The Great Watermelon Challenge

So, I was in Trader Joe’s grocery shopping and I saw that they had these small watermelons for sale. I know that Sarah isn’t a big fan but even if she didn’t eat any I could probably eat one of these small ones. So, I bought it and put it in the fridge. When Sarah came home and saw the watermelon she challenged me.  “Make me like watermelon!  That is your mission!” she said.

OK. So now it was on. I had to come up with something. One night when Sarah said she wanted something light I went to work. I made soy and honey marinated chicken breast salad with red onions and watermelon. And for dessert, I made a watermelon granita with Limoncello on the side.

For the salad I made a raspberry vinaigrette in which to marinate the onions. For the vinaigrette:

1/2 cup raspberries (fresh or frozen)

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp rice wine vinegar

Olive oil

Juice of one lime

Salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients except olive oil in a blender or food processor. Gradually add the olive oil until it comes together to the desired consistency.

Slice one red onion into rings, place in a bowl and pour the vinaigrette over the onions. Allow to marinate for an hour or longer.

For the chicken marinade:

1/4 cup of canola oil

Juice of one lime

2 tbsp dark soy sauce

2 tbsp regular soy sauce

2 tbsp honey

1 inch of ginger root sliced

Salt and pepper

Stir ingredients together and add chicken breasts. Coat and marinate for an hour or so.

Shake the chicken of excess marinade and cook on the stove top on medium high heat. Cook 2-3 minutes on each side until the sugars in the marinade begin to brown. Transfer to a baking dish and finish in a 350 degree oven for 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven, cool for five minutes and slice into strips on the bias.

Construct the salad by laying down a bed of arugula. Top with the marinated onions, cubes of watermelon, the chicken and some of the vinaigrette.

For the granita, add 3-4 cups of watermelon, juice of one lime and some pomegranate syrup to a blender. Blend until smooth and slowly add in 1/3 cup of simple syrup (1/3 cup of sugar dissolved in 1/3 of boiling water and cooled for at least 10 minutes). Strain through a strainer pressing the solids through. Pour into a baking dish and put in the freezer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Every half hour scrape and stir the granita until fully frozen. Serve in martini glasses with Limoncello served on the side in vodka or shot glasses.

Sarah was happy with the dishes. I was happy because I can add watermelon to a growing list of foods that Sarah will eat because of me.

Both dishes are gluten and dairy free.

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Sunday Roast Chicken

image from FallenSouffle.com

The chicken holds a strange position in the American diet. On one hand, we eat more chicken than just about anything else; chicken dishes are staples in restaurants, in fast food and in home cooking. On the other hand, most of those chicken dishes don’t taste much like chicken at all.

The American chicken is a monstrous, genetically modified beast, bred for maximum breast meat, without much attention to flavor (or to humane raising practices, for that matter). We eat chickens raised on feedlots, fed meal made from other chickens and laced with massive doses of antibiotics. It tends to be tough and stringy and taste like cardboard, so we fry it in grease or slather it with sauces. It’s a blank slate on which to build a meal, a tasteless carrier for cheese or breading or sauce. It’s protein without passion.

Which brings us to the Sunday roast chicken. My generation doesn’t think to roast chickens, really, since we’re not used to chickens having flavor; our grandparents’ generation, on the other hand, mostly grew up raising chickens, eating fresh eggs and occasionally killing a chicken for Sunday dinner. (My grandmother, a sweet and physically tiny woman, likes to gross out her grandchildren by telling us about how good she was at wringing chickens’ necks back on the farm in Carolina.) But today, with organic and humanely raised chickens once again becoming widely available, the roast chicken is making a comeback.

Anthony Bourdain says in his Les Halles Cookbook that you can measure a chef by how well they do a simple roast chicken. With all respect to Bourdain, though, my favorite recipe is Thomas Keller’s roast chicken, posted on Epicurious.com. It is the simplest of recipes: truss the bird, salt it, roast it for an hour or so, baste it and let it rest before serving. That’s it. No stuffing, no temperature changes, nothing fancy whatsoever. It comes out with a beautiful, crispy golden brown skin and tender, juicy meat. It tastes like chicken. And it’s delicious.

Serve with roast vegetables, potatoes or fresh bread.

Roast one of these babies on Sunday, then use the leftovers all week for chicken tacos, chicken salad, or whatever you can think of.

The Gadget Wall: Pot Roast and Moroccan Chicken Stew in the Slow Cooker.

Certain things happen when you get married. Your parents cry. You learn way more than you ever wanted to know about ring sizes. You learn a lot about your relationship. You explore many ways of answering the question ‘So when are you having a baby?’ (We’ll have to get back to you on that, nebnose.) And at the end of it all, you’re left with lots of photos, lots of memories, and lots and lots of kitchen appliances.

This is probably even more true if you are known to be foodies. Joe and I met working at the late, great Lechters Housewares, received all sorts of coffee makers, flatware, and slow cookers, among other gifts, from our wonderful and generous friends and family. We love gadgets, and we both subscribe to Alton Brown’s Unitasker Theory: the only unitasker allowed in our kitchen is the fire extinguisher. (OK, and maybe that awesome stovetop coffeepot Paola brought us from Lebanon.)

Fortunately, the slow cooker is versatile. Stew? Sauce? A whole chicken? Check, check and check. Our thoughtful friends Peter and Cat gave us not only a spiffy slow cooker, but also The Slow Cooker Ready & Waiting Cookbook: 160 Sumptuous Meals that Cook Themselves by Rick Rodgers. Like many cookbooks organized around a gadget, this one pulls recipes from every corner of the globe and adapts them for American tastes. I’m generally skeptical of this approach, but after two really, really delicious meals, I have to admit that Rick knows what he’s doing.

Both recipes are deceptively simple. The recipes are long, and aimed at beginner cooks, with instructions like ‘turn on the slow cooker’– so I’ll summarize them here but add a few notes. My main criticism is that these recipes go too light on the seasonings– feel free to load up on your spices and aromatics. Also, he seems to be a fan of canned broths. I use them sometimes, but try to stick to fresh– the sodium levels in canned broth are ridiculous, and they tend to be full of additives. The pot roast recipe is gluten-free, if GF beer is used; the chicken stew is dairy free, and also GF if served with rice or quinoa instead of couscous. Read the rest of this entry »

Required Reading: Working Conditions in the NC Poultry Industry

Check out this amazing six-part series on workers’ rights in the North Carolina poultry industry from the Charlotte Observer.  From the editor’s introduction:

These workers — about 28,000 of them in the Carolinas — process chicken and turkey in all its forms. Whole birds, fillets, nuggets, slices, cubes, sausage and even hot dogs.

It may surprise you to learn that most of the workers speak Spanish. Many of them entered the country illegally.

Should that matter as you consider the working conditions you will read about?

I say yes, but maybe not for the most obvious reason.

It should matter because the neglect of these workers exposes an ugly dimension to a new subclass in our society. A disturbing subclass of compliant workers with few, if any, rights.

I say disturbing because North and South Carolina share some regrettable history of building economies on the backs of such workers.

Before the Civil War, slaves and poor sharecroppers powered the region’s tobacco and cotton plantations. Early in the 20th century, children as young as 8 were put to work in Carolinas textile mills to help feed their poor families.

Consider the parallel to illegal immigrants. Same as slaves and sharecroppers, same as the cotton mill workers derisively termed “lintheads,” this subclass is now a scorned bunch.

And yet they help power our economy. We live in houses they built. We drive on highways they paved. We eat the chicken and turkey they prepared.

Illegal immigrants often take the least desirable jobs, earning low wages, because those jobs lift them and their families from the poverty they left behind in their homelands.

As a group, they are compulsively compliant, ever-conscious that one complaint could lead to their firing or arrest or deportation.

“Some speak out, but most of these workers just wanted to remain in the shadows,” said Franco Ordoñez, a reporter who spent months speaking to workers in the Latino communities surrounding the poultry plants. “It’s just not worth it, considering how much they’ve already risked, to draw more attention to themselves — even if they’re hurt. They’re like the perfect victims.”

And, as you will read today, businesses take advantage of their silence and vulnerability.

Will we allow such conditions to go unchecked again?

Cappellini and Chicken in Fresh Pesto

Sarah was feeling a bit Crohn’s-y last night so I put together this light dish. It is a very simple preparation. Fresh ingredients are key here, however.

Ingredients:

1/2 pound cappellini

4 quarts of water

Two chicken breasts (in this case, organic from Trader Joe’s)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

For the Pesto:

1/4 cup of pine nuts

1 clove of garlic

1 bunch of basil

Extra virgin olive oil

salt

First, prepare the pesto. In a food processor (or a mortar and pestle if you feel like a workout and getting all artisanal) process the pine nuts until they are a fine grain. Add the basil, garlic, some olive oil and some salt. Process until all the basil is very fine and pasty. At this point you can add more olive oil to get it to the consistency that you desire. I like it to be kind of thick but it is personal preference.

Bring four quarts of water to a boil. Using a lot of water is important for thin pasta like capellini, which has a tendency to stick together and gum up.

While the water is coming to a boil, heat olive oil on medium heat for a few minutes. Add the chicken breasts. You want a nice brown crust while not drying out the chicken. Doing it on medium heat helps achieve this. Remove from the heat and let rest.

Right before the chicken is done add the cappellini to the water. Keep a close eye on the pasta. It can go from al dente to mushy very quickly. After 3-4 minutes taste the pasta and cook until the desired texture. Drain. Add back to pot with heat off and throw in 3/4 of the pesto that you made. Toss and put desired amount of pasta in bowls or plates.

Cut the chicken breasts on the bias into two inch strips. Toss in the remaining pesto until the strips are well coated. Lay 3-4 strips across the pasta. I garnished this with some amazing fresh tomatoes from Weaver’s Way and a basil leaf.  This is a dairy-free dish, and you can make it gluten-free simply by using GF pasta.

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Pappardelle with Fresh Vegetables and Chicken

Just a quick light dish that I whipped up last night. Sarah and I had both eaten late lunches  and weren’t particularly hungry. The base of the dish was some really good sprouted wheat pappardelle pasta from Trader Joe’s. I used an 8 oz. bag.

While this was boiling, I sauteed ripe Roma tomatoes (from the Headhouse Market) cut into quarters, some diced onion, two cloves of garlic, one diced small zucchini and salt and pepper. I threw in some diced chicken breast that I had browned earlier. To this I added extra virgin olive oil and some good balsamic vinegar. You don’t want to cook this for very long. If you do the tomatoes will get soft. Just heat the veggies and the chicken through and toss in the pasta. I use an old-fashioned technique here: instead of draining the pasta first, I just pick it up with tongs and add it directly to the saute pan. This allows a little pasta water (in all of its starchy goodness) to become part of the sauce. To the pasta, I added some fresh chopped basil and some grated Parmesan.

A quick note on the basil. This is some of the best basil that I have ever had. We bought it from our new friend Jennie at Weaver’s Way.  Unlike mega-mart basil, this has little bits and holes where insects and worms have taken small bites– in fact, an inchworm fell out of this bunch when I was washing it. My mother always used to say she didn’t trust produce that didn’t have some evidence of insect life. I didn’t understand that as a kid, but I do now. A healthy ecosystem includes insects and worms. Mass production uses pesticides that eliminate this insect life so you have prettier produce. But you also sacrifice some of the nutrients that provide healthfulness and flavor to the produce. We’ve bought this basil twice now and it has wowed us both times.

As for the pasta, it made for a quick and tasty meal.

This dish could be made gluten-free by just using some GF pasta. There are some very good ones out there right now. A dairy-free option here would just be eliminating the cheese. If you use good, flavorful veggies, it wouldn’t be necessary. A vegetarian option would be to substitute the chicken with some wild mushrooms. Shiitakes or Criminis would work well.

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Chicken Soupy Rice (Arroz Asopado con Pollo)

When Sarah and I lived in Ridgewood, Queens, one of our favorite things to get at our local Puerto Rican or Dominican restaurants was the Chicken Soupy Rice. It was cheap and delicious, especially on winter nights. Sarah has come down with a cold, so I thought I would try my hand at a version off the cuff since we both have fond memories of curling up on the couch with soupy rice when we were sick in NYC.

The ingredients that I used:

4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

Fresh ginger, finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)

2 shallots, chopped

2 sweet potatoes, diced

1/2 cup of snow peas, sliced

2 1/2 cups of chicken stock

1/4 cup of crushed tomatoes

2 chicken breasts, diced

Adobo seasoning

Cinnamon

1 cup arborio rice

Salt and pepper to taste

Toss chicken with adobo seasoning and cinnamon.  (Marinate for an hour if you have the time.)  Saute chicken in a pan and set aside. In a pot, heat a few tablespoons of oil and add the garlic and ginger. After a couple of minutes add the shallot and saute for a few more minutes. Add the sweet potatoes and saute for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly. Add the arborio rice and the snow peas. Saute for a minute or two. Pour in the chicken stock. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium low, add the crushed tomatoes, stir and cover. Simmer for about twenty minutes, stirring every few minutes to ensure that the rice does not stick. When the rice is done, add the chicken. At this point check the consistency. You want it to be thick but still soupy, somewhere between a stew and a soup. If it is too thick (as mine was), add some more stock and water to get it to the thickness that you desire. Simmer another minute or two and serve. I topped ours with some chopped green onion.

A very comforting meal to share with your loved one while geeking out in front of Star Trek:TNG DVDs.

This is gluten and dairy free. Just be sure to check the chicken stock that you buy. Some of it does contain gluten.

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