Recipe for Happiness (Serves 3)

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~Citizen Chef

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Thai-Style Curried Chicken Fried Rice

My spouse orders only one dish from any Thai restaurant: Curried Chicken Fried Rice. Wherever we go the dishes vary, but his favorite is served with scrambled egg, onions, chunks of chicken, wedges of tomato as garnish on the side, and a tangy sauce we can’t fully identify. Then he pours peanut sauce all over it.

I was with him on the dish until the peanut sauce.

Aside from the peanut sauce inappropriately slathered all over, it’s a tasty dish. So, when I found a listing for it on the Cook’s Illustrated website, needless to say our peanut sauce-obsessed web admin was a little excited. To tell you the truth, so was I.

Thai-Style Curried Chicken Fried Rice

So far, this is the closest I have come to what my spouse calls the “definitive” Curry Thai Fried Rice. To be perfectly honest, this really was better than 90% of what we’ve bought from restaurants. Typically, I consider Thai Fried Rice dishes more of an afterthought, bland and boring, probably meant to dump an entree on top of, not to eat solo.

This was different. Flavorful and fun, I loved the crunchy vegetables and the little kick of heat. It was also much less complicated than I had expected. The Cook’s Illustrated recipe calls for a LOT of rice, and I halved it because it seemed to me that the sauce would get a little lost in all of that. To give it its full due as a main entree, I also doubled the vegetables.

Thai-Style Curried Chicken Fried Rice
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated
Serves 4

1/2 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast cut into 1-inch chunks
1/4 teaspoon table salt
2 1/2 tablespoons peanut oil or vegetable oil
1 large egg, beaten lightly
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1 large onion, sliced thin
1/2 tablespoon curry powder
2 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
3 Thai green chiles or 1 jalapeño chile, seeded and minced (about 1 tablespoon)
2 cups cooked white rice
5 medium scallions, sliced thin (about 1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro leaves or Italian parsley
Lime wedges for serving

The original recipe calls for cold, clumped rice, but that really didn’t appeal to me. The rice was the first thing I put on the stove and its added warmth to the dish was really comforting — I hate cold Thai Fried Rice, I think that’s what gives me the feeling that it’s an afterthought when I’m eating it.

Dissolve sugar in fish and soy sauces in small bowl; set aside. Season chicken with 1/4 teaspoon salt; set aside.

Heat 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until hot, about 2 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon oil and swirl to coat pan bottom. Add egg and cook without stirring, until they just begin to set, about 20 seconds.

Frying Egg in Peanut Oil

Scramble and break into small pieces with wooden spoon; continue to cook, stirring constantly, until egg is cooked through but not browned, about 1 minute longer. Transfer egg to small bowl and set aside.

Return skillet to burner, increase heat to high and heat skillet until hot, about 1 minute; add 1 teaspoon oil and swirl to coat pan bottom. Add 1/2 teaspoon curry and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Frying Curry Powder

Add chicken and cook, stirring constantly, until cooked through, about 2 minutes. Transfer to bowl with eggs and set aside.

Frying Chicken & Curry

Return skillet to high heat and heat until hot, about 1 minute; add remaining 2 tablespoons oil and swirl to coat pan bottom. Add 1/2 tablespoon curry, cook for 20 seconds.

Frying More Curry

Add onion and and cook, stirring constantly, until onion is softened, about 3 minutes.

Frying Onion & Curry

Stir in garlic and chiles; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add rice and fish sauce mixture; cook, stirring constantly and breaking up rice clumps until mixture is heated through, about 3 minutes.

Adding Onion, Garlic, Jalapeno

Add eggs and chicken, scallions, and cilantro; cook, stirring constantly until heated through, about 1 minute. Serve immediately with lime wedges.

Thai-Style Curried Chicken Fried Rice2

I really enjoyed this. This was light and fun, and I won’t have to go out for it anymore, though I probably will need to find a new source of peanut sauce.

Weeknight Cooking: B+ (it makes quite a mess – 1 pot, 3 bowls, lots of utensils…)
Take Out Dish: A

Weeknight Cooking: Chicken and Bulgur Salad with Corn

I loved this.

A few times now I’ve passed by this dish and, though it tempted me, I was a little skeptical of the bulgur. I had no idea what it was. Wheat, I thought, sounded a little strange for a salad base. This weekend, I got over it.

Chicken and Bulgur Salad with Corn

Happily, the bulgur wasn’t that expensive. I got about a half cup for around $0.50 from the organic section at my grocery store. They had it stored in the bulk aisle so I didn’t have to buy a big package — another plus.

Bulgur, as I found out from a quick internet search, is a type of wheat, more specifically a cereal grain made from several types of wheat. I wasn’t surprised about the cereal thing because when you add hot water to soak the bulgur, it smells sweet, just like a cereal would.

Chicken and Bulgur Salad with Corn
Courtesy of Food & Wine

2/3 cup bulgur
2/3 cup boiling water
4 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups fresh (cut from about 6 ears) or frozen corn kernels
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 small red onion, chopped
1 1/3 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 4)
1/4 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
1 tomato, seeded and chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, seeds and ribs removed, minced
1/2 cup chopped cilantro (optional)
4 tablespoons lime juice (from about 2 limes)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne

So straight out, the first thing to do is get some boiling water on the bulgur and cover it. The wheat will soak up the water, just like rice. The ratio should be equal water to wheat. When it’s soft, it will smell sweet.

Before:
Soaking Bulgur

After:
Soaked Bulgur

In a large nonstick frying pan, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil over moderate heat. Add the corn and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add the onion and continue cooking for 5 minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Transfer to a large glass or stainless-steel bowl and let cool.

Corn & Onion

Rather than use corn on the cob, I used frozen. Frozen vegetables still contain all of the essential nutrients and taste good. I use a mixture of baby yellow and white corn from Bird’s Eye that’s particularly sweet, something that went really well with the lime and jalapeño.

Add 1 tablespoon of the oil to the frying pan and heat over moderate heat. Season the chicken with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and the black pepper. Cook the breasts until browned and just done, about 5 minutes per side. Remove the chicken from the pan and let it rest for 5 minutes. Cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices.

I didn’t get shots of the chicken while it was frying in the pan. One of my chicken breasts ended up being too thick, so after slicing I put the thickest parts of the chicken back in the pan for a few seconds on each side. That’s why, in the first photo, the chicken looks a little brown.

Add the bulgur, tomato, jalapeño, cilantro, 3 tablespoons of the lime juice, the cayenne, and 3/4 teaspoon of the salt to the bowl with the corn and onion. Toss.

I didn’t get a lot of photos of this, either, and that’s because after I assembled the salad, the AwK admin was monopolizing the bowl (i.e. he wouldn’t stop eating it and I couldn’t get a clear shot). But whatever — that’s a testament to the salad’s tastiness!

In a small glass or stainless-steel bowl, combine the remaining 1 tablespoon lime juice, 2 tablespoons oil, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Mound the salad onto plates. Top with the chicken and drizzle the chicken with the lime oil.

I didn’t make oil and drizzle anything. We liked the chicken simply seasoned with the salt, pepper and the olive oil it cooked in, so we left it plain.

Chicken with Bulgur and Corn Salad

I really, really enjoyed this dish and I’m particularly happy that I tried a new ingredient and liked it. The dish is fast, tasty, and I’m happy that I found a new side dish — I’m looking forward to taking this to our next BBQ that involves some vegetarian friends. Mrs. Citizen Chef would probably also love this, because allegedly she likes putting corn into everything.

Overall cooking… it’s not a 4-star dish, but I’d be proud to serve this to guests given the right setting: Outdoors, warm evening, simple dessert to follow, swatting away mosquitoes…

Do I know how to throw a good time or what?

Weeknight Cooking: A
Overall Dish: A-

Weeknight Cooking: Chicken Breasts with Apricot-Onion Pan Sauce

I’m not really sure what made me gravitate toward this because it’s so unlike anything I typically cook. Possibly it was the fact that I made a huge pan of Baked Ziti earlier this week, so we’ve been eating it for leftovers and lunches the last three days, and I really needed something different.

That’s probably it.

F&W Chicken with Apricot-Onion Pan Sauce

Whatever the case, I rushed out to the grocery store and picked up a bag of dried apricots… All this, knowing full well my spouse hates apricots.

Hey, there’s extra Ziti in the fridge…

Surprisingly, this turned out well — and the fact that the spouse ate everything on his plate, apricot sauce included, was especially satisfying. This is another one of those dishes where the different components don’t stand up on their own, but together they make a great dish. You can imagine how worried I was when I tasted the sauce by itself and thought it was rather bland. Together, however, this was a neat little dish.

Chicken Breasts with Apricot-Onion Pan Sauce
Adapted from Food & Wine Magazine

3 1/2 ounces dried apricots
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (9 ounces each)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons apricot preserves
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

The original recipe selects skin-on boneless chicken breasts, and I opted for skinless. Because there’s less fat going into the sauce, I added 1 – 1 1/2 teaspoons of cornstarch to the pan when adding the chicken stock.

Preheat the oven to 350°. In a bowl, cover the apricots with hot water and let stand until soft, about 15 minutes; drain.

Dried Apricots

Meanwhile, dry the chicken with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. In a stainless steel skillet, heat the oil. Add the chicken, skin side down, and cook over moderately high heat until golden brown, 5 minutes. Flip and cook about 3 minutes longer. Transfer the chicken to a baking sheet and roast for about 14 – 20 minutes.

My chicken breasts were pretty thick, so I used a thermometer and ended up roasting them for around 20 minutes.

Chicken1

Add the onion, garlic, thyme and bay leaf to the skillet. Season with salt and cook over moderate heat until the onion is tender.

Onion, Garlic, Thyme & Bay Leaf

Add the wine and boil until reduced by half, scraping up the browned bits in the skillet.

In a bowl, whisk the cornstarch and chicken broth until smooth. Add the stock mixture, apricots and apricot preserves and bring to a boil. Cook over high heat until the sauce thickens.

Apricots & Broth

Off the heat, swirl in the butter until melted. Discard the thyme sprigs and bay leaf. Season the sauce with salt and pepper.

Mmm... butter.

Discard the thyme sprigs and bay leaf. Season the sauce with salt and pepper. Transfer the chicken to plates, spoon the sauce on top and serve.

Chicken Breasts with Apricot-Onion Pan Sauce

Now, the verdict: This was a pleasant dish. It wasn’t rockin’, but it was nice and refreshing. Despite my misconception about the sauce being sweet and syrupy, it wasn’t. The sauce was actually quite mild and all of the flavors came through and balanced each other out; it wasn’t a spotlight on apricots. Alone, the sauce was quite odd, like it was missing something — which it definitely was: With the seasoned chicken breasts, it was actually quite nice. Like I said, my spouse even ate the whole thing, and I nearly fell off my chair when he reached for additional sauce. This isn’t something I would make again, but I’m not sorry for cooking it up. If you’re in the mood for something light with just a hint of sweetness and pepper, this would be a fun one to try.

High marks for the weeknight cooking segment because it’s fast and light and, aside from the dried apricots, I had all of the ingredients in my pantry to make it. The regular cooking rating, on the other hand, isn’t so great, because if I ordered this at a nice restaurant I wouldn’t be happy. The flavors were just too casual.

I served this alongside a baby spinach and arugula salad with sourdough croutons… and, of course, my husband’s jumbo jar of McCormick Salad Toppins.

Hey, I had to make some concession for serving up apricots. You know how it goes.

Weeknight Cooking: B+
Overall Cooking: C+

Weeknight Cooking: Butternut Squash Pasta with Fried Sage Leaves

While traipsing through Gourmet.com’s web-exclusive recipes, I immediately noticed a feature for a butternut squash pasta that was being heralded as the less-fussy cousin to a butternut squash ravioli.

Gourmet Butternut Squash Pasta
Photo courtesy of Gourmet

The only time I’ve had butternut squash ravioli was from an Italian restaurant where they made everything, including the pasta, from scratch. I wouldn’t say it was to die for because I’m not one to give my life for an unemotional legume, but it was definitely delicious and, from time to time, I’ve been searching for a way to replicate the dish at home. Sadly, I’ve never found one.

I had high hopes for this dish, and put it together over the weekend.

I have to apologize for the grainy photographs — I must have changed the settings on my camera without realizing it until I downloaded the pictures for posting.

Butternut Squash Pasta with Dried Sage Leaves
Courtesy of Gourmet

1 (2- to 2 1/4-lb) butternut squash with a long neck
2 cups water
1 (1 1/2- to 2-oz) bunch sage, stems discarded (1 1/4 cups packed leaves)
1 medium-large onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 lb rotini or penne
1 cup vegetable oil

Cut off neck of squash and reserve bulbous end, wrapped and chilled, for later use. Peel neck and cut into roughly 1-inch cubes (3 1/2 to 4 cups; 1 lb).

I knew that a pre-cleaned and diced butternut squash isn’t as delicious as one that is whole and cleaned in the kitchen right before it’s cooked… but the thought of wrestling with a butternut squash didn’t thrill me. I know what you’re thinking and, in my defense, I think the “Sandra Lee” name calling is a little harsh. What I did wasn’t Sandra Lee… it was more Rachel Ray. Okay, it wasn’t the best in terms of flavor and freshness, but I really didn’t want to wrestle with a butternut squash. Anyone who’s ever done it knows what I’m talking about.

Butternut Squash 1

Process in a food processor until very finely chopped. Combine with water (2 cups) and 1/2 tsp salt in a heavy medium saucepan and briskly simmer, uncovered, stirring once or twice, until tender, 10 to 15 minutes.

Butternut Squash 2

Chop 1 Tbsp sage. While squash is simmering, cook onion in olive oil with 1/4 tsp salt in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes.

Onion, Garlic & Sage

Add garlic and chopped sage and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add squash and simmer, stirring, 2 minutes. Stir in cheese and season with salt and pepper.

Simmering Butternut Squash

Cook rotini in a pasta pot of well-salted boiling water until al dente.

While pasta is cooking, pat sage leaves dry, if necessary, with paper towels. Heat vegetable oil in an 8- to 9-inch skillet over high heat until it shimmers. Test frying temperature by dipping tip of a leaf in oil. If it bubbles briskly, it’s ready. Add a small handful of leaves (they will make quite a commotion) and fry, stirring with a slotted spoon, until crisp but still green, 10 to 30 seconds.

Frying Sage Leaves

Transfer to paper towels to drain and fry remaining leaves in 3 or 4 batches. Season with salt.

Fried Sage Leaves

Reserve 1 cup pasta-cooking water, then drain pasta and add to sauce. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until well coated, about 1 minute, thinning if necessary with some of reserved cooking water.

Butternut Squash Pasta

Transfer to a large bowl and serve fried sage leaves on the side (each person can top their own serving with the leaves).

Butternut Squash Pasta with Fried Sage Leaves

Okay… so. This dish was decent. It was definitely the less-fussy cousin of a ravioli, but it lacked the creaminess that I enjoy in the ravioli version.

The taste of the butternut squash came through well, and is easy to dress up or down with the use of salt — some like their butternut squash in its natural sweet flavors, and won’t need to salt it as much. Personally, I like mine a little more savory, so my portion received a little more salt.

The fried sage leaves… As pretty as they looked, I thought they were rather ineffective. The dish would have fared just as well with more diced sage added during the cooking process, and the “crisp, fried” part was a little moot after being placed in the pasta for more than a couple of minutes as they soaked in the liquids from the squash and lost their crisp texture, which was the best part of this edible garnish.

I still thought it tasted nice, but I enjoy a salted butternut squash taste. My spouse, on the other hand, wouldn’t finish it, because he thought it was too sweet and it lacked a certain creaminess that he somehow expected.

If you like your dishes a little au natural, you’ll like this, otherwise you may be better off trying something else.

Weeknight Cooking: B+
Overall Dish: B-

Almond Jam Cake

I’ve been looking for new, regular things to review for the site, similarly to the Magazine of the Month segment. Maybe it appeals to me because it’s lazy; instead of always having to dig around for something that looks good, there’s always a pool of recurring things to choose from. However, the hard part of committing to an ongoing project is that you don’t want to commit to something that has the tendency to suck later. Case in point: Some of our submissions to the site Magazine of the Month haven’t always delivered, and that’s not just disappointing, it’s frustrating.

I’m approaching Gourmet Magazine’s Monthly Dessert with the same trepidation, but I think I’m going to go for it and review it on an ongoing basis anyway. If it starts to suck, then I’m abandoning the project, taking off and nuking the site from orbit.

Or whatever. You get the picture. If not, at least get this picture:

Gourmet Walnut Jam Cake

This month, Gourmet is featuring Walnut Jam Cake. Their Dessert of the Month Features are all web-exclusive, and look fairly appealing. A jam cake, however, didn’t exactly excite me. It’s a personal thing. The desserts I enjoy tend to be a little more rich and decadent, and usually involve chocolate, and this one didn’t meet any of the criteria.

Temptation called early on, as it did have a couple of things going for it:

1. I finally got to use my 8-inch springform pan that barely gets any attention.
2. The cake is made almost entirely in a food processor.

So I went to work… though not too much, because, as I said, it’s all done in the food processor. Oh yeah, baby.

Alternatively, if you want to make this cake and you don’t have a processor, you just need to make sure the nuts are chopped up very finely. Either do this by chopping them with a knife (keep going until they’re all incredibly small) or use a clean coffee grinder. The rest of the batter can be made in a bowl with a regular mixer.

Right away, I had to adapt because I was out of walnuts. Instead, all I had were a couple bags of slivered almonds. Almonds are always successful when added to a confection, so I had no problems substituting.

Almond Jam Cake
Courtesy of Gourmet

1 1/4 cups almonds (4 1/2 oz), toasted and cooled
2/3 cup sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Butter and flour an 8-inch round cake pan.

I used a springform pan for this, which made me really excited because I’m pretty sure this is only the second time I’ve actually had a small cake recipe that called for an 8″ pan. That may sound silly, but if you paid a lot of money for a set of three springform pans and ended up only needing one of them, you’d be excited when the most obscure one finally gets called up to bat, too.

Buttered & Floured 8inch Springform

I toasted my almonds in a frying pan. If I hadn’t been working with so many, I would have used my toaster oven, but the frying pan works, too. These were left on the stovetop for a few minutes on medium-low, until they began to release a slight fragrance when I stirred them, about 6 minutes.

Toasting Almonds

Pulse walnuts and sugar in a food processor until finely chopped.

Walnuts & Sugar

Add butter and process until combined.

Adding Butter & Vanilla

Add eggs and vanilla and process until combined.

Adding Eggs

Add flour, baking powder, and salt and pulse just until incorporated. Spread batter in cake pan.

Almond Cake Batter

Bake until cake is just firm to the touch and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool 15 minutes in pan, then turn out onto a rack and cool completely.

Almond Cake - Baked

I apologize that I don’t have a lot of commentary on this process; it was fairly uneventful and went as expected. The only thing that was different was that I had to bake the cake a little longer that the recipe called for; my oven usually does that with everything, so I wasn’t surprised. Just test to make sure your cake is baked all the way through.

Almond Cake - Resting

Now for the topping:

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup apricot jam or preserves
2/3 cup chilled heavy cream
1/4 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Stir lemon juice (if using) into jam. Spoon jam over cake. Beat heavy cream with sour cream, sugar, and vanilla until it holds soft peaks, then spoon over jam.

And here it is…

Almond Jam Cake

I liked this. It was nice and light, and the perfect finish to a light meal on a spring evening. The cake itself was only mildly sweet, so the jam on top was a nice compliment. Raspberry was the jam I used, and I think it was a little overpowering — my suggestion would be to spread a very thin layer of jam, then top with the whipped cream. The topping is what really brings it home. If you’ve got a little sweet tooth but don’t want anything heavy, this is the perfect finishing bite.

Weeknight Cooking: Penne with Asparagus, Sage & Peas

You may have seen this one on the April 2009 cover of Food & Wine Magazine. Unless you’re smart, unlike myself, and just got it for free from the website.

F&W Penne with Asparagus, Sage & Peas

My subscription hasn’t yet run out and, like I said a couple of weeks ago, when it does I won’t be renewing. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? That savings will be more money that I can spend on a bazillion Cook’s Illustrated products. Did I tell you that I got a subscription to the CI website? Well, I did. I’ve only used it for one thing, but I’ll definitely pull more out of there later.

I’ve been doing a lot of Food & Wine stuff lately because they have a lot of delicious and simple meals that I can make on a weeknight. Lately, my kitchen has hit a hot streak with their dishes — over the last couple of weeks everything F&W I’ve made has been good. This one made me want to throw a dinner party just so I could show it off.

Penne with Asparagus, Sage and Peas
Courtesy of Food & Wine

1/2 pound penne
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound thick asparagus, cut into 1-inch lengths
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups (10 ounces) shelled English peas or frozen baby peas, thawed
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the penne and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic and asparagus and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is fragrant, about 3 minutes.

Sauteeing Asparagus & Garlic

Add the stock and boil over high heat until reduced by half and the asparagus are tender, about 5 minutes.

You may laugh, but I use my microwave timer whenever I see anything that says “cook for about X minutes.” The reason I do that is because I can often get distracted with other things and, before I know it, twenty minutes have passed and I’ve overcooked the food. If you’re like me, don’t be afraid to use timers.

Add the peas and cream to the skillet and boil over high heat until the sauce has thickened, 3 minutes.

Blurry... Next stop, the Twilight Zone!
Sorry, it’s a little blurry.

Stir in the penne and cook until heated through. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, sage and the 1/2 cup of cheese.

Adding Cheese & Butter

Yes, it does taste as delicious as it looks. The butter is the key.

Taste this before you season it. If you seasoned your spaghetti water enough, you won’t need a lot of salt in this, because the spaghetti will have a lot. Then, season with salt and pepper. Transfer the pasta to bowls and serve right away, passing additional cheese at the table.

Penne with Asparagus, Sage & Peas

Among us carnivores, there’s a misconception that if a dish doesn’t have meat in it, then it won’t be filling — we’ll need more food, there won’t be enough, oh my God we’re going to starve. That isn’t the case with this dish at all. Between the cheese and the pasta and all of the delicious vegetables (and the small side of garlic bread I served this with) there was more than enough food. I cut the above recipe in half to serve for two people, and we were stuffed by the time we were done.

The vegetables were delicious, the broth with the splash of cream was perfect. Although there wasn’t a lot of cream, the cheese and butter really upped the ante on the richness of the taste. For such a simple little dish, this was elegant and tasty — and fast. This gets full marks, even for an overall dish. If I was served this at a restaurant, I’d be happy with it. I’d go so far as to say, if I could create a weeknight dinner list for Citizen Chef, I’d put this on it. That’s how good it was.

As a weeknight cooking dish, I was also pleased with it. Not only was it quick and delicious, but it used up a lot of other ingredients that I have added to my “go to” list of meals:

Asparagus: also used in Stir-Fried Vegetables with Lemongrass
Peas & cream: Angel Hair Pasta with Peas, Prosciutto & Lemon

So I know these ingredients won’t go bad in my fridge; I’ll be able to make something else that can use them.

Weeknight Cooking: A
Overall Dish: A

Weeknight Cooking: Sauteed Chicken Breasts with Cucumber Salad

I’ve noticed something interesting about my latest favorite meals that have been added to my “Go-To” list of meals: They were all created by the same person.

Marcia Kiesel of Food and Wine Magazine, I don’t know who you are, but I love your food.

Since she’s given us three great dishes so far, I decided to wander through her list of recipes and articles listed alphabetically on F&W in the hopes of finding more. As it turned out, I did find quite a few that I want to try out over the next couple of weeks. But, for a start, I went with something simple.

Sauteed Chicken Breasts with Cucumber Salad
Before you ask, yes, that is my totally fancy plating technique.

Sautéed Chicken Breasts with Cucumber Salad
Courtesy Food & Wine Magazine, June 2003

1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 medium cucumbers (1 1/4 pounds) peeled, seeded, quartered
lengthwise and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 cup roasted cashews, halved lengthwise or coarsely chopped (4 1/2 ounces)
2 scallions, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves (6 ounces each)

I don’t have a lot of prep pictures for this because it was so simple and so quick. As soon as you see the directions, you’ll understand why.

To start, I made the cucumber salad. The recipe calls for cumin seeds, but I only had cumin powder. I cut the cumin in half and toasted it for a couple of minutes in a frying pan — I used low heat and kept it in there until it was fragrant. If you’re working with seeds, toast them for a minute, then remove them from the heat and allow to cool. Coarsely chop (or give them a quick whirl around a clean, electric coffee grinder).

Meanwhile, I prepared the rest of the cucumber salad. In a bowl, mix together the cucumbers, cashews, scallions, lemon juice, 1/4 cup of the olive oil and the parsley. When the cumin is cool, add that and mix thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and chill.

Cucumber Salad

What you’re seeing in the photo above is the recipe halved, because I serve two. After our web admin took a bite of the salad, he said I should have tripled the recipe. We had a race to finish the salad — him, because he liked it so much, and me because I knew if I didn’t eat it fast enough, he was going to do the honors for me.

I liked the smoky cumin in this. Mixed with the hint of lemon and a flavored olive oil, this was really light and delicious. The crispy crunch of the cucumber and the soft, mild cashew taste was really delicious together. The flavors were not overt — everything complimented the mildness of the cucumber. On the back end of the taste, there was just a hint of pep with the lemon and cumin, brought out even more by the pinches of salt and pepper. This was a really nice, light side, and quite refreshing. I would serve this as a side at a BBQ on a hot day.

After popping the cucumber salad in the refrigerator, I wiped the frying pan down with a damp paper towel, and started the chicken.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper and cook over moderately high heat until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to moderately low and continue cooking for 3 minutes. Turn and cook the chicken until browned on the other side and just cooked through, about 6 minutes longer.

I found that with this method, my chicken stayed incredibly moist. My breasts were a little too thick and I had turned the burner down a little too much, so after the cooking time elapsed, I cut these horizontally, and cooked them for another minute and a half in the frying pan. The downside to this is that some of the juices ran out and into the frying pan. The upside is that no one had problems with salmonella after dinner. Despite having to cut it, I didn’t think that it lost all of its flavor. My chicken was still incredibly juicy. Because there isn’t a lot being added to the chicken, the deal breaker is going to be the seasoning and making sure you can keep this juicy. Be sure you season this well enough, or it’s going to fall flat.

Thickly slice each chicken breast crosswise, mound the cucumber salad on top and serve.

This was a great dish. As a weeknight meal, it was healthy, amazingly fast to prepare, relatively inexpensive, and tasty. This gets full marks for weeknight cooking.

As an overall dish, compared to other great dishes… it was just nice. It was simple and tasty. I would serve this to guests with some good wine if we were eating outside on a warm, summer night, but it isn’t something I’d order at a restaurant — not that there’s anything wrong with that. My personal quest is to find weeknight dishes, so my selections naturally fall down a little bit on the overall scale.

Weeknight Cooking: A
Overall Dish: B+

Weeknight Cooking: Chicken Pot Pies with Phyllo

Citizen Chef is still out on vacation and will be until next week, but he took a quick break between the restaurants and wine tastings so we could catch up. When I told him I was making a serious attempt at cooking up Ellie Krieger’s James Beard nominated book, The Food You Crave, I backed up my actions by saying we had wanted to start cooking healthier food. His approbation was given in the utmost sophistication when he said, “And she’s hot, too!”

So last night I cooked up another Ellie creation: Chicken Pot Pies with Phyllo Crust.

Chicken Pot Pie - Ellie Krieger

My mom never made chicken pot pies when I was a kid, but when I moved out and into my own apartment, I discovered the microwavable versions. They made me so happy. They were also really fattening, so after a while I had to stop eating them. Chunks of chicken and vegetables with a salty, savory broth are hard to pass up, and when I saw Ellie Krieger’s healthier version that is topped with phyllo dough instead of a biscuit, I had to try them.

Chicken Pot Pies with Phyllo Crust
Courtesy of Ellie Krieger
Serves 4

Cooking spray
1 1/4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 leeks, bottom 4 inches only, washed well and chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 medium potatoes cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups low-fat milk
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup frozen peas
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
3 sheets frozen phyllo dough, thawed
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

Once again, you know I was only serving two, so I cut this in half. I also only used one chicken breast.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray 4 individual-sized baking dishes with cooking spray.

Season the chicken with 1/4 teaspoon salt and a few turns of pepper. In a large nonstick skillet, heat 2 teaspoons of the oil over a medium-high heat. Add the chicken to the pan and cook for 5 minutes, turning once. Transfer the chicken to a plate.

Bawk! Bawk!

Add 2 more teaspoons of the oil, the leeks, and the celery to the pan and cook until vegetables begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the potatoes, green beans, garlic, and remaining salt and pepper and cook for 2 more minutes.

Sauteeing Greens - Pot Pies

Add the milk to the pan. Stir the flour into the chicken broth until dissolved and add to the pan. Cook, stirring, until the mixture comes to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Stir in the reserved chicken, peas, parsley, and thyme.

Simmering Broth - Pot Pies

Stir in the reserved chicken, peas, parsley, and thyme. Spoon the mixture into the prepared baking dishes.

Two Servings - Pot Pies

Put the remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil into a small bowl. Unroll the phyllo dough and cut it into quarters. Place a quarter sheet on top of each baking dish and brush with olive oil. Repeat with remaining 3 baking dishes. Tuck the edges of the phyllo into the dish rim. Top each pie with Parmesan.

My phyllo wasn’t big enough to cover the whole bowl so I criss-crossed them when I went through the layering process.

Oil & Phyllo - Pot Pies

Place on a baking sheet and bake until the filling is bubbling, about 30 minutes.

Finished Chicken Pot Pie

I broke this open so you can see what’s inside — the fluffy, crispy phyllo makes a great crust over the pot pies, which look beautiful inside. Be careful when seasoning this, right before you plate them into the bowls. Eating the top half tasted a little bland, and I didn’t really enjoy this until I got to the bottom, where the salted sauce had collected. It was healthy and good, and I loved the presentation, but I’ll probably only make this again if I get a total craving for pot pies.

Weeknight Cooking: B
Overall Dish: B

Grilled Chicken Thighs with Roasted Grape Tomatoes

By now you’ve probably noticed that we haven’t declared an April 2009 Magazine of the Month. After covering the Cook’s Illustrated Best Of, CC and I were enamored with such success since “Best Of” magazines theoretically deliver what their name says: The best.

Keep in mind I said “theoretically”.

Best Of Cooking Light Volume 10

So as I was rushing through my grocery store, I saw the Cooking Light Best Of Volume 10: One-hundred and twenty-five of their best recipes of the year. I thought of the success we had with CI, and I was thinking about my vow to start cooking healthier, and picked it up. After a cursory flip through (the pictures look great), I decided to bring it home and give it a whirl for the MoM segment.

CC and I had a brief discussion on who got to cook what. He won out on the Pink Peppercorn Mahi Mahi with Tropical Salsa, since he promised he’d post about it. Sucker that I am for promises of a post, I compromised and picked Grilled Chicken with Roasted Grape Tomatoes.

CL - Grilled Chicken with Roasted Grape Tomatoes
Photo Courtesy of Cooking Light Magazine

Despite it being spring everywhere else, the current temperature in western New York is 45°F and snowing. Needless to say, I didn’t drag out my grill and go to town. Instead, I resorted to my trusty George Foreman, my trusty indoor grilling machine.

Grilled Chicken with Roasted Grape Tomatoes
Courtesy of Cooking Light

Chicken:
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts or 8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Cooking spray

My grocery store was out of skinless, boneless chicken thighs, so I used breasts. Also, I have a lot of chicken breasts in the freezer and wanted to use what I had on hand. The trick with breasts is making sure they don’t dry out, because breasts have a tendency to do that if you’re not watching them closely enough or cook them for a minute or two too long. From the ingredient listing, I could tell that was going to be a clincher, since the finished chicken is pretty natural — no sauces, no breading, just chicken and (hopefully) delicate lemon.

Step 1: Prepare the Foreman. (Alternatively, prepare the grill.)

George Foreman
He’s always ready for action.

Step Two: To prepare chicken, combine first lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil and chicken in a large zip-top plastic bag. Add chicken to bag; seal. Marinate in refrigerator 25 minutes, turning the bag occasionally. The original recipe calls for a 15 minute marinading time, but since I was using breasts, which are larger and dry out more easily during cooking, I left it in longer.

Lemon Zest

Step Three: Remove chicken from bag; discard marinade. Sprinkle chicken evenly with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.

Grilled Chicken with Lemon & Garlic 1

Whenever I take my meat out of the marinade, I’m never sure if I should wipe the marinade off or not. In this case, I guessed not because I wanted more of the lemon and garlic to get into the breasts while they cooked.

Step Four: Place chicken on grill rack coated with cooking spray; grill 5 minutes on each side or until done.

Even on the Foreman, I should have used cooking spray. I didn’t in this case, and some of my chicken stuck. It wasn’t a big deal — just surface-level stuff, but it was a little ugly when I flipped the breasts.

I watched these pretty carefully and, when in doubt, I made an incision in the thickest part of the breast to make sure they were done. As I said earlier, I did not want them to dry out.

Grilled Chicken 2

While that’s cooking, get your roasted grape tomatoes ready.

Roasted Grape Tomatoes

2 cups grape tomatoes
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon capers
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 425°.

2. Combine tomatoes and 2 teaspoons oil in an 8-inch square baking dish; toss gently. Bake at 425° for 18 minutes or until tomatoes are tender. Combine tomato mixture, parsley, and remaining ingredients, stirring gently. Serve with chicken.

Roasted Grape Tomatoes

The chicken turned out moist with a nice lemon flavor and, when slightly salted, was decent. The AwK admin even had no gripes about it, which surprised me because he isn’t a fan of lemon. He wasn’t in love with it, but he didn’t hate it. It was just okay. The look of the chicken wasn’t fantastic, and could have benefited from being sliced on an angle and served over rice or pasta with some flat leaf parsley. But that’s not what the recipe indicated, and I felt I should do it straight the first time through.

What really bothered me was the roasted tomatoes with capers. Because the chicken was plain and basic, there was no crunch. The tomatoes were soft and tangy, mixed with the brine of the capers… It was all just really soft. The tomatoes made me feel like I was 87 years old and had no teeth, so I was being served something institutional that I could gum on before swallowing. Rather than the roasted tomatoes, this would have been better served with a salad that had some crunchy elements — sliced celery or cucumber or whatever. The chicken was fine, but it was plain, incredibly basic, and totally uninspired. To make it worse, the tomatoes had no business being on the plate.

When I start out with a magazine, I really want to be wowed right out of the gate and, if I’m not, I have a hard time wanting to go back and cook more. Cooking isn’t necessarily cheap, and if I’m not going to be happy with what I ate the first time, there’s nothing really coaxing me back. When CC comes back from vacation and gives us his report on the mahi mahi, hopefully it’s good. If it is, then we’ll continue to share more from the Cooking Light Best Of. If not, I’m kicking it to the curb. We’ll keep you posted.

Weeknight Cooking: C
Overall Dish: D+