Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Chicken with Calvados and Cream

Cream. Butter. Bacon. Apples. Apple cider. Calvados (sort of). What more could you ask from dinner? This dish, Poulet Vallee D'Auge, orginates in Normandy, the land of dairy products and apple brandy. It's basically a stew--I suppose the French might call it a friccasse(?)--but it tastes fancier. I couldn't get Calvados on short notice, which was a shame, but Apple Jack did the trick. This isn't something to put into your once-a-week rotation. But it would be nice for a special occasion with some crusty bread and a vinegary green salad, or just an evening when you're feeling enterprising.

Poulet Vallee D'Auge
aka Chicken with Calvados and Cream
(adapted from Classic Dishes of the World, 1977)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

In a large, wide-bottomed casserole, melt:
4 Tablespoons butter

Add, and brown well on all sides:
1 whole chicken, cut up
(Historically, I haven't really believed in browning meat before braising. My browning was lackadasical at best. But that's because I was doing it wrong. Browning chicken in a non-non-stick casserole in butter was a revelation. I'll never go back.)

In a small saucepan, warm:
1/3 cup Calvados (Apple Jack or other apple-flavored liquor works, too)

Remove the chicken from the heat and turn out most of the lights in your kitchen. Light the Calvados on fire and pour it over the chicken. When the flames die down, turn on the lights, remove the chicken from the pan and add to the drippings:
3 shallots, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
3 ounces fatty bacon (about 4 thick-cut strips), chopped
3/4 teaspoon dried sage
Salt and pepper

Fry until soft. Return chicken to pan and add:
1 1/2 to 2 cups hard apple cider or apple juice

Bring to a boil, then cover and transfer the casserole to the oven to cook for 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until chicken is very tender. Remove chicken from pan and place on a serving dish. Return the pan to the burner. Boil until reduced by one-third, then remove from heat. (The cookbook says to strain the sauce, but I decided I was going fot rustic charm and mine was fine without straining.)

Beat together:
1/4 cup cream
2 egg yolks

Add cream and egg mixture to the sauce, pouring slowly but stirring rapidly. Return the pan to the heat and bring to a bare simmer. Do not boil. Serve the sauce poured over the chicken, or in a gravy boat on the side.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Boozin' in Bozeman

My summer travels have taken me to Bozeman, Montana this week. I suppose I expected a dusty road and a general store. I couldn't have been more wrong. Tonight I dined at a chi-chi little wine bar called Plonk in "the heart of Historic Downtown Bozeman."

I'm not much of a wine connoisseur, so I ordered for novelty. A champagne-sour glass of Vixen sparkling Shiraz started the meal. I'd never encountered a fizzy red wine before, and never thought to ask why--this glass was quite good. For "dinner," I ate the anti-Human Vacuum meal: a cheese plate. The Human Vacuum thinks it's a crime to order cheese in a restaurant. And from a fiscal point of view, I suppose he's right. But sometime a girl just wants milkfat for dinner. The star of the three cheese plate was the Belgian Capra with Honey. The cheese was just a little crumbly, but rich and milky with a great honey aftertaste and a slight, rich sweetness very noticeable in the first few bites. The Whiskey Blue, from Wisconsin, was also very excellent. A boring Spanish Manchego rounded out the trio. For dessert, I had a Piedmontese Muscato with a Keffir Lime Banana Tart. Both were nice, the wine very sweet and the tart--well, it was very tart.

The scene at Plonk is absurdly trendy. There's low lighting, tattooed waitresses with chic haircuts (who provided excellent, friendly American service), and pretentious food involving beets and endives and fancy vinegar. But this was the first wine-focused restaurant where I wasn't intimidated by the list or the waitstaff. As a result I enjoyed a couple of glasses of delicious wine with a fashionable yet personalized meal that was just what I was looking for. Who knew I'd have to go all the way to Montana to find a good wine bar.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Pork Soup Dumplings

I'm still in New York, where I never miss a chance to eat pork soup dumplings at the Human Vacuum's neighborhood Chinese restaurant (at the corner of 24th St. and 9th Ave). These dumplings (officially called xiao long bao) come in an oversize bamboo steamer and are served with chopsticks and a soup spoon.

There are several tricks to eating these babies:
1) Patience: If you eat them right when they emerge from the kitchen, you'll burn your face off.
2) Technique: You can eat each dumpling in a single juicy, magical bite, or you can perfect the more subtle consumption system of holding the dumpling in a soup spoon, and using your chopsticks to hold the dumpling while biting a small hole in the side to suck out some soup. Repeat twice, then eat the remaining pork filling and dumpling skin from the spoon.
3) A Black Shirt: No matter what you do, you're going to get pork broth all over yourself. Just accept it.

Like many, I believed for years that the soup was piped into the finished dumplings through the opening at the top of the swirl of dumpling skin. In fact, each dumpling is filled in advance with a small amount of ground pork and cube of fatty pork broth that's been chilled into a kind of aspic. When the dumplings are steamed, the block melts and become a fabulous, rich broth.

Apparently these little guys were ultra-trendy in the 90s. But I wasn't. So I missed them the first time around. Thank god they live on in Chelsea, at least.

For those who would like to learn more about the proud history of the dumpling, go here for various dumpling flow charts, like this one depicting Modern Unified Dumpling Theory:

Friday, June 09, 2006

Road Food

So, ToastMom and I are cruising up the dismal New Jersey Turnpike ("The Longest F***ing Road on the Planet") when a miraculous sight appeared before us: An eighteen-wheeler emblazoned with the Doritos logo. All that nacho cheesy goodness, just truckin' along right next to the car.

Actually, it was the second Doritos truck of the drive--we passed another one 'round about Baltimore. If that's not a good omen, I don't know what is.

ToastMom Says: "I don’t want to die because I'm driving like a maniac so that you can take pictures of a damn Dorito truck."

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Moroccan Chicken with Lemon-Stuffed Olives and Dates

Ah, green olives and ginger snaps--together at last.

There had been much upheaval Chez ToastPoint lately. We're moving, so pots and pans and spices and utensils have been inaccessible and meals have been hurried. But everything has settled down for the moment (We're crashing with ToastMom between summer travels), and the result was this fairly kick-ass Moroccan improvisation.

Two strokes of genius: 1) Crumbled ginger snaps make a delicious, intruiging topping for tagine-style stew, and 2) Instead of locating (or making) preserved lemons, I cracked open a can of lemon-stuffed green olives for the same effect.

Moroccan Chicken with Lemon-Stuffed Olives and Dates

In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, or dutch oven, or even a tagine if you're really hardcore, heat:
2 Tablespoons olive oil

Add and brown (about 5 minutes):
1 1/2 pounds chicken thighs

1 teaspoon ground ginger (don't use fresh)
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon chile powder

Fry spices until fragrant, then reduce heat and add:
2 onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced

Reduce heat, cover, and cook for 15 minutes.

Then add:
3/4 cup lemon-stuffed green olives (or plain green olives and preserved lemon)
4 large dates, chopped
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup water

Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to low and cover. Cook for 30 minutes, until chicken is falling apart tender.

Serve over rice with:
Toasted slivered almonds
Crumbled ginger snaps
And introducing a new feature in which ToastMom comments on each meal prepared in her kitchen:
"ToastMom Says": "Mmmm... The house smells like dinner--cooked by someone else."