Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Cooking for One in One Cooking Vessel

Yesterday, I wrote about the common must-have ingredients for every kitchen. This evening, I put that to the test, especially after having found this article earlier today on the benefits of investing in a well-stocked kitchen. In additional preparation for a future blog post on the necessary kitchen tools, I have also been keeping track of what gadgets I use on a fairly consistent basis. With the context and general theme of uncertainty looming, my most recent cooking experience was certainly one of trial and error. On this evening's menu: Dijon Meyer Lemon Chicken with Rosemary, Served with Toasted Almond and Long Grain Rice; and Chocolate Cereal Bars.

Also yesterday, I received a pair of meyer lemons as part of a holiday gift from Marilyn. Having also received Vermont maple syrup from the folks at Putney, my culinary mind was a flurry as I tried to find different recipes to highlight my newly acquired ingredients. During my search, I found this grilled chicken recipe from Anne Burrell's Secret's from a Restaurant Chef which utilises dijon mustard and meyer lemon. Excited also to being able to make use of the fresh rosemary I had left out to dry during the break, I decided to make use of some frozen chicken breast and to use Anne's recipe as a starting point.

After getting my frozen chicken into a container of water and then into the fridge to defrost, I actually began the food prep for this meal by starting out with the starch: long grain rice to which I knew I wanted to include almonds. I've never been very good with rice outside of using a rice cooker, and so I was relying on something else to bring flavour and textural contrast to a component on the plate which I knew would be bland and weak on its own. Referring to the ever-so-trusty Flavor Bible, almonds match quite well with rosemary (which would be going with the chicken) and honey (which would be a key ingredient for dessert). If you couldn't tell from the title of this post, my focus here was to highlight one of my top kitchen must-haves à la what I consider to be the most universal cooking vessel: the large sauté pan. In the sauté pan on medium heat, brown 1 tbsp unsalted butter. Once browned, add to this a small handful of sliced almonds (I imagine pine nuts would be great with this, too) and with a ratio of about 1:3, add your rice. Mix everything together, coating the almonds and rice in the butter. Add to the pan some water (about the same amount in volume as the rice), give everything a stir and cover the pan. Reduce the heat to med-lo and cook the rice.

As the rice is cooking, prepare the "paint" for the chicken. For my one piece of chicken, I smashed a small pinch of dried rosemary (think something similar to using a mortar and pistil) and added to this the zest and juice of half a meyer lemon. I should note that it was at this point when I noticed an issue with my measurements; what I had failed to realise was that Anne's ingredients were to be used with two whole chickens (as opposed to two large pieces of chicken). I also knew I wanted to use at most one meyer lemon, but even at this point, the ratio conversion still seemed too high. I will say I think it still worked with the dish but in the end muted the other flavours (especially the rosemary). Nevertheless, to this I added about 2 tbsp honey dijon mustard (as opposed to regular dijon; it's what I had in my fridge and profile-wise should work with the almonds in the rice), a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, a small pinch of salt and just enough extra virgin olive oil (perhaps a teaspoon or so) to loosen up the mix.

Check on the rice at this point. When it looks like the rice has absorbed quite a bit of the water and couldn't absorb any more, I uncovered the pan and stirred in about a tablespoon or so of white wine. Stirring constantly, I then increased the heat to med-high to cook off the remaining water and wine. When the excess liquid has evaporated, give this a taste (adding salt and/or ground black pepper as needed), and transfer everything to a small bowl to cool. [As I noted above, cooking rice outside of a rice cooker has never been my forte and it seems I overcooked the rice as it was a touch too sticky in the end. The Chardonnay I ended up using was a bit too strong in flavour, overpowering the almonds; next time around, I'll use a touch less and add this earlier to the pan.]

With the rice now finished, your chicken should be done defrosting. [If you're smart and plan ahead, flatten the chicken breast or cut it in half so it cooks more evenly.] Heat the pan you cooked the rice in on medium. Onto the prepped chicken, slather about 2/3 of the meyer lemon mixture onto half of the chicken, reserving the other 1/3 for later in the cooking and presentation process. Do make sure not to double dip your spoon in the sauce, especially after having it come in contact with the raw meat. Your pan now heated, carefully flip the chicken and put it in the pan painted side down. You should hear a wonderful sizzle. Cover the chicken and cook at this heat level for five minutes. It may start to smell like the chicken's burning, but have no fear; you're just searing the exterior; worst thing that could happen is you trim off that part of the chicken. However, do make sure you've got a window open for this part, especially as quite a bit of steam/smoke may quickly fill the room when you remove the lid. [You'll note in Anne's recipe she has us marinading the chicken with this sauce; but since I don't have a grill in my apartment, I saw no issue with altering this part of the recipe either.]

With one side of the chicken now seared (you'll definitely get a better sear if you prep the chicken so it's as flat as possible; of course, do this before you start cooking!), reduce the heat to med-lo. Carefully flip the chicken over to cook the non-seared side. Place next to the chicken the other half of your meyer lemon. Paint on most of the remaining sauce, leaving behind about half a teaspoon. Cover the pan with your lid again. Though the underside will inevitably cook at a faster rate, keeping the lower heat and moisture in mimics the oven roasting process and will more evenly cook the chicken. Trust the process and continue to cook the chicken for about 25 minutes.

After this time has elapsed and the juices from the chicken and lemon get onto your pan, flip the chicken over one more time to cook (uncovered) the side that had first been seared. At any given point, do not worry if any of the sauce ends up sticking to the pan. After a few minutes, check the chicken for doneness (make a small incision in the thickest part of the meat to make sure it's cooked thoroughly), cooking for a few more minutes if need be. Oh yes, and at this point, feel free to close the window. [An aside, with all this heating and cook time, should some very strange alien-like white stuff comes oozing out of the chicken when you cook it, don't fret-- it's the internal fat having separated from the meat during the cooking process.] When the chicken has completely cooked, get it (and the meyer lemon half) onto a clean plate to rest under a piece of alumni foil (to help keep as much of the moisture as possible in tact before slicing). Meanwhile, lightly scrape any large bits off the pan and reintroduce your rice to collect the flavour left behind by the chicken and meyer lemon. (Think of this as making fried rice.) This also helps to dry out the rice and gives you some time to break up any large clumps. Get the rice back into a bowl until you're ready for plating.

Another great benefit for having (slightly) cooked the rice again is that the pan is more or less clean again. This gives you the perfect opportunity to "pan bake" some buttermilk biscuits (and why not? ps/ I did not make these from scratch, though one could-- my homemade donut recipe without the coatings is essentially a buttermilk biscuit recipe). On med-lo heat, cook one of side of the biscuits for a few minutes until golden brown and bubbles (of butter) appear around the circumference of each biscuit. Cover the biscuits during this process to again help trap some of the heat to help cook the rest of the biscuits. When you've got that golden brown thing going on, flip the biscuits and cook covered the other side. At this point, everything but the sides of the biscuits have fully cooked. Flip the biscuits one last time, lower the heat to lo-med and push the biscuits to the sides of your sauté pan. The shape of the pan is a natural spot for the biscuits as it contours to their shape. Any heat on the sides of the pan will help to cook and brown the exterior. Uncovered, cook the biscuits (turning as they brown) until they are fully cooked. Transfer these to a plate or bread basket when they're ready to eat.

Now if you're already thinking about plating and/or nutritional value, you'll note some colour is missing from this plate. But with frozen vegetables on hand (theoretically), this is an easy fix. Actually, take a look at your sauté pan; the buttermilk biscuits have left behind some buttery goodness. Instead of using oil, throw in some of frozen veg and slightly sauté them with the butter.

And with that, it's time to plate! Of course you could go buffet/home-style and pile things on, arranging them as you wish.

But since I had the time, I figure I'd aim for something a bit more composed. Remember that little amount of meyer lemon sauce left behind, add a touch more extra virgin olive oil (or canola oil even, as at that point, the olive oil can overpower the other flavours) to the mix. You want to add just enough so that the oil and sauce can mix together (i.e., emulsify). Add to much, and you're basically just dousing your work in oil. Use this now as a new paint and on your clean palate, paint you design and build from there. One of my favourite kitchen gadgets is my moulding ring, and so I used that for my rice in the center of the plate. Slicing the chicken for presentation, I must admit I was surprised by how moist it was, again especially given the amount of time I had cooked it. And to top everything off with a little more colour, I added some roughly chopped flat leaf parsley. Also on the plate are of course the veg, as well as that meyer lemon that had been essentially fried alongside the chicken. Actually, I'd say it mimics quite well how it would have looked had I actually cooked this all on the grill. There's also quite a bit of juice still left in the meyer lemon half so feel free to squeeze some over the chicken. I should caution you to squeeze ever so slightly as this whole half would theoretically have been enough for half a whole chicken! But if you do like the taste, go for it. It's not sour like a regular lemon, but rather tart and even borderline sweet.

Though I was only cooking for one, I should note the amount of food I prepared was actually good for two equal servings! 

Another set of food gifts I received lately came from Lauren and included honey nut Cheerios, honey, and orange dark chocolate with almond slices, the first two of which I don't eat regularly/often enough. I did know, however, I wanted to use both of these and settled on Cheerio bars. The few recipes out there, including this one, seemed incredibly easy and straightforward; need I remind you at the top of this post I declared this was a rather trial and error kind of night? Now perhaps it was because I didn't have anything measured way in advance and I had already prepared myself for guesstimating, but the result of my first batch ended with this:

Initially planning on making one serving with 3 cups of Cheerios, I had my 9" x 13" baking dish ready to go, with my Cheerios already in the dish. In the (hopefully you guessed it) sauté pan, I brought equal parts honey and sugar to a boil. As they were heating up and melting beautifully, I took another look at the size of the honey container and realised I put in 3/4 c instead of only half a cup. So I make more, no big deal, right? I added 3/4 peanut butter to keep with a consistent ratio and prepped a smaller dish with more Cheerios. The peanut butter mix looked great and everything was good to go. I poured the mix into the respective dishes and was surprised with how quickly the mix started to solidify; the peanut butter of the first dish had started to clump by the time I had finished pouring the peanut butter over the second dish. And once the peanut butter mix started to solidify, it was too tough to try and incorporate any of the drier/non-coated Cheerios. What made matters worse was the fact that a 9" x 13" baking dish is too large to spread the Cheerio mixture into an even layer without any gaping holes. It felt like trying to push firm Jell-O into an even layer when the second dish is twice as large as the first. In an attempt to salvage this, I tried heating up the dish on the stove, hoping the peanut butter mix would relax and re-melt just long enough so I could stir everything together. However, and realising the high sugar content, the mix didn't melt... it burned. Granted the kitchen smelled great for a while, and then I started to get concerned of a potential smoke build-up.

To rectify the situation, I had no choice but to start over (I guess another grocery trip was inevitable). This time, I got my mise en place in check, still working with relative quantities. For this batch, I aimed at a half-batch and prepped my Cheerios (1.5 c) and 1/4 c mini marshmallows (still eyeballing in this process) while I brought 1/4 c each granulated sugar and honey to a boil on medium heat. To the boiling liquid, and with the heat now reduced to lo-med, I added 1/4 peanut butter and stirred this until smooth. Once thoroughly combined, I added directly into the sauté pan the Cheerios. The heat now brought down to low, I made sure to thoroughly combine the Cheerios and peanut butter mix; the low heat will keep the mix smooth enough to accomplish this task. Everything now combined, I quickly transferred this to a small baking dish, flattening and shaping the mix until relatively flat and with no gaping wholes. This time around, I was prepared for the mix to not fill the entirety of my smaller baking dish (don't let the angle fool you; this dish is only half the size of my stove top).

With the Cheerios now shaped and starting to cool, top them with the mini marshmallows, followed by some of the shaved dark chocolate. Here, I used about 15 grams, or 1.5 squares of a 3.5 oz chocolate bar. And with that, there you have it! The Cheerios don't actually need to be baked, but do leave them to cool in the dish before slicing into them (if you can wait that long). As you sit and ponder what the next thing you'd like to make will be, I hope you can walk away from this blog post knowing that having a sauté pan as a bare minimum kitchen item opens up doors to many culinary adventures (and I can already think of at least four... I'll let you figure that one out yourself). Click here for the rest of the photos from tonight's cooking experience.

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