Sunday, November 26, 2006

Mustard Capital of the World, and a Great Chicken Dish

Dishes labeled “Dijon” usually mean “seasoned with mustard”, since the south-eastern French city of Dijon, in the heart of the former province of Burgundy, is famous for its mustard seed and its prepared mustard. The region is also famous for rich foods and fine wines, notably reds made from the Pinot Noir grape and whites from Chardonnay. The dish below combines all three features of Burgundian cuisine: richness, mustard, and wine. And this dish will go well with a full-bodied Chardonnay or a medium-bodied Pinot Noir or Beaujolais.

While in France, Dijon simply means the center for mustard, as it has for centuries, "Dijon mustard" came to popularity in the US 20 to 30 years ago when fancy vinegars (remember raspberry?) and mustards became trendy among the chefs and the young urban professionals of the time. But it was the skillful marketing of Grey Poupon that was the driver of the fancy mustard fad and relief from the nasty yellow paste that (to me at least) is only good on a hotdog smothered with sweet relish. The key thing about a real Dijon mustard is the absence of turmeric, the slightly acrid yellow spice that dominates the traditional American mustard. (Grey Poupon also uses white wine in their mixture.) Unfortunately some American manufacturers claiming to make "Dijon mustard", including Emeril, have started slipping turmeric back into their mixes. Check the label. Any of the French mustards are good, but are expensive. Kroger's own brand of Dijon mustard is actually pretty reasonable, both in taste and in price.

Chicken Breasts Dijonnaise Tim
(serves six)

3/4-inch chunk of a stick of butter
6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
Wooden toothpicks, not colored
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons butter for frying
1 tablespoon olive or canola oil for frying
2/3 cup white wine, such as chardonnay
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/3 cup sour cream or heavy cream
4 teaspoons Dijon mustard, smooth or whole grain "Ancienne" style
Finely minced parsley for garnish

Warm the oven to about 175 degrees.

Cut 3 slices (1/4-inch thick) from a stick of butter. Lay them flat on a piece of waxed paper and cut each in half. Place in the freezer 5-10 minutes to harden.

Trim away excess fat and any tough parts of the chicken breasts. Pat them dry with paper towels. For each chicken breast, insert a sharp knife from the thicker side into the middle to make a pocket, and immediately slide in a frozen piece of butter. Seal the opening by skewering the flesh together with half a toothpick. Mix the flour with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt plus the pepper on a plate. Lightly dust the chicken pieces with the mixture. If not ready to cook the chicken, refrigerate it at this point.

In a large non-stick frying pan, heat the butter and oil together over medium heat. Fry the chicken pieces, turning occasionally, until golden on all sides, about 10-15 minutes. Test the chicken for doneness by sticking the end of a knife into a thick part and twist the knife gently. No pinkness should remain in the meat or in the juices. When done, remove the chicken to a warm oven.

To make the sauce, add the wine to deglaze the frying pan over medium heat, stirring well to get the crusty bits mixed into the wine. Add 1/4 teaspoon of salt plus the sugar. Simmer until the wine is reduced by half. Remove the pan from the heat. With a whisk or fork, stir in the sour cream or heavy cream plus the mustard until smooth. Taste and add salt, if necessary.

Arrange the chicken pieces on a warm serving platter or on individual plates. Either pull the toothpicks out with tongs, or warn the diners about them! Spoon the sauce over the chicken breasts and lightly dust them with finely minced parsley. Serve accompanied with buttered and lightly parsleyed potatoes or egg noodles.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Shades of New Mexico: Green Chile with Pork and Lentils

I encountered green chile in New Mexico during work trips there over 20 years ago. I was smitten. A luscious stew, usually with pork in a richly spiced gray-green sauce, it was considered the queen of the chiles. Several Atlanta colleagues who had spent time in New Mexico implored me to bring them back a stash of frozen roasted and pureed green chile so they could make their beloved stew here. Later, I learned that Texans also loved their green chile, and I’ve eaten something like it in Mexico as well.

Notice it’s “chile” not “chili”. The Mexican-Spanish word for pepper ends with an “e” (and is pronounced chee’-lay), whereas the Tex-Mex word was Americanized to end in “i”. That gives the word that Anglos use for the meat and bean stew, and for hot peppers, and for the commercial powder containing ground red peppers, cumin, oregano, and allspice used to season a pot of "chili".

A few weeks ago I developed a blond chili for our Athens restaurant-deli, “Donderos’ Kitchen”, and also put it out on the blog. With its success with the Kitchen’s customers as a bracing “soup” in the increasingly cold weather (as a change from our meat and vegetarian red-and-black [for UGA] chilis), it seemed timely to develop another distinctive chili. And out from my past emerged the recipe below. It is not a pure rendering of the “chile verde” I first met in Santa Fe (I can’t get those special chiles, after all), but the effect is as good as I remember.

Green Chile Tim

1-1/2 pounds boneless pork (such as butt or loin) cut in 1-inch chunks
3 large green bell peppers
3 medium jalapeño peppers (or more or less to taste)
1 pound lentils
2 medium-large onions, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, minced
2 quarts water
2 bay leaves
1 pound tomatillos (green husk tomatoes, available in Mexican groceries and some supermarkets) – substitute would be green tomatoes
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1-1/2 teaspoons oregano
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2-1/2 teaspoons salt plus to taste
2 (18-ounce) cans white beans (canelini [preferred], great northern, navy), drained and rinsed
1 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
Sour cream (diluted with a little milk) for garnish, if desired

Either roast or fry the pork pieces in their own juices and fat until dark golden brown. Spoon off the oil layer, if any, but save the browned watery juices and bits stuck on the pan. Meanwhile broil the peppers and jalapeños on a cookie sheet, turning them as the skins blacken. Place them in a plastic bag and wrap them in a dish towel to cool, to loosen the skins. Peel them, slit them open and remove the seeds and the stems. Chop the peppers finely on a board or in a food processor. Set aside. Pour plenty of boiling water over the lentils in a bowl and let them soak at least 20 minutes. Drain them before using.

In a stewing pot, fry the chopped onions in the olive oil, stirring often and scraping the bottom of the pot until onions start to brown. Add the garlic, and let fry another two minutes. Add the fried or roasted pork and any juices, scraping the pan they were cooked in, and with a little water rinse the scrapings into the cooking pot. Add 2 quarts of water plus the bay leaves. Simmer, covered, until the pork is becoming tender, about 1/2 hour. Break up the pork pieces. Drain the lentils and add them to the pork mixture. Chop the tomatillos (husks removed) and add them to the pot. Add water to the top of the lentils, and simmer until they are becoming tender, stirring occasionally and adding a little water to keep them moist. Add the seasonings and salt. When stirring, break up the chunks of meat against the side of the pot. When the lentils are fully tender, taste and add salt as needed. Add the rinsed and drained beans and simmer for few minutes, scraping the bottom of the pot occasionally and adding hot water to desired thickness. Taste again and do a final salt adjustment. Stir in the chopped cilantro and remove from the heat.

This is best if made ahead and reheated to serve. It can be topped with a little sour cream diluted first with milk to resemble Mexican “crema”.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Biscotti Biscotti

I bet you never ate a biscotti. And I'd win my bet. That's because if there is only one of those crunchy subtle Italian cookies around, it's a "biscotto". More than one give you the plural word, "biscotti". I guess that's somewhere between precision and pedantry on my part, but I'd always prefer more than one biscotto anyway. And if you make your own, you can afford to eat all you want!

With the rise of coffee shops in the 1990s with their Italian-styled coffee specialities, biscotti, previously an obscure “ethnic” cookie, gained great popularity. For me, getting a recipe to produce a dry, crispy, and slightly hard almond-filled pastry required a lot of trial and error. The few recipes I could find in cookbooks (the ones around a decade ago, at least) made dry, cakey, eggy bars like those dreary packaged "Stella" brand biscotti from my childhood in Italian-drenched southern New England.

The tricks for making really good biscotti include replacing some of the egg yolk with egg white, using part bread flour, and being careful with the heat. The almonds and almond essence make the most typical (and still my favorite) biscotti. But it is easy to replace the almonds with hazelnuts, add a little mace or cinnamon (whole anise seeds are traditional in Italy) and change from almond essence to vanilla, add some candied orange rind, or dip or smear one side of the cookie with melted chocolate chips.

Almond Biscotti Tim

2 tablespoons butter
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1 egg plus 2 egg whites (reserve 1 yolk for the glaze)
2 teaspoons almond extract
1-1/2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsifted bread flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoons salt
1-1/2 cups whole raw almonds

Preheat the oven to 340 degrees (or 330 convection bake). Lightly oil a large, preferably non-stick baking sheet. So the biscotti do not brown too much on the bottom, use an insulated baking sheet, or place a second sheet under the first, or better yet, lay a sheet of baking parchment paper on the cookie sheet.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the butter, sugar, eggs, and almond extract for about 2 minutes, or until very smooth. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt, and mix until a soft dough forms. Mix in the almonds until they are evenly distributed.

For long biscotti, work with all the dough; for shorter ones, divide the dough into two halves. On the baking sheet, working with floured hands, form the dough into a flattish log or logs (separated by 3 or more inches) about 2 inches shorter than the baking sheet. Mix a reserved egg yolk with a tablespoon of water, and cover the log(s) with this glaze, using your fingers as the brush and shaping the log(s) smoothly at the same time.

Bake until lightly brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven, and cool on the baking sheet for 10 minutes. Reduce oven to 290 degrees (280 for convection bake). Run a sharp knife under the cookie log(s), and transfer to a cutting board. Slice the log(s) crosswise (or diagonally if narrow) into 3/4-inch wide slices. Arrange the biscotti cut-side down on the baking sheet and bake 15 minutes. Turn the cookies over, and bake another 15 minutes. Remove the biscotti from the pan to a cooling rack.

Once they have cooled, store the biscotti in airtight containers (zip-lock plastic bags work well) for up to 2 months. Makes 1 to 2 dozen biscotti, depending on their length.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Spanish Tapas Meatballs -- Abóndigas

Maria Rosario, my nephew’s mother-in-law in Valéncia, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, makes delicious meatballs with ground pork enriched with a little chopped fresh chicken liver. Her albóndigas typically show up in the magnificent saffron-seasoned paella for which she is famous, along with shrimp, clams, and special culinary snails from the family’s orange groves.

But in some ways the meatballs seem even better served on their own, accompanied only by wedges of lemon and a cold crisp white wine to sip with them, like at a tapas bar. It is in these small bars, with outdoor tables in the long, languorous summer evenings at the Spanish coast, where you find the dazzling array of “tapas”, those elegant delicacies that are meant to go with drinks and conversation.

While I got Maria Rosario to describe how she made her albóndigas, she had no actual recipe. I approximated what I had tasted at her table, and was liberal with the Moorish-influenced seasonings that set some Spanish dishes delightfully apart from other European cooking. I also switched to chicken rather than pork, and dropped the chicken liver, which is extra work to buy and chop and does not add, in my view, to the delight.

Since I am presenting these as a tapa, let me suggest a wine too. Something white and cold with some acidity and fresh fruitiness would be my choice, like a Sauvignon Blanc (from New Zealand in particular) or a Spanish white Rioja. A dry rosé from France or Spain would also work. I find Pinot Grigio, an Italian white appetizer wine that had a spurt of popularity a few years ago, generally pretty insipid and do not recommend it for the meatballs.

Spanish Tapas Meatballs (Albóndigas) Maria Rosario/Tim

1 pound ground chicken or pork*, OR finely chop boneless skinned chicken breast in a food processor or with a chef’s knife on a cutting board
2 tablespoons olive oil if using chicken rather than pork
1/4 cup dry unseasoned breadcrumbs
3 tablespoons finely minced parsley
2 tablespoons finely minced onion
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
Large pinch nutmeg
1 egg
Flour for dusting the meatballs
Olive oil or half olive and half canola or peanut oil for frying
Minced parsley for garnish
Lemons for garnish

Combine all ingredients except the flour, oil for frying, and garnishes. Mix by hand or a wooden spoon to combine well.

Sprinkle some flour on a cookie sheet. With moistened hands, roll the meat mixture into 1-inch or smaller balls and place them on the floured pan. Sprinkle with a little more flour and then roll the balls again to lightly coat them with flour.

Heat 1/8 inch of oil in a large non-stick frying pan to medium high. Fry the meatballs, half at a time, rolling them frequently, but gently, to lightly brown them on all sides. Drain them on paper towel. The fried meatballs may be made ahead, if desired, and refrigerated (in a plastic bag) until ready to serve. Reheat them briefly in a 350-degree oven.

Serve warm on a platter, and dust them with minced parsley. Accompany with chunks of lemon for diners to squeeze on the meatballs.

* For Maria Rosario’s Valencia-style meatballs, use ground pork and add two finely chopped fresh chicken livers as the meat, and increase the salt by 1/8 teaspoon.