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Archive for March, 2011

This past weekend was amazingly unbusy, which was a lovely change for me as it gave me the rare opportunity to catch up with friends who I don’t get to see as often as I’d like (because of my “responsibilities” like “work” and “school”). We gathered for coffee at a local Upper East Side diner to dish about all that was new in our lives - newfound ventures in work, school, and relationships – until talk turned, as it usually does, to wining and dining.

Some gorgeous ripe strawberries from the weekend!

We grazed over the usual – what new restaurants everyone had been to lately, which were the best, which to avoid. But my ears perked up when one of the girls mentioned an “amazing” new dish that she had created for dinner earlier in the week. Corinne, who readers might remember from her epic optimism and creativity in rescuing my butternut squash ravioli-turned-kindergarten paste, had found a promising recipe from Real Simple magazine for a traditional baked chicken with a twist. Upon first explanation of the dish, I thought it sounded interesting, but I was far from sold. Just listening to her describe the parmesan, parsley, and breadcrumbs that coated the chicken, I thought it sounded good but fairly typical.

But then I got home and decided to look up the recipe for myself on Realsimple.com. The picture on the website looked WAY more appetizing than I had imagined – unlike a typical chicken cutlet, which usually have only a thin, greasy breadcrumb crust, this chicken breast was encased in a thick, crumbly, golden crust that looked scrumptuous, but not the least bit greasy.

My solo Saturday evening dinner was suddenly looking up, and so I headed to the kitchen and scoured my fridge for the necessary ingredients. I was excited to find that this dish could be made with items that most folks have on hand regularly – boneless, skinless chicken breasts, wheat bread, parmesan cheese, and a handful of spices.

A little while later, while I sat enjoying my peaceful dinner for one, I realized a couple of things about why this chicken is so rediculously wonderful. This dish kind of reminds me of Thanksgiving – the chicken is perfectly moist and almost buttery, just like the delicious turkey breast we all love on Thanksgiving. And my favorite part – the whole wheat breadcrumb crust is so reminiscent of stuffing, it’s uncanny. This crust would be fantastic amped up with some more traditional stuffing herbs like thyme or sage! And on top of all that, this dish is the perfect easy go-to dinner for after work, as well as an uncomplicated delicious dinner to make for someone else. Plus its ready in just about a half hour, with lots of down time available for you to concoct a side dish like Sweet Potato and Leek Sauté (jump to the end of post) or Israeli Couscous.

Baked Chicken with “Stuffing” Crust – Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • 1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves (or dried parsley, if you don’t have fresh)
  • 2 slices whole-wheat bread
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 skinless, boneless chicken-breast halves
  • 4 teaspoons Dijon or whole-grain mustard

Start by preheating your oven to 400º F. Lightly coat a medium baking dish with cooking spray and set aside.

Start by toasting up your wheat bread until it is just golden, and then chopping it into about 1 inch cubes; then, get our your food processor. Mince the garlic in the food processor, then add the parsley and pulse until combined, about 15 seconds. Add the wheat bread, parmesan, olive oil, mustard, salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Pulse until well combined.

  

Arrange the chicken in the baking dish. Spray with a little cooking spray, season lightly with salt and pepper (remember, there’s some in the crust), then pat the crumbs on top.

Bake until cooked through, about 20 to 25 minutes or until juices run clear. Let rest for about 5 minutes to allow the chicken to finish cooking and the juices to redistribute.

Sweet Potato and Leek Sauté 

  • 2 to 3 sweet potatos, sliced into thin rounds
  • 1 medium – large leek, sliced thin
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp dried thyme, or 1 tbsp of fresh mince thyme (sage can also be used)
  • Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and thyme, and sauté for about 1 minute, or until fragrant and starting to turn golden. Add the thinly sliced sweet potatoes (and more oil, if the pan is looking dry), toss to coat, and cover. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Uncover, add the leeks, salt and pepper. Adjust the heat if the potatoes or garlic are starting to brown. Cook uncovered for an additional 5 to 8 minutes, or until a fork can be inserted effortlessly into a potato (the potatoes are cooked through). Serve immediately with the baked chicken!

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Technically, I would consider this my first real week of culinary school, since last week was mostly made up of a two-hour orientation lecture and a kitchen sanitation video made in the eighties. It may be hard to believe, but even doing that (read: not even cooking anything) was more fun than any college class I ever sat through. It only took an hour or so to completely reaffirm what I was pretty sure I already knew – this is exactly for me.

This week though, things got interesting. On Sunday night we finally got to break out those gorgeous high-carbon stainless steel Wusthof knives that were bestowed upon us on Lesson 1, and start chopping. While three onions will make a master of nobody, that’s just what we started with – a couple of oversized, papery yellow onions. It was off with their roots and their tips, a slice down the center and removing the peel using a paring knife, not our fingers. We learned the “preferred method” for dicing an onion – make several cuts downward, perpendicular to the root end without cutting through the root; make two or three cuts through the onion, perpendicular to the root end while holding your knife parallel to your cutting board; finally, slice the onion all the way through, cutting straight down with your knife held parallel to the root end (the way you normally think of slicing an onion); enjoy the perfectly square minced onion that results. I’ve done this countless times before, but somehow doing it with a classically trained chef standing over my shoulder and judging me was astoundingly better.

About our chef, or “chef-essor” as I’ll call her: the “chef-essor” that will be leading us through modules 1 and 2 of culinary school up until the end of July is Chef Anna (I’ll leave her last name out so she doesn’t show up in Google searches, but chances are good you can find her on the ICE website), and honestly, the only word that can adequately describe this woman is badass. The first day we met her, she rolled up with her deep crimson hair and bright yellow cat-eye spectacles, one hell of a grimace, and a deep, throaty New York-tainted voice. I knew instantly I would like her, and thirty minutes into her first lecture, when she regularly dropped the phrase “You know what I’m sayin’? You hear what I’m tellin’ ya? Alright? Okay!” after every important statement she made (which occured about every 5 minutes or so), I was pretty sure I’d wind up idolizing her. This woman is the real deal – a restaurant-industry hardened chef, classically trained by ICE before it was ICE, worked in the trenches of The Pierre over twenty-five years ago, and now owns her own restaurant in the Hudson Valley, which is sourced, in part, by her own organic gardens on the premises of her home. Like I said. Bad. Ass.

Chef Anna makes culinary school, at least in large part. On lesson three, when I was jittery from the large iced coffee I had chugged before our four hour class and sliced my own fingers instead of my garlic not once, but twice, on my 10 inch chef’s knife, she went from tough, renegade chef to sweet elementary school nurse in the blink of an eye, tenderly wrapping my finger in a butterfly bandage. On lesson 4 when we were emersed in a lecture on vegetables, chef took what might be mistaken as a dull subject, and practically made it a poetry reading: “When you are old, you are tough, hardened, and difficult to swallow,” she said, indicating herself as she personified the old parsnips before us. “But when you are young, you are soft, tender, supple, and just divine to enjoy…” she trailed off. Then she let out a howl of laughter, smacked a carrot down on the table, and with a large grin and sparkling eyes, shouted, “Man, I feel like a cougar!!”

That’s just an example.

Some folks find it hard to believe that we’re not cooking yet, but Chef Anna reassures us that a strong foundation is necessary before moving forward, and it doesn’t take a genius to understand that she’s right. In fact, our group was borderline-ecstatic to spend an hour and a half chopping three carrots, three stalks of celery, and three onions into brunoise, or a eighth-inch dice. We have all sort of realized that we’re actually extremely lucky to be going to school at night, rather than during the day, because of the company of our classmates. Everyone in that room has sacrificed something to be there – namely their money and few remaining hours of free time at the end of the work day. For most of us, we’re on our tenth hour of our work day by the time we even walk into that kitchen, and no one utters a complaint for the next four hours. Everyone just seems excited and grateful, but then again, it’s only lesson 5. Come talk to us after lesson 49.

Like I said, while we haven’t actually started cooking yet, we have ventured into the exciting world of chopping (our fingers, among other things), which did divulge upon us one fully uncooked recipe: Salsa Cruda. This salsa is fairly standard, but it elicited an “Um, Bye,” response from Cara, which after translation I deduced to mean “Outstanding,” “Amazing,” or “Incredible.” I thought it was pretty good, but could have used a hit of lime and some fluer de sel (frankly, I’m obsessed). At any rate, in exchange for sitting through my endless 900 word culinary school ramble, I will provide you with one recipe for Salsa Cruda, which is at the very least a staple you should have in your recipe repitoire, and at most, a new mainstay in your fridge or at weekend picnics.

FYI - Ingredients for culinary school recipes are often measured in terms of weight when they are solid, not volume. If you’re an aspiring or well-practiced home cook, I highly recommend purchasing a food scale, both for recipes (particularly pastry) and portion control. You can get a cheap one online, I guarantee it!

Salsa Cruda - Makes 6 servings

Adapted from Food.com

  • 8 whole fresh tomatoes, diced
  • 2 Jalepeno peppers, minced
  • 1 cup of yellow onions, diced
  • 1/2 cup of cilantro, minced
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 1/2 cup of tomato juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste (Fleur de sel, anyone?)
  • Additional flavorants – I’d recommend cumin or even some garlic infused hot sauce; use your judgement on adding the hot sauce (this is fairly mild)

Mix all ingredients well to combine. Great served immediately or after resting in the fridge overnight.

Also, for the record, I highly recommend eating atop a multi-grain pita chip. Possibly at 3 am. No judgement.

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As some of you who read EpicureanBliss on the reg might know, yesterday was a pretty exciting day for me and the blog. Yesterday I finally began the latest, greatest adventure in my life – Culinary School! That’s right, at long last I am a fully official matriculating Culinary Arts student at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City!! I couldn’t be more thrilled and excited, despite the fact that this amazing new reality has hardly had a chance to sink in yet.

My first day of classes (last night) was pretty excellent – I got to meet the rest of my eight classmates, who I’m the youngest among by far, and also got $800 worth of stainless steel and sharp as diamond knives (I’ll never feel unsafe on the subway again). I have to admit, we all felt sort of like it was Christmas morning.

Sadly, though, slipping our new Wusthofs into their blade guards was as much action as we saw yesterday, and I won’t have any straight-from-culinary-school recipes (or cooking blunders) to share for at least another week. That being said, I did come across a wonderful new dish right in my very own hallway-of-a-kitchen last weekend that I wanted to share with the web.

But to begin, I have to go back to my grocery shopping trip about a week ago. There I was, milling about Trader Joe’s, feeling pretty good about the weekly staples I was picking up. I had wheat bread, Wasa crackers, even a box of Puffins Cinnamon cereal, despite the fact that cereal never lasts long in my apartment. And just when I thought I knew everything there was to know about carbs (I’m a pizza and chinese food girl, come on now), I looked up in a crowded aisle of the Flatiron Trader Joe’s, and saw this beauty:

It looked so new, so different and enticing, delicious and maybe even slightly good for you? Plus, thanks to the miracle that is Trader Joe’s, it was only about two bucks! I obviously quickly snagged it off the shelf and got it home as quickly as I could.

After that, I got to plotting for a way to incorporate the Israeli couscous into my Friday night dinner in, which has quickly replaced Friday-night dinners out with student loan payments looming in the not-so-distant future. I poked around the web, researched recipes, agonized a fair bit (it’s my process), but in the end, I lingered over what was still fresh in my fridge and appealing in my pantry, and winged it. That’s sort of what happens when you try cooking Middle Eastern food on a Friday night after drinking a fairly strong Vodka-Soda with mint. Anyway, since my palate was slightly unreliable at that point, I’ll assure you that other’s vouched for this dish’s dilectability – plus, since the couscous is packed with fiber, and this dish gets its flavor from herbs and spices, not fat, you don’t have to feel guilty about eating it. More room for those fun Friday night cocktails, right?

Israeli Couscous with Raisins and a Cinnamon-Cumin Dressing (Makes 4 sides)

You’ll need:

  • 1 cup of Israeli couscous
  • 1 cup of water, boiling
  • 1/2 cup of chopped grape or baby heirloom tomatoes
  • 1/3 cup golden raisins
  • 1/4 cup freshly chopped mint
  • 1/4 cup of freshly chopped red onion
  • 2 tablespoons of white or regular balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste

To start, cook couscous according to the instructions on the box. If you (for some strange reason) have the couscous but don’t have the box, here’s how it works: You cook Israeli couscous with a 1 to 1 ratio of grain to water. If you want to make 1 cup of dry couscous, you’ll need to bring 1 cup of water to a boil on the stove (covered tightly). Meanwhile, in the bottom of a medium saucepan, saute the dry couscous in a little non-stick cooking spray or olive oil over medium-low heat until the couscous begins to turn a light golden brown – about five minutes.

Once the couscous is golden, add the boiling water and bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat so the mixture is simmering. Cover tightly and allow to cook, stirring every few minutes to prevent sticking, for about 10 to 12 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed and the couscous is tender.

Meanwhile, prepare all of your “mix-ins.” Combine cumin, cinnamon, vinegar, and 2 tablespoons of olive oil,  whisk to blend, and season with salt and pepper. Mix in the chopped red onion, and your dressing is complete!

I prefer this dish room temperature, or even cold the next day, so I allowed the couscous to cool slightly before the final step. Once cooled to room temperature, add the raisins, mint, tomatoes, and dressing to couscous. Toss to coat, and serve alongside some lovely grilled lamb chops, or balsamic chicken breast.

Oh, and don’t forget those mint vodka fizzes (muddle mint and lime juice, then add 1 part vodka to 3 parts club soda over ice, or stronger if you can handle it). That part is definitely crucial. Enjoy :)

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