Weeknight Wondermeal: Simple Baked Salmon with Spuds and Spinach

2014-02-16 18.51.03Many of my Harvard kids (I teach and work at the University) complain that they don’t know how to cook.  I mean, why should they?  Their parents have taken care of them up to the point that they arrived here, and once here the dining halls take care of the rest.  But even though we educate their minds, we don’t do such a great job teaching them about the practical logistics of life after graduation.  Since most of them know about my gastronomic pursuits, they always ask me to teach them how to cook; this blog is one avenue for those lessons.  So, kiddos: here’s a SUPER easy one for ya.  It’s got 3 basic ingredients, a few items from the pantry, and requires only a cookie sheet, a pyrex baking dish, and a big ol’ bowl – but it’s delicious, healthy, and pretty enough to serve up to company, like when your parents come to visit you during that gap year to see where all the money they’re sending you goes…

I forgot to take a set-up shot, but here’s what you’ll need:

Simple Baked Salmon with Spuds and Spinach (for 2)

1 lb fresh salmon fillet
12 oz baby spinach
1 lb baby red potatoes
1 lemon
EVOO (extra virgin olive oil), white vinegar
sea salt, cracked black pepper, crushed red pepper, dried oregano

2014-02-16 18.09.55Start by washing your spuds, cutting them in half, and then tossing them with about 3 tablespoons of EVOO and your spices.

2014-02-16 18.11.42Lay those bad boys out, cut side down, on a foil-wrapped cookie sheet, douse with another glug of EVOO for good measure, and throw in the oven on 350 for 30 minutes.

2014-02-16 18.23.42Meanwhile, place your fillet of salmon into a baking dish large enough to hold it (this is an 8″x8″ pyrex).  Cut your lemon in half; squeeze one half of it over the fish, and slice the other half into thin rounds.  Pour a glug of EVOO over the fish, too, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then layer the sliced lemon over the top.  Throw this in the same oven as the potatoes and bake for 20-25 minutes.

2014-02-16 18.26.07Using the same bowl in which you tossed the potatoes (which you needn’t have cleaned out), add your spinach, some salt and pepper.

2014-02-16 18.44.07The potatoes are done when they can be a) easily pierced with a fork, b) their outer skins have gotten all wrinkly, and c) the cut sides are crispy and brown.

2014-02-16 18.45.54Spill these into the bowl over the spinach with all the hot oil which has accumulated on the pan, add a glug of vinegar (about a teaspoon or so), and toss this very well. The heat from the spuds and fat will wilt the spinach.

2014-02-16 18.48.22The salmon is done when it is completely opaque.  The oil and lemon juice will help keep the fish nice and moist; just use a spatula to divide the fillet in half and to slide the fish onto your waiting plates.

2014-02-16 18.51.37And there you have it: succulent, juicy, flavorful, healthy salmon served with creamy-interior, crunchy-exterior roasted potatoes and gently wilted spiced greens.  Serve with or without some crusty French bread, and call it a day.  You will be impressed with yourself, and your guests will think you’re the tops!  All this only takes 30 minutes of cook time, and a mere handful of ingredients.  If you can’t make this, my dear Harvard children, then you should have spent less time planning to change the world and more time tending to your diet.  Lucky for you, I’m here to help you through. You can thank me later, when you win those Nobel prizes and become CEOs of your own Fortune 500 companies.  Don’t worry – I can wait.

Roasted Game Hens, Brussels Sprouts, Tiny Potatoes, Bacon Hollandaise, Poached Egg

DSCN4633Besides being a full time college administrator and a part-time blogger, I also help teach writing intensive classes in English Literature at Harvard, and this semester we are studying Darwin’s theory of evolution (in terms of the impact On the Origin of Species had on the 19th century novel).  Perhaps that fact, along with a small plate of sprouts I enjoyed at Michael Schlow’s new joint, The Sinclair, the other night, inspired this chicken/egg creation: a partially de-boned Cornish game hen served with roasted Brussels sprouts and tiny wee potatoes, topped with fried onions, bacon hollandaise sauce, and a poached egg.  This was NOT an easy dinner to prepare!  De-boning the hens still takes me a while, making hollandaise sauce while poaching eggs requires a Doctor Octopus-like physiology, and there were a lot of little component parts that had to be executed all at the same time in order to serve everything hot together.  But, dear reader, was it worth it!  My tender, juicy hen covered in the runny golden goodness of cousin yolks paired with the earthy herbaceousness of caramelized baby cabbages, white potatoes, and flash fried onions was the perfect offering for a chilly, windy, and wet late winter’s dinner.

DSCN4619

Roasted Game Hens, Brussels Sprouts, Tiny Potatoes, Bacon Hollandaise, Poached Egg

2 game hens, breast and back bones removed
2 small whole sweet onions, peeled, trimmed, and boiled in water until tender
20-3o Brussels sprouts
10-20 tiny white potatoes
4 slices bacon
1/2 cup diced white onion
4 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
1 1/2 sticks butter
EVOO
flour, sea salt, cracked black pepper, white wine vinegar

DSCN4622I’ve presented de-boned game hens once before on this blog (check it out here), when I went into great detail about how to remove the back bones and breast bones of these little beasties – but today I didn’t have the time to take all the pictures.  There are some good tutorials on YouTube, too – which I refer to each time I go through this procedure.  I’m still not as efficient as it as I’d like (read: it takes me a long time, and I cuss like a sailor throughout the whole process), but the results have been wonderful each time.  By removing these portions of the skeleton, you are making these otherwise difficult to eat birdies a breeze!  The only bones left are in the legs and wings, but one can carve right through the body of the bird with a delicate knife to gather up rich, whole mouthfuls of succulent, juicy chicken.  However, once those bones are removed, you are left with a rather deflated critter, so I like to give it back some shape by stuffing something yummy and roundish back into the chest cavity.  In this case I did so with tiny sweet boiled onions, which I’d peeled and trimmed (leaving them whole by keeping just the butt of the bulb intact) and cooked until easily pierced with a fork.  Then I trussed up the birds with some twine so they’d maintain their shape.  After rubbing them down with salt and pepper, I set them aside until I was ready for them.

DSCN4624I neglected to add these important components of the meal to my set-up shot, so here’s a little something for you now.  I only need about a 1/2 cup of diced onion, and I fry the slices of bacon until crispy.  Oh, and when I said tiny potatoes, I meant TINY — these bad boys are about the circumference of my thumb, and no more than a knuckle long.  And I’ve got baby hands, people.

DSCN4625These I partially peel…

DSCN4623… and the sprouts I trim and halve, keeping the really small ones whole.

DSCN4628I’m able to spread both veggies out on the same baking sheet – which is good since they’ll take about the same amount of time to cook.  They’ve all been doused in EVOO, salt, and pepper, and the sprouts I lay cut-side down.

DSCN4629The trick to a meal this complex is having everything ready to go at the same time.  On my back right burner, I’ve got a water bath set up to double-boil my hollandaise sauce, which starts with a stick of butter melting in the small bowl resting on my tongs. On the right I have a large pot with several inches of water set to a simmer to poach my eggs.  The front burner has my largest fry-pan, a couple glugs of EVOO, and some more butter which I heated to a foaming mass before gently placing my birds within.  I meant to put them both breast side up at first, but their floppy, skeleton-less anatomy confused me, so one’s face up and the other is face down.  No harm done.

DSCN4630“The lost art of the arroser.”  I had the pleasure of discovering this term in print just when I needed to find it – since I engaged in said art when preparing tonight’s dinner.  This refers to the technique of spooning hot fat oven the up-side of a protein searing in a pan, so it can gently cook on both sides at the same time.  I’ve seen this on Iron Chef and other cooking shows, and I’ve mimicked it to great effect in the past, but I’ve never known what it was called.  Thanks, New York Times.  Anyway, given that it takes two hands – one to tilt the pan, the other to spoon the butteroil – I couldn’t take a good shot of me in action, but suffice to say that as my birds sizzled, I basted them continually with hot golden deliciousness for about 5 minutes of sear time before flipping them.

DSCN4631Damn they look good.  I do the same technique for the flip side of each bird before I get them both settled, breast side down (so they’re resting on their “elbows”, so to speak).  This is crunch time: it will take 25 minutes for the sprouts, potatoes, and chickens to roast off in a 350° oven.  The pan with the veggies goes on the bottom rack – which is closest to the heat source in my oven – and the chickens go in their pan onto the top shelf to finish baking through.  I now have 20 or so minutes to get everything else done before I need to plate.

DSCN4626First, I toss my onions in flour, salt, and pepper before…

DSCN4627… frying them in some oil until crispy and brown.

DSCN4632Now it’s egg time.  The trick to making both hollandaise sauce and poached eggs is to have everything ready in advance.  Water should be at a low simmer for both preparations; the back, smaller burner for the sauce, and the front larger burger for the eggs.  Given that I was under pressure to get everything out on time, I didn’t take pictures of each process, but for the hollandaise sauce you can check out this previous posting, which goes into great detail, and for the poached eggs I actually followed Kenji’s most recently posted procedure from Serious Eats.  The eggs only take about 4 minutes to poach, and the hollandaise takes about 10 minutes from start to finish.  After the 10 minutes prep it took to get everything ready, by the time my sauce and eggs are ready, it is just about on the minute I need to pull out my chicken and veg from the oven.

DSCN4634The roasted sprouts and potatoes form the bed for this little baby chicken, while the oozing yellow yolk and sauce act as its blanket, with a little scattering of fried onion bits for contrast.  After cutting the trussing strings, I am able to disengage a leg from the bird with the gentlest of tugs – which, of course, I do daintily with my pinky finger extended in polite form.  But once the succulent, tender, and steaming meat makes it to my tongue, all bets are off, and I throw down my silverware and just start sopping and supping with complete abandon.  The richness of the sauce and yolk are offset by the salty bacon and deeply caramelized sprouts, and the potatoes add just the right amount of starch to the plate.  This was a dinner that was lovely to look at, but even better to eat.

Sous Vide Veal Tenderloin, Honey Roasted Carrots, Potato Crisps, Gorgonzola Cream, Demi-Glaze, Gremolata

DSCN4576The reason why we omnivores like veal is because of how tender it is.  Yes, the little critters are confined to a very small pen which keeps them from moving around a lot, which keeps their flesh meltingly soft by preventing the development of tougher muscles, which many people think is sad (or atrocious, depending upon your ilk).  I have no such scruples: I am gluttonous for foie gras; I revel in veal; I love lobsters boiled live; hell, I’d enjoy an ortolon if I ever got the chance to eat one.  If you consider me inhumane because of my eating habits, I certainly respect your opinion… but I’ll likely not invite you over for dinner when I’m pulling out all the stops.

All this is just preamble, though.  I bring up the tenderness of veal for one reason: to say that it’s even MORE tender when cooked sous vide.  Although not a particularly old technique, sealing foods in air-tight bags and cooking them in a water-bath set to the temperature at which the food should be served  is optimal for several purposes: by cooking the food in this manner, there is no risk of over-cooking, and there is no drying out of the surface layers of proteins by virtue of the much higher heat needed to bring the internal temp to the right degree; something magical with collagens and proteins and cellular stuff happens at a lower heat held for a long time — tissues turn to gelatin, and juices stay locked in place; and meats need only a quick browning on a hot pan at the last minute before service. But sous vide cookery generally requires the purchase of a prohibitively expensive and very space-consuming piece of equipment, since since money and space are two things I don’t have, I thought I’d have to struggle with maintaining the temperature in a saucepan on my stove, which I’ve done successfully once before, but which took lots of time standing by the stove stirring and adjusting the water with flame and ice (figuratively speaking).  Tonight’s technique was MUCH EASIER.  And the results?  Veal so perfectly cooked and tender I could cut it with a sharp glance.  Doused with demi-glaze, served with  potato crisps draped with gorgonzola cream, honey roasted carrots, and a snappy Meyer lemon gremolata, dinner transported me to Nirvana with each and every sweet sweet bite.

Sous Vide Veal Tenderloin, Honey Roasted Carrots, Potato Crisps, Gorgonzola Cream, Demi-Glaze, Gremolata

1lb veal tenderloin, trimmed
4 tbs butter
1 tbs dried tarragon leaves
1 small bunch slender carrots
3 tbs EVOO
3 tbs honey
1 large russet potato
3 oz gorgonzola cheese
1/4 cup cream
1 Meyer lemon
4 tbs minced parsley
2 cloves garlic, minced
sea salt, cracked black pepper, dried oregano, dried rosemary
1 package Classic Demi-Glaze Gold

DSCN4551Instead of a set-up shot, showing all my ingredients, I shall instead show you the star of tonight’s show: my Igloo cooler.  Based upon Serious Eats’ brilliant life hack article, I now know I don’t need to buy a ridiculously expensive piece of equipment to sous vide – all I need is a $20 cooler.  Y’see, not only do these babies keep things cool, they keep things HOT, too.  For anything that can be cooked sous vide in less than 5 hours and in less than 160° water (these are my approximations), a nice, tight sealing cooler will do the trick.

DSCN4554I start by rinsing, then patting dry, my veal tenderloin.  After rubbing it down with salt and pepper, I put a few pats of butter on the meat, along with the tarragon…

DSCN4555… before wrapping it tightly in plastic.

DSCN4556The whole package then gets set inside a large freezer zipper bag, and using a straw, I get as much air out of it as possible.  I zipped the bag up as close to the straw as I could before I started sucking like a Hoover vacuum cleaner, then I even slightly zipped across the straw while sliding it out of the bag so that as little air as possible would leach back into the bag before it was sealed completely.  SeriousEats points out that one can also submerge as much of the bag as possible in water before sealing to push out all the air, but every time I’ve tried that I’ve always spilled a little water into the bag – and I didn’t want to get my meat wet.  This worked fine.

DSCN4558I thought I would have to use a kettle to get my water hot enough, but my kitchen faucet delivers water at close to 160° – so I actually had to add a little cold water to get my temp to a little over 142° F. I then filled up my largest, heaviest measuring vessel with hot water, too, so it would submerge – which I used to anchor my bag of meat which still wanted to float.  I shut the cooler, and walked away for 90 minutes.

DSCN4559Meanwhile, I used my mandoline set at the thickest setting to slice my russet potato into substantial chips.

DSCN4560I placed them in a single layer on top of a baking paper lined cookie sheet, and then brushed them with EVOO before sprinkling some salt, pepper, rosemary, and oregano on them.

DSCN4561I also trimmed the greens off my carrots, peeled them, and spread them across a ceramic baking dish.

DSCN4562Someone gave me this lovely raw honey, which is very potent and delicious.

DSCN4563The carrots get doused in EVOO, salt, pepper, and honey, and then both they and the potatoes get placed into a 400° oven for about 30 minutes.  At the halfway point, I flip the potatoes and roll over the carrots for even cooking.

DSCN4564Gremolata is one of those condiments that isn’t used as often as it should be.  The traditional mixture of minced parsley and garlic with grated lemon zest adds snap and freshness to tons of preparations, and it goes particularly well with rich meats.

DSCN4565A little salt, pepper, lemon juice, and EVOO gets added to the veg, and all is mixed well.

DSCN4566Ahhhh – gorgonzola.  DSCN4569I melt a tbs of butter in a saucepan, add my cream, and then my gorgonzola to make a cheese sauce.  On another eye, I prepare the demi-glaze with only a few ounces of water (I want a nice, rich drizzle of flavor, and not a gravy) and a dash of minced garlic.

DSCN4568My 90 minutes have passed, and I eagerly reach into my Igloo to see how my veal tenderloin looks.  And it looks MARVELOUS.  It is perfectly cooked to a lovely medium rare – but it admittedly looks a little flaccid and unappetizing all greyish like that….

DSCN4570… which is why I’ve got an oiled, cast iron skillet smoking on one burner.  I sear my tenderloin on all sides, propping up the narrow edges (which make my meat want to roll over) by clipping the tongs in the ‘closed’ position and resting them flat against the edge of the pan.  I sear for about 1 minute all the way ’round – so 6 minutes total.  I’m looking for the Malliard reaction, which is a fancy way of saying I want to brown the outside of this tender morsel.

DSCN4571Perfect.

DSCN4575Just the extreme edges are tantalizingly browned, and the insides are exactly medium rare throughout.

DSCN4577The explosion of flavors on my plate just blew me away.  The sweet carrots, crispy potatoes and sharp, creamy gorgonzola sauce, the rich, garlicky demi-glaze offset by the fresh, green gremolata, and the oh-so-silky-and-tender-and-delicious veal medallions.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to prepare veal any other way, and now I can’t wait to try the same technique with strip steaks and filet mignon, and even eggs for perfect Benedicts.  But now – I EAT!

Crispy Fried Pork Chops, Sweet Potatoes, Dark and Creamy Umame Gravy

DSCN4332I have been obsessed with frying things ever since I read SeriousEats.com’s tutorial on Korean Fried Chicken.  The technique they describe worked with chicken wings perfectly, so I wondered if I could do the same thing with other fryables.  It worked very nicely with shrimp – creating something of a tempura-type crackling coating – but how about something really substantial?  I mean, chicken wings are pretty small, and shrimp only get so big, too (to wit, at 4’10” am I perpetually addressed as ‘shrimp’ or ‘shortie’, neither of which makes me particularly happy).  How’s about a meaty pork chop?  My days in the south exposed me to the wonders of a perfectly fried chop, coated with a buttermilk batter and pan fried, served usually with a white gravy and some collards.  I decided to work up my own version of a fried pork chop, using a simple flour/vodka slurry as the breading, some sweet potatoes and mushrooms as the complements, and my favorite soy sauce cream gravy (click here to see a variation on the theme).  The results were fantastic!

Crispy Fried Pork Chops, Sweet Potatoes, Dark and Creamy Umame Gravy

2 thick, center-cut pork chops
3/4 cups corn starch
1 tsp baking powder
black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 cup gin or vodka
vegetable oil for frying
EVOO
8-10 button mushrooms
2 medium sweet potatoes
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup heavy cream
snipped scallions/chives for garnish

DSCN4305I love pork chops, especially when they look like little T-bone steaks, like these.  This cut includes both a little of the tenderloin as well as the regular rib meat, which provides some textural variety on the plate.

DSCN4307I start by mixing my cornstarch, baking powder, and some spices in a large ziplock bag.

DSCN4308In go my chops, and I shake the bag vigorously to coat them with the cornstarch mixture.

DSCN4310I place the chops uncovered in my fridge on a rack so they can dry out a bit — about 30 minutes.

DSCN4311Meanwhile, I remove the stems from my mushrooms, reserving them to use later.

DSCN4312I get 2 tbs of butter and a glug of EVOO nice and hot in my large fry-pan…

DSCN4314… and I layer my mushrooms in the hot fat, sprinkling them with a little salt and pepper.

DSCN4315I make sure they cook fully on top…

DSCN4317… and on bottom.

DSCN4319While these are simmering, I pull out my chops, on which the cornstarch/baking powder has gummed up a bit – just the way I want it.

DSCN4321In a large bowl, I’ve whisked my flour, water, and gin together to make a very thin batter.

DSCN4323Holding the chops with tongs by clipping it on the T-bone allows for me to dunk all the meaty bits into the slurry to thoroughly coat each piece.

DSCN4323aI add enough vegetable oil to a deep-sided pan to just cover the chops, and I bring this to a medium high temperature – about 350°F.  Of course, I don’t have a thermometer to help me gauge this, so I just drip a little flour batter into the pan periodically until the drop immediately sizzles and starts to brown upon hitting the surface of the oil.  It’s ready for my chops at that point.

DSCN4325I slide both chops carefully into the oil, making sure not to splatter myself like I usually do.  (Thank God for OxyClean, or just about all my clothes would have constellations of oil drips on them.)  Since these chops are thick, I let them fry for about 10 minutes on each side.

DSCN4329While this happens, I add my soy sauce and heavy cream to the mushrooms in the pan, which I bring to simmer on low heat, stirring regularly so the flavors can blend.

DSCN4325aWhen the chops are a nice golden brown on the bottom, it’s time to flip them carefully to the other side. Another 10 minutes or so will do it.

DSCN4326I’ve been baking my sweet potatoes all along, by the way.  After an hour on 350°, I can easily squeeze them with my oven-mitted fingers, so I pull them out…

DSCN4328… remove their bright orange insides to a bowl, where I mash them with my remaining butter.

DSCN4331These savory pork chops have a cracking, super-crunchy, egg-shell thin coating are super-tender and juicy.  The simple sweet mash is offset by a rich, dark, silky and fragrant soy cream gravy, and each button of mushroom bursts with flavor on the tongue.  Not only is this a very easy recipe, but it presents itself elegantly on the plate, and can satisfy even the pickiest of eaters.  Now, what else can I fry?

Roasted Short Rib, Sprouts and Roots Skillet with Truffle Parmesan Grits

I hope, dear reader, that sometimes the meal you make makes you cry.  Cry for joy, that is — for weeping in ecstasy is truly one of life’s purest pleasures.  Lucky for me (not to toot my own horn or anything), but this happens for me often – and I cook because I’m addicted to the sensation.  Tonight’s meal plucked my heart-strings in an extra-special way, and now, an hour later, I’m still all verklempt.  The sumptuous flavors and soul-soothing textures are still imprinted on my tongue, still indelibly etched into my being, and my heart beats more happily now that it’s been fed by this rich feast.  This is the kind of warmth normally found only when laying in the arms of a lover on a cold, crisp night; a brand of almost spiritual fulfillment usually reserved strictly for religious experiences; a type of gastronomic indulgence rarely found outside of chi-chi celebrity chef’s kitchens that charge shocking prices after interminable waits-for-tables.  I admit — I was inspired by the Porchetta plate at Kendall Square’s newest hottest  gastro-joint, Firebrand Saints, a hopping establishment with a sexy menu, sexy staff, and good prices.  Their home-roasted porchetta over polenta with wilted greens was a great dinner;  but I admit I feel like I one-upped them here.   Polenta can be a flavor suck, whereas grits are a flavor enhancer (‘cuz they’re less gluteny…), and a concentrated gravy of braising liquids and browned beef adds that much more.  Yet this meal is something I can see being made out on the open range, by cowboys with some roots and hearty sprouts in their packs, a cast iron skillet over a campfire, and some of the last cuts of meat to tenderize with a slow and steady braise.  Honest, homey, and perfect — see for yourself!

Roasted Short Rib, Roots, and Sprouts Skillet with Truffle Parmesan Grits

2 lbs bone-in short ribs
10-16 tiny wee potatoes
10-12 medium Brussels sprouts, larger ones split in half
2-3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2″ discs
2 medium white onions, diced
8-10 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
sea salt, cracked black pepper, truffle salt, vegetable oil
12 oz dark beer
4 cups beef stock
1/2 cup grits
2 cups water
2 tbs butter
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

I headed out on Black Friday with a mind to blow some dough.  Alas, I was mostly disappointed.  Newbury Street was all “15% off your 4th item” and stuff – not the type of discounts I wanted.  But I did find these adorable little cast iron skillets at Marshall’s (#thuglife) for a pittance, and I sort of cobbled my meal together with them in mind.  After curing them fully this afternoon, before I got truly started with tonight’s meal I threw them back in my 350° oven to reheat back through thoroughly.  They’ll come into play in about 30 minutes.

These beautiful beef short-ribs are from my new bestest friend, Blood Farms.  (Holla out to Lucy+ Chris + Andrew! Friends I incessantly urged to take the drive to West Groton to visit said Blood Farm after they waxed philosophic about their tasty bits of slab bacon in my Thanksgiving Brussels sprouts.)  These boney beefy hunks of meat were purchased a few weeks ago and frozen in my sad, crappy freezer, but which were happily defrosted this afternoon in preparation of tonight’s meal.  I rinse them, pat them very dry, then bondage them like the naughty cow parts they are (um… to hold the bones in while braising.)

I’ve moved my skillets from my hot oven to my hot range, and I’ve added a douse of vegetable oil to them to heat ’til just smoking. I’ve dressed my bones in salt and pepper, and I place them, bone side up, into the sizzling frying fat.  They sear 5 minutes on this side.  Using tongs, I flip them so that each other edge sears for at least 2 minutes, until every surface has been kissed with brown.

I add equal amounts of garlic cloves,  carrot, onion to each pan.  Then I toss all this very well to coat with fat and sear with heat.

This is my new daily beer: Session Premium Black Lager.  It’s got the whole cool crisp lager thing going, with a nice malty full bodied richness characterized by the “black” eponym.  It goes great with beef.  6 oz goes steaming into each pan…

I let all that loveliness froth and roil for a few seconds, before throwing the pans into my still 350°hot  oven.  And I wait.  For an hour.

After which time, my meat has begun to tighten on to the bone (the tough stage before the tenderness sets in), and almost all my beer has boiled down to a nice thick glaze.  Nice.  Thick.  Glaze.  But it needs more time, so I decide to meaten it up…

… by adding a couple cups of beef broth to each pan, too.  Back in the oven they go, for another 30 minutes.

The last 30 minutes will turn the starting-to-fray-with-forks-but-still-tough-at-the-bone meat into succulent shreds of deliciousness.  Those 30 minutes will also finish off the wee potatoes, sprouts, and the rest of the onion.  I toss these beauties with the liquid left in the pan (it’s OK to add more beef broth if it’s too dry; the pan should be about 1/2way full of juice), then toss the pans back into the hot oven.

The final ingredient is the grits – a starchy alternative to a soppin’ biscuit, and my preference to polenta when wanting something corny on my plate. 2 cup water, 1/2 cup grits, simmered until tender.

I add my two tbs  butter and my grated cheese to the pot when the grits are just about ready.  Then I add a generous amount of truffle infused sea salt — to add flavor and savor.  Removing the lid and heat source will thicken ‘em up.

The beauty of a skillet is that you serve right in it.  I sort of push my lovely caramelized veggies to one side and pour my cheesy truffled grits into the chasm that remains.  They ooze like lava under the tenderific meat bones, the bursting potato pods, the crisp-edged, silky innard sprouts, the sweet carrots and the melting onions.  The smooth corn goodness offsets the deep tones of meat and garden-fresh roasted flavor. With each bite, I ascend to some transcendental place where perfection dwells on the tines of a fork, while the dark deep smoldering heat of the iron underneath anchors me to terra firma, where lust lurks on the tongue.  I challenge you, dear readers, to dive into this delight.  A few easy ingredients, a  few tantalizing hours of house aromas, and you too can experience Nirvana by merely plucking the fruits of your fork.

Weeknight Wondermeal: Easiest Roast Chicken with Lemon, Garlic, and Tiny Wee Potatoes

It’s high time Lolita posted a bona fide Weeknight Wondermeal.  Only the fewest ingredients – the least effort – but with the mostest reward.  Lately I’ve been too busy to even think, and I admit to some sort of blogger’s block engendered by a distinct lack of culinary inspiration.  But Pinterest.com is always good for a food porn fix (follow me with the link at the left to see what makes me salivate! ) – and I pinned this bad boy a few weeks ago.  Thanks to Sparklingink.com who gave me the notion, which I tweaked – as is my way.  But the basics, and the results, remain the same: succulent chicken, creamy potatoes, tangy lemon, rich garlic, and earthy rosemary.  Quickly roasted, crispy skinned, and full-flavored – a true weeknight wondermeal for the ages – this chicken dinner is totally winner winner!

Easiest Roast Chicken with Lemon, Garlic, and Tiny Wee Potatoes

1 2-3lb roasting chicken
1 lemon
1 head garlic
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 lb teeny tiny white potatoes (if you can’t find marble-sized, split the smallest ones you can find in half)
1 cup white wine
EVOO
sea salt, cracked black pepper

No question: the easiest, cheapest, quickest, most reliable, and most ludicrous way to roast a chicken is by violating her rear cavity with a 1/2 full can of beer, using it as a weighted stand upon which she can decadently perch.   Undignified (and kitchy) as the posture may be – this technique has *never* failed me.  Even my students can do this – and I plan to teach it to them someday in the near future.  Just remove your bird from the package, remove the package of innards (save for stock! just freeze ‘em), rinse her under cold water, pat her dry with paper towels, then ram that can up her… er… can.  Don’t be shy; she don’t mind.

I’ve split a lemon into 12 wedges; I’ve washed my mini spuds; I’ve peeled all the cloves of garlic from one whole head; and I’ve chopped my roof-deck’s rosemary.  It all gets scattered around the can along the bottom of my heavy-bottomed large deep skillet.  Douse with EVOO, salt, and pepper – bathing the bird as best you can, too – and toss with  a spoon until everything’s nicely oiled up.

Is it morally wrong, or insensitive, or just ironic to call this a bird’s eye view?

I like to think of this situation as one of those standing tanning beds.  Here’s how it works so well: on 400°, the heat from my oven comes from the bottom coil only, so the cooking creeps up my bird’s ankles and through her thighs with gusto.  But there is a dry searing heat filling the oven, which more slowly cooks the breasts while browning and crisping her shoulders, torso, and wing tips.  So her brown (upper) bits remain juicy and tender while her naughty (bottom) bits roast tenderly off the bone.

The final ingredient: a shot of dry white wine.  I pour about a cup directly over the potatoes, then close the oven door and walk away for an hour.  And I seriously. Don’t. Open. The. Door.  For an hour.

After said hour, the wings are crisp. the breast perfectly roasted, the legs are pulling themselves apart to fall off the frame, and a fork stabs easily through the potato spheres.  Using tongs and forks, I move my bird (and can) to a cutting board.  The pan of lemonEVOOroastedgarlicspuds I place over high heat on the stovetop.  I squish the garlic cloves (which are nice and soft) with a fork, mix well, and bring to a boil to thicken.

 Clayton likened this position to some sort of gynecological medical procedure. Although I barked at him, indignant on behalf of my gender,  for not possibly being able to ” know nothing about it!!”, he has a point.  My poor bird looks like she’s giving birth to that can.  See how her legs are splitting at the seams?  That visual might equate to pain to mothers out there, but in a chicken it equals perfectly cooked and ready to eat.  Pull that can right on out – you’re done with it now.

Totally rocking the observations this evening, Clayton pointed out that the scent, and flavor, of this plate was like “lemon flowers…”  I selected the light darkmeat quarters and the crispyskinned wings, folded them over a bed of potato marbles and stewed citrus slices, with some herbaceous rosemary tucked within.  A fork and a lustful glance, and the meat languished loose from the bone, begging to be sopped in sauce, and speared with spud.  Warm autumnal fare, for the family you love.

Roasted Beef with Crisp Domino Potatoes, Italian Plums, and Watercress Puree


Autumn harvest means deep, sweet flavors, ripening colors, and cooling, early-darkening skies.  Ovens warm their coils for gas-fueled flames and spill their recently dormant heat across suddenly chilly kitchen floors, and the crisp cold breeze softens the aroma of roasting meats and freshly dug root vegetables that bake, and broil, and baste in rekindled hearths all across New England. I know this because today I smelt the burning logs wafting their bouquet through the twilight, and today I spied the pillowy puffs of smoke etching staccato patterns across the indigo and azure air.  Some plump purple plums found at Whole Foods formed the backbone of Lolita’s plat du jour; their roasted flesh burst complexsweet against tender chewsome slices of Boeuf au jus nestled in pureed green watercress spooning buttered oregano scented side-stacked slices of crispy salted russet spuds.  Elegant and hearty, crackling crusty and richly meaty, fruit-sweet and beef-rich: a complicated combination of down-home deliciousness & heartwarming wow.  Come, dear readers, and indulge in tonight’s dinner with me.  I would make it for each one of you if I could… because that’s love.


Roasted Beef with Crisp Domino Potatoes, Italian Plums, and Watercress Puree

2lb chuck shoulder roast
1.5 oz concentrated demi-glace (I use More than Gourmet’s)
4-6 cloves garlic, unpeeled
3 large russet potatoes
1 bunch watercress
4 small, fresh ripe Italian prune plums
8-10 tiny chanterelles
10 whole black peppercorns
10 juniper berries
6 tablespoons granulated sugar (divided)
balsamic vinegar
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp lemon zest
fresh lemon juice
1 stick butter, melted and clarified
2 tbs butter
1 tbs corn starch
2 sprigs rosemary
2 sprigs fresh oregano
EVOO
smoked sea salt, Maldon sea salt, cracked black pepper


The chuck roast is a relatively cheap and tough cut of meat, and although a larger piece (say, 3-4 lbs, at least) can be slow-roasted for a nice, medium rare roast beef, I chose to braise it in order to get a more tender piece of meat.    I started by rinsing, then patting the meat dry, before rubbing it with EVOO and sprinkling it with smoked salt and black pepper.  Then I placed it into a hot pan to sear, first on one side…


…. then the other side…


… then, using tongs, all the edges.


Once the meat is nicely seared all around, I remove it from the pan, which I set back on medium-high heat. In goes a cup of water and the concentrated demi-glace, which I whisk in well, scraping all the fond off the bottom of pan so all the tasty goodness will blend right in.  I bring this to a low simmer.


I add my roast back to the pan, stick my unpeeled garlic cloves in the broth (so that the innards will soften up real nice like, but not yet bleed into the sauce), then stick the whole pan into a 350° oven for 2 hours to slow roast.


My plums are the next item.  I saw these little lovelies at Whole Foods, many still with the stems on them, and thought I just HAD to incorporate them into my meal somehow.  I knew I was aiming for a savory dinner, and I thought some sweet roasted plums might offset the richness I had in store. I washed and dried them, trying to leave the stems intact (just ‘cuz they’re so cute!), then put them in a pyrex dish large enough to hold them.  I added my juniper berries, and then poured over them a mixture of 1/2 cup water, 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, my peppercorns, and 4 tablespoons of sugar.

I sprinkle the remaining sugar on top and layer my rosemary sprigs over the plums.  This goes into my already hot oven to roast for about 30 minutes, or until the skins have withered slightly.

See how lovely?  I pull my plums out carefully, and strain the sweet braising liquid (which has reduced considerably) into another bowl to use later.


To prepare my watercress puree, I destemmed my bunch of leaves and peeled and chopped one of my potatoes.  The spuds go into some salted boiling water for 15 minutes…


…. and my watercress gets added for the last 5 minutes or so.


When the potatoes are *very* soft, I remove everything from the pan (reserving the liquid in case I need to thin out my puree later) and move it to a large bowl.


Lolita doesn’t own a blender.  Well, not a working blender, at least.  And using a hand-blender often means Lolita ends up wearing a good deal of what she had intended to blend.  Recently, I starting using this little trick, which I learned in relation to pounding out peppercorns in my mortar and pestle.  Those little spherical buggers used to fly all over the kitchen, and they’d crush underfoot when I walked in shoes across the floor (or they stick like a burr in my barefooted flesh).  Once I realized I could wrap the bowl in plastic and cut a slit for my pestle to pound through, I solved that problem.  Same principle here: the Saran Wrap keeps not only the stuff from flying out, but also helps hold in some heat.


Adding some salt, pepper, my lemon juice and lemon zest to my supergreen watercress puree helps lock in the fresh, snappy, peppery flavor.  I cover this until I need it later.


Finally, I peel my remaining two spuds, cutting out any black spots.


Using my handheld mandoline (handoline?), I slice them both into card thin wafers, dropping them into a bowl of salted water to pull some of the starch out.

Using a strainer, I remove all the milk solids I can from a melted stick of butter.  Any froth left floating on the top I skim off with a spoon.

See?  Clarifying the butter like this will impart a purer flavor to the finished potato product.


I cut a small sliver off the bottom of my potato slices, so that there is a flat edge I can use to plate my dominoes.  I then stack them like a tall deck of cards before tipping them as a single column into a buttered ceramic dish large enough to hold them all.  I dribble my clarified butter carefully over each slice, encouraging some to slide between the layers.  I then salt and pepper lightly, before throwing a few sprigs of oregano into the dish for good measure.  Into the already hot oven they go, where they roast and toast for 30 minutes, or until the edges have crisped up nicely.


My roast is perfectly cooked — nice and browned and easily pulled apart with two forks.  I remove the meat from the pan and set it aside for a few moments, placing the pan on the stovetop over medium heat.

I’ve carefully washed and dried my mini chanterelles.
And I’ve mixed my cornstarch with the remaining two tablespoons of butter, which I’ve softened (a little too much, but that won’t hurt).
The mushrooms and roux get added to the pan, which I whisk well to incorporate.  I also, using a fork, squish the now roasted garlic out of their peels into the sauce.  I pick the papers out, and let this mixture come to a low simmer to thicken.

Although I laid my potatoes in a straight line in my dish, in the heat they redistributed themselves into a pretty little coil.  They are perfect — crispy edged all around, but buttery and fluffy in the centers.  Using a spatula, I very carefully lift each section out to place on my plates.
Resting on a blanket of pureed watercress, my tender beef slices are drizzled with meaty pan gravy, delicate mushrooms, and sensuous plum sauce.  The plums themselves buttress terrifically textured buttered tubers, bringing the salty and the sweet together with the rich and the light.  Each forkful boasts full flavors and complex pleasures — a perfect plate for a discerning palate.  Autumn may have fallen sooner than we’d planned, but Lolita’s kitchen is ready for the task.  If I keep making dinners like this one, it will be a wonderful winter indeed.