I needed a win.

Stolen Chicken

Mrs. Pena is back in the saddle. I’ve been repeatedly browsing a site I stumbled upon a few weeks ago, and in spite of my recent and concerning spike in dinner misses, this evening I mustered up some fortitude, selected a recipe based on an attractive photo, and was indescribably relieved with the breathtaking final result. That said, some last-minute finagling and adjustments were vital, and I’ll admit it was touch-and-go at one point. My version did not resemble the referenced photo; it was darker with a richer sauce — more rustic (here I’m applying the ironic Pottery Barn definition). Obviously, I suggest you go with the following recipe versus the linked. I also concede that Mr. P is right; this web log does indeed need photos.

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
6 oz cremini mushrooms, thickly sliced
1/2 C chopped shallots
3 tbsp finely chopped sage
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1 1/4 C heavy whipping cream
1 C dry vermouth
3 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp honey (Mr. P saved the day with this addition)
salt and pepper

Pound the chicken with a meat tenderizer (a rolling pin works in a pinch, but get the disinfectant bath ready) to a thickness anywhere between 1/3″ and 1/2.” Salt and pepper the breasts on both sides, then put them on a plate, set it aside, and attend to the tiny chicken particles all over your counter and surrounding cupboards.

Melt the butter in a large pan over medium-high heat, add the shallots, and saute for 1 minute, then add the mushrooms and parsley and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have softened, about 7 minutes. Evidently, cremini mushrooms have a much lower water content than the standard white button, so if you haven’t used them before, don’t freak out when they won’t caramelize the same way. Leave the burner on and transfer the entire mixture to a bowl.

Immediately put the olive oil in the pan, give it a few seconds to heat up, and add the chicken. If necessary, cook it in shifts and transfer finished breasts to a plate in the oven at 250. The breasts should take about 4 minutes per side, but always sneak a test-slice when in doubt.

Once all the chicken is relaxing in the oven (and I didn’t direct you to turn off the burner), pour in the vermouth and deglaze the pan with a spatula. Slowly pour in the cream while stirring with a wooden spoon or whisk until the color is consistent. Add the mushroom mixture back in, as well as the sage and honey, and bring the sauce to a moderate boil, stirring frequently. Don’t worry if it seems too boozy just yet, as it will reduce over the next 10 minutes, thickening nicely and losing a good deal of the alcohol taste. Wait until the sauce is basically done before adding salt and pepper, since you won’t get a real sense of the flavor until then.

Plate up the chicken and top generously; I find egg noodles to be fantastic vehicles for sauce supplementation. If it’s vegetable day, I’d recommend baby carrots steamed with butter and thyme. It was, in fact, vegetable day for us, and I found them wonderfully palatable.

Keys, anyone?

I-didn’t-know-it-was-this-kind-of-party Icebox Cake

About the only time I wouldn’t rather be baking a big fluffy cake is when I’ve got my hands full with a complicated dinner menu or cocktail party spread. On the other hand, nothing conveys “by dessert I’ll be too drunk to care” like following a home-cooked tour de force with pie-in-a-box. My mother introduced me to Famous Chocolate Wafers and the classic icebox cake, a simple dessert hearkening back to the ’50’s that must be prepared well in advance, hindering any possible procrastination that would result in a frazzled host. Predominantly a summertime dessert, you may also serve it between Thanksgiving and New Year’s without obtaining prior authorization from the Emily Post Institute. The flagrant log presentation, the brazen spectacle of cream, and the artful placement of a single maraschino cherry imply that everything’s going to be all right if you’re white and in plastics. The addition of a little something facilitates the often awkward transition from the dinner table to the cocktail lounge, guests already having feet in various bags.

1 9-oz pkg chocolate wafers
1 pint whipping cream
1 tbsp sugar (my addition)
1 tsp vanilla
1 shot Grand Marnier (also my suggestion, obviously it becomes not so much for the kids)
1 maraschino cherry

Get out your stand mixer and click in the whisk attachment. Beat the cream on high until soft peaks form, then pour in the vanilla and sugar and keep whipping. Once the cream forms stiff peaks, slowly pour in the liquor and keep whipping until it’s firm but not meringue-ish.

Separate out any broken wafers, dip them in the whipped cream and eat them. Lay a wafer right side up on a protected work surface. Use a spatula to dollop 2 tsp of cream onto the wafer, then place another wafer on top of the cream (same orientation, please), and press down gently to squeeze the cream out to the edges. Repeat, forming 4 small stacks of wafers and cream. Assemble the log directly on the serving dish; place the stacks on their sides in a row with all wafers facing the same direction and push them together. Use the remaining whipped cream to frost the whole cake, and make sure you get the corners and tuck in under the bottom curve. Use a clean cloth or paper towel to wipe the excess cream off the dish.

Cherry placement is entirely up to you. I go for dead center, but 2″ from the middle can say a lot about a person. Tent aluminum foil over the log and dish and chill for at least 4 hours. When serving, slice on the diagonal for a striped effect. If you went for the Grand Marnier and are hoping to fortify your guests’ table wine, shoot for a three-slices-per-log portion size.

It’s going to be vegetable time very soon. But not just yet.

Merrimack Valley Clam Chowda

Mrs. Hamilton, who you’ll remember from her ambrosial Mac & Cheese contribution last month, has just upgraded my weekend with the following recipe. I met Mrs. H while working at a medical device corporation with an admirably/frustratingly low smoking rate. By our second shared constitutional, we were each getting that “she looks like she can keep a secret” feeling about the other. Smoking turned out to be only one of the things we have in common, which include homicidal-fantasy-inducing disdain for ineptitude at the executive level, matching herniated L-4 discs, and get-back-on-the-horse attitudes about surgery; I visited Mrs. H in the hospital several weeks ago a few hours after she had her disc snipped into line, and I found her walking around the recovery room, collecting her things and signing check-out forms. She’s also a trained cake master and certified esthetician, just in case she wasn’t already keeping me on my toes. Here’s why Mr. H is one of the happiest fellas on the eastern seaboard.

7 small to medium red bliss potatoes, diced
5 celery stalks, diced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 tbsp minced garlic
1 lb bacon
4 cans chopped clams (with the juice)
2 pints heavy whipping cream
1 quart half & half
1 tbsp butter
marjoram
salt and pepper

Parboil the potatoes, drain and set aside. Cut the bacon into bite-sized pieces, fry, drain and set aside. In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat and, once the foaming subsides, add the onions, celery and garlic, then sauté for 5 minutes. If all three components finish simultaneously, you’re one slick son of a bitch. Stir the cream and half & half into the vegetables, followed by the clams, clam juice, bacon and potatoes. Season with salt, pepper, and a sprinkle of marjoram, and simmer over low heat for 1/2 hour, stirring occasionally.

This is on the thinner end of the New England chowda spectrum, but you can up the heft by adding 1 tbsp of flour to the vegetables while they sauté (or, Mrs. H offers, you can boil and puree a few extra potatoes and add them after the cream and half & half, but that makes me uncomfortable). Allow the finished chowder to cool to room temperature before chilling for several hours. Reheat over low before serving; I don’t trust the microwave with dairy.

As always, Mrs. H wishes you bon appétit and an early night with an enthusiastic “shyum!”

Or we could wash the chicken and the sink.

French Onion Chicken

The cold weather has me regressing big time back to childhood comfort meals, and this is one of my mother’s more indulgent dishes. If you note the date, it’s actually gorgeous and temperate in Lowell, but it was freezing this morning and I awoke with cream sauce on my mind. As the title suggests, this one’s heavy on the onions, so make sure everyone in the house has it for dinner. There are also mints.

On a chicken note, I recently learned that the FDA considers it safer not to rinse off raw meat before cooking than otherwise, since the splash-back spreads germs around the sink that won’t be killed off by cooking. I wouldn’t buy beef or pork that I thought needed a good scrubbing, but chickens are filthy. If they weren’t so delicious, they’d be considered vermin. While I don’t (yet) use gloves to prepare any food, every time I touch raw chicken, I’m reminded of a scandal back in the early 90’s, when a bunch of chicken plant employees’ hands went numb (I can’t find it anywhere – does anyone else remember that?). Most of us buy prepackaged supermarket chicken, and let’s not pretend it’s not a little slimy when we pull back the plastic. But since we’re saving money by not paying a butcher to clean our meat, we can spare a few minutes to Fantastik the sink and counter. Wash the chicken.

1 cut-up chicken (official pieces)
1 pkg egg noodles
2 yellow onions, sliced into thin rings
1 C white wine
1 C flour
1/2 C heavy cream
4 tbsp butter
salt and pepper

Dredge the chicken in flour to coat the pieces completely. Heat 2 tbsp butter in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Brown the chicken for 3 minutes on each side, then transfer them to a plate. Add 2 more tbsp butter to the pan, and when it stops foaming, add the onions, and cook them until they caramelize. Put the chicken back into the pan, and add the wine. The liquid level should just cover the chicken; add water if necessary. Preemptively set the oven to 200 and start the water for the noodles. Continue to cook the chicken over medium-high heat for 20 to 25 minutes, adding water as needed to maintain the liquid level. Transfer the chicken to a plate and stick it in the oven to keep it warm.

Your water should be boiling, so throw in the noodles and time according to the directions. Adding 2 tbsp of light olive or vegetable oil to the water will prevent clumping. With the onions still in the pan, scrape any bits off the bottom and cook the liquid over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until it’s reduced to 2 or 3 tbsp. Slowly pour in the cream while stirring and mix until even. Fold the chicken pieces back in and turn the heat down to medium for a few minutes before serving over the drained and rinsed egg noodles.

The main flavor comes from the wine, and the difference between a self-proclaimed cooking wine and one that you’d consider drinking is huge. Bad wine renders this inedible. I can’t make a recommendation, as I don’t really drink (and I try, I love the glasses, but I can’t stand how alcohol compromises Diet Coke). Mr. P is our resident oenophile, so I leave such selections to him. My advice is to use the leftovers from a bottle you enjoyed, or just grab something in the $7 range and keep it on hand as your cooking supply.

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