Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pinched Chicken Parmigiana

It is nearly impossible to order Chicken Parmigiana in a restaurant and not end up with a fried, cheese-covered nightmare. The name, which translates "from Parma" belies the dish's Southern Italian roots. Northern regions cook with more butter, cream and cheese than their southern countrymen, who favor tomatoes over dairy.

Anyway, last night I was armed with  a package of chicken breasts and an overwhelming desire to eat something I hadn't had in awhile. I don't think I've ever made it for my kids. Chicken Parmigiana is impossible not to love, especially when done this lighter way. Round it out with Steamed Artichokes and a nice big salad and everyone at your table will be very happy.

Chicken Parmigiana
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

Essential Tomato Sauce
2 T chopped fresh basil
four skinless, boneless chicken breasts, pounded thin
1 egg, beaten
heaping 1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1 T chopped fresh parsley
1-2 T canola oil
salt and pepper
1/3 cup mozzarella

Preheat oven to 375

Prepare tomato sauce. Add 2 T chopped fresh basil (add it right after you add the pureed tomatoes to the pot).

Place chicken breasts on a sheet pan, cover with a piece of parchment or waxed paper and pound until thin.

Add 1 T canola oil to a cast iron skillet (or whatever you've got) and set over medium high heat.

Combine breadcrumbs, Parm, parsley, salt and pepper.

Set out a roasting dish and ladle some tomato sauce

Coat the chicken in the beaten egg, then dip into the breadcrumbs. Pan fry in the skillet until browned on both sides. Transfer to the roasting dish.

When all the breasts are browned, ladle a bit more tomato sauce on each one, then top with mozzarella.

Bake uncovered for about 15 minutes, or until the cheese is thoroughly melted and a bit browned.

Serve with extra sauce.

* Photo courtesy Divinia Pe

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Monday, March 28, 2011

We have no bananas today

I made banana muffins today for the first time in a long time. Muffins get made when we have spotty nanas, the super sweet freckled ones. In our local banana republic we eat bananas the minute they are ripe, and sometimes a day earlier. We've been on a banana kick lately, consuming them as soon as they come into the house. And so, no muffins.

I am a big fan of the banana and most of its kinfolk. In fact the only banana I ever met that I disliked was the Runts banana.  A box of Runts has way too many bananas in it, contributing to the candy's poor scores in public recognition and approval. But we were talking about the muffins...

Oh! One more thing. I heard this very interesting/slightly alarmist report on NPR about how the global supply of bananas could go kaput in the not-too-distant future. The reason: some kind of a banana-eating disease is lumbering through Southeast Asia and Australia snacking on the very type of bananas - Cavendish - that are imported to the rest of the world. I was probably supposed to get all fired up over this news, but I'm going to take sides with science and capitalism here. Bananas are the #1 selling fruit in the US. Someone will figure out something to meet that demand.

Back to the muffins. I used to make these with whole wheat flour but they were just not as light or scrumptious. Now I use a combination of organic all purpose flour and wheat germ. Here's that recipe:

Banana Muffins
Print recipe only here

Makes one dozen muffins

3 bananas
1/2 cup nonfat plain yogurt
2 eggs
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup canola oil
1 t vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups AP flour
1/4 c wheat germ
1 t baking soda
1/2 t salt

OPTIONAL: 1/2 cup toasted pecans

Preheat oven to 350 (or 300 convection). Lightly spray a muffin tin with baking release. If you plan to add pecans, toast them in the preheated oven for about 5 minutes, then cool.

In a medium to large mixing bowl (or bowl of stand mixer) mash the bananas. Add yogurt, eggs, sugar, oil and extract and mix well to combine.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, wheat germ, baking soda and salt. Whisk well to combine. Add to the wet ingredients and mix gently until just combined. Roughly chop the pecans and add them to the batter.

Scoop into the prepared muffin tins and bake for about 15 minutes, or until the sides of the muffins pull away from the pan, the tops are golden and firm. Cool slightly. Store in a covered container at room temperature.

Further nonsense: Go Bananas!

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Day Menu (or, If a Cabbage Could Sing)

I usually don't make it to March 17 without a preemptive soda bread. And so it was yesterday, March 16, that I baked my first. Click here for that recipe.

I handle soda bread dough similarly to a scone dough, combining the dry ingredients in the Cuisinart, adding the butter and processing till fully combined then tossing all that in a big mixing bowl containing combined buttermilk, eggs, raisins, and caraway seeds. I stir it with a big spoon just until it comes together, then bake it on a sheet pan or in a pie dish and let it do its thing for an hour in a 300 oven. I'm not certain why the low temp works so well, but it does.

I'm a big fan of the boiled St. Patrick's Day feast which includes, but is not limited to, corned beef boiled with cabbage, potatoes, onions, and carrots. The rest of my household runs for the bonny green hills - a long haul from the prairie in which we find ourselves - whenever a cabbage makes an appearance. How the unassuming, thick-headed cabbage became the she-beast of the kitchen is beyond me. It's so cultured, so well-traveled - from sauerkraut to kim chee, in gyoza and atop fish tacos, in slaws and in your bra (if you're weaning a nursing infant - it really works!).

If a cabbage could open its mouth and sing it would sound like Susan Boyle. Uh huh. And then the world would see the error of its ways and appreciate it's versatility and value.

But back to St. Patrick. My personal favorite WikiBits about the man himself:

1. He is said to have used the shamrock, a three-leaved plant, to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagan Irish. NOTE: methinks it unwise to say the words "pagan Irish" in the company of an Irishman.

2. He was born into a wealthy Romano-British family (see note above, substituting "wealthy Romano-British" for "pagan Irish.") At age sixteen he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken to Ireland as a slave. It is believed he was held somewhere on the west coast of Ireland, possibly Mayo. (Shout out to the McHughs of Mayo!)

3. He died on March 17, 461, and according to tradition, was buried at Downpatrick. (Wikipedia is so awesome.)

Happy St. Paddy's Day!

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The World's Best Cookie

This is my most requested recipe.

I've hesitated for years to pass it out because while they are an easy dough to make you might need to tinker with baking temperature and shape a few times before you get them right. I don't think you can really ruin them (even if they're not crisp enough they will taste good) but if you've had mine and yours don't come out as well, don't be too hard on yourself. They are just a little bit finicky in certain ovens.

One tip is to keep the cookies small when you shape them. Roll the dough into balls no bigger than a rounded teaspoon. Then flatten them out with the heel of your hand. The second image shows the size. They will spread out once baked, so allow some space between them. And parchment paper is critical. I've never used a Silpat, but that would likely work well, too.

Lace Cookies bake best in a convection oven at 300. If you don't have a convection option, just go with 350 and watch them.  In fact, every oven varies enough that you want to be hawkish during baking time. Set the timer for 6 min, then come back and rotate the sheet pan. Then peek at them every two minutes. Total baking time will be between 9 and 12.5 minutes, depending on your oven. Make sure to get them nice a golden brown around the edges. There is not much more lame than pale in the sweet kitchen.

They are fabulous plain, but we like them best sandwiched with a thin bit of ganache. Or you could add melted chocolate to a little pastry bag and pipe a zig zag of chocolate on the surface.

One note of caution is don't make these ahead of time. They positively must be consumed on the day they're baked - they lose their crispness. The dough will keep well in the fridge for about a week, so just roll and bake as needed.

Lace Cookies
Print recipe only here

Makes about 3 dozen sandwiched cookies

1 cup unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
2 1/4 cups rolled oats
1/2 t salt
1 t vanilla
1 egg, lightly beaten
3 T flour

Heat together in a small saucepan over very low heat, stirring constantly until just melted:

1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate (3 ounces)
4 T heavy cream

Remove from heat and stir until fully melted and glossy.

In a medium-large saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Remove from heat and stir in the brown sugar. Add the oats, salt and vanilla. Add beaten egg, stirring in well. Stir in flour to combine. Let sit for 20 minutes to cool.

Preheat oven to 300 convection or 350 regular.

Drop by measured teaspoons onto a parchment lined baking sheet. You can generally fit 12-15 cookies on a standard sized baking sheet. If you made the dough in advance and and stored it in the refrigerator, roll it into teaspoon sizes balls and flatten. Bake for about 12 minutes until nicely golden brown, rotating the baking sheet halfway thru baking.

Cool the cookies on the baking sheet. Make the ganache.

When cool, loosen them gently using a thin metal spatula. Spread a very thin layer of ganache on the bottom of one cookie and sandwich with another.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tomato Basil Soup on a Grey Late Winter Day

Oh, color! How we've missed you. The park is barren, the skies are bleak, even my puppy is gray. The last fact is the inevitable consequence of returning home from the soggy, brown park and finding the contractors next door pouring a concrete wall. Man, there is no slowing down a strong puppy. He was lugging some extra pounds of concrete and still tearing around like a madman.

Anyhoo, I made this soup last night and it was delish. I've stipulated brands of chicken broth and tomatoes below because both will influence flavor and cooking time for this recipe. A food mill is also your best bet here. If you don't have one, a Cuisinart should be your second choice, a blender your third.

Tomato Basil Soup
Print recipe only here

Serves 4-6

Two 28-ounce cans Muir Glen Whole Peeled Tomatoes, pureed in food mill or Cuisinart
2 T olive oil
pinch chili flakes
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
handful fresh basil, chopped
32-ounces chicken broth (Imagine Organic)
kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Run tomatoes through the food mill, using a medium-fine disc. Reserve food mill - you'll use it again later. Chop garlic, onion and basil.

Preheat olive oil and chili flakes in a sauce pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and saute gently for 3 minutes or so.

Add the pureed tomatoes and basil. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for about 20 minutes until it darkens to orange-red.

Add the chicken stock and bring back to a simmer, cooking another 30 minutes or so. Taste. If it seems a bit bland, continue to cook for another 15-20 minutes until it reduces further.

When the flavor seems deep enough, return the soup to the food mill and puree into a clean pot. NOTE: If you are using a blender or Cuisinart to puree the soup, you must cool the soup first or it will explode all over you and your kitchen!!

Reheat the soup, taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary. Serve. If you're trying to impress, garnish with a wee sprig of basil.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Mandatory School Breakfast - during class time - in Chicago

So glad this is getting attention outside of Chitown. Click here to read the story.

I'm still hopeful there will be a reversal on this issue. While there is clearly a need for a breakfast program in many CPS schools, there are many schools for which this will become a catastrophe of waste. Our local CPS school does a great job providing breakfast before school hours and has a low percentage of children on free or reduced-priced lunch. The administration has found an easy way to meet the needs of our neediest in a manner that enhances their school day.

The article points out Chicago's already short school day and that during the mayoral campaign Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel figured a child in Houston gets four more years of K-12 instruction than one here. As for the amount of class time the program will rob, the author offers his estimate:

...children are losing, perhaps, 20 minutes each day. That’s 57 hours over 170 school days, or more than 10 days — of instructional time.

Ten days! The loss of instruction is incredulous enough, but when combined with the lack of qualifiers for participating in the program it's positively embarrassing. We don't have time or money to waste. And weren't we beginning to take nutritional advice seriously? A consultant detailed the contents of the free breakfast:

“A lot of processed carbohydrates. My personal favorite was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a graham cracker. Corn pops. Oversalted cheese sticks. Mealy apples. Stale bagels with cream cheese.”

Bad lessons, all the way around.

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Best Baked Chips

The resident females in my house just plain like to nibble. This behavior is mitigated through rules governing acceptable hours of engagement (not prior to 11am; not in the hour preceding any anticipated meal; not after dinner; not when we might incur a lecture from the resident Snack Policeman).

Snacks fall into two categories: sweet or salty. We are currently in possession of a dwindling supply that began with no less than 14 boxes of Girl Scout cookies. (Some, to be fair, will be gifted to a lucky relative with a March birthday.) I don't take it for granted that we have been lucky enough to elude the diseases - cancer, obesity, diabetes - that preclude cookie noshing. You can't do much to a cookie to make it healthier and still taste like like something you'd care to consume. But chips differ in this regard. And awhile back that determined I would only purchase baked chips.

Not long ago most baked chips were akin to munching a thin salty bit of nothing. Flavor was indicated on the package but not so much contained within. But chips have improved. Trader Joe's makes a remarkably good baked tortilla chip. Ditto for their Baked Salt and Vinegar chips (which may or may not be produced on the same line as Kettle Chips Baked Salt and Vinegar potato chips, which are equally good and often available at TJ and regularly at Whole Foods). But our all time fave is presently WF's 365 house brand of Sour Cream and Onion baked potato chips. They are super yum. I've been tucking them into my daughter's lunch boxes in those waxed paper bags I didn't invent fast enough. The BBQ ones are pretty good, too. But we like the SC&O ones better.

The simple fact is that while cookies might make the world a better place, chips are a second class snack. Love them, I do, but they usually contain far too much salt and a unhealthy dose of overheated, overused oil. It's really the overusing of the oil that gets me. And you're not going to suffer that when eating baked chips. If you purchase chips, consider replacing them with any of these.

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