Friday, January 31, 2014

Happy 200th Post!
What’s cooking? Cheese Platter Secrets

A sampling of cheeses from Italy (L to R): Il Forteto Boschetto Tartufo (with truffles), oil-and-herb-marinated Mozzarella balls, Gelmini Mountain Gorgonzola, and cubes of Pecorino Romano. Served with grapes, sliced pear, olives, Acacia honey, roasted pistachios, and Genoa salami.

Thinking online – about life and food and cooking. What a crazy idea, to start a blog. And in retrospect, when the Kitchen Goddess jumped into the world of writing online, she had no idea what she was doing. It seemed easy enough in the conceptual phase – write about some funny episode, link it to some kind of food or adventure in the kitchen, and hit “Go.” Then it turned out you also have to know about recipe writing, food styling, photography, and even a bit of new technology.

So here we are, 200 posts later. What a headache. And what a joy. I’ve made new friends – some of whom I’ve yet to meet in person – renewed old acquaintances, explored new foods and cooking techniques, learned a lot, and aggravated my poor husband-cum-sous chef beyond the normal limits of human endurance.

“Okay, let’s eat,” he says.

“No, wait – I have to take a picture.”

“But I’m hungry. And it’s 8:30 – you said dinner would be ready by 7:30.” [expletive deleted]

It’s a good thing he likes the food.

Being at Ease with Cheese

Let's talk about cheese.

I’ve always loved serving a cheese board at a party. Especially in the winter, when you want the food to be a bit hearty. And especially for an event like the Super Bowl, when your guests are jumping up, sitting down, wandering to and from the food. A cheese board seems like a fairly effortless way to satisfy your guests’ hunger – after all, the cows/sheep/goats did part of the work, and the cheesemaker did the rest. If you just pick a nice assortment of cheese, you can be good to go.

Aye, but there’s the rub. Choosing from the literally thousands of cheeses available – French cheesemakers alone offer more than 650 varieties – is only the first headache. Then you worry about how many to buy, and how much, and then how do you serve them? It’s enough to make a host or hostess give up and put out some chips and dip.

So it’s lucky you stopped in. The Kitchen Goddess is here to help. Let’s take care of the easy stuff first.

How many to buy?
If you’re just serving a cheese plate at the end of a meal, you don’t need more than 3 cheeses, and even one good one will do. For a gathering like a Super Bowl party, where the cheese will get major noshing, you’ll want 4-5 choices.

How much to buy?
As a general rule, the Kitchen Goddess recommends buying 2 ounces (total) of cheese per person. I’ve seen suggestions of as little as 1 ounce (maybe for a dessert plate but not for hors d’oeuvres) and as much as 3.5 ounces (whose army are we feeding?). You may need more than 2 ounces per guest if that’s the main appetizer item. Get enough to have some left over, as I have a couple of dynamite recipes for those bits. Come back next week for those.

A European platter (clockwise from bottom left): Brie (France), Idiázabal (Spain), aged Gouda (Holland), Roquefort (France). Accompanied by dried apricots, Acacia honey, chutney, spiced walnuts, and pear slices.
How to serve?
First, remove your cheeses from the fridge 30 minutes to an hour before the party. Hard cheeses need more time than soft ones. Set out small plates and cocktail napkins, so that guests can put together several samples and not be forced to hover over the selections like small children around a bowl of jellybeans. Each cheese should have its own knife (or fork if you’re cutting the cheese into bite-size pieces) for serving – you don’t want the tastes to get mixed.

Kitchen Goddess notes on cheese knives:
The all-purpose cheese knife has a serrated edge, holes in the blade (to keep soft cheeses from sticking), and tines at the end for spearing what you cut. But you still want one knife per cheese, so here’s what I prefer:

■ Spreadable cheeses like fresh goat cheese (chevre) or Gourmandise – butter knife (second from the left in the photo below) or one of those little hors d’oeuvre knives.
■ Semi-soft cheeses like Brie or Mozzarella – thin knife 
■ Crumbly cheeses like Roquefort and other blues – fork
■ Semi-hard cheeses like Cheddar and Swiss – bell-shaped knife
■ Hard cheeses like Pecorino Romano, Manchego, and Dry Jack – heart-shaped knife (the point helps you establish a starting point), mini-cleaver, or your basic paring knife.

A set makes life easy, but isn't necessary. This one is from Williams-Sonoma.

What to serve with your cheese?
This is big, folks, so pay attention. Cheese by itself – even with bread or crackers – can be a little heavy on the palate. And sometimes, a bit of chutney or meat or fruit will actually improve the taste. So it’s a good idea to include a few accompaniments with your cheeses; it’ll also add color and texture to your presentation. Here are some ideas:

Meat (cured): Prosciutto, Salami, Capicola, Culatello
Fresh fruits: apples, grapes, pears, figs
Dried fruits: apricots, Mission or Turkish figs, cranberries, Medjool dates, cherries
Fruit spreads: Chutneys, fig jam, quince paste (great stuff by the way – try it!), pear paste
Nuts (roasted, spiced, or honeyed): walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds (especially with sheep’s- and goat’s-milk cheeses), pecans, pistachios
Olives: Cerignola (especially with Italian cheeses), large black Greek olives (especially with Feta), California green olives, sundried tomato-stuffed olives (especially with goat cheese). Be sure to rinse brined olives.

A few pairings to get you started – with cheeses I like – and a couple of tips on selecting your cheese:

Brie de Meaux – The king of Brie, and once called the King of Cheese, period. Look for a foil label and A.O.C. (French name designation) to get the real thing. Ripe Brie should “bulge,” not run, and have a beige-mottled (edible) rind which should be tart but not bitter. Serve with apples or pears, candied walnuts, fig jam, or honey.

Blue-veined cheeses – Includes English Stilton, French Roquefort, and Italian Gorgonzola. Amazing with most fresh or dried fruits. Try it with pear slices or dried cranberries. There’s a range of sharpness that you have to taste before you can decide which you prefer. Among the American offerings, Maytag Blue is outstanding and has a reputation as good as any of its European cousins.

Cheddar – Originally an English cheese, but a few U.S. producers now make excellent Cheddar. Try Maytag Dairy Farms (white cheddar, from Iowa), Tillamook Cheddar (Oregon), and Sheldon Farms and Grafton Village Cheddar (both Vermont). Serve with chutneys – a life-changing experience – and aged meats, dried fruit, and nuts. Look for cloth-wrapped rind.

Dry Jack – One of only two cheeses that are original to the U.S. Made by aging Monterey Jack, it has a sharp, nutty flavor, similar to Parmigiano Reggiano. Try Bear Flag Dry Jack, from Vella Cheese, with toasted almonds and fresh fruit.

Parmigiano-Reggiano – You have to get the real thing – not parmesan, but Parmigiano-Reggiano; you’ll see the name printed on the edge of the rind. Nothing else is as good. Save the rind when you’re done, and freeze it for use in brothy vegetable soups. Serve with Prosciutto and other aged meats, or fruit spreads, especially fig jam. Think Italian.

Pecorino Romano – The sheep’s milk version of Parmigiano-Reggiano, but a little smoother. Ditto on serving. Widely available in excellent quality. Look for "genuino" embossed on the rind.

Manchego – Another aged sheep’s milk cheese, and the Spanish version of a hard cheese good for grating. Don’t get second best – look for the La Mancha origin on the label. Terrific served with Marcona almonds and Membrillo (quince paste). Think Spanish.

Manchego cheese from Spain, with Marcona almonds and slices of Membrillo (quince paste).
Goat Cheese – Fresh or aged, one of the simplest yet most flexible cheeses available. Fresh is creamy and slightly tart; aged has a bit of a nutty flavor. Serve with almonds and toasted hazelnuts, fresh and dried fruit – cherries are excellent – olives, and honey. (Think of where the goats graze.) Fresh goat cheese is amazing when drizzled with the Kitchen Goddess’s own Ground Cherry Shazam. One of the best brands that's also widely available – and award-winning – is from Vermont Creamery.

Share a crotin of aged goat cheese with your lover for Valentine's Day.

Say Cheese!

So here’s where you start: Find a good cheesemonger, preferably one who’ll let you taste the cheese before you buy. In New Jersey, we were lucky enough to have a delightful couple named Paul and Pam, who run The Summit Cheese Shop. They know volumes about the cheeses they carry, and even about some they don’t carry. They’ll give you little tastes, and they’re happy to spend time helping you develop an assortment that will please your guests.

A tasting of U.S. cheeses (L to R): Maytag Blue, Tillamook Cheddar, Vella Dry Jack. Sparked up by apple slices, toasted almonds, dried apricots, fig paste, hard salami, and dried cranberries.

In Texas, both of the larger gourmet grocery stores I shop at – Whole Foods and Central Market – offer extensive cheese departments manned by people who seem knowledgeable and helpful on putting together a selection. But I understand that Austin has at least a couple of specialty shops I have to try. Look around your town – find a cheesemonger you can trust. And try some new tastes!

P.S. When the party’s over, wrap those remnants in fresh cellophane – not the old wrapping – and hang onto them. Do not freeze them. The Kitchen Goddess has a couple of wonderful dishes to make with those leftovers. Coming soon...

Don't forget the crackers.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Tweaking an Old Favorite
What’s cooking? Zuppa di Fagioli Neri (Black Bean Soup)

So January is Soup Month. I don’t know who makes these assignments, or by what authority, but I’m happy to celebrate soup in any season, especially in winter. The simplicity of it – one pot, one dish, one utensil for eating – appeals on so many levels. Of course, the Kitchen Goddess usually manages to work a bit of complexity into the mix, but what is life if not a bit complex?

Take black bean soup. I love the color and the texture, but as with most bean soups, it can be a bit boring. So I took a cruise through the half a dozen of my books on soups – I don’t actually cook from all of them, but if you’re looking for ways to branch out, it’s helpful to have some reference material. Also, the Kitchen Goddess just loves a recipe with a lot of ingredients.

Some of my books suggested including ham or bacon. But I like sausage. Italian sweet sausage. I’d never had it before I moved to Manhattan, as I don’t remember my mother ever cooking sausage, or adding it to a dish, unless it was venison sausage from when my dad went deer hunting. And even then, we probably just grilled it. When I get right down to it, there are a lot of dishes I don’t remember my mother cooking. She wasn’t afraid to try new tastes, but she knew nothing about the great cuisines of the world in the way that most cooks do today. And it wasn’t just my mother. I think she cooked the way other cooks in the South did in those days. In the world of Italian food, for example, we had spaghetti and lasagna. Period. Everything else was called noodles, not pasta. They were good Methodist meals, not Italian.

Now, I don’t mean to claim that this version of black bean soup relates in the least bit to Italian food, but it does use Italian sweet sausage. So I’ve taken a bit of license with the name. Most U.S. grocery stores will carry two types of Italian sausage: hot and sweet (mild). According to Wikipedia, both are flavored with anise and/or fennel. The hot variety is distinguished only by the addition of red pepper flakes. So it’s really up to you which one you use, as the essential flavors will be the same.

Italian sweet peppers

To keep the soup from resembling a mud pie, I added a couple of Italian sweet peppers. If you can’t get them or are feeling a bit chicken (cluck, cluck!), a red bell pepper will do as well, since red bell peppers are just Italian sweet peppers’ muscular cousins who spent all their time in the gym. The taste is equally mild.
Red bell peppers

The dry sherry made its way in because I like booze in my food. When your guests say, “There’s a nice flavor here that I can’t quite identify. What is it?” That’s the sherry.

In my final tweak, I tried something that you must keep just between us: canned beans. By the time I got to the grocery store, I was so hungry I knew I couldn’t wait to make this soup. And starting with dried beans was going to make the soup into an overnight project. “What the heck?” I said to myself, remembering the Kitchen Goddess’s first rule of cooking: “If it tastes bad, we’ll throw it out and order pizza.”

For the canned beans, I had to adjust the amount of broth, and I rinsed the beans so as not to overdo the sodium. But they tasted just fine. Better than that, in fact – the soup was fabulous. So here it is. Mangia!

Zuppa di Fagioli Neri (Black Bean Soup)

Serves 6-8.

1 pound sweet Italian sausage
⅓ cup olive oil
2 leeks (white and light green parts only), rinsed well and diced
1 small onion, diced (½ cup)
2 teaspoons garlic, minced (about 4 medium cloves)
2 29-ounce cans black beans, drained and rinsed
5 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon + ½ teaspoon cumin powder, divided
½ tablespoon dried oregano
2 bay leaves
1½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
pinch of cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons parsley, divided
2 Italian sweet peppers or 1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
¼ cup dry sherry
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Garnish: creme fraiche or light sour cream or low-fat plain yogurt

Remove the skins from the sausages and, in a large French/Dutch oven, sauté the sausage over medium-high heat until done (all pink has disappeared). Using a slotted spoon, remove the sausage to a bowl and set aside. Wipe the pot with paper towels to remove the grease.

Heat the oil in the pot. Add the leeks, onion, and garlic, and sauté over medium/medium-low heat, covered and stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes until the vegetables are soft and translucent.

Add the beans, the broth, 1 tablespoon of the cumin, oregano, bay leaves, salt, pepper, cayenne, and 1 tablespoon of the parsley. Raise the heat to bring the mixture to a simmer, then reduce the heat to allow the soup to simmer, partly covered, for 30 minutes.

Kitchen Goddess note: Black bean soup is thick, and the beans will have a tendency to settle in the bottom of the pot, where they will stick and burn and ruin the flavor of the soup. Use a wooden spoon to stir the soup as it simmers and occasionally scrape the bottom of the pot to keep the beans from sticking.

Using a hand-held strainer, remove up to half of the solids from the broth and process in a blender or food processor until relatively smooth. (The quantity of solids to purée is your choice, and it need not be completely puréed.) Return the mixture to the pot along with the cooked sausage.

Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of parsley, the red pepper, ½ teaspoon cumin, the sherry, brown sugar, and lemon juice. Simmer, partially covered, another 30 minutes, stirring and occasionally scraping the bottom of the pot as before.

Taste, correct seasonings, and serve with a dollop of sour cream/light sour cream/plain yogurt/creme fraiche (whatever you choose).

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Shades of the Mediterranean – My New Favorite Chicken What’s cooking? Braised Chicken with Preserved Lemon and Olives

There’s hardly anyone I’d rather cook for than my children. I get a satisfaction that comes from reaffirming my continuing role in their lives, which always makes me happy.

So when my younger son and his girlfriend announced that they’d be coming to Austin as part of their round-the-world interviews for medical residency programs, my first thought was of dinner. They’d been eating in hotels and restaurants and fast food spots more often than not over the past couple of months, and I knew a home cooked dinner would be welcome.

What to cook? The pressure was making me crazy. I’d only have the kids one night, and I wanted it to be special. Then I came across a recipe that seemed just right. Tons of garlic, cooked along with chicken legs – which I always prefer flavor-wise to breasts – and preserved lemons, which I’d never cooked with yet seemed simultaneously exotic and familiar. The real kicker was that the dish used Cerignola olives “or other green brine-cured olives.” Well, it just so happens that I had a jar of green Sicilian brine-cured olives I brought back from our trip to the Amalfi Coast last year. They’d been calling to me from the back of the refrigerator, but I’d been waiting for the right opportunity – and hoping they wouldn’t disintegrate in the meantime. This was it. Just reading the recipe, I could already taste the flavors of Southern Italy – olives and lemons and garlic – on my tongue.

So... about the ingredients:

Preserved lemons, also known as lemon pickle. If you have the time, you can make your own. But “the time” is 3-4 weeks. I didn’t have that, so I went looking for them at a grocery store. My main store (H.E.B.) didn’t carry them, but the upscale member of the same chain (Central Market) did. Whole Foods does not, but Williams-Sonoma does. So you may have to check around to get them at retail. Preserved lemons are a staple of Moroccan cuisine. Covered in salty lemon juice for all that time, they somehow lose much of their pucker power, and the skin softens considerably to a unique, silky texture. If a recipe calls for preserved lemons, nothing else will do.

Cerignola olives. Cerignolas are very large, mild flavored, and more often served green, though you can find them cured black. They make great table olives. The key is the mild flavor, so unless you find a jar that’s labeled as containing Cerignola olives, I’d start at the olive bar in your local grocery, where you can taste before you buy. I’ve seen Cerignola olives at Whole Foods. In this case, if you have a jar of olives that you brought here from Italy (even if they’re a bit smaller), why would you not use them?

The garlic. I’m going to mention this now, because the Kitchen Goddess didn’t give it a thought before she waded in on this recipe, and she was really sorry: Peel that garlic first. Peeling two heads of garlic takes a bit of time, and while there are many ways to speed the process, the recipe moves right along once you get started, and you don’t want to find yourself – as the Kitchen Goddess did – screaming, “OMG, I forgot to peel the garlic!” My way of speeding the process was to enlist my son’s girlfriend, who was most gracious and efficient in her help. But once again, it’s all about the mise en place – have it ready before you start.

The Kitchen Goddess served this recipe with steamed and buttered haricot verts, and Smashed Potatoes, on the side. But what she didn’t realize before she sat down was that, after you devour the chicken – which you will because it’s that good – you’ll feel an irresistible urge to pick up the bowl and lick it all around. To allow for a more sophisticated response to the sauce, I recommend one of the following:

■ Potatoes, prepared in a ½-inch dice and roasted with a tiny bit of olive oil and kosher salt;
■ Egg noodles – medium sized, spiral; or
■ Slices of French bread or Italian bread, toasted and rubbed with garlic and olive oil.

The potatoes and the noodles would be served underneath the chicken or to the side but in the same bowl; the toasts would be served in a basket.

Kitchen Goddess note: There’s nothing hard about the preparation, but it takes time. The original recipe suggests total time of 2½ hours. I think you could do it in that amount of time if you didn’t get any phone calls or your spouse didn’t need to ask you if you’d seen the TV remote. I prefer to allow 3 hours and be delightfully surprised when it takes less.

Braised Chicken with Preserved Lemon and Olives

Serves 4-5.

For the herb sachet:
– 2 sprigs fresh thyme
– 1 bay leaf
– 10 peppercorns
– small handful of parsley leaves and stems, chopped

6 chicken legs (drumstick and thigh), with skin on, patted dry – or the equivalent. The ones I found were enormous, so I opted for 5 drumsticks and 8 thighs, sold separately.

salt/freshly ground pepper
1½ tablespoons olive oil, more if needed
2 heads garlic, cloves separated and peeled
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
3 cups white wine (I used a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc)
2 cups good quality chicken stock
16 large, green, brine-cured olives (such as Cerignola or Picholine)
2 small preserved lemons, sliced into ⅛-inch rounds
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped (for garnish)

Assemble the herb sachet tied in either a cheesecloth bundle or a muslin sachet bag. Set aside.

Season the chicken on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat a large Dutch oven or braising pan over medium-high heat until hot, then add enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. (I used a 5.5-quart Le Creuset French oven, and found 1½ tablespoons of oil to be plenty; if you have a bigger pan, you may need to add a bit.)

Cook as much of the chicken as you can comfortably fit in the pan – no cramming! – skin-side down and without moving it, until brown (about 3 minutes). Turn the pieces over and brown the other side the same amount. Remove the browned chicken pieces to a plate. Repeat with the rest of the chicken, working only in batches that will comfortably fit in the pan. (For my 5 drumsticks and 8 thighs, I needed three batches.) Add oil if necessary.

When all the chicken has been browned, add the garlic cloves and sauté, stirring, 2 minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer the garlic to a bowl.

Reduce the heat to low and add the flour and 2 tablespoons of the butter to the pan. Whisk constantly until golden brown, about 1 minute. Deglaze the pan – pour in the wine and bring it to a boil, all the while scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen the brown bits (the fond) that accumulated from the chicken sauté. After the wine has boiled for about 5 minutes (when it should be reduced by one-third), add the stock, the garlic cloves, the olives, and the herb sachet to the pan. Tuck the chicken, skin-side up, into the sauce and turn up the heat to medium-high until the sauce boils, then reduce the heat to simmer the sauce, covered, for 35 minutes. While the sauce is simmering, pre-heat the oven to 425º.

At the end of the 35 minutes, remove the chicken pieces from the sauce and arrange them on a large, rimmed baking sheet. Arrange the lemon slices on the chicken, and place the pan into the oven for 20 minutes.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the garlic and olives to a bowl and reserve. Discard the sachet. Boil the sauce until it thickens, about 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Whisk in the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and season to taste with salt and pepper.

When the chicken and lemons are done, move them back into the sauce, along with the garlic and olives. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve.

* * *

A note about the wine: In memory of our time in Positano, we drank a Fiano di Avellino with the dish. Still dry, but a bit heavier than the Sauvignon blanc in the sauce, it has notes of honey and blossoms, with an attractive minerality. It was perfect.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Chicken Soup for the Season
What’s cooking? Chicken Vegetable Soup

Okay, so it's a rooster. So sue me.

“Mom!” said the voice on my cell phone. It was my younger son and he sounded almost frantic. No matter how old they are – and this one was 28 at the time – you imagine the worst when they sound that way.

“Hi, sweetie – what’s up?” I said as I held my breath.

“Listen, Cybill is sick and I want to take her some chicken soup. So I’m in the grocery store – what do I buy?”

Now I could hear that what appeared to be panic was only the waffling of sound that comes when the person calling is also walking while he talks. I felt my heart give a reflexive squish at the image of him cooking for his girlfriend, and cooking my chicken soup recipe that he thought would save the day.

It didn’t start out as my chicken soup. It was one of the few specialties of my mother’s kitchen that I periodically found myself missing when I moved to New York after college.

There was no point in asking her how she made it. She just stood in the kitchen, waved her magic wand, and – presto! – chicken soup. Ok, so that’s not how it really happened. But it might as well have been. My mother hardly ever worked by a recipe. For the occasional fancy dessert – I remember a mango-champagne cake in particular, but I’ve never found the card on it – she’d follow written directions. But most of the time, if she couldn’t make up what she wanted, then she made something else.

Finally, I just watched her make that chicken soup. And I wrote down what she did. Then I took my notes home and made what I thought she’d made. Not the same. So I fiddled with it, tasted it, fiddled some more, tasted some more. And as I learned more about cooking, I fiddled yet again with it. So much so that I guess I can honestly say now that it’s my chicken soup.

It’s the soup I made for my boys when they were sick. It’s the soup I yearn to make and send to them when they’re sick now, though, having done that once, I know the cost is completely ridiculous. It’s the soup I’ve made for sick friends, and the soup I crave when I myself am sick, so it’s good to stash a container of it in the freezer at the start of the allergy/flu season.

I know everyone – almost everyone? – has their own chicken soup. Which is a good thing, as I recently read – in The Wall Street Journal, of all places – that “scientists have theorized that an amino acid in chicken called cysteine may help thin mucus, and in a study published in the journal Chest in 2000, researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center demonstrated in test tubes that the ingredients in a traditional chicken soup inhibited inflammation.”

In case you haven’t got a chicken soup, or you have one but want to try mine, here it is. Kitchen Godddess note: I use chicken thighs because I think they give better flavor, and I use boneless or bone-in, depending on what I can find. As for the veggies, this recipe is extremely flexible in the sense that if you don’t have or like green beans, you can substitute a package of frozen spinach. Add parsnips or lima beans or yellow summer squash – you just want to have a nice medley of colors.

So stay warm, stay healthy – have some chicken soup.

Chicken Vegetable Soup

Serves 4-6.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
½ cup carrot, cut in ¼-inch dice, plus ½ cup sliced ⅛-inch thick
½ cup celery, cut in ¼-inch dice, plus ½ cup sliced ⅛-inch thick
7 cups good quality chicken broth
2½ pounds skinless chicken thighs (boneless or bone-in – your choice), trimmed of fat
1 teaspoon plus ½ teaspoon dried dill
1 teaspoon plus ½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 large bay leaf (or 2 small)
1 teaspoon salt
1 medium turnip, diced (⅜-inch to ½-inch)
1 medium zucchini, sliced ⅛-inch thick
3-4 ounces green beans (fresh or frozen)
1 cup corn (fresh or frozen)
additional salt/pepper to taste
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

In a large pot (I use a 5.5-quart Le Creuset French oven), heat the oil over medium heat and sauté the onion for 4 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté another 1 minute, without browning. Add the diced carrot and the diced celery and sauté another 5 minutes.

Add the broth, the chicken, 1 teaspoon each of the dill and thyme, the bay leaf, and 1 teaspoon of salt, and bring to a simmer. Kitchen Goddess note: It should simmer very gently – not boil – or the meat will become tough and you’ll get scum that’ll be hard to remove. After 20 minutes, remove the chicken and shred it to your liking.

Add the sliced carrots, sliced celery, turnip, zucchini, green beans and corn to the pot and bring to a simmer. Add back the shredded chicken plus any accumulated juices. Simmer gently 10-15 minutes, until the carrots are tender (they’re the densest of the veggies, so will take longest to cook).

Add the extra ½ teaspoon of dill and thyme and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add salt/pepper to taste. Stir in the parsley and remove the bay leaf. Ladle into warm bowls and serve hot.

Monday, January 6, 2014

I, Too, Have a Dream, But It’s About Risotto
What’s cooking? Butternut Squash Risotto

My dreams aren’t nearly as lofty as Martin Luther King’s, whose birthday we’ll celebrate next week. But I did have a delightful dream last night, in which I made butternut squash risotto and some really delicious looking pastries filled with homemade ricotta and topped with sesame seeds. Now, I have no idea how I’d go about making the pastries, but I’ve made that risotto more than once, and I can testify that it is truly dream worthy. And with winter settling in around the country, risotto has all the attributes of a great comfort food: soft, warm, filling, and with a great balance of sweet and savory flavors.

I’d never really heard of butternut squash until I moved to the Northeast. So I don’t know if it’s just newly arrived in the South, or if it’s another of those foods that we’ve “discovered” in recent decades. And by “newly arrived,” I don’t mean 21st century – more like the last half of the 20th. On the other hand, I don’t remember my mother cooking any squash but zucchini or yellow squash; maybe it didn’t appeal to her so she never cooked it. Was it standard fare for your family when you were a child? The first time I recall seeing it in a recipe was as the basis of Curried Butternut Squash Soup – a dynamite concoction from the first Silver Palate Cookbook. I thought it sounded terribly exotic, and made it a frequent star of my annual Soup Party in New Jersey.

As a veggie, butternut squash is like a sort of prickly friend who doesn’t go out of her way to be sociable, but once you get to know her you realize how wonderful she is. It’s a workout to peel one – the skin is thick and tough, and you’ll need a sharp knife and a bit of heft even to cut one in half. I recently stumbled across a one-pound container of already peeled butternut squash at my grocery store – diced to just the right size, no less – and felt like shouting “Glory, hallelujah!” right there in the produce aisle.

Even if your grocer isn’t as accommodating as mine, this is a veggie you should warm to.

1. It’s long on nutrition, full of vitamins A and C and all the key antioxidants. Along with other winter squashes, it also carries anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, and insulin-regulating properties. The low-fat, high-fiber flesh is heart-healthy, delivers significant potassium for bone health, and lots of B6 to bolster your nervous and immune systems.

2. It’s simple to cook. Once you peel off that tough outer skin, cut it into chunks or – for a slightly prettier effect – ¾-inch dice. Be sure to remove not only the yellow skin but the whitish layer beneath it and the green veins – in other words, get all the way down to that bright orange meat. Then toss it with a bit of olive oil, sprinkle it with salt, and roast it for 30-35 minutes at 400º. Voilá! It’s ready to eat.

3. It’s flexible. Once it’s cooked, an amazing number of possibilities open up. Fold it into pasta or couscous or wild rice, mix it with hearty greens like collards, or combine it into a bright fall medley with roasted apples and roasted onions. Purée it with butter and nutmeg and serve it like mashed potatoes, or stir the purée into soft, smooth polenta. Or don’t roast it and make soup.

Or follow my dream and make risotto. I like sautéing the onion in a bit of bacon fat along with the butter, and I save the cooked bacon to garnish the dish; but you can skip the bacon for a vegetarian version, and it will still be wonderful. I also like this particular version because it’s flavored with dry sherry, which adds a slightly nutty note. Pour some into the risotto, and while you’re at it, pour a glass for yourself. Mangia!

Butternut Squash Risotto

Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as a side dish.

1 small butternut squash (1½-2 pounds), peeled, seeded, and cut into ¾-inch dice (about 4 cups)
1½ tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon kosher salt
4 cups good quality chicken stock
4 slices bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup)
1 clove garlic (raw or roasted: if raw, finely chopped; if roasted, mashed to a paste)
1 cup Arborio rice
½ cup dry sherry or Amontillado
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
salt/pepper to taste

Heat the oven to 400º. Toss the diced squash with the olive oil and kosher salt, spread it in a single layer on a baking pan, and roast 30-35 minutes, until the squash is tender.

While the squash is cooking, pour the stock into a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring it to a bare simmer, and keep it that way.

In a large saucepan, cook the bacon pieces over medium-high heat until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon to paper towels and pour out all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat. Add the butter and reduce the temperature to medium-low. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds.

Raise the heat to medium and add the Arborio rice. Cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute, then add the sherry and stir until fully absorbed by the rice.

Pour in ½ cup of the simmering chicken broth and stir until it is almost completely absorbed by the rice. Continue adding the hot broth to the rice, ½ cup at a time, and stirring until the rice absorbs the additional broth. The risotto is done when the rice is tender and creamy but still slightly al dente.

Stir in the butternut squash and the chives until well combined. If you are serving the dish on a buffet, you may want to save ¼ cup of the squash to sprinkle on top.  Season to taste with salt and pepper, and garnish with the reserved bacon.