Saturday, January 27, 2007

Food: Muffin Bake-Off!

It's a cold and dreary Saturday afternoon here in Beantown, USA--about time given all the warm weather we've been having here this winter. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to finally collect all my little recipe notes and taste-testing thoughts on my Lemon Anise Spice muffins and put everything together in proper recipe formation. Plus the deadline for the recipe contest I want to enter this into is Wednesday, but whatev.

I was hosting a Craft-ernoon at my house a while back and wanted to serve all my crafty little friends some muffins that were both familiar and a bit more...dramatic. Looking through my cupboards, cardamom immediately jumped out at me as a good pairing with the creamy flavor in basic muffins. Think chai tea with milk while lounging sumptuously on a red velvet sofa, and spicy after-dinner toddies just before you snuggle into bed. The anise was really added as an afterthought. I tasted the batter and decided it needed that something "extra," and was surprised at how the anise ended up stealing the show. A few tablespoons of lemon brought all the ingredients together (Lemon goes with poppy seeds and anise is about the same size as poppy seeds, right?).

The resulting flavor is exactly what I was going for--familiar ingredients put together in an unfamiliar combination resulting in something new. The primary flavors are lemon and anise, but that little touch of cardamom rounds out the edge and highlights the best qualities of both the lemon and the anise. The basic muffin recipe I use for this results in a denser muffin than you might be used to seeing. This makes it a perfect brunch item since the cakey fluffiness is a happy medium that both muffin and scone lovers can enjoy. Note: Other citruses would probably work equally well
here--tangerine, orange, Meyer lemon...

Lemon Anise Spice Muffins

with thanks to Orangette for the basic muffin recipe HERE

3 c. flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
scant 1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cardamom
2 Tbsp anise seed
3/4c + 1 Tbsp milk
2 Tbsp buttermilk
4 oz unsalted butter (at room temperature)
3/4 c + 1 Tbsp sugar
2 large eggs (warmed to room temperature)
2 Tbsp lemon zest (about the zest of 2 medium lemons)

Note: It's important for the butter and eggs to be at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit with rack on the middle position. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with muffin liners (or spray with non-stick coating).

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cardamom, and anise. In a separate measuring cup, combine the milk and butter milk and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand-mixer or using an electric hand mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Add the lemon zest to the butter-sugar mixture and mix until just combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition until just combined and no trace of yolk is visible.

With the mixer on low, pour in one-third of the milk mixture and then one-third of the dry ingredients. Continue to alternate between the milk and dry ingredients until all ingredients are incorporated. Your dough should look pale yellow and shaggy.

Divide the batter between the twelve cups and bake until the muffins are firm to the touch and a cake-tester inserted into the center muffin comes out clean--about 25-30 minutes.

The muffins are wonderful on their own, but you can also brush the tops with melted butter and press them into confectioner's sugar for an added treat.

WeightWatchers: Using 1% milk, 12 muffins is 5.5 points per muffin. These make pretty big muffins though, so you can easily make 24 muffins out of the same recipe and still have a healthy muffin to munch on. If you make 24 muffins, each muffin is about 2.75 points each.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Food: Sausage, Barley, and Alien Soup

At first we were afraid. Very afraid. Imagine, Emma the Innocent is innocently chopping vegetables for a nice pot o' sausage, barley, and mushroom soup. Engineer the Brilliant is expounding on vector-based something-or-other, which involve moments of gobbledegook and forces corresponding to jibberish. Emma the Innocent nods sagely and pulls another parsnip from the grocery bag....or DOES she?! Screams of terror! Vector-based forces collide in moments! Counter attack--we'll EAT him out!
When that proved too crunchy and tasteless, we decided to make friends. Here's the Engineer and his new friend communing.
Aw, shucks. We're gonna miss that little guy!And then we decided to sacrifice him to the Gods of Hunger and put him in our soup pot. As if in comic retribution, the resulting soup was bitter and lacked depth of flavor. I've made this soup before with wonderful, no-leftovers-left-over results, so I can only conclude that parsnips are not a good substitute for carrots (which I loathe) in this particular dish. The whole time I choked down my bowl, I kept thinking, "Dang. I really just want the taste of potatoes in this." So next time? Potatoes.

In an attempt to salvage the rest of the pot, I tried sprinkling my next bowl with a healthy portion of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. (Cheese can never hurt, right? Though I was worried about
wasting my lovely Parmigiano Reggiano...) While parsnips still are definitely not the best choice for this soup, with the addition of cheese, the soup went from "inedible" to "acceptably decent." It wasn't until days later while reading "Umami: A Taste By Any Other Name" by Rowan Jacobson (published in The Art of Eating, Issue No. 72) when I realized that what was lacking in the soup--and what the Parmesan made up for--was the flavor of umami.

Umami literally means "the essence of deliciousness" in Japanese, and is a legitimate fifth taste with its very own taste buds alongside those responding to sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. At its most basic, the flavor of umami comes from the amino acid glutamate (of the ill-famed MSG additive). The umami flavor can perhaps best be described as 'savory'
and is found in protein based foods where the protein has begun to break down--like aged and cured beef, anchovies, soy sauce, and, yes, you guessed it, Parmesan cheese. In fact, the little tiny white crystals in Parmigiano Reggiano are granules of an amino acid with umami flavor. As Rowan Jacobsen says in his article, "Whenever a soup or sauce 'needs something,' chances are that something is umami--and, chances are, a Western cook will mistakenly add salt instead." Oops. Guilty. Too bad I didn't read that article until after I'd made the soup...

Here is the soup recipe for your very own experiments. Unless you feel like playing around with umami, I'd recommend leaving the parsnips to their alien conspiracies. The original recipe
(found HERE) calls for celery and carrots, but since I don't like those things, I leave them out. I might try adding potatoes for a little more body and starch next time I make it, but I've also made it a few times with the recipe exactly as I've written it below and loved it. Enjoy!

Sausage, Barley, & Mushroom Soup
Makes 4-6 one-cup servings

  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 4 links of turkey or chicken sausage (spicy or sweet, as you prefer)--slit each link down the center and remove from casing. Break into crumbly pieces with your fingers. (Or you can chop them if you're grossed out.)
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups of portobello or baby bella mushrooms (I use 1 carton from the store)
  • 5 cups shiitake mushrooms (about 1/2 lb), stems discarded and chopped (this is best when mushrooms are in season and you can find them at farmer's markets. Otherwise, I add a second carton of baby bella mushrooms.)
  • 1 cup barley
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
In a large stock pot, saute the onion in a few teaspoons of oil until soft and translucent. Add the sausage and cook until the sausage is browned. Add garlic, bay leaf, and thyme and stir until garlic is fragrant. Add mushrooms and cook until mushrooms just begin to sweat and shrivel. Add chicken broth and barley.

With the lid off, bring the soup to a boil. Once boiling, cover and reduce to a simmer. The soup is done when the barley is tender. If you have quick-cooking barley, the soup will be ready in about 15 minutes. Regular pearl barley will take about 45 minutes. Check seasonings and add salt and pepper to taste.

WeightWatcher's Notes: I use Al Fresco Chicken Sausage in this soup, which is 70% less fat than regular sausage. It comes in a lot of good flavors and the quality is good for use in soups like this. Depending on the flavor you get, one link is 3 - 4 points. The pot usually makes about 6 cups or more, so a serving is about 3.5 points for a one-cup serving. Depending on the type of sausage you find, you should double check the points. The total for the entire pot of soup before adding the sausage is 6 points.

And don't forget, Parsnip Aliens have feelings too.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Touring the Dome Home

I love love love my parent's dome home in Minnesta! The geodesic dome home was originally designed by Buckminster Fuller and is rather ubiquitous with the 50's and 60's hippiedom. This particular dome home resides a few miles outside of Northfield, Minnesota, in the middle of corn and bean fields. It's tucked into a little horseshoe-shaped hollow of land left by the last glacier, and the sandy, rocky soil on this postage-stamp of land made it less ideal for farming than the surrounding land. My parents bought the house from the original owner in 2001 and quickly got to work ripping out the fine and impressive aqua, orange, and brown patterned carpet in the kitchen and punching more windows into the walls. It was a diamond in the rough, to say the least. There was an article about the resurgence of dome homes in the NY Times recently; if you'd like to read the article, click HERE.

Unfortunately, moving into this house happened just as I left for college, so I've never actually 'lived' here. Even so, it feels more like my home than about anywhere else I've lived in my life, and going home to it always feels like getting away to a special haven. My parents have done such an incredible job on the inside--the entire space is cozy and warm and inviting. They found a really nice balance between beautifully designed spaces (like the banister going up to the second floor) and technical utility (like the organization of cabinets and the island in the kitchen).

Many of you have expressed varying degrees
of wonder, mystification, and suspicion when I mention that my parents live in a dome home, so I thought I'd share some Dome Home Pix that I took on my last trip home (click on any of the photos to see them full-sized):
These are some outdoor shots I took after the one big snowstorm we had while I was home. It snowed for almost twenty-four hours and I woke up the next morning to see all the trees rimmed with snow and the bluest sky you could imagine. It was like a fairy land. The top picture shows the driveway in the foreground. The hill in the background is in the west, and in the summer we like to climb up this hill to watch the sunset (if you can stand the mosquitoes or bring enough industrial strength insect repellent, that is). The second picture is toward the 'front yard' and runs up against the dirt road that goes to my parent's house. Most of the property is forested, but my parents are gradually restoring this front space to natural prairie.And these are some indoor shots looking outdoors at the rapidly melting snow. The first is of the big rose window at the front of the house. It looks out over the front yard area. The second picture is looking out the kitchen windows at the back yard. My parents built a gazebo and wrap-around deck there a few summers ago--you can see those most clearly in the first image at the beginning of the post.
And here's the kitchen itself. When we first moved in, this was a little closet of a room. There was just one window, I think, and it was entirely enclosed with only a little doorway leading to the dining room where the stove is now. The original owners had hung dark wood cabinets and laid down that infamous aqua, orange, and brown carpet. My parents pretty much ripped everything out, pushed the walls back, redid the lighting, and turned the space into somewhere you actually want to spend time. On the other side of the wall to the right of the picture is a little dining area sandwiched between the kitchen and the fireplace.
This is the living room and is almost a mirror opposite of the kitchen.
Here is the main room of the dome. If you picture the dome like a pie, the kitchen and living room are each a quarter of the pie and this area is the other half. It is open all the way up to the roof and is lined with pine wood. Aerial shots are below!
My cutie-pie mother modeling in front of the new staircase. My mombo is an artist and worked with the carpenters to make the design. You can't see it in these pictures, but between some of the slats in the railing are empty squares; for Christmas, my mom hung ornaments in the squares--so cool. That beam in the center is a support beam at the center of the house, by the way.

To orient you, 'behind' me is the main open living space. To the right is the dining room and you can just see the kitchen beyond that. Using our x-ray vision to see through the wall behind Mom, there's the ground floor bathroom and the living room. On the second floor, to the right is my parent's bedroom. To the left is one bedroom with stairs leading to the cupola. Directly ahead is both the second floor bathroom and a second bedroom.
An aerial shot of the big living area from the second floor landing.
This is inside my parents room. Again, thinking of the house as a pie, the open living area still takes up half. My parents' room is another quarter (above the kitchen), and the two bedrooms are each a fourth of the last quarter. Roughly. The bathrooms for both the ground floor and this second floor are right in the center of the pie.

Originally, all these bedrooms just had boring, ugly particle board. I think they were supposed to be lined with pine like the main living area, but the owner ran out of money or wood or energy. The particle board has always been kind of an eyesore, so this summer, my mom painted over the particle board and the trim between the triangles with different contrasting colors. In my parent's room, the colors are white, red, and coral.

In this photo, behind me is the bed and the door leading out to the landing and the closet space is to the left. Right ahead, the bookshelf divides the room a bit; behind the bookshelf is more shelf space for clothes and my parent's bathroom. See that painted fireplace screen in the mid-ground directly below the windows? Yup, that's a 'privacy screen' for the cat's litter box. Goodness me.
My mom might kill me for including this picture, but I had to! This is the bathroom in my parent's room and I just love the way they put in the cabinet space! Look how perfectly fitted into every nook and cranny all the cabinets are! Amazing! The attention to detail! Astounding!This is the bedroom directly ahead of you if you're looking at the picture of the staircase above. My dad works half of the week in Iowa and half from home, so this room doubles as his office when vacationing daughters aren't loafing about sleeping until noon. I love how you can see the slope of the roof in this shot. One of my favorite things is falling asleep in one of these bedrooms during a rainstorm. It's so cozy and snug, kind of like sleeping in a tent. The colors in this room are three different shades of green. The bed is directly behind me and the doorway to the hall is to the right.And now my favorite room in the house--the hobbit hole. This room is just big enough for a twin-size bed and a bookshelf. Actually, this bookshelf was my first Big Girl bookshelf that I got when I was about five years old. You can barely see it in the shot, but to the left of the picture is a tiny little built in desk. I spent many happy hours at this desk organizing and re-organizing my office. Behind me in this picture, there was originally a wall-length closet. But that got torn out to make room for...
...The staircase up to the cupola! Oh, man, if I lived in this house, you'd never get me away from here. Prior to this, the cupola was more of an attic that could only be accessed by one of those pull-down ladders set into the ceiling. Building an actual staircase up there was something we dreamed about, but I never actually thought it would happen. Oh, and see that funny-face picture on the wall? Yup, that's a picture of Ernie and the Tweedle Bugs from Sesame Street that I drew oh so many years ago.
Here are the stairs.
And here's the little cupola! I'm 5'2, and I can barely stand up in here. It's literally the crown of the dome, and there are little eye-level windows set along the top. The bed and bookshelves are built in. The rug is a Kaffe Fasset design and goes perfectly with all the little design elements my mom has decorated the space with--red vases with paper flowers, painted barrels filled with warm blankets, little tin ornaments. Almost every night during my vacation, my mom and I brought tea and toast up here after everyone else had gone to sleep and read until we couldn't keep our eyes open anymore.
And the crowning picture--this is the aerial view of the main room as seen from the cupola at the top of the house. I've suggested installing a slide from the cupola down to the main floor, but I think my parent's thought I was joking. Seriously. A slide. It would totally tie everything together. Think about it.

Oh, it's so hard to leave Minnesota! I love this house, and I also love spending time with my family. Mom and I almost completed several sewing projects (some last-minute snafus got us off schedule), we watched lots of reruns while knitting (the Engineer's sweater is so almost done, it's killing me), Dad and I baked bread,
we ate good food, we all lounged in front of the fireplace and put together puzzles. *sigh* All in all, a most excellent vacation.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Cooking: Don't be a Chicken!

I became a vegetarian my senior year in high school and only started eating meat again years later after making three very tough realizations:

1. The "for real" reason why I became a vegetarian was because my boyfriend decided to go veg and so I did too.

2. The vegetarian and I had broken up years ago.
3. I like meat.

Whether it's admitted or not, I think many people of my generation fell prey to the allure of vegetarianism not for ethical or altruistic reasons, but because it was cool at the time. Now, I fully recognize that for some folks vegetarianism was a good fit and what started as a fad became genuine heartfelt philosophy. But for the rest of us, I think we knew in our heart of hearts that we didn't quite belong. Oh, I was able to spout the memorized lines from the brochures along with the best of them, but I knew I was a liar.

I felt guilty and torn and miserable: a Judah among vegetarians. I just never stopped wanting meat. I craved it with a passion. I salivated at the sight of a big juicy cheeseburger. My stomach rumbled for bacon at brunch. I drooled for fried chicken (indeed, chicken fingers would be my ultimate downfall). When I admitted this to the seasoned vegetarians, they would nod reassuringly and say, "Don't worry. The longer you're a vegetarian, the less appeal meat will have for you." I trusted, I believed, I tried all the faux-meats I could get my hands on. I even tried NOT eating the faux-meats, thinking that maybe the faux-meats were just compounding my desire for real meat. Ultimately, I had to admit that I had a problem: I just wasn't a vegetarian.

I strongly believe in the ethical treatment of animals. I believe that consuming organically-raised and free-range animals is better for reasons of health, sustainability, and long-term economy. However, I do not believe that humans are natural vegetarians. I believe humans are true omnivores, and from a biological perspective, we are meant to eat meat--along with grains, vegetables, legumes, and other edibles. I believe that being a vegetarian is a choice made for personal, religious, or ethical reasons, not because it's a natural state of being for humans.

I also believe that it's ok to kill animals for food. I would prefer that the killing and butchering is done in a moral way and in a way that is as respectful of the animal as it is of the people the animal is going to feed. This is why I buy local, organic, and free-range meat whenever possible and affordable.
One of the attitudes of the general vegetarian movement that I found (and still find) most problematic is that by declaring it immoral to kill another animal for consumption, vegetarians are removing themselves and humans further from nature. Animals killing other animals for food is an integral part of what it means to exist in the natural world. If we say that it's wrong for humans to kill other animals for food, this elevates us above nature and distances us from the very thing we are claiming to care for.

This anthropocentric attitude is a very slippery slope. In our attempts to protect nature and act as steward to the environment, it's easy to forget that we are also a part of nature and are subject to the same grisly, unpleasant, natural rules as all other creatures. There are valid religious reasons for not killing other animals for food, some of which I respect and some of which I still find troubling, but many of these religions also have a counterbalancing philosophy that grounds followers firmly in the natural world.

Incidentally, I think that it's a real problem that humans have no real predators in the natural world at this point in history. We need a few predators (and other humans don't count) to keep us honest and remind us that we're not as in charge of things as we think.

When I first began eating meat again, I usually only ate it when it was being prepared for me. On my own, I usually cooked with tofu and only the occasional chicken breast. I didn't really know how to prepare meat so that it tasted good and also so that I knew I was being sanitary. And truthfully, ashamedly, grudgingly, I admit that I was squeamish. And still am. Though my attitude is slowly changing, my initial reaction to most raw meat is, "Ewwwww." It jiggles. It's sometimes bloody. There are little veins and tendons and sinews. And it's really really hard to forget that this thing I am inexpertly hacking into pieces on my counter was once a living creature.

But if I am going to be a meat-eater, these are the things that I need to deal with. Part of respecting this creature who died to feed me is actively remembering--not forgetting--that this animal with its innermost parts exposed on my counter was indeed once alive. I work to see the beauty in an otherwise decidedly unbeautiful moment. When I can afford it, I respect the animal by choosing one that was raised and killed in an ethical way. I also respect the animal by learning how to cook it properly.

To this end, a few weeks ago I decided that it was time to learn how to prepare a whole chicken.

Don't Be a Chicken: The Novice's Guide to Cooking a Whole Chicken

To feed four hungry people with enough leftover for a batch of enchiladas, all you need is a 4-pound chicken. In various recipes, you might see this referred to as a "roaster." In point of fact, the categories of chickens available for purchase break down like this:

Broilers: Young chickens of either sex that weigh about 2 1/2 pounds
Fryers: Young chickens of either sex that weight about 2 1/2 - 3 1/2 pounds
Roasters: Chickens of either sex, under 8 months old, and weigh 3 1/2 to 5 pounds
Stewing Chickens: Chickens over 10 months old (their meat is tougher and more stringy, so this type of chicken is best used in dishes like stews, as the name implies, that provide a long cooking time to break down the meat.)
Capons: Castrated males that weigh 6 - 8 pounds

When picking a chicken in the grocery store, check first for the sell-by date to find the freshest (as with any meat). I recommend always buying fresh birds that are not frozen (check the label, as sometimes birds will be frozen for transportation and then thawed at the market before being placed for sale.) As well as you can determine through the plastic wrapping, make sure that the skin is intact and is yellowy-translucent. The skin should be a bit loose on the meat, and the meat below should be of uniform color. When you press on the breasts and the thighs, the meat should give slightly beneath your finger and feel more or less like, well, a breast. (C'mon, we all either have them or we've felt them, so you know what I'm talking about!)

When you're ready to prepare the chicken, remove the plastic wrapping and set the raw chicken on a clean plate in your sink. In a store-bought bird, the giblets (the heart, liver, and kidneys) will be in a small sealed bag within the cavity of the chicken. I haven't yet been able to stomach giblets, so I usually take a deep breath, pull out the bag and deposit it directly into the garbage. If you're feeling adventuresome, there are plenty of giblet recipes out there for you to explore--I'm saving that one for another day.

Wash the chicken by running it under hot water and running your hands firmly over the skin. Lift the chicken and run water in the cavity. Swish it around, rub the cavity with your hands, and run more water until the water coming out of the chicken runs clear. (Note: Chickens "should" be cleaned before packaging, but this is just an extra precautionary step. Don't use soap, though, as it will give your meat a soapy flavor.)

Still with the chicken in the sink, cut off any large lumps of fat you can see--especially around both openings of the chicken. Be careful not to tear or damage the skin. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and set it on a new clean plate on your counter. Now the bird is ready to go.

Emma's Lemon Garlic Slow-Cooker Chicken

I drew this recipe together from several different recipes I had hanging around. The chicken is poached in a small amount of liquids in the slow-cooker and the resulting meat literally falls off the bone--you don't even need a knife! The flavors of garlic, lemon, thyme, and rosemary are infused throughout the meat. It's excellent eaten by itself, as a layer in sandwiches, and in any other chicken-leftover recipe you may have. The only disadvantage to poaching the chicken like this is that the skin is discarded after cooking; my next feat is to attempt roasting a chicken and getting some crispy skin!

3-4 pound chicken

for the seasoning:
3 garlic cloves--minced
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
2 sprigs of thyme--leaves stripped and minced

Mix all the seasoning ingredients together in a bowl. Using your fingers, gently separate the skin from the meat of the breast, thighs, and legs of the chicken. Rub half of the seasoning mixture between the skin and meat. I found that if you get a good dollop under the skin, you can lay the skin back down and use your fingers to massage the outside of the skin and work the seasoning across the surface of the meat. Rub the remaining mixture inside the cavity of the chicken.

Heat a large skillet (a wok works well) to medium-high heat and coat with non-stick cooking spray. Pan-sear the chicken on all sides for 6-8 minutes until the outside is browned. Transfer the chicken to your slow cooker--BREASTS SIDE UP.

for the baste:
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)--reserve the lemon rinds
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1/4 c. chicken broth
1 whole lemon--quartered
1 head of garlic--cloves separated, but left in their individual skins
2 chicken bouillon cubes
2 sprigs of thyme
2 sprigs of rosemary

Combine lemon juice, soy sauce, and chicken broth. Put the pan used to sear the chicken back on medium-high heat, pour in HALF of the lemon juice mixture and let sit until just boiling. Use a spatula to scrape up any bits of chicken stuck to the pan. Once the pan is deglazed, pour mixture over the chicken in the slow-cooker.

Put lemon rinds (reserved from squeezing the juice), 1 whole bouillon cube, and a few of the garlic cloves inside the cavity of the chicken. Arrange lemon quarters, the remaining garlic cloves, and the sprigs of thyme around the chicken toward the edges of the cooker. Crumbled the other bouillon cube over the chicken and rub it into the skin.

Place the lid on the cooker and cook on HIGH for 4 hours. (Note: This recipe is best when done on HIGH, but can also be done in 6-8 hours on LOW.)

Twenty to thirty minutes before the time is done, pour reserved lemon juice mixture over chicken and add the rosemary sprigs. (Rosemary tends to get bitter and antiseptic tasting if cooked the entire time in the slow-cooker.)

Remove chicken from the slow-cooker and allow it to rest on the carving board (or handy cookie sheet) for about 20 minutes. The meat actually continues cooking during this resting period and the juices will redistribute through the meat. When ready to serve, tear off the skin and discard. Use your fingers to pull off the legs--the bones should come apart with a gentle tug, but if they don't use a carving knife to wedge them apart. Keep using your fingers to work over the chicken, placing the meat on a serving platter and reserving the bones for another use (like home-made chicken broth!). Serve immediately!

If you don't have a slow cooker, you have a couple other options:

1. Poaching in a dutch oven: A dutch oven can very closely duplicate the slow cooker. Prepare the chicken exactly following the instructions above, but place the chicken and all ingredients in a dutch oven instead. Cover with the lid and place it on the middle rack in a COLD (not preheated) oven. Heat the oven to 300 degrees and cook for three hours or until a thermometer in the thigh meat registers 180 degrees. You can bast the chicken every 45 minutes or so.

You can also follow this recipe on Chocolate & Zucchini HERE.

2. On the stove top: If you don't have a slow cooker or a dutch oven, you can poach chicken breasts on the stove top in a skillet. I'm sure you could figure out a way to poach an entire chicken on the stove top--perhaps in a stockpot or dutch over over low heat?--but I've never done it.

Marinate the chicken breasts for 2-24 hours in the seasoning mixture from the recipe above. When ready to cook, place the breasts in a skillet or fry pan in a SINGLE layer. Cover chicken with the basting mixture and add enough additional chicken broth so that there is about 1/2 inch of liquid in the bottom--it should almost cover chicken, but the tops should still be above the liquid.

Turn on the heat to medium-high and bring liquid to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cover skillet with a fitted lid. Let it cook undisturbed for about 10 minutes, then cut into the thickest part of one of the breasts to check for doneness. If it is still raw pink, recover the pan and cook for anther 5 minutes. Repeat until all the breasts are done. (Smaller breasts may be done sooner and should be removed.)

VARIATION: For my Cross-Atlantic Portuguese-Brazilian dinner, I used the marinade from the Chez Henri recipe for Roast Chicken with Lime and Achiote HERE in place of the seasoning mixture in my recipe above. I then followed my recipe exactly, replacing the lemons in my marinade with limes. Yum!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Burger King Manthem: 2006 Commercial

I can't help it. Despite my disdain of both fast food chains and advertising, I've got to give some props to Burger King for this commercial. C'mon, they use the word 'incorrigible'! I know. I KNOW! INCORRIGIBLE! That's a ten-point vocab word, folks! And they use it REPEATEDLY. I'd like to have sat in on that marketing meeting. It probably went something like this:

Male Male Marketing Exec 1: The Texas Whopper. It's big. It's manly. What's our angle?

Male Marketing Exec 2: Hmm...big...manly. Not feminine. Hmmm...manly. Do you think...? No. We couldn't.

Male Marketing Exec 3: No, I think you're right. It's time.

Exec 1: No. NO! We can't! They're not ready!

Exec 2: Yes. Let's take a leap. I think they can take it. It's time...for "incorrigible."

Exec 1: But...It's a ten-point vocab word! Do young men in America even own dictionaries these days?

Exec 3: Are we in this? Are we IN?!

Exec 1: We are SO incorrigible.

Exec 2: No, we are men. AND we're incorrigible.

And there's probably a female exec in there somewhere rolling her eyes.

I love this commercial and I love the word "incorrigible." Man, I really want a burger.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Food: Holiday Festivus with Emma and the Engineer

On Christmas Eve at the abode of Emma n' the Engineer and with many friends in attendance, a festivus was had and, yay verily yay, it was good. This was the first Big Production meal I have ever prepared, and I was a bit nervous. We're talking appetizers, side dishes, main dishes, vegetarian dishes, drinks, and (of course) dessert. With the day itself looming on the horizon, I suddenly realized that pulling this whole thing off was going to require some Planning and Preparation. My list-making, organization-obsessed, multi-tasking little heart was filled with glee. Keep in mind that this is the same little heart that spent whole afternoons as a child organizing and then reorganizing the desk in her room, and who looked forward to buying school supplies every Fall nearly as much as she looked forward to Christmas.

My good friend R. and I had a grand time coming up with the menu. After much trolling of the Internet and a smattering of ideas thrown back and forth, we decided on a Cross-Atlantic Portuguese-Brazilian Dinner. Here was our final menu (click on the name of the dish to link to the recipe):




  • Portuguese Potato Dumpling Soup (with Kale)-- vegetarian
  • Portuguese Style Poached Chicken (with Lime, Chili, and other South o' the Border Seasonings)--loosely based on THIS recipe.


Like a dufus, I had a few too many caipirinha's and "forgot" to take picture of a lot of the dishes, but here's the run down of how the food part of the night went down and a few pictures of the pictures I remembered to take.

Drinks: The caipirinhas were FIERCE. Wowzas, did they knock your socks off. It wasn't until R. was actually preparing them that we fully realized that the drink is essentially all cachaca, a Brazilian brandy made from sugar cane, with a little sugar and lime thrown in there to take the edge off. Barely. We ended up adding a good dose of Fresca (classy!) to the drinks to make them a bit more drinkable. Even so, we all agreed that caipirinhas brought back ever-so-fond memories of Spring Break beach parties.

We had the quentaos after dinner as we reclined around the living room in various states of comatose. This is a drink that I would definitely have again--the spices are very similar to mulled wine (red wine is actually an ingredient in some variations) with some of that lovely cachaca. Also like mulled wine, it's served warm and would be quite nice for a cozy winter afternoon on the couch. I imagine a mug of this would also be an excellent antidote to insomnia, or at the very least you wouldn't mind being awake at 2:00 in the morning as much after you've had a few healthy gulps.

Ironically, we ended up drinking a South African wine with dinner--Mountain River 2003 Pinotage/Shiraz, a whooping $7.99 at Trader Joe's. While I was looking for Portuguese wines, I overheard another customer asking the wine steward for recommendations for a dinner of enchiladas and other South American dishes. The wine steward recommended this wine with such a glowing review that I had to try it. The wine was a deep red and very full-bodied. It had a deep, mellow flavor with just a touch of spice that really did pair well with all the flavors in the meal, but also didn't overshadow the food. I did find one bottle of a Portuguese wine, but we didn't end up opening it at the party--did I mention that the capirinhas were FIERCE?

Starters/Sides: The green beans were nothing super special. Blanched green beans drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with garlic and coriander. The recipe says to serve these cold or room temperature after having marinated for a day, but I didn't get my act together in time and also for some reason the idea of cold green beans with this particular meal didn't feel right to me, so I served them warm. (By the way, coriander was the surprise spice of the meal for me. I've never really cooked with coriander, but really liked it in the empanadas and the soup.)

The empanadas were a big hit. I'll do a separate post on them in another day or so and describe the whole preparation process. They're essentially little pasties or turnovers--a savory filling in a pie crust. I made them the week before the party, froze them, and then baked them right before dinner. The picture here is of an empanada right before I baked them. I really wish I'd remembered to take a picture after they came out of the oven--they were all crisp and golden, the kind of food that makes your mouth water just looking at them. The crust turned out well--nice and flaky, buttery and crisp. For the filling, I used onion, plum tomatoes, hearts of palm, corn, tomato paste, and spices (cayenne, chili powder, cumin, coriander, salt). The prep work is a lot of trouble, but it was really worth it. I think my guests and I would have been happy with just a plateful of these little empanadas!

The broa was kind of a disappointment for me, I have to admit. It's a cornmeal bread, so I knew it would be pretty dense and probably wouldn't rise like a regular wheat loaf, but I imagined the bread to be moist, crumbly, and springy like southern-style cornbread. Instead the loaf was more like a hockey puck--dry and dense. Sliced thin and spread with butter, the bread was decent, but I was still let down. I'm not sure if I didn't something wrong or if this is just the way the bread was supposed to be. I did a lot of searching on the Internet and found lots of recipes but few descriptions of how the final loaf was supposed to look, feel, and taste. From the pictures I found, I think the loaf is supposed to be rather flat (like mine turned out) but not quite as dense. More like a country hearth loaf than corn bread. I could probably figure out a better loaf if I had the urge, but I'm not a huge fan of cornmeal, so this will probably remain an unsolved baking mystery. By the way, I have an entire loaf and a half frozen in my freezer, so if you're still curious to try this bread despite my description, let me know and the loafs are yours!

Poaching chicken is my new favorite thing. I do it in my slow cooker and it comes out perfect every time. (OK, it's come out perfectly all two times that I've done it.) The meat is moist, flavored throughout, and literally falls off the bone. For this chicken, I prepared a marinade using THIS recipe from the Boston restaurant Chez Henri, only substituting 1 tablespoon of chili powder, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, 1 teaspoon of garam masala, and 1/4 tsp of cayenne in place of the achiote powder. (Achiote powder is a kind of sweet South American spice similar to chili powder--I couldn't find it in bulk at our co-op and didn't want to cough up the dough to buy a whole jar at the grocery store.) Instead of roasting the chicken as in the recipe, I poached it in the slow cooker with about a half cup of chicken broth, a few shots of soy sauce, lime juice, several whole quarters of limes, and a head of garlic with the cloves separated. Mmm, mmm, good. (P.S. I'm also planning another post on poaching whole chickens, but let me know if you want more detailed instructions before then.)

The only error in my otherwise well-timed meal prep was the time I allotted for preparing the potato dumplings for the potato dumpling soup. I plum forgot how gosh-darn long it takes for large
potatoes to cook through when you're boiling them. (The thirty minutes suggested in the recipe was NOT enough for my potatoes, by the by. I probably would have been better boiling them for 45 minutes or so.) By this point in the evening, our friends were starting to arrive and I was feeling a bit frazzled. I thought I could make do with slightly undercooked potatoes, but it turns out that undercooked potatoes don't mash very well or even take very kindly to being mashed at all. Ah, well. So we ended up having Portuguese Half-Pureed, Half-Chunky Potato Soup instead. And it was delicious. The broth was light, pleasantly starchy, and well-flavored with garlic, salt, and coriander. I'm used to loading my soups up with all the veggies in my fridge, so I had to really exercise restraint on this one. I stuck with my recipe and only used onions, green onions, and kale...oh, and the potatoes, of course. I've never cooked with kale before and was at first a bit intimidated by the mounds of leafy greenness taking up half my counter space. Like spinach, I stripped the leaves from the woody stalks, rolled them lengthwise a handful at a time into a long cigar-shape, and cut cross sections about an inch thick. This gives you ribbons of kale about the length of your hand and as wide as a finger. It looks like a LOT of leafy greenness, but once you submerge it in the broth, the greens wilt down into a more reasonably-sized state. I thought the kale was a bit rubbery, like seaweed, but this was not unpleasant. It was actually very satisfying to have something with a bit of chew in every bite. The bitterness of the kale also balanced well with the relative sweetness of the broth and the onions, and the whole soup was warm and filling. (In retrospect, I think I would have cut the kale into smaller, postage-stamp-sized pieces instead of the ribbons. Pieces this size would be less cumbersome when spooning the soup into your mouth.)

Dessert: And last but not least, the custard cups. These were so good that a lot of us burned our mouths rather than wait for them to cool completely. The puff pastry made a crisp and buttery cup for the custard. (FYI, I decided to leave-off making my own puff pastry for another dining adventure, so I got a little help from my friends at Pepperidge Farm for this one.) The custard was smooth and creamy, flavored with vanilla and a hint of lemon. This was my first time making custard, and I definitely recommend THIS recipe for anyone else out there looking for something new to serve. You can also caramelize the tops under the broiler or with a brulee torch for an added bit of elegance.

Since the Engineer and I were leaving for holidays in Minnesota the day after our party, our lovely friends reaped the reward of what leftovers there were. To everyone that came to the party, we were so happy to see you and spend time with you during the holidays. And to everyone else near and far, if you ever find yourself in Boston on Christmas Eve, feel free to stop by--we'll be here cooking up something fabulous!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Back from vay-cay and ready for some bloggin!

Howdy, all! I'm back from Minnie-sota and I've got some great posts in store, yessiree!

In the meantime, does this look familiar to anyone: Hmmm?! Perhaps a slight resemblance to the laptop cozy?! I'm SUCH a trend setter. And here I was feeling all guilty that I'd stolen that artist's idea for selective felting. I think an article on Knitty about the technique hereby absolves me of any further guilt!