Sunday, January 30, 2011

Black, Black Box: Competition Preparation with Stuffed Chicken Legs

In a flash of overconfidence, mixed in with a little insanity, I have decided to enter a culinary competition. I’ll be entering with one of my classmates from culinary school, but we’ll be competing individually. It’s a black box challenge: we’ll be given a mystery box containing four or five ingredients, probably one or two proteins, one or two vegetables and/or fruits, and a starch. We will have three hours to create a three-course meal, highlighting these ingredients and utilizing others provided in the kitchen. I’ll admit it: I am terrified. My classmate and I have been practicing and trust me, three hours goes by a lot faster than you’d think. To be honest, my goal at the moment is just to finish the competition, never mind coming up with anything I would be proud to present.

All right, so maybe I am selling myself a little short. I know that I can do this, I just need to be mentally prepared. It wouldn’t hurt to have a few tricks up my sleeve either, which is why I have been practicing a number of dishes that I plan to pull out if I am given certain ingredients. One protein that I am likely to get is chicken, mainly because it is cheap, and also because you really need to work with it in order to produce something really tasty. If I do get a chicken, it is likely that I will make Ballotines de Poulet, an impressive little composition consisting of a deboned, stuffed chicken leg, braised in a rich sauce. It’s a very classic, culinary school-type dish that, most importantly, tastes really good.
The stuffing is a combination of sautéed carrot, celery, and shallot, mixed with breadcrumbs and eggs. The legs are then tied up to give you neat, sort of sausage-like, chicken rolls. The rolls are browned in a hot pan, then set aside while you work on the braising sauce.
The sauce is a rich combination of golden mirepoix, wine, brown stock, tomato paste, and thickened with beurre manié, a raw combination of butter and flour. The chicken then gets returned to the pan, and it braises in the oven for half an hour. The braising liquid keeps it moist, tender, and flavorful.
When the chicken is cooked through, it is set aside while the final sauce is prepared. The braising liquid is strained into a clean pan and reduced. Lardons (bacon that has been blanched, then crisped), sautéed pearl onions, and sautéed mushrooms are then added to the sauce, and it is served with the sliced chicken.
As you can see, I also served mine with pan-seared Brussels sprouts this time, but I wouldn’t do that in the competition. In fact, I have since made this dish again in a competition practice, and made some minor adjustments to save time, and refine the dish a little: I didn’t thicken the initial braising liquid with the beurre manié. The final sauce was reduced slightly, seasoned, and then monté au beurre, meaning finished with the addition of raw butter. It made for a wonderful sauce, not heavy at all, but rich and with a deep, savory flavor.

I may not do perfectly on this competition, but at least I’ll be going in there with a few ideas, and a few things I know I can do. No matter what happens, it will be an experience worth living, one I’m sure I won’t regret.

Ballotine de Poulet (Stuffed Boneless Chicken Legs)
Adapted from Professional Cooking, 6th ed., by Wayne Gisslen
Serves 4
4 chicken legs, skin on, thigh and drumstick pieces attached
1 oz. shallot, finely chopped
½ oz. carrot, finely chopped
½ oz. celery, finely chopped
½ oz. butter
2 oz. fresh white bread crumbs
1 egg, beaten
Salt and pepper

1 fl. oz. vegetable oil
2 oz. onion, small dice
1 oz. carrot, small dice
1 oz celery, small dice
5 fl. oz. white wine
1 oz. tomato paste
2 cups brown stock (dark chicken stock or beef stock)
1 oz. beurre manié* (optional—use if you prefer a thicker sauce, rather than a thinner reduction)
Salt and pepper

(If making it Grandmère-style)
3 oz slab bacon
2 oz pearl onions
4 oz. button mushrooms
2 oz. butter (if not using the beurre manié)

Debone the chicken leg by slicing carefully along the thigh and drumstick bones. Gently scrape the meat off the bones, trying to keep the meat as much in one piece as possible. When possible, remove the bone completely from the meat. This video gives a decent demo.

Sweat the shallot, carrot, and celery in the butter until softened. Cool. Combine with the breadcrumbs, and add just enough egg to make a soft, but not to wet consistency. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon the bone cavity of the chicken legs with the stuffing, then roll up the legs to enclose the filling. Use butcher’s twine to tie the rolls securely.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Heat the oil in a large, shallow pan. Brown the legs on all sides, then put aside. Add the onion, carrot, and celery to the pan and cook until golden. Deglaze with the wine, and reduce until it is almost all evaporated. Stir in the tomato paste and stock, and bring to a boil. If using, drop in the beurre manié in small pieces.

Return the chicken legs to the pan; the liquid should come no more than halfway up the sides of the chicken. Bring it to a boil, then place, uncovered, in the oven for about 30 minutes, until cooked through. Baste the legs occasionally with the braising liquid. Remove the legs from the liquid and tent with foil. Strain the braising liquid into a clean pan, and reduce to desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper. At the last minute, swirl in the butter, if using.

If doing the Grandmére garnish, cut the bacon into batonnets, about ¼” wide, and 1 ½” long. Place them in cold water and bring to a boil, then drain. Fry them until golden brown, then saute the onions and mushrooms in the bacon fat until golden.

Remove the string from the chicken and slice neatly, pouring the sauce around it. If using, garnish with the bacon, onions, and mushrooms.

*equal parts butter and flour

Thursday, January 20, 2011

In Defense of Legumes: White Bean Stew

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I like cooking with legumes. They can be the basis for some excellent dishes like this one and this one; they pair beautifully with curry, and they can be turned into some delicious dips. The truth is, though, if you took my favorite legume-based dish and matched it up with my favorite meat-based dish and asked me which one I liked more, meat would win, hands down. Meat adds fat, flavor complexity, and texture to a dish. It should be eaten sparingly, but also, with great enjoyment. So, when I decided to make white beans stewed in tomato sauce for dinner a few nights ago, I hoped it would be good, but I expected that it would not have the same depth and richness that a meat-based stew would have.

Before moving on, let me qualify this belief: first of all, if what I really crave is the multi-layered pleasure of eating meat, is it really true that I enjoy legumes, that they are, in fact, one of my favorite types of ingredients to work with? I’ll answer by explaining that the reasons why I enjoy cooking with and eating legumes are very different from the reasons why I enjoy cooking with and eating meat. While meat adds fat, flavor complexity, and texture to a dish, legumes tend to compliment other delicious flavors, rather than add their own. They don’t have all that much flavor by themselves, but they work as an excellent canvas for other ingredients and distinctive aromatics.
Now, getting back to my white bean stew: I had seen recipes for white beans cooked in tomato sauce a number of times before, so I decided to make my own version. I figured if I made a good tomato sauce and cooked the beans in it, I would have myself a decent meal. Maybe not as exciting as something like the Ragu Bolognese I made recently, but good enough for a healthy, simple (in flavor, not so much in preparation) Thursday night dinner.

Well, let’s just say that I vastly underestimated the potential for flavor development without any animal protein. The basis for my stew was pretty simple: sweat mirepoix, stir in some garlic, red pepper flakes, and dried herbs.
I stirred in some tomato paste and let that cook a little, then I deglazed with white wine. I stirred in a can of tomatoes, some water, and my soaked white beans. Once that got simmering, I added some sugar, salt, and pepper. I also added a few ingredients that I think helped developed a more intriguing flavor profile than a basic, meatless tomato sauce: some smoked paprika, a few drops of Worcestershire sauce, and a glug of balsamic vinegar.
The paprika adds a bit of spice, and a whisper of smokiness; the Worcestershire adds seasoning, and a hint of something dark, almost meaty, and the balsamic adds a little acid, a little sweetness, and that deep, caramel taste this vinegar embodies.

I stewed it for about an hour and a half in my enameled cast-iron pot, lid on until the final twenty minutes. In that last bit of cooking time, I tasted and seasoned a lot, working toward the rich, satisfying stew I wanted.

I threw in some chopped fresh basil at the last moment, and served it with faro. I think the stew would work well with any grain, preferably a whole grain, because I think that not only does the stew stand up well to the heartiness of whole grains, but even needs that backbone of something stronger than white rice or white pasta.
The dish was a total success—I was really pleased with the results. Meat may impart flavor and richness that all-vegetable protein can’t match, but legumes encompass a whole different eating experience, one that shouldn’t be brushed aside.

White Beans Stewed in Tomato Sauce
Serves 4
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 carrot, ¼” dice
1 celery stalk, ¼” dice
1 medium onion, ¼” dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. each dried basil, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, and oregano
2 tbsp. tomato paste
½ cup dry white wine
1 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
1 ½ cups water (or, fill the tomato can halfway with water to get any remnants of tomato on the sides of the can)
1 cup dry white beans (white kidney beans, cannellini beans, or great northern beans), soaked 8-24 hours
½ tsp. smoked paprika
½-1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1-2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsp. chopped fresh basil

In a large, enameled cast-iron pot (or any heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid), heat the oil over moderate heat. Add the carrot, celery, and onion and sweat for about eight minutes, stirring often, and being careful not to brown the vegetables. Stir in the garlic and crushed red pepper and cook a minute longer. Stir in the herbs and tomato paste, and cook a few minutes more, until the tomato paste begins to take on a rusty color and sticks to the bottom of the pot. Increase the heat to medium-high, and add the wine. Let that cook down almost until it is gone, scraping the bottom of the pot as it reduces.

Stir in the tomatoes, water, beans, paprika, Worcestershire, balsamic, sugar, and a little salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, then cover and let it cook for an hour or a little more, stirring and tasting occasionally. When you stir, break the tomatoes up with your spoon. Season with salt and pepper as you go. In the final twenty minutes of cooking, let the stew simmer uncovered. Taste frequently, adjusting with salt, pepper, sugar, Worcestershire, and balsamic to suit your tastes. Try a bean; make sure it has softened enough. If not, keep cooking until the beans have reached the desired consistency (put the cover back on if this is taking a long time—you don’t want the stew to reduce too much).

Stir in the basil, and remove from heat. Serve hot with faro, wheat berries, barley, brown rice, or whole wheat pasta.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Cleansing Relief

It’s pretty much a cliché by now: January arrives, and after a week or two of celebrating, heavy eating, and drinking more than usual, many make resolutions to exercise more, eat healthier, lose five pounds, etc. I don’t want to bore you with another tale of holiday over-indulgence leading to some half-hearted promise to become a healthier me. While I certainly did eat more and exercise less during the last half of December, I think that in general, I have a pretty healthy lifestyle, and I don’t see any reason to change much: I try to eat smartly, exercise regularly, and drink moderately, while still enjoying the pleasures of food and drink as much as I can. So, when January rolled around, it would seem logical that I would simply return to my regular, health-conscious habits, right?

This year, that didn’t quite feel like enough. I wanted something a little more, something to kick-start me back into those regular habits again. At Christmas, my aunt told me about what she does a few times a year when she wants to rid her body of the toxins of over-indulgence, or even of everyday life: she does a cleanse. For about a week, she told me, she cuts everything out of her diet that she believes might be possible irritants to her system: processed foods, gluten, refined sugar, fruit, caffeine, and alcohol. She eats a lot of vegetables, legumes, some lean meats, and drinks plenty of water.

I’ll admit, I was skeptical: it sounded a lot like a diet (as in, a strict dietary regimen that one follows temporarily in order to lose weight, or otherwise improve one’s health), and I am not a fan of diets. I am a firm believer that the key to physical health is to make lifestyle changes, not to temporarily follow an unrealistic diet that will only prompt over-eating once the diet is finished. But my aunt’s cleanse is not really like this. The point of the cleanse is not specifically to lose weight, it is to give your body a chance to rid itself of toxins and irritants. It gives internal organs like your liver and kidneys, which normally have to work hard to filter out anything potentially harmful to your body that you ingest, a break and a chance to clear out and clean up. This part of the concept made a lot of sense to me: a brief period with as few irritants and toxins as possible, then back to my regular, realistic, but still healthful eating habits. So, I decided to give it a shot.

I started last Tuesday, the morning after Andrew and I got back to Seattle from Montreal. (We arrived late Monday night, exhausted and famished, so we ordered pepperoni pizza and garlic bread sticks—talk about the exact opposite of what I planned on eating for the next week!) My own cleanse was a little different from my aunt’s, based on my own body. I cut out as much processed food as possible, refined sugar, gluten, white rice, dairy, meat (except for a little fish), anything fried, caffeine, and alcohol. I have been eating lots of vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, and drinking lots of water. After dinner each night, I take a milk thistle supplement, an herb known for its beneficial properties to the liver, and which is often taken in conjunction with a cleanse. A few explanations:

-I saw no reason to cut out fruit: fruit is so full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, it almost seemed harmful to eliminate it. I didn’t gorge myself on fruit, either, though—it is high in sugar.

-I decided to eat pretty much vegan (cutting out meat and dairy), not because I believe animal products (in moderation) are unhealthy, but because I think that my body could benefit from a break from them. I did have a small amount of fish, though.

-Gluten: I wasn’t sure about this one. While to most people, there is nothing unhealthy about gluten—in fact, products made from whole wheat flour are high in fiber and very good for you—your body does have to work a little harder in order to digest and process that gluten. So, again, I decided my body could benefit from a period without.

A few things I have been eating so far:

-Roasted beats drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with a little sea salt
-Brown rice pilaf with Edamame beans and flax seeds
-Vegetables dipped in homemade hummus
-Roasted nori, sprinkled with sea salt
-Oatmeal drizzled with maple syrup
-Trader Joe’s Organic Whole Grain Drink (a really delicious creamy, milk-like beverage)
-Soup of mixed beans, barley, kale, and cabbage
-Quinoa pasta with mixed vegetables and tuna
-Quinoa pasta with sage and roasted butternut squash
-Yogi Detox tea
-Lots and lots of water: plain water, and water with lemon
-Diced avocado tossed lightly with sesame oil, sesame seeds, and sea salt
-Detox shake of spinach, apple, banana, garlic, cayenne, lemon juice, and water (surprisingly delicious and satisfying!)
-Shake of whole grain drink, banana, and ground flax seeds

Everything I have listed above truly is tasty and satisfying. Could I eat this way for the rest of my life? No way. I don’t even know if I could handle a month of it: there are too many things I would miss too much. In fact, this diet is probably lacking in some of the essential nutrients that keep me healthy, so while this diet is beneficial, and even enjoyable, for the very short-term, I don’t think it would work for the long-term. Not for me, anyways.

Maybe I’m being hypocritical by saying that I’m not for weight-loss diets, but I am willing to do, and believe in, a cleanse diet. They aren’t quite the same thing, but some of the concepts are similar: they are both temporary food regimens in order to improve one’s health in some way. Hopefully, mine will have the desired effect of cleansing my body, and I will be able to adjust right back into my usual, health-conscious, but still deliciousness-conscious diet easily. Or, maybe I’m just kidding myself.

Some websites of interest:
I’m not the only one with the idea to cleanse in January: Bon Appétit has a Food-Lover’s Cleanse outlined for readers. It’s more lenient than mine, but lasts longer.

I got a lot of ideas from a website called Just Cleansing. It offers a good overview of why and how to cleanse.