Monday, January 26, 2009


I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. Or held anything like it. Or thought it could have existed. But factory chicken farming has gotten out of hand. Look to the right and you’ll witness it for yourself:

A two-pound single chicken breast.

Really. This thing weighed close to 2 lbs. if it weighed an ounce. I try not to buy a lot of supermarket meat. I haven’t bought industrial beef in years, and try to limit other types of meat. But in all practicality, I have to feed my family. When a reasonably sized package turns up during a sale, I consider purchasing it. It’s rare to find anything other than a double-pallet-sized Styrofoam boat of meat any more, especially when the cut is on sale. This $6 package weighed about three pounds. I counted five breasts glinting through the plastic wrap. Perfect: grill two small ones tonight, then freeze the other three, cut and divided into scant one-pound portions for future use.

This giant breast showed through the wrap just like the others, a squeezed-in triangular sliver peeking out amidst the other four. When I opened the package to divide the contents for freezing, I was completely dumbfounded as to how I was going to divvy up the contents. Then I was just dumbfounded. How did this chicken walk, much less breathe with two, count ‘em, two breasts this size? And how did they grow this big, that fast? Supermarket chickens live an average of six or seven weeks before slaughter. That’s between 40 to 50 days. By law, they’re not given antibiotics or hormones. Hell, they don’t live long enough to need them.

Now, I’ve purchased the ol’ reliable Perdue Oven Stuffer Roasters – remember, I’m a believer in a well-stocked freezer. Plus, they’re great for extended family dinners or for a week’s worth of leftovers served six ways. I know the Oven Stuffers come from a different breed of bird, but they’ve been bred and are raised for the same qualities: large breasts, lots of meat, short lives before slaughter for lower feeding and housing costs to the farms.

I’ve never gotten a single breast or even a combined pair of breasts off of an Oven Stuffer that came close to the size of this monster.

And in the end, the chicken didn’t even have any flavor or texture. Yes, I used it that night. I had to cut it into pieces similar in size to each other for grilling then similar in size to the other four breasts I prepared for freezing. I did a simple marinade of fresh garlic, lemon juice, cracked black pepper and olive oil, tossed the pieces on my grill pan, then topped them with crunch of sea salt, a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of fresh chopped Italian parsley. Side dishes of my summer zucchini sautéed with sweet onion and corn kernels, and penne alia oglio rounded out the meal. I achieved nice grill marks on the meat, and this is usually a good, foolproof and tasty preparation, with leftovers sliced over a salad or tossed into the pasta the next night. However, there was no chicken flavor to be had and the mealy texture certainly didn’t help.

True, Birdzilla’s breast could have fed my family for a month. But I won’t be buying skinless boneless chicken breasts again any time soon.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Haut Dinner Planned

Looking ahead to Valentine’s Day, I have been thinking about delving into some wines that my Uncle Doug gave us on our wedding day ten years ago this June. Doug, a fairly serious Bordeaux collector, gifted us a full case of wines (two each of six bottles), and the following four varieties are still “cellaring” in, well, my cellar (i.e. the basement.)

Chateau Haut-Brion, Pessac Leognan, 1993; Cru Classe des Graves; Premier Grand Cru Classe en 1855;

Chateau Leoville Barton, Saint Julien, 1995; Cru Classe en 1855;

Chateau Lagrange, Saint Julien, 1995;

Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, Saint Julien, 1994; Grand Cru Classe de Medoc en 1855;

They may not look very organized in the picture, but that’s because when we moved into this house 6 ½ years ago, that’s where they ended up, on their sides in that antique wrought iron bin. We are reluctant to move them.

I would like to plan a dinner around one of them, but which? And, of course, what should I make?

Now, the Wine Spectator pages I have from the respective years indicate that all would be fine to consume this year, 2009. The ranges are listed “2001-2020” for the Haut-Brion, 2004-2025 for the Leoville Barton, and the like. Each description gives tasting notes as well, although for a 1996 printing, I’m not sure what the wines would really be like right now. I’m sure all the black currant of the LaGrange will come through a dozen years after publication.

What has helped me most? A site I just discovered upon unearthing my prize wines: I didn’t know it existed before now, and am so happy to have found it. I wholeheartedly encourage a visit. Containing reviews from around the world for various (HUGELY varied) wines, vintage years and years each was consumed, I found it not just expansive, but fascinating. Someone who drank my 1993 Haut Brion last year recommended more cellaring time, although the wine was still “stellar.” All of the above wines in their respective vintage years were listed with many, many comments – it was great to read through. I think I’m zeroing in on the 1995 Lagrange as of now, but I’ll let you know in the end what we decant.

As for the food to be served? Let the games begin!

I already have some baby loin lamb chops in my freezer, but am thinking about preparing duck. I haven’t roasted a duck in a while, and ooh, we love it. One of my favorite preparations is with a Montmorency cherry gastrique, although perhaps the acid may be too much for the wine. I know the cherries would be divine with it, perhaps even a gentler fruit preparation. Another way to go would be with my sherry and shallot sauce made from pan drippings, topped off with a spritz of good sherry vinegar. Oh, there we go with the acid again. I just find that that sort of accompaniment helps temper the richness of the duck. Duck hasn’t been on sale lately that I’ve seen, so I don’t have one stashed away. Then again, I’m about to open what could be a $300 bottle of wine – why am I thinking about coupons??!

As far as the lamb goes, I may just keep the loin chops in the freezer for another time and do a small Frenched rack roasted rare. And what I should do is consider a trip down to the D’Artagnan distribution center in Newark, not that far from me, and pick up some really choice ingredients straight from the source. Now I’m thinking foie gras over toasts topped with a Montmorency cherry preparation as an appetizer to utilize duck, serve the lamb … the possibilities now seem endless.

A trip to Newark (odd as that may sound) is looking better and better to me. Plus, I could hit the Ironbound for some fresh anchovies to make boquerones. But that’s another blog entry altogether.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Something to Warm You to the Core

I made an appetizer last night for a dinner we attended that would warm you to the core. A necessary action, considering the amount of snow we’ve had this month. I came across the recipe for “Braised Cannellini Beans with Garlic, Marjoram and Oregano” on page 31 of this month’s Gourmet, and it reminded me completely of a bean dish that I make with fresh rosemary. I had everything I needed on hand, including some additional items to serve with it.

Actually, the recipe was pretty much the same thing I make except that it called for fresh marjoram and dried oregano. Now, I’m not a dried oregano person – fresh is good, dry is bitter and harsh to me. But I did it "The Gourmet Way" using two 15-oz cans of Cannellini beans, about ¼ cup of their liquid and chicken stock to make up the difference in liquid called for in the recipe. I even went out to the two spots in my backyard where my herbs grow to obtain the marjoram. I had to try both spots, because upon clearing the snow in the first area where the bigger specimens grow, I was reminded that, “Oh, yeah … we’ve had two sleet and ice storms recently.” I couldn’t scratch or scrape through the layers of ice barehanded. Believe me, I tried. Squirrels perched atop the side fence cackled at me. And yes, I went out without a hat, coat or gloves because A) I thought it would be a fast trip, and B) I was just plain excited at the prospect of even just a little greenery picked fresh from the garden. Fortunately, the second, more sheltered spot yielded the little leaves I needed.

The results were herbaceous and subtle, comforting and soothing. I liked it more, at least in a different way, than my rosemary beans, which if not watched and tested can become piney. I served the warm beans over thinly sliced, toasted Italian bread brushed with garlic olive oil. I also put a trio of condiments on the side: thinly sliced plum tomatoes and/or roasted red peppers to place on the toasts before the beans, and shavings of Romano cheese to top the beans. Any combination thereof worked well. It all went, right down to the last shard of Romano. And I would make it again.

Friday, January 16, 2009

COLD SNAP, then Hope in the Mail

It came today.

The first garden catalog of the New Year with a bonus, my favorite seed catalog.

It’s as if they know exactly what I do daily in the depths of winter: stare out my kitchen window onto a stark blanket of white over barren ground, plot, plan and fantasize about what lies dormant beneath and all the new the green that I might be able to squeeze in come Spring. Once night falls and the yard is dark, I can pore over the catalogs in bed and dream some more.

It’s also as if they know I dug up a full quarter of my backyard last fall to make space for more crops and have been amending the soil with composted vegetation in pre-dug holes even up to this date.

Mind you, I do not live on a huge expanse of land. The “James Homestead” is settled on a 55’ x 125’ lot in a packed-tight little town of 10,000 or so residents. A nice size, mind you, but add the house, the front yard, a back patio, the concrete paths on both sides of the house, the 8-foot-wide beds of perennials and evergreens that ring the backyard, and the suburban requirement that you wastefully grow at least a patch of grass, and your growing space shrinks before your eyes. There’s not a lot of room for suburban farming.

But after last summer’s successes involving seeds, shoots, roots, vines, herbs and (of course) tomatoes, I plan to go whole hog this year. And my four-year-old daughter will have a very enthusiastic hand in it as well.

She selected most of the vegetables and varieties we grew from seed last year, and when you saw the plants and vines heavy with the rainbow fruits of our labor, you could tell. Just about everything we grew came in a color other than the “usual” shade: purple string beans, lemon yellow cucumbers, white eggplants, chartreuse zucchini, Christmas lima beans (green pods, but huge red-striped limas), rainbow Swiss chard, purple basil, plus tomatoes in seemingly every color but red: pink, two shades and sizes yellow, yellow and green striped, two shades and sizes of orange, and dark purple. What I wouldn’t do for a fresh-picked, sweetly acidic Black Russian tomato right now.

With limited space, we grew creatively. Actually, vertically. Once our windowsill seedlings reached a certain height, my daughter and I hit The Home Depot one morning, bought some pre-fab wooden lattice, 8’ stretches of lumber, took it all home, measured, sawed, sanded and nailed four trellises together. She did the measuring and marking with her sidewalk chalk, then hammered right along with me. I then sunk the trellises a foot deep in the ground. Voila! A 5’x 5’ plot grew from 25 square feet of space to well over 80 square feet up, down and around. My daughter could also walk inside the structure, reach up and pick what she wanted to eat, in addition to giggling and hiding inside the thicket of vines with the cats underfoot.

All that fun and produce came to a total cost of $30.14, including shipping from the seed company. The tomatoes alone were worth it per pound produced, but the zucchini nearly ran into tonnage after a while. My freezer boasts numerous Ziploc bags of it, as does my mother’s and mother-in-law’s. Last year’s catalog seeds are still viable, as are those fished on impulse from a “4 for $1” basket at the grocery store. So the beans, cucumbers, greens and most of the tomatoes will be on the menu again this year at no cost other than a little sweat and a lot of laughs in the garden.

We’ll do vertical crops on the trellises this year, too, but with my newly added space, I plan to plant for three seasons, starting in early Spring (maybe sugar snap peas? My daughter loves them) and ending with late Fall crops (I’m thinking cheddar cauliflower and a dwarf variety of cabbage). Radicchio will make an appearance both times.

The real crop production comes during that summer stretch in between. My daughter has already chosen Peruvian blue potatoes and Russian banana fingerling potatoes (that’s a good thing - I’ve been dying to try growing potatoes for a while). She also has her eye on Purple Dragon carrots, which have a dark purple skin and flame orange center. I’m looking at a winter squash or two to preserve with the potatoes over the winter. I know my husband likes butternut, but Zeppelin Delicata sounds good to me as well. It is somewhat smaller, is yellow with green stripes that turn orange after picking, and supposedly keeps very well for winter storage. All the better for when the Depression sets in.

I may be even more ambitious than I originally planned and attempt to grow cardoons, an heirloom Italian vegetable that looks like celery on steroids but tastes like mild artichokes. Cardoons grow on the sides of roads and are foraged in the Old Country, but I have a mind to try and cultivate them myself over here. The $2.95 packet of 100 seeds may well be worth it, considering that cardoons can cost upwards of $2.99 per pound, if you can even find them, and a good bunch easily weighs three pounds.

My husband has already put in his request for SunGold cherry tomatoes again, and some leafy greens in addition to the chard. Although we haven’t yet zeroed in on any new varieties, tomatoes will definitely make a repeat performance this year, as will the crazy climbing zucchini. I want yellow wax beans in addition to the purple pole beans from last year, but I don’t know if there’s a climbing variety.

The seed and garden catalogs will hold all the answers.

Give me a week. The catalogs will be covered in a Technicolor code of hi-liter pen colors for yes, maybe, must-try, climbing and cold weather tolerant. Then I’ll be back at the kitchen window, planning, plotting and awaiting the arrival of my order.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On Potatoes.

That $1.29 5-lb bag of Eastern White potatoes got me thinking about potatoes in general. Over the past few years, I seem to have become a potato person. I never thought this would happen.

True, potatoes can be a cheap and dependable carbohydrate for meals, but that’s no reason to simply consume them. They store well and keep, vary in taste, size, color, and texture and are infinitely useful. The Incans cultivated many hundreds of varieties adapted to both varied sun conditions and terrains, up and down the sides of the Andes. But I never really ate potatoes before. Maybe it was the “fattening” [untrue] rep they had? My grandmother ate potatoes with dinner every single day of her life and lived to 92. Maybe a nascent gene from the Polish side of my family is surfacing? Either way, I’m a convert now.

However, Eastern Whites are not usually my first choice for potatoes. But at less than 26-cents per pound, I was not passing up that bag. In fact, I went back at the end of the week for a second bag (there was a limit of one per store visit.) At that price and with that quantity on hand, I didn’t feel so guilty about the waste incurred while I practiced “turning” potatoes for Pommes Fondant [potatoes sautéed in duck fat w/thyme.] Really? You have no duck fat stored in your freezer? You should. I certainly hope you didn’t waste any of that rendered liquid gold left over the last time you roasted ducks for a party of 12 … but I digress.

These Eastern Whites are fairly basic spuds. They could have been any of a number of varieties. The bag listed Maine as their place of origin, so they were probably MaineStays: a high yield, late maturing type with white skin and white flesh. I chunkily cubed two huge ones last night and dropped them into a pot of vegetable soup. I steamed a number of small ones and tossed them with butter, salt and parsley as a side dish with broiled bone-in chicken. They were OK, serviceable. I would not roast them; the moisture content is a bit high and they don’t caramelize that well (I’ve done it before). I’m sure they’d be about OK to mash. But again, not my first choice for that preparation.

My faves? Well, that all depends on what you’re doing with them. Here are my thoughts on a scant few varieties:

All around goes to Yukon Golds. They’re widely available, good with the skin on or off, good large or small, and flavorful all on their own. I’ll use these for any dish. Unpeeled: They’re unbelievable cut as steak fries and roasted with a ton of garlic and sea salt. Great quartered and roasted with fresh rosemary and other root vegetables. Excellent baked like an Idaho, since the golden interior already is like butter – but please, do feel free to add more. Peeled or unpeeled: steamed then sliced warm over a salad. Peeled: Great peeled and steamed – my favorite potato with steamed sweet potatoes in a Sherry vinaigrette with fresh sage leaves that I make, eaten hot, warm or cold. Sliced for scalloped potatoes, they’re already creamy and buttery. Diced for potato salads with all fresh summer ingredients. Try these for latkes. And of course, mashed. Yukons end up golden and creamy like nobody’s business.

Purple. I love these, not only for the color. Roasted, skin on: very good, nutty but sweet. Steamed, quartered w/butter: very good. Sliced warm on a salad: ditto. Small purples, Red Bliss and Yukons together on the grill for Red White & Blue potatoes on the 4th of July. Try to find smaller ones. Fresh only, please. Make sure the skin is smooth and taut. These can be pricey if you can find them, so buy only good ones. Once they shrivel, the taste (and cooking results) seem to go south. Easily a dozen blue/purple varieties. What you probably find is the “All Blue,” although you may find true Peruvians if you’re lucky. I plan to grow a type of blue this summer.

Fingerling. Nutty, golden, delicious. Useful. Shapewise, can be amusing. Can be pricey. Keep the skins on and roast with entire heads of garlic. Then squeeze the garlic cloves out of their paper, toss with the fingerlings in a large bowl and sprinkle liberally with sea salt. Oh yeah, delish. Excellent sliced warm over a salad, and don’t forget the bacon. Many, many varieties. What you find is likely “salad fingerlings.” I plan to grow Russian Banana fingerlings this summer.

Red Bliss or “New” Potatoes. The only kind my mother buys, I’m not as big a devotee. But please, keep the skin on. Small, round baby ones are good to roast with rosemary. You can’t go wrong with reds if you’re doing a clambake or lobster boil. Some people like them mashed, skin on, for “dirty potatoes,” but I find the moisture content too high for uniformly good results. Good for summer potato salads. Good with lemon and fresh parsley, too.

Russet Burbank. America’s spud. Actually, Russets account for 40% of U. S. potato growing acreage. All around useful and available everywhere. French fries, boiled, baked, roasted, hash-browned, mashed. Soups, stews, pot roasts. But to me, they’re just baking potatoes.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The easiest dessert ever: Macaroons

January 11, 2009

A snowed-in Saturday followed by pelting ice overnight made for a dangerous Sunday of chipping, slipping and sliding. We were not going anywhere for the second day in a row. What to do? What to make? And without any trips to the store for additional ingredients?

Macaroons. All you need is a can of almond paste and an egg white.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.
Blend almond paste with ½ cup of white sugar until uniformly fine.
Add one large egg white (although I like at least 1 ½) and beat until the mixture is sticky. Do it for at least two minutes, which will incorporate air into the mix.

Spoon onto lined (foil, silpat, parchment, whatever you use) baking sheets, or use a pastry bag with a wide tip. I used a 6B for these. My daughter is a maniac with a pastry bag. I’m lucky to even touch it at times.
Bake for 20 minutes, rotating your pans halfway through, then check for doneness; they should be light and golden.
I made little bite-sized cookies, 28 in all. They needed only 20 mins.
Larger macaroons will take longer, so rotate the pans and bake for another 5-8 mins. if necessary.
Slide the linings off the pans and allow the cookies to cool. Carefully peel them off your lining.

And as always, I can’t leave well enough alone. Apparently, neither can my daughter, although her choice of bright pink sanding sugar sparkled so cheerfully. She also exercised a surprising amount of restraint when sprinkling the cookies before baking [see pic]. We ended up with three kinds today: plain, chocolate dipped, and chocolate dipped with toasted, slivered almonds. I toast any and all kinds of nuts, which really brings out the flavor. We used an 85% cacao bittersweet chocolate bar for melting, which was included in a Godiva gift basket we received at Christmas. I had never used the Godiva brand for melting or baking before, and was pleased with the results.

[Now I’m thinking about doing a treatise on baking and melting chocolates. Or would that be a dessertation?]

So far as other additions go, add the traditional fine coconut flakes (toasted or plain) just before beating in the egg white.

Blend a few tablespoons of good cocoa powder into the ½ cup sugar for chocolate macaroons.

Add orange zest to your bittersweet chocolate if dipping or drizzling.

Top with a candied cherry or other fruit or décor if you’d like.

Re: Almond paste. This is not marzipan. I like Solo (as shown above), which comes in an 8 oz. can and is consistent in quality and dependable. Paste in a tube is fine, too, but that tends to be a 7 oz size. It will work fine as well in that quantity w/o adjustments to the other ingredients.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Canadian Bacon & Eggs

January 2, 2009.
I didn’t want to just divulge every little habit or hobby from the start, but I found something during my bag-of-potatoes foray on Sunday: a list.

I collect grocery lists. Well, I don’t usually keep them, at least for long, but I love to read them, construct the life of the writer and figure out what he or she was going to cook. The lists can be bizarre, or the game can be quite easy. But it’s always fun and interesting. The $1.29 potato special apparently jumped off the circular page for this list writer too, a woman. Believe me, men’s lists are identifiable, and this wasn’t one of them. [More on that later.]

Her list was short and sweet, with just three items: “eggs, bag potatoes, can. bacon.” But Oh, what was going to be made with them … at least I knew exactly what I would do with them:

Warm your oven to 200 to 250 degrees.

If not already sliced, cut your Canadian bacon into the desired number of slices (or slabs), setting aside a remaining amount to dice.

Peel (if desired) as many potatoes as you want, then slice them into disks. Set aside in a deep bowl.

In a large bowl, whisk as many eggs as you need. Add some milk to lighten the mixture and whisk again.

Heat a heavy skillet or deep cast iron pan over medium heat.

Melt a good knob of butter in the pan, being careful that it doesn’t scorch. If it does, lower your flame and start over. Canadian bacon is lean (really, it is), so you need a little lubrication. Use a blend of butter and Canola oil if you fear a cholesterol bomb. Then again, if you do, why are you making this dish?

Cook the sliced Canadian bacon in batches to avoid overlapping. Once the edges are golden brown and caramelized, place on one side of a large, oval platter, cover with foil, and place in the warm oven.

Salt and pepper your potatoes, tossing with your hands in the bowl to evenly coat. Lube your pan some more, and don’t be stingy. This is where some variations can begin:

Sauté the diced Canadian bacon in the pan with a sprinkle of sugar. Or caramelize some thinly sliced onions, if that’s the direction you’re taking. Add minced garlic if you’d like. Either way, you’re starting the potatoes. Keeping them plain is very good as well. Toss them into the same pan.

Let them sit and sizzle a bit to form a crust on the bottom potatoes. Gently agitate the pan, then flip the potatoes over. Let the top ones form a good crust now that they’re on the bottom. Continue this process until they’re crispy, browned and just about cooked through. Re-season to taste and place in a covered serving dish or casserole and place in the warm oven.

Re-whisk your eggs to lighten and add air. Make sure the pan is not too hot. And that’s ALL you are to do to the pan: do not wipe it, do not scrape it, do not empty it, do not even breathe on it wrong. Everything you want is now stuck to the bottom.

If you didn’t use it in the potatoes, add the diced Canadian bacon to the pan with a little more butter. Sauté until sweet and caramelized, then add the eggs to the pan. Salt & pepper the eggs to taste. Scramble to desired doneness with a flat-edged wooden spatula.

Place the eggs on the open half of the oblong platter holding the warm Canadian bacon slices. Serve with the warm potatoes from the oven. Feed the crowd some fruit salad or melon wedges to assuage the guilt. Top with a Bloody Mary.