Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fancy made easy: stuffed chicken breasts

OK, this is the part where I shatter a few myths: there is no Santa Claus, the tooth fairy is your Mum, and it's really easy to make most of the food you order in fancy restaurants.  The Easter bunny, on the other hand, is absolutely bona-fide.

Restaurants are busy places.  The chef can't afford to spend hours preparing fiddly, complex dishes: they choose items which look impressive, taste good, and can be assembled quickly, and often in advance, so you get your meal before you starve to death.  Sure, there are exceptions, but usually the point of difference is that they seem too daunting to make at home, or they have a hard-to-source ingredient (steak is easy, but venison steaks are hard for the home cook to source).

I have a few "dinner party" tricks up my sleeve, and I'll share one with you now.  Stuffed chicken breasts look fancy, but take about 5-10 minutes to assemble (which I do in advance), and then just do their own thing in the oven while you drink wine with your guests.  Most dishes can cope on their own in the oven without you hovering, poking and prodding, or fretting.  Set a timer, and pour a glass of something nice!

It's this easy:

1. Turn your chicken breasts upside-down, and note where the tenderloin makes a natural fold along one edge:
2.  Using a small, sharp knife, make a small flap by slicing under the tenderloin, then make a pocket by slicing back in the other direction through the main breast:
I always wear latex gloves when handling meat.  While I believe that good hand washing is the best way to protect you from raw meat, the gloves helps stop chicken from getting under my fingernails!!  

This gives you a large pocket through the middle of the breast, with a convenient flap to close/cover the filling.  How convenient!

3.  Add the filling of your choice.  I've used mango cheeks (from a can), but my favourite is big chunks of camembert with a little bacon or prosciutto!
Fold the flap back over to cover the filling.  Secure with a skewer to hold together if needed, but I find these usually hold together pretty well.

4. Coat the breast to discourage it from drying out during cooking.  This can be as easy as wrapping a couple of slices of streaky bacon around the breast (this method also helps to hold the stuffing in!), or crumb as I did.

To crumb meat, dredge in flour, dip in egg (lightly beaten), then coat with breadcrumbs.  I use this basic technique for fish fillets, chicken, and schnitzel, giving a nice, crunchy finish whether pan-frying or baking.

Place cut-side down on baking paper in a dish or on a tray.  Cover and pop in the fridge if you're making ahead.
A glass of wine is an absolute essential.  You're slaving away in the kitchen for at least 5 minutes here.  You deserve it.

Cover with tinfoil or baking paper (to keep the moisture in), and pop into a 200°C oven for 15 minutes.  For a golden finish, spray with cooking oil, and uncover for the last 5 minutes.

5.  Presentation is half the wow-factor.  First impressions are important!  Slice the breasts on the diagonal, and arrange on plates.  This also allays any fears of serving under-cooked chicken: you get to peek inside before serving!
Please take note of the new potatoes in the background.  Thank you.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Eggplant the easy way: Caponata

This is a great way to use eggplant and tomatoes, two things I tend to have in surplus this time of year!  But what I really love about this dish is its versatility: it works well as a side dish with steak or fish, or as a meal in itself with bread.  I'll even eat the leftovers cold on good bread (ciabatta, fresh rolls, or just toast!).
And it's fast - ready in no time at all!

DISCLAIMER: I am not Italian, and make no claims to that effect.  This is just a really tasty dish, which I enjoy making and refer to as caponata - I make no claims regarding the authenticity of this recipe, and suspect that genuine Sicilian caponata is a very different dish which also happpens to involve eggplant.
Take a couple of small eggplants, or one large one, or a combination (I often use a pile of long, skinny and small, round ones - just guess at the same volume as a large black eggplant)

Slice lengthways, turn and slice again:

 Slice across-ways one last time to make cute little squares.  These are about 2.5-3cm

Heat a wok or frypan, and add a couple of tablespoons of oil.  (I use rice bran, because it's light and doesn't smoke at high temperatures).  You want the pan to be really hot.  If a splash of water sizzles instantly, you're ready to cook.
Brown the eggplant in batches.  It doesn't need to be cooked right through at this stage, but seal the surface area, and get it nice and golden:

Meanwhile, finely chop an onion:

Throw into the pan (with the eggplant), and stir until the onion has softened.  Push it all to one side to clear a space at the bottom of the pan, add a little more oil, and add a clove of garlic (chopped or crushed), and about a tablespoon of capers (drain first.  I roughly chop mine so that they go further).  Stir these until the garlic starts to colour (you want a soft golden colour, not brown).

Before the garlic browns (burned garlic is bitter), stir through about 1 Tbsp of balsamic vinegar.  Once this has evaporated, throw in 1-2 cups of chopped tomatoes - a can works just fine if you don't have fresh ones. Add 1Tbsp of tomato paste, a handful of oregano (or 1-2tsp of dried oregano), and a handful of kalamata olives (pitted).  Simmer for about 5 minutes, or until the mixture thickens.
Add olive oil if the texture seems dry - I like mine a little oily, but this comes down to personal preference.
Serve with a splash of balsamic, or more oil!

Edit note: have updated the first and last photos - thanks Jason for taking much better pics than me!  Fortunately I make this fairly often this time of year, and get a chance to re-shoot!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Proud of myself

Yeah, yeah, pride is a sin.. but look!  I made potatoes!
I opted for the low-maintenance (read "no dig") polythene bag method this year.  A single potato in each PB40 bag, topped up every few days as the shoots grew, and then occasionally watered but mostly just neglected in a corner.

Today I decided the first bag looked ready: the tops were brown, either because they were dying down (ready) or neglected.  Only way to know for sure is to empty the bag... and look! I made potatoes!  These are Jersey Benne, an early variety which are to-die-for with a little butter.

Looking forward to getting into the remaining 5 bags over the coming weeks, when the later varieties are ready (the rest are Maori heirloom varieties).  Will keep you up-to-date.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Lazy pasta dinner

Following on from comments on my previous post: cooking doesn't have to be fancy, or hard work!! 

I think everyone has at least one of these tricks up their sleeve for that short-notice or can't-be-bothered bit of comfort food: allow me to introduce my leftover chicken pasta recipe!
I love that this uses kitchen staples (easily substituted without any ill effects), and a bit of leftover chicken - or (gasp!) supermarket rotisserie chicken - and have dinner made in about 20 minutes.

You'll need:
Leftover chicken or turkey or hot supermarket chicken
Dry pasta (really, whatever you have on hand.  I like giant spirals, but have also used spaghetti, macaroni elbows, and orzo!)
1 brown onion
1 tsp crushed garlic (optional)
1 can chopped tomatoes or 1 can Watties tomato soup
Sour cream or cream or creme fraiche
Spring onion/chives (optional) - chopped, to serve
(I told you there were lots of opportunities to substitute ingredients!)

First, put water on to boil, add salt, and then pasta.  The pasta usually takes longer than the sauce, so get this underway.

Meanwhile, chop your onion however you like it.  I'm fussy with mine, but you really can do whatever you want with yours!!
To chop an onion in my kitchen, you need two things: an onion, and a really sharp knife.  Then chop it like so:

Brown the onion in a little oil - the point is more to soften it than to brown it, but I like it a little golden around the edges for flavour.
Next, add garlic and stir very briefly to brown, but do not burn or it will be bitter.  Pour in tomato and add chicken.
Simmer long enough that you are sure the chicken is hot all the way through.  Pre-cooked chicken will start to fall apart and really become part of the sauce.  Trust me, this is a good thing!

When you're happy with the sauce (go on, stick a spoon in and check), add cream/sour cream to taste (I usually use a few tablespoons of sour cream).

Pour the sauce in with the drained pasta, stir it all together, and serve.


Saturday, January 9, 2010

Not stupid

Just read a great post on Michael Ruhlman's blog (read the full post here ) which just hit the spot for me:

"Americans are being taught that we’re too stupid to cook.  That cooking is so hard we need to let other people do it for us.  The messages are everywhere.  Boxed cake mix.  Why is it there?  Because a real cake is too hard!  You can’t bake a cake!  Takes too long, you can’t do it, you’re gonna fail!"

It's not just America: we are seeing more and more of this, and it's everywhere.  No longer disguised as 'convenience', the easy option is simply easier to get hold of!  We have the smell of rotisserie chickens wafting through supermarkets in New Zealand too, and even if you think you can handle cooking your own, you couldn't possibly make stuffing from scratch, so they do that for you, stuff it in the chicken, tie its feet together, and pop it in an oven bag.  You can handle turning the oven on and putting it in, right? 

I'll admit to grabbing store-made pizza bases when I'm in a hurry, but the rest is all me.. the 10 minutes it takes to top the pizza with exactly what I want is absolutely worth it!  The customisation makes all the difference: you can't add your signature ingredient to the store-stuffed chicken, and no matter what you serve it with, it always has that same safe, familiar flavour.  It never changes. 

But if you want your roast chicken to taste exactly the same as everyone else's, go right ahead.  Just think about it first.

[end rant]