Dinner for One: King Crab and Avocado Tian with Antipasto

Clayton’s working tonight, so it’s all Lolita time.  Although he’s a great consumer – as in he eats what I make without (much) complaining – there are dishes I prepare for myself that I don’t seem to ever make for him.  I don’t know why; there’s no real reason or rhyme, frankly – it’s just the way it is.  Tonight’s meal began with the leftovers from some huge-ass king crab legs we enjoyed for last night’s dinner, and a couple of odds and ends I picked up today at Trader Joe’s.  The result? An elegant but simple salad of nutty avocado and tender sweet crab meat, accompanied by an easy antipasti: a light but rich supper as delicious as it is beautiful.

King Crab and Avocado Tian with Antipasto

1 ripe avocado
1/3 lb fresh picked cooked crab meat
juice from 1 lemon
1 tbs mayonnaise
1 handful maché (lamb’s lettuce)
1 boll burrata cheese
2 slices prosciutto di parma, split and rolled into 4 tiny cigars
EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper, balsamic vinegar

Whole Foods had a special on King crab legs this weekend – something I’ve had a hankering for for a while now.  We bought 2 pounds, not realizing just how much meat these bad boys were going to yield.  I think we’ve established that we’ve never actually had King crab legs prior to these — likely only snow crab clusters — since neither of us can remember ever seeing such huge unbroken chunks of leg and knuckle meat before.  And it was so dense and packed that the discarded shells weighed next to nothing; we easily ‘harvested’ 30 oz of succulent pink deliciousness.  After gorging ourselves on not much more than crab and butter, we had about 1/2 lb leftover.

I pull my crab meat into nice sized hunks, and mix it with a little mayo and several teaspoons of lemon juice, along with some salt and pepper.  I just want the mayo to bind the crab – not make it gooey; I also just want the lemon juice to cancel out the egginess (eggyiness? eggyness?)  of the mayo – not make it lemony; and I just want the salt and pepper to brighten the salad – not overpower it.  The idea is crab and nothing but that which is needed to ‘hold it together’ for the sake of shaping the tian.

Speaking of which — here is how I’m shaping this “tian” – my stacked, formed salad of crab meat and avocado.  I’m not sure why it’s called a tian — in fact, although I see several examples of this term being used in this context online, traditionally a tian in French cooking is something completely different – either more like a vegetable tart, or an earthenware cooking device.  But when I envisioned this dish, it was as a perfectly shaped cylindrical layered salad.  And when I order a perfectly shaped cylindrical layered dish in a restaurant, it’s usually called a tian on the menu.  Hence my usage of the term.  Anyway, using my kitchen shears, I cut the ends off of a beer can to make a perfect form.  It would have been better to use a soup can, but all the cans I have in the house are designed to stack, so my can opener won’t work on their bottom sides.  (I figured this out only after dumping the contents of several cans of soup.)  Using a beer can just meant I had to be careful not to cut my fingers on the sharp edges.

I start by pressing my avocado, which I’ve blended with a dash of lemon juice, some salt, pepper, and EVOO, into a more-or-less flat 1″ thick layer on the bottom of my can.

Then I layer in the crab meat salad.

I vary carefully slide the can up and off the filling so it maintains its shape, pressing down on the crab meat to keep the filling on the plate.  Oiling the can a bit beforehand helped.

A basic antipasto of rolled prosciutto di parma, burrata cheese, capers, EVOO, and balsamic vinegar, along with some EVOO and lemon juice dressed maché, add extra dimensions to this already sophisticated presentation.  Crab and avocado, although not meant to co-exist in nature, seem destined for each other’s company on the plate: the sweet, tender sinews of crab absorb the buttery texture of the stone fruit’s green goodness, creating a harmonious marriage on the palate unrivaled in the realm of simple pleasures.  Along with a cold glass of sparkling rosé, this delectable dinner is truly a treat – tonight, for one, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it for your sweetie whenever the mood strikes you…

Spinach Lasagne alla Bolognese

As much as I love it, and as often as I’ve made it, I am inconsistent when I make a traditional lasagna.  It’s either too runny and wet, or the top layer of noodles is too browned, or it’s too slippery and slidey, and it falls apart when pulled out of the pan, and all the insides squish out when touched by a fork.  I was actually kind of surprised to see that I’ve only blogged this dish once before, my Luscious Lobster Lasagna (which I’d forgotten entirely about: hence – why I keep this digital diary of my digestibles), a lovely white lasagna crafted almost exclusively outdoors on Little Red, our faithful electric Meco grill.   But its success is misleading; I’ve made dozens of lasagnas and have more often than not been dissatisfied with the results. So today I determined to try again, using the sublime image of Stefan’s Lasagne alla Bolognese as my inspiration.  Although I altered the recipe somewhat, his basic principles were very practical, and the top picture — the one that caught my attention — gave me some ideas.  I’d always brought all my fillings straight out to the edge of the pan – what if I didn’t?  I’d never used bechamel – why not?  And what if I made my sauce as “dry” as possible?  The result: a rich tomato meat filling studded with both creamy and stretchy cheese, layered with tender spinach pasta, covered with a fluffy baked pillow topping.  Wow.

Spinach Lasagne alla Bolognese

1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
2 thick slices of bacon, roughly chopped
1 can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
1 tbs tomato puree
1/4 cup marsala wine
1 carrot
1 celery stalk
1/2 cup minced onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig rosemary
fresh sheets of spinach pasta
10 oz ricotta cheese
6oz fresh mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 tbs butter
2 tbs flour
2 cups milk
fresh ground nutmeg, sea salt, crushed black pepper, granulated garlic, EVOO

A bolognese sauce is basically a meat sauce, traditionally made with carrot, onion, veal, pancetta, and broth, to which was later added tomato and cream.  Today’s versions are as myriad as pasta shapes, but the ragu’s basic component is still meat.  Starting with chopped bacon, fried to barely crisp on the edges, I add my mirepoix and minced garlic, along with my sprig of rosemary to scent the dish.  I sauté everything over medium-high heat until just sweated but not yet browned.

I’ve seasoned my ground meats with salt and pepper, and have very roughly pulled them apart, handling it as loosely and little as possible.  I want large bites of meat in my sauce – not a grainy, uniform sludge – and little meat-wads are just the trick.  I let the meat sear completely on one side before I turn it over to sear on the other side.  This released the least amount of liquid, allowing the meat to brown and not steam.  Thanks, Stefan – this was a simple but good trick.

I already see far less liquid in this pan than I usually do at this point, which is perfect.  When the meat is nicely browned on both sides, I add my splash of marsala (I had no other red wine in the house — THE HORROR!! — but this substitution prevented me from having to add any sugar to the sauce, so it worked very well), which I let evaporate into the meat before…

… I add my tomato puree, which I blend well with everything and let simmer for a moment.

Finally, I add my crushed tomatoes, removing my stem of rosemary (which has done its job flavoring the sauce already), and I set this over low heat to simmer for the next 30-45 minutes, or until I’m ready to assemble the lasagna.  During this time, the sauce thickens beautifully, so much so that dragging a spoon through parts its seas for several moments before it oozes back together again.  In fact, when the husbandman came by to taste, I had to admonish him to redistribute the sauce to cover the whole base of the pan, so it wouldn’t burn anyway by virtue of too thin a coating.  I’m thinking this “drier” sauce will prevent my lasagna’s innards from leaching out when pressed by a fork.

Living in Boston means shopping in the North End, our Little Italy. I’ve enjoyed DePasquale’s fresh pasta before, as we did again in this dish.  This time I had a little trouble teasing the sheets apart, but that’s because the package defrosted in a plastic bag on my way home on the train, so it got a little – er – sweaty. Still, it was worth the effort.

I line an 8×8″ pan with this special foil-on-one-side/parchment-paper-on-the-other, which I must say worked like a charm.  I assemble my cheeses, and cut my pasta sheets to shape so they’ll fit the pan just so.

To make the lasagna, I start with some sauce, a few dollops of ricotta cheese, a few pieces of fresh mozzarella, and some shredded parmesan.  Note how I’m not bringing the ingredients all the way out to the edge of the pan – which I usually do.  My thought is that the casserole will hold together more effectively if I give the ingredients some room to spread out on their own.  (Spoiler alert: I was right!)  I lay a sheet of pasta on top, then repeat the process 4 times, ending with a top layer of pasta.  This is the point to which this picture of Stefan’s was taken – which is why it looks so clean (and so damn delicious!)

The final “ingredient” is a bechamel sauce, which is essentially milk, flour and butter.  Stefan’s recipe did not call for ricotta or mozzarella, but instead for bechamel on each layer; I had the cheeses, and very little milk in the house, so I split the difference by cheesing up the inner layers and making just enough bechamel to cover the top of my dish.

Start by melting the butter, then adding the flour and whisking/cooking until it thickens and turns a golden tan color — about 3 minutes.

Finish by whisking in the milk gradually, allowing it to thicken with the roux.  I also add some salt, pepper,  garlic powder, and some of my parmesan cheese (which, technically, transforms this bechamel into a mornay sauce, just FYI).  When the sauce is uniformly thick and fluffy…

… I pour it over the top layer of pasta on my lasagna, covering it completely.  The final joy is adding the last of my grated parm over the top, before throwing the dish into a 350 degree oven for 35-45 minutes, or until bubbling at the edges and nicely browned on top…

Like so.  As hard as it is to do, I wait 15 minutes before cutting into this beauty, which allows everything to coalesce.  I kill the time by whipping up a quick garlic bread.

Sheer perfection! My lasagna cuts easily, holding its shape, showing off its perfect, tender layers of pasta sandwiching a hearty, rich meat sauce and gooey, creamy cheese.

I don’t usually take pictures with my mouth full, but I had to show off how the structure of this deliciousness held together.  Leaving a wee margin of unadorned pasta along each side of the dish,  using a very thick, non-runny sauce, and adding the adhesive properties of the bechamel were the right tricks to make this lasagna a true delight!  Each bite was meaty and cheese in equal measure; the pasta was perfectly al dente and redolent of spinach, and the snappiness of a few sprigs of green onion for garnish added just the right brightness to the meal.  Lolita has finally conquered lasanga!  Yay for me!

Weeknight Wondermeal: Super Simple Savory Chicken and Rice

The vegetables from the farm are almost ready for my table, so right now I’ve been using up a lot of the canned goods I have in the pantry until the weather decides to stop vacillating between crappy and beautiful to stick with “warm enough to eat outside all the time”.  I’ve also been super-busy, planning a few pig-roasts and cook-outs for my peeps in the next week or so – which takes a lot of bandwidth.  And I just returned from a kick-ass weekend in Chicago with my best friends and their beautiful daughters; thanks Nyssa-Lynn, Michelle, Jordan, and Delaney for giving me one of the best vacations evah!  But throughout all this, I’ve been feeling a wee bit guilty about not posting in a while, so even though tonight’s meal wasn’t particularly complex or gourmet, it was a quick & simple one-pan dinner easy enough for anyone to make.  Now that my Harvard undergrads are spending the summer here working in labs without the benefit of open dining halls to feed them, I feel it’s one of Lolita’s responsibilities to give them a few recipe options to choose from.  Come on, kids – you’re all wicked smart Harvard students.  If you can do a Western blot, you can make chicken and rice….

Super Simple Savory Chicken and Rice

2 bone-in, skin-on chicken leg/thigh quarters
2 cups short grain rice (arborio or sushi rice works great)
3 stalks celery
2 carrots
1 small white onion
4-5 cloves garlic
1 can diced tomatoes with juice
1 can diced green chiles
1 cup dry white wine
1 qt chicken broth
8-10 small ciliegine (cherry-sized) mozzarella
sea salt, cracked black pepper, dried parsley (for garnish)

After rinsing and patting dry my chicken quarters, I sprinkle them with salt and pepper and sear the skin in a few glugs of hot EVOO in a deep pan large enough to hold the whole meal.

Here’s my mise-en-place – which in this case is a basic mirepoix of chopped celery, carrots, and onion.  I also chop up my garlic cloves.

Once the chicken is nicely browned on both sides, I move it to a plate to rest for a minute while I sweat my aromatics over medium heat for about 4 minutes.

Once my veggies have slightly softened, I add my dry rice, which I stir around really well, making sure to toast each grain nicely in the pan.

Like so!

First, I add my cup o’ vino, stirring everything well until most of the liquid evaporates.

Then I add my canned tomatoes (with their juice) and my can of green chiles (for heat).  I mix this together well, introducing all the flavors to each other.

Finally, I add my quart of chicken stock – which covers the rice entirely, and lay my chicken gams on top.

This I cover.  (See my skylight in the reflection there?  It is the only natural light I get in my kitchen, which is why my pictures are sometimes wonky-colored…)

Then the whole pan, lid and all, goes into my oven (which apparently needs to be dusted) on 400 for about 20 minutes.  This will slow bake the rice, absorbing all the liquid, and finish cooking my chicken legs through.

After said 20 minutes, most of the stock has baked off, my rice is nice and fluffy, and my chicken is oozing clear savory liquid.

I remove the cover, raise the heat in the oven to broil, and dot my dish with little balls of pure white milky fresh mozzarella cheese.  Back into the oven the pan goes – for about another 8 minutes, or until the cheese has melted so much it’s practically toasted.

Like so!

After a long day on the farm for Clayton, a dinner like this is exactly the sort of thing he craves.  Succulent, savory chicken and flavorful, vegetable studded rice.  It is steaming hot, packed with goodness, and damn delicious if I do say so myself.  And there is always plenty of rice leftover.  How can you beat that?

Lobster Risotto with Buratta, Pluot, and Mint Salad

My oh my but I’ve been busy — way too busy to blog lately, which I admit with regret.   That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been cooking, though!  Quite the opposite, actually, since last week I catered a party for about 70-80 people, and I’ve been cranking out the home-cooking for the husband since I last spoke to ya’ll as well.  But taking the pictures and birthing them on the web has been a labor I haven’t been up for, and for that I apologize.  Today is a new day!  It’s warm outside my Cambridge windows, and the sun shone all the livelong day – the first of my bike-riding season.  Penelope the Purple Bicycle ventured out with newly inflated wheels and a recently lubed chain on her inaugural ride to Whole Foods and Alive & Kicking Lobsters for the fodder needed for tonight’s feast.  Home-roasted red peppers blended with creamy risotto studded with chunks of lobster and fresh Italian peppered cheese, served with the magical fresh flavors of cool mint, milky burrata, and juicy red plums and purple pluots.

Lobster Risotto with Buratta, Pluot, and Mint Salad

1/2 lb freshly shelled, parboiled lobster meat
1 red bell pepper
EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper
1/2 cup diced red onion
1/2 cup diced shallots
1 qt vegetable stock
1 cup arborio rice
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 oz fresh peppered Italian farmer’s cheese
2 tbs butter
1 cup dry white wine
1 pluot, 1 red plum
1 boll burrata cheese
8-10 leaves fresh mint
1 cup baby greens
balsamic vinegar
chives, for garnish

Today’s lobsters came from Cambridge’s best kept secret – Louie’s Lobster, a.k.a. Alive & Kicking. It’s nestled at the back of a deepset driveway just north of the corner at River and Putnam.  They have the best lobster sandwich, um, anywhere… and they always have fresh and well-priced bugs available for purchase.  I grabbed a 2 lber, which I par-boiled and shelled, and which yielded about 1/2 lb of tail, claw, and knuckle meat.  I didn’t take pictures of this process, but you can check out my recipe for butter-poached lobster to see how it’s done.  This is my new go-to technique for my most delicate and sophisticated lobster preparations.

If you are a loyal Lolitaist, then you’ve seen my risotto before, too (here and here and here, for example), but I’ll give a little refresher course now.  I start by melting my butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat, then gently cooking my shallots and onion in the hot fat until they transluce.  I add my short grain rice, and toss thoroughly over the heat to warm each kernel to just-before-toasted.  That all takes about 6-8 minutes.

I lower the heat, and add my wine, stirring well so the rice absorbs all the delicious liquid.  I let this simmer and evaporate for about 3-4 minutes.

Adding 3 oz at a time, my warmed vegetable stock gets gently stirred into the pot, teasing the thickening starches off each kernel of rice, plumping every grain with its flavorful moisture.  This simmers on low, each new scoop of stock added only when the last scoop is absorbed by the rice, turning it into risotto.  30 minutes, more or less.  It is a labor of love.

Meanwhile, my pepper gets doused with EVOO and sprinkled with salt and pepper before roasting on all sides in a 450° oven.

After about 10 minutes total on roast, my pepper is blackened all ’round, and I chuck it into a paper bag to cool, and to loosen the skin for easier removal with the flat of my chef’s blade.

A quick chop later, and they’re ready for the risotto.

At the 25 minute mark or so (or when a random grain of rice tasted on the tongue is just still barely firm in the center), I add the pepper and stir well.

The Cambridge Winter Farmers Market is in full swing, and Clayton and I had fun checking it out on Saturday.  This lovely product is from Wolf Meadow Farm; it is a peppered version of their Primo Sale, one of their youngest, freshest cheeses.  The super-sexy cheesemaker sampled his wares with gusto, and I was charmed into purchasing this beautiful 6oz block for a very reasonable $6 with the vague idea of cooking with it this weekend.

I cut 1/2 the cheese into small hunks, and stir it into my thick, rich rice.

Finally, my lobster is lovingly chopped…

… and stirred into the pot.

The heat is off, and the final ingredient is a couple tablespoons of chives, to add green and tang to the risotto, a shot of heavy cream to add silk to the sauce, and a bit of salt and pepper to taste.  Sitting off the heat will thicken everything up perfectly, but with the lid on it will stay piping hot for the last 5 minutes before plating.

The final component is a sweet, light salad to be the cool complement to my hot, rich rice.  I’m all about the basics of a caprese salad: a sweet or tart juicy fruit or vegetable, a green fresh herb, and a milky mozzarella cheese.  Tonight’s variation was inspired by the ruby red plums and perfect pluots Whole Foods hawked in today’s market.  I’d sub their silky sweetness for the ubiquitous tomato, freshen those fruit slices with leaves of icy mint, and blend them with burrata cheese.

A slice of fruit, a pinch of baby greens, a wedge of ricotta-stuffed mozzarella, and a leaf of mint – I layer this horizontal Napoleon across my plate, drizzle it with balsamic glaze, and sprinkle it with salt, pepper, and EVOO.  It is as sumptuous as it is beautiful.

My creamy risotto sports mouthfuls of sweet, tender lobster meat, all bathed in a rich sauce redolent of roasted red peppers and milky farmer’s cheese.  It’s all warm and thick but light and herbaceous — just the right balance of flavors, just the perfect blend of textures.  The sweet juicy pluots and plums sugared the curds and cream, spiced with the fragrant mint leaves and concentrated molasses of the thick balsamic glaze.  What a wonderful platter of perfection — warm and cool, hearty and light, fresh and homey.  It may have been a while since I cooked for you last, my friends, but if you could but taste this meal, I think you’d agree it was worth the wait.

Weeknight Wondermeal: Rustic Lamb Steak Skillets with Tomatoes, Brussels, Potatoes, and Burrata

O.M.F.G.

Seriously.

Seldom do I find the Twitter generation’s vernacular useful, but tonight is one of those occasions where the treasure trove of Lolita’s vocabulary only detracts from the unpretentious pleasure of roasted meat and vegetables in a cast iron skillet.  Wait – that was pretentious, wasn’t it?  Let me rephrase: holy shit – my dinner was delicious!  1″ thick lamb shoulder chops, with tomatoes, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts, guest starring pepperoni and burrata cheese, all nestled in an iron bathtub and roasted to smokin’ hot in the oven until bursting, juicy, tender, and robust.  So freakin’ good — so freakin’ easy to make.

Rustic Lamb Steak Skillets with Tomatoes, Brussels, Potatoes, and Burrata

2 1″ thick lamb shoulder steaks
8 tiny wee potatoes
8-10 Brussels sprouts
6 baby tomatoes on the vine, split into clusters of 3
16-20 slices pepperoni
1 boll burrata cheese
EVOO
sea salt, cracked black pepper

These 8″ cast iron skillets were the only bounty Black Friday yielded, but they’ve already proven themselves worth their weight in gold (metaphorically speaking; because they are wrist-breakingly heavy).  I’ve heated them for 20 or so minutes (about as long as it took for me to stage my set-up shot above) in a 400° oven before setting them on my hot stove-top with a shot of EVOO in each.

This is a Weeknight Wondermeal, which means it is easy easy easy.  Here are the few steps I followed to make this deliciousness happen: I rinsed, patted dry, salted and peppered my steaks, and set them along the edge of their respective pans.  I’ve trimmed and halved my sprouts, which I set cut-side down on the hot surfaces to sear, and I’ve skinned only the middles of my tiny wee potatoes and have nestled them within.  The sprouts immediately start to sizzle.

I layer my slices of pepperoni over the sprouts and spuds, then throw the pans in my hot oven to roast for 15 minutes.

After said 15 minutes, I pull out the pans, flip the steaks, move my spuds to one side, my sprouts and pepperoni to the other, and snuggle my tomato stems in between.  I douse them (and everything else – ‘cept the lamb) with EVOO, and throw it back in the hot oven for 10 minutes.

After said 10 minutes,  my tomatoes have split, my potatoes are tender, my sprouts have caramelized faces, firm middles, and crisp edged wilted humps.  My steaks are cooked through and juicy, so I halve my boll of burrata — modern cheesemakers most perfect homage to cow’s milk — and place one in the middle of each pan, topped with another slice of pepperoni.  Back in the oven my skillets go, but I crank the heat up to broil for the final 5 minutes to finish.

Gamey lamb steaks sizzling in their own melted fat juices, coupled with the savory liquid balance only roasting tomatoes bring, flavored with spicy pepperoni and herbaceous iron-seared miniature cabbage halves, and studded with russet potato thumbs.  A cracked egg of curded and stretched cow cream blends with the various drippings, forming a gravy that is pink and milky, meaty, starchy, and vegetable-y, and which spears a sumptuous feast on the each tine of every fork.  And I didn’t even stop at the grocery store this evening — everything was in my fridge.  Veggies from the farm stand, lamb from Blood Farms, burrata, pepperoni and potatoes from Trader Joe’s: all in all, $20 worth of ingredients.  But the experience of diving into this cauldron of comely comestibles?  Priceless!

The Shiznet Cheezit Baked Flounder with Farm Fresh Garden Salad

I’ve been second guessing myself lately.  In the face of other home chefs I’ve met, what I see other bloggers do in their kitchens, what’s been on the covers of magazines and on the menus of fine restaurants, and what folks’ve been whipping up on the myriad cooking competitions I watch on TV, I’m thinking that my cooking has become too pedestrian lately.  It’s not been haute couture.  It’s not been “gourmet”. It’s not been particularly inspired, or overwhelmingly challenging, or slavishly time-consuming. I haven’t suffered, or bled, or burned, or cried over deflated souffles.  At least — these are the self-deprecating remarks that have been echoing inside the caverns of my brain recently.  And I don’t like them.  Because, frankly, this blog is about what Lolita eats, and this is what I’ve been eating — and enjoying, dammit! — all summer long.  Why should I feel guilty about freshly picked vegetables, locally sourced meats and seafood, and cooking al fresco on my little electric grill to save energy and escape the stifling indoor heat?  Why should I spend more money than I can afford on ingredients to compete with the black truffles and sharks’ fins and lobes of foie gras I see on cooking shows?  Why should I eschew deliciousness if it isn’t hoity-toity?  I shouldn’t!  And I won’t!  So I’m taking my second guesses and I’m throwing them in the compost pile, where they can fester for themselves before they eventually disintegrate into the earth, and I’m going uber-pedestrian today with this little gem: a slap-yo-mammy fantastic combination of farmer’s market flounder and fruit, with some Star Market crushed Cheezits for a buttery topping.  Cheezits, you say?  Like, those little square crackers in the big red box?  Clayton loves ‘em for his lunches, and so, having these one hand — the Swiss cheese variety, no less, oooh la la! — I subbed them for the more suburban-traditional Ritz Cracker topping with an outstanding result!  Sharp and savory crunchy crackers coating a buttery, flaky, so-fresh-they’re practically still wiggling flounder filets served with a sumptuous salad overflowing with tender sweet berries, plump tart tomatoes, and creamy North End mozzarella cheese.  There’s nothing like a light, ultra-quick, and super simple dinner of fish and salad to get your motor running.  Hoity-toity be hanged — this was the shiznet!


The Shiznet Cheezit Baked Flounder with Farm Fresh Garden Salad

1 lb fresh flounder filets
1 cup Cheezit crackers (this is the Swiss Cheese variety, but I venture to guess they’ll all work)
3 tbs butter
green leaf lettuce
golden and ruby raspberries
tiny tomatoes
red onion
fresh mozzarella
the juice of 1 lemon
EVOO
sea salt and cracked black pepper

This meal was so easy to make I barely had enough images to shoot for pedagogical purposes, but I snapped some nonetheless.  I started by putting my Cheezits into a zipper bag before I pounded them with the flat of a large spoon.

The result is a coarse breadcrumb, already salted and perfectly crunchy.

WARNING!  The next image is grody.  Grody, but instructional…


The delicate pink little figure eight you see here is called Phocanema decipiens — commonly known as nemotodes, or the cod, or round, worm.  It’s a tiny wee parasite that enjoys living in the flesh or stomachs of white fish, and it’s pretty dang common.  It’s got a real interesting lifestyle, and if you want to know more, here’s a good description of how this bugger found it’s way into my kitchen.  The average supermarket consumer doesn’t see them – or really know about them – in their cod or flounder or hake because these buggers die off when fish is frozen, which most of it is before coming to market.  Even the “fresh” fish sold at Whole Foods was frozen before it got to their glistening displays, although it was likely frozen at sea during the haul and brought to market within a few short days of the catch.  But for fish sold fresh off the boat, yanked right out of the water, never frozen and delivered same day, by folks like my new old friends Carolyn and Chris Manning at Fresh Fish and Lobster (from whence I purchased my filets, at the Harvard University Farmer’s Market), one or two of these little wigglers is par for the course.  This guy was inching across my cutting board searching for escape when I saw him, squealed like a frightened child, and then snatched him up with my paper towel. But before I threw him in the trash, it occurred to me that you, dear readers, might not be aware of this arc on the cycle of sea-life – despite how unnerving it is to know about.  So I opened my paper wad and took focus while I watched him wriggle and coil – still *very* much alive.  But cooking fish well will kill off these guys; you don’t really want one setting up shop in your innards (which they can, albeit rarely, do).  OK – ’nuff gross stuff.  Let’s get back to the yummy.

I’ve patted dry my fish filets and laid them out in a single layer in a large oblong pyrex baking dish greased up with butter.  They get sprinkled with salt and pepper before I blanket them with pulverized snack crackers.

 I’ve melted my butter, and I now pour it over the crackers and fish as evenly as possible.  My oven has been preheated to 400°, and I slide my dish – uncovered – into its maw to bake for 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile – I assemble my simple, but elegant, salad.   These golden and ruby raspberries are from a Concord farm nearby, the lettuce and onion from Busa Farms, the tomatoes from our roof-deck garden, and the mozz from The Cheese Shop in the North End.  We’re talking super-fresh, totally organic, completely locally sourced, and ma-and-pa business purchased.  A squeeze of lemon juice and a dousing of EVOO is all the salad needs.

After about 15 minutes, my cracker-crumb crust has toasted perfectly, and my fish is fully cooked and sizzling on bottom.  NICE.  Using two flat spatulas side by side, so that the fish don’t break in half (and since I don’t have a super-large fish spatula), I gently lift each filet and place them on my plates.  There’s two for each of us.

Flaky, buttery, mild fresh fish topped with a Swiss Cheezit crust and baked to perfection; firm lactic mozzarella draped over crisp leaves of lettuce and studded with thumb-sized, supremely sweet, bursting juicy red and golden berries and tiny little grape tomatoes. Both warm and cooling, of the sea and of the land, tonight’s dinner satisfied even the gourmand in me with its freshness and flavor.  I plan to put on the ritz when the weather turns colder and cooking for hours indoors help keep heat in the house, but for now, Ritz’s poor stepcousin the Cheezit is a welcome house-guest, and can come to my dinner table any time.

Chicken n’ Dumplins Cordon Bleu, with Arugula and “Cheater” Cheese Muffins


One of the first jokes I heard when I moved up here to Boston sounds more like a mantra than the one-liner it is: If you don’t like the weather here in New England… wait 5 minutes.  This week has, thus far, personified that way of life.  The down-home-cooking pictured here was prepared by yours truly and served up on Monday night, after a long, dark, dreary, windy, extremely wet and surprisingly cold August day. Tuesday was patches of the same, interspersed with random periods of clear blue sky and warm breezes.  But today… today it’s brilliant, cloudless, sunny, and HOT – a true summer day. I’ve gone from a long-sleeve sweater and sweatpants to tank-top and tap-pants in a matter of hours.  So even though just thinking of turning on my oven today makes me all sweaty and anxious, I sure am happy I did to make Monday’s dinner – even if we were too sodden to shop, and so only used the few things we had in the house and a boner recently bought at our go-to ghetto grocery store, Johnny’s Foodmaster.  But as this is Lolita’s riff on a standard chicken n’ dumplins, I did fancify it with a bit of ham and swiss cheese (stolen from Clayton’s luncheon meats supply) – just to make the mundane a bit more special. With a quick, two-ingredient salad and some garlicky “cheater” cheese muffins, this steaming hot and supremely satisfying pot-pie au gratin totally took the cold out of our bones, while culinarily combining our old Southern roots with our new Northern exposures. In the background, on the telly, Brigit Fonda is ostensibly contemplating killer crocodiles loose in Northern Maine (ala Lake Placid, a little gem of a movie), but she’s really thinking about the steaming chicken goodness just waiting under that crust of bubbly baked Swiss cheese. Back off, blondie!  This bowl’s MINE.


Chicken n’ Dumplins Cordon Bleu, with Arugula and “Cheater” Cheese Muffins

1 large bone-in, skin-on chicken breast (about 1.5 lbs)
2 stalks celery
2 carrots
1 onion
1 stick butter
1 qt chicken stock
garlic powder
1 package flour tortillas
arugula
fresh mozzarella cheese
EVOO
white balsamic vinegar
sea salt, cracked black pepper
1 can large buttermilk biscuits (yes, I used a can.  Sue me.)
shredded romano cheese


I started with a pat of butter and a large hot pan.


Just as my butter started to froth, I placed my large washed, patted dry, salted, and peppered chicken breast skin down into the pan, and I let it sear for a good 10 minutes, until the skin was brown and crispy and the breast had started to cook through. Meanwhile, I peeled and chop my onion, carrots, and celery.


I flipped my bird, moved it to the side of the pan, and dumped my aromatics into the pan, stirring well so the browned butter coated all the veggies thoroughly.


After the veggies softened slightly, I flipped my bird breast down again, added the quart of chicken stock to the pan, and using a wooden spatula to scrape up all the buttery fond, lowered the heat to medium, and put on the lid.  I let my chicken cook for 30 minutes this way, trying hard not to keep lifting the lid to inhale the amazing aroma.


Although I know they’re likely full of preservatives and stuff, I have always loved bread from a can – from the light and flaky crescent rolls to the super Grande buttermilk biscuits.  We try to keep a can on hand, just for days like Monday when going to the market just isn’t on the agenda.  They’re great in a pinch.  Still, as you may have seen before, dear reader, if you follow this blog, Lolita doesn’t like to just slap them on a cookie sheet — oh no!  I do a little something something to make them extra special.  A can comes with 8 biscuits; I used 4, and put the rest back in the fridge with the hope that I’d use them the next day (which I did, actually).  I first cut them into quarters…


… then I tossed them with the dry ingredients into a large zipper bag: a few shakes of garlic powder (not garlic salt), and some shredded romano cheese (about 1/2 cup).  I threw all this around until each little bread nugget was studded with flavor.  I then added 2 tbs of melted butter, sealed the bag, and tossed it around some more to fully coat everything.


Four nuggets per tin transformed these biscuits into savory muffins, and an extra helping of cheese on top makeed them crisp up.  See?  “Cheater” muffins – not from scratch, but they taste like it! They took 15 minutes to bake on 350° — just as much time as I needed to bake off the casseroles, so I set them aside until I was ready.


After 30 minutes, my chicken was fully cooked through and ready to be pulled off the bone.  Using tongs, I removed the breast from the pan, and set the heat to high so the chicken broth could continue to boil off and concentrate.


I carefully removed the meat from the bone, and it was luscious, juicy, and tender.  I roughly chopped it, making sure to keep some of the flavorful skin attached, and blended what little dark rib meat there was with the abundant white meat.

Using the ramekins I planned to serve in as templates, I cut perfect little discs of tortillas out of their larger selves.  My country mother-in-law revealed to me many years ago how well tortillas work in place of traditional dumplins – they have the same basic ingredients, and since they’re not dried like pasta-style dumplins, they don’t need as long to cook.  (I could make them from scratch, but it wasn’t that kind of night.)  They also create the unique texture one wants from the starch in this dish – soft and pillowy and a bit sticky.

These ramekins are 12 ouncers, I think (I don’t know why volume isn’t imprinted on the bottom of all kitchen items), just large enough for a decent sized dinner each. I buttered them down completely.  I did the same with a large muffin pan, so I could cobble together my white-trash “cheater” cheese muffins.

 


The first layer was an ounce or so of chicken broth, with a few of the veggies, too.


Then, I fit a layer of tortilla over that, studded the tortilla with a handful of chicken, then drowned it in chicken stock and veggies.  I repeated this layer about 5 times, until I reached the inner upper edge of the dish.


Knowing these would settle during cooking, I topped them with more chicken and veggies and set them on a cookie sheet and – along with my muffin tin – I threw everything into my oven for 10 minutes.


After that time, I pulled them out and happily saw that the top tortilla was fluffed and sodden but still intact, and that the edges had started to bubble over a bit.  I layered one slice of ham on top of each ramekin…


… and two slices of Swiss cheese, allowing the edges to hang off, on top of that.  I removed my muffins from the oven, turned the heat up to broil, then set my ramekins (on their cookie sheet, to make them easier to handle, and to keep the cheese from dripping) right under the heating element for 3-4 minutes.

 

I whipped together some arugula, the last of my North End fresh mozzarella (see Saturday’s post), some EVOO, white balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper for a salad – just the cold peppery milky compliment for the rich, savory main course.   A crispy, melted crust of nutty Swiss cheese and sweet ham revealed a steaming casserole of tender, flavorful chicken chunks nestled in between layers of ethereally soft white dumplin blankets, pillowed with pieces of barely-firm carrot and chunks of softened celery. My muffins bloomed on the plate; four little nuggets of buttery, garlicky,and cheesy stuck together to create crunchy outside/flaky inside bundles of joy.  It may have been cold outside, but with our favorite killer crocodile movie as the backdrop, and this yummy on the plate, it was warm and welcoming inside – and that’s all that counts.