Thursday, January 26, 2012

Olive stuffed chicken breast

I love chicken breast. I always have some hanging around, it's easy to cook and it's usually a crowd pleaser. Let's face it though, chicken can get boring. Whenever I feel like I'm in a bit of a chicken rut I poke around my fridge and pantry and try and find something to stuff the chicken with. This has two benefits, it makes dinner more interesting (and usually more delicious) and it helps me use up whatever odds and ends I might have laying around.

A few days ago I happened to have some olives and prosciutto on hand so I decided to do a "tapenade" stuffed chicken breast. I bought the olives for my Mediterranean salad and had almost a whole jar left over, and as I mentioned before, olives aren't something I eat very often so I needed to figure out something to do with them. I looked up some recipes and didn't seem to have all of the ingredients for a traditional tapenade (I was mainly missing capers and anchovy) but I figured I could still do some kind of olive stuffing. I diced up about 15 kalamata olives and mixed them with about a tablespoon of lemon zest, a teaspoon of minced fresh rosemary, a clove of grated garlic, and some pepper. I left out salt because olives are already salty on their own. I could have done this in the food processor, but I didn't feel like getting it dirty for such a small batch so I just mixed everything in a stainless steel bowl.

A mortar and pestle would have come in handy, but unfortunately I don't have one of those (yet). The next step was to stuff the chicken. I rinsed and dried each breast then used a paring knife to cut a slit in the thicker half of the breast. After that I seasoned the inside and outside of the meat with salt and pepper then put half of the filling into each breast.

The next step was to wrap each breast in two slices of prosciutto. This helps to keep the meat together and the filling inside while cooking. Also, what food isn't improved by being wrapped in cured pork products? After everything was put together I added the breasts to a cast iron pan on medium heat (I think I used a little bacon fat for lubrication, you can use whatever's around) and preheated the oven to 350. 

After searing both sides for about 3-5 minutes each I transferred the whole pan to the oven and left it in there for 15-20 minutes. I served my olive stuffed chicken along with green beans. I just steamed them for 10 minutes, drained them, then sauteed the beans in butter with some garlic, salt, and pepper. In my house we like them soft and a little brown around the edges, but you can make them as crunchy or as soft as you like. This is a pretty common side in our house though.

Here's the finished product:

Overall I was happy with this experiment. The prosciutto was crispy and I liked the olive filling. I could really taste the lemon zest, it added an element of freshness I love. I'll probably make this a few more times, until I run out of olives anyway.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In which I accidentally make meat jello.

Guys, I don't love my Crock Pot. I feel like this is a big confession. I know most people love theirs all to pieces, and I feel a little bit broken inside because of my indifference. But try as I might, I just can't get it to cook me anything really yummy (the one exception being the homemade stock). I've tried a couple roasts and stews, but they are always just a little bit off for some reason. I always get so excited about using my slow cooker, but end up disappointed.

I think the first reason is the complete dearth of quality Crock Pot recipes out there. I don't want to dump in some meat, a package of ranch dressing mix, and a can of cream of chicken soup. I would really prefer to use real food if at all possible. I'm sure some of those recipes taste good, it just isn't what I'm looking for. The second issue is that I think I'm gone too long during the day. I leave the house by 8 and sometimes don't get home until after 7, which is a long time for a slow cooker to run. Mine is programmable, so it can go on low for 8 (or however many) hours and then automatically switch to "warm," but I swear my stuff still gets overcooked. I could still use it on weekends I suppose, but that seems to kind of defeat the point. Anyway, I haven't tried to make pulled pork or Chipotle style barbacoa yet, maybe my Crock Pot still has a chance to redeem itself.

Anyway, my latest slow cooker failure was oxtail stew. As I said in my last two posts, I was feeling adventurous last week. I've been interested in trying to eat from "snout to tail" and exploring different cuts, oxtail seemed like a pretty tame place to start so I picked some up at the farmer's market. I thought I would be able to find a good recipe, but nothing looked good to me so I decided to improvise. I browned the sections of tail, put them in the pot with carrots, half a green pepper, a bulb of fennel, a few cloves of garlic, and a can of chopped tomatoes. I covered it with stock, added some spices, and let it go for 8 hours on low. When it was done I sauteed some grated cauliflower in butter so I could have "rice" to serve with my stew.

The end result was just OK. The individual components tasted good, but there was nothing to bring them together. (Can you tell I watch too much Chopped?) The one good thing (so I thought) was that I'd have plenty for leftovers, and who doesn't love leftovers? Sometimes there is nothing better than not having to cook every meal. 

The only problem was when I pulled it out of the fridge the next day it was JELLO. I made MEAT JELLO. And it wasn't just a layer of fat on the top or anything, the whole thing was like one big Crock Pot shaped, meat flavored, vegetable studded, Jello Jiggler. The Jello salad from hell. Needless to say, we skipped the leftovers and I cooked again.

I always knew that Jello had something to do with bones, since vegetarians don't eat it, but this was a really good illustration of how that happens. It was less than appetizing. I don't eat gelatin often, but I don't think I'll have any problems turning down Jello shots in the future. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Looks aren't everything

Apparently I was feeling very adventurous while food shopping last week, not only did I roast my first chicken and cook fennel for the first time, I also picked up some celeriac, also known as celery root, and decided to try that for the first time as well. It is not a pretty vegetable, but it's January and I know it's going to be a couple of months before I can eat pretty vegetables again.

Turns out it is delicious however! I used a Claire Robinson for Celery Root and Carrot Puree and it turned out great. I mostly followed the recipe, but since I don't have a TV contract that limits me to five ingredients I also put in a little cream and chopped parsley at the end. I was also excited because I got to use the chicken stock I had made a few days earlier. Overall celery root does taste like celery, but it's a less sharp and intense flavor. Adding the carrots mellowed out the flavor of celery as well. Neither my husband or I like eating raw celery, but we both loved this. Robbie actually loved it so much he requested it again for this week!

I served the puree with some spiced lamb. This recipe was originally inspired by a Rachael Ray recipe (which I can't seem to find a link to, sorry) but I think I've changed it a bit over time. 

Here's what you need:

1 to 1.5 pounds of boneless leg of lamb, cut into bite sized chunks 
Spices: I included salt, pepper, cayenne, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, paprika, allspice, nutmeg, ginger, and ground cloves
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup of wine (red or white, whatever's open) to deglaze the pan 
1/4 cup of dried currants (raisins would also work)
1 cup chicken stock

Combine all of the spices in a ziplock bag. The amounts, and even what spices you use, are up to your discretion. I put in pretty much whatever I have, with the exception of anything that's dried leaves or something else that might burn easily. This time I think I used a little but too much clove, so I'll have to try to be less heavy handed next time. Anyway, after you have the spices in the bag put the meat in and shake it up so all the pieces are evenly coated.

Meanwhile heat some olive oil and saute the garlic. When it's browned a bit add the lamb and turn the meat occasionally so that all of the meat gets seared on the outside. After that's finished, deglaze the pan with the wine, then add the currants and stock. Cover the pot and let it simmer for about twenty minutes. That's it! This is a super easy and quick way to cook lamb, an ingredient that can be somewhat intimidating. Here's my finished meal:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Roasted Chicken and Homemade Stock

The farmer's market in my neighborhood is technically year round, but I guess we at the time of year when the farmers just have nothing to sell. There were no produce stands at the market last week, which was very disappointing. Next Saturday I'm going to try the market in the next neighborhood over to see if maybe they have more to offer. Anyway, the meat vendor from Smith Meadows Farm showed up, so my trip was not in vain. I bought some eggs and because I was feeling adventurous I also got a whole chicken and an oxtail. More on the oxtail later.

Although I roasted a duck for Thanksgiving, I've never done a whole chicken before. For some reason I found the idea really intimidating and kept putting it off. Man, was I being silly. Roasting a chicken is SO EASY and SO GOOD. Since this was my first time doing it, I decided to stick with a recipe which is uncharacteristic for me. I used Ina Garten's Perfect Roast Chicken recipe and followed it almost to the letter. The only things I did differently were to omit the onions (because I hate them) and to put some fennel fronds in the chicken cavity just because I had them and why not. Since my bird was a little smaller, around 4 pounds, my cooking time was closer to an hour. Here is the finished product:
Golden brown and delicious!
In addition to roasting chicken for the first time, this was also the first time I've cooked fennel. My husband and I both liked it. It has a subtle sweetness and I think it's great for these kinds of applications. Since I dislike onions so much I think I might start using fennel as a substitute for things like roasts, and maybe stews. It isn't my new favorite thing (like cauliflower was, haha) but I'm happy to add something new to my repertoire.

The hardest part of cooking a whole bird is carving it, but I think we managed to do that without butchering it too badly. We each had a breast and a drumstick for dinner.

In addition to providing us with a wonderful Sunday night dinner, I also got enough meat off the chicken to use in four lunch salads and I was able to use the carcass to make stock. After thanksgiving I made duck stock with our leftovers and I did that on the stove top since I was home from work and had the time to babysit it. This time I decided to try the crock pot, however, and it worked beautifully. Basically I just threw a bunch of stuff in and left it alone. First I added the carcass, and I left the aromatics inside the cavity. I figured they couldn't hurt. Then I added spices, mostly red pepper flake, bay leaf, thyme, and rosemary. I think I also added additional salt. I threw in the leftover roasted fennel and carrots, then added more carrots and two stalks of celery in addition to more fennel tops. Recently I read that putting acid in a stock helps leach the nutrients out of the bones and into the stock, which is where you want it, so I also put in a few dashes of apple cider vinegar. I covered it with water and left it on low for 20 hours. The result was beautiful, I got over two quarts of lovely, rich, dark brown stock.
I forgot to take a picture before I strained it, sorry!

I strained it into a pitcher so I could just pour it into whatever I want to use it for later in the week. I'm just obsessed with the color. It's so much darker than the store bought stocks or broths. Even Kitchen Basics, which was my preferred brand, is a few shades lighter than this. Making the stock was so easy I really have no excuse to ever buy it again. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Meat and Potatoes

Potatoes are a bit on a controversial food for me. They aren't really an approved part of any Primal or Paleo diet but they are just so delicious and versatile it's hard for me to give them up altogether. Luckily I have found some great substitutes, like pureed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes, but I still haven't found anything to replace really delicious roast potatoes. So, I just eat them. Not often because of the high carbohydrate content, but on occasion. Probably about once every two weeks.

In any case, Friday night I had some beautiful New York Strip to cook, and what better to pair it with than roast potatoes?
This whole meal is a great example of how simple food can be delicious. The steak was simply crusted with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper then seared for about five minutes on each side in a cast iron skillet. For the broccoli, I just steamed it for about 5-7 minutes then sauteed it in butter with a little bit of garlic. This is pretty much how I cook most vegetables. It makes anything taste good.

The potatoes were a little bit special, though. I still had some duck fat left over from Thanksgiving so I coated the small halved potatoes with that. In addition to salt and pepper, I also grated a clove of garlic on the spuds and added a bit of rosemary. I put all of the potatoes cut side down on a baking sheet so that they would have a lot of contact with foil and get extra crispy. I roasted them at 400 for about 20 or 25 minutes. They turned out perfect, very crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, and the duck added an interesting flavor. I know not everyone has duck fat on hand though, and I think bacon grease would work equally well.

Overall, this was a very quick and simple meal, but it still felt special, a little celebration for the end of the workweek.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Happy New Year!

Happy 2012 everyone! I know I'm a bit late, but better late than never. I've also been a bit MIA lately, sorry about that. My husband and I were in Italy on vacation eating lots of delicious although mostly carby food. Now that vacation and the holidays are over, however, I'm ready to get back on track with old goals and start working on some new ones.

So far my goals for the upcoming year are to
-Recommit to eating Primal. I let myself cheat a bit too much in the last few months and I could tell the difference, both in the way I looked and in the way I felt.
-Stop drinking Diet Coke. For real this time!
-Continue to avoid the grocery store whenever possible. This also involves finally ordering some bulk meat from a local farm. I need to get a freezer before we do this, but hopefully I can do that before March when Polyface starts delivering meat again.
-Experiment with other things to make my lifestyle more sustainable, like perhaps washing my hair with baking soda or making my own green cleaning solutions.
-Keep working on my garden. It was going pretty well, but everything kind of died while I was away. The herbs, lettuce, and kale are all really droopy, I think they froze at night. The oregano, rosemary and thyme seem good though, so I think they can be salvaged. I'm not too disappointed, I knew this might happen, and I'm was planning on planting replacements for the things that died anyway.

Speaking of gardening, I just placed my order for seeds from Baker's Creek Seeds. Here's what I'm getting:

Calabrese Green Sprouting Broccoli
Long Island Improved Brussels Sprouts
Tonda di Parigi Carrots
Snowball Self-Blanching Cauliflower
Violetta Itallia Cauliflower
Marketmore 76 Cucumber
Florida Market Eggplant
Forellenschluss Lettuce
Hollow Crown Parsnip
Early Prolific Staightneck Squash
Black Beauty Zucchini
Spaghetti Squash
Butternut Rogosa Violina Giosa Squash
Mary Robinson's German Bicolor Tomato
Yellow Pear Tomato
Amish Paste Tomato
Genovese Basil
Italian Parsely

All of these are organic and heirloom varieties. I'm also getting some Lacinato (Dino) Kale seeds from Amazon because Baker's Creek didn't have the kind of kale I wanted. I just can't wait for all my stuff to come in so I can start seedings in mid-February! I also need to get some containers and soil between now and then, but I'll work on that later. I also want to start growing tomatoes in my new AeroGarden and try to sprout the orange seeds my friend Brittany gave me for Christmas. I think I have a busy few months ahead, but I'm excited for this new challenge!