Sunday, March 29, 2009

Chicken Sautéed with Mushrooms and Cream: Inexpensive Elegance

Boneless, skinless chicken breast is often on sale at the supermarket. That's the time to buy two portions, freeze one for future use and make something elegant from the other.

In the past several years, a lot of chicken is injected with "up to 15% natural broth." The stated reason for this is to make the meat juicier and more tender. Clearly, it's a way of selling water for the price of chicken. I look for chicken without injected broth.

Chicken breast, when cut up, lends itself to sautéing, a more colorful term than might be suspected. "Sauter" [so-TAY] in French, the language of the kitchen, means (in its less vulgar usage) to jump, as a frog might. "Faire sauter" (make [something] jump) is culinary French for frying quickly in oil or butter while stirring or shaking the pan so the pieces of meat or vegetable jump about. "Sauté" is the past participle of the verb, and is what we use in English.

Here's a simple French method for sautéeing chicken with mushrooms and cream that is as elegantly tasty as it is easy. Actually, the method is similar to that used to prepare several veal dishes in Italy and Switzerland (such as émincé de veau zurichoise), and even Russian "beef stroganoff." Thin strips of chicken are marinated briefly in brandy or white wine and seasonings, quickly fried with mushrooms and finished with sour cream or cream.

The recipe serves six with buttered noodles, steamed potatoes, or toast points. Or the chicken can be spooned into baked puff pastry nests for an elegant luncheon. A flavorful dry or nearly dry white wine, such as a oak-barreled Chardonnnay or a Riesling, would go well with this.

1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast
3 tablespoons brandy or white wine
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1-3/8 teaspoons salt, divided
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
Large pinch of thyme or oregano, crumbled between the fingers
1/2 pound mushrooms
1 medium shallot or 1 very small onion
1 medium-sized clove garlic
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
2 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons sour cream or heavy cream
Minced parsley for garnish

Trim away fat or tough parts from chicken. Slice meat crosswise into strips 1/4-inch thick. Cut in half strips that are more than 2-inches long. Mix chicken with brandy or wine, cornstarch, 1 teaspoon of salt, the nutmeg, pepper, and thyme or oregano. Marinate at least 10 minutes. Rinse mushrooms. Trim off bottom 1/8 inch of stems. Halve mushrooms or, if large, slice 1/2-inch thick. Finely mince shallot or onion and garlic.

Ten minutes before serving, heat a large non-stick frying pan to medium high. Add 1 tablespoon each of oil and butter, shallot or onion, and garlic. Stir and fry until shallot is translucent but not browned (1 to 1-1/2 minutes). Add marinated chicken. Stir and fry just until uncooked color is gone (2 to 3 minutes). Spoon chicken out to a bowl, keeping juices in pan.

Add another tablespoon each of oil and butter to the pan. Add mushrooms plus 3/8 teaspoon of salt. Quickly stir and fry mushrooms, sprinkling with a little water, if necessary, to keep them from sticking to pan. As soon as mushrooms darken and start to look cooked (1 to 2 minutes), return pre-fried chicken to pan. Heat, stirring, until juices bubble. Stir in sour cream or cream. Bring mixture just back to a bubble. Remove from heat. Taste sauce, and add a little salt, if necessary.

Serve with toast points, buttered noodles, buttered steamed potatoes, or in puff pastry shells. Dust with minced parsley.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Slow-cooked Indian Black Lentils: Dhal Makani

One of my favorite lentil, or "dhal," dishes at Indian restaurants is the creamy, slowly cooked black lentil stew called "dhal makani." This is a "fancy" restaurant dish and is traditionally simmered overnight in a clay pot in the dying coals at the bottom of the tandoori oven. Nowadays an electric slow cooker does the work. But it still takes overnight or all day to simmer.

The dish, though made from whole black "urad dhal" plus red kidney beans, is actually a reddish brown color. It is very creamy. But just to enhance that richness it usually has real cream stirred in at the end. It accompanies a curry extremely well, along with rice or Indian breads.

It took a long time for me to know to look for it at restaurants, and much longer to realize I could make this favorite dish at home easily and economically. The key ingredient is the small black dhal, unsplit. It is available in one- or two-pound bags at Indian groceries, of which we have many in Atlanta and even one in Athens. Otherwise the special ingredients are fresh ginger, cumin seeds, turmeric, dry red kidney beans (available at Indian groceries, some natural food stores, and some supermarkets), and cream or canned evaporated milk.

While it is an acquired taste to Americans (I now like it), Indians will often include a little asafoetida ("hing") in the dhal. My recipe does not use it, but if you wish, put a quarter teaspoon of powdered asafoetida (from Indian groceries) in with the other spices.

The recipe serves six with leftovers.

Dhal Makani (Creamy Stewed Indian Black Lentils)

1 pound (2-1/4 cups) whole black urad dhal (see above)
1/2 cup dry red kidney beans
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon tomato paste (optional)
1 inch fresh ginger, thinly sliced then pounded in a mortar or finely minced
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 bay leaves
1-1/2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
1-1/2 teaspoons turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons salt plus to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream or canned evaporated milk
Chopped cilantro for serving

Pick over lentils on a cookie sheet (there are often small stones) and pick over beans. Rinse them together well. Soak at least 8 hours in water 3 inches over the top. Drain, and place them in the container of a slow cooker (crock pot).

Add butter, oil, tomato paste, if used, ginger, onion, garlic, bay leaves and ground spices (but not salt). Add boiling water to 2 inches above surface of lentils.

Heat 1/2 hour on high cook setting, then reduce to slow cook (not "warm") and let simmer overnight or all day, 10-12 hours.

Add salt and sugar, then mash with potato masher to coarsely break up lentils and beans. Add water if needed to give a soupy consistency. Let heat 10 more minutes, then stir in cream or evaporated milk. After 10 minutes, taste, and add salt if needed.

Serve sprinkled generously with chopped cilantro.