Reconstructed Deconstructed Seafood Paella

DSCN4546Last week wasn’t a great one for Lolita.  While Nemo buried us in two feet of snow, the tumultuous passage of a delightful kidney stone began its painful descent through my bowels, knocking me out for almost 4 days.  Needless to say, I missed Valentine’s Day; it passed me by in a Percocet fueled haze.  I had promised the husband-man to make him whatever he wanted for V-Day, and he requested paella – something very difficult to make in the traditional way with the crappy electric stove I’ve got. But never one to back down from a challenge, I did – in my more lucid moments – ponder how I could create a paella -type meal for the ol’ man given my kitchen’s limitations.  By Saturday, I’d both birthed that stone and had figured out this dish: a deconstructed paella construct, replete with all the flavors we’d tasted that glorious spring in Barcelona when we ate panfuls of the stuff along the sparkling Mediterranean coast.  My creation contains all the seafood I could pack into the dish — scallops, shrimp, cod, clams, and lobster – along with deep roasted peppers, a chicken chorizo risotto, and a saffron butter-cream.  With a some toasted baguette served ala pa’ amb tomaquet, each bite transported us back to our Iberian adventures in a way only good food can do.

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Reconstructed Deconstructed Seafood Paella

1 red pepper
1 green pepper
1 cup arborio rice
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup minced onion
1/2 cup dry sherry
1 tbs tomato paste
1 quart seafood stock
1 large chicken chorizo sausage
chili powder, hungarian paprika, black pepper, sea salt, EVOO
2 tbs butter
1 cup heavy cream
4-5 threads of saffron
4 littleneck clams
2 lobster claws
1/3lb cod
2 large scallops
4 large shrimp

DSCN4532aBecause it takes a little while, I start by roasting my peppers.  It’s easy: roll them around in EVOO, lay them on a baking sheet, and sprinkle them with salt and pepper before throwing them in a 400° oven.  Roast for about 10 minutes, rolling them over every few minutes so the skins blacken.  Remove them from the heat, toss them and all the juices from the pan into a bowl, and cover with plastic wrap until cooled.  Then you can remove the skins very easily.  Set this aside for now.

DSCN4529I make risotto all the time — just search for it here on my blog and you’ll see several different preparations.  This one was different for me, though, since I usually aim for a white risotto and not a red one, but it still started the same: I sauté my minced garlic and onion in EVOO in a small saucepan until just translucent, then I add my rice.  I stir everything to coat well with the oil, and to toast the grains of rice a bit to make them more receptive to the liquids I’ll be adding.

DSCN4530First addition is wine: a nice glug or two of dry sherry, which I stir in well, cooking over low heat, until all the liquid is absorbed.

DSCN4531Then I start adding my seafood stock, which is simmering in another pot on the stove.  You want to use warm stock, which will keep the rice cooking instead of cooling it down with each addition.  I add about 4 ounces at a time, stirring well continually, until each batch of liquid has been absorbed by the rice.  It takes about 30 minutes to stir a good pot of risotto.

DSCN4532At about the halfway point, I decide to add a tablespoon of tomato puree.  Traditional paella always has a bit of tomato in it, and this concentrated condiment gives just the right of sweetness and acidic kick to the dish.  Oh, and I keep adding stock and stirring.

DSCN4533My risotto is almost done.  It has increased in volume significantly, and when I test a grain with my tongue and teeth it is just tender all the way through, with a slightly al dente center.  At this point, I add all the juices from my roasted peppers, which have been sweating all their delicious goodness into the bowl all this time.

DSCN4536I’ve cooked my chicken chorizo and chopped it up real good like.

DSCN4537Along with my chopped roasted peppers, the chorizo adds the unctuousness needed for a good paella – where chicken and sausage definitely belong.  I keep this warm on the back burner until I’m ready for it.

DSCN4538To prepare my seafood, I create a poaching liquid, starting with butter and saffron and the last 4 ounces of my seafood stock.

DSCN4539I whisk the contents of the pan vigorously, emulsifying the butter and stock into a rich base.

DSCN4541I then add my cream, and layer my seafood into the pan to gently poach.  My cream/butter has been tinted a thrilling yellow from the saffron threads, and the scent emanating through the kitchen is divine.  I cover the pan, shaking it from time to time to encourage the fishy stuff to swim around, before using tongs to flip each piece so it can cook through thoroughly.

DSCN4543When the clams are open, and the shrimp and scallops are opaque, everything is ready to serve.

DSCN4542Here’s where the “reconstruction” bit comes in.  I’ve been obsessing about forms these days, ‘cuz I love the idea of stacked meals.  I’m too cheap to spend the $20 or so on real cooking forms, so I have a tendency to cannibalize all sorts of stuff in my kitchen to make shapes I can work with.  This is a tea canister from some swanky over-priced tea shack, but with the bottom removed it makes a decent, entree-sized form for my purposes.  I start by laying my strips of pepper out on the plate, before spooning a layer of rice into the form, followed by bits of the cooked cod, another layer of rice, then a layer with my shrimp and scallops, before topping it off with more risotto.

DSCN4547Crowning my tower of delight is my succulent lobster claw, which is flanked by eat-me clams and standing in a rich, sweet pool of saffron butter-milk.  I’ve toasted some slices of baguette, rubbed them with garlic, and served them with a tomato half doused with EVOO, garlic, and sea salt – which is scraped across the crusty bread, leaving a swathe of tasty red yumminess to compliment the dish.  All the component parts of a paella are here: fresh, tender seafood, rich, creamy rice, roasted peppers and spicy sausage, chicken, and of course, saffron.  An elegant meal in honor of a long love affair: with both my husband, and food glorious food.

Wild Mushroom Risotto, Butternut Squash, Smoked Gouda, Orange Gremolata, Hazelnuts

DSCN4417Working in Harvard Square like I do means I get my pick of some pretty great restaurants for my daily lunch.  But since I’m on a tight budget, I only make it to the fancy-schmanzy places when I’m eating on someone else’s dime.  Luckily, I have generous bosses with great taste, so I get to sample the hoity-toity fare pretty often – as I did last week at Harvest.  The Harvard muckity-mucks flock to Harvest, so it’s a great powerful-people watching joint, and the restaurant is so civilized it’s hard not to feel a little muckity yourself when seated on their fine cushions in front of their roaring fireplace perusing their extensive wine list.  Yet — and meaning no disrespect to head chef Mary Dumont — although the service is impeccable, the location charming, and the food good, I’ve never really been blown away by it.  In fact, I’m usually underwhelmed by the number of menu choices, ambivalent about the way the flavors come together, and disappointed in their serving-size to price ratio (which leans heavily towards price).  I mean, everything is fresh, artfully presented, and prepared with care, but I usually tell myself I could have made the same thing if not better, certainly cheaper.  Granted, Lolita doesn’t have a staff to pay or high rent to shell out, nor do I have the training and skill of the chefs who certainly grace their kitchen.  Still – I decided to test my theory, and recreate my mini-lunch of the other day as a maxi-dinner several nights later.  The menu: wild mushroom (they used the term “foraged”, which I did – through Whole Foods’s mushroom bins) risotto with roasted butternut squash (they used delacata squash, which I could not find), smoked gouda, orange gremolata, and toasted hazelnuts.  Theirs cost my dear benefactor $16 for my dining pleasure, and although I certainly enjoyed it – more than any other dish I’ve had from Harvest – I was left hungry afterwards by the teeny-tiny portion size.  For about $25, I made the same dish for both the husbandman and myself: it looked virtually the same, tasted exactly the same, and this time truly satiated by hunger – and his as well.  So, dear readers, here’s my riff off a high-falutin’ menu item from a chi-chi restaurant prepared by haute-cuisine hands. If you prefer to pay top dollar for your fancy-schmanzy, hoity-toity, muckity-muckity, high-falutin’ haute cuisine, read no further.  But if you have a hankering for all the above on a common-woman shoe-string budget, just make it yourself.  And be both happy AND full afterwards…

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Wild Mushroom Risotto, Butternut Squash, Smoked Gouda, Orange Gremolata, Hazelnuts

1 medium butternut squash
8oz fresh assorted wild  mushrooms
4 tbs butter, divided
2 shallots
4 cloves garlic
1 cup arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
1 quart mushroom broth
1 cup smoked gouda cheese
zest from 1 orange
zest from 1 lemon
2 tbs minced fresh parsley
1/2 cup shelled hazelnuts
EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper

DSCN4385Whole Foods has some decent pre-packaged blends of wild mushrooms, but I decided to hand-pick some choices through their assortment of loose mushrooms to find some really fun ones to add to this plate.  I’ve got one large portobello (the most mushroomy flavored variety), some shiitake, trumpet, chanterelle, and some weird, rubbery wood ears – which I can only imagine are called that because they truly seem and feel like the fleshy bits of the ear, and not like a fungus at all.  This assortment  represented the majority of my expense for this meal, but it was worth it.

DSCN4391After slicing and chopping my fungi, I add about a third of them to a hot skillet with some browned butter.  Too many mushrooms at once, and they’ll all steam – so cooking them off in shifts to give them the chance to breathe is the best way to do so.  Also, I resist the urge to stir them around a lot; the more they’re moved around, the more water they release, which will also steam them – and what I want here are nicely browned seared mushrooms.

DSCN4393I was surprised to see how the wood ear mushrooms acted in the heat.  They literally blew up into little balloons which popped from time to time.  I caught a decent shot of a ‘shroom-balloon above, right before it exploded, making me jump and splattering my lens with umame goodness.  The rest of the fungi acted more demurely.  I set each batch into a bowl to hold between more additions of butter and ‘shrooms, until they’re all ready.  They reduce in volume by quite a bit – more than half – since they shrink when cooked.  At this point, the house smells heavenly…

DSCN4404If you look back on previous posts of mine, you’ll see that I make risotto A LOT.  It’s really the only way I know I’ll enjoy rice, seeing as I have a Puerto-Rican prejudice against it, having eaten way too much of it way too often in my formative years.  I start by mincing my garlic, slicing my shallots, and measuring out my arborio.  On the back burner of my stovetop, I use a stockpot to heat up my mushroom broth to just simmering.

DSCN4405Using the last tablespoon of butter I measured out earlier, I sauté my aromatics over medium heat until they release their aromas – about 2 minutes.

DSCN4406In goes the rice, which I stir around well to fully coat with the hot butter.   This toasts the grain, making it more receptive to absorbing the liquids I’ll be adding shortly.

DSCN4408The first dousing comes from wine.  I lower the heat to medium low, add my cup or so of chardonnay, and stir well.  This is the beginning of the stirring; there will be more, much much more.

DSCN4407The risotto is ready for the addition of more liquid when the well-and-oft-stirred rice has absorbed all the last liquid added to the pot.DSCN4409Adding about 4 oz (a ladle-full) of mushroom broth at a time, I cook well and stir often…

DSCN4412… until my dragging spoon exposes the bottom of the pan, indicating that that batch of broth has been sucked into the grains, softening them and coaxing from them the thick, creamy sauce risotto is known for.  I keep adding stock in increments, stirring all the while, until it’s all gone.

DSCN4413After about 30 minutes, my risotto is rich and silky.  I test for doneness by tasting a grain; it should be just al dente, a little firm (but not chalky) in the center of the kernel, but otherwise it should be a tender bite.

DSCN4415At this point, I add my mushrooms and my shredded smoked gouda to the risotto, which I mix well and let heat through for about 5-8 minutes to incorporate all the flavors and melt the cheese.

DSCN4403My squash has been roasting whole for the last hour or so, and it’s now soft and ready to carve into.  Harvest’s plating was lovely; the squash formed a sort of angled demi-bowl, out from which the risotto seemed to spill.  I approximated that as much as I could, but not wanting to waste perfectly good squash just to create a pretty form, all the flesh I scooped out of the bowl I layered on the plate below the rice so I could enjoy more of its sweetness and texture than the vessel alone provided.

DSCN4398The last two garnishes were very simple.  First, I took my handful of hazelnuts and threw them into a bare pan, which I set over medium high heat.  A few minutes and a few stirs (to toast them evenly throughout), and they were ready.  I cracked them with a mallet to provide more texture.

DSCN4400A gremolata is a wonderful condiment for all sorts of preparations, and it’s usually made from parsley, garlic, and lemon zest.  In this case, I substituted orange zest for the garlic, and mixed everything well.  This imparts a bright flavor to my otherwise rich dish.

DSCN4418A sweet cutaway silo of butternut squash partially encases an earthy, creamy cascade of wild mushroom risotto, sitting on a simple puddle of extra virgin olive oil.  The crunch of the hazelnuts and fresh zip of the gremolata provide textural and tasty complexity to the plate, which oozes warmth and goodness in each rich bite.  Perfect for a cold night, or an elegant dinner party, this dish takes a little effort – both at the grocery store and in the kitchen – but its worth is evident in every grain of rice, from the first to the last.  Enjoy!

Breaded Pork Chops, Lemon Butter Risotto, and Chorizo Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Now that September is well underway, Clayton and I are deep into school (albeit him from the student perspective, and me from the administrator p.o.v.), the air is cooling, the leaves are rusting, and football is back on the Sunday tube.  As I await the Pats/Ravens game, I reflect upon tonight’s repast: a juicy/tender pork chop encrusted with panko and parmesan, some buttery citrusy risotto, and searedsilky Brussels sprouts with hotpeppery sausage crisps.  Autumn demands filling flavors, and this plateful of pork topped off my tummy with “Damn that’s good!” deliciousness.

Breaded Pork Chops, Lemon Butter Risotto, and Chorizo Roasted Brussels Sprouts

2 6-8oz pork chops (ideally with tenderloin still attached)
1 egg
3 tbs water
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/2  cup flour
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
12-16 Brussels sprouts, trimmed
5-7 slices spicy sliced chorizo or pepperoni
1 small onion
1 cup risotto
3 cups chicken stock
1/3 cup (2-3 splashes) white wine
4 tbs butter
1 tsp fresh grated lemon zest
EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper, snipped scallions

I start by trimming my sprouts, splitting them in half, and tossing them with EVOO, salt, and pepper.

Then I layer them, cut down down, on a baking sheet, spilling all the spiced EVOO over their mounded bits, before laying my slices of rich paprika’d chorizo sausage over the whole lot.  This goes into a 350°F oven to roast for 20 minutes.

At the same time, I get my chicken broth heating on one eye, and 2 tbs butter melting to frothy in a large saucepan on another.

First, I saute my onion, which I’ve minced very finely; then I add my rice, which I stir with the hot fat and translucent veg until it’s almost toasted; then I add my wine, which I reduce to a vapor; then I add 3 oz of chicken broth at a time, stirring well and often and constantly, evaporating each addition before adding the next batch of broth, until my rice is silky smooth, tender on the tongue, and steeped in rich white gravy — about 20 minutes.

This meal is tricky because it requires several things doing at once.  While my sprouts are roasting and my risotto is being juiced and stirred, I also need to pound out my pork chops until they are thin and tender.  I place them both (after rinsing under water and drying with paper towels) in a large plastic bag, sandwich that bag between two layers of dishcloth, and then smack the flat into each chop with the heavy dull edge of my sharpening steel.  Using a cross-hatch pattern, I tenderize both slabs until they’re begging for a tongue to melt upon.

Here’s my breading: flour, panko breadcrumbs, 1/4 cup shredded parmesan cheese, and a dash each of salt and pepper.  First, each chop gets dredged in egg whipped with water, then dredged until dry in the pankoflour mix.

I get 2 tbs butter and 1 glug EVOO frothing over high heat before layering in my flattened breaded pork chops.  4 minutes on the first side, until golden-browned.

Then 4 minutes on the flip side, at least — or until it is also a crunchy, stiff golden brown.

Just before plating, I fetch my sprouts from the oven.  The sliced meat has sweat its peppery oils into my nubs of green goodness, which have caramelized on the pan in the spicy drippings.  Crispy seared chorizo and crispy faced sprouts…

… paired with rich risotto seasoned right before plating with the zest of one fresh lemon and 1/2 cup of shaved parm…

… accompanied by a perfect pork chop topped with snips of green onions for freshness and snap.  A wholesome, fulfilling, stick-to-your ribs supper perfect for an autumn night filled with studying and New England football.  As the cool breeze wafts through the windows, I contentedly anticipate my season of jeans, boots, and denim jackets… my meals filled with warmth and richness… my senses full of color, scent, chill, and late-season flavors… and my days peopled with both good old friends and new young friends as company.   And to you, my dear readers, I wish nothing but an abundance of the very same.

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.

Valentine’s Veal T-Bone with Herbed Velouté, Truffled Fontina Risotto, Wild Mushrooms, and Cherry’d Foie Gras

This Valentine’s day, my one true love bought me two dozen perfect roses and two bottles of lovely champagne.  I may be a harpy to him from time to time, but my needs on silly days like this are simple – and he met them with just want I wanted: beauty and booze.  Considering that he is still healing from knee surgery and had to hobble on his crutches to and from Whole Foods in freezing weather to do this, it was actually super-nice.  So I had to make him a super-nice dinner to show him my love for him.  Thanks to Savenor’s on Kirkland, I decided to do so with veal steaks, risotto, and foie gras — I mean, what says love better than that?  Topped with a little tart cherry, an herbalicious veloute, and some oyster mushrooms, and this didn’t just say love, it said SEX, baby.  (And I leave it to you to take from that what you will…)

Valentine’s Veal T-Bone with Herbed Velouté, Truffled Fontina Risotto, Wild Mushrooms, and Cherry’d Foie Gras

2 veal t-bones, about 12 ounces each
1/4 lb fresh foie gras
1/2 wild mushrooms (these are oyster)
2 shallots
1 cup arborio (short grain) rice
1/4 lb fontina cheese
1 bunch rosemary
1 bunch thyme
1 cup cream
2 tbs butter (not pictured)
1 tsp truffle oil (not pictured)
1 qt chicken broth (not pictured)
1/2 cup white wine (not pictured)
1/4 cup dried bing cherries (not pictured)
EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper

Despite the highbrow nature of this meal, it doesn’t really take too long.  The most time is spent on the risotto, which takes about 30 minutes to get just perfect, so I start there.

Half my minced shallots get sweated in a couple glugs of EVOO in my small saucepan before I dump my rice on top and stir well.  You have to sort of toast the grains before adding any liquid; this coaxes them into absorbing the wine and stock more effectively.  All this is done on medium heat, by the way.

On my other back burner, I set the chicken broth to a medium simmer; I want to add it warm to my risotto as I go, which will also help the liquid absorb.  But first, I add my wine, then stir well until all the liquid has disappeared.

I then drop the heat to its lowest setting, and add 4 oz of broth.  I stir well consistently, and add more broth each time the last batch disappears.  I revel in the plumpifying of my wee rice grains, and bask in the sauce that forms and thickens with every stir.  It takes 30 minutes to do this, requiring regular – but not constant – attention.  Stir and add, stir and add, until the rice is tender but still toothsome and bound together by its thick, fragrant, flavorful rice gravy.

As my risotto works, I get started on my velouté.  This is a mother sauce, traditionally made with white stock and roux, to which I’ve added some cream, herbs, and aromatics.  Ideally, it should be made in advance, cooled, and then reheated before service in order to really concentrate its delicate flavor.  1/2 of my remaining shallots get sweated in two tablespoons of simmering butter along with a tablespoon each of thyme and rosemary leaves.

Once the shallots transluce, I sprinkle two tablespoons of flour over the butter and whisk well to incorporate all the ingredients and simmer on medium low until the roux begins to turn beige.

Like so!

Finally, I add about 1 cup of my warm broth, and my cup of half and half (which is not traditional, but yummy nonetheless), and bring this to a simmer to thicken for about 8 minutes.

After seasoning with salt to taste, I removed my sauce from the heat, strain all the solids, then chill it in the fridge until I’m ready to plate – when I will gently heat it back up before service.

My steaks will take about 15 minutes to make total, so I get a pan all hot and ready before greasing it up with a glug or two of EVOO.

I salt and pepper my steaks, and smack them down on said smoking hot pan to sizzle and sear.

I sear not just their backs and fronts…

… but also the ribeye edges…

…and the tenderloin edges.  Then I stick the whole pan into a 425° oven for 8 minutes, until they are a perfect medium rare.

After I remove my steak pan from the oven, I move my steaks to a warmed platter to settle, and I through the rest of my shallots, another teaspoon each of thyme and rosemary, and another glug of EVOO into the pan along with my chopped fungus of the day.  2 minutes of tossing to melt these babies into umame joy is all it needs.

The piece of resistance (BTW – I totally do that on purpose; I know the phrase is pièce de résistance, but I like it may way bettah) is this delightful hunk of foie gras, which I didn’t notice was heart-shaped until I got home and took it out of the bag.  How apropos! I split it in half thickness-wise, so that I can maintain the shape for each of us. (After all, neither of us wants to eat a broken heart (shape) on Valentine’s Day!)

Foie only take a moment to sear, but it needs a superhot non-stick pan, and it not only releases a lot of delicious fat, but it smokes like hell.  I made the mistake of inhaling open-mouthed some of that smoke, and it sort of choked me up for a while.  But the foie needs nothing but a sear on each side to transform it into the quivering, sexy, hunk of haute cuisine junk it is.

Foie gras benefits from something sweet/tart to compliment it, so I grabbed a handful of dried red cherries and chopped them into a sticky, simply compote sort of thing.

As I plate my steaks and mushrooms, I throw my fontina cheese and a teaspoon of black truffle oil into my perfectly tender risotto and stir will to melt.

Tender, delicious veal steaks, topped with the sumptuous unctuousness of seared foie gras, tempered with the tangy sweet bite of scarlet cherry.  Served with a delicate herbed cream sauce, silky, nutty, and fulfilling risotto, and the woody chew of buttery mushrooms – this plate of passion really got our motors running.  Take about a bodacious plate.  Happy Valentine’s Day, friends!

Weeknight Wondermeal: Coconut Scented Chicken and Rice

I love Thai food.  I think.  I mean, I’ve enjoyed it for years here in Cambridge, but I admit to not being as adventurous with the menu as I perhaps could be.  I love coconut milk, I love steamed rice, I love the texture of their tender quivering chicken breasts.  Yet I suspect that the few dishes I’ve enjoyed over and over again at my 2 or 3 favorite Thai haunts are not truly representative of the wide spectrum of sensations the cuisine engenders.  So I was reluctant to call this a Thai chicken dish, even though my inspiration (more or less), was Tom Kha. Since I don’t really know the proper proportions of ingredients to really capture the scented, citrus, rich yet light, exotic flavors of true Asian cookery, until I truly study and immerse myself in their culture, I can only genuflect, and offer homage in the form of this humble platter.  Chicken breasts poached in herbacous coconut milk, served with a sweetly scented sticky risotto – an incredible edible array of fresh flavors of the East.  Oh, and it was quick and easy to make, too.


Coconut Scented Chicken and Rice

2 cans coconut milk
2 boneless chicken breasts
1 inch ginger, minced into 2 tablespoons
1 cup arborio (short grain white) rice
1/2 cup toasted shredded coconut
water
1 bunch scallions (chopped)
1 tbs sesame oil
1 onion (optional)
2 inches lemongrass (optional)
1 red pepper (optional)
3 cloves garlic (optional)
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, chopped (optional)
2 baby bok choy

I’m classifying this meal as a weeknight wondermeal because it really only needs the coconut milk and ginger to make it delicious.  I happened to have complimentary ingredients on hand – like the scallions, lemongrass, garlic, red pepper, cilantro and mint – which, well hell!  They’d go perfectly with this dinner!  I mince everything up real well, and divide it all pretty much in half.  One portion goes to make the rice, the other for poaching the chicken and garnishing the plate.

I have a large saucepan that’s been swirled with a few dots of sesame oil set on medium high heat.  In go my aromatics, which I saute gently until they just sweat and soften.

To this I add one well shaken can of coconut milk, a can’s worth of water, and my rice.  I bring it to a boil, stirring every once in a while to keep the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan, then lower the heat to simmer and cover for about 15 minutes, or until all the liquid has been absorbed into the rice.

In another pan, I float my rinsed and patted dry chicken breasts in my second can of coconut milk mixed with equal parts water and 3/4 of the rest of my aromatics.  This I bring to a boil as well before lowering to a simmer, covering, and cooking for 15 minutes.  I planned it well — getting both courses, the chicken and the rice, going at the same time so they’d be ready at the same.

After my 20 minutes, my chicken breasts are fully poached through, so I remove them to a warm dish while I bring their sauce to a roiling – and reducing – boil.  10 minutes will bring it down to a nice thickness.

My rice is, in a word: perfect.  But it can hold forever, and will stay warm like molten lava, so I allow it to rest and thicken while I pull the final components together.

Said final components are some bok choy, the rest of my garnish, and a lime I found in the fridge, too!  I mean – why not?

The bok choy leaves and the majority of my cilantro gets thrown into the thickening milk in the pan, just to wilt and soften.

Finally, I toast some coconut in a dry skillet over medium high heat for a few moments.  This is the piece of resistance, people.  That crunch, that texture, that unique sweet… it perfects the plate.

The chicken is so tender, so sweet, so trembling white and innocent, it can be sliced with a ravenous look.  The sticky sweet coconut risotto bursts on the tongue like the tropics after an arctic exile.  Lime and lemongrass, nut and leaf, bird and grain, freshness and light and aroma and pleasure.  A simple, delicious meal, inspired by Bittman (thanks, sensei), but interpreted by Lolita.