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Friday, February 13, 2009

What's the Perfect Valentine's Day Gift?

That’s the question of the moment. Ads on TV, in newspapers, on line, in magazines, on billboards, buses, subways, just about everywhere you look, make suggestions about what to give your lover to show how much you treasure her: romantic dinners, cruises, hot air balloon rides, diamonds, earrings, pearl necklaces, chocolates, spa treatments, cakes, pies, tarts, sweaters, and of course, flowers.

Years ago when I lived in Rhode Island I had a friend who refused to buy any of her gifts. For Christmas or a birthday, she’d knit a gift, create a handmade card, or construct a collage. Risa was an enthusiastic practitioner of the hand-made movement because she felt that making a gift was a more emotional way of connecting to someone you cared about. To her, going into a store and plunking down a fist full of cash wasn’t as intimate and personal as making something.

I took Risa’s lesson to heart. Many Valentine’s Days I baked. Apple pies with crystallized ginger crusts. Flourless chocolate cakes with roasted almonds. And banana cakes with chocolate chips and roasted walnuts, one of my wife’s favorite desserts.

For this Valentine’s Day I was presented with a problem. I couldn’t bake Michelle a cake because she had sworn off dairy products and sugar. No matter how much she used to like my desserts, a beautiful cake wouldn’t tell her “I love you” the way it used to. So what could I make or do for her that would show her I love her?

To be valued, a gift has to be appropriate. Finding the right gift means that I really understand who Michelle is and what makes her happy. That’s when I realized the best gift I could give her was to iron all her blouses.

If you’re Jewish, which I am, you’ve been taught that true gift giving (a mitzvah) is only genuine if you ask for nothing in return, not even a thank you. If you “give to get”, that’s not genuine giving. Selflessness and gift giving go hand in hand.

When Michelle opened her closet yesterday, expecting to see dozens of clean but wrinkled blouses, she instead found all her blouses freshly ironed. I didn’t create a handmade card or bake a cake, but I did give her what made her feel loved and taken care of and that was a good Valentine’s Day present. My gift made her very happy.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Potato Salad

When I was a kid, we didn't do many family outings. My dad wasn't into it. And yet, somehow my mom convinced him to spend a couple of days each summer at Will Rogers State Beach in Santa Monica. I don't know what they did on the beach because I spent the whole day in the water. The only time I took a break from body surfing was when we'd have lunch. My mom would open her Tupperware containers and we'd feast on fried chicken and potato salad.

Recently when I was putting together a menu for a dinner party, my mind must have reached back to those childhood memories because I instantly decided that the centerpiece of the meal would be fried chicken and potato salad.

The key to my mom's fried chicken was an overnight soak in buttermilk. My dad used to drink buttermilk, so there was always some in the refrigerator. The other important feature of her technique was a light dusting in seasoned flour. She talked at length about her dislike of heavily breaded soggy fried chicken. The goal, she always said, was a thin, crisp crust that contrasted with the sweet juiciness of the chicken. I've made a minor adjustment to her recipe by adding a touch of sugar, cayenne, and chopped onion. Her approach works well for onion rings and other vegetables like broccoli.

I remember her potato salad as a bare-bones affair of boiled potatoes, sweet pickle relish, and mayonnaise. For mine I add carrots and corn for sweetness, capers for a bit of acid, and a touch of cayenne for heat.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

1 whole chicken, washed, cut apart, wing tips and bones reserved to make chicken stock
1 quart buttermilk
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
1/4 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1/4 cup finely chopped yellow onion (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 quarts safflower or canola oil

Method

When you cut up the chicken, separate the two parts of the wing and cut the breast meat off the bone. Keep or discard the skin as you wish. The breasts can be left whole but will cook more evenly when cut into strips or tenders.

Toss the chicken pieces with olive oil and season with sea salt and pepper. Put the pieces in a container, add the buttermilk, stir, cover, and refrigerate.

Using a wok or deep frying pan, heat the cooking oil to 325 - 350 degrees or until a piece of parsley browns immediately when dropped in the oil. Before you begin cooking, prepare your counter. Have a slotted spoon or an Asian style strainer ready. Lay two paper towels on top of a piece of brown grocery bag paper on a large plate.

In a brown paper bag mix together the flour, sea salt, pepper, cayenne (optional), sugar (optional), and onions (optional). Take the chicken out of the buttermilk, remove the excess, drop into the paper bag with the seasoned flour, close the top of the bag, and shake.

Cook the chicken in batches. The pieces shouldn't crowd one another in the oil so they cook evenly. Gently drop each piece into the hot oil, making sure that the pieces don't touch. Turn over when browned on all sides. Remove when golden brown and drain on the paper towels. The pieces will cook quickly: chicken tenders (breast) 2-3 minutes; wings 7-8 minutes; thighs & legs 10-12 minutes.

If you are making deep fried vegetables like onion rings or broccoli florets, they cook even more quickly: thick rings cook in 30 seconds, thin rings in 5-6 seconds; broccoli in 30 seconds.

Just before serving, lightly dust the cooked pieces with sea salt and pepper.

Potato Salad

Yield: 4-6 servings
Time: 60 minutes

Ingredients

2 pounds potatoes, preferably Yukon Gold, washed
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
3 quarts water
1 scallion, washed, ends trimmed, finely chopped
1 carrot, washed, peeled, ends removed, grated
1 ear of corn or 1/2 cup corn kernels
2 tablespoons olives, preferably Kalamata or cracked green, pitted, finely chopped
1 tablespoon capers, drained, finely chopped
2-3 tablespoons mayonnaise
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Put the potatoes, kosher salt, and water into a pot, bring to a gentle boil, and cover. Cook 30-45 minutes. Be careful not to overcook the potatoes. They should be firm, not mushy. The potatoes are done when a fork goes in easily. Remove from the salted water. Let cool. Peel off the skins.

In the summer, grill an ear of corn and cut up carrot seasoned with olive oil, sea salt and pepper. Cut the kernels off the cob, finely chop the carrot and add them to the salad.

In the winter, canned corn will do. Saute the corn and finely chopped carrots with olive oil until lightly browned. Add to the potato salad along with the chopped scallions, olives, capers, and mayonnaise.

Taste and adjust the seasoning with sea salt and pepper.

Variations

Add 1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley, leaves only.

Add 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh celery.

Add 1 broccoli floret either grilled or lightly sauteed then finely chopped