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chicken

Big batch cooking: food for the freezer

penne and cheese; chicken green curry

ChardPenneCheese3

One of the difficulties with being a home cook is that it takes time, and on weeknights especially, time is at a premium. I often don’t get home until 7:30 or later; some nights the prospect of then chopping food, cooking and dishing up can be daunting enough to make me want to run out for empanadas instead. But that adds up. So when I had a few days off for the holidays, I decided to cook a few things to put in the freezer so Scott or I could reheat them for fairly quick dinners.

GratedCheeses3

I started by making mac and cheese — more accurately, penne and cheese, since you can use pretty much any tubular pasta for good results. The recipe I use comes from Martha Stewart’s Comfort Food, and it certainly is that. It’s not as simple as mixing powder from a box, but it’s so much better than the packaged stuff that it’s worth the effort. Anyway, it’s not that hard, though maybe I just have enough practice to have gotten good at it.

SaltNutmegPepperCayenne

I cooked a pound of dry pasta until it was not quite done — the noodles cook a bit more in the sauce while baking. I divided the cooked pasta into a few foil containers that I could put directly into the freezer later. While the pasta cooked, I grated cheese: about 4 1/2 cups of cheddar and 1 1/4 cups of Parmesan (Martha’s recipe calls for Gruyere or Romano but Parmesan works as well). I also measured out 2 teaspoons of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne, then grated what looked like 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper and 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg.

PenneNCheeseToBake2

I heated 5 1/2 cups of milk until it was not quite bubbling. In a large pan I melted 6 tablespoons of butter, then added half a cup of flour and whisked it together for 1 minute to form a roux. I poured in the warm milk and whisked and cooked the mixture until it was bubbling and had thickened a fair bit, then removed the pan from the heat and added the spices and most of the two cheeses, whisking until the cheese was melted and the mixture smooth. I poured it into the pans with the pasta and sprinkled the remaining cheese on top, and put them into a 375-degree oven for half an hour.

PenneNCheese

You’re supposed to let the cooked pasta cool 5 minutes before serving. I let ours cool a bit longer, because once I’d gotten the pasta into the oven I started working on the chicken green curry and it took more time than I’d intended. I chopped up chicken breast, onions, zucchini, red potatoes and mushrooms; I lightly cooked the chicken pieces in some olive oil, then added the onions and mushrooms. Then I added a can of light coconut milk and stirred in a couple of tablespoons of green curry paste (from a jar, not my own, though that will be on my list to do). You’re also supposed to add some fish sauce, but I didn’t have any and couldn’t find any at my regular supermarket, so I improvised a substitution: soy sauce plus a little Worcestershire sauce and some salt. Not perfect, but close enough for my purposes. I added the rest of the vegetables and another can of coconut milk, though in hindsight I think I should have stuck with one can and just added a small amount of broth or water. The final curry was good but more liquidy than I intended. I brought the mixture to a simmer and let it cook for about half an hour.

AddingCurryPasteToPan

We had one of the containers of penne and cheese for dinner, with some braised red chard. I froze the rest of the food when it was cool: six meals into the freezer. Not too bad for one long evening’s work.

CurryReadyToFreeze

Christmas dinner: chicken, candles and company

roast chicken with herb butter

RoastedChicken

For Christmas we had a friend come over, and I wanted to make a meal that would be nice but not overly demanding. I settled on roast chicken, along with roasted potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts (our friend brought some cold appetizers plus truffles for dessert and some vodka), and leafed through my books for a good recipe.

HerbsInButter

You would think roasting a chicken would be part of my basic skills now, but I’ve tried out a number of different approaches trying to find the best one for me. For years I used a technique from Cook’s Illustrated that involved starting at very high heat and with the chicken breast-side down, then turning the bird breast-side up partway through and maintaining the high heat until the skin had browned, then turning down the temperature to finish, plus basting every 8 minutes or so. It was pretty labor-intensive, and I quickly lost enthusiasm for repeatedly reaching into a 500-degree oven. When I got fed up with that one I tried versions with a lower starting heat, more or less basting, some with the bird starting breast-side down and some not, but all fairly fiddly. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything promises simple roast chicken in one recipe title, but I have to say that his roast chicken with herb butter is equally simple during the roasting process itself, which is what matters to me and my oven-heat-warmed face.

PreppingTheBird

The recipe is much like the simple version: starting the bird hotter than the final cooking temperature (450 instead of 500), starting it breast-side down and turning it over partway through (to help ensure that the breast is moist), and basting sparingly. The difference is that first I mashed together half a stick of butter with a tablespoon of minced fresh herbs (I used thyme and chives) plus some salt and pepper, then rubbed the butter mixture all over the bird, loosening pockets of skin and rubbing butter between skin and flesh as well. (This is easier than it sounds.) I also put two quarters of a lemon, a couple of cloves of garlic, and a couple of chunks of ginger root into the bird’s cavity. I melted the other half stick of butter in the roasting pan, then added some water and put the chicken on a roasting rack atop it all, and into the oven it went. I cooked it breast-side down for about 20 minutes; then I basted with pan juices, turned the bird over, basted some more, and returned it to the oven for another 8 minutes or so. At this point I basted it once more, turned the temperature down to 325, and inserted my probe thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh so it could track the temperature up to the desired 160-165 range without my having to repeatedly stab the hot chicken. At this point Bittman lets you stop basting, which takes away a lot of the fuss factor that you find in other recipes, though I did give it one more wash about 20 minutes later when I was turning the roasted vegetables anyway.

PanSauce

When the temperature was in the right zone — I forget just how long that took, though it was a little longer than the suggested time of an hour total because my chicken was kind of large — I tipped the bird up to pour the juices out of the cavity and confirm they were clear. (This also helps make carving less of a catastrophe later, though for me that is frankly a lost cause and always will be.) I let the bird rest about 5 minutes, and in the meantime I poured the pan juices into a saucepan and added some wine and cooked the mixture until it reduced by about half, whisking periodically. This was not technically a gravy, since I didn’t thicken it, but it was a nice flavor complement to the bird, though the meat was very moist and didn’t need gravy to help in that respect. I carved the chicken as best I could, which is not that great considering I only do this a few times a year. But I wasn’t trying for a magazine spread, I just wanted to have light and dark meat easy to choose from the platter, and I did manage that.

RoastedSprouts

The roasted vegetable sides were very easy. I made the Brussels sprouts as I usually do: trim the stems, cut in half, toss with olive oil, pepper and salt — in this case, paprika salt. For the potatoes I mixed together Yukon golds and purple potatoes, cutting the larger ones to try to get reasonably uniform chunks, and tossed those with olive oil and salt and pepper as well. (By the way, yes, those purple potatoes are purple all the way through. And if you rinse and blot them dry on a towel they’ll bleed a little purple onto the cloth. Heh.) Those I put in the cast-iron skillet to ensure a good crispy crust. I put them into the oven when the chicken went in; the sprouts came out a little earlier than the bird and the potatoes did.

PotatoesToRoast4

I didn’t get any photos of the dining table because we had it candlelit, with votives in the holders that we had made the night before using cheap glassware and Mod Podge and tissue paper. I don’t like the effect of my camera’s flash, and there was nowhere near enough light to go without it, so I didn’t record the moment but let us simply experience it. That was the point anyway, right? To enjoy good friends and a holiday meal, to celebrate in the now, to be fully present.

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Off-Book Post: Chicken Soup, Breadsticks and Cookies

chicken soup with stars, garlic breadsticks, chocolate chip cookies

SoupSimmeredI’ve had a pretty hectic few weeks. Months. I lose track. Work has been reasonably busy, plus I’m volunteering, I’m writing, I’m trying to get any number of other things done. And I have been slacking off on the blog. Last Sunday on Oscar night, I knew I wasn’t going to get through any blog recipes, but I did want to cook. So I turned to some of the SticksBakeddishes I can make without using a recipe.

I started with dessert, chocolate chip cookies. I do this one by ear now, loosely basing it on the recipe from the bag. Having it memorized is handy when you buy a bag that doesn’t have a recipe printed on it. Blend flour with salt and baking soda, cream butter with sugars and add eggs ChocolateChipCookies4and vanilla, mix it all together, stir in chips, scoop and bake. I think this was the first batch of standard chocolate chip cookies that I’ve made with the Kitchen Aid. It saves quite a bit of work. I didn’t think to take pictures before baking, but then there’s probably nothing that new to show about chocolate chip cookies.

LilPotatoesOnce the last of the cookies were in the oven, I washed the mixer bowl and started a simple pizza dough for breadsticks, throwing in a bit of basil and oregano to liven it up. I let the dough rise for an hour, shaped it into twelve sticks, let those rise for about half an hour, then brushed them with garlic butter and baked them for 15 minutes.

ParsleyOnce the breadstick dough was rising I began chopping vegetables for soup, then chopped up some chicken breast, and then began to cook. I sauteed onions in olive oil, added the chicken chunks and browned them, and then began adding items in turn. I follow a sort of loose order, starting with things that either will benefit from close-to-the-pan sauteeing SoupInProcess(like mushrooms) or need longer cooking (like potato chunks), and adding things until the pot is basically full of vegetables steaming in their own vapors. Finally I add broth, bring it all to a boil, and let it simmer until I’m ready to add the pasta. It’s never quite the same soup twice, but it’s always good.

I wasn’t trying to make a AddingSpicescomplicated meal; I was going for simple, really. Hearty and basic. Comfort food. It still took a fair bit of effort: chopping vegetables, stirring, cooking, and washing dish after dish after dish. I will never have a dishwasher in this apartment; the lease and the building structure ensure that. But some day…

I swear I really did not think SoupBowlsabout the fact that chicken soup with stars would be appropriate for Oscar night until I was ladling it into bowls. Everything was great, and it was nice to be cooking.

CIA One Dish Meals: Not Technically One Dish, But Still Good

sauteed chicken with Moroccan hot and sweet tomato sauce

DinnerPlateApril has kind of gotten away from me, and this project with it. I’m still figuring out what I need to do to complete the remaining cookbooks by the end of June; I think I have a lot of work ahead of me. I’m on vacation this week (except for Wednesday when I have to work all day — I know, shut up) and was thinking I’d dive in and do a huge amount of cooking. But there are other PeelingTomatothings begging to be done too. Tomorrow I will be going through my notes to see just what it will take to come close to meeting my goal. You’ll see more recipes from me this week, but probably not every day.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not giving up. I may not meet the end-of-June deadline, but I’m going to cook from each book one TomatoSauceButterway or another.

Still, today I can check off one more book: The Culinary Institute of America One Dish Meals. This book is full of wonderful-looking soups, stews, stir-fries, salads and more. There were a lot of promising possibilities for a chilly, wet evening. I settled on sauteed chicken with Moroccan hot and sweet tomato sauce because it BrowningOnionlooked fairly simple and didn’t require a lot of ingredients I didn’t already have. That’s no small consideration; the CIA recipes call for lots of things that aren’t usually in my pantry, including galangal, slab bacon and sake. (Not all in the same dish, thank heavens.) But for this one I just had to get the fresh ingredients and one can of tomato puree.

IngredientsI did my chopping first (including some Brussels sprouts to serve on the side), then started by making a separate tomato sauce that gets added to the larger recipe. I blanched and peeled some plum tomatoes, then seeded and pureed them. I brought the puree to a simmer in a saucepan, added some canned tomato sauce, and let it simmer about 10 minutes. I swirled in some butter and added OnionWithSpicessalt and pepper, then set the mixture aside.

While the tomato sauce simmered I browned some chicken breasts in olive oil and set them aside. I also pureed some chopped onion and garlic. In the pot in which I’d browned the chicken, I heated some butter, then added the onion and garlic mixture and let it cook about 10 minutes, until it TomatoMolassesOnionSpiceswas quite dark and had a rich, kind of sweet aroma. A really great aroma, in fact, deeper and more intriguing than the usual delightful smell of frying onions.

I added some cinnamon, ground ginger and cayenne and cooked it all together for a few minutes. Then I added a cup of the tomato sauce and a tablespoon of molasses (the recipe calls for dark ChickenForFinalCookhoney but says to substitute molasses if you can’t find it), and let that mixture cook for another 5 minutes or so. Then I added the chicken breasts, spooned sauce over them, covered the pan and let it all cook for 20 minutes more. I served the chicken and sauce with rice and Brussels sprouts, and sprinkled some chopped cilantro and sesame seeds over the chicken before ChickenCookeddigging in. (If you think the rice is a bit odd-looking, you’re right; I found at the last minute I had insufficient amounts of either white basmati or brown basmati for dinner, so I mixed them — successfully, I’m relieved to say.)

This dish tasted tremendous. The sauce has a rich and unusual flavor: only a little hot, but with DinnerPlates4an earthy undertone. The tomato and molasses come together nicely.

Verdict: Success. I will make this again, and I will have to make some of the book’s other dishes soon as well.

Pure Poultry: Hot Soup for a Chilly Evening

chicken chili soup with fresh lime

PeppersI can’t believe how long it’s been since I had a chance to cook for and post to this blog. Things have been a little hectic. And it’s going to be all the more challenging to meet my goal of cooking from every book by the end of June, but I’m going to try. This week will still be busy for me, but next week I’ll be on vacation and I ought to be able to do extra cooking and writing to make up CookingPepperssome ground.

In the meantime, I needed to find something I could make for tonight’s dinner that wouldn’t be too complex. I leafed through Pure Poultry; it’s another cookbook from the cookbook club I used to belong to, and features the same attractive photography and layout as the others they publish. I flipped past familiar PeppersDrainedkinds of recipes — roast chicken, chicken cacciatore, oven-fried chicken — but then turned a page and found a beautiful photo of a rich-looking red soup flecked with bits of pepper and onion. Chicken chili soup with fresh lime looked perfect for a chilly spring evening.

I started by doing my prep, but I should have read the recipe through once more and divided PureeingVegs3up my work. The first instruction is to heat some oil in a skillet, briefly fry a number of diced jalapeno peppers, and then cover the diced peppers with water and set them aside for half an hour. I could have chopped the peppers first and cooked them, then moved along with the rest of the chopping while they soaked. So dinner was a little later than I’d intended.
CookingPuree
Once the peppers have soaked for half an hour, the recipe says to drain them and reserve the water. It doesn’t actually say what to do with the reserved water; after some consideration I decided to add it to the soup when the time came. In the meantime, I pureed the peppers with some diced onion, garlic and tomato. Then I heated some oil in a large pot and SimmeringSoupcooked the pepper mixture for about 10 minutes, then added chicken broth (and the pepper water) and let the mixture simmer for half an hour.

I also sliced some boneless, skinless chicken breast and sauteed it until the pieces were fully cooked and nicely browned. I set this aside. And I mixed a few tablespoons of cornmeal with half LastIngredients2a cup of water. When the timer for the broth went off, I stirred in the cornmeal slurry, some minced cilantro, some lime zest and some lime juice.

I also stirred in the chicken, but I must note: The recipe never specifically says to add the chicken to the soup. I know it’s supposed to go in, partly because it’s in the name of the recipe, FinalSoup2partly because the photo that accompanies it shows chicken in the soup. I expect that sort of sloppiness from a pamphlet, but not from an elaborately designed and produced cookbook. Of course, for an inexperienced cook, adding the chicken is a no-risk option. But the omission of the details about what to do with the pepper-soaking water is more serious; if I’d been wrong, SoupBowlthe soup could have been too hot to bear.

Fortunately, it wasn’t. The soup was peppy and flavorful, but not aggressively spicy; the heat of the jalapenos balanced nicely with the bright tartness of the lime juice and the pungency of the cilantro. The soup was a welcome warming dish after a chilly spring afternoon. I made spinach and black bean quesadillas to go with it — sort of a Mexican-themed soup and sandwich supper.

Verdict: Success. This one definitely goes into the rotation.

Best Recipes From the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Jars: If This Is “Best,” What Didn’t Make the Cut?

tangy chicken

ChickenPlated3It’s time for another Recipes of the Damned offering, this one a cookbook extolling the virtues of processed food. More specifically, this book is a compilation of recipes found on product labels. The premises of the book seem to be that a) People use a lot of processed foods, b) People who use a lot of processed foods actually read the recipes on the packages and want to make them AnAuspiciousStart3again but don’t think to write them down, and c) These recipes are actually worth cooking and eating.

Perhaps I am being too snarky. After all, my chocolate chip cookie recipe is memorized from the one printed on the chip bags. The companies do invest in product research and recipe development, and the results can’t all be bad. Heinz57InCupHowever, a perusal of Best Recipes From the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Jars suggests that a good 80 percent of them are dubious at best. This book is a horror show.¬† Hiram Walker’s Supreme Brandy Burgers. Hot Mexican Beef Salad, featuring Kraft Catalina Dressing. Innumerable gelatin salads and desserts. And the salty, cardboardy funk of powdered Heinz57PlusWateronion soup mix permeating everything.

It took some digging for me to find a recipe to try. I wanted a dish that would be quick enough to make on a weeknight. I wanted something we’d be willing to eat. And I wanted to be confident I could find the specific commercial products listed, without having to scramble because something is no BrowningChickenlonger made or is only marketed in certain regions. I finally settled on Tangy Chicken, about which the book is absolutely giddy: “The Heinz Company has been printing this extra-easy chicken recipe on their 57 Sauce bottles for years. It’s such a favorite customers probably wouldn’t let them take it off.”

They are right about it being BrowningChicken2extra-easy. The recipe calls for browning chicken pieces in butter, adding a mixture of half Heinz 57 and half water, covering the pan and simmering for 30 minutes, then removing the lid and cooking 10 minutes longer. At this point the chicken is removed and the excess fat skimmed from the sauce, and dinner is served.

Heinz 57 sauce is kind of scary ChickenWithSaucestuff. The second ingredient listed is high fructose corn syrup, and it includes both raisin concentrate and apple concentrate. (Aren’t raisins already kind of concentrated?) It’s basically ketchup with fruit and vinegar added. The tangy flavor is pleasing, but I couldn’t really shake the knowledge of the high fructose corn syrup.

ChickenWithSauce2So, I browned the chicken pieces. I mixed Heinz 57 with water and added it to the pan, where it combined with the melted butter to coat and stew the chicken. I removed the lid to let the excess moisture cook away. I skimmed as much fat as I could from the sauce, then spooned some over the chicken. I served it with steamed broccoli and a warmed loaf of Italian bread.

ChickenCooked2The chicken tasted pretty good; the meat was tender, and the sauce was in fact tangy. But I suspected I could make an even better version from scratch pretty easily with tomato puree, honey or molasses, and cider vinegar, and no HFC. In fact, I decided the main thing I’d learned from this one was a basic cooking technique: brown the chicken (in half the fat next time, perhaps ChickenCooked3using part olive oil), add the sauce, cover, cook, uncover, cook some more. The possibilities are endless, and they don’t involve this cookbook.

Verdict: Good enough. I don’t expect to make this again, though I do have to decide what to do with the remaining half-bottle of Heinz 57.

Pepper Springs Cookbook: Unstable Enchiladas

sour cream chicken enchiladas

EnchiladaPlate4Pepper Springs Cookbook barely makes it into the list of my holdings that qualify as cookbooks. It’s a little wirebound booklet with a rigid back that stands up to display the recipe of choice, and all the recipes rely on sauce or flavor mixes sold by the company. We got it in a holiday gift box from Dale and Peggy (Scott’s brother and his wife), and when I started looking for a ShreddingChickenrecipe to use from this book I had to double-check that we still had any of the mixes left that were included in the package.

I began with a rotisserie chicken (Southwest flavor, why not?), which I shredded apart — a time-consuming and greasy task to be sure, but less overall effort than roasting your own. Once that was done and I’d grated some ChickenNCheesecheese, I followed the directions for preparing the corn tortillas for filling: “heat the tortillas which have been wrapped in a paper towel for about 25 seconds in a microwave.” These turned out not to be the ideal instructions for my particular tortillas. It’s possible the ones I was working with were too stiff, or started from too cold a temperature, but the 25 seconds in the microwave did not BrokebackEnchiladassufficiently soften them to roll and stay rolled. The first one broke as I was putting it into the pan; the next one unfurled, distributing chicken and cheese around the pan. I reheated the remaining tortillas periodically but it was no use; I had to hold rolled enchiladas against the side of the pan with one hand and work single-handed to fill the others until I’d arrayed enough to stay SauceIngreds2reasonably close to their rolled form when I let go. And as they cooled, all of them ruptured. By the time I was done, the pan looked like it held some perverse variant on soft tacos. Maybe I needed a tortilla that was more initially pliable; I’d say mine were typical of supermarket corn tortillas, but perhaps I should lay hands on the ones featured on the cover of the newest issue of EnchiladaSauceEdible Queens. Or maybe I should have soaked the tortillas briefly in chicken broth or milk. Too late now; my enchiladas had become enchilada casserole.

Anyway, what one is supposed to do is fill each tortilla with shredded chicken and grated cheddar, roll it up, and lay it in a baking pan. I sighed and moved on to the sauce, which was a TheBookletfairly simple white sauce base. I made a roux with a melted stick of butter and half a cup of flour, then whisked in half a cup of milk and two cups of chicken broth (the booklet says a can, but everything I could find was in aseptic quart packages). I noticed here that the recipe had listed 1-1/2 cups of milk in the ingredients but directed me to stir in half a cup, and nowhere did it say what RecipeCloseupto do with the remaining cup. So I eyeballed the baking pan and the liquid currently cooking up for sauce, and added the rest of the milk to the pot. I stirred constantly until the mixture began to thicken (not all that long; there was a pretty high ratio of roux to liquid here), then removed the pan from the heat and stirred in a packet of Pepper Springs Southwest Chili & Onion EnchiladasSaucedToBakeDip mix and a cup of sour cream. The sauce smelled great.

And this is where the recipe ends. The first half of the page concludes with “prepare the sauce as follows and pour it over the enchiladas.” The page itself ends with instructions to stir the dip mix and sour cream into the sauce. Nowhere does it say whether to bake the enchiladas, BakedEnchiladasor at what temperature. Now, it is possible that the intention was for the enchiladas to be complete at this stage, and for the cook to pour on the sauce, then dish up supper immediately. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an enchilada recipe that did not call for baking, but it doesn’t seem impossible. However, when I considered the previous issue of the wayward cup of milk, I decided that it was EnchiladaPlate5more likely the baking instructions had simply been omitted. Regardless, my shattered corn tortillas were not yet ready to eat. So I preheated the oven to 375, poured the sauce over the fragmented enchiladas, and baked the casserole for 20 minutes, which seemed to bring the tortillas to a satisfactory consistency.

This is something that bothers me about little throwaway cookbooks like this. They’re intended for the inexperienced cook, the one relying on mixes and processed ingredients, but all too often they are shoddily edited. Of course as an editor I’m always annoyed to see a published work that hasn’t been edited properly, but it’s particularly galling in a cookbook for inexperienced cooks because they are less likely to have the fundamental skills to solve the problems that the editing mistakes cause.

Well, rant mode off. The baked enchiladas tasted good; while not pretty, they had a nice spicy flavor that helped keep the sour cream sauce from being too heavy.

Verdict: Not quite as expected, but satisfactory. But a good illustration of why I don’t like to rely on processed mixes too much.

Twofer: How to Cook Everything and The Chicken Parts Cookbook

rice with fresh herbs, How to Cook Everything
drumsticks gremolata, The Chicken Parts Cookbook

DinnerPlateStill careening around my life without managing to quite get back on track with the blog, I’m afraid. In theory the weekend would have been a fine time to get caught up, but on Friday night I was out, on Saturday I was out for most of the day and in no state to cook from scratch (not least because I had not bought groceries), and on Sunday we had pizza out for a low-key Valentine’s Day. I hadn’t been planning to cook last night because I thought Scott had an evening engagement, but he did not, so after some dithering we got sandwiches. This is how these things go.

DrumsticksToCookI hadn’t planned to cook tonight either, because I’m on call for work and can’t usually count on having time. But then, I also hadn’t planned to work from home; I’d brought home my laptop just in case the snow got heavy, but the weather seemed perfectly reasonable to me when I left for the train. Evidently the signaling system a few stops away disagreed, and after waiting on the platform and watching train after train go past too full to board, I thought, forget this, I’m going back inside. So at lunchtime I found myself with time to make a grocery run, and to make a quick riffle through a cookbook before it. I wanted something that would require me to turn on the oven, because it can get kind of chilly in here; also, I wanted something that would require minimal prep.

GremolataMixtureI noticed The Chicken Parts Cookbook on the shelf. I got this book years ago when we tried the protein diet, and although I cannot recommend the diet I can strongly recommend the cookbook. It’s organized by part, so that you can quickly find a recipe for what you have on hand (as the cover notes, “The best part of the chicken is the part that’s on sale”). Within those sections there are two kinds of recipes, Quick and Easy and a shorter list of Simply Sophisticated — which are a little more elaborate, but not much. An introductory section also helps you with conversions (e.g., if I planned to make a dish calling for breasts but the thighs were on sale, how do I adjust the cooking time?). I leafed through and found drumsticks gremolata, which could hardly be easier: oven-roast drumsticks, chop together garlic and parsley and lemon zest, put it on the nearly-done chicken, cook a bit longer. I figured I’d make that plus some Swiss chard that I already had on hand and needed to use, and that would be dinner.

GremolataOnDrumsticksWhen it actually came time to cook, though, I realized I was going to want a little something more, some kind of starchy accompaniment. Since we had plenty of rice, I thought I might be able to take care of another blog cookbook while I was thinking about it, so I interrupted my (minimal) prep to scan the shelves for something new to do with rice. This brought me to How to Cook Everything, of which I am a passionate fan. I adore the book and its clear, excellent recipes. I’m a regular reader of Mark Bittman’s blog on the New York Times site. I don’t cook from scratch as often as he does (despite possibly having a larger kitchen), but I endorse his philosophy of doing so as much as possible.

MeltingButterWhen I set up the blog, and in all the re-jiggerings of the schedule since, I firmly believed that I would use How to Cook Everything to experiment with something big and elaborate: a crown roast, or a cream soup, or an elegant dessert. But as I scanned the shelves this evening I realized that I have a lot of books that can help me make a crown roast but can’t give me the first idea what to do when I have a hankering for rice and no time for a second run to FoodTown. This book, however, has given me not just a recipe but a formula: Melt butter, sautee herbs, add rice grains and cook briefly, add water and bring to boil, cover and cook. Endless permutations possible, endless flavors to explore.

RiceButterHerbsMy prep was a bit disorganized since I had chosen the rice rather late. But it was not difficult: chop half a cup of fresh herbs for the rice (I mixed thyme, mint and parsley), chop a bit more parsley for the chicken, stem and chop the chard, mince two cloves of garlic separately, zest a lemon. I buttered a baking pan, seasoned the drumsticks and set them to bake, 20 minutes before turning and 20 minutes after; while they cooked (and once I had the other dishes under control) I mixed the parsley, lemon zest and garlic. When the timer went off I pulled the chicken out of the oven, topped it with the parsley mixture, and slid the pan back in to bake about 6 minutes longer. Voila.

RiceCooked2For the rice I melted butter, sauteed herbs and then grains of rice plus some salt and pepper, added water, brought the pan to a boil, covered it and let it cook for 15 minutes; at that point I turned off the heat but left the pan alone and untouched for another 10 minutes. Then I stirred in more of the herbs and fluffed up the rice a bit before serving. To make the chard I heated olive oil, sauteed some garlic and the chopped stems of the chard, then added the leaves and a bit of water, tossed them to coat them with the oil, covered the pan and lowered the heat, and let it steam roughly 10-12 minutes.

The rice was wonderful, buttery and rich but with a strong herb flavor. The chicken was delicious too, with the edge just taken off the garlic by cooking and the lemon taste permeating the meat. And the chard was awfully good, and virtuous to boot.

Verdict: Success. Both of these recipes go on the list. The rice should be especially fun when fresh herbs really start coming into the Greenmarket.

Cooking Essentials: Beautifully Rendered Basics

Cajun-style chicken

ChickenPlated2Cooking Essentials is a beautifully designed book from a cookbook club I used to be in. It presents what it promises: fundamental techniques and principles of cooking.

I wanted something easy and undemanding. It’s been a long week, and my energy was low. So I opted for Cajun-style chicken, CajunSpiceMixturewhich is about as simple as you could hope for: Blend several spices with some olive oil, rub the resulting paste on boneless skinless chicken breasts, and pan-cook them until they’re blackened and delicious.

Scott mixed the spice coating while I got a panful of collard greens started. Once he’d rubbed the spices onto the chicken I CoatingWSpiceheated a pan, then started to cook. The recipe says to start the breasts on high heat and cook them for up to 3 minutes on one side, then turn them, lower the heat, and cook them on the second side for up to 6 more minutes or until they’re done. Which worked out just fine except for the “done” part; I ended up cooking them for about another ChickenInPan10 minutes in all, turning a few times, cutting into the center of the thickest breast at intervals until the last cut showed cooked meat in the middle rather than gleaming translucent pinkness. The exterior was certainly nicely blackened by the time we were done.

I served the chicken with some sauteed collard greens. It was ChickenDonedelicious: spicy without being overwhelming, and with a good texture despite cooking for longer than advertised. And it was so easy, we’re sure to try this again, or perhaps the variation suggested with fish.

Verdict: Success. This will go into our repertoire.

The Irreverent Flavor of Nike: A Blast From My Past

Julie’s parmesan chicken

ChickenPlatedIf you live in the Pacific Northwest for any period of time and are willing to entertain the pursuit of corporate work, odds are strong that you will put in some time at either Nike or Microsoft, or both. If not at the company itself, one of its vendors. If not as a full-time employee, then as a temp.

I temped at Nike in 1990, helping to compile sales forecasts and RawChickenBreastassemble binders. (They loved binders.) After several weeks of satisfactory performance I was offered a full-time administrative assistant job. I was kind of bored with my work and unenthusiastic about the bus commute from Northwest Portland out to Beaverton, so I turned it down in favor of an administrative assistant job at the Oregon Historical Society, which paid far worse but offered me vastly more intellectual interest, not to say drama, starting on day one when one of the exhibit techs cut off the end of a finger and going uphill from there.

But Scott worked at Nike then too, as a full-time employee, first TomatoSauceMixturein the warehouse and then in an import-export paperwork job. And that Christmas he brought home the employee Christmas gift, an overflowing basket with a custom-labeled bottle of wine, a wooden spoon, a Nike swoosh-shaped cookie cutter, a few packets of foodstuffs like pancake mixes and chocolate, and an employee-compiled cookbook, The Irreverent Flavor of Nike.

TomatoSauceCookingThe book features recipes from both employees and sponsored athletes, from all corners of the globe. A vegetarian chili recipe from apparel marketing managers in Beaverton is next to a meat-intensive chili recipe from Bo Jackson. (Three kinds of meat and three kinds of beans.) Michael Jordan‘s fried chicken and Alberto Salazar‘s arroz con pollo jostle with brownies and salads from the company rank and file. The book is attractively designed and coil-bound, and has held up to a surprising amount of wear, because a lot of the recipes are quite good. (We still have the wooden spoon and the cookie cutter too, though I think the basket went away a few moves ago.)

SauceOverChickenI wanted to make an uncomplicated dinner dish, so I chose “Julie’s parmesan chicken,” which had been contributed by Peter Mannos of Retail Marketing at one of the Beaverton locations. (This was before the main campus opened, and the corporate offices were scattered around six or seven suburban locations, none of which was easy to reach by bus from any of the others.) He doesn’t indicate who Julie is or was, but the recipe is straightforward.

BakedMixturePreProvI started by putting three boneless, skinless chicken breast halves into a baking pan, covering it with foil, and putting it into a 425-degree oven for 25 minutes. (I was supposed to use four, but the packages I found were three-packs of very large portions, so I decided it amounted to the same thing.) While that cooked, I emptied a 32-ounce can of Italian-style chopped tomatoes into a saucepan and stirred in some cornstarch, oregano, Tabasco, and grated parmesan cheese. I brought the mixture to a simmer and let it cook and thicken.

MeltedProvoloneWhen the oven timer went off I pulled the chicken pan from the oven, drained off the little bit of liquid that had accumulated, and poured the tomato sauce over the chicken. I grated on a little bit of additional parmesan, then laid about five slices of provolone over the whole and put the pan into the oven uncovered. Then I looked more closely at the recipe, swore loudly, yanked the pan from the oven and scooped off the already-melting provolone: I had added it too early. I removed the now-deformed slices to a plate and put the pan back in the oven for half an hour. Then I laid on the provolone and put it back to bake until the cheese melted, less than two minutes.

ChickenPlated2The dish was tasty. The chicken had a good texture, and the tomato blend was flavorful, though I would add more Tabasco and maybe some dried basil as well. I may not make this often because the whole thing was pretty darn cheesy, and I’m trying to eat a little more healthfully than that. But it was very easy, and it might not be a bad option in an otherwise lean week.

Verdict: Success. Savory and satisfying.