Thursday, May 31, 2007

Chicken Marsala for Monz

A young Thai exchange student has spent the past semester at the Athens home of Anna and Andrew, my partners in the family deli and catering business there. Her nickname is "Monz", which is not Thai for several reasons, including that a final "z" (or any other consonant for that matter) is not used, and not even pronounceable, in Thai. She began in Bangkok as "Mon", but when she spent time with a family in Korea, the younger brother there dubbed her "Cookie Monster" and the "z" sound stuck. Her high school year in Athens is over and we are having a farewell dinner for her on Sunday. And of course the choice of menu is hers.

What does a Thai teenager of Chinese ancestry chose? Chicken Marsala and pasta. Hey, it surprized me too. We make the dish occasionally at the business, particularly on Tuesdays (which is Italian food day), so I guess she must have been exposed that way. Chicken Marsala is a pretty sophisticated dish, with a sauce rich in mushrooms and with a luciously unique wine flavor. It's not teenager party food, but Monz, you asked for it and this is what you're getting.

Chicken Marsala is a classical southern Italian dish, traditionally also made with thinly sliced veal. It is based on Marsala, a heavy fragrant wine in a league with Sherry from Spain and Port from Portugal. Marsala is made in the town of that name in Sicily but comes from California, as well. (Marsala is also the correct wine for making Zabaglione [Sabayon in French], the rich custard used to top elegant Italian desserts.) Dry sherry or tawny port can be substituted for the Marsala in the chicken dish, but the flavor, though still delicious, will be somewhat different. The recipe serves six generously, accompanied by a lightly seasoned pasta or rice dish or polenta. This dish goes well with a fragrant red wine, such as a Sangiovese from Italy, or with a rich white wine such as a Chardonnay.

Chicken Marsala Tim

1-3/4 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast
3 tablespoons brandy or white wine
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1-1/4 teaspoons salt plus more for cooking
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon marjoram
Pinch of thyme
Small pinch of cayenne or a squirt of Tabasco sauce
3/4 pound fresh mushrooms
3 shallots (not too large) or 1 small onion, minced
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons dry Marsala (if sweet Marsala, add 1 tablespoon lemon juice)
(substitute dry or semi-dry sherry or tawny port)
2 tablespoons sour cream or heavy cream
A little chopped parsley for garnish

Trim chicken and cut into 1/2-inch thick pieces about 1 by 1-1/2 inches wide. In a bowl mix chicken with the brandy (or white wine), cornstarch, 1-1/4 teaspoon salt, nutmeg, oregano, pepper, marjoram, cayenne, and thyme. Marinate at least 20 minutes (or all day in refrigerator). Stir once or twice while marinating. Meanwhile prepare the vegetables and set aside in separate piles: Rinse the mushrooms, cut off the tips of the stems and slice mushrooms 1/4-inch thick. Slice, and then mince the shallots. Crush, peel, and mince the garlic. Have everything ready before cooking.

A few minutes before serving time, heat a large frying pan (non-stick is best) and add part of the olive oil. Over high heat, stir and partially fry the chicken until the pink color has mostly, but not entirely, disappeared. Remove chicken to its marinating bowl. Add the remainder of the oil to the pan and quickly stir and fry the shallots and garlic until just fragrant but not browned, 20-30 seconds. Add the mushrooms plus 3/4 teaspoon salt and stir and fry quickly over high heat (add a little oil or water if sticking to pan) until beginning to shrink and darken in color (1-2 minutes). Add the partially cooked chicken plus any juices and stir and fry just until fully heated (20-30 sec). Add the Marsala (or sherry) and cook quickly, stirring, until the rapid bubbling stops (1-2 minutes). Taste the sauce and add salt if necessary (make it slightly salty, since the mushrooms will continue to soak up a little salt). Stir in the sour cream or cream until smooth. Remove from heat and serve immediately, dusted with a little parsley.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Guacamole the Way God Intended It

Maybe I should say "the way the Gods intended it", since guacamole is from the pre-colonial Aztecs in central Mexico. The name "guacamole" is the Spanish rendering of the Nahuatl (one of many languages I, sadly, do not speak) word "ahuacamolli", meaning sauce (molli, or now "mole", as in "Mole Poblano") of avocado (ahuacatl, or now "aguacate"). Before Columbus, guacamole was apparently a sauce of avocado, tomato, and salt mashed together in a shallow stone mortar ("molcajete"), which is still used for making and serving Mexican salsas, including guacamole.

The way I make the sauce I learned from the wonderful old family-run restaurant in what used to be the refectory, or dining room, of a former convent (that's how I get away with my title) in Santa Fe (meaning "holy faith"), New Mexico. It was the best guacamole I ever tasted, and when I convinced someone there to tell me how it was made, I was stunned by the simplicity. Their, and now my, recipe replaces the New World tomato by the Old World garlic. The method is otherwise nearly the same as 500 years ago.

There are many variations to guacamole, and some of them are tasty. People put in such things as tomato (which is in fact historic) but also onion, ground coriander, cumin (which I dislike in the sauce), chilies, cilantro and lime or lemon juice in addition to the avocado, garlic and salt. And some people purée the sauce, which I do not care for. I prefer the rich intensity of freshly mashed avocado enhanced only by garlic and salt. Lime (or lemon) juice will keep the sauce from darkening if it has to sit for a long time, so for a buffet or catering I do add a little of that, but I prefer limes squeezed fresh onto something else in the meal or in my drink. The type of avocado is critical. The rich buttery Hass avocado from southern California and from Mexico is far superior for guacamole to the watery type of avocado from Florida.

Guacamole Tim

1 medium-sized clove garlic
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
4 medium-sized ripe Hass avocados

Crush the garlic, peeled, in the salt, pressing with the back of a spoon in the mixing bowl to a smooth paste (or put the garlic through a press). Add the peeled and pitted avocados, and mash them well with a fork, leaving the mixture slightly lumpy.

Mix well, and taste for salt. Serve soon.

If the guacamole needs to be held for half an hour or more before eating, stir in 2 teaspoons lime or lemon juice, and recheck the salt.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Not Your Momma's Egg Salad: It's Devilled

When devil references show up in food, they either seem to mean "tangy with mustard" or that deliciously evil chocolate cake with the reddish glow. Devilled eggs are of course Mother's way of finishing off those cracked, color-stained remnants of Easter, yet they are also the first thing to disappear at pot-luck gatherings, especially, and ironically, at church. But they are tedious to make and they slide around hopelessly on the platter -- unless you have one of those cheesy plates with nest-like indentations. And I can never get many of the yolks in the center to give a competent appearance.

The idea of making egg salad, often dowdy and uninteresting, more wicked and tantalizing appeals to me. I'm reminded, loosely, of the Oscar Wilde comment, noting the attractiveness of sin, to the effect that "As long as war is considered evil, it will always have its adherents. If it can be portrayed as vulgar, it will disappear."

So here's my approach to converting hard-boiled eggs into something with real taste -- devilled egg salad. It has the requisite mustard -- Dijon preferred -- but also emits other little taste flames. It makes exciting sandwiches or a spread for crackers or vegetable crudités. (Try it on a freshly toasted English muffin!) Let the mixture sit at least 15 minutes to allow the flavors to develop. Also be sure there is enough salt, since hardboiled eggs tend notoriously toward blandness. And bland is a sin I do not commit. The recipe will make 4 sandwiches or serve as an appetizer spread for 4-6 people.

Devilled Egg Salad Tim

6 hard-boiled (12 minutes just simmering) eggs
3 tablespoons minced bell pepper (red preferred)
1 teaspoon minced jalapeño pepper (canned or fresh), or 1/4 teaspoon Tobasco sauce
1 small green onion (scallion), including the green part, minced
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
5 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
2 teaspoons vinegar
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
Salt to taste (about 1/2 teaspoon if "large" eggs used)

Shell the eggs, get all the membrane off, then rinse the bits of shell off the eggs. Pat dry with paper towel. Chop the eggs finely in a mixing bowl (a pastry blender with cutter wires or blades works well, or grate or mash fully with a fork). Mix in all the remaining ingredients, using slightly less salt until you combine everything well and taste it. Cover and let sit at least 15 minutes to "ripen" before serving.