Thank heavens I was drunk.

Chicken and Rice Beware

I was overjoyed to find that BJ’s stocks wine glasses this morning, saving me a separate trip with the Sisters Sledge. Two trips, actually, since the smallest quantity available was twelve, and half the box is now in my basement. It’s difficult to judge an item’s size in a warehouse club, and upon unpacking the first half dozen, I realized that I could fit both my fists in the cup area of a glass. Perhaps it should have been obvious that the majority of people who pick up twelve wine glasses with their pallet of paper towel would prefer them to hold as much as possible, but these come close to novelty scale. I’m not much of wine drinker myself, yet the chalices are so impressive that I’ve got one filled up right now with Riesling. It doesn’t seem that the meniscus has budged over the last half hour, though the children have become much more bearable and the overhead lights are really beginning to grate.

Braced with enough of a buzz to risk a failure in the kitchen, this evening I took on a recipe for Chicken and Rice Casserole that I’ve been considering for the past year, but that’s always struck me as a little too weird. Mrs. Peña becomes dangerously fearless, however, with a little of the grape coursing through her veins, so even as the aroma of garlic wafting from the oven carries a little too much char for my taste, I’m not worried. An entire large pizza is rather appetizing right now, anyway.

Oh, Simply Recipes. Although I knew this day would come, the smack across my face still brings tears to my eyes. Why would you subject rice to such treatment? If aiming for a consistency between aspic and tapioca, one usually turns to cornstarch instead. And why would you do that to garlic? Eating this is like kissing a man who just ate scampi and chased it with a shot of foot. And where, for the love of all things holy, is that cloying sweetness coming from? I re-sampled my sour cream to verify that it hadn’t gone off, but now I wish I just assumed it had, since the alternative is that this tastes good to someone.

My grandmother had a way of writing someone off that sent shivers down the spines of those who witnessed her ruling. While I’m not adequately furious with Simply Recipes to “leave them to God,” another culinary fiasco on their heads and I might have to become a Catholic.

The harsh light of this particular morning finds me doubtful that this casserole merits such scathing criticism as above. More likely, my gripe tank couldn’t withstand the pressure of one more minor disappointment and, as it burst, spewed forth the rantings of a tipsy perfectionist. Further, Mr. P enjoyed two servings as I withheld my commentary, having eaten earlier, and his verdict was an enthusiastic “delicious!” Keep in mind, though, that I married a smart man.

Angry Cooking

Angry Chicken

I decided to shelve a 986-word rant regarding my threshold for inconsideration and incompetence across all age groups having possibly been crossed. It turned out that being stood-up for a blind play date with all three kids at Funworld, and my resulting expulsion from a playgroup I’d never been to, did not, in fact, kill me. Nor did the overly audible comment from a woman behind me in line at the Hallmark store as I waited to have an ornament boxed so I could quickly remove my whiny children from the public sphere. Please don’t bother getting irked on my behalf at her declaration of “I don’t understand people who have more kids than they can handle.” In exchange for her helpful insight, I provided her with something to work on with her therapist for the next several years. And Sally the Entitled’s incessant reproachment of my parenting still hasn’t plateaued, but fortunately, I have an abundance of faith in myself, and rubes, barbs, and gripes haven’t debilitated me. On the contrary, my fury-induced blood pressure spikes result in waves of some of my best cooking.

It was a rare occasion yesterday afternoon when, although I had adequate hustle and elan to cook something delicious, I considered the prospect of a trip to the market as appealing as participating in organized running. I may send Simply Recipes a Christmas gift; I had chicken, mushrooms, and tomatoes, and not much else, but the resulting Chicken, Mushrooms, and Tomatoes with Port Wine caused an elated Mr. P to unconsciously hum quietly until he admirably gave up just before the bite that would have killed the evening.

I’m sure you’re aware of my penchant for a well-executed cream sauce, but this is a refreshingly dairy-free combination of shallot and mushroom, and the tomato manages to restrain itself to a supporting role. The final reduction is spectacular, and even better when drizzled over whatever accompanies your chicken; in retrospect I would have gone with rice, as my choice of egg noodles proved to be a slippery one.

So even though the end of my tether is in clear sight, the pairing of productive, passionate ire with a reliable site for new recipes culminates in several days of Michelin-worthy dinners at Chez Peña, before my wrath cools back down to mild irritability and Mr. P resigns himself with grace and dignity to another long stretch of family-restaurant-tier cooking. But not tonight. Tonight, I summon my last sputters of anger for Sherry-Dijon London Broil with caramelized shallots and rice pilaf.

Sorry, Chef Ramsey, they can’t all be “the most magnificent.”

TMI Chicken Soup

The first day of Mr. P’s long awaited nine-day Thanksgiving break found all five Peñas sick as dogs. We, the house-bound four, had been chewing on this particular bug for twenty-four hours, initially tipped off by Billy the Kid’s impressive reverse-vacuum all over my bedspread, while Mr. P efficiently wrapped up all loose ends at work on Friday before succumbing to the inevitable, compounded by the standard general start-of-vacation collapse. By the time I dragged the king comforter out of the dryer two hours after its ordeal, I was in full denial of my own doom. I was not ill. By Saturday afternoon, I was still the most functional, but only because I refuse to negotiate with disease, my ability to ignore discomfort having increased tenfold after carrying twins with a perforated appendix.

Note to potential and current gestators: if you point to the side of your enormous pregnant belly and tell your doctor, “this hurts and I can’t eat,” don’t downplay the pain and nausea, or you’ll receive the standard “why don’t we take a look after the baby comes.” I’m betting that liability near-miss still keeps a certain OB/GYN up at night. I’d heard of women being sick while in labor, but getting off an operating table seconds after receiving an epidural and seconds before a c-section, throwing up, and remounting just as all feeling drained from my legs reassured me that I possess excellent time management and multi-tasking skills. Unfortunately, it also detracted from focusing on the miracle of life and whatnot. Had my concerns been addressed, however, I might not have come out the other end fifty pounds lighter and then I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy creeping out Mr. P with my ultra-slender “tween starlet calves” for a month before returning to my preferred state of sturdiness.

Back to the present, with a mere low-grade fever and repulsiveness confined mostly to my head, the task of making chicken soup with rice fell to me. When visiting Epicurious, I prefer to to limit my options to recipes that boast four entire forks, but three and a half are apparently the mediocre standard in this case, so I settled on one that conformed to Mr.P’s request for “not weird.”  I found the absence of onion unsettling, so I threw in half a chopped yellow, and combined a tablespoon each of fresh thyme and parsley, scoffing at the direction to limit myself to one or the other. Then I salted and peppered the dickens out of it.

I regard chicken soup as a food of necessity, and since one can’t taste much of it when one needs it the most, and wouldn’t make it if one didn’t need it, it doesn’t really matter that this one is exceptional to a fully functioning palate. The rice leaves relatively little broth, but just enough to avoid the dreaded bisque effect. The carrots and celery remain brisk and cheerful, having just cooked through upon serving, and lend an appealing primavera quality that’s often appetizing to an invalid. I suppose Epicurious’ three-and-a-half-forks rating is, indeed, appropriate; even at it’s best, chicken soup is still just chicken soup.

Cow and Chicken

Chicken Chicharrones

I resent Chick-fil-A for three reasons. Long before I’d been unlucky enough to live within a drivable distance to the fast food establishment that considers itself above operating on Sundays (I am a staunch advocate of separation of church and chicken, so that’s reason number one), I worked in the screen-printing sector for a spell, where I came across the ambiguous logo for the first time. I assumed the pronunciation was “chick fillah,” and figured the company had been founded by a surly aviculteur with a strong Boston accent, who supplied chicken filling for nuggets, patties, and the like. Obviously, reason number two addresses the all too common liberties taken with the alphabet.

Reason number three arose the first time I acquiesced to BK’s pleas for a Chick-fil-A kid’s meal from our mall’s food court, a routine I was unaware Mr. P had allowed to develop. I’ll note that our mall, though relatively close by, is actually in another state, one that boasts a long line of historically bad ideas. To my delight, I saw that the nuggets looked homemade, identifiably chicken, and lightly breaded. But then I tasted one, and a specific rage rose up out of my chest, one reserved for the slap in the face that is misleadingly appealing fare. I don’t know if the trademark “flavor” originates intentionally from a specific “seasoning,” or if I’m just experiencing the complex flavor profiles of grease, but those obsequious cow mascots need to offer at least bearable fare if they don’t want to end up in my sandwich.

I recently came across a recipe for chicken chicharrones on the always reliable, and jumped at the chance to impress Mr. Tilde with some flavors from the mother protectorate. Upon plating the piping hot, shimmering with oil yet obviously crunchy little chunks, I noticed a hint of physical resemblance to the insipid little orts slung by CfA, but hoped that half an hour marinating in rum, lime juice, and soy sauce would yield a much more palatable product. Palatable is an understatement, and elastic waistbands are called for once again, as well as a table-side candy dish filled with Tums. A squirt each of lime juice and hot sauce are legally mandated in this case, and I find diners are especially delighted if the lime wedges are presented in a small communal bowl.  I’ve never been much of a deep-fryer, especially when peanut oil is involved, but I’m going to need to start that new gym membership, now that I’ll be eating this three nights a week. And when I finally have a few too many chicharrones sometime after Christmas, I’m coming for you, beefcakes.

And I’ve been added to yet another watch list.

Chicken Ham and Basil What?

Picture coming eventually. Mr. P. ate the designated model.

Every now and then I create something other than a person, and I’m beside myself with smug delight over my new oeuvre. A few weeks ago I found a recipe for Chicken Prosciutto on my go-to site for new recipes, and I remembered having seen some prosciutto in the deli bin the previous month. I didn’t have sage on hand, but had some basil, and instead of Fontina, figured I could substitute a parm/mozz blend. (Un)forunately, a quick call to Mrs. Hamilton confirmed my fear that no lunch meat can stand up to three weeks past its expiration date. I may have detected a slight note of confused distaste in her tone; I know one probably assumes I’m a freshness tyrant, but I was genetically blessed with a cast-iron stomach (except when gestating), and worked in fast food as a teenager, so I’ve developed an it’ll-cook-off outlook toward food-borne pathogens. The tradeoff is that I’m pathologically obsessive about meat temperature, and I’ve turned off the scald-proof mechanism on my kitchen sink (soap should serve as a backup when washing dishes; the water should be hot enough to burn off all bacteria).

So the only thing my refrigerator had in common with Chicken Prosciutto at this point was chicken. I borrowed a few of the techniques from the found recipe, slicing each breast into two fillets before pounding them to one eighth of an inch, and frying the basil leaves in a stick of butter, using them in the chicken, and frying the chicken in the resulting basil butter. But here’s where I went a little I-wonder-what-would-happen-if…

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, tenderloins removed, sliced into two fillets each, pounded within a millimeter of their lives
6 thin slices of deli ham (I used Hannaford Inspirations Wildflower Honey Ham, because I’m Frasier)
12 fresh basil leaves
1 stick butter
1 C breadcrumbs
2 eggs, lightly beaten in a shallow bowl
6 long, thin slices of mozzarella
Vegetable oil
Salt and pepper

Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium-high. Once foaming, add the basil leaves and let them fry for 1 minute, then turn and fry for another 30 seconds before transferring the leaves to a paper towel. Turn the butter down to warm. Trim a pounded chicken fillet of any fly-aways, then lay 2 basil leaves on top. Place a slice of ham on top of that, folding in any edges that protrude. Fold the bottom third of the fillet to the center, hold it in place while folding the top half down as far as it will reach, and secure with a toothpick. It should be packed up tightly enough to prevent anything from sliding out the sides. I will refer to the resulting unit as the briquette (loaf, knuckle, and chicken fist were runners up).

Assemble all of the briquettes before starting to cook. Mix up the breadcrumbs with some salt and pepper, and spread them out on a large plate. Increase the heat on the basil butter to medium-high and add 3 tbsp of vegetable oil to the pan, swirling to incorporate with the butter, and give it a minute to get hot. Dip a briquette in the beaten egg, then coat completely in the bread crumbs, packing them into the sides. Immediately place it into the hot butter/oil. Repeat for the remaining briquettes, and once the last one goes into the pan, flip the first one over with tongs, and proceed to flip the others at thirty-second intervals, in the order they went in. After the final flip, cook for an additional 2 minutes, then check one to verify doneness (I like to designate Billy the Kid’s portion as the tester, as I have to cut it up anyway). Transfer the briquettes to a wire rack placed over a pan or cookie sheet, top each with mozzarella, and broil on high for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until the cheese is melted and hinting at browning.

As with all breaded and fried proteins, have lemons or at least lemon juice on hand. Since each briquette is half a chicken breast, you can serve them in decadent pairs — just remove the toothpicks upon plating unless you happen to be spite-hosting. In that case, set the table with disposable linens, invite at least 1 vegetarian paramedic, and combine 10 drops of Visine with the bottled lemon juice. You’ll want to have a lawyer on retainer, but that’s just good sense in general.

If you use a plate, you use a fork.

Buttermilk Fried Vehicle for Fried Buttermilk

I know next to nothing about the South. Why would I? I recoil from sun and heat, reserve physical affection for family, the Hamiltons, and Jess D, and prefer not to make eye contact with strangers, especially in crowds. When I first became aware of the “see something, say something” campaign at train stations and airports, I was slightly taken aback that the administration would assume I was in the habit of taking stock of my fellow passengers. Once the practice of noticing people becomes acceptable etiquette, the terrorists have won. No, I’ll keep my eyes quietly glued to my Maugham novel all the way to my grave, thank you very much.

As mysterious and stressful as I find Southern culture, the food is another story; I can be bought with fried chicken. My first successfully fried chicken (I usually wind up with fried chicken and fried flour) is courtesy of Simply Recipes, a site that garners more of my trust with every new recipe. I was nervous that the eight hours my refrigerator invested soaking the chicken in herbed buttermilk might be wasted, but the payoff was nothing short of magnificent. There was little conversation at dinner this evening, and both Mr. P and I were relieved that our new rice cooker botched the starch, opening up some unexpected gastronomical real estate. It’s not at all greasy, no small feat considering the two cups of oil you get going, and if you use grape seed oil without actually reading the recommended article on its health benefits, the sky is the nutrient-rich limit! A squirt of lemon juice rendered the whole thing intolerably good — so good that I’m still just a little furious.

Teeth. Jealousy. Shanks.

More Italian Than Not Chicken Parmesan

It’s not the incessant and simultaneous wails of two teething babies that have driven me to enact a semi-weekly 5:00 cocktail hour (consisting of two shots of amaretto), but more the straining required to hear the tiny, inappropriately quiet voice of a certain toddler over the racket, and ultimately realizing that the urgent refrain is none other than the jaw-clench-inducing “what are you doooing?” It’s become part of Monk Jr’s routine, and every time I change a diaper or feed a belly (activities which infuriate whoever isn’t receiving the attention), Billy the Kid is right there, inaudibly inquiring about the nature of my distraction from El Dicta-toro. “Well, what do you think I’m doing?” I ask in a sweet but pretty obviously condescending tone. And what do you know, BK offers the correct answer every time.

It’s Friday, and I have nothing left for anyone. No energy, no functioning brain cells, no sympathy. Teeth hurt? Yeah, I’ve been there, too. But guess what. You get Orajel, Tylenol, and eventually teeth. Bored? Why don’t you head down to the basement and see what/who you can rustle up. Hungry? Next scheduled feeding, how about drinking more than an ounce instead of looking around frantically to make sure your sister isn’t happy? Today’s snow was the literal icing on the proverbial cake. The only thing that induces more guilt in me than not taking the underlings out into the world at least once a day is taking them out under sub-par driving conditions, and putting their tiny lives at a slightly higher risk than usual. My serious need for some contact with civilization: denied.

The death of such a bastard of a week should be observed properly, with a seam-splitting meal involving cheese, a casserole dish, and meat, that will have us all unconscious and transported out of the hell that has been February 21 through 25 (with a brief respite on the 24th spanning the length of Jess D’s visit). For those who need it spelled out: Chicken Parmesan. In spite of my insecurities about preparing cuisines of nationalities to which I have no relation, I found a promising recipe on Simply Recipes, a site that has yet to disappoint me (well played, Ms. B). Aside from a smidge too much heat from the red pepper flakes, this is what I hope for whenever I order Chicken Parm at a restaurant, though I haven’t been able to find it outside of Providence’s Federal Hill.

Speaking of Federal Hill, my father, the venerable Mr. S, alerted me of an interview with the locally famous Baby Shanks Manocchio, in which the former Patriarca family boss (and serial restauranteur extraordinaire) was asked about the nature of his name. It turns out that his original nickname was Baby Shacks, an allusion to his success at finding continual transitional housing with charitable women, but that the erroneous “Shanks” eventually replaced “Shacks,” some assuming it referred to his stature, others convinced he must fashion a mean shiv. When asked for the final word, Manocchio offered the entirely unhelpful “what does it really matter?” Seldom does my heart pine so achingly for my state.

On Curry and Child Rearing

Initially Insecure Mango Chicken Curry

I’ll admit that I’m rather nationalistic when it comes to cooking. I assume that Italian food made by non-Italians never quite hits the mark, and that in thirty years I still won’t be able to make Puerto Rican white rice that passes. Unsurprisingly, it’s never occurred to me to take on Indian cuisine, aside from a WASPy dash of curry powder in an occasional chicken salad. Once more, thanks goes to Simply Recipes for tonight’s magnificent, seconds-even-though-we-already-hurt dinner of Mango Chicken Curry over non-native Puerto Rican white rice (I don’t keep basmati on hand…yet). The vegetable-based sauce that serves as the eventual pur
ée takes a pass through the blender to achieve that surreal texture, and I suggest using your Cuisinart Mini-Prep Food Processor for the initial pre-cook chopping. What, don’t have one!?! Skip dinner and pick up McDonald’s on your way to the mall.

I can’t imagine why I shouldn’t take the liberty of retyping the recipe with several necessary alterations, since I find the idea of making ad money off this sort of thing unseemly and crass. I discourage SR from taking offense at my edits; I don’t expect everyone to have such a refined palate as mine.

Vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped or processed
1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped or processed
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp minced fresh ginger
2 tbsp yellow curry powder
1/2 tsp cumin
2 mangos, peeled and diced or processed (you will not use the entire second mango – snack at will)
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 1/4 C water
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (using the suggested 1 1/4 lbs resulted in a surplus of lonely sauce), cut into 1″ chunks
1/3 C golden raisins
1/2 C heavy cream
Salt and pepper
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
No cilantro**

**Cilantro is suggested as a garnish in the original recipe. Fresh cilantro has only one purpose: to reprimand swearing children. Soap in the mouth is child abuse, but a single leaf of a pepper-free cooking herb sends a message nicely with no chance of getting the state involved. To anyone who wonders whether this is indicative of my own child-rearing practices, don’t worry – my children are perfect angels, speak/gurgle with flawless non-regional accents, and consider using FCC-banned words utterly beneath them.

Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a deep skillet or large saucepan over medium-high. Add the onions and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes or until soft. Add in the pepper plus another tbsp of oil and cook for 3 more minutes. Toss in the curry and cumin, cook 3 more minutes, adding extra oil if anything starts to stick to the pan. Add the ginger and garlic, stir, and cook for 1 minute.

Stir in the vinegar, water, and half of the mango chop. Increase the heat and bring it to a thick and icky boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring every minute or so. Pour the sauce into a blender and purée until it’s smooth, then return it to the pan. Dump in the chicken and raisins, stir, and bring the whole thing back to a simmer. Cover it up and cook for 10 minutes, until the chicken is done but not dry.

Add half of whatever quantity of mango chop you have left, then stir in the cream. Cook over low heat for a couple of minutes while you add quite a bit of salt and some pepper and adjust seasonings. I threw in a sprinkle of crushed red pepper for some heat that was blatantly lacking from the original, and I found it necessary to splash in another few tsp of vinegar to cut the mango.

As noted, I served this over Puerto Rican white rice (defined by a painfully specific and elusive texture and consistency), and I don’t know that the conventional basmati accompaniment would stand up as well to the sauce as the denser medium grain. Again, feel free to garnish with cilantro if you feel like ruining the entire thing, but if you absolutely need some green for contrast (<<cough>>simpleton!<<cough>>), throw some parsley florets onto the plate and fully acknowledge your, as Heidi Klum would offer, questionable taste level.

Perfect, since I won’t be dining out any time within the next five years.

Eventually Stolen Chicken

Were I forced to choose one meal to eat for the rest of my life, I would unhesitatingly name the Wild Mushroom and Chicken Ravioli from Burton’s Grill. The cremini and (I’m guessing) morel and oyster mushroom-filled round ravioli, the grilled knuckles of chicken breast, the perfectly cooked asparagus tips and the ungodly white wine cream sauce work together so flawlessly that it still tasted good during my recent bout of pregnancy. I’ve repeatedly requested the recipe, even implying a cash reward, but the kitchen staff remains infuriatingly tight-lipped.

Last night, my eyebrow shot up as I tasted the first bite of a new recipe I tried from Simply Recipes for Chicken Breasts with Mushroom Sage Sauce. I’ve found your secret cream sauce, Burton, and you’ll be hard pressed to get another $17.95 plus Diet Cokes out of me for quite a while. Though I only had Goya Cooking Wine on hand, and hadn’t thought to buy asparagus, I anticipate an even more transcendent product tomorrow when I make it again, but I was too excited to wait. I might use sherry instead of white wine for the third time, mainly as an excuse to purchase a nice fresh bottle of Harveys Bristol Cream, as I just remembered my ban on alcohol has been lifted.

Sometimes I take one for the team.

Pollo en Qué-es-cabeche

I recently came across a recipe Mr. P had scribbled on a leaf of small notebook paper some time ago. While this is another example of the put-everything-in-the-pot-and-cook method that always sets me on edge, Mr. P knows his home cooking, so I called him at work to make sure that, “really, no water? just that much oil and vinegar?” (I should also mention that, while in the Spanish language, escabeche usually refers to pickled dishes, the Puerto Rican version calls for chicken cooked in a vinaigrette and olive oil sauce). With a go-ahead from the Protectorate, I executed the following instructions, transferred everything into a Tupperware container, and stuck it in the fridge for Mr. P’s dinner. I don’t go in for this kind of thing, myself.

Held up by a compelling appointment with a Mr. MC Frontalot in the city, Mr. P returned much too late for a meal, so the chicken marinated for another sixteen hours before making its debut earlier this evening. I still haven’t tried it, but according to the man, chicken was falling off the bone and leaping into his mouth. I have a feeling that “escabeche” is a love-or-flee flavor combination. Do you get really excited about vinaigrette dressing? How do you feel about a whole lot of oil-boiled peppers and onions? Does the aroma of the pickling process make you anxious? These are all questions you’ll want to answer before you get too invested.

2 lbs chicken breasts, bone in, skin on (one split breast did it for me)
1 lb storage/yellow onions, sliced into thin rings
1 large green bell pepper, cut into thin strips
6 large or 8 small cloves garlic, whole
3/4 C olive oil
1/2 C vinegar
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
salt and pepper for rubbing

Rub the chicken with salt and pepper. You want a big pot for this; I used a large, deep skillet with a tight-fitting cover, but a large saucepan is fine, too. Set the pot over medium-high heat and add 2 tbsp of olive oil. Once it’s hot, sear the chicken breasts for 2 minutes on each side (all 3). Add the onions and peppers and mix them in, under the chicken, before adding all the other ingredients. Get the liquid to a boil before turning the heat down to medium, then cover the pot and let it cook for 40 minutes. Check in every 10 minutes or so and turn the chicken to prevent burning. After 40 minutes, remove the cover, and cut into the chicken to see if it’s done. If not, cook uncovered for 10 to 20 more minutes.

My chicken looked dry after the initial 40 minutes, and I was relieved when Mr. P reported succulence. So, you’ll want to immediately transfer everything from the pot into a plastic container and stick it in the fridge overnight. Oh, did you not want to start tomorrow’s dinner this morning? Also, this should be served with the elusive Puerto Rican white rice, so make sure you’re self-confidence tank is full before taking it on.

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