A Proper Send-Off

It isn’t often that one has to actually leave a job they like. In fact, I’m willing to bet that most of you never have, am I correct? Sure, there may be high points here and there, but in general we leave jobs because we choose to, because we want to, rather. I’ll be starting my new job on Monday, and hopefully I’ll like that one. No matter what, I will always compare it to the one I left back in Chicago, the one I most certainly chose to leave, but at the same time, the one I definitely didn’t want to leave.

As is the case with most jobs, it isn’t even the actual job that matters, it’s the people you work with that make it what it is. For me, it was both, but easily a lot more of the latter.

If you’ve been reading along, you’ll remember that my boss and I have had a couple of dessert wars over the last few months, and while no one ever really wanted to choose their favorite dishes between the two (I know – I think they’re all afraid of the boss – ha!), it’s probably safe to say that we each had a win in our pocket. She ‘won’ the last battle, which, according to her rules allowed her to choose all details of the final battle. She chose an Iron Chef battle (surprise!), and weeks before the chosen night, she informed us that the not-so-secret ingredient would be pine nuts.

Full of pride/confidence/whatever, the boss claimed we’d all need plenty of time to prepare if we wanted any chance of winning this one. She is Greek after all, and the Greeks, well, they like their pine nuts.

And while the pine nuts might have been her specialty, us non-Greeks brought some rather tasty, creative, and varied dishes to the table. I made a pine nut version of a pecan pie (top left), and there was also stuffed ‘shrooms, halva, pizza, pesto dip, cookies, stuffed tomatoes, and bruschetta (listed from left to right).

The food was all, as is typically the case at our regular Iron Chef battles, really good (although some, ahem, weren’t notified of the presentation points), but in the end there could only be one Iron Chef for this go-’round.

Felicia even made ‘trophies’ for the top three:

1. Virginia’s stuffed tomatoes
2. Heather’s pine nut pie
3. Maureen’s cinnamon pine nut halva

As it turns out, boss won’t playin’ when she said she was confident in her dish, and while I had the hardest time giving her dish the top honors, it really was no question. In fact, I’ve now been inspired to make some stuffed tomatoes myself, once I get into the hang of cooking more often in these parts.

And to all of you who may be reading – thank you for a wonderful two years – you know who you are. It has truly been a pleasure, from beginning to end. I already miss you all way too much. And to my homeslice, I hope I’m always your favorite, as you will always be mine :).

Stuffed Tomatoes
courtesy of my (ex!) boss and Iron Chef, Virginia; serves 12

time commitment: at least 3 hours (1 hour active)

printable version

ingredients
12 large tomatoes (not too ripe) (can also use large peppers)
1 c olive oil (or less, if you prefer)
3 c green onions, chopped
1 lb ground beef
1/4 c uncooked white rice
2 c parsley, chopped
1 c dried currants or raisins
2 c pine nuts
Salt/pepper to taste
2 potatoes, peeled and cut in large pieces, optional

instructions
Take the tomatoes and cut the tops off (keep it since it will serve as the cover) and scoop out the pulp. Preheat the oven to 300 F.

Put the tomato pulp in a mixer and liquefy. In a big pot add half of the oil and sauté the onions, followed by the ground beef until it loses all the pink and then start slowly adding the rice, parsley, currants and lastly the pine nuts. Finally add the tomato pulp and let it simmer until the rice is done. Add salt and pepper to taste.

In a large baking pan, arrange tomatoes and fill them with stuffing without overfilling it and then put the cover of each tomato on. Put the potatoes, if using, between the tomatoes and drizzle some oil on the tomatoes and potatoes. Put the pan in the oven, uncovered initially, until the tomatoes are baked, around 30 min. Then loosely cover with aluminum foil so that the steam from the tomatoes won’t be trapped in the pan. Bake for another 1.5 to 2 hours until the tomatoes are well cooked.

Still here? If ya like things that are stuffed, here’s a link to some stuffed peppers I made last year – YUM.

Totally Legal

My pops was the chicken-cooker in our house. My mom made the (horribly dry, sorry mom) meatloaf, the holiday fixin’s, kickass potato salad, and plenty of things that are escaping my memory right now. But pops – he was in charge of poultry (and steak, for that matter. this worked to our advantage since she was the only one who ate leather instead of red juicy meat.).

There must be a genetic alteration linked to having an affinity for cooking fried chicken – my gramma had it, my aunt Faye has it, my pops has it, and by golly, I think I do too. Maybe it’s a Southern thing, but since not all Southerners can cook a can of beans I’d be willing to bet it’s a little of both. Maybe I’ll ask someone who knows a thing or two about genetics :).

But Pops wasn’t just a master of the fried variety; he has a killer barbeque chicken recipe too, and I’ve made it a time or three. Thinking about that dish just made my mouth water (and I finished my over-processed-but-low-calorie lean cuisine an hour ago. i guess that isn’t saying much, eh?). I think I may procure the ingredients for said dish soon; we’ll see.

Above all the cooking of said chickens, it was my pops who first taught me how to wield a knife into the bones and joints of the little birds, cutting them into 8 or 10 or even 6 pieces. I remember him grabbing a chicken from the market a few years ago, not too long after I went away to college (ok, 10 years ago, not a few); I think he felt it was his responsibility to teach his little girl how to cook, and cooking starts with cutting.

Sure, culinary school really helped me nail down the technique, and Thomas Keller’s pictures in Ad Hoc at Home are pretty helpful too, but it all started with Pops. These chicken butchering skills were never quite as helpful as they’ve been this past year though, as I’d guess we’ve gotten a dozen whole chickens from our CSA over the past few months; so as you’d imagine, we’ve eaten a lot of chicken lately. Usually, I butcher them, usually into 8 pieces, and usually it’s a pretty quick process. But sometimes, no matter how quick the process, I like to just toss a chicken, intact, into the oven, or onto the grill and now, almost by habit, into a brine before all of that cooking stuff even happens.

Roasting a whole chicken has to be one of the easiest processes on earth. You toss a few spices or herbs together in some butter or oil, you rub it all over the chicken (underneath the skin, too!), and you toss it into the oven and walk away. As Ina Garten would annoyingly say, “How easy is that?!”. But she’s right, despite her permanently bad hairdo and her fancy house and weird husband.

And while that simple herb rub is sure to win some points, I’m choosing here to go a step further and say that a toasted spice rub and a sweet & sour sauce from none other than my chef-crush Michael Chiarello is perhaps a little more time-consuming, but easy-peasy and probably, no definitely, the best dish I’ve eaten at home in a few weeks – hands down.

We all have our mediocre weeks in the kitchen, and lately the food I’ve been producing hasn’t been ‘knockin’ my socks off’, so to speak, which is probably ok since it’s so damn cold here. But this recipe, this recipe knocked it outta the park Barry Bonds style. Ok, I take that back a degree or two – Barry Bonds style, without the steroids. It still packs a punch, but it’s totally legal, I promise.

Roast Brined Chicken with Raisin and Pine Nut Agrodolce
Adapted from Michael Chiarello via Food & Wine, October 2010; serves 4

time commitment: 24 hours (for brining, dry rub marinating, and roasting); less than 2 hours active time (1 the night & morning before; 1 the night of)

agrodolce is Italian for awesome. Ok, really – it basically means “sweet&sour”. this recipe is definitely that, and I loved the grapes with the nuts. in fact, I could think of lots of other things to do with the agrodolce, so it’s not limited to chicken, that’s for sure!

this is definitely a multi-stepper, so prepare in advance. I brined the chicken and made the spice rub and the agrodolce the night before. in the morning, I removed it from the brine and rubbed the chicken with the, well, rub, and let it sit in the fridge until i got home that night. all that was left was roasting. You can certainly skip the brine if you want, but it’s worth the extra effort, if you’ve got it!

printable version
printable version (basic brine only)

ingredients
brine
10 c water
1 c kosher salt
1/4 c light brown or granulated sugar
5 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1 T black peppercorns
4 cups ice
1 3-4 lb pastured chicken

toasted spice rub
2 T fennel seeds
2 t coriander seeds
2 t black peppercorns
3/4 t crushed red pepper
2 T ancho chile powder
1 T kosher salt
1 T cinnamon

chicken
3 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled

agrodolce
1/2 c raisins
1/2 c warm water
1/4 c pine nuts, toasted
1 c Sherry vinegar
1/2 c sugar
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
1 t fennel seeds
1/2 c seedless red grapes, halved
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
Salt

instructions
brining the chicken
In a large pot, combine the water with the salt, sugar, garlic, bay leaves, & peppercorns. Bring to a simmer to dissolve the salt. Transfer the brine to a very large bowl and add the ice. Let cool to room temperature. Put the chicken in the brine, breast side down, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight.

toasted spice rub
In a medium skillet, combine the fennel and coriander seeds with the peppercorns. Cook over moderate heat, shaking the skillet a few times, until the fennel seeds turn light brown, about 2 minutes. Add the crushed red pepper and toss until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Transfer to a plate to cool completely. Put the toasted spices in a spice grinder and grind to a powder. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the chile powder, salt and cinnamon.

agrodolce
In a bowl, cover the raisins with the warm water and let stand until plumped, about 10 minutes. Drain. In a medium saucepan, combine the vinegar, sugar, red onion and fennel seeds. Simmer over moderate heat until thickened, about 20 minutes. Pour into a bowl and let cool to room temperature. Stir the raisins, pine nuts, grapes and olive oil into the syrup. Season lightly with salt and set aside (or refrigerate) until ready for serving.

rubbing the chicken
Remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Put the chicken on a rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle all over with the spice rub. Be sure to get underneath the skin as well. Set the chicken breast side up and tie the legs together with kitchen twine. Refrigerate the chicken, uncovered, for at least 4 hours. Let chicken sit out at least 30 minutes before roasting.

roasting the chicken
Preheat the oven to 450 (yes, 450 – this is not a typo). Brush the chicken with the melted butter and roast in the upper third of the oven for 25 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 and roast the chicken for 25 minutes longer, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 155 when inserted in the inner thigh. Remove from oven, and let the chicken cool down, or come to room temperature if you want. Carve into 8 pieces, transfer to a plate and serve with the agrodolce.