Chicken Legs Baked with White Wine, Olive Oil & Parmigiano Reggiano; Making the Most of a Whole Chicken Part Two

Parmesan Chicken

Can you remember one-third cup? That’s really all you need to know in order to make this recipe: one-third cup olive oil, one-third cup white wine, one-third cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Garlic and thyme are nice additions but optional. Just whisk everything together, season the chicken with salt and pepper, throw it in a 450ºF oven and you’re done. Crispy skins. Tender meat. A delicious meal to add to your repertoire.

As the title of this post mentions, this is part two of a making-the-most-of-a-whole-chicken series. I have other recipes for the dark meat, but let’s just start with this one, k? It’s the simplest one I know and perhaps my favorite as well.

So you have a game plan now, right? Buy a chicken. Cut it up. Make stock. Serve broiled tarragon breasts for dinner one night, chicken legs baked with white wine, olive oil and Parmigiano Reggiano another. Fry up that liver for a snack. And cook up those little tenders to add to a salad or a sandwich? I don’t have many creative ideas for the tenders nor much experience with the liver but I’m confident you will not let these bits go to waste. And, any tips you might have for cooking the liver would be much appreciated … I sort of just throw it in a pan and cross my fingers. Yum yum yum.

Chicken Legs Baked with White Wine, Olive Oil & Parmigiano Reggiano

Serves 2

2 chicken drumsticks + 2 chicken thighs
kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper
1/3 cup white wine
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
a few sprigs fresh thyme

1. Preheat the oven to 450ºF. Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper.

2. In a small shallow baking dish such as a pie plate, whisk together the white wine, olive oil, about half of the cheese, and the garlic. Throw in the thyme sprigs and the chicken and toss all around to coat.

3. Turn chicken so that the skin is facing up and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Place in the oven for 30 minutes. Take a peak. If the skin is getting too brown, reduce the heat to 400ºF. Continue baking for about 20 more minutes, or until the meat is pulling away from the bone on the drumstick. The time it takes to cook this chicken will vary depending on your oven, on the size of the legs, if the chicken was cooked directly from the refrigerator or if it had been brought to room temperature before baking, etc. Trust your nose — if you think it’s done, take a stab. After you’ve made the recipe once or twice, you’ll have a better idea about the timing.

How to Make the Most of One Whole Chicken, Part One: Broiled Tarragon Breasts

Broiled Breasts

I’ll be honest. If I saw a recipe for broiled chicken breasts on a blog, I’d probably stop reading. The words chicken breasts never make my mouth water. Sorry. Blame Liza. I was conditioned at an early age to favor dark meat.

But there’s something about this recipe for breasts that just works. The tarragon-mustard-mayonnaise combo browns and bubbles under the broiler keeping the breasts juicy and tender and flavorful. Even Liza adores this recipe. And I adore how my kitchen smells when these breasts are broiling. It’s up there with onions sautéing in butter and bread baking in the oven and truffle oil drizzled over just about anything.

I go through phases when I make these breasts once a week. I buy a whole chicken, break it down, save the thighs and drumsticks for one meal and the two breasts for another. For the dark meat, I have many recipes that I love (part two of this post to follow shortly), but for the breasts this is it. Just this one. Try it. It couldn’t be simpler. And with the exception of the tarragon, you likely have the ingredients on hand so if you’re disappointed, which would shock me, you won’t have made a huge investment in time or money.

Now, if you enjoy the convenience of buying boneless, skinless chicken parts, read no further. I understand that people are strapped for time. And before I really thought about it, I enjoyed buying packs of boneless skinless chicken thighs myself.

That said, have you ever tried to bone a chicken thigh yourself? It’s hard. Really hard. The process makes you realize just how much these parts have been handled before they reach your kitchen. And while it seems so convenient and cost effective to buy a pack of thighs or drumsticks or boneless breasts, you get so much more out of buying a whole chicken. With one chicken, I can get two meals for two plus 1.5 quarts of chicken stock (at the very least) plus 3 little snacks — 2 chicken tenders and a liver … yum yum yum.

Does the thought of dealing with a whole chicken discourage you? Don’t let it. With a little practice, you’ll soon discover that it’s no big deal. It’s actually quite rewarding. And if you’re organized, in under five minutes, one meal will be minutes from completion, another will be prepped for tomorrow, and your chicken will be in pieces, its carcass simmering on the stovetop promising you a batch of stock tastier and healthier than anything you could buy at the store.

The key is being organized. I’ve included a little video below. All of you pros out there, please don’t laugh — this video is not for you. This is just how I do it. And this is how I set up my station before I start hacking:

• 2 cutting boards
• 1 sharp knife
• trash can nearby with lid removed
• ziplock back nearby, opened, with top part folded over for easy entering
• stock pot
• plate
• mallet
• plastic wrap

You’ll notice in the video that I throw bits of the chicken in the stockpot. When I’m through breaking it down, I fill the pot with water, bring it to a boil, and let it simmer for about 3 hours. That’s it. Making homemade chicken stock is no big deal. If you have onions, carrots, celery to add to the pot, great. If you don’t, don’t sweat it. And this is how you know you’ve made good stock.

Broiled Tarragon Chicken Breasts

Serves 2 generously

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts*, pounded to about 3/4-inch thickness
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3 T. mayonnaise**
1 T. mustard
chopped fresh tarragon, lots of it, at least 3 tablespoons

* Preferably cut from a whole chicken. Pound the breasts just so they are even — they might be thicker or thinner than 3/4 of an inch.
** If you want to be really gourmet, make the homemade version, recipe below

1. Preheat the broiler to high.

2. Season both sides of each breast with kosher salt and pepper. Mix mayo, mustard and tarragon together. Grease a broiler pan with olive oil. Place breasts on the pan and spoon half (or a little less than half) of the mayo-mustard mixture over the breasts.

3. Broil 3 minutes. Remove pan. Flip breasts. Spread remaining mayo-mustard mixture over the breasts. Return to the broiler and cook for about 5 to 6 minutes longer, depending on the thickness of the breasts.

Homemade Mayonnaise

Note: This is just for all of you Liza-types out there. Before I discovered that store-bought mayo works just as nicely as homemade in this chicken recipe, I made the mayo from scratch, too. Up to you.
Yield = 1.25 cups

1 egg yolk
1 T. lemon juice
1 T. Dijon mustard
pinch salt and pepper
1 cup regular olive oil (not extra virgin) or grapeseed oil

1. Whisk together the yolk, lemon juice, mustard, salt and pepper.

2. Start beating vigorously while slowly drizzling in the olive oil. Beat until thick and smooth.

Nectarine Pizza with Fresh Basil and Reduced Balsamic

I ate this whole pizza tonight. All of it. By myself. Not one slice remains for me for my breakfast tomorrow. I tried to refrain. No dice. So, if you’re still in summer-bathing-suit mode, avert your eyes.

This combination is so good. I believe the original, a pie hailing from Paso Robles where the dear friend who introduced me to this creation had just vacationed, called for peaches, but nectarines are a fine substitute. I’ve used an herbed goat cheese here with some Parmigiano Reggiano but I think some fresh ricotta or buffalo mozzarella or mascarpone or all three would be a nice substitute (or addition?) for the goat cheese. The Parmigiano, I think, is a must.

Fresh basil or some sprigs of arugula sprinkled on the just-baked pizza is key. It needs that hit of freshness as well as that bite from the reduced balsamic. Yum yum yum yum yum. Just don’t burn your balsamic. I did. Twice. Oiy. It’s really annoying. Really try not to do that.

Gosh, I don’t know what else to say. This is delicious and summery and fun, and I think you should make it.

Nectarine Pizza with Fresh Basil and Reduced Balsamic

Each pizza serves 1-2 people

pizza dough (recipe below)

Toppings For 1 pizza:
olive oil for greasing
cheese: fresh ricotta, buffalo mozzarella, goat cheese, mascarpone, whatever you like
1 nectarine, sliced thinly, (not paper thin)
shavings of fresh Parmigianno Reggiano
fresh basil

Reduced balsamic:

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1. Place balsamic in a small sauté pan. Turn heat to medium high. Let simmer until reduced and noticeably thick — watch it like a hawk. If it burns, it’s ruined. There’s no salvaging burnt balsamic. Err on the side of under reduced. It reduces more than you expect as it’s cooling. Remove from heat.

Pizza Dough
Adapted from Todd English’s The Figs Table
Makes four 8- to 10-inch pizzas (Serves 1 to 2 people per pizza, dough freezes beautifully)

¼ cup whole wheat flour
3½ cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for rolling
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 2/3 cups lukewarm water
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons active-dry yeast
2 teaspoons olive oil

1. Place the flours and salt in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. (Or knead by hand. I have not had luck making this in the food processor — the engine starts smoking after about five minutes.) Combine the water, sugar and yeast in a small bowl and let sit for five minutes until the mixture bubbles slightly. Add the olive oil and stir. With the mixer on low, gradually add the oil-water mixture into the bowl. Knead until the dough is firm and smooth, under 10 minutes. The dough will be very wet and sort of difficult to work with. I liberally coat my hands with flour before attempting to remove it.

2. Divide the dough into four balls, about 7½ ounces each. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. (Be sure to oil the parchment paper.) Place two balls on a sheet. Lightly rub the balls with olive oil, then cover loosely with plastic wrap. The dough is very sticky and wet, so, be sure to coat the balls or the plastic with oil. Let the balls rise in a warm spot until they have doubled in bulk, about two hours.

Note: This dough freezes beautifully. After the initial rise, punch down the dough, wrap it in plastic and place in a Ziplock bag. Freeze for several months. When ready to use, let sit at room temperature for about an hour, then proceed with rolling/topping/baking.

3. To roll out the dough: Dab your fingers in flour and then place one ball on a generously floured work surface. Press down in the center with the tips of your fingers, spreading the dough with your hand. When the dough has doubled in width, use a floured rolling pin (or continue using floured hands if you are skilled at making pizzas) and roll out until it is very thin, like flatbread. The outer portion should be a little thicker than the inner portion. Note: If the dough is being very stubborn, let it rest for 15 to 20 minutes. In this time, the gluten will relax, and the dough will be much easier to work with.

Baking:

1. Preheat the oven to 500ºF. Line a sheetpan with parchment paper or grease lightly with olive oil. Place rolled out dough onto parchment paper or greased pan. Drizzle dough with a little olive oil and with your hand, rub it over the surface to coat evenly.

2. Cover the dough with a layer of cheese — mozzarella, goat cheese, ricotta mascarpone, whatever you wish. Arrange one layer of sliced nectarines or peaches on top of the cheese. Sprinkle the fruit layer with fresh Parmigiano Reggiano. Place pizza in your very hot oven and bake for about 10 minutes or until the crust is slightly brown and the cheese is melting.

3. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with fresh basil or arugula. Drizzle with the reduced balsamic. Slice and serve. Yum.

A Super Summery Pasta

orecchiette with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and basil

I am obsessed with roasted red peppers at the moment. I have been preparing them by the half dozen and using them all week chopped up in salads or left whole in sandwiches or laid atop a bagel with cream cheese. They are so delicious.

There are no roasted red peppers in this pasta dish, however. But I did discover a revolutionary way to use all of those lovely juices generated by roasting peppers. More on that later.

As for this pasta dish, it’s another one I learned while working at that Philadelphia restaurant. As soon as the Branch Creek cherry tomatoes — the sweetest, most flavorful cherry tomatoes I had ever tasted — arrived each summer, this dish would appear as a first course on the menu. And it was a huge hit, a perfect start to a summer dinner.

It’s simple to prepare: Sauté cherry tomatoes with orecchiette, ciliegene mozzarella and basil pesto. Add some fresh basil just before plating along with some shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh cracked pepper. Yum yum yum. Toasted pine nuts, I think, would make a nice addition to this pasta as well.

So, I normally avoid buying jarred sauces, tapenades, pestos, etc. but I have an amazing Italian deli in my town that sells enormous jars of delectable pesto at a very reasonable price. It’s hard to pass up and makes for very easy preparations. So, if you have a good local source for pesto, by all means use it in this dish — everything else will take minutes to prepare.

Now, onto my revolutionary discovery regarding roasted red pepper juices. First of all, I cannot believe I have been discarding those juices all these years. I mean, I have always stored my peppers in their juices in a bowl in the fridge but once the last pepper has been consumed, those juices go down the drain. I had never before thought to drizzle them over pasta for added flavor or to reheat them with last night’s pasta, as I did yesterday with this very dish, which was extremely delicious.

Oh it pains me to think about! What a waste. Am I the last person on the planet to have discovered this? Have all of you been creatively and resourcefully using your roasted red pepper juices all these years? If so, pray tell how.

I am anxious to try the recipe here with roasted red peppers substituted for the tomatoes, goat cheese for the mozzarella, and red pepper juices for the pesto … ooooh, I think another super summery pasta dish is in the works.

Orecchiette with Cherry Tomatoes, Mozzarella & Basil Pesto

Serves 4 as a starter or 2 generously as an entrée

1/2 lb. orecchiette pasta
kosher salt
2 T. olive oil
1/2 lb. cherry tomatoes, halved (I used more like 9oz., and you could probably use even more)
2 T. basil pesto
1/2 lb. ciliegene (small balls) mozzarella*
fresh basil**
shaving of Parmigiano Reggiano (optional)
fresh cracked black pepper

* Goat cheese would be a nice substitute.
** If you have small tender leaves, leave them whole; otherwise, chiffonade the basil
*** Toasted pine nuts or walnuts would make a nice addition to this pasta as well.

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a pinch of kosher salt. Add pasta and cook till al dente, about 9 minutes. (Package instructions said 11 minutes but the pasta will continue cooking as its tossed with the other ingredients so it’s best to undercook it a little bit.) Drain pasta. Do not rinse.

2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the cherry tomatoes and cook for 30 seconds. Add pasta and pesto. Cook 1 minute, stirring to coat pasta with the pesto. Add the mozzarella. Stir to incorporate. Add the fresh basil and remove from the heat.

3. Divide pasta among bowls and sprinkle each with some fresh shavings of Parmigiano. Crack the pepper overtop and serve.

Homemade Focaccia + Roasted Red Pepper & Arugula Sandwiches

Sandwiches

Next time you are invited to a potluck picnic, volunteer to make sandwiches. And then make these. You will be loved forever. I promise.

Roasted red peppers, arugula and an herbed goat cheese* is a particularly nice combination at the moment but later in the summer, when the tomatoes are peaking, a classic Caprese salad on this homemade focaccia will be a huge hit.

I have been making this focaccia recipe since it was printed in Fine Cooking magazine over six years ago now. It’s credited to Peter Reinhart and, like all of his recipes, is very precise. But unlike many of his recipes, which seem to begin days in advance of baking time, this one is just an overnighter and only takes minutes to prepare. It’s particularly easy if you have a stand mixer but Reinhart provides detailed by-hand mixing instructions as well. Make it. It’s a winner for sure.

I learned something, too, about roasting peppers while preparing for this picnic: Patience pays. I roasted these peppers as I usually do — on a parchment-lined sheetpan under the broiler for about 15 to 20 minutes or until evenly blackened — and steamed them as I usually do — in an aluminum bowl covered with plastic wrap. But instead of rushing the peeling, charring my little fingers in the process, I waited to peel till the following morning. It was a breeze. From here on out, I will roast, steam and peel 24 hrs. in advance … rrrrrigghhht.

* Note: I whipped a log of honey-goat cheese from Trader Joe’s with fresh basil and about 1/4 cup of crème fraîche (for texture), which made a delicious spread. Any herb or combination of herbs would be nice but I definitely recommend whipping the goat cheese with a little bit of milk or yogurt or something of the sort to make spreading easier.

Homemade Focaccia
Source: Fine Cooking March 2004
Yield = one sheet pan

Notes: If you don’t have a mixer, follow the instructions on the Fine Cooking website for mixing by hand.

1 lb. 9 oz. (5-1/2 cups) unbleached bread flour
2-1/2 cups cold water (about 55°F)
2 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. granulated sugar (1 oz.)
2 tsp. table salt or 3-1/2 tsp. kosher salt (1/2 oz.)
1 packet (1/4 oz.) instant yeast (also called quick-rise, rapid-rise, or fast-rising yeast)
10 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt or kosher salt for sprinkling

Mix the dough:

Coat a bowl large enough to hold the dough when it doubles in size with 1 Tbs. of the olive oil. Transfer the dough to the bowl and rotate the dough to coat it with the oil.

Hold the bowl steady with one hand. Wet the other hand in water, grasp the dough and stretch it to nearly twice its size.

Lay the stretched section back over the dough. Rotate the bowl a quarter turn and repeat this stretch-and-fold technique. Do this two more times so that you have rotated the bowl a full 360 degrees and stretched and folded the dough four times. Drizzle 1 Tbs. of the olive oil over the dough and flip it over. Wrap the bowl well with plastic and refrigerate it overnight, or for at least 8 to 10 hours.

Shape the focaccia:

Remove the bowl of dough from the refrigerator and start shaping the focaccia 3 hours before you intend to bake it (2 hours on a warm day). The dough will have nearly doubled in size. Cover a 13×18-inch rimmed baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat and coat the surface with 2 Tbs. of the olive oil.

Gently slide a rubber spatula or a dough scraper under the dough and guide it out of the bowl onto the center of the pan. The dough will sink beneath its own weight, expelling some gas but retaining enough to keep an airy gluten network that will grow into nice holes.

Drizzle 2 Tbs. of the olive oil on top of the dough. (Don’t worry if some rolls off onto the pan; it will all be absorbed eventually.)

Dimple the entire dough surface, working from the center to the edges, pressing your fingertips straight down to create hollows in the dough while gently pushing the dough down and out toward the edges of the pan. At first you might only be able to spread the dough to cover about one-half to three-quarters of the pan. Don’t force the dough when it begins to resist you. Set it aside to rest for 20 minutes. The oil will prevent a crust from forming.

After letting the dough rest, drizzle another 2 Tbs. olive oil over the dough’s surface and dimple again. This time, you will be able to push the dough to fill or almost fill the entire pan. It should be about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. If it doesn’t stay in the corners, don’t worry; the dough will fill the corners as it rises.

Cover the dough loosely with oiled plastic wrap, put the pan on a rack to let air circulate around it, and let the dough rise at room temperature until it’s about 1-1/2 times its original size and swells to the rim of the pan. This will take 2 to 3 hours, depending on the temperature of the room. Thirty minutes before baking, heat your oven to 475°F.

Bake the focaccia:

Just before baking, gently remove the plastic wrap and sprinkle a few pinches of sea salt or kosher salt over the dough. Put the pan in the middle of the hot oven and reduce the heat to 450°F. After 15 minutes, rotate the pan to ensure even baking.

Check the dough after another 7 minutes. If it’s done, it will be golden brown on top and, if you lift a corner of the dough, the underside will be golden as well. If not, return the pan to the oven for another 1 to 2 minutes and check again.

Set a cooling rack over a sheet of aluminum foil or parchment (to catch drippings). Use a metal spatula to release the dough from the sides of the pan. Slide the spatula under one end of the focaccia and jiggle it out of the pan onto the rack. If any oil remains in the pan, pour it evenly over the focaccia’s surface. Carefully remove the parchment or silicone liner from beneath the focaccia. Let cool for 20 minutes before cutting and serving.

Roasted Red Peppers
Yield= However many you want
(Estimate about 1 pepper for every 1 to 2 people)

red bell peppers

1. Preheat the broiler. Line a sheetpan with parchment paper for easy cleaning. Alternatively, grease the sheetpan with a little bit of olive oil.

2. Cut peppers in half lengthwise. Remove stem and seeds. Place peppers cut side down on sheet pan. Broil for about 15 to 20 minutes or until evenly charred.

3. Place peppers in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Steam until completely cool — overnight is ideal. Use peppers for salads, sandwiches, pasta salads, etc.

Do you love roasted red peppers? Here are some other ideas for using them up.

Herbed Goat Cheese

There are many ways to make a yummy herbed goat cheese. This is what I did: I whipped a log of honey-goat cheese (delicious on its own) from Trader Joe’s with fresh basil and about 1/4 cup of crème fraîche (for texture), which made a delectable spread. Any herb or combination of herbs would be nice but I definitely recommend whipping the goat cheese with a little bit of milk or yogurt or something of the sort to make spreading easier.

Moules Marinière, So Easy A …

Moules à la Marinière

Moules à la Marinière

Dipping crusty bread into the broth of a pot of steaming mussels has to be one of my favorite eating experiences. You? And when a restaurant offers mussels, I’m inclined to order them because, one, I rarely make them at home, and two, they’re so damn good — when they’re good, that is.

Why I never make mussels at home confounds me, especially after trying this Balthazar recipe for Moules Marinière. It’s so easy a … ok, no need to go there. But seriously, I followed this recipe to a tee (with the exception of the freshly ground white pepper … so French), and was so pleased, I’ve now made them twice in one week.

This recipe could not be simpler: sweat shallots, garlic, celery and thyme in a stick — gasp — of butter; season with salt; add crème fraîche and white wine; bring to a boil; steam the mussels for 3 minutes; sprinkle with parsley, stir and serve with crusty bread. Voila: Moules à la Marinière.

I think these mussels would make a fun dish for entertaining.  The broth (steps 1 and 2 in the recipe) could certainly be made in advance, leaving you with no more than 3 minutes of cooking time. To complete this meal, all you need is some nice fresh bread, a simple salad, and some sort of lovely dessert. Yum.

For those of you who live in the area, I highly recommend mussels from Carlsbad Aquafarm. I’ve been purchasing them at Pelly’s Fish Market in Carlsbad but they can also be found at various farmers’ markets. Call Carlsbad Aquafarm for the details: 760 438 2444.

Also, I can’t say enough about Pelly’s Fish Market. The employees are incredibly nice and informative; I didn’t have to ask for ice; I was told to keep the bag the mussels were given to me in open so that the mussels could breathe; and I was instructed on how to store the mussels once I brought them home: in a shallow bowl, covered with a damp paper towel in the coldest part of my fridge. I’m not sure I’ve ever received such service at a fish market.

And, while I was there, I delighted in one of the best fish tacos I’ve ever eaten. There was nothing gourmet about this taco — no fancy slaws or sauces — just fresh, grilled fish wrapped in a corn tortilla with some raw shredded cabbage. Delectable! The place was packed, too, always a good sign at a fish market.

Moules à la Marinière

aromatics

aromatics

balthazar

Moules à la Marinière

Serves 2 as an entrée or 6 as an appetizer
Source: The Balthazar Cookbook

8 T. unsalted butter
5 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced (or diced)
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced on the bias
4 sprigs thyme
pinch of kosher salt
1 cup dry white wine
2 tsp. freshly ground white pepper (I actually never added any pepper, so your call on the pepper)
4 tablespoons crème fraîche
2 lbs. mussels — Carlsbad Aquafarm mussels are delectable, if you live in the area; otherwise, Balthazar recommends Prince Edward Island
a bunch of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

bread, any kind you like, grilled or heated just before serving

1. In a large stockpot or Dutch oven, melt the butter over a LOW flame. Add the shallots, garlic, celery and thyme. Gently sauté for about 15 minutes until the vegetables are soft but not browned. Season with a pinch of kosher salt.

2. Add the wine, pepper (if using), and crème fraîche, and raise the heat to high.

3. Once the liquid comes to a boil, add the mussels, stir gently, and cover with a tight fitting lid. Cook for 3 minutes, or until the mussels open.

4. Add the parsley and stir gently. Serve in large bowls (remembering to discard any unopened mussels), with either crusty bread or French fries … yum.

Moules à la Marinière

The Easiest (Best?) Ribs You Will Ever Make + Delicious Buttermilk Cornbread

Easiest (Best?) Ribs You Will Ever Make

Baby Back Ribs

The best ribs you’ve ever made? Let me qualify that. These are the only ones I know how to make, which make them the best I’ve ever made. That said, this recipe takes five minutes to prepare. Literally. Five minutes. But what emerges from the oven  — a juice-filled package of falling-off-the-bone baby back ribs, perfectly crisped on the exterior  — tastes like a day’s worth of work toiling over a coal-filled bbq pit. 

Sweet. Smokey. Salty. Delicious. If these aren’t the best ribs you’ve ever prepared, they’re damn good ribs at the very least. 

Where did I discover such an easy and delicious recipe? Where else. Liza, of course. My mother made these ribs for my meat-deprived husband and me when she was visiting last month. I’ve since made them several times for friends and family. If you’re looking for a crowd-pleasing recipe, this is it. Serve it with buttermilk cornbread (my favorite recipe is enclosed below) and a simple salad, and you have a successful dinner party in the making.

Now, some of you may be wondering where I found local, humanely raised pork. Well, I didn’t, because where I live, I haven’t been able to find a source fitting such criteria, a reality that has stopped me from buying pork for nearly two years. Oh Liza! With your baby back ribs! Your tasty tasty baby back ribs. I regret to admit I’ve compromised my morals.

Alas. For you locals, I have two alternatives: the Whole Foods in Laguna Beach sells organic pork from Canada donning a “responsibly farm raised” label, whatever that means. And Trader Joe’s sells pork from the Midwest from purveyors that “meet their standards,” according to a woman I spoke to on the Trader Joe’s product information line: 626.599.3817. Again, it’s hard to know how these pigs really live until you see the location yourself, but this woman assured me that Trader Joe’s has high standards, that their crew does checks regularly, and that the pigs from their purveyors do not live packed together in pens. Again, these sources are not the ideal but short of forgetting this recipe exists, the best alternative for the meantime. 

Baby Back Ribs

Baby Back Ribs

4 spices

Preparing the Ribs

The Easiest Ribs You’ll Ever Make

Serves 2-3
1 rack of baby back ribs
kosher salt
freshly cracked black pepper
smoked paprika (if you can find it) or parika
1 cup brown sugar
Heavy duty foil, if you have it

1. Preheat the oven to 275ºF.

2. Rinse off the ribs and pat dry. Liberally coat the ribs with the kosher salt, pepper and the paprika. Pack on the cup of brown sugar.

3. Lay out two sheets of foil slightly overlapping. Place ribs on top and close foil on all sides. Repeat two more times so that the ribs are covered in three good layers of foil. Place ribs on a sheet tray and place in the oven for 2½ hours. Note: When placing the ribs on the tray, try to place them meaty side down. It’s not critical but it makes for a crisper exterior.

4. Remove tray from the oven. Let sit for one hour. Do not open the pouch during this hour.

5. When ready to serve, reheat the ribs in the oven for about 15 minutes at 350ºF (this is assuming the ribs have not been refrigerated) or open the pouch, baste the ribs with the juices and place them under the broiler for five minutes.

Serve immediately with cornbread and a simple salad for a yummy yummy meal.

Buttermilk Cornbread

Super Moist Buttermilk Cornbread

Serves 8 to 10

1 3/4 cups flour
1 cup cornmeal
3 T. brown sugar
2 T. Sugar
1½ T. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup grated Monterey Jack or Cheddar or Gruyère (or any cheese you like)
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups buttermilk

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugars, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the cheese and toss to coat.

2. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Whisk together the eggs and the buttermilk. Whisk in the melted butter. Pour wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until just combined.

3. Melt remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Pour into a springform pan and swirl the pan to coat. Add the batter to the pan and place in the oven. Bake for about 55 minutes, until golden on top. (Check after 50 minutes). Place on cooling rack. Let cool for 15 minutes before cutting.

cornbread ingredients

Bean & Cheese Burritos, Beef Tacos & Homemade Flour Tortillas

Bean and Cheese Burrito

Bean and Cheese Burrito

I have a confession. I eat at Taco Bell about once a month. And I love it. More than love it. Look forward to it even. I know, I know. You hypocrite, you say. Well, let me explain.

You see, the reason I eat at Taco Bell is because when I meet a dear friend for lunch every month, our dining options are limited to El Pollo Loco, IHOP, Togo’s and Taco Bell.

And at Taco Bell I can order a bean and cheese burrito, two in fact, and I can pry open the steaming nearly transparent tortilla holding those beans and cheese from oozing out, and I can smother it with hot sauce. What a treat. Seriously, it’s the little things.

All I’m saying is that if you, like me, are picky about what meat you eat, know that at Taco Bell a delectable vegetarian option awaits you. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Incidentally, I was searching cooksillustrated.com for a taco recipe when I stumbled upon the results of a refried bean taste test. Which brand do you suppose prevailed on top? That’s right, Taco Bell Home Originals Refried Beans. Despite these results, however, I like to use Trader Joe’s refried pinto beans “salsa style.” They are tasty and made with just a handful of ingredients (… you may recall Michael Pollan’s eating algorithms.)

So what could be better than a Taco Bell burrito? Why one made in your own home, of course, with homemade flour tortillas. I know, homemade tortillas, “come on” you are saying. “What’s wrong with store-bought flour tortillas?” Indeed, store-bought tortillas are a perfectly fine product, one I undoubtedly will purchase again. That said, if you have the time and the curiosity, I think you’ll find the value in making them from scratch — these homemade tortillas are light and lovely with just a hint of butter taste, and truthfully, not too tricky to make. The dough requires minimal kneading and a short 30-minute rest before being rolled. And while a tortilla press is nice to get the rolling process going, it is an unnecessary tool in this process. A rolling pin does the job.

While nothing makes me happier than a couple of refried bean-and-cheddar burritos for dinner, I am conscious of my husband’s preferences, too, which lean toward meat-based entrees. Fortunately, I always have some of J&J’s grass-fed ground beef in the freezer and thanks to Cook’s Illustrated, I now have a favorite beef taco recipe. The filling, a mixture of sautéed onions, tomato sauce, a little vinegar, a pinch of brown sugar and a homemade spice mix — cumin, coriander, chili powder and oregano — is a snap to make. We’ve been eating tacos once a week here. They are awesome.

And as you can imagine, this beef mix makes a nice burrito filling as well. 

Tortilla Dough. Note: A tortilla press is unnecessary. I mostly use my rolling pin.
tortilla dough

When making homemade tortillas, you don’t really want them to brown too much, especially if you are making burritos. You want them to be cooked, but still pliable, capable of being filled and rolled.
tortilla

 Burritos
See that pan in the lower left corner of the above montage? It’s filled with beef taco filling. We’ve been eating tacos once a week here. I found the recipe (included below) on CooksIllustrated.com. It’s fantastic.

Cut Burrito

Bean and Cheese Burritos

Yield = However many you’d like

refried beans, I like Trader Joe’s brand
cheddar cheese
large flour tortillas, homemade if you are feeling ambitious, recipe below
salsa and sour cream, optional

1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Spread flour tortillas with beans and cheese. Wrap burrito style. Wrap in foil. Place in oven until cheese is melted, about 20 minutes. I’m not totally sure how long these take, but if you have a whole bunch wrapped and heating in the oven, just pull out one to check and adjust time accordingly.

Note: I ended up placing the beans in a small frying pan to heat before I spread them onto a tortilla. This is mostly because it was hard to stir the beans up while they were still in the can. Also, a little beans and cheese go a long way — think “less is more” while assembling.

Homemade Flour Tortillas

Yield = 8 to 9 taco-sized tortillas or 4 to 5 burrito-sized tortillas

9 oz. (about 2 scant cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. table salt (not kosher) I used sea salt, fine
1/4 t. baking powder
1/4 c. unsalted butter

1. Whisk flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl. With a knife cut little pieces of the butter into the flour. Then with two knives cut the butter into the flour until mealy, smaller little bits of butter than in a pie dough.

2. Stir in 2/3 c. warm (not from tap, preferably) water with a fork until a shaggy dough forms.

3. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead 3-4 minutes until smooth, soft, and not sticky.

4. Cut the dough into 2-oz. pieces for taco-sized tortillas or 3-oz pieces for burrito-sized tortillas. You will have 8 to 9 small pieces or 4 to 5 larger pieces. Shape pieces into a ball.

5. Cover with a very light kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Be careful that your room isn’t too hot. Let the dough rest 30 minutes and up to two hours.

6. Roll out each ball to about 9 to 10 inches (taco) or 11 to 12 inches (burrito) in diameter, or till you can see the counter start to come through. Note: A tortilla press is nice to flatten the ball into a disk to get things going, but ultimately a rolling pin works best. The tortilla press is unnecessary if you don’t have one.

7. Heat a 12 inch non-stick or cast-iron pan (do not add any oil) on medium-high. Lay the tortilla in the pan and cook until it puffs and little brown spots on the underside appear. Turn with tongs and cook. Each tortilla takes about 45-60 seconds. You don’t really want the tortilla to brown at all. The tortilla in the above picture was actually cooked a little too long.

Notes: When making tortillas for burritos, it’s best if the tortillas are cooked just before you plan on filling them, wrapping them and placing them in the oven. This way they’ll stay pliable. 

Beef Tacos

Source: Cook’s Illustrated, Published May 1, 2002
Yield = 8 tacos, serves 4

Beef Filling:
2 teaspoons vegetable oil or corn oil
1 small onion , chopped small (about 2/3 cup)
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin*
1 teaspoon ground coriander*
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt
1 pound 90% lean ground beef, I used J&J grass-fed beef
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 teaspoon brown sugar
2 teaspoons vinegar (preferably cider vinegar)
Ground black pepper

* I like to toast whole cumin and coriander seeds and then grind them in my spice grinder with all of the other spices listed above. Just a thought, if you have the time. 

Shells and Toppings:
8 taco shells or small tortillas
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese (4 ounces), or Monterey Jack cheese
2 cups shredded iceberg lettuce
2 small tomatoes , chopped small
1/2 cup sour cream
1 avocado, diced medium
1 small onion, chopped small
2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro leaves
Tabasco sauce , or another brand of hot sauce

1. Heat oil in medium skillet over medium heat until hot and shimmering but not smoking, about 2 minutes; add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, spices, and 1/2 teaspoon salt; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add ground beef and cook, breaking meat up with wooden spoon and scraping pan bottom to prevent scorching, until beef is no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Add tomato sauce, chicken broth, brown sugar, and vinegar; bring to simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, stirring frequently and breaking meat up so that no chunks remain, until liquid has reduced and thickened (mixture should not be completely dry), about 10 minutes. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.

2. Using wide, shallow spoon, divide filling evenly among taco shells; place two tacos on individual plates. Serve immediately, passing toppings separately.

Bean and Cheese Burrito

Vermont Cheddar Cheese Soup + Beer Bread = Yum Yum Yum

Vermont Cheddar Cheese and Beer Soup

Vermont Cheddar Cheese and Beer Soup

I should just rename my blog “Liza’s Daughter’s Blog.” These days, it seems, I only make dishes that my mother has fed me or told me about. When I was home in CT for my sister’s wedding last month, I was welcomed with a steaming bowl of this Vermont cheddar cheese soup, a slice of spanakopita, warm homemade bread, and yogurt cake for dessert. I devoured every morsel then fell into a several-hour-long food coma. It was heaven.

It’s hard to find fault in lots of extra sharp cheddar cheese, tons of fresh thyme, and vegetables sautéed in rendered pancetta fat, but several unexpected ingredients — beer, mustard, worcestershire and Tabasco — make this soup truly special. Oh, it is just wonderful!

I find the method for making this soup interesting. Now, I have never made a cheesy soup before, so perhaps this method is standard, but in this recipe, the grated cheese is tossed with flour before being stirred into the hot milk. This mixture thickens in its own pot before being added to the pot of sautéed vegetables, beer, stock and sauces. And while I wouldn’t think to err from my mother’s detailed instructions, my auntie Marcy reported that this step cannot be omitted — if the cheese and milk (with or without the four) are added directly to the vegetable stock pot, the soup will never come together — it will just curdle and separate into a mess. So, be warned.

And while any bread would go well with this soup, I have been enjoying beer bread with it for the past week. I used to make beer bread all the time. Not sure why I stopped because it is the SIMPLEST bread to prepare. No kneading or rising is required. If ever you want homemade bread with dinner and fear you have no time, consider this recipe — it literally takes five minutes to assemble and 40 minutes to bake. Simps.
 
For a light but comforting meal, serve this soup with bread (perhaps beer bread) and a wintery salad of arugula, candied pecans, diced pear and blue cheese. Yum yum.

beer bread

beer bread mise en place

soup mise en place

crispy pancetta

Vermont Cheddar Cheese Soup

Source: Mother Liza and Auntie Marcy
Yield= a ton (about 14 cups)

½ cup small-diced pancetta (about 4 oz.)
1 T. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 carrots, diced (to yield about a cup)
2 ribs celery, diced (to yield about a cup)
1 large red bell pepper, diced
2 T. fresh thyme
1 large red potato, peeled and diced
6 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade*
12 oz. beer such as Otter Creek Copper Ale or Nut Brown Ale (I used an Amber ale)
3½ cups whole milk
3 T. Dijon mustard
3 dashes Worcestershire
2 dashes (or more) hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
4 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese (about a pound)
2/3 cup flour
fresh Italian parsley, optional
*only homemade if you ask Liza and Marcy

1. In a large soup pot, sauté pancetta in olive oil until crisp and brown. (Alternatively, place the pancetta in the pan without any oil, cover the pan, and turn the heat to low. Cook for about 5 minutes. This should render out some of the fat . Remove the lid, turn the heat up to medium and cook until the pancetta is crisp.) Remove pancetta with slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel.

2. In the rendered fat, sweat the onions, carrots, celery and pepper over medium heat for 15 minutes until soft.

3. Add thyme, potato and chicken broth and simmer until potato is soft, about 10 minutes. Add beer.

4. Heat the milk in a separate pot until it just barely boils. Meanwhile, grate the cheese on the large-holed side of a grater and place it in a large Ziploc bag. Shake with the 2/3 cup flour. Add this cheese-flour mixture to the hot milk and stir until the cheese has melted and the mixture has thickened slightly.

5. Add the milk mixture to the pot with veggies and stock. Add mustard, sauces and salt and pepper to taste. Whisk for a few minutes to avoid curdling.

6. When serving, sprinkle some reserved pancetta in each bowl. Add more hot sauce to taste. Serve with bread.

Note: Soup is even better the next day.

beer bread

Beer Bread

Yield = 1 standard loaf pan or 3 mini pans

butter for greasing the pan
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 beer, I like Magic Hat #9 or any amber ale or Bass or whatever
4 tablespoons butter

1. Preheat the oven to 425ºF.

2. Grease a 9X5X3-inch loaf pan (a standard loaf pan) with softened butter.

3. Whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and sugar. Add beer, stir until combined and place in prepared pan.

4. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 375ºF and bake for 30 minutes longer (or less) or until golden brown on top. Remove from oven and place pan on a cooling rack. Let bread sit in pan.

5. Meanwhile, melt butter. Pour the butter over bread. Let sit for five minutes then turn bread out onto a cutting board and serve immediately with more softened butter.

Hamburger Buns, My Favorite Way to Eat a Burger, and J&J Grassfed Beef

burger

burger

About a month ago, a hankering for homemade hamburger buns led me to a wonderful discovery: Belles Hamburger Buns. You see, I wanted to find the perfect vehicle to hold the burgers I have been savoring every week since stocking up on J&J grass-fed ground beef at Delaney’s 100-Mile Market in Temecula back in August. Oh if I only lived closer to this store! I would never be without Jordan Stone’s legendary homemade pastas, or cans of American Tuna, or wonderful local produce, chickens and eggs, and as I already mentioned, this tasty grass-fed beef.

Alas, back to the buns. Belles Hamburger Buns happened to be the first recipe to turn up on my google search. I have made the recipe three times now and have had success with every batch. The dough is simple to make and forgiving, too — yesterday, for example, I mixed the dough before work, let it rise in the fridge during the day, punched it down when I returned and proceeded with the recipe as if I had never stepped out of the kitchen. I have frozen the portioned dough, too, let it thaw in the fridge overnight and proceeded with the recipe the following evening. Simps.

Now, I know it’s not really burger season, but Liza, my mother, has turned me onto a burger recipe  — a preparation, really — that has become a weekly staple. It’s simple: Roast green peppers, chop them up, and mix them into hamburger meat with a little kosher salt and pepper. Then, form patties and cook them in a cast iron pan for about four minutes a side for delectable medium-rare burgers. Not sure what it is, but the roasted green peppers — and it’s important to use green not red though I can’t give you a scientific reason why — add just the subtlest bit of flavor, enough to keep the burgers juicy and tender but not so much as to mask the flavor of the meat.

And while any skillet will likely work, the cast iron skillet has produced consistent results every time: Four minutes a side for patties about  an inch thick weighing five to six ounces each has become my magic formula for producing medium-rare burgers. I don’t care what anybody says, cooking a burger to a desired temperature is damn hard, and I attribute the success I have had thus far to the cast iron pan’s ability to retain heat so well. I might add, too, that it is a cinch to clean — mine, a gift from Liza, is seasoned such that I rarely have to do anything but wipe it out with a paper towel. If bits do stick, I clean the pan the same way I clean this pan, by heating some kosher salt in it, then wiping it out with a paper towel. Simps.

Like many of my mother’s suggestions, this one took a few months to consider.  Why haven’t I learned? Liza doesn’t mess around, especially when it comes to food. I should just  immediately make and do everything she tells me to. Anway, try this burger-cooking method! I know you’ll find success. And if you have the time to make homemade buns and locate some yummy grass-fed beef, you have quite a memorable meal in store. Thanks, mama, for another wonderful recipe, and thank you, Belles, whoever and wherever you are for a fantastic bun recipe.

I hate to bore any of you who have already heard my thoughts on grass-fed beef, so here are a few links to past posts and articles if you are interested in reading up on this matter:

Grass-fed Beef
Pasture-Perfect Patties
Anxious to Purchase a Steer
Hearst Ranch Grass-fed Beef
Grass-Farming in Lancaster
Small Farm Productivity
When Searching for Solutions, Don’t Forget the Farm

hamburger bun

Making these buns couldn’t be simpler: Combine yeast and flour in a stand mixer. Heat milk, water, sugar, salt and butter together until warm to the touch. Add the warmed milk mixture to flour and let the stand mixer do its thing for 8 minutes. Ta-da! The dough is ready to go.

hamburger buns

Cooking these burgers couldn’t be simpler either. Heat a thin layer of olive oil in a cast-iron pan over high heat. When the oil begins swirling in the pan, add the patties and reduce the heat to medium-high. Cook for about 4 minutes. Flip. Add cheese, if desired, and cook for about 4 minutes longer for medium rare. Yum.

patties in pan

The wonderful J&J grass-fed beef:
J&J Grass-fed Beef

burger

Are these not the cutest little buns you have ever seen? You can make them, too! Promise. It’s easy and fun and delicious.

hamburger bun

Update 5/4/2012: If you’re looking for a brioche burger bun, try this recipe. It’s my new favorite burger bun recipe. I love love love Belles Hamburger Buns, but there’s something about a brioche bun and a burger, you know? They’re just a perfect match.

Belles Hamburger Buns
Yield = 12

1 cup milk
1 cup water
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
5 1/2 cups (about 23.5 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 (.25 ounce) envelope active dry yeast
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon water
sesame seeds (optional)

1. Combine the milk, 1 cup of water, butter, sugar and salt in a saucepan. Heat until warm to the touch and until the butter has melted — this only takes a minute or two. Remove from the heat. If you have heated the mixture longer than you had intended, let it stand till room temperature. Warning: if the mixture is too hot, it will kill the yeast.

2. In a large bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), stir together the flour and yeast. Pour in wet ingredients and stir until the dough starts to pull together. If you have a stand mixer, use the dough hook to mix for about 8 minutes. If not, knead the dough on a floured surface for about 10 minutes. Place the dough in a greased bowl, turning to coat. Cover and let stand until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

3. Punch down the dough and divide into 12 portions. Make tight balls out of the dough by pulling the dough tightly around and pinching it at the bottom. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Note: I would only bake 6 buns at a time on one sheet and place only one pan in the oven at a time to ensure even baking. Set rolls aside until they double in size, about 20 minutes.

4. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Mix together the egg yolk and 1 tablespoon of water in a cup or small bowl. Brush onto the tops of the rolls. Sprinkle with sesame seeds if using.

5. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until nicely browned on the top and bottom. Let cool before slicing and serving.

Note: I have served these warm, which I love, and also sliced and toasted, which I think is even better for burgers — the toasted buns don’t get soggy.

Liza’s Burgers with Roasted Green Peppers
Yield = As many as you wish

Note: This is more of a method than a recipe.

hamburger meat (I usually use about a pound)
green peppers (I usually roast about 2 peppers per pound of beef, but don’t end up needing all of them for the patties.)
Parchment paper, for easy cleaning
olive oil
kosher salt
freshly cracked pepper

Homemade buns (optional), recipe above
Burger accoutrements: cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion, Dijon, ketchup, mayo, etc.

1. Roast the peppers: Preheat the oven to 450ºF. Line a sheetpan with parchment paper. Cut the peppers in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and stem. Place peppers cut-side down on the prepared pan and place in the oven. Roast until the skins are browned and blistery, about 20 minutes. This may take longer or shorter, depending on your oven. Just keep an eye on them towards the end — you don’t want them to be totally charred. Remove the peppers from the oven. Place in a bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside. When peppers are cool enough to handle, remove skins and discard. Chop peppers into small pieces. Set aside.

Note: This can be done days in advance. Also, you might not need all of the peppers. Save any remaining to add to an omelet. Yum.

2. Prepare the patties: Spread the meat into a large bowl. Sprinkle lightly with kosher salt and pepper. Sprinkle as many of the diced peppers over the meat as you like. Gently begin forming your patties. I portion mine into either 5- or 6-ounce patties depending on the day. Season each side of the burgers with salt and pepper to taste.

3. Heat a thin layer of olive oil in a cast iron pan over high heat. When the oil begins to gently swirl, add the patties and turn the heat down to medium or medium-high. Cook for 4 minutes. Flip. Top with a thin slice of cheese, if desired, and cook for about four minutes longer for medium-rare. Serve on a toasted bun with all the fixins.