Sunday, 30 September 2012

Turkey Gravy

Well, kiss the summer goodbye. Back to trying to match socks as they come out of the dryer, and say hello to the days of three mystery socks always hanging off the side of the laundry basket waiting for their elusive partners to appear in the next load. Which never happens. And along with fall comes Thanksgiving. ie Thanksgiving Dinner with the WHOLE family present! I always think of Thanksgiving as a practice run for Christmas Dinner, but just without the shopping and the treacherous driving conditions.
As a young homemaker, my first year hosting the Thanksgiving Dinner literally paralyzed me with fear! I had no idea what was involved, but we had just bought a beautiful house in the country and had our two beautiful girls who later became to be known as The Ladygirls, so I was sure I had all the accoutrement required and away to work I went. I bought a frozen turkey and two fall mums at the garden centre and figured "what more can there be involved than that?" Hahaha Silly Me! And back then I made my own pastry for my homemade pies and I believe my official spice cupboard was born that year. Who knew there was any such thing as poultry seasoning and sage and thyme and lard and pie pans and turkey roasters and platters and basters and you name it! And there was no internet to guide you along with images and help. All I had was my "too busy working mother"! It's overwhelming to say the least. So we'll take this in stages. I stupidly attempted a four course meal that year. Vichysoisse to start. Then I made a cold sort of salad of Belgian endive stuffed with an herbed cream cheese and walnut oil dressing, turkey with all the fixings and three different homemade pies. What a dope I was to attempt all that with two small babies and living in the country where nothing other than potatoes and carrots could be found at the local store. But I'm pretty sure it turned out just fine. Or maybe that's the wine talking. I don't know for sure.
So baby steps, and here is how to make gravy. I'll walk you through the stuffing and everything else in the next post.
Once your turkey is cooked (and you'll know because your whole house will smell like a wonderful turkey dinner), take it out of the pan and cover it with tin foil on your cutting board. Pour all of the drippings in the bottom of the pan into a large Mason jar. After a minute or so, all of the fat will rise to the top of the jar.
Now some lucky people own a Gravy Separator. Use that if you have one. But I do it the old fashioned way. Ladle out 3 tablespoons of the fat off the top and put it into a saucepan on Med heat. When it bubbles up, whisk in 3 tablespoons of flour and keep whisking it for at least 6 or 7 minutes until it turns golden brown. Add some freshly ground pepper at this point, but no salt yet. Ladle off the rest of the fat from your Mason jar and discard it until you're left with just the broth. Add the broth to your roux and keep whisking until it comes up to the simmer. If it's too thick, add a bit of water from one of your vegetable pots such as your carrots. Just a bit at a time to thin it down. If it isn't thick enough, you have to make a slurry. Don't be afraid. That's just food terminology for saying - Pour a half a cup of lukewarm water and add 2 tablespoons of flour and stir it around with a fork until no lumps are left and whisk your slurry into your gravy. This will thicken it up. Taste your gravy and add salt if you need it. Now turn off the heat. Always make your gravy just before you plan to serve the dinner. As you set out the food, whisk it once in a while to break up the skin that will form on it. The gravy will be the last thing you put on the table.
Take note though - the gravy can (and will) make or break a turkey dinner. The flavour will all come from your drippings, but the consistency is up to you. If you don't have enough gravy to feed a crowd, simply whisk in 2 cups of chicken broth. It's pretty easy. If you love gravy, then you'll know if its any good or not. So take the time to adjust it and thrill your guests! And for God sake, don't use that stuff in the package you see on the television. That's just silly and it won't taste nearly as good as the stuff you make yourself! Next stop - Turkey Stuffing!

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Pesto Stuffed Chicken Breasts

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to post this on the blog! This is my go-to recipe if I’m trying to be a show off and do impressive types of things. The reason for that is this recipe is fairly easy to do once you get the hang of it, and it tastes yummy and whoever you’re trying to impress will think you spent the whole day in the damn kitchen, just preparing for their very presence (when in fact this will only take about half an hour of prep).

I saw this recipe first from Chef Michael Smith, who, frankly, is a total dreamboat. And apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so, because he left that wife (mother of Gabe, the child) that was always on his show. And fair enough, because she did not show enough enthusiasm for his recipes, in my opinion. I mean, the man is on national television, and all you can muster to show that you like the supper he slaved over is an “Mmm… hmm,”? I don’t want this blog to get TOO racy, but let’s face it, if that was the show for national television in the kitchen, I can’t imagine she was all that enthused about other activities she and Michael may have shared. 

Now listen, I’m not trying to get all “Stand By Your Man” here… It goes both ways. If someone has taken the trouble to cook you a nice dinner, for the love of God, try a little. A “Wow, delicious!” never hurt anyone. This is just a little free advice, just to go with this recipe. I promise I know what I’m talking about. And mostly, I’m just sad I didn’t work fast enough at trying to chase down Chef Michael Smith.
Yes, that is my vat of olive oil for just one girl. 

For this recipe, you need:

Chicken breast
Fresh basil (cheat with pre-made pesto if you MUST, but effort goes both ways, so don’t expect any fawning if this is the route you choose)
Pine nuts
Parmesan cheese
Olive Oil
Optional: Mozzarella cheese or prosciutto if you really want to get suggestive. Michael Smith uses prosciutto, and clearly his chicken got him in all sorts of trouble, so I’m assuming it’s worth the extra effort.

The first thing you’ll want to do is make your homemade pesto. This is simpler than it sounds. In a food processor, place a handful of fresh basil (stems are fine here) some pine nuts, the Parmesan, and a drizzle of olive oil. You want this to be thicker than your standard pesto for pasta, because this is a stuffing. If it’s too much liquid, it won’t really “stuff”, it will just “glaze”. So keep that in mind.

This is the idea texture for your pesto. 
Whip that through the processor until you have a nice solid, but well chopped, texture. Add a little garlic to the mix if you want. Next, make the pockets in your chicken breast. This is the trickiest part, but only because it takes once or twice for practice, then you’ll be good to go. Chicken breasts have a little flappy bit on them sometimes, but don’t use that for the stuffing. Cut a pocket into the actual meat of the breast, about an inch shy of either end and about two inches deep, depending on the size of your chicken.

They're prettier when they're cooked. 
Next step, take your pesto and put it into the pocket of the chicken. Here’s an important food safety tip: do not let your spoon touch the raw chicken if you plan on using any of the pesto afterwards. That, my friends, is called cross-contamination, and it’s a big no-no if you’d like to avoid giving your entire family salmonella. So, you have two options. Touch the chicken and use all the pesto, or don’t touch the chicken and save the pesto. (Or, if you are a paranoid hypochondriac about food like myself, everything goes in the garbage after, lest you poison people). Maybe this goes without saying, but also do not cut the raw chicken and then use the knife to cut the tomatoes for your salad or something. Anything that touches raw chicken is now fit for the dishwasher only.

That’s all you need to do. Now, if you’re going the extra mile (or extra-marital) you can add mozzarella cheese to the pocket, which will melt in a delicious fashion. Or, wrap the chicken breast in prosciutto and bake it like that. Also wonderful and delicious. You can see that this recipe, once you have the basic idea, affords you all sorts of room to change and add. Maybe you want both cheese and prosciutto, or perhaps you use an arugula pesto instead. Whatever. The choice is up to you, because Chef Michael Smith believes in your ability to make good choices. 

Post Script: I forgot to tell you how to cook the breasts! Salt and pepper them to flavour them, then either bake in the oven at 375 for half an hour, or barbecue them until they're done. I have no idea how long this takes... 25 to 30 minutes is usually a good estimate. 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Crab Stuffed Pasta Shells

I can always tell when I'm about to hit one out of the ball park because my kitchen looks like it got hit by a bomb. And this is exactly the way I like it! I am at that stage in late summer where I can't stand the idea of eating one more slab of anything off the grill. But the weather is still warm and I'm not ready for roast beef and mashed potatoes quite yet either. Plus we've been bringing in the garden for the past four weeks and I feel like my life is one giant steam bath. At any given time, all four burners on the stove are at various stages of canning. We've put up 60 jars of tomatoes and 40 jars of green beans. Pickled and not pickled. (Many times during these long nights of canning, I wished I was the pickled one!) And this doesn't count all the jars I've already given away to family and friends. The wine grapes are all off the vine and in the fermenting stage. So an abundant harvest in all. Lots and lots of work, but so worth it as the long winter draws near, and I can reap the benefits with fresh tasting dishes all throughout. And that lovely homemade wine will be a dear and trusted friend for months to come!

So tonight I really felt like I wanted to cook something delicious. I wanted a challenge with steps and stages and flavours and sauce. I wanted the thrill of having to dig deep into the spice cupboard for things that don't go on a steak, and to reach up high to the top shelf and use flour for the first time since I don't know when! To have to chop and dice and mince and whisk! All the joyful things that come from actually cooking again! And to be able to sit and relax and enjoy a meal without jumping up forty times to put things in and out of constantly boiling pots of water.

So for this recipe, you will need:
24 jumbo pasta shells, boiled for about 15 minutes until they're al dente.
1/2 cup butter
1/2 pound of sliced mushrooms.
3 cloves of minced garlic
1 pound of crab meat. (I had to use imitation because I'm allergic to crab. Poor me!)
1 1lb block of Gruyere cheese, shredded and divided in half
4 sliced green onions
1/4 cup of flour
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
a dash of nutmeg
1/3 cup of brandy
3 cups or so of milk
1/2 cup of bread crumbs
chopped fresh parsley

While your pasta is boiling, shred your cheese and slice your green onion and chop up your crab. Not too fine. Chunky is good.
Drain the pasta and set aside.
Saute the mushrooms in the butter and add the minced garlic after a couple of minutes. Medium heat.
Put your onion, crab and half the cheese in a bowl. When the mushrooms are golden, add them to the bowl, but leave all the butter in the pan.
Season the ingredients in the bowl with a bit of salt and pepper and stir them around.
Add the butter pan back to Medium heat and add the flour. Whisk this roux until it becomes golden. About 4 minutes. (Notice how I used a French cooking word? That's because I'm Thrilled to be cooking again!)
Now add the brandy. And don't be afraid because it will all separate into weird little brown clumps. Now keeping on whisking, add the milk gradually as it comes up to a simmer. It will thicken as you go along. Season with the nutmeg and some more salt and pepper. Taste it. Don't overdo it!
When it has come to the simmer, remove from the heat and add the other half of the cheese and just stir it in.
Add about half a cup of this sauce to the mixture in the bowl. Just to moisten it. Mix it in and get ready to stuff your shells.
Preheat the oven to 350.
Take each shell and fill it with the mixture and set it in the casserole dish with the stuffing side up.
Just as you see here.
Now add the rest of the sauce to cover all the shells and sprinkle the breadcrumbs over that and then sprinkle the parsley over it. Cover the dish and bake for about 20 minutes. Then uncover it and bake for another 15 minutes to let the breadcrumbs brown.

So it looks like this before you cover it.

This dish is a labour of love and people will beg you to make it all the time. But don't spoil them! It's fun and easy to make, but only you have to know that. So serve it up when you feel like you want to be lavished with attention and compliments, and foot messages and such like that! Cheers!

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Chicken Parm

I used to work in one of those insufferable "Italian" (but not really Italian) chain restaurants - you know the type, I'm sure. The meals come with free bread and free salad and endless refills of both. Needless to say, we used to get plenty of people that came in for no other reason than to belly-up to the trough and stuff their gullets on the cheap. Sometimes, I would introduce myself and ask how their evening was going, and their response would be "We want bread right away." It took months to stop having nightmares about the place.

The worst part was that I noticed a pattern: these government cheque types (I know that's awful to say, but still) would usually come in and ask for none other than Chicken Parmesan. I suppose that if they were going to be dining out on the town, they figured that chicken parm was "going all out." I soon started to associate chicken parm with a terribly low class of person that would order me around all night and tip me with their leftover fuzzy dimes and nickels from the bottom of their crummy purse. I could never touch the stuff. The mere sight of it turned me off, and God forbid they asked for the penne side dish! That used to just put me over the top.

Until I met my love at this particular restaurant. We both worked there and would come in early to eat together before our shifts. I always had calamari. He always had.....the chicken parm. So sure enough, I tasted it and it's pretty good. Better than pretty good. And I thought, "Well if my love wants chicken parm, then he can bloody well have it!" But I still associate ordering chicken parm in a restaurant with hillbilly-ism, so here's how you can make your own instead.

You need:
- 2 Chicken breast cutlets (if the store doesn't have cutlets, butterfly them yourself).
- Bread crumbs
Pounding the bejeesus out of the chicken
- Marinara sauce (you can make your own, but I used store bought)
- Eggs
- Milk
- Olive oil
- Fresh buffalo mozzarella (don't cheap out on this part. Buy the good stuff).

First, pound out your chicken breasts into flat cutlets about 1/2 inch thick. Use a meat tenderizer if you have it, but I only have a hammer and that worked fine.

Next, whisk a mixture of one egg and a bit of milk. Dip each cutlet in before tossing them in the breadcrumbs so that the breadcrumbs stick. You can season your breadcrumbs with pepper and oregano and all that good stuff, but I bought mine pre-seasoned.

Browning the cutlets in the pan
Now, heat about two tablespoons of oil in a frying pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, brown your cutlets on both sides, about 3-4 minutes per side. When they're nice and brown, put them into a casserole dish and spoon the marinara sauce over them. Don't put too much sauce though, because you want to keep the cutlets crispy.

Slice or tear up your good mozzarella and layer it over top of the cutlets. Put the casserole dish in the oven at 375 for about 20 minutes or so, and maybe turn the broiler on for the last two minutes to brown up the cheese. Serve them up with a nice caesar salad, some garlic bread, and some wine.

There, now you can enjoy a nice restaurant classic without the restaurant. And really, isn't that the whole idea?