Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Spring Minestrone with Mini Chicken Meatballs

I saw this recipe in the April issue of Bon Appétit and immediately had to make it. Who can resist a teeny tiny meatball?  This soup is loaded with lovely spring flavors and vegetables.  It’s truly a perfect springtime recipe as it allows you to keep your foot in the door of two seasons simultaneously.  The carrots, leeks, and basil make the soup feel sunny and light; they are reminiscent of increasing day light and warmth; however, the steamy, brothy soup and the heartiness of the meatballs make good use of the lingering coolness.  Soon the mere idea of soup will be abhorrent to us as temperatures and humidity rises, so it’s best to take advantage of good soup-making conditions. 
I may be taking this analysis a bit far, but seriously, the soup is worth your while. This simple soup consists of tiny chicken meatballs floating in a broth amidst carrots, leeks, spinach, pasta, and garnished with Parmesan cheese and fresh basil.  The garnishes here are mandatory.  Making meatballs is so much fun, and these have a twist in that they are made with chicken breast and loaded with chives (and parmesan cheese, of course).  Usually, when meatballs are in soup, they are poached in the broth.  Here, they are first browned, and then finished in the broth.  This gives the meatballs more flavor because the meat is caramelized; this gives the soup more flavor because you make the soup in the same pot the meatballs are browned in, making good use of any lingering browned up meatball bits (it truly makes a big difference in the flavor, and allows for fewer dishes).  The browning of the meatballs will impact the pure spherical shape of the meatballs, but the increased flavor is worth this small aesthetic sacrifice.    
As this soup is called “minestrone,” it has pasta in it.  You could add an extra cup or two of water and cook the pasta directly in the soup.  Rather, I recommend cooking it in a small, separate pot and adding it to each bowl.  Pasta can absorb unpredictable amounts of liquid, and cooking the pasta in the soup may leave you without limited broth and mushy pasta in its absence.  This soup is a little labor intensive and is best for leisurely Sunday afternoon cooking.  Meatballs construction is time-consuming, but worthwhile process.

Spring Minestrone with Mini Chicken Meatballs (adapted from Bon Appétit Magazine, April 2012)

8 ounces ground chicken breast
½ cup breadcrumbs (I used panko)
6 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan, divided, plus more for garnish
3 garlic cloves, 1 grated, 2 thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1 large egg, whisked to blend
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 leeks, white and pale-green parts only, sliced into 1/4" rounds
6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
½ cup stelline pasta, or other small pasta (elbow macaroni, ditalini)
1 ½ cups ½" rounds peeled carrots (4-5 small carrots)
1 cup (packed) baby spinach
Chopped fresh basil

-      Mix breadcrumbs, 3 tablespoons Parmesan, 1 grated garlic clove, chives, egg, ¾ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper in a medium bowl.  Then add ground chicken and mix until combined.  Form into ½ inch diameter meatballs (makes about 28). (It may help to have a small bowl of water nearby to keep your fingers moist while forming the meatballs.  This reduces the sticky factor of the raw chicken)
-      Heat oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Cook meatballs until golden all over, about 3 minutes (they will finish cooking in soup). Transfer to a plate; set aside.  Make sure to do this in 2 batches so you don't crowd the pan.  (Also, resist the urge to eat those meatballs once they come out of the pot.  As delicious as they look, they're still raw in the middle.  I had to remind myself of this repeatedly.)
-      Meanwhile, bring a separate pot of water to boil and cook the pasta until al dente.  Drain and set aside.
-      Add leeks to pot and cook, stirring often, until beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Add 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves; cook for 1 minute. Add broth and 1 cup water; bring to a boil. Stir in carrots; simmer until carrots begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add meatballs; simmer until carrots are tender, and meatballs are cooked through, about 5-8 minutes. Add spinach and remaining 3 tablespoons Parmesan; stir until spinach is wilted and Parmesan is melted. Season with salt and pepper.
-      Ladle soup into bowls.  Add a couple of spoonfuls of pasta per bowl.  Garnish with chopped basil and Parmesan.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Chicken Piccata

Chicken piccata is a simple Italian dish, consisting of sautéed chicken cutlets with a lemon-caper sauce.  The flavors are clean and bright.  It doesn’t have garlic in it, or anything spicy, and it frankly doesn’t need it.  Some people like to add butter to the sauce at the end, but I don’t think it’s necessary.  There is plenty of olive oil, which adds richness. 
First, chicken cutlets are dredged in flour and browned in a sauté pan.  Don’t be shy here: make sure you get some good color on the chicken.  When all of the chicken has been effectively browned, the chicken is set aside; chicken stock, lemon juice, and capers are added to the pan.  Do not add salt; the capers will add more than enough saltiness.  Bring the sauce to a boil, and scrape up any browned bits left behind in the pan from the chicken.  Then all of the chicken is added back to the pan and simmered in the golden sauce.  The flour in the chicken’s crust will thicken the sauce and the chicken will finish cooking gently in the liquid.  The dish is finished off with tons of fresh parsley for color and freshness.  This cooking method will result in chicken that is very tender, and a sauce makes your mouth pucker slightly, with clean, acidic, lemony flavor. 
This is a dish that most people will enjoy, but isn’t the least bit boring.  I used to make a lot when I was in college.  It doesn’t require a lot of ingredients, but still feels rather luxurious.  Plus, it pairs nicely with pasta, which is obviously a plus for me.  The sauce coats the pasta nicely; and it looks beautiful with all of the parsley laced throughout.  And if you’re cooking for someone other than yourself, it has an impressive flair.  I also like to grate some Parmesan on top, but it is delicious without it. 

4-6 thin cut chicken cutlets
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup flour
3-4 tablespoons of olive oil
1 cup low sodium chicken stock
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2-3 tablespoons capers
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley (reserve some for garnish)

-       Preheat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat with 3 tablespoons of olive oil
-       Meanwhile, season chicken breasts with kosher salt and pepper.  Place flour in a wide, shallow dish, and dredge seasoned chicken breasts lightly in flour.
-       Brown chicken cutlets in the pan in batches (do not crowd pan).  Allow them to brown for 3-4 minutes per side.  Remove to a platter.  Add more olive if needed to new batches.
-       Add chicken stock, lemon juice, and capers to the pan.  Gently scrape up any browned bits in the pan, and bring to a boil and add all of the chicken back to the pan.  Simmer for 5 minutes until chicken is cooked through and the sauce has thickened.
-       Remove chicken from pan and add parsley (reserve about a tablespoon for garnish).  Serve chicken with sauce, garnished with reserved parsley, over a bed of linguine if desired (a sprinkle of parmesan is also nice)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Vanilla Bean Pudding

This recipe is simple, delicious, and easy to execute.  Measure some a few basic ingredients, mix, simmer, and chill.  Pudding is pretty straightforward.  So what makes this recipe special?  Vanilla bean!  This was my first experience cooking with an actual vanilla bean, and I absolutely loved it.  The pod itself is sticky, leathery, and pliable, sort of like a raisin with finer wrinkles.  And it smells amazing.  To release all of the lovely seeds, slice it down the middle the long way with a paring knife.  Then, using the tip of the knife, scrape all of the seeds out of the pod.  The seeds have the texture of very fine sand.  Overall, it’s a pretty amazing sensory experience. 
For this recipe, the vanilla seeds are added to milk, sugar, and cornstarch, which are slowly heated and combined with an egg for richness.  The result is a lovely yellow pudding, dotted with adorable vanilla seeds.  I ate the pudding with raspberries and fresh whipped cream.  It was delicious.  I burned mine ever so slightly, which was a happy mistake because the whole thing ended up tasting sort of like crème brulée.  I wouldn’t necessary recommend purposely burning the pudding, but it’s pretty forgiving recipe.  Do make sure you let it chill in the refrigerator uncovered because otherwise the steam will condense on your pudding.  I included the recipe exactly as written by its author (Smitten Kitchen’s Deb Perelman), and that is exactly how I made it.  Next time, I might reduce the sugar by a tablespoon or two, but I think most people would enjoy it just as it is.  
Vanilla Bean Pudding (recipe from Smitten Kitchen

Makes 6 half-cup servings

2 2/3 cups whole milk, divided

½ cup sugar

¼ cup cornstarch

¼ teaspoon salt

Seeds from ½ vanilla bean (or 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract)

1 large egg

Bring 2 cups of the milk to a boil in a medium saucepan. While it is heating, combine sugar, cornstarch, salt and vanilla bean (if you’re replacing it with extract, don’t add it yet; if you’d like to toss the leftover vanilla bean pods in the pot with the simmering milk for an extra vanilla boost, go for it) in the bottom of a medium, heatproof bowl. Gradually whisk in the remaining 2/3 cup whole milk, a little at a time so lumps do not form, then whisk in the egg. Once milk is boiling, very gradually add it to the cornstarch mixture in the bowl, whisking the whole time.

Return the mixture back to the saucepan, stirring constantly with a silicon spatula or wooden spoon. Once it comes to a simmer, cook it for one minute longer (which will cook the cornstarch and egg fully). Stir in vanilla extract, if you’re using it and divide pudding among 6 dishes. Chill in refrigerator until fully set, about 2 hours.