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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Perfect Meal: Salad, Pasta, and a Good Stiff Drink

A friend and I had a tough day and we needed a quiet place to have dinner and recover. We happened across Matteo's, a West LA fixture since the Frank Sinatra Rat Pack days.

The menu is Old School, with sections for Antipasti, Salumi, Insalta, Pasta, Seafood, Chicken, Chef's Specialities, and Weekly Specialties. I'll definitely come back for Tuesday's Roast Pig alla Porchetta Dinner. Tonight I settled on a Caesar salad, Spaghettini alla Vongole, and a Perfect Manhattan with a twist. I have to say, the combination was about as right as it could have been.

The dinner reminded me that a salad, pasta, and a drink was a good way to settle down and switch gears from work-manic to social. Tonight I decided to do my own version of this trifecta and make an Arugula Salad with Feta and Olives, Spaghetti with Parsley and Bacon, and a Perfect Manhattan.

Perfect Manhattan

A Perfect Manhattan mixes up easily and should be the first thing you make, so you can sip while you cook.

Yield: 1 serving

Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

4 oz. Bourbon or Whiskey
½ oz. Sweet Vermouth
½ oz. Dry Vermouth
1 twist of lemon peel, 1" long, ¼" wide

Method

Keep the Bourbon in the freezer so it will be extra cold. Pour the Bourbon and both vermouths into a martini glass, stir, drop in the twist, and sip contentedly.

Arugula Salad

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 5 minutes

Ingredients

1 bunch arugula, washed, dried, the leaves pulled off the stems
10 oil cured black olives, pits removed, cut in half
1 scallion, washed, trimmed, sliced, the white and green parts
¼ cup feta, crumbled
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons reduced balsamic syrup
Freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt

Method

Toss the arugula, olives, scallions, and feta in a salad bowl, then drizzle the olive oil and reduced balsamic syrup. Taste and season with pepper and sea salt as desired.

Spaghetti with Parsley and Bacon

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound dried spaghetti
½ cup Italian parsley, washed, the leaves finely chopped, the stems not used
4 strips of bacon, already cooked, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup homemade chicken stock or pasta water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt
Freshly ground Parmesan or Romano cheese

Method

Put a large pot of salted water (1 teaspoon of Kosher salt to 1 gallon of water) on a high flame while you sauté the parsley, finely chopped bacon, and garlic in the olive oil until softened, not browned. Add the dried pasta to the boiling water, stir well, and check every 5 minutes, stirring each time, until cooked al dente.

To capture 1 cup of pasta water, put a measuring cup in the sink next to the colander. Empty the pot into the colander, filling the measuring cup with pasta water as you do. To keep the pasta hot while you finish the sauce, put the spaghetti back in the pot, drizzle with olive oil, stir well, and cover.

Use the chicken stock or the pasta water to deglaze the pan, adding the butter and mixing with the parsley-bacon-garlic mixture. Simmer for 10 minutes until the sauce has thickened. Taste and season with sea salt or black pepper if needed. Serve with grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Chicken Breasts with a Cilantro-Butter Sauce

Chicken breasts are boring. No question they pick up some flavor when grilled, but all too often they are served dried out, with little to recommend them, except that they're lean. More of a "jumping-off point" than a flavor-destination, chicken breasts need a sauce to make them worth while. Trying many different combinations, I remembered a Thai style chicken stir fry that featured a cilantro and black pepper sauce. Looking for a way to better meld the flavors, I added caramelized onions and a pat of butter.

Chicken Breasts with a Cilantro-Butter Sauce


Serves 4.

Preparation Time 20 minutes. Cooking Time 45 minutes.


Ingredients

1 bunch cilantro, leaves only, washed, dried, finely chopped
2 cloves, garlic, peeled, finely chopped
1 medium yellow onion, peeled, cut into thin rings
4 chicken breasts, skinless, washed, dried
½ cup homemade chicken stock
3 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Directions

In a bowl marinate the chicken breasts in 1 tablespoon olive oil for 30 minutes.

Sauté the cilantro, onion, garlic and black pepper 1 tablespoon olive oil on a medium flame, turning frequently, until lightly brown.

 Add the butter and chicken stock.  Reduce by half over a low flame and spatula the sauce into a bowl.

On a medium flame, sauté the chicken breasts in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until each side is browned with a crust. 5 minutes on each side.

The sauce and chicken breasts can be prepared ahead.

Just before serving put the cilantro-onion sauce and chicken breasts into the frying pan and simmer covered 5 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning, if needed, with sea salt and black pepper.

To serve, use tongs to transfer the breasts to a cutting board. Either serve the breasts whole or slice them and place on a serving plate. Using a spatula, spoon the sauce over the chicken breasts. Serve hot with cooked rice, mashed potatoes or sautéed vegetables.

An Easy Sauté with Carrots and Brussels Sprouts

Rushing home with no time to cook anything complicated. That doesn't mean I'm ok with a throw-together dinner that is boring or visually uninteresting. The carrot and Brussels sprouts sauté turns a simple grilled chicken breast, piece of fish, or steak into a satisfying meal.

4 carrots, peeled, cut into 1" long slabs
1 lb. Brussels sprouts, washed, stem trimmed, quartered
1 garlic clove, peeled, jullienned
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup water

Sauté the carrots, Brussels sprouts, and garlic in the olive oil and butter until lightly browned. Add water and cover. Simmer for 15 minutes.

Serves 4.

Preparation Time: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 30 minutes.

Extremely Filling Chicken-Vegetable Soup


When my mother moved back to California after 20 years in Costa Rica, I started filling her freezer with easy-to-reheat meals. My own, personal version of meals-on-wheels. At first freezer burn was a problem, until I discovered that as long as the meat and vegetables were submerged in a liquid or coated with sauce, the food survived remarkably unaffected by their time in her freezer. Now that our older son, Frank, is back from college, living in his own place, I've added his freezer to my list of must-fills.

Freezing chicken soup works great and with enough meat and vegetables, the soup satisfies as an entree. I'll only use homemade stock. Not because I'm an overly fastidious foodie, but the high sodium content of prepared stocks puts me off. Making my own, I can also control the quality of the stock. Using raw bones makes a mild almost "neutral" tasting stock. If the bones come from a roasted chicken, the flavors have a deeper flavor. They're both good, either working well for a soup, although the milder stock is closer to the Jewish chicken soup of my childhood.

2 carrots, peeled, finely chopped
2 broccoli crowns, washed, roughly chopped (1 cup)
2 Yukon gold potatoes, washed, peeled, roughly chopped
1 small yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley, washed
1 cup cooked chicken, shredded
6 cups homemade chicken stock
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over a medium flame and saute the onions and garlic until lightly browned so the onions caramelize, then add the rest of the vegetables and chicken, stirring and cooking until softened, being careful not to over-brown the vegetables. Deglaze the pan with the butter and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pour in the chicken stock and simmer 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasons with additional sea salt and pepper, as needed.

To serve, ladle out a generous portion of the vegetables and chicken and top with homemade croutons.

Serves 6.

Preparation Time: 30 minutes. Cooking Time: 30 minutes.