Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Perfect Lemon Meringue Pie

Every summer the State of Iowa for one week the State of Iowa is home to the annual RAGBRAI- the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. The Des Moines Register, the city's largest newspaper, has hosted this annual event for close to fifty years, and it's famous for attracting people from all over the world, of all athletic abilities, and everyone who absolutely loves biking and pie. Seriously. Ask any RABGRAI participant and they will have a pie story from every stop along the way.

A table full of classic- apple, strawberry rhubarb, Dutch
apple and key lime pie.
Last summer the ride began in Glenwood and ended, six days and just over 400 miles later, in Muscatine. Every town along the route gets in the spirit and welcomes riders with carnival-like celebrations, live music, a place to pitch a tent for the night, food and drink, partying, and of course, pie. Do a quick Google search if you don't believe me- "RAGBRAI pie" and you'll see exactly what I mean. Each town along the route assembles an army of volunteer bakers and servers to meet the pie demand of the visiting riders. No store bought pie will do for these folks either. Hand rolled crusts, fresh berries and fruits or handed down recipes for creamy fillings, baked with love. Cut and served by volunteers to keep the hungry riders full of pie.

I decided in my quest for the perfect pie to try and master the perfect meringue. This was more of a challenge to me than I expected. I am not a huge fan of meringue on a pie. Crispy meringues, sure, I'll eat those all day, like crunchy meringue cookies that are baked at low temperature and left to dry in the cooling oven. I love those. Meringue on a pie though, it's soft and squishy and eggy and a little like marshmallow and I am more of a crispy flaky crust kind of person. Pie crust I mastered long ago so I accepted the challenge and decided to make a couple classics, a key lime pie and a lemon meringue pie. I really love the tangy lemon filling, and homemade is so easy and fresh. Don't forget to give your lemon a really thorough scrub as you will be using the zest from one whole lemon to add incredible lemon flavor to your filling. Invest in a good quality rasp-style zester and you'll get all the delicious zest without the bitter pith underneath.

The Perfect Lemon Meringue Pie

4 egg yolks
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1/2 cup cornstarch
pinch of salt
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons butter- NOT MARGARINE!!!!

4 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

One baked pastry shell, 8 or 9 inch

For the meringue, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until foamy. Add the sugar a spoonful at a time while eating until firm peaks form and sugar has completely dissolved. Check by rubbing meringue between fingertips- you should not feel any graininess. Set aside.

For the filling, beat the yolks with the sugar. Add the remaining ingredients except the butter. Cook over medium low heat until mixture bubbles and thickens. Whisk constantly!!!! Stir in the butter.

Pour the filling into a baked pastry shell. Immediately cover with meringue, spreading to edges and sealing against the crust. Place in a preheated 400 degree oven until the meringue browns slightly. Cool completely before serving.

Besides the tangy lemon meringue pie I also made a key lime pie at the same time. Key limes are teeny tiny limes sold by the bag full and if you are going to juice your own you'll need quite a few. You'll also want to zest several of them- you usually want a generous tablespoon of shredded zest for your filling.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Company Cookbook Project

Of all the cookbooks on my shelves, those put together by churches, clubs, civic groups and other organizations are often my favorites. There is something comforting about the old casserole recipes, the easy to make cakes and desserts, and the funny names of those old recipes. Why have plain old sliced carrots when you can serve your family "Copper Pennies?" When is the last time you had "Wacky Cake?" If you're like me, probably not since you were in elementary school. I can always count on these assembled cookbooks to bring back the memories.

Often there is a salad section and it's usually packed with sparkly jello creations. Some of them are savory with cabbage and veggies and others are so sweet they should be a dessert. It's also common to find a few pickled veg type recipes too- like cucumbers and onions, or a tomato salad. My mom always made cucumbers and tomatoes with chopped onions in a vinegar and oil dressing. Pasta salads and potato salad are usually favorites. You might find a couple different family versions of bean salad, and don't forget the entree salads- like egg salad, chicken salad, and taco salad.

Just a few of my many club cookbooks
The entree section is usually where the real comfort foods are hiding. Casseroles of just about every kind lurk in there, with family secret spaghetti sauces, Dad's famous barbeque sauce, Gramma's bean soup and inventive ways to make tuna into something delicious. Up here in the Midwest, and especially Minnesota it's very common to see something called "Hot Dish" in those cookbooks. Hot Dish is a curious thing. It means something different to every cook. For some people it's tator tot casserole. For others it's something made with creamy soup. For my family it was some browned hamburger with chopped onion, a can of drained mushrooms, a couple handfuls of peas, cooked elbow macaroni and cream of something soup, stirred together in a big saucepan until everything is heated through. Completely NOT gourmet and not always delicious but it fills bellies and my mom made this on a fairly regular basis. Not a childhood favorite of mine but still a fun memory and it's interesting to talk with others from around here and learn about their family's hot dish recipe.

A few weeks ago my company sent around an email inviting associates to submit a recipe for a company cookbook that was being assembled. My employer places a great deal of emphasis on community involvement, inclusion and volunteerism. In an effort to raise money to support local food banks the company launched the cookbook project. Of course I had to get in on this deal. Picking a recipe wasn't all that tough, I knew I wanted to go with something relatively easy to prepare, with readily available ingredients and family friendly. I typed up my recipe for Philly Cheesesteak Lasagna, attached a picture and sent it off to the committee. 

Weeks go by, my recipe is proofed and sent back to me for a final look over. I can't wait for the day I can actually buy a copy of the company cookbook. One day I am busy working away on an account and I get a message- "Monica!!!!"  What's up, I reply, wanting to know what's so exciting. "Did you see the email?" Nope, I was busy with a client, haven't checked email in a bit. I finish up what I'm working on, check my email, and holy moly, there is an email from the company announcing not only the purchase days for the company cookbook but the cafeteria in our building selected five recipes from all the recipes submitted, to be prepared and featured as a lunch special for everyone to try and mine is one of them!! To some people this might not be too big of an accomplishment. After all, I know a lot of very successful chefs, competitive cooks, cookbook authors and recipe developers whose accolades far exceed mine, but in my small world and my little hobby food blog, this is big. 

Philly Cheesesteak Lasagna Day arrives in the cafeteria. I can hardly wait to see how my recipe is prepared by someone else. The clock ticks ever so slowly all morning while I wonder how it's going to turn out. I get an email from a member of the cookbook committee telling me to be sure and stop down at the table to introduce myself and when I finally make my way down to the company cafeteria I am met with hugs and smiles and lots of introductions to the kitchen staff. Lucy, the executive chef/kitchen manager came over to talk about how much she loved the recipe, and how well it's been selling as the lunch special. 

Squeeeeee! That's my dish on the line!
To be honest, it made me feel a little bit like a celebrity for a few minutes! My coworkers in my department raved about the dish, and I have to say, the kitchen did a fantastic job replicating my recipe. They put considerable effort into making it just like I would have- caramelizing the onions, browning the mushrooms until they are golden brown, and NOT skimping on the cheese. It was delicious. I ate every bit, including the garlic toast.

I can't wait to get the actual cookbook in my hands. My copy has been ordered and soon will occupy a place of honor on my cookbook shelves. I know I will enjoy preparing all the recipes submitted by employees from all over the country and will always cherish the memory of this special opportunity.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Chicken Schnitzel with Riesling

I've shared stories about my mom many times. Funny stories about board games gone wrong, wonderful memories of some of my favorite foods she made. My mother was a one of a kind. Just an itty bitty woman with a personality larger than life, she had a mouth that would shame a sailor. I always say it's because she learned to speak English on an army base. True story.

My mother is the one thing that connects me so closely to Europe. Born and raised in Wiesbaden my mother was a late in life baby born to older parents. Her brother and sister were grown and married with kids of their own by the time Mom came along. Her life was very simple. Her father was a tailor, her mother a homemaker, living in a small apartment when World War II erupted and changed Germany forever. Her father served in the German military when she was a little girl and was taken as a prisoner of war in Russia. 

My grandfather, Karl Betz
Mom told stories about the air raids conducted by the Allies, sleeping with your shoes and clothes on in case the alarm sounded and you had to flee to a bomb shelter. Mom had to flee several times as Wiesbaden came under attack. Nearly a quarter of the city was destroyed and nearly 2000 people killed. During and after the war food was pretty scarce around Mom's house. Mom said after Wiesbaden was liberated by the Allies the American GIs brought them big bags of food. Dehydrated vegetables mostly, and her family received a huge bag of dehydrated sweet potatoes and another of corn. I can honestly say I never saw my mother eat sweet potatoes ever, and while she always made corn for the rest of the Iowa corn-loving family, she did not eat it herself.

L to R- Mom, her brother Hienz, cousin Gisele,
my Oma Elsa and Opa Karl Betz
Fast forward to the late 1950s, when a skinny young kid from Minnesota enlisted in the U.S. Army and shipped out to Germany. Times were still tough in Germany and my mother took cleaning jobs from the "rich Americans" on the base and by some stroke of luck, met that skinny Minnesota boy, and the rest is history. They married, they moved to Minnesota, she became a U.S. Citizen and life fell into place. Mom's family still lived in Germany and with visits from my Oma to the United States and one fabulous summer spent traveling eleven different countries in Europe, my love for Europe was born. I learned to enjoy foods many adults would not eat, and while many kids were dining on hot dogs and mac and cheese, my sister and I were eating steak tartare, sauerbraten, trout cooked within minutes of being in the water in Italy, bread still warm from the boulangerie, and pasta on a shady terrace in the shadows of the Alps. And yes, we often had that small glass of wine.

Mom and Dad
Maybe it's my German heritage, or maybe it's just my taste buds, but as I grew to love wines I found myself really gravitating towards German Rieslings more than any other white wine. As a kid, I was able to try lots of different wines as is common in European families. By the time most of my friends were just starting to chug from beer bongs, I already had a pretty well experienced wine palate. The older I became, the more experience with wines I enjoyed, the one thing that never changed was my love of Riesling. As a wine tasting guide, Riesling class was one of my favorite classes to have. This wine is amazing and varied and so influenced by its terroir. German Rieslings are less sweet than Oregon and Washington State wines, not as acidic as versions from the Southern Hemisphere. Wines from the New York Finger Lakes Region are completely different still. Which brings me to this recipe. Choose a German or other European Riesling to make this easy take on chicken schnitzel. It won't overpower the dish with sweetness and it won't be too acidic for the lemon notes.

My Dad

Chicken Schnitzel with Riesling Sauce

1 lb boneless skinless chicken breast
salt and pepper
all purpose flour
6-8 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup slice mushrooms
1/4 cup butter
1 cup Riesling
one lemon
1 cup heavy cream
snipped fresh chives or thyme for garnish

Place the chicken breasts between sheets of waxed paper and gently pound out to even thickness. Season with salt and pepper; dredge in flour and set aside. Cut the lemon in half crosswise. Juice one half and thinly slice the other half.

Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the chicken to the skillet and cook, turning once, until browned on both sides and cooked through. Remove to a plate and keep warm.

Add the mushrooms to the skillet. Cook and stir for several minutes until tender and starting to brown. Add the garlic for the last one to two minutes. Don't let the garlic get brown.

Add the lemon juice and wine to the skillet. Raise the heat and let mixture reduce slightly. Add the heavy cream and heat to bubbling. Add the chicken breasts and lemon slices to the sauce.

California Rieslings are very similar to German.
Delicious served over fluffy mashed potatoes or freshly made spaetzle, sprinkled with snipped chives or fresh thyme, with fresh green beans or asparagus on the side. This is very much like something my mother would have made. 

Speaking of spaetzle, I have discovered, just by chance, that Aldi carries a nice selection of dried spaetzle. I'm surprised every time I go in there- they have so many European grocery items, organic products and healthy options. Check it out if you're lucky enough to have an Aldi store nearby.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Pumpkin Love and the Experimental Dinner- Cajun Style

It's almost Halloween. I didn't decorate this year. I didn't even look for any of my Dracula collection, or any jack o'lanterns or scary ghosts. I did, however, buy a pumpkin. Yep, I sure did. It's a pretty big one too. The Chef and I made a very rare trip to Walmart last weekend and they had a massive display of pumpkins outside the store entrance. Snagged me. Mouse in the trap, they snagged me. I batted my eyelashes at The Chef and made a pouty face and before I knew it he was loading my big bright pumpkin in the cart.

Since then it has been sitting on the kitchen island. He wants to carve it. I don't want to carve it just yet. I thought about setting it on our front step but I don't want to look outside one day and see my precious pumpkin smashed to smithereens in the street because some punk kids were bored and out prowling. I don't really want our feisty squirrels to start eating it just yet. I want to enjoy it for a while before the inevitable happens- mushy bottom, moldy interior, smelly mess heading for the trash. Of all the seasons, autumn is by far my favorite for a number of reasons. The flavors- spicy, rich, creamy- pumpkin flavored coffees and rich beefy stew, fragrant bowls of soup. The weather- crisp cool days, chilly nights, windy and rainy and drizzly grey skies. The holidays- Halloween of course, with all the ghosts and ghouls and goblins, haunted stories, trick or treating and candy, and Thanksgiving with all the wonderful foods, family, and time for giving thanks. The colors- all the browns and greens and golds and reds of fallen leaves, crops in the fields waiting to be harvested, bright pheasants strutting on the roadsides, and fields of orange pumpkins.

I really cannot explain why I am hanging on to this pumpkin so closely. Maybe I will give in and carve it, maybe I will cook it and eat it, or maybe I'll just sit and enjoy looking at it as long as I can.

On this brisk October night I was home by myself looking for something to inspire me for dinner. I had some odds and ends in the fridge and a package of Cajun chicken sausage I grabbed on impulse at the grocery store. If you haven't tried the different chicken sausages, you need to. I never knew chicken could make such a tasty link. Chicken of course takes to seasonings incredibly well and herbs and spices can create some fantastic sausages. I've tried chicken sausages with apples and warm spices and others seasoned like kielbasa and even Italian links. When I saw the Cajun sausages I figured I better give them a try as well. I always have rice on hand, and other pantry staples like onions, bell peppers, spices. Whipping up a Cajun-inspired dirty rice-style dish was a snap and perfect for a cold evening. An Experimental Dinner was on the table in a flash!

Earlier in the summer I made a Saturday trip to the Amish vegetable farm and snagged a case of tomatoes. Those red beauties found themselves roasting to charred perfection in a hot oven and then canned with the pressure canner for use all winter long. The roasted flavor is perfect in this dish. You can also use canned fire roasted tomatoes, and if you use the juice, adjust the water accordingly. You don't want the rice to cook to a mush.

Experimental Cajun Sausage and Rice

1 package Cajun sausage*
1 chicken breast**
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 large green pepper, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced 
2 cups fire roasted tomatoes, fresh or canned
2 teaspoons dried savory
Cajun seasoning to taste
1 1/2 cups long grain rice
sale and pepper
olive oil

* Use whatever Cajun sausage you like, Andouille, kielbasa, hot or mild. I used a Cajun chicken sausage. Choose a 12-16 oz package

**You can also use leftover cooked chicken- just cube it up and add when adding the water.

Slice the sausage into thin coins. Cut the chicken breast into bite size chunks.

In a large pot heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Add the sausage slices and cook until beginning to caramelize and brown. Add the chicken, Cook and stir for a minute or two. Add the onion and bell pepper. Cook, stirring often, until vegetables begin to soften. Add the garlic. Cook one minute.

Sprinkle the savory and Cajun seasoning over and stir in. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the rice. Add the tomatoes and 2 1/2 cups water. Bring to boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for about 10 minutes before serving.

Serve in bowls with hot sauce for sprinkling and sour cream if desired.

The best thing about these kinds of dishes is the versatility. You can adjust the heat to your family's taste- use a flavorful kielbasa instead of spicy Andouille and use a mild Cajun spice mix. Kick up the heat to blazing if you're a heat lover. It's an experiment so have fun with your food!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Visit With Dad Results in a Crusty Bread Experiment

It's finally autumn weather. Here in Iowa you would think we'd have a normal four seasons experience but we have some of the goofiest weather. It's mid October and we have still had days in the 80s, near 90s. But that appears to be in the rear view mirror now. What a wonderful week of cool breezy days, a little slight nip of frost, leaves blowing in the breeze, red, yellow and orange. Misty autumn rain and foggy mornings. All the smells I love so much. The kind of day you want to pile on a sweater and rake. Make chili. Watch football. Bake something.

My day started out with a lovely visit from my dad. You would have to know my dad to really get it. Larry is a character. We talk about all sorts of things. What he is up to, other old dudes at the V.A. that Dad is hanging out with these days. His new shoes. How the Vikings are doing. These visits are priceless times with my dad because, as we all know, human life is very fragile. In a perfect world our parents will grow old and pass on, and I know that eventually that will happen. In the meantime I am just going to continue to enjoy time spent with Dad and his kooky stories about bunions, hearing aids, and terrible football.

One thing Dad has always done is advise me on which new authors- usually Minnesota authors- I need to be reading. We share a love for John Sanford novels and he always has me on his mind when he is picking up books at the library sale or a book exchange at the V.A. This weekend he had a different book for me by an author I did not know. The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz. Apparently this is a continuation of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books with a new author taking over for the prior author and Dad insisted I'd love it. So, read it I shall. My dad also always brings me some weird food item. Sometimes it's a big bag of macaroni, or a sack full of canned tomatoes. It might be a 20 pound hunk of chicken of the woods. You never know what to expect. Today it was a big bag of dried cranberries. This could be fun!

I am always up for baking something- that's no secret. I began to wonder what in the world I was going to do with 3 pounds of dried cranberries. My bakers brain immediately began to come up with ideas. Cookies of course, but I had no oatmeal.....cake?? Maybe apple cranberry cake? Oooooo quick bread!! Nooooo, I have all this yeast. I flipped through some of my recipes and wondered where I could incorporate some of these tasty little bits with ingredients I have at home to avoid going to the store. Flour? Check. Whole wheat flour even- check. Honey, pecans, check, check. In the freezer I still  have some of the crystallized ginger I made a while back. This was coming together like a perfect plan. Borrowing the same technique as the Skillet Bread Nathan and I made a few weeks ago I was able to come up with a delicious crusty loaf of fruity nutty healthy bread.

Cranberry Ginger Pecan Skillet Bread

2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups dried cranberries
1 cup chopped pecans
2 tablespoons minced crystallized ginger
4 tablespoons honey
1 packet yeast
2 1/2 cups warm water
butter for skillet

In a large bowl combine the flours. Add the cranberries, pecans and ginger. Toss to coat the fruit and nuts well.

I looooove craisins. They are so sweet and tart and taste
like fresh cranberries. These are way better than raisins.

In a large measuring cup measure the warm water. Stir in the honey until dissolved, then add the yeast. Allow the yeast to bloom and become foamy. 

Mix the water into the flour and fruit mixture and stir until combined. Cover with plastic and allow to rise in a warm place for about an hour and a half.

Generously butter a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven. I used my regular skillet- about 10 inches. Gently remove the dough from the bowl and place in the skillet. Dough will be sticky and soft. Form into a round disk, it doesn't have to touch the sides of the skillet. It will rise to fill the skillet. Again cover loosely and allow to rise another hour. Make sure to CHECK the dough about halfway through both rising times. The temp in your kitchen will affect the rise of the bread and if it's nice and warm it might rise faster. You want the dough to double in size. It may take as little as 30 minutes each time.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the skillet in the oven and bake the bread for 40 minutes. Remove to a rack and cool- the bread will pop right out of the skillet. It's absolutely delicious served warm with lots of melty real butter.

In case you haven't caught on, I am absolutely hooked on these easy breads. No-knead doughs just couldn't be easier, and this is a fun and easy recipe to make with kids. I love the crunchy crust of the bread and the dense texture- it's not a fluffy bread like the sliced white bread you get at the store, but more like the rustic artisan breads you find in bakeries. They look impressive with their round shapes and look like something you spend a ton of time slaving over. Your secret is safe with me. Trust me, try one of these loaves, especially warm from the oven, and you'll be hooked too.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Julia Child's Tian de Courgette au Riz, simplified

This summer was our first summer in the city house- the first summer I did not have a garden. I must say I was ok not having to worry about watering, weeding and pests, but I really missed being able to step out into the backyard to grab some fresh veggies or herbs to create a lovely summer dish. Homegrown Iowa tomatoes- I might have missed them the most, but I really missed the abundance of zucchini that most midwest gardeners find themselves trying to use up or give away. This summer, every time I found a zucchini recipe that I wanted to make, I had to buy them. Silliness.....

Also in the city house I have a little book nook all to myself- a comfy chair near big sunny windows and shelves filled from floor to ceiling with hundreds of cookbooks. I spent a lot of time over the cold and snowy months in that room reacquainting myself with books that had been packed away for the few years we lived at the lake. Cookbooks written by celebrity chefs, local church groups and the classics- The Joy of Cooking, Better Homes and Gardens, and of course, Julia's masterpiece, The Art of French Cooking. Within these beloved books I find loads of memories and an abundance of inspiration, especially with Julia Child's recipes. Don't worry- I am not going to revive the Julie and Julia experience- I'm not THAT crazy nor can I afford to buy many of those ingredients, but I do plan on making some of the recipes that best suit me, my tastes, and my budget.

Which brings me back to the zucchini. When I first came across this recipe I fully expected to have people throwing zucchini at me left and right by the time summer got here. Imagine my disappointment when that was not the case! Being in the city, however, means I have access to some of the best farmers markets in the country, like our Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market, which is legendary, to smaller markets in nearly all of the suburbs, and many awesome HUGE grocery stores with every type of produce imaginable. I had to buy it, but that's ok. I really wanted to make this dish, Tian de Courgette au Riz. In spite of it's pretentious-sounding name, it's actually quite a humble little casserole. Simple ingredients and familiar flavors were something that really appealed to me. Julia's technique, however, was not. It was time to reinvent the wheel for sure. I've been cooking rice for decades, and making all kinds of dishes that start with uncooked rice and transform in the oven to something tender and fluffy- I knew I'd be able to figure this one out as well.

Julia almost certainly stood at her elevated kitchen counter and shredded that zucchini by hand, but I wasn't about to go that route, not with a perfectly good food processor on my counter. Shredding the zucchini took just a few minutes, and the rest of the dish is a snap. We'll go through how I made it, and then we'll look at Julia's original, and very meticulous, version for fun. For example, Julia spent a considerable amount of time prepping the zucchini even after shredding. She shreds, salts, squeezes, tastes, saves the spent juice, sautes, parboils, thicken, folds and finally, bakes. While her technique is masterful and creates this incredibly delicious dish, it's a lot of steps, too many for busy cooks these days. The biggest change is not salting and draining the zucchini. Besides the mess, the juice the zucchini gives off will help cook the rice without adding a lot of extra liquid- it just seems silly to drain off liquid just to add it back, am I right?

The Modern Zucchini and Rice Gratin

2 lb zucchini
1/2 cup uncooked rice
1 medium onion, diced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup half and half
1 cup Parmesan cheese, divided
salt and pepper
1-2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 2 quart casserole dish generously and set aside.

Wash the zucchini and trim the ends. Shred the zucchini into a large bowl and set aside.

In a large skillet (I used a wok- seriously, and it worked fabulously) melt 2 tablespoons butter. When butter is foaming and hot, add the minced onion. Season with salt and pepper and cook over medium low heat until softened and just beginning to brown, stirring occasionally. Add the minced garlic and cook another minute.

Add the rice to the skillet and cook for a minute or two until the grains turn bright white. Remove from heat. Stir in the half and half, the thyme, the zucchini and half the Parmesan cheese. Taste and season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon mixture into buttered casserole dish. Cover tightly with foil and bake one hour.

Increase the oven temperature to 425 degrees. Remove the foil, drizzle with a couple tablespoons of melted butter and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake, uncovered, until the top is browned and the rice is tender, about 15-20 more minutes.

This dish is a lovely summer side dish and is perfect for a light vegetarian lunch option. It has all the richness of Julia's classic recipe with a lot fewer steps. Just for fun, let's take a look at the original recipe from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of  French Cooking, Volume II.

Tian de Courgette au Riz

2 1/2 lb zucchini
1/2 cup plain, raw, untreated white rice
1 cup minced onions
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, mashed or finely minced
2 tablespoons flour
about 2 1/2 cups warm liquid- zucchini juices plus milk, heated in a pan (watch closely so this doesn't curdle)
2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese (reserve 2 tb for later)
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
heavily buttered 6 to 8 cup flameproof baking and serving dish, about 1 1/2 inches deep

Shave the stem and tip off each zucchini, scrub the vegetable thoroughly but not harshly with a brush under cold running water to remove any clinging sand or dirt. If vegetables are large, halve or quarter them.If seeds are large and at all tough, and surrounding flesh is coarse rather than moist and crisp, which is more often the case with yellow squashes and striped green cocozelles than with zucchini, cut out and discard the cores.

Rub the squash against the coarse side of a grater, and place grated flesh in a colander set over a bowl. For each pound (2 cups) of grated squash, toss with 1 teaspoon of salt, mixing thoroughly. Let the squash drain 3 or 4 minutes, or until you are ready to proceed.

Just before cooking, squeeze a handful dry and taste. If by chance the squash is too salty, rinse in a large bowl of cold water, taste again; rinse and drain again if necessary. Then squeeze gently by handfuls, letting juices run back into bowl. Dry on paper towels. Zucchini will not be fluffy; it is still dampish, but the excess liquid is out. The pale green, slightly saline juice drained and squeezed out of the zucchini has a certain faint flavor that can find its uses in vegetable soups, canned soups, or vegetable sauces.

White the shredded zucchini is draining, drop the rice into boiling salted water, bring rapidly back to the boil, and boil exactly 5 minutes; drain and set aside.

In a large frying pan, cook the onions slowly in the oil for 8 to 10 minutes until tender and translucent. Raise heat slightly and stir several minutes until very lightly browned. Stir in the grated zucchini and garlic. Toss and turn for 5 to 6 minutes until zucchini is almost tender.

Sprinkle in the flour, stir over moderate heat for two minutes and remove from heat. Gradually stir in the 2 1/2 cups warm liquid. Make sure the flour is well blended and smooth. Return over moderately high heat and bring to the simmer, stirring. Remove from heat again, stir in the blanched rice and all but 2 tablespoons of the cheese. Taste very carefully for seasoning. Turn into buttered baking dish. Strew remaining cheese on top, and dribble the olive oil over the cheese.

About a half hour before serving, bring to simmer on top of stove (you can skip this step if your baking dish isn't flameproof), then set in the upper third of a preheated 425 degree oven until tian is bubbling and top has browned nicely. The rice should absorb all the liquid.

Shew!! I am TIRED just reading all that, not to mention the lengthy and repetitive cooking and heating. In my version, the hour in the oven, covered, is all it takes to cook the zucchini to the perfect tenderness without being mushy. The rice absorbs the liquid the squash will give off during baking, without the hassle of squeezing it out, heating and adding it back. Half and half along with the butter gives it that signature Julia Child richness and the slightly larger amount of Parmesan makes it hearty. The heavier sprinkle of cheese on top of the dish also gives the dish a beautiful crusty, salty crust. Serve this with roast chicken or pork and get ready for rave reviews.

Monday, September 12, 2016

My spin on Sheet Pan Dinner- Cilantro Lime Chicken

I spent the whole winter counting the days til the warm spring sun shines down on me and I can start thinking about growing fresh herbs again. I've weeks flipping through garden catalogs and seed flyers and anxiously awaiting the springtime. This is our first summer in the city house and once again I be able to fine beautiful fresh herbs. I didn't plant a garden this spring, but with an abundance of farmers markets and specialty grocery stores I will have so many options. I plan to really embrace cilantro. Cilantro is the Either Or Plant- you either love it or you hate it. I used to detest the stuff and gagged any time I detected even a hint of it in my salsa. I decided to make an honest attempt to embrace it, and I sure have, falling in love the the flowery herby essence and bright flavor that's so unique.

All those fresh herbs mean I will have lots of great new flavors to play with. Cilantro is just inviting me to go in a Latin direction. Cilantro and lime are perfect partners, and juicy chicken is the perfect protein to showcase those flavors. While you can opt for chicken breasts, which work great in this recipe, chicken thighs are where the flavor is. Be sure to buy bone-in chicken thighs. This marinade is perfect for all kinds of chicken, so if you prefer a big platter of chicken legs, go for it. It's not too shabby for a wing recipe either. I opted to brown my chicken in that trusty cast iron beauty I have and finish as a "sheet pan dinner" but you can roast it right in the skillet and skip the vegetables or grill this chicken too.  

Juicy Cilantro Lime Chicken 

6 skin on, bone in chicken thighs (I used leg quarters, cut up, so 3 legs and 3 thighs)
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more
3 tablespoons lime juice
zest of one lime
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup minced cilantro (stems and leaves)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
baby Yukon Gold potatoes (about 4 cups)
1 medium onion
2 red or orange bell peppers

Rinse the chicken and pat dry with paper towel. Place in a large zip top bag along with all the other ingredients. Seal the bag and massage to mix ingredients and coat the chicken. Allow the chicken to marinate 3-4 hours (you can go overnight in the fridge too).

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Using a heavy oven safe skillet, such as cast iron, heat the skillet over medium high heat. Add a small amount of cooking oil and place the chicken, skin side down, in the hot pan. Allow the skin side to brown well, then flip the chicken and brown the other side. 

While the chicken is browning, prepare your veggies. Cut the potatoes in half, cut the onion into wedges and cut the peppers into chunks. Toss veggies with a little olive oil and salt and pepper.

Line a baking sheet with foil. Spread the veggies evenly onto the foil. Top with the chicken. Spoon the pan juices over. Bake until chicken tests done, 45 minutes to an hour, and the skin is golden brown.

Garnish with additional lime slices for squeezing and sprinkle with additional chopped cilantro.

Choosing the chicken for this dish is important. A lot of people think they don't like chicken on the bone. You have to get past that thinking guys. Bone in and skin on chicken is by far more flavorful and juicy than a boneless skinless breast can ever hope to be. Plus, you don't get the gorgeous browning and flavor building that you do with skin on chicken. Face your fears and buy the bone in chicken. You won't regret it.