Quick Chick & Shrimp

Several days ago, as I was driving home after an arduous, long day of work, I wondered what I should do for dinner.  It was just going to be my wife and I for dinner.   I started to think about fish.  And then, I thought about shrimp, and then I realized that what I was wanting was something akin to the classic British, “fish and chips”.  Then I thought about mac and cheese, and how that mac and cheese goes so well with fried shrimp, or fried fish.  And then, I realized I didn’t have any fish.  Chicken.  Yes, chicken, instead of fish.  The synapses in my brain jump around in quirky ways like that most of the time.  I really enjoy my drives home, except when I find myself driving next to people texting on their cell phones!

I allowed myself an hour to prepare the meal.  Time at home is precious for me during this busy part of the year.  I typically have about 4 to 5 hours after I get home to prepare a meal, eat it and digest it before I trot off to bed.   

Mac and cheese…check.  Chicken and shrimp…a quick prep and fry…check.  Steamed broccoli…a few minutes in the microwave…check.

The most time consuming part of the meal was the mac and cheese.  The rest was a flurry of flour and cornmeal and chopping a few things.  Easy.

I made enough mac and cheese for six people and I made enough chicken and shrimp for two or three.

My son and his girlfriend joined us, just as we were cleaning up after dinner.  We had enough chicken and shrimp left to share and plenty of mac and cheese.  It was all gone in a matter of a few minutes.  Mac and cheese saved the day…Perfect!

Ingredients:

1 ½ cup fresh broccoli

½ cup cooking oil

2 medium sized chicken breasts, thinly sliced

10 raw jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 1/2 cup flour

1/3 cup cornmeal

2 eggs

1 tsp garlic powder

½ tsp cayenne pepper

Directions:

Cut the broccoli into large, bite-sized pieces.  Place in a microwave safe bowl.  Seal with plastic wrap and set aside.

Cut chicken into 3” to 4” pieces. 

Butterfly cut the shrimp.  I do a back butterfly, cutting into the backside, instead of the underside.  Set aside.

Heat the oil in a skillet at medium/high heat.

Pour the flour onto a plate.  Dredge the chicken in flour, egg and then flour again.  Drop chicken in pan and pan fry to golden brown, remove to a paper towel lined plate.  Keep warm.

Add the cornmeal to the remaining flour and mix with a fork.

Dredge the shrimp in flour and cornmeal mixture, egg and then flour and cornmeal mixture again.  Drop the shrimp into the hot oil and cook for about 1 minute, or until the shrimp begins to brown and feels firm to the touch.

Lay the shrimp on the paper towel lined plate, along with the chicken, and keep warm.

Put the covered broccoli in the microwave and cook for about 2 minutes, or until the broccoli has softened. Serve with mac and cheese and ketchup or spicy ketchup. 

Chicken on a Stick

I usually don’t start thinking about what to make for dinner until I’m in the car, on my way home.  On a good day, it’s a 20 minute trip.  When there’s heavy traffic it can take 40 minutes.  The good thing about the drive home is that I pass my favorite grocery store ALDI.  I will sometimes pop in to buy just a few items and then head on to the house. 

On this particular day, I didn’t want to make any stops.  I just wanted to get home.  I wasn’t coming up with any ideas for dinner and my mind started to wander.  By the time I pulled into the driveway, I knew what I was going to do. 

I wouldn’t call this a meal, because it’s just chicken on a stick but, it was something that I wanted to try and I knew that it wouldn’t take too long to make.

I decided on making this two different ways.  I wanted to see if I preferred the marinated version or the version that uses a dry rub for the chicken.  As it turns out, I liked both. 

Ingredients (for both versions):

1 lb. chicken breast meat, sliced in 1” long strips

1 lb bacon

3 Tbs brown sugar

1 Tbs chili powder

1 Tbs cayenne powder

12 wooden skewers

Version 1:

Ingredients for the marinade:

3 Tbs soy and 2 Tbs hot sauce

Version 2:

Ingredients for the dry rub:

2 Tbs chili powder, 1 Tbs garlic powder, 1 tsp cumin, ½ tsp paprika

Note: after tasting this, I will use ½ tsp cumin next time.  I like cumin but it overpowered the other flavors.

Directions:

Soak the wooden skewers in water for at least 15 minutes.

Cut the chicken in 1” thick strips.  Divide equally.

Mix the marinade ingredients and pour over one half of the chicken.  Marinate for 30 minutes.

Mix the ingredients for the rub.  Cover the other half of the chicken with the rub.  Set aside.

Mix the brown sugar, chili powder and cayenne powder together.  Lay the bacon on a clean surface.   Sprinkle both sides of the bacon with the sugar and chill powder mixture.

Set the oven to 350°.  Lay a metal rack on a backing sheet. 

Wrap a slice of bacon around a piece of chicken and run a skewer through one end of the chicken and then pierce the other end.  Lay the skewered chicken on the rack.  Continue wrapping and skewering the chicken.  Once the rack is full, put it in the oven.

Bake for to 20 to 25 minutes, or until the bacon begins to crisp and the chicken feels firm. 

Remove the chicken to a serving platter.  Serve with a dip of your choice.

Stuffed Chicken Breasts

The biggest challenge here is making the chicken breast thin enough to roll.  It needs to be thin in order to cook evenly and it needs to be thin enough to roll up like a burrito. 

You could flatten the chicken breasts by pounding them down with a mallet but I prefer to slice the breasts horizontally, nearly all of the way, and then I lay the chicken breast open.  If the chicken breast is really thick you can slice it from the top side and then slice it again, in the opposite direction from the bottom side, to make a tri-fold.

Before we get going…

A caution about using toothpicks to secure food.  I use the same number of toothpicks on each item that I secure.  If I need two picks on one chicken breast, I use two on all of the other breasts, even if I might only need one toothpick for some.  That way, when serving time arrives, I know that I must remove two toothpicks from each breast.  It eliminates the guessing game that comes when I think, “did I use one or two toothpicks on this one?”  Make sure to remove toothpicks before serving! 

As with many recipes, you can stuff the chicken with anything you like.  This time around, I had some ricotta cheese that needed to be used and some prosciutto that was just itching to be used for something.  This recipe serves three people.

Ingredients:

3 chicken breasts

4 oz prosciutto

1/3 cup parmesan cheese

7 oz ricotta cheese (about half of a 15 oz container)

1 ½ cups Panko bread crumbs

½ cup cooking oil

For the sauce:

1 Tbs butter

1 Tbs flour

½ onion

¼ cup chicken stock

24 oz tomato sauce (I used an 8 oz can and 16 oz tomato sauce)

¼ cup half-and-half

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

4 oz spinach

Directions:

On a clean cutting board, flatten the chicken breasts to ¼” thick, or carefully slice them.

Layer the chicken breasts with several slices of prosciutto ham. 

Scatter grated parmesan cheese over the chicken breasts.

Apply a schmear of ricotta cheese to the chicken.

Spread some panko bread crumbs onto a large platter.  Lay a chicken breast onto the bread crumbs and press down lightly. 

Roll the chicken breast and secure with toothpicks. 

Heat a large skillet to medium heat and add ½ cup cooking oil. When the oil is hot, gently lay the chicken breasts into the pan, being careful to not crowd the pan.

When the bottom side browns, turn it over and cook the other side.  When both sides are golden brown, remove to a clean plate, lined with a paper towel.

Discard the oil from the pan.  I like to reuse oil so I usually dump the oil in a stainless steel bowl and filter it later and store it in a can.

Wipe remaining oil from pan but leave a slight, residual film of oil.  Turn heat to medium high and add onions.  Sautee for a minute until onions soften.  Remove onions and set aside.

Deglaze the skillet with chicken stock.

Butter and Flour, Tomato Sauce, Half and Half and Chicken Stock

Add butter and flour and whisk to make a roux. 

Add cream and tomato sauce.  Whisk and sauté until the sauce thickens.  Return the onions to the skillet.  Lower the heat.

Add mozzarella.

Add fresh spinach and sauté for another minute, or so, until the spinach wilts.

Pour the sauce onto an oven proof serving platter.  Arrange the chicken on top of the sauce and add a few slices of mozzarella. Bake in the oven for a few minutes to melt the cheese.

Garnish with fresh spinach and serve.

Masala – Marsala

This week’s confession is truly astounding, even for someone like me, who has committed so many kitchen atrocities over time that I am sure I will end up in Kitchen Hell, when it’s all said and done.

All kidding aside, this was truly a remarkable faux pas.  I’m the sort of person that likes to be the smartest kid in the class and, if it’s obvious that I am not the smartest, I like to the one that says the most clever things.  Earlier this week I confused Masala with Marsala. 

For those of you who might be scratching your heads, wondering what the difference is between the two, I’ll tell you.  The difference is “R”.  (See what I mean about trying to make up for a lack of intellect by attempting to be clever?)

Masala is a mixture of many spices.  It’s a term used by people from India and Pakistan, among other places.  It is not just one particular spice mix.  The mix can contain any number of spices.  Masala is the flavor foundation for many dishes.

Marsala is a sweet, fortified Italian dessert wine, often used for cooking. 

An innocent mistake, for sure.  And, if that was where my story ended, I could have laughed it off and gone on with my life with nobody being the wiser. 

Several months ago, while visiting my favorite Indian spice market, I struck up a conversation with the proprietor, as I usually do.  He is always willing to stop and talk with me and he has been a tremendous guide, while I attempt to unravel Indian cuisine.  On this occasion, I told him that I was considering making a masala pizza, at least that is what he probably heard.  I actually said Marsala, because I was thinking about making a chicken Marsala pizza.  That was the moment I ran off the rails. 

You see, I have made chicken Marsala before and I have made many dishes with masala, although I’ve never really thought about calling the spice mixture, masala.  I must have had a bizarre synaptic short-circuit which caused me to switch masala with Marsala.  The proprietor, being the gentleman that he is, just stared at me when I suggested the masala pizza.  He gave me a sort of quizzical, pitiful look.

Well, months later, here I am ready to make the pizza.  I wanted to try a test run with the chicken Marsala, before moving on to the pizza.  I went back to the Indian market to pick up some items for other dishes and when I saw the proprietor, I told him that I was really going to make the masala pizza, but I what I actually said was, “Marsala”.  I told him that I was deliberating on how to approach the pizza.  I didn’t want to use traditional Italian marinara and mozzarella because I didn’t think they would pair well with the Marsala sauce.  I asked him if he had a suggestion for a creamy sauce that I could make, instead of using Mozzarella.  After a moment, he suggested coconut milk and followed that with suggesting tapioca starch to thicken the coconut milk.

Coconut milk?  I’ve taken some interesting turns while creating new food but coconut milk didn’t seem like a very good idea for pizza but, I told him that I would give it a try.

As I left the store and headed to the wine store, to pick up some Marsala wine, it suddenly dawned on me that I had been utterly confused.  You see, the proprietor of the spice market speaks perfectly.  Despite the tell-tale Indian accent, his diction and vocabulary is precise and clear.  He speaks better English than most people I encounter, on any given day. 

“Masala”, was what he was saying, and he made sure to say masala each time after I said “Marsala” to him.  The nerve cells in my brain finally made the jump.  I had been enlightened!  I also suffered from incredible embarrassment. 

As I drove to the wine store I convinced myself that the only way to redeem myself was to perform an act of penance.  I would make two pizzas.  One would be inspired by masala and the other would be inspired by Marsala

One final interesting event rounded out the day and convinced me that fate is a very real thing.  I was checking out some other blogs and I came across this blog,  https://ishitasood.com/ .  It’s tagline reads, “The Biggest and Only Indian Blog on Italy”.  Ishita is the author and she has produced some very interesting posts.  One post in particular struck a chord with me… https://ishitasood.com/confessions-of-a-passionate-blogger/

In the blog she offers some words of encouragement, including the following: “It is okay to be vulnerable.”

And that was exactly what I needed to hear.  It is what I needed to remember.  I am an imperfect human and so is everybody else.

I will work on these recipes with an open heart and an open mind.

Cashew Chicken

Making a stir-fry doesn’t need to be a complicated process.  Decide what you want in the stir-fry and prepare those items by cutting them into bite sized pieces.  Determine the type of sauce you would like and have it ready.  You can use a bottled sauce from the store or a homemade sauce or you can say the heck with it and skip the sauce all together.  Choose appropriately sized serving platters or bowls and keep them close at hand. 

Most of my stir-fry dishes are accompanied by steamed rice.  The method I use for making steamed rice takes about an hour, which may seem strange for “20 minute rice” but it has two advantages.  First, and most importantly, the rice comes out nice and fluffy every time.  And second, an hour gives me plenty of time to prepare the vegetables and meat and enough time to finish the stir-fry. 

For the rice:

Add 1 cup of white rice to a strainer or colander.  Rinse the rice under cold water from the kitchen faucet and swish the rice around by hand for several seconds.  This removes some of the starch from the rice.  Add the rice to a 4 quart pot and cover the rice with water.  2 cups of water should do the trick.  Cover the pot and let it sit for 15 minutes, without heat.  Turn the heat on and bring the water to a boil.  Remove the lid and stir the rice with a fork and cover the pot again.  Turn the heat down to the lowest possible setting.  Let the rice simmer at low heat for about 10 minutes.  Turn off the heat.  Don’t open the lid until you are ready to eat.  Allow the rice to steam for at least 30 minutes.  I like to let it steam for 40 minutes.  When you are ready to serve, remove the lid and fluff the rice with a fork.  Turn it out to a serving bowl.

Cashew Chicken Ingredients:

2 Tbs cooking oil

2 chicken breasts (cut into bite sized pieces)

½ onion (diced)

2 bell peppers (diced)

3 Tbs thinly sliced ginger

1 cup cashew nuts

2 green onions (diced)

Marinade:

2 Tbs baking soda

2 Tbs corn starch

1 tsp rice wine vinegar

Sauce:

1 Tbs oyster sauce

1 ½ tsp soy sauce

1/3 cup water

¼ tsp white ground pepper

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp rice wine vinegar

½ tsp sesame oil

Sauce Thickener:

1 Tbs cornstarch

1 Tbs water

A splash of soy sauce

Directions:

Marinate the chicken in the baking soda for about 15 minutes.  Rinse the chicken to remove the baking soda and pat the chicken dry with paper towels.  Marinate the chicken with the cornstarch and vinegar for 15 minutes.  This two-step marinade will allow the sauce to adhere to the chicken.

Prepare the sauce and the sauce thickener and set aside.

Once all of the items for the stir-fry have been prepped, heat the wok and add a tablespoon of cooking oil.

Add the chicken.  Stir-fry until the chicken is solid white and firm.  Remove the chicken to a bowl. 

Add the onions, bell pepper and ginger.  Stir-fry briefly.  Do not overcook the vegetables. 

Dump the chicken back into the wok and mix with the vegetables.  Continue to stir until the chicken is fully cooked.  Add the sauce and continue stirring. 

Move some of the vegetables and chicken away from the center of the wok and take a look at the sauce.  If it looks thin, you might want to add the sauce thickener.  I almost always add a thickener.  You can shove everything away from the center and add the thickener to the sauce and whisk until the sauce thickens but I find that it is easier, in the long run, to remove everything from the wok except the sauce and then add the thickener and whisk.  Then, return everything to the wok and add the cashews.  Stir again and turn everything out onto a serving platter or serving bowl.

Serve with steamed rice and stir-fried broccoli.

Mexican Flag Chimichangas

Chimichangas have been a staple of Tex-Mex cuisine for longer than I can remember.  They’re really just glorified, fried burritos, but ‘chimichanga’ sounds mysterious and exotic!

For me, chimichangas are a kitschy comfort food and they can be made with all sorts of fillings and toppings.  This recipe showcases the colors of the Mexican flag, red, green and white and it will make 6 large chicken chimichangas.

Ingredients for braising the chicken:

4 large chicken breasts

2 cups chicken stock

2 garlic cloves, smashed

1 bay leaf

1 Tbs butter

1 tsp oregano

1 tsp cumin

½ tsp paprika

½ tsp salt

½ tsp black pepper

Ingredients for chimichangas:

6 large burrito sized tortillas

Shredded chicken

About 2 cups of cooking oil

1 cup green sauce: (see the recipe here…)

1 cup red sauce: see the recipe here… (see the recipe here…)

1 ½ cup white cheese sauce (see the recipe below)

The 4 chicken breasts that I used were enormous.  I’ve seen turkey breasts that were smaller than these monsters!  I forgot to check the weight on the package but I am sure that it was at least 5 lbs.  I sliced them down the middle, separating the tenderloin from the breast.

Directions for preparing the chicken:

Add all ingredients, except the chicken to a 4 quart pot.  Cook at medium heat and stir to combine.  Add the chicken and braise for 5 minutes, turning chicken over occasionally.  Reduce heat to low, cover the pot with a lid and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes.  Remove the chicken and allow it to cool.  Strain the stock from the pot and reserve for later.  The stock is perfect for making Mexican rice, or anything else that calls for chicken stock.

After the chicken has cooled a little, shred with forks and seal in a plastic bag until needed.

Fill a skillet (I used cast iron) with about 2 inches of cooking oil and set the heat to medium. 

Lay a large tortilla on a clean work surface.  Put about 1 cup of the shredded chicken on the bottom third of the tortilla.  Fold the sides over and roll the tortilla from the bottom to the top.  Secure with a toothpick.  – Yes, my stalwart kitchen friend, the toothpick.

Once the oil is hot, carefully lay a chimichanga in the pan.  After about a minute, turn the chimichanga over with tongs.  Keep turning the chimichanga until it is golden brown.  Remove chimichangas to a warm area while the other ones cook.  You should be able to cook two chimichangas at a time without crowding in the skillet.

Remove toothpicks from the chimichanga.  Please don’t forget this VERY important step.  Your guests will thank you.  Actually, they may never know you used a toothpick but they will surely know you used one when they swallow it!

And now…the white cheese sauce, or as I like to call it, my weekly confession

I was a fool to think that I could whip up a white cheese sauce without a roux.  What was I thinking?!  Well, I’ll tell you what I was thinking.  The meal was nearly ready to eat and all that remained was a simple cheese sauce.  I didn’t want to make a big production out of it and I knew that I could just heat some milk and slowly introduce cubes of white cheddar and stir until everything became creamy.  But, I over heated the milk and once that happened, there was no going back.  The sauce separated.  In an act of desperation, I continued stirring the sauce.  The result was a big wad of string cheese sitting in milky water.

I pulled the pan off the stove and stared at the disaster.  Starting over was out of the question.  I didn’t have more cheese and I would have rather admitted defeat than go back to the store to get more cheese so, I decided to attempt to revive the existing mess.  I laid the ball of cheese on a cutting board and cut it into small cubes.  Then, I prepared a roux.  I added a healthy splash of chicken stock and slowly added some of the milky liquid and little bits of the cheese, alternately, all the while keeping the heat very low.  I mixed for about 10 minutes and turned the heat off.  The resulting sauce turned out pretty good.  It had some clumps of cheese in it but it tasted good.  I was lucky.

Beloved, Broken Sauce – Rejuvenated!

Think of a roux as a safety net.  Sauces are  tricky business and peril awaits at every turn.  Too much heat or adding components too quickly can lead to a broken sauce.  If you’re a thrill seeker and like to live your life on the edge, go ahead, skip the roux, but don’t say I didn’t warn you as you’re crying over your beloved, broken sauce!  I won’t go into the science behind sauces and roux because whenever I hear about emulsifiers and viscosity I grow weary and all I hear is, “blah, blah, blah, emulsifier…”

Just remember that good sauces start with a roux and good cooks aren’t thrill-seeking trapeze artists.  A safety net, such as a roux, is not the same thing as training wheels on a bicycle.

Smother the chimichanga with cheese sauce.  Cover one end of the chimichanga with red sauce and the other end with the green sauce.  Add a big dollop of sour cream in the center. 

Serve with Mexican rice and refried beans.