reading Kimball and MFK Fisher to appreciate how difficult it is to properly prepare a brain.

But the favorite part of the head, at least for my younger brother, was the tongue. After it was boiled, he walked around eating the unappealing organ as if it were a hot dog. I think he liked the shock value as much as the flavor.

That head provided us with lots of delicacies, but, more important, it gave my brothers and me a lifetime of stories. If we’re together for more than a day, someone will ask, “Remember the pig’s head?”

It was no wonder then that, when I found Crudo Restaurant in Phoenix offers a roasted-pig-head dinner, I was ready to bite. Five other intrepid diners and I gathered to “eat high on the hog.”

First came an appetizer of crunchy pig ears in a sweet and hot vinegar sauce. Yes, I’m talking about the same part of the pig that you buy for your dog  Even my thrifty Scottish grandmother didn’t bother to salvage them. But, oh, if only she had known about the addictive taste and the texture that’s both crunchy and chewy.

Instead of serving the brain as a stand-alone dish, Chef Cullen incorporated them into Italian risotto balls. The flavor was so delicate that I wouldn’t have guessed that brains were part of the dish.

When the waitress brought out the roasted head, we gasped and spent several minutes examining its snout, ears and mouth. We were especially intrigued with the rows of tiny sharp teeth that still looked as though they could tear our flesh. The eyeballs were removed before roasting, so we didn’t get the sensation that Porky was staring at us.

If my grandmother was with us, she would have said something like, “Enough gawking. Let’s eat.” We heaped the fatty, roasted meat on to toasted bread and then added ricotta cheese and a choice of three pickle toppings.

As the conversation flowed, I felt a strong connection with these five women who were gathered around the head of a pig. Even though we all agreed that the meat was too fatty for our tastes, we can’t wait to go out for more dining adventures.

And, no doubt, when we get together again, someone will ask, ‘Remember the pig’s head?”

Monday, February 15, 2016

Gougeres, a Savory French Cheese Puff

Gougeres: Think of them as a refined alternative to the cheese biscuits at Red Lobster
I like to say that I'm "practicing cooking" in much the same way that I'm "practicing yoga." I don't believe that practice makes perfect, but practice definitely makes progress. 

Take, for example, the first time I attempted to make gougeres, the savory French cheese puffs that I discovered at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. I bought the Tartine cookbook and carefully followed the recipe. Instead of light and airy puffs, my gougeres were flops, as hard and flat as silver dollars.

Fast forward more than five years later for my second attempt at practicing making gougères. This time,  I ignored the hard-to-follow instructions in the Tartine cookbook. And I turned away from a friend's recipe (from the Dinah Shore Cookbook) that called for scalding the milk in the first step. Scalding milk on purpose? That frightened me. 

This time around, I turned to David Lebovitz's blog for a simple, easy-to-follow recipe. I'm happy to report that practice (and finding the right recipe) did result in progress. I made them on a Thursday for a women's chocolate and wine party and then practiced making them again on Valentine's Day. My sweetheart and I washed down a half batch of these addicting treats with a bottle of champagne. 

I like the helpful hints that David adds throughout his instructions. He doesn't just suggest that you use a pastry bag to pipe the dough onto a baking sheet. He also recommends a freezer bag with the corner snipped off OR two spoons to portion and drop the dough. I used the two-spoon method but would probably go with a freezer bag if I was making a double batch. 

I used fresh rosemary and thyme instead of chives as David did, but you can use any kind of herb that suits your fancy. As a matter of fact, these are perfect for improvisation. My friend Lori told me that her mother often served these with an olive in the middle as an appetizer. Or you can mix in chopped olives with the dough. 

Try them once and I predict you'll be making these golden, herby, addicting puffs again and again. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Better Than McNuggets and Fries: Oven Roasted Parmesan Chicken Fingers and Sweet Potato Fries

 "You've got to help me, mom." 

This was my adult daughter's recent call for help.The woman with a freezer full of Hot Pockets and Tombstone Pizzas was seeking out recipes for healthy, easy-to-prepare dishes that her boys (ages one and six) and boyfriend would like.

Over the years, I watched my six-year-old grandson shift from a preference for fresh fruits and vegetables to a craving for the high fat, processed food that drive-through windows and freezers can instantly satisfy. This was a kid whose favorite foods were once chicken teriyaki, rice, broccoli and cantaloupe (the menu I made for his second birthday dinner). But by the time he was four, he rejected these same foods.

My mission was to help revive the broccoli-loving boy by offering food that he’d like every bit as much as Chicken McNuggets and French fries from McDonalds.

For a test run, I served these oven-baked parmesan chicken fingers with roasted sweet potato fries and steamed broccoli to the “picky eater” in my own household. The chicken was quick and easy to prepare, required few ingredients and, most important, was crunchy and delicious. At this stage, I think I'll suggest to my daughter these frozen sweet potato fries (such as this Alexia brand from Sprouts) as a quicker, easier option than peeling and cutting up whole sweet potatoes. (Baby steps, baby steps)

Since I live six hours away from my grandsons, I'll make a double batch of the chicken finger, vacuum seal and freeze them and bring them, the recipe and a sheet pan with me on my next trip to Southern California. 

And, with any luck, I'll get a big hug and a "Thank you for cooking for me, Achan" from the broccoli boy. 

Got any easy, healthy, kid-pleasing recipes? Please share. 


                               Oven Roasted Parmesan Chicken 

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 eggs, beaten with 2 T water
2/3 cup flour
2/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
2/3 cup breadcrumbs (I like Panko)
salt, pepper and seasonings of your choice (I used dried basil and paprika)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cut up chicken breast into thin strips or in chunks like Chicken McNuggets.

Set up your preparation station in three shallow bowls: one with flour, one with beaten eggs and one with parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs and seasonings. 

First dredge each strip in flour, then dip in egg mixture, and then coat with cheese/breadcrumb mixture. Place each piece on a baking sheet sprayed with non-stick spray. 

Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown. 

(A note about panko: Did you know that it literally means "little bread" in Japanese? "Pan" is the word for bread in both Japanese and Spanish. And the "ko" is a cute little diminutive.)

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Take it Off: Revealing the Charms of the Open-Faced Sandwich

A trio of Danish open face sandwiches
I first discovered the joys of the topless sandwich when I visited Copenhagen four years ago. After two frustrating days of searching for an affordable lunch spot ($35 for a salad?!), I stumbled upon a Danish deli where open face sandwiches  glistened like jewels under the glass display. Best of all, a trio of the works of art set me back less than $5.00. 

As it turns out, the Danish open face sandwich, or smorrebrod, is a thing. Smorrebrod, literally "butter bread," got its name because a smear of butter or duck fat keeps the bread from getting soggy. 

You can read more about the history and etiquette and check out four too-pretty-to-eat recipes, on this NPR article, The Art of the Danish Open Face Sandwich. 

Lucky for me, the popularity of the topless sandwich has spread to other European countries. In Prague, I feasted on two little works of art with a bottle of cheap wine for less than $8.00. 

In Prague: crab salad garnished with lemon, red pepper and parsley, and creme fraiche with caviar

When I returned home, I got to work taking the top off in the kitchen. My first attempt started with European Style Whole Grain Bread, a dense and delicious loaf from Trader Joe's, topped with leftovers from a salad.
TJ's European Style Whole Grain Bread topped with arugula, pears, candied 
pecans and blue cheese (left and right) or same bread topped with mayo, arugula 
and sliced boiled eggs

And last week my simple egg salad sandwich went topless. See how much prettier it is when the salad isn't stuffed between two slices of bread? 

Mixed greens, egg salad topped with minced red onion and chives

Why Go Topless?

  • You can show off your sandwich's hidden assets. Don't let a slice of bread hide those beautiful fillings.
  • You can cut the carbs. Half the bread means half the carb count.
  • You can get creative. Transform leftover salad makings into a sandwich that's a work of art. 
  • You can use random bits and pieces from the refrigerator. A slice of bacon or a lone carrot can be chopped and shredded to add color, texture and taste to a sandwich. 

For More Recipes