Friday, September 26, 2014

Chicken with Figs, Wine & Honey

Figs are in the house.

Or at least they were.

It appears to be the tail-end of fig season.  Considering this, when it was my turn to cook last week, I seized an opportunity to make something with these aubergine lovelies.  Figs are native to Western Asia and have been cultivated since early (really ancient) times.  As a matter of fact, it was the fig leaf that Adam and Eve clad themselves with after eating the forbidden fruit.  

Now, I don’t have the need to don the fig leaf as a fashion accessory, but I do adore the the pulpy, fleshy texture of the fruit and I look for any excuse to cook with them.

The fig tree grows best and rewards us with the most luscious fruit when grown in dryer, warmer climates where it can bask in the sun all day, like the Mediterranean.  A striking, deciduous tree, the fig commonly grows to about 20 feet but can grow up to 50 feet.  Their leaves are big, bright and green (which explains the biblical choice) and their muscular and meandering branches spread wider than tall. 

So, after procuring two containers of figs at 320 Produce, I consulted my favorite cookbook, the Internet, and this little jewel of a recipe appeared:
Yum.  Yum.  And more yum.

And that, my dear readers, is how I met this Wednesday night dinner idea.
Chicken with Figs, Wine & Honey
Adapted from: www.food52.com 

3 tablespoons Extra Virgin olive oil
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon of lemon or regular thyme, roughly chopped
3 chicken breast, pounded to 1/4" thickness
15 kalamata figs, sliced in half (dried is fine if you can't find fresh)
1 ¼ cup light red wine
3 teaspoons honey
A squeeze of lemon

Heat half the olive oil in a non-stick sauté pan over medium-high heat. Sprinkle a pinch of salt, pepper and thyme on both sides of the chicken breast.  Sauté the chicken 4-5 minutes on each side until cooked through and is nice and golden. Place the chicken on a plate to rest while you prepare the figs.

In the same sauté pan, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Place the figs in the pan, cut side down. Sauté for 3-4 minutes, turning the figs occasionally, until slightly golden.  Don't overcook...they will get mushy. Carefully add the red wine, as well as pinches of salt and black pepper, honey and lemon. Quickly cook for 2-3 minutes until the red wine reduces into a loose syrup (you may need to encourage thickening with a slab of butter).  Spoon the figs and red wine reduction over the chicken and serve immediately.

This recipe is delicious reminded me a little of Chicken Marabella...a staple of the 80's from the very popular cookbook, The Silver Palate.
I served with roasted pine nut and parsley cous-cous.  We had birthday cake for dessert to celebrate M's (Singers) special day and a lovely bottle of red wine.  There were also presents.  Lots of presents.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Backyard Brick Oven Pizza

So several weeks ago I went to a Tie-Dyed Festival at the local Community Arts Center.  We, of course, tie-dyed shirts, were serenaded by local musicians, and enjoyed our favorite foods and spirits.

It was a grand time.

One of the food offerings that day was pizza made in the Center’s incredible new cob oven.  

What’s that I hear, perhaps a question?  A cob oven?  
A cob oven is an outdoor oven made with clay, sand, and straw.  Cob construction is an ancient, natural building method, used since prehistoric times and made popular recently by the sustainability movement.  More commonly referred to as adobe, this environmentally conscience oven can bake pizza and bread, roast vegetables and meats and anything else you can bake in a conventional oven.   The pizza you see right up there was baked in that cob oven.  

The construction is basic starting with a stone, concrete or brick base and then packing several thick layers of clay on top to form a clay dome.  This process can take several weeks because the layers of clay need to dry thoroughly prior to use.

As you have read before, I am half Italian.  My grandmother’s family owed and operated an outdoor oven and they would bake freshly-made bread dough for the other villagers.  Below are photos of Sulmona, Italy, my ancestral home in the Abruzzo region, that my cousin took while visiting recently.  I have looked at these photos a thousand times and imagined my dear grandparents walking through that piazza and shopping in the open-air market. Look at those stunning mountains!  I will visit one day!


But if a homemade cob oven or a trip to Italy to bake in the village oven is not in your future, there is way to bake pizza outside that may be sitting right in your back yard….the barbecue grill!  

It's quite simple really....place a well-seasoned pizza stone on the grate and fire up the grill. Cut a piece of parchment paper a bit smaller than the pizza stone.  Rub a bit of olive oil on the parchment paper, place the dough on top of the paper then build your pizza as usual.  Place a pizza paddle under the parchment paper and slide the parchment-bottomed pizza dough onto the pizza stone.  In  about 5 minutes minutes, you will have a wonderful, brick-ovenesque pizza!  

We have pizza often at C’s house (Architect) and below is her basic pizza dough recipe.

Pizza Dough
Preheat the grill to at least 550 degrees.

1 1/2 cup warm water
1 rounded teaspoon of rapid rise yeast
1 rounded teaspoon of sugar

Mix the water yeast and sugar together and wait for it to bubble, then let is rest for a few minutes.  

1 teaspoon of salt
1 Tablespoon of olive oil
3 cups of all purpose flour

Add the salt and olive oil and slowly add the four until the mixture starts to bind.  Turn the mixture out of the bowl and knead; add more flour until the dough is not sticky and springs back when poked. Cover with a clean towel and let rest for an hour.  

After an hour or so, turn the dough out onto a clean, dry surface using lots of flour sprinkled on it so the dough does not stick.  Cut into snowball-size pieces.  Work and roll the dough into a circle or rectangle.  Brush on some olive oil and other favorite toppings and cook as instructed above, about 3-5 minutes.   My favorite toppings are caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms.  For a sweet and savory pizza, I top with fig jam, pine nuts, goat cheese and sautéed sage leaves.  This dough recipe should make about three medium pizzas.

And there you have it, delicious brick-ovenesque pizza, right in your own back yard.





Here's the shirt I made at the Festival.  I always wondered how to make tie-dye swirls....now I know!  Love this shirt!!!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Apricot Pistachio Squares

In my Yogurt Marinated Chicken Kebobs with Aleppo Pepper post, I told you about a delicious and simply gorgeous dessert that Foodie made for that evening.  She follows the blog called, smittenkitchen and one visit to the blog, you will see why it is widely followed and read.  The post with this recipe has, as of this writing, 161 comments, one hundred and sixty one!!  The recipes are unique, the stories and the writing are entertaining (I chuckled a few times) and the photos are quite beautiful.  Kind of like the blog my blog wants to be when it’s no longer a kid (it’s only four years old).

Maybe I need to go the BlogHer Conference next year for inspiration.

Anyway, about a year ago, I made an apricot pistachio cake from one of my favorite food bloggers, Molly Wizenberg.  So when Foodie unveiled her Apricot Pistachio Tart (not yet cut into squares), I gasped not only because her creation was quite fetching visually, but I was also curious to taste a kissing-cousin version of my earlier confection that earned a “who is responsible for this cake” comment from a guest.  I was initially afraid to fess-up but then he uttered the words “it’s delicious.”

I adore pistachios and pairing them with apricots merely doubles the contentment.  The tender and tart apricots complement the green, silky crunchiness of the pistachios so nicely.  And I can’t overstate enough how pretty this tart is — really, it is simply gorgeous.  If you are looking for an elegant and “wow” dessert that will absolutely delight guests at your next dinner party, make this!

Pistachios are native to western Asia but a variety is grown in California that have been modified to enhance the esthetic qualities of the nut…leave it to us to ditch exotic charm for appearance! Legend is that lovers would meet beneath pistachio trees on dreamy, moonlit nights and if they heard the ripening nut shells crack open, it symbolized good fortune for their future. Pistachios can improve blood cholesterol levels and some believe they are an aphrodisiac….perhaps handy while standing under the tree! 

The basics of this recipe would work well with many other fruit/nut combinations.  I love almonds — almost as much as I love pistachios — and an almond pear version would be a delightful way to greet the crisp fall weather.  

Apricot Pistachio Squares

Crust
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold is fine

Filling
3/4 cup shelled unsalted pistachios
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
Few pinches of sea salt
6 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold is fine
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon almond extract, 2 teaspoons brandy or another flavoring of your choice
1 pound firm-ripe apricots

To finish
Powdered sugar or 1/4 cup apricot jam

Heat your oven to 350 degrees F. Cut two 12-inch lengths of parchment paper and trim each to fit the 8-inch width of an 8×8-inch square baking pan. Press it into the bottom and sides of your pan in one direction, then use the second sheet to line the rest of the pan, perpendicular to the first sheet.

Make the crust: Combine the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Cut the butter into chunks, and add it to the bowl, then run the machine until the mixture forms large clumps — it might take 30 seconds to 1 minute for it to come together. Transfer the dough clumps to your prepared baking pan and press it evenly across the bottom and 1/4-inch up the sides. Bake for 15 minutes, until very pale golden. For the sake of speed, transfer to a cooling rack in your freezer for 10 to 15 minutes while you prepare the filing.

Make the filling: In your food processor bowl, grind your pistachios, sugar, flour and salt together until the nuts are powdery. Cut the butter into chunks and add it to the machine. Run the machine until no buttery bits are visible. Add any flavorings and egg, blending until just combined.

Spread filling over mostly cooled crust. Cut apricots in half and remove pits. From here, you have a few decoration options: you can place the apricot halves in facedown or up all over the pistachio base.  You can also cut the apricots into strips and slide each cut half onto a spatula and place the fanned fruit  in patterns on top of the cake.   KOPO note:  When I baked my pistachio cake, I placed the halved apricots right on top of the batter and the apricots sunk into the baked cake; when sliced, they revealed themselves, like the little sleuths they were just hiding in that cake! 

Bake the bars for 60 minutes, or until they are golden and a toothpick inserted into the pistachio portion comes out batter-free. This might take up to 10 minutes longer depending on the juiciness of your apricots. Let cool completely in pan; you can hasten this along in the fridge.

To finish, you can make a shiny glaze for your tart by warming the jam in a small saucepan until it thins, and brushing this mixture over the top of the cooled tart. Or, you can keep it rustic with just a dusting of powdered sugar.  Cut the chilled bars into squares.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Yogurt Marinated Chicken Kebabs with Aleppo Pepper

Summer schedules make it hard for our little crew to meet consistently from May through August.  But, we are all back from our dog-day adventures in Europe, Japan, the beach, the mid-west and were once again able to enjoy Epicurean delights together.

Here are some photos from our adventures!
Detroit, Michigan

 New York, NY

 Detroit, MI on the right, Canada on the left

 Japan

Chicago, IL

Chuo-ku, Japan

Antwerp, Belguim

Ocean City, NJ

When we all gathered again, we had dinner at Singer’s house and she made Yogurt Marinated Chicken Kebabs with Aleppo Pepper.

What is Aleppo pepper, you ask? Named for a city in Syria, the burgundy Aleppo pepper pods are semi-dried with salt, de-seeded, crushed and ground into the a sweet, robust and sharp spice.  It’s common in middle eastern cooking and its moderate heat, tempered by its natural sweetness, doesn’t overpower the flavors of other ingredients. Similar to paprika, but with kicky, cumin-like notes, you can sprinkle Aleppo on deviled eggs, on potatoes or on tuna or chicken salad.  It is also known as a Halaby pepper.

As soon as I find some, this little ditty of a spice will find a home in my spice cabinet.

Yogurt Marinated Chicken Kebabs with Aleppo Pepper
By:  epicurious.com
Ingredients
- 1 1/2 tablespoons Aleppo pepper or 2 teaspoons dried crushed red pepper plus 2 teaspoons Hungarian sweet paprika, plus additional Aleppo pepper or paprika for sprinkling
- 1 cup plain whole-milk Greek-style yogurt** (8 ounces)
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 6 garlic cloves, peeled, flattened
- 2 unpeeled lemons; 1 thinly sliced into rounds, 1 cut into wedges for serving
- 2 1/4 pounds skinless boneless chicken (thighs and/or breast halves), cut into 1 1/4-inch cubes
- Special equipment: Flat metal skewers

Directions
If using Aleppo pepper, place in large bowl and mix in 1 tablespoon warm water. Let stand until thick paste forms, about 5 minutes. If using dried crushed red pepper and paprika combination, place in large bowl and stir in 2 tablespoons warm water and let stand until paste forms, about 5 minutes. Add yogurt, olive oil, red wine vinegar, tomato paste, 2 teaspoons coarse salt, and 1 teaspoon black pepper to spice mixture in bowl; whisk to blend. Stir in garlic and lemon slices, then chicken. Cover and chill at least 1 hour. 

Prepare barbecue (medium-high heat). Thread chicken pieces on metal skewers, dividing equally. Discard marinade in bowl. Sprinkle each skewer with salt, pepper, and additional Aleppo pepper or paprika. Brush grill rack with oil. Grill chicken until golden brown and cooked through, turning skewers occasionally, 10 to 12 minutes total. Transfer skewers to platter. Surround with lemon wedges and serve.

We tried to dine outside under Singer’s charming, Wisteria laced trellis, but a little black rain cloud had something to say about that….we quickly scrambled and brought the beautiful table setting inside.

We also had a delicious side salad and Singer explained…”the Bulgar salad was simply cooked bulgar with heirloom tomatoes. Chives, Basil, Mint, Parsley, Olive Oil, Lemon Juice, Garlic , Salt and Pepper…..not a recipe really!”  Perhaps it was not a recorded recipe, but it was really, REALLY good.

We ended the meal with a delicious and simply gorgeous apricot and pistachio dessert that I will write about next.

Image of Aleppo Peppers is from chilipeppermadness.com

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Murals

I joined older daughter and her fiancé for the last part of their vacation.  We visited his parents in their lovely new home in a suburb of Detroit.  We toured Belle Isle where you can see Canada on the left and Detroit on the right, had a burger and a Fat Tire beer at a local joint called Little Tony’s in the Grosse Pointe section, attended a Tigers game during which Austin Jackson got traded and immediately yanked from the game (seriously, can't the guy at least finish the game?) and visited his mom’s old stomping grounds.

The highlight of the trip was an outing to the Detroit Institute of Art, home of The Detroit Industry fresco by Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera.  During the Depression, the Director of the Museum, William Valentiner, was so smitten with the mural Rivera painted for San Francisco’s Pacific Stock Exchange, that he commissioned him to paint the walls of the DIA’s Garden Court.  Edsel Ford funded the project which took Rivera two years to complete, 1932-1933.  There are legends around the perimeter of the Garden Court tiles detailing the section titles of this striking piece. 





As I have written before, I am a Human Resources professional and wanted to visit this magnificent work symbolizing a hardworking labor force for quite some time.  As I walked into the massive gallery, I was awe struck, seriously rendered speechless by this vibrant and colossal work.  I was afraid to look away for fear I would miss a detail, a face.  I stood in the middle of the expansive room and spun around — twirled in delight — several times to appreciate the piece in the order it was intended.  I particularly noticed the eyes of one worker, carefully scrutinizing his task behind a pair of early 20th century spectacles and the hands of another, strong, large, purposeful, ready for the work of the day.

You can read more about the Murals here.

In another room, I spotted a Modigliani and I was over the moon. 

Then there was the John Singer Sergeant.  

In Detroit, there has been discussion about auctioning this stunning collection to help the city climb out of its current circumstance.  Some things, like art, surely transcend fiscal policy; art teaches people to hope, to escape the ordinary and enter the world the artist created.  I was was not at the DIA that day.  I was — all at once — in a bustling factory, on a French countryside, in an Italian villa, and sitting in an aristocrat’s parlor.   To sell this collection to revive city services would be a travesty and short-sighted indeed, no matter how altruistic the motive.  People need a reason to visit, a destination within a destination, to more than a building.  

We drove home through beautiful western PA and thought about a detour to see a covered bridge in Clearfield County but it was a little bit out of the way so a covered bridge tour to Lancaster County is in my future.  We saw a tin can tourist in a sweet airstream trailer...made me jealous!