Monday, February 28, 2011

Simran's chicken biryani

As you may have noticed, I'm crazy for chicken.

I know plenty of people don't like chicken: they think it's boring, or they have an issue with eating it on the bone, something I never understand, since it's usually claimed by people who I've seen gnawing on a pork chop or getting down on a turkey drumstick at Thanksgiving. They say there is something specific to chicken on the bone that gives them the creeps.  Whatever. It is true that chicken is often poorly cooked (i.e. dry) or too often appears in boneless, skinless breast form, which greatly narrows the chances of it tasting good.

Anyway, I eat it pretty much any style. I like it roasted with honey and cherry tomatoes; simmered in coconut milk, soy, and vinegar, adobo-style; and encrusted with macadamia nuts in a Hawaiian plate lunch. I also like it fried, in a creamy salad for a weekday lunch, and of course I adore Marcella Hazan's  roasted chicken with two lemons, which is on the menu once a week at my house.

But even with all this variety, sometimes you still need a new recipe to spice things up...literally.

Enter chicken biryani, courtesy of my friend Simran, who writes this lovely blog with my other friend Stacie. Last summer, Simran's mother came to visit her here in San Francisco, and shared a recipe or two with her daughter, who then kindly shared them with her friends and readers. When I saw her recipe for chicken biryani,  I knew I wanted to make it immediately.

"Immediately" actually took about seven know how things go. But I finally got around to it earlier this month, and it has officially taken its place in my repertoire.

One thing I was very interested in was that the dish is supposed to be layered, chicken - rice - chicken - rice, sort of like an Asian lasagne, Simran notes. I loved this idea, although you can't actually see the layers in the bowls that I used to serve it. However, it was fun to eat, digging through the layers of spicy chickeny goodness.

Making this recipe was delicious and satisfying and reminded me of yet another great chicken recipe, one which also turned into one of my all-time favorite blog posts: Country Captain/Captain Chicken. The two recipes share some similar flavors, and both are easy enough to make, although I do like that Simran's requires fewer ingredients. I suggest you give them both a try. After all, who couldn't use  another chicken recipe (or two)?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Yellow cake, chocolate frosting (cheater-style)

Last Saturday it poured all day long. Since we had all the necessities (food, coffee, food, wine, food, firewood), we opted not to set foot outside the house, something which in retrospect seems a little pathetic, but while it was happening was very nice indeed.

We ate cassoulet for lunch (which had improved overnight) and afterward I was in the mood for cake. But I had not adequately prepared: no softened butter, no room temperature eggs. Nor did I have any of those good cake ingredients, like buttermilk or sour cream, or high-quality chocolate.

I did, however, have this:

I don't think I've made a boxed cake since about 1983, when my friend Rebecca and I would experiment in the kitchen on summer days, making multi-colored (we were intrigued by food coloring) and multi-layered (four rainbow layers--hideous!) box cakes, which inevitably tasted terrible. Bless our parents who let us waste money and time  in the name of being creative.

Cake mixes dropped off my radar a long time ago. I went for decades without thinking of them, until a few months ago I was in Trader Joe's and I spied their new line of cake mixes, as well as frostings, which bore the creepy yet riveting promise that all I had to do was:

I'm a sucker for cute packaging, who isn't? After all, that's why I liked the husband in the first place. It wasn't until later that I discovered how smart, funny, and sweet he is.

So, I made the cake. Putting it together took about 10 minutes. Baking it took 25 (in spite of the directions which said it would take 40-50 for two 9-inch layers--huh? Maybe if you want hockey pucks). I cooled the layers, made the frosting, and took to it with my offset spatula. I have to say, for someone without much cake frosting experience, I think it looked rather pretty.

How it tasted was another matter. Not terrible by any means -- we each put away a good-sized hunk of it (and were then incapacitated for the next hour or so) -- but through each bite we were both aware of a distinctly processed feel. It was also overly sweet, not a big surprise.

We actually didn't eat any more of the cake, although I did enjoy looking at it over the next day or two. There's something iconic about yellow cake with chocolate frosting; it's the quintessential birthday cake. But after this experience, I'm willing to go the extra mile and skip the box. It may be easier, but it turns out there are two excellent reasons people make cakes from scratch: taste and texture.

On one final note, I failed to brag on my last post that it was actually my 200th!! Pretty amazing, to me at least. I started this blog two years ago and somehow it's still going. I like to think I would do this in a vacuum, but like most everyone, I need public validation. I'm insecure that way. So thanks for reading, and thanks especially for commenting. You make the blog world go round. Now go get yourself a piece of (homemade) cake.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


After more decadent eating out this week (roasted duck with rabbit consomme here and a fabulous cheeseburger here), I finally decided it was time to get back into the kitchen. Since I've had all things French on my mind these days, I decided to try cassoulet.

Or shall I invoke scare quotes and say, "cassoulet"? Because I'm sure that any genuine French person would scoff dismissively at my attempt. 

I couldn't blame them. There's nothing truly authentic about it. For one thing, the recipe belongs to Mark Bittman, who I like very much, but who is quintessentially American in his approach to food: cook what you like, the way you like it, however that might be. He's no slave to tradition, which I think may be one of the defining French characteristics when it comes to food. It's also probably why so many of us Americans are Bittman fans.

Anyway, I liked the look of this recipe, because it leans more on vegetables than meat (another Bittman hallmark), and as evidenced by my recent eating escapades outlined above, I'm doing fine on the protein side. That said, I did enjoy choosing the meat for the cassoulet, of which I needed one pound, and which according to Bittman could be  "Italian sausages, bone-in pork chops, confit duck legs, or duck breasts, or a combination." I settled on half a pound of sausage and two little pork chops.

So, here's the thing about it being "cassoulet" and not cassoulet, in addition to the recipe's provenance. I didn't really follow the directions all that well, some of which was intentional and some not. I changed a few small things on purpose, like using rosemary instead of thyme, and leaving out the cayenne since I didn't have it, although I think that would have been a nice addition. And I didn't add quite the full four cups of cannellini beans--too beany!-- I reduced it by about a cup.

But I made one big mistake not on purpose which is why my dish turned out more like a soup: I added all the broth at once, because I misread the recipe. Turns out you're supposed to add it a little at a time, as needed. I just dumped it all in, and it never really reduced to the right consistency.

I also noticed a mistake just now that I didn't even realize I had made last night, which is that I forgot the bay leaves entirely. Oh, my. I was really out to lunch.

It looked and tasted pretty nice, though, definitely worth a repeat performance, but this time following the directions a bit better. It wasn't really cassoulet--more like pork chop soup, which, when I think about it, doesn't sound too bad either.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

World's best cookies, plus a trip

I suppose calling these the world's best cookies is a bit of an exaggeration. I mean, I have some other pretty good cookie recipes (like these, these, and these). But, for dramatic effect, I'm going to stick with my claim. I believe in the power of embellishment.

I actually made these a few weeks ago. In fact, I posted about them a long time ago, probably before any of you read this blog. But I didn't include the recipe. So I thought maybe I could squeak by with a repeat.

Plus, I haven't cooked that many new things recently to merit blog posts. We've been eating out a lot, hitting some of our favorite spots multiple times over the last few weeks (like Starbelly, Out the Door, and Nopalito). I guess right now, being out is a little more comforting than being in.

We've also been very busy, and shopping for groceries has taken a back seat. What we have we been doing? you ask. Well, planning a trip, my friends.

Toward the end of Frances's life, we were worried about taking an international trip and being far away in case something happened with her health. I'm sure any of you who are parents to either humans or animals might relate. No one can convince you that anyone could take as good care of your loved one as you. But now that things have changed, we are finally taking a long postponed trip to Europe: two weeks, split between Paris and Barcelona.

Since we're going in April, we've been scurrying to get things in order, like plane tickets and reservations and passports. It's been lots of fun. We're constantly buzzing about what we want to do, whether or not the amount we plan to walk will justify the amount we plan to eat, what to wear so that we don't stand out as tacky tourists, how quickly one of us can get a handle on some basic Catalan (this is largely in the husband's court as he knows Spanish. They're similar...right?). I can hardly wait to get there and unleash my terrible high school French on any number of horrified Parisians.

So if you have any recommendations on where to go or what to eat in either of those cities, please share them. We welcome any and all recommendations.

In the meantime, I give you (one of the) world's best cookie recipes. They really are the perfect chocolate chip cookie--sweet but not too, chewy, and packed with chocolate. And if you can bear to take a few extra minutes to follow the assembly instructions, you won't regret it. They produce the most attractive chocolate chip cookies I've ever seen.

Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
From Baking Illustrated

Makes about 18 large cookies.

2 c. plus 2 T. flour
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
12 T. unsalted butter, melted and cooled to warm
1 c. packed light or dark brown sugar
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk
2 t. vanilla extract
1-1/2 c. semisweet chocolate chips

Adjust the oven racks to the upper and lower-middle positions and heat the oven to 325. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper or spray them with nonstick spray.

Whisk flour, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl and set aside.

Either by hand or with an electric mixer, mix the butter and sugars until thoroughly blended. Beat in the egg, yolk, and vanilla until combined. Add the dry ingredients and beat at low speed until just combined. Stir in the chips to taste.

Roll a scant 1/4 cup of the dough into a ball. Hold the dough ball with the fingertips of both hands and pull into two equal halves. Rotate the halves 90 degrees and, with jagged surfaces facing up, join the halves together at their base, again forming a single ball, being careful not to smooth the dough's uneven surface. Place the formed dough balls on the prepared baking sheets, jagged surface up, spacing them 2 1/2 inches apart.

Bake until the cookies are light golden brown and the outer edges start to harden yet the centers are still soft and puffy, 15-18 minutes, rotating the baking sheets from back to front and top to bottom halfway through. Cool the cookies on the sheets. Remove the cooled cookies from the baking sheets with a wide metal spatula.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A surprising salad

A couple of weekends ago, the husband and I skipped town. We were reeling from the loss of our beloved Frances and hoped a change of scenery might provide a bit of peace.

Not in the mood to do a lot of research--we just wanted to leave--we settled on this ridiculously posh spot for our destination. While a jaw-dropping setting can't mend a broken heart, it certainly doesn't hurt. And 70 degree weather and sunshine wasn't bad either.

Half Moon Bay is less than an hour from the city but feels like a sandy, sleepy little beach town. The hotel itself is perched on the ocean and there are walking paths that lead around the golf course (which, surprisingly, is public), and down to the ocean. Both mornings we walked down to the beach and sat with our feet in the sand and the sun on our faces, admiring countless dogs frolicking in the surf, as healing an activity as anything.

Half Moon Bay's main street ("Main Street") is devoid of any chain stores and manages to feel charming without being cutesy. We spent an afternoon strolling around a bit aimlessly, not a bad thing to do, and about all we could manage. After awhile, we ended up at the locally famous Pasta Moon for lunch.

If there were a place like this in San Francisco, I would eat there once a week. Their homemade pasta was absolutely divine--the husband had a gorgeous lasagne and I had delicate pappardelle with prosciutto, wild mushrooms, porcini cream, and white truffle oil.  It was all I could do not to lick the bowl.

Just as captivating, though, was my salad--a surprisingly delicious blend of roasted brussels sprouts, butternut squash, pancetta, baby cannellini beans, frisee and a vinaigrette with white balsamic vinegar.

I knew I wanted to make my own version of this delightful salad one day soon, and I tried it this week. I swapped watercress for frisee, and bacon for pancetta. And, I couldn't find baby cannellini beans, which I have to say were the perfect miniature addition to the dish. I did, however, cook cannellini beans from scratch, which I have never done before. Usually I open a can. They were good, but I'm not sure worth the effort.

But overall, the dish was a great success. Since we had been eating pretty heavily in the previous days, I served it as sort of a main course alongside creamy polenta. This is what it looked like.

I don't have a recipe, but the idea is: roast some brussels sprouts. Roast some butternut squash, which you've cut into small dice. Fry up some bacon or pancetta and at the end add a little minced garlic and the beans to warm them through. Toss everything with a green of your choice and a simple vinaigrette.

All of the proportions are up to you. At Pasta Moon, the brussels sprouts were the main attraction, with all of the other ingredients acting as careful accents. But you could tweak it any way you like. I do think the white balsamic, which I had never used before, added a lush and sweet flavor to the dish--also, being clear, it did not darken the salad.

So, give it a whirl.

I also wanted to say thank you for all of your kind comments about losing Frannie. It has been a very difficult few weeks but we are adjusting, slowly. We are already looking forward to adopting another dog (or two!) in the near future. But first, a trip. I'll write more about that as our plans take shape.

In any case, thank you. You've softened a rough blow, and I am grateful.