Sunday, May 17, 2015

Apple Butter, or Apple Awesome Sauce?

When the apples go on sale, I like to take advantage of the pricing and get bunch of them. The problem is, I know they'll go bad before the family eats them all. I could make pie, but what if there's still a lot left? Make apple butter, of course.

For those who don't know, apple butter is not a fruit filled dairy product. It's more like caramelized applesauce. But it's really not applesauce, either. I've tried several recipes for apple butter, a couple of which used a crock pot. They weren't bad, but they left me wanting. I'm a fan of using a crock pot for apple butter, because it really does take a good deal of time to make it, but I didn't want to lock myself into a particular appliance without trying out a few other methods. As a foodie, I'm always after the good stuff.

Some recipes I tried used a little spice, cinnamon, ginger, clove, and so on. Some used so much that they ended up tasting more like a spicy slurry, with little to no apple flavor. Others weren't so bad, but I wanted something that celebrated the apple, no spice needed.

Eventually I tried one recipe from America's Test Kitchen. I'm a huge fan of theirs, as some of you may know, but sometimes their recipes don't work well for my situation. In this case, a couple of minor tweaks gave me an apple butter that had deep, rich, apple flavor, well beyond the other recipes I'd made. Sweet, but not too sweet, full of apple goodness, with nothing to get in the way. Best of all, it works for the kitchen I have, and uses affordable apples varieties.

There are several apple varieties that work well for apple butter, and a few that you'll want to stay away from. Even though you'll be cooking these apples until they break down, you don't want their flavors to break down along the way, or the resulting product become too watery. Varieties that hold up well to cooking, such as Fuji, Gala, and Granny Smith, are the way to go. Use two or three different varieties of cooking apples for the riches flavor. Stay away from Red Delicious or Golden Delicious apples. They're great for eating raw, but they don't hold up well under heat.

Apple butter is wonderful on just about everything you might put jam or applesauce on. I like it on toast, topping cottage cheese, or mixed into plain yogurt, when I'm not eating strait out of the jar, that is. It's super tasty as a topping for vanilla ice cream, as well.

Equipment needed
Dutch or other large pot (at least 6 quarts)
Large spoon
Flexible spatula
Mixing bowls
Chef's knife
Fine mesh sieve
Immersion blender

(You can substitute a food mill, or other blender, if you like. I'll talk about that, later.)

4 pounds of cooking apples (about 12 medium apples)
1 ¾ cups apple juice or cider
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup packed brown sugar
3 Tbsp lemon juice
¼ tsp salt

Wash and then core the apples; chop them into 2-inch pieces. Don't bother peeling them. The oils in the peel with deepen the flavor. Put the cut apples into a large cooking pot, along with the apple juice, over medium high heat. Once it reaches a simmer, reduce the heat to medium low, cover, and simmer until the apples are very soft, stirring two or three times while cooking, about 30 minutes.

Remove from the heat and use an immersion blender to break up the apples, until very smooth.

You can use a regular blender or food processor if you don't have an immersion blender. Just do it in batches and be careful. The apples are very hot. Alternately, you can run them through a food mill, eliminating the next step. I don't have a food mill, they're a little pricey, so I need to use the next step.

Putting the fine mesh sieve over a large bowl, pour the apple mixture in, a little at a time, and push it through the mesh with a flexible spatula. This will remove the peels and make the mixture silky. Discard the peels.

Pour the apples back into the empty cooking pot. Mix in the granulated sugar, brown sugar, lemon juice, and salt. Heat the pot over medium high until it comes to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium low, cover, and simmer until the mixture becomes thick, like loose jam, about 1 ½ hours.

Let the mixture cool completely before transferring to pint jars or plastic freezer containers. It can be kept in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks, or in the freezer for a few months.

Makes about 1 ½ quarts.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Herbed Rice Pilaf with Almonds - International Side

The classic American meal, as I recall it, consists of an entree, and two side dishes - one starch, one veggie. Once you get tired of mashed potatoes or bread for the starchy side, though, you start to come around to rice. Rice is a great grain. I love it and so do millions of other people, worldwide. Rice can be a little bland by itself, though. In our case, we're going to kick up the rice's flavor by adding a few herbs to make a fluffy, savory, side dish.

Traditionally, a pilaf is a rice dish cooked in broth and seasoned with herbs and spices. Not all pilafs are the same. It's origins are in the middle east, but variations can be found throughout east Africa, as well as central and southern Asia. Pilafs vary as widely as the cultures it came from, and the cultures where it spread, which is just about everywhere. Some people add meat and veggies, but that goes beyond what we're going to do with, here. For me, it's all about fluffy rice with herb-packed goodness.

Don't think for a minute you have to use the herbs I've listed. Try a few spices, while you're at it. Is the entree turkey with sage? Tie it together by adding sage. BBQ Chicken? Spice it up with paprika and a pinch of cayenne. Play around and make it your own.

Note: I've indicated dried thyme and parsley, because that's what I normally have on hand. You can substitute 1 teaspoon of freshly minced thyme, if you'd like. If you don't have fresh parsley on hand, you can used dried parsley. Add it along with the thyme before cooking the rice, though, or it won't give up it's flavor as well.

Equipment Needed
cutting board
chef's knife
non-stick skillet
long handled cooking spoon
measuring cups and spoons
garlic press (optional)

1 small onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup sliced almonds.
3 Tablespoons butter
Salt and black pepper as needed
1 ½ cups long-grain rice
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
2 ¼ cups chicken broth
¼ cup fresh, chopped parsley.

Toast the almonds in a dry, non-stick skillet over medium heat until fragrant and toasty, about 4 minutes. Keep them moving so they don't burn. Remove from the heat and transfer them to a plate to cool.

Melt the butter in a medium to large saucepan over medium-high heat. At the onion and a pinch of salt. Cook until just softened, about 3 minutes.
Add the rice and cook, stirring frequently, until the edges start to turn translucent, about 2 minutes. This denatures the starches and helps the rice stay fluffy, not sticky.

Add the garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and dried parsley. Cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Stir in the chicken broth and bring the mixture to a boil. Cover, reducing the heat to low, and cook until most of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let it stand, covered, for 10 minutes more.

Discard the bay leaf and fluff with a fork. Stir in the almonds and fresh parsley, if using. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.

Makes 4 – 6 servings.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Chicken Parmesan

Breaded chicken covered in marinara and cheese? What's not to like about that? Chicken Parmesan is one of those classic Italian comfort foods that became popular for a reason. It's easy, it's tasty, and relatively inexpensive. Chicken Parmesan is also quick enough for a weeknight meal, but has enough gravitas that it's great for special occasions and even entertaining.

One thing I've always been curious about, though, is why call it chicken Parmesan? Sure, it's got Parmesan cheeses in it, but there's far more mozzarella than Parmesan. Naming dishes is a real marketing trick, I suppose. Chicken mozzarella sounds heavy and pedestrian. Chicken Parmesan, though, that sounds light and rich, not only in taste but in pocket book. That's not the case, though. Done right, this won't break your wallet, or weight down your stomach.

There are a few things to keep in mind when cooking chicken Parmesan, or any other fried food, though. The oil has to be hot before you put anything in the pan. If the oil isn't ripping hot, you'll end up with greasy, flabby chicken parm. Yuck. Also, don't crowd your pan. Breaded foods need to breath. The moisture coming off of them needs room to escape or they'll start steaming each other. Soggy, waterlogged coating just doesn't cut it for me.

Before we get started, I want to talk about the chicken breast. Commercially packaged chicken breasts often have a little flap of meat attached to the side, and tucked under the breast by the butcher. This is the tenderloin. Great stuff, but it's best to remove it and fry it separately from the breast. It won't get wiped out when you pound the breast flat, that way.

Also, what's with all this “pounding out” the chicken breast? Yeah, yeah. I know. One end of the chicken breast is a lot thicker than the other and pounding the breast flat ensures even cooking.

I don't know if it's that I'm lazy, I don't like the noise, or what, but I really don't like risking tearing the meat into little shreds before I cook it. This is just a theory, mind you, but it also seems to me that smashing the bejeezus out of the meat is a great way to damage the cell walls and loose moisture. I could be wrong, but I've all but stopped flattening out my chicken breasts, that way. Instead, I carefully cut them in half, horizontally. This leaves me with two, flat pieces of chicken with even surfaces. They're not the same weight, or size, mind you. The top one is just a bit smaller, but it seems to be working out just fine. You can still pound your chicken if you want, but I don't recommend it.

One more thing. Chicken breasts have a bit of connective tissue running though them, just down one side. You can see it quite easily if you look for it. The problem with high heat and connective tissues is that it makes it contract and make things tough. There's an easy remedy, though. You can either cut it out, and cook each side separately, or you can take a paring knife and cut two or three tiny slits across it, evenly spaced through the breast. This will minimize the contractions, and make the breast more tender.

Now that I've given you the lecture portion of our recipe, it's time to getting cooking that chicken Parmesan.

Equipment needed
box grater
rasp grater (optional)
measuring cups and spoons
meat pounder (if you're still into the pounding thing)
paper towels
large skillet, nonstick is preferred
rimmed baking sheet
plastic wrap (again, this is only if you're still pounding your chicken)
3 pie plates (a good idea, but other shallow pans will work)

3/4 cup grated mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
3 cups fresh breadcrumbs
4 boneless, skinless, chicken breasts, 6-8 oz. each
salt and ground black pepper
3/4 cup cooking oil
1 cup tomato sauce or marinara

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees, Fahrenheit, with an oven rack in the middle position.

Spread the flour in a pie plate or shallow dish. Beat the eggs and pour them into a second shallow dish. Spread the breadcrumbs in a third shallow dish. Set them aside.

Trim excess fat from the chicken and make a decision. If you're going to pound your meat, lay each breast between two sheets of plastic wrap and pound it evenly until it's about 1/2-inch thick. If you're going to cut it, follow the directions above. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and season with a pinch of salt and pepper.

Working with one piece of chicken at a time, dredge it through the flour, them dip it into the beaten eggs, coating evenly and letting the excess drip back into the dish, and then into the breadcrumbs, coating evenly. A tong works great for the first parts, but use your fingers to press the crumbs into the chicken, making sure they stick. Lay the prepared chicken on a plate and repeat with the remaining chicken.

Heat the oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, just until it starts to smoke. Add two pieces of chicken and cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. Drain the chicken briefly on paper towels and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the chicken.

Spoon the tomato sauce, or your favorite marinara, over the chicken, dividing it evenly between the pieces. Divide the mozzarella, sprinkling it over the chicken, followed by the Parmesan. Bake the chicken until the cheese is melted and browned, about 7 to 10 minutes.

Makes 4 servings.