Friday, January 27, 2012

Lemon Chicken and Fennel Pot Pies

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Pot pies are wonderful winter comfort food that got a bad rap back in the 1970s with the advent of those frozen pot-pies-in-a-box with little peas and carrots.  OK, time for a confession - I ate a ton of those frozen pot pies in my college days (along with Hamburger Helper minus the hamburger) because they were the cheapest food I could find. ($.79 each)  Bleh. 

Homemade pot pies are an entirely different thing.  This is one of my absolute favorite pot pie recipes and it only takes about 60 minutes to prepare before baking.  The good news is that they freeze beautifully so you can make some on a weekend and have them ready any night of the week.  Have you noticed that upscale comfort foods like pot pies are all the rage at restaurants these days?  You'll be very trendy. I served pot pies at a dinner party once and dressed them up with a cloth napkin underneath (kind of the like picture below, come to think of it) and some fresh herbs tucked in to the napkin folds.  Looked kind of fancy if I do say so myself. 

No little peas and carrots in this recipe - it has moist chunks of chicken, savory fennel, tender green beans, prosciutto, and a lemony sauce. The reason why the chicken stays so moist is because it's gently simmered in chicken broth rather than using a dry cooking method. The fennel is also cooked in chicken broth and imparts a subtle flavor that goes amazingly well with the chicken and lemon. This recipe is lighter in calories than a typical pot pie but sacrifices nothing in terms of taste or...comfortivity.

Of course you could make this recipe as one large pot pie in a quiche pan or pie pan but then you lose the benefits of being able to freeze some for later.  Plus it's not nearly as cute to serve.  :-)  Individual ramekins are readily available in kitchen stores and stores like Bed, Bath and Beyond, Crate and Barrel, or even Target.  They're not expensive and they're available in different sizes.  For this recipe I used 1-1/4 cup ramekins which make a nice-sized dinner with a salad.  If you have big eaters in your house (aka teenaged boys) you might want to get the next size larger which is typically a 2 cup ramekin.

I also chose to use a refrigerated pie crust.  I've made pie crusts from scratch and really can't tell the difference.  If you have deeply held beliefs regarding homemade pie crusts don't let me stop you!  I even hesitated to bring the subject up at all.

* * click here for a printable recipe version * *

Lemon Chicken and Fennel Pot Pies
Makes 6 individual pot pies or one large pot pie

Your favorite recipe to make 2 pie crusts - or - two refrigerated pie crusts
2 fennel bulbs
5 cups low sodium chicken broth
6 boneless skinless chicken breast halves (1 ¾ - 2 lbs), cut into 1” cubes
½ cup green beans, cut into 1” pieces
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 tablespoons all purpose flour
3 cups 2% milk
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons crushed fennel seeds
½ teaspoon salt, plus more if needed
Black pepper
¼ lb thinly sliced prosciutto, cut into thin 2” long strips
1 egg white, lightly beaten

6 (1-1/4 cup) ramekins or 1 deep dish pie pan

Prepare pie crust recipe (if using) and refrigerate dough.

To prepare filling: blanch green beans in boiling water for 2-3 minutes, then remove and immediate submerge in ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain and set aside.

Cut leaves and stalks from fennel. Cut the bulbs in half lengthwise and remove the triangular core with a small sharp knife. Cut each half lengthwise again to make four fennel quarters per bulb. Slice thinly crosswise.

Bring broth to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the fennel and cook uncovered for 7 minutes. Add chicken and simmer until tender, about 10 minutes more. Remove and strain the chicken and fennel. Discard the broth.

Melt butter in a large, heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add flour and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in milk and continue to whisk until mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon, 4 to 5 minutes.

Add chicken, fennel, green beans, lemon juice, fennel seeds, ½ teaspoon salt, pepper and prosciutto. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed. Let cool slightly before filling ramekins so the filling won’t start to melt the dough when it’s placed on top.

Roll out the dough (if using) or pie crusts to roughly rectangular shapes and use the bottom of a small plate to make circular indentations approximately 1-2” larger than the diameter of your ramekins. Cut the circles out using a small knife and place on top of the filled ramekins. (Alternately roll out one large pie crust as usual if using a deep dish pie pan.) Fold the extra dough up and in to form a decorative edge. Cut a 1 ½” slit in the top of each to serve as a vent.

At this point the pot pies can be covered and refrigerated for up to a day, or wrapped and frozen. If frozen, thaw overnight before baking.

Arrange a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375d. Brush each crust lightly with egg white and bake until pastry is golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Serve immediately.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Salmon with Pumpkin-Seed Cilantro Pesto

Salmon is well-known as a superior source of omega-3 oils, which support heart health, muscle and tissue development, eye care and cell functions among others.  Did you know it's also a excellent source of vitamins D, B12, and B3 as well as protein?  Health experts encourage eating salmon on a weekly basis so I did a little research on the sustainability and contamination levels of wild salmon.  Alaskan salmon leads in both categories.  Eight different varieties of Alaskan salmon have been evaluated for mercury and pollution contamination and have been found to have a low contamination risk for regular consumption.  In addition, The Monterey Bay Aquarium has recently determined Alaskan salmon to be the only low-risk salmon in terms of four sustainability criteria: the inherent vulnerability of the fish, the effects of fishing on the overall habitat, the status of wild stocks, and the nature of the by-catch (the other types of fish that are caught unintentionally during salmon fishing).  While Alaskan salmon is recommended if you prefer wild-caught salmon, any variety of farm-raised salmon is also fine.  For this recipe we used a Scottish farm-raised salmon that I found at my favorite fishmonger (Don't you love that word?  It sounds so Charles Dickens-ish.). The salmon was delicate, buttery and absoloutely delicious.

OK, enough with the science talk.  The unusual part of this recipe is the pesto - essentially a southwestern version of the more traditional Italian pesto that is usually made with basil, garlic and pine nuts.  The bright flavors of cilantro and lime plus the nuttiness of the pumpkin seeds contrast wonderfully with the buttery fish.  And it's a really easy recipe - just whizz up the pesto, cook some salmon fillets, and there you go. We used the leftover pesto from this recipe to spoon over chicken and pasta the next day, which was equally delicious.

Toasted pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas, can typically be found in health food co-ops or the bulk foods aisle of some upscale groceries.  They're also excellent in salads, granola, or anywhere you would traditionally use walnuts or almonds.

We decided to serve spinach (another superfood) and mashed potatoes with the salmon, but The Lawyer and I had different ideas regarding how to plate the meal.  My version (above) was vertically stacked with the potatoes acting as the glue holding everything together.  The Lawyer's concept was more side-by-side as you can see below.  I can hear some of you saying to yourself  "Do they actually talk about things like how to plate food?"  Yup, we do.  Foodies are crazy people.

* * click here for a printable recipe version * *

Salmon with Pumpkin-Seed Cilantro Pesto
Serves 4

1 teaspoon plus ¼ cup olive oil
½ cup roasted salted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
½ cup firmly packed cilantro leaves and stems
½ teaspoon cracked coriander seeds
½ garlic clove, coarsely chopped
1-1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Salt and pepper
4 6-ounce skinless salmon fillets
1 lime, cut into 4 wedges

Hot mashed potatoes (optional)
Baby spinach (optional)

Place 6 tablespoons of the pumpkin seeds in a food processor together with the cilantro, coriander seeds, and garlic; pulse until coarsely chopped. With the machine running, gradually add the lime juice, ¼ cup olive oil, and ¼ cup water, blending until a coarse puree forms. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Heat the remaining 1 teaspoon of olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Season the salmon fillets with salt and pepper. Add to the skillet and cook until just opaque in the center, approximately 3-4 minutes per side depending on thickness.

To serve, place the spinach and hot mashed potatoes on a plate (if using) and top with the salmon. Spoon pesto over, garnish with the remaining pumpkin seeds, and serve with a lime wedge.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Broccoli, Cabbage and Brussels Sprout Salad with Dijon Vinaigrette

I love salads and eat them all year long.  Occasionally I get tired of the "bag of salad" routine from the grocery store and need some variety.  This salad is a great, crunchy alternative that's really easy to make and provides you with tons of antioxidants.  Even people who don't like straight-up brussels sprouts or broccoli like this because they're blended in and it tastes like salad.  Plus, it's really pretty.

The dressing is a deliciously light and tangy lemon Dijon vinaigrette rather than a heavy mayonnaise-based version.  The toasted almonds provide nuttiness and the dried pineapple or raisins provide a sweet fruity note. (Dried pineapple is a recent discovery for me that I love in salads or in rice dishes that accompany jerk meat or other spicy food.  It has an intense fruity pineapple flavor without being too sweet or adding liquid to the dish.)

This salad makes a nice light vegetarian lunch or dinner, and it's also a great side salad to serve with any roasted or grilled meat (think about it with grilled ribs).  It's a great choice for your next potluck because it holds well, there are no worries about mayo spoilage, and it's different.  People will be intrigued.

As if that wasn't enough, add a grilled sliced chicken breast to the top of the salad and you've got a main dish entree that's still light and incredibly healthy. 

I typically chop stuff by hand mainly because I like chopping, but this time I hauled out the food processor and tried the slicing disk for the cabbage, brussels sprouts and broccoli.  Worked like a charm.

Mounds of perfectly sliced veggies!  As you can see this makes a big bowl of salad, perfect for a group.

I know there are people out there (certainly my friend Michelle is one of them) that think this sounds way too healthy for them to try.  But hey, it's a new year and we all need to eat healthy.  As my mom used to say,  "Just try it - it might be your new favorite food".   Never worked on us kids but doesn't hurt to give it a shot, right?

* * click here for a printable recipe version * *

Broccoli, Cabbage and Brussels Sprout Salad with Dijon Vinaigrette
Makes about 8 cups

½ cup olive oil
¼ cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons white or rice vinegar
1 teaspoon fine lemon zest
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
1 lb Napa or Savoy cabbage (about ½ small head)
1 lb broccoli (about 2 small crowns)
½ lb brussels sprouts (about 12 small), ends trimmed and any brown outer leaves removed
8 medium radishes, ends trimmed
6 green onions, white and green parts thin sliced
1/3 cup sliced almonds, toasted
1/3 cup chopped dried pineapple or raisins

For the dressing, combine the first six ingredients (olive oil through salt and pepper) in a jar and shake. Set aside.

For the salad, thinly slide the cabbage, broccoli, and brussel sprouts by hand or in a food processor using the slicing disk. Add to a large bowl. Thinly slice the radishes by hand and set aside (do not add to the bowl).

Add the dressing to the bowl and toss. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle the radishes, pineapple (or raisins), and toasted almonds on top to serve.

Variation: Add sliced chicken, pork or other meat to the salad for a main dish entrée.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Chicken and Asparagus Stir Fry with Cashews

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Feeling a little sluggish after all that holiday food?  This recipe will get you right back on track to good health.  By the way, did you know that people watch what you buy at the grocery store?  Well, I do anyway.  I think it's interesting to watch people's purchases as they go down the converyor belt to see what they're buying.  It's one of what I call my internal hobbies.  Anyway, think how impressed people are going to be watching you buy fresh asparagus and lean chicken and green onions and rice.

This is one of my all-time favorite stir fries because it has such bright, fresh flavors - crisp asparagus, fresh lime juice, basil, and green onions - in addition to the tender chicken and nutty cashews.  It's very different from your normal soy sauce-based stir fry. 

You can use either a wok or a large skillet for most stir fries.  A wok has the advantage of reaching a higher heat and allows you to push food up the side and away from the heat as the recipe progresses, but a skillet also works if you don't have a wok. 

I bought a cheap aluminum electric wok in the late 70s that's moved around with me ever since and still works, albeit not well.  It doesn't reach a high heat and it smokes a lot.  Foodies are no different from any other hobbyist - we love our gadgets.  So we decided to upgrade to a better wok last year and went to our local kitchen gourmet store for a little advice.  The expert in the store told us to look for a heavy-duty wok that can reach and maintain a high temperature (such as cast iron), and to avoid a non-stick surface because they can chip and scratch.  After repeated use, cast iron eventually creates its own (sort of) non-stick surface. I knew I also wanted a lid for our wok because several of our favorite stir fries (including the one in this post) call for steaming with the lid on as part of the recipe.  We eventually chose this model based on the expert's recommendation.

In contrast to the lightweight aluminum wok, this one weighs about as much as a baby elephant.  And boy can it get HOT.  I think its top temp is just slightly less than the surface of the sun.  It's enameled on the outside and textured on the inside.  The bottom is flat and works on any cooktop surface - gas, electric, or glass.  To clean it you just scrub with a brush and hot water - no soap - and then dry it thoroughly and wipe it with a few drops of oil.  We've been very happy with its performance and anticipate it will last forever, like all cast iron items.   If you're ever thinking about buying a good quality wok for yourself or as a gift for someone else I would recommend it.

* * click here for Bodum Wok on Amazon * *

* * click here for a printable recipe version * *

Chicken Stir-Fry with Asparagus and Cashews
Serves 4

½ cup roasted salted cashews
20 oz skinless boneless chicken breasts, cut into 1 inch pieces
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 pound asparagus, sliced on the diagonal into 2 inch long pieces
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger root
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ cup chopped basil
1/3 cup thinly sliced green onions, white and green tops
Freshly ground black pepper

Cooked brown or white rice

In a small bowl, mix together one tablespoon of fish sauce, the oyster sauce, lime juice, ginger and cayenne pepper. Set aside.

Preheat a wok or large skillet to high.  In a medium bowl, toss the chicken with 1 tablespoon of the fish sauce. add the oil to the wok or large skillet and heat until shimmering. Add the chicken in an even layer and cook over high heat, turning once, until browned and just cooked through, about 4 minutes. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and transfer to a clean bowl.

Pour the chicken broth into the wok and bring to a simmer, scraping up any browned bits. Add the asparagus slices, cover and cook over moderate heat until just crisp-tender, about 2-3 minutes depending on thickness. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to the bowl with the chicken.

Add the sauce mixture to the wok and simmer until reduced slightly, about 2 minutes. Return the chicken and asparagus to the wok and toss to heat through. Remove the wok from the heat and stir in the basil and green onions. Season with freshly ground pepper.

Serve over rice and garnish with cashews.