Unfussy Fare

Chicken Breasts Saltimbocca

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Saltimbocca. It translates to “jumps in the mouth.” That’s a pretty high bar when you’re talking about a boneless, skinless chicken breast, which is sort of the Wonder Bread of the poultry world. But Saltimbocca takes the humble chicken breast to new heights. The blend of flavors here hits every note. Sage is earthy and fragrant. Marsala wine is complex and fruity. And Prosciutto, well, cured pork is just the world’s greatest innovation. The whole get-up flatters chicken to perfection.

If you don’t have any Marsala, run out and buy some. You’ll find it on the shelf beside the sherry and port.  I’m usually the queen of substitutions, but I recommend against using other kinds of wine here. I”m sure it would taste fine, but it wouldn”t taste like this. And THIS is worth tasting. Marsala really makes this dish. It’s worth having a bottle. I’ve used dry and sweet Marsala in this recipe, and they both have their charms. Even if you don’t drink it, you’ll need some on hand when Chicken Saltimbocca goes into your regular dinner rotation.

This dish takes just a few minutes and one pan. The best part is hammering the chicken flat. Then you just dredge, brown, top with prosciutto and sage, and simmer briefly in wine. And voila! You’ll feel mighty pleased with yourself when those flavors not only jump, they shimmy and twist. It’s easy to cook the chicken breasts to juicy perfection, since you’ve hammered them into uniformly thick submission. The golden brown crust and rich wine sauce will give you a whole new appreciation for the moist and tender chicken breast. It’s heaven on mashed potatoes.

This recipe was adapted from one in Cuisine Rapide, by Pierre Franey. If you want to keep things simple and still eat well, have a look at this book. It’s been around for over twenty years, and it”s stood the test of time. Oh, and the Brussels sprouts in this picture may not look like much, but they are a divine revelation, deserving of their very own post. More on that later.

CHICKEN BREASTS SALTIMBOCCA
serves two

2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about ¾ pound)
kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
½ cup flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 thin slices of prosciutto
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage, or 1 teaspoon dry
½ cup marsala wine

Place a breast half between two plastic bags and pound with a mallet until it is a uniform ½ inch thick. Repeat with second breast. (For ten years or so I did this with a hammer. I finally splurged four dollars on a meat mallet. It works better.)

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat.

Season meat with salt and pepper. Dredge lightly in flour. Shake off excess flour.

Add chicken to oiled pan in a single layer.  Cook for about two minutes, until the bottoms are golden brown. Turn the chicken and cook another two minutes until the second side is nicely browned. Remove chicken to a plate.

Lay the prosciutto slices in the hot pan, saute until they start to brown (about 20 seconds). Place the prosciutto slices on top of the chicken breasts. Melt butter in the same pan, and return the prosciutto-topped chicken to the pan.

Sprinkle sage over chicken. Pour marsala into pan. Reduce heat to medium. Cover and cook for two to three minutes, until the chicken is just cooked through.


Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Soup

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Cool nights are encroaching, friends. Long-forgotten sweaters are coming out of the closet. It’s time to oil up a sheet pan and start roasting vegetables. What’s that you say? You’re drowning in tomatoes? You can’t eat them fast enough? You’re losing sleep over finding a worthy home for them all? Well, rest easy. You just found a noble purpose for a whole mess of them: Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Soup. Things are looking up.

When it comes to soup, tomatoes like to brashly elbow other flavors out of the spotlight. I’m duly impressed by all their ruby-red brightness.  But it doesn’t hurt to enhance them with a few back-up singers: a subtle hint of spice, and the earthy caramelized goodness that comes with roasted peppers and shallots. The tomato still gets a starring role, it’s just forced to harmonize. The complex flavors in this soup jostle and nudge each other for position, but no one outshines the others. They’re stuck with complimenting each other to perfection.

The shallots, garlic and red pepper are roasted with nothing more than olive oil and sea salt. Some things in life can’t be improved upon.  The tomatoes are roasted with a sprinkling of coriander, because together they smell like flowers in summer.  But the crowning glory of this soup, the element that brings all the others together, is a smidge of hot smoked paprika. Suddenly the soup goes from being better-than-average to being alluring, deep, and smoky.

Tomato soup is comforting. Especially with a crisp and gooey grilled cheese sandwich. But this one is more than soothing. It’s downright intriguing. Can’t you hear that mountain of tomatoes calling your name? I’m thinking they need some intrigue in their lives. Who doesn’t?

This is really more of an outline than a recipe. You could include more or less of any ingredient. Substitute or add stuff. There are no rules here. Just roast the vegetables. Throw in some spices that move you. Blend and add water. Then pat yourself on the back for making something so downright delicious with so little effort. And don’t forget the dollop of sour cream. It’s a player.

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ROASTED TOMATO AND RED PEPPER SOUP
makes four large or six small servings

3 pounds smallish tomatoes, halved (Romas would work well.)
½ teaspoon ground coriander
4 small cloves of garlic, peel left on
3 medium shallots, trimmed, peeled, bulbs halved
1 small red pepper, quartered, stemmed, and seeded (see note)
2 tablespoons olive oil
kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 cup sour cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees, with the two racks placed as close to the middle as possible.

Line two rimmed sheet pans with foil, and spray foil with cooking spray. (This step is not necessary. It just makes for easier clean-up.) You’ll need a big sheet for the tomatoes. A smaller pan will work for the rest of the vegetables.

On a large rimmed sheet pan, place the tomato halves, cut side up, in one layer. Sprinkle with salt and coriander.

In a medium bowl, toss garlic cloves, shallots, and red pepper with olive oil and a half teaspoon kosher salt. Spread them in one layer on the other pan. Place the pepper pieces skin-side down.

Roast vegetables until they are browning nicely. The time will depend on their size.

  • My garlic cloves were done in about 20 minutes. Give the rest of the vegetables a stir when you pull out that pan to get the garlic. Remove the garlic cloves from their skins. (The skins come right off.)
  • My peppers and shallots were done in about 30 minutes. The pepper skins will get very dark, even black in spots. That’s okay.
  • My tomatoes took about an hour, but it will depend on the size and moisture content of your tomatoes. Take them out when they are starting to brown on the edges.

Place all the vegetables into a food processor or blender. Puree until smooth. Place the puree in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add enough water to acheive desired thickness. (I used two cups.) Warm through.

Add smoked paprika, and salt and pepper to taste. Don’t be shy with the salt.

Top with a  dollop of sour cream.

NOTE: The pepper I used was an impulse buy at the farmer’s market. It’s called a Beaver Dam pepper, and it’s delicious. It’s smaller than your average bell pepper. The one pictured here is about five inches long, and skinny (as you can see).  I used just one for the soup. Beaver Dam peppers are sweet, but they pack a little heat. If you don’t have heirloom pepper varieties at your fingertips, don’t fret. You can get a similar effect by roasting a small sweet red pepper with an anaheim pepper (or a jalapeno if you’re the spicy type). Remove the stems, veins, and seeds from whatever peppers you choose.

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Preserved Lemons

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I typically put preserving food in the same category as changing my own motor oil, or cutting my own hair. That is to say, not worth the effort, since I’m likely to botch the job at high personal cost. Preserving food scares me.  I’m afraid of poisoning people with botulism or mysterious molds. But once I heard how easy it was to make preserved lemons, I was emboldened. If I can do this, people, anyone can.

I should probably warn you that I’m not objective about citrus. The truth is, I have a big crush on citrus. If I met citrus at a party, I’d angle to sit next to it. Citrus would crack surprising jokes. It would be soft-spoken and witty. It would be complicated on the outside, sweet and sublime within. Plus it would smell like flowers. Fascinating.

I swoon a little when I taste citrus in just about anything. Cocktails? Oh, yeah.  Pie crusts and cakes? Yes, please. Chicken or fish? Uh-huh. Citrus can throw a little pop rocket into just about any dish.  So you see, forces larger than myself drove me to preserve lemons. Not only do I find citrus charismatic and beautiful, I also love pretty little jars, and the color yellow, and salt. Salt is right up there with citrus as the unwitting object of my affection. How could I resist chopping a lemon, and salting it heavily, and leaving it to marinate in its own briny juices?

Preserved lemon is an alchemist. It’s one of those magical secret ingredients with the power to add depth and dimension to an ordinary dish. It’s impact is subtle but profound. Together, the salt and the lemon add up to much more than the sum of their parts. Come to think of it, I should maybe set my hopeless crushes aside and graciously applaud the union of salt and lemon. They’re such a cute couple.

How to use them? I’ll post a recipe featuring preserved lemons soon. In the meantime, just pull a lemon wedge out of the jar. Rinse it off and add it to a braise or stew. Or discard the pulp and chop the peel into fine bits. Mix the bits with butter and toss with vegetables. Add it to grain salads and pasta dishes. You can sprinkle some on fish, or mix it into dressing or marinade. A little goes a long way. (Preserved lemons are salty. Bear that in mind when you’re seasoning.) 

Preserved lemons improve with age. I’ve read they’re best after six months or more.  I believe it. But I used some one-week-old preserved lemon rind in gremolata last night, and it was not half bad. The preserved lemon already had a notably different and more complex flavor than fresh zest. So here’s what you do:

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PRESERVED LEMONS
(adapted from this recipe from Gourmet magazine)
makes four 8 ½  ounce jars

4 pounds small lemons (about 14 lemons – I used organic, for their thinner skins)
3/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup olive oil

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Blanch seven lemons in boiling water for five minutes.

When cool enough to handle, cut lemons into eight wedges each and discard seeds.

Toss lemons with salt in a large bowl. Distribute salted lemon wedges into jars.

Squeeze juice from remaining lemons. Add enough juice to jars to cover lemon wedges.

Close jar lids and let stand at room temperature for one week, flipping the jar each day.
(Did you get that? The jar sits on its lid every other day.)

 Add one tablespoon olive oil to each jar. Refrigerate. Keeps for a year or more.

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Mixed Berry Crostata

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I didn’t make this mixed berry crostata. My husband made it. But it is my recipe. Well, not so much MY recipe, as one I tore out of a magazine years ago and adopted for life. Okay, so  I can’t take credit for any part of it, except coveting the crostata and marrying the right man. And sharing this recipe with you just in time for the last gasp of the berries.

I admit I felt a petty flicker of territoriality when Chris declared he was making MY crostata. It’s not the first time he’s made an impressive dessert that won the hearts and minds of our friends and family. Still, I am de facto minister of the interior in our household, much as I might gripe about it. Dessert is my area. But he is ever-gracious when I nose in on his territory (of late: grilling, and photography). Better to let him set the tone around here. Way better. Besides, anyone who complains about having this dessert made for them needs serious professional help. God knows I don’t want that, so I had to get over myself and say thanks. Wow. This tastes like a perfect Oregon late-summer day, with sugar on top.

This crostata is my kind of dessert. Note the butter content, and the rough-hewn look. As we already established with the Chocolate Cookie Sandwiches, I’m missing the gene for concocting even, uniform desserts. My layer cakes lean and sag. The flutes on my pie crusts are lopsided. I don’t decorate. If you are similarly afflicted, don’t despair. There are plenty of single-layer cakes or “it’s supposed to look like that” dessert options for people like us. You got your crisps and your cobblers, clafoutis and now…crostatas. Leave the dainty confections to the pros. This lumpy dessert has a beauty all its own. It elicits enough “oooohs” and “aaaahs” to make you feel good about yourself. You’ll want more than one slice. You’ll want some for breakfast, too. I’ll lay money on that.

I have used this crust with nectarines and berries in summer, apples in fall, even pears and cranberries at thanksgiving. This particular mixed berry filling was my favorite (even if I can’t take credit). The tangy blackberries add some sass and steer things away from getting too sweet. A dollop of whipped cream for cool richness, and you’ve got yourself a home run. This crust never fails. The cornmeal gives it some tooth, and citrus zest is always fun at parties. The crust stands up to whatever fruit you load into it. You can actually pick up a slice of the crostata and eat it with one hand. It’s that hearty (in a good way, not in a dental-work-inducing kind of way).  And if your loved one is inspired to make this for you….don’t argue.

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MIXED BERRY CROSTATA
adapted from this recipe in Bon Appetit

Crust
1 2/3 cups all purpose flour
3 tablespoons polenta (coarse cornmeal)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon (packed) grated orange or lemon peel
3/4 teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/3 cup (or more) ice water

Filling
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
4 1/2 cups mixed berries (We used blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries.)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Finish
1 egg, beaten to blend (for glaze)
1 tablespoon sugar, for sprinkling

Whisk together first five ingredients in a large bowl.

Add butter. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut butter into dry ingredients until the butter is reduced to pea-size pieces. (You can also use a food processor for these first two steps, if you’re so inclined. Just don’t cut the butter too small.)

Add 1/3 cup ice water. Stir with a wooden spoon until dough comes together in moist clumps, adding more water by teaspoonfuls if dough is dry.

Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap; chill for about an hour. If it’s too stiff to roll out, let it warm up a little. If it’s too sticky, chill it longer.

Meanwhile, stir sugar and cornstarch in a medium bowl to blend. Mix in fruit and vanilla. Let stand until juices are released, stirring fruit occasionally, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Roll out dough on lightly floured sheet of parchment paper to 14-inch round, turning dough occasionally to prevent sticking. Slide the paper and dough onto a baking sheet.

Using a slotted spoon (it gets a little too wet if you add all the juice), spoon berries into a ten-inch circle in the center of dough. Brush 2-inch border of dough with egg glaze. Lift about 2 inches of dough border and pinch to form vertical seam. Continue around tart, pinching seam every 2 inches to form standing border. Fold border down over fruit (center 6 inches of fruit remains uncovered).

Brush folded border with egg glaze; sprinkle with sugar.

Bake until crust is golden brown and fruit filling is bubbling at edges, about 50 minutes.

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