Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Keeper

I have an addiction to food magazines and buying cookbooks. On my cookbook shelf (yes, we have so many that they have their own bookcase), sits a two-inch stack of recipes torn out from magazines in the past nine months that have yet to be organized into file folders. (I swear I’m getting to this, soon.)

I love to cook and try new recipes. Yet of the hundred or so recipes we try each year, only a few are keepers. Most of the pages that are torn out are tried once, and while they turn out well they often lack something exciting, and so they either get filed away and forgotten, or more likely, tossed in the trash. With so many recipes to try, if it’s not the best, it goes.

It may seem like a waste of time to keep trying new recipes when we have a great cache of tried and true ones, but there is something adventurous in undertaking something new. Inspiration can be found in the pages of all those cookbooks through the chefs’ stories, and you can be transported to a new place without ever leaving your home.

We make roast chicken every week or two. I love that when I want a roasted chicken without any fuss I can whip one up my usual way. But it's also nice to put a new spin on an old favorite, to try someone else’s favorite recipe. There is something deeply satisfying about discovering a new technique or flavor that takes a favorite dish to a new level.

This happened recently when I decided to make Meyer Lemon Gnocchi. The recipe I’d torn out wasn’t really anything exciting, but I love fragrant, almost sweet Meyer Lemons, so I tore it out. And it sat in a binder for FOUR YEARS before I finally gave it a shot.

The only reason I even remembered it was that we were going to make a roast chicken for dinner last week, and I was feeling the stirrings of experimentation. I was in the mood for more effort than our usual whole chicken with roasted potatoes. It’s a great stand-by, but I wanted to play around a bit. While we were shopping I grabbed a bag of Meyer lemons because they were on sale, and we picked up our favorite Yukon Gold potatoes. As we strolled through the store, the long-forgotten gnocchi recipe popped into my head. We decided to go with thighs instead of the whole chicken and serve it atop the gnocchi.

Gnocchi is one of those things that seem really intimidating and hard, probably because the recipes come with as many warnings and cautions as they do instructions. “Don’t overwork the dough,” is the chief among them. I think that literally every recipe starts with this warning (this one was no exception), so I’m going to spare you. I’ll leave it at this: just be gentle with your dough. It’ll turn out just fine, I promise.

For years I left gnocchi to competent chefs, figuring it was too hard. And this little gem of a recipe for Meyer Lemon Gnocchi sat neglected in the back of the vegetarian recipes section of my binder. The gnocchi were tender and almost sweet from the lemon zest. The creamy potato and bright sauce went perfectly with the savory chicken. To think, all those years without Meyer Lemon Gnocchi! But I can assure you that this one will be in our regular rotation. In fact, just one week after making it, Peter asked me to make it again. It took four years to get around to it, but now that we have it isn’t going in the trash, or to the back of the binder. I’ll find a nice honorary spot for it, just as soon as I get all those recipes organized.

Meyer Lemon Gnocchi with Roasted Chicken Thighs

The recipe for gnocchi originally appeared in the March 2008 Food & Wine and has been adapted. For a vegetarian main course, simply sub vegetable stock. I think it would also be great with a seared white fish, like halibut. I used Whole Wheat pastry flour for some extra fiber, but all purpose would work just as well.

For the Gnocchi:

1 pound potatoes, preferably Yukon Gold, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
3 large egg yolks
Zest of two and half Meyer Lemons
3-4 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil, divided
1 ½ teaspoons salt
¾ cup Whole Wheat Pastry Flour (or use all purpose)
½ cup chicken stock
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup shallots, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ teaspoons Fresh Thyme, chopped
3 Tablespoons Chives, chopped
¼ cup white wine
Juice of two of the Meyer Lemons

In a medium saucepan, cover the potatoes with water and bring to a boil. Simmer until the potatoes are tender and a fork slips in easily without breaking them apart, about 8 minutes. Drain the potatoes, then return them to the pot and shake over medium heat until the water has evaporated, leaving a dry coat on the potatoes and the pan, about one minute.

Rice the potatoes over a large rimmed baking sheet into a single layer. If you don’t have a ricer or food mill, mash them in the pan and then use a fork to really break them down and spread them over the baking sheet. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks, lemon zest, 1 ½ tablespoons of olive oil and the salt, and pour over the potatoes. Sprinkle flour over the potatoes, then stir until the dough starts to come together. I think it is easiest to just use your hands for this, keeping them dusted with flour. Turn the dough onto a very lightly floured board, and knead for about a minute, just until the dough holds together.

Let the dough rest for five to ten minutes, then divide into quarters. Roll each portion into a long, half-inch thick rope. Cut into half-inch pieces with a sharp knife. Using a fork, roll each piece along the board under the fork to create ridges. Use enough pressure to create the indents without mashing the gnocchi; it is helpful to use one hand to sort of hold the gnocchi together while rolling the fork over it. If this sounds too hard or complicated, I say skip it: it’ll taste just as good if your gnocchi are flat.

Put the gnocchi on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and refrigerate for at least thirty minutes, or up to a few hours. If you’re making this a day ahead, cover the sheet in plastic wrap.

For the Chicken:

4 medium chicken thighs, bone-in and skin on
1 ½ teaspoon Herbes de Provence
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees, and place a cast iron skillet in the oven to get hot for about a half an hour.

Pat chicken dry, and sprinkle with Herbes de Provence and salt and pepper, to taste. Remove skillet from oven and put on stove over medium-high heat (we always put a pot holder on the handle to remind us not touch it and burn ourselves!). Turn oven down to 350 degrees.

Pour olive oil in pan, and using a pot holder over the handle, swirl it evenly in pan. Place chicken skin side down in pan, and brown for about 4 minutes , or until skin is nice and crispy. Turn the chicken over, and then place the skillet in the oven. Cook for about 10-15 minutes, or until juices run clear.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a low boil. Working in batches, cook the gnocchi. When the rise to the top of the pot, cook for another minute, then remove using a strainer and transfer to a plate to drain while you cook the other batch.

Heat 1 tablespoon of butter in a skillet over medium high heat. Add the gnocchi (again, in batches so they’re not crowded), and allow them to brown for about 2 minutes per side. These guys are pretty tender, so don’t shake them around too much, and allow the crust to form before trying to move them. If they’re sticking, add a little olive oil. It’s okay if they fall apart a bit; again, they’ll still taste good and you’ll get the hang of it.

Repeat this with the second batch, and set aside while you make the sauce.

When the chicken is done, remove it to a plate to rest. Again, place a potholder over the handle of the cast iron skillet, and turn the heat on your stove to medium. Add 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil (unless there is a lot of fat remaining in the pan from your chicken, in which case you can start with that and add more olive oil as needed).

Sauté the shallots for a few minutes, until tender. Add the garlic, thyme and half of the chives, and cook another minute. Deglaze with the white wine, and cook for a few minutes, until reduced by half. Add the chicken stock and bring to a low boil, allowing it to reduce and thicken. If the sauce is still pretty thin, you may need more fat, so add some butter or olive oil, a half tablespoon at a time, whisking until thick. The first time we made it we needed about 1 tablespoon of extra butter; the next time we needed none, so this part you’ll just have to use your judgment and your preference. (If adding the extra fat really freaks you out, you could thicken with a slurry of corn starch and water.)

Reserve ½ cup of the sauce in small bowl, and add the gnocchi to the pan to reheat and coat in the sauce, cooking for a minute or so. Divide gnocchi into four pasta bowls and top with a piece of chicken. Top chicken with remaining sauce and garnish with the chives.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Taking care

Today was a Cioppino kind of day.

You may be wondering, "what is a kind of Cioppino day?" I wouldn't blame you; until today I didn't know either. Turns out, when it's been a not-so-good-but-not-quite-bad day and you want some comfort food, but not quite Mac 'n Cheese, then Cioppino is what you need. It has all the warmth of comfort food but isn't too rich, so you are left feeling a little light, and (dare I say?), hopeful. Because let's be honest, when you need creamy cheesy goodness, then there is no substitute. But when you're feeling just a little blue and heavy cheese will only leave you feeling guilty, then it's a Cioppino kind of day.

Before I get too much further, I must confess I had little to do with this production. Peter is a Cioppino master, and since I was having a not-so-good-but-not-quite-bad day, he was nice enough to take care of me. I think comfort food derives much of its comfort from someone else making it for you. There is something integral about having care being involved.

And so my wonderful husband once again stepped up and took care of me. I did help with some mindless tasks: deveining shrimp, debearding mussels, and scrubbing clams. I mean, I wasn't feeling so helpless, so I wanted to help him help me. But he really pulled this one off on his own. And it worked. The warm tomato sauce, slightly rich from the seafood that cooked in it and with a hint of spice, soothed. The garlic toast was just hearty enough to fill you up without weighing you down.

After dinner, I felt better. Comforted. I love that food can heal. And sharing that food with loved ones makes it that much more special. So, if it's been a not-so-good-but-not-quite-bad day, or if you're just in the mood to treat a loved one--or yourself!--then by all means, make it a Cioppino day.

Peter's original recipe calls for scallops, but we were feeling frugal this time around so we skipped them. If you feel splurgy, go for them, but if not, it's still delicious.

This recipe makes 4 hearty portions.

10 mussels
10 clams
5 scallops
1/4 pound white fish (such as cod or halibut)
15 medium shrimp
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 fennel bulb, sliced thin
5 cloves garlic
1/2 tablespoon red pepper flakes (more or less, to taste)
6 oz white wine
1/4 cup tomato paste
1-28 oz can crushed tomatoes
1-12 oz bottle clam juice
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
salt and pepper, to taste
rustic loaf of bread
3 cloves garlic
extra virgin olive oil for finishing

Saute the fennel and onion in olive oil until tender and translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add chopped garlic and red pepper flakes and sauté another 4 minutes or so.

Deglaze pan with white wine and allow to reduce by half. Add tomato paste, crushed tomatoes and clam juice and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and allow to simmer for about an hour, until reduced by about half. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the clams to the pot, cooking for about 4-5 minutes until they open. Remove from pot into a medium bowl. Repeat with mussels, adding them to the clams.

Add the scallops, fish and shrimp and cook for 3-4 minutes, until just cooked through. Return the clams and mussels to the pot and allow them to come to temperature, about 2-3 minutes (do not boil!). Reseason with salt and pepper as needed.

Meanwhile, toast the bread. Rub with garlic cloves and drizzle with olive oil.

Serve the Cioppino in large bowls, finishing with parsley and a drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Serve with garlic bread.

A BONUS picture of Lucy, just because she is so darn cute. And she brings me comfort (when she's not being a spaz) so I guess it fits.