Chicken Paprika (We Return)

We appear to be nearing the end of renovations on our house–and since I do not appear to be a blogger who soldiers on in the face of adversity, this also means the end of our hiatus. I’m looking forward to getting back. It’s been a long slog to get in a place where we finally feel at home again.

The house includes a new kitchen, one for which I’m exceptionally grateful because for about 10 weeks I had no kitchen at all and no appliances except the refrigerator. Have you ever considered how wonderful it is that the faucet in your kitchen rotates? Or that you can rinse a pot in it? If not, try washing your dishes in your bathroom sink for a couple of months. You will have a new appreciation for the luxury in which you live.

The renovation experience also revealed to me how dearly I love to cook. Rather than eat out, I tackled and defeated my nemesis, The Grill, and set up shop in the living room using my great-grandmother’s pie safe, pictured below.

Luckily, summer lends itself to salads, sandwiches, wraps, and many other items that don’t require a stove. I also concocted several nice cold soups and determined that indeed you must seed cucumbers before pureeing them.
But the best discovery of the summer was paprika chicken. This was Fred’s favorite. His aunt recommended this dish to us ages ago, but I was prompted to try it only recently because I was desperate for something I could put together on a countertop the size of a handkerchief. I never wrote down a recipe but this is a dish that doesn’t really need one. The zest of the paprika, the crisp chicken skin, the juiciness of thigh meat, and the smokiness of the grill all come together in a simple but unbeatable combination. 
You can make this dish in a 350 oven and finish under the broiler, but only the grill gives you a crispy exterior and a properly thick coating of the sauce.
Grilled Paprika Chicken
Four servings (one chicken thigh per person)
Grill directions are for a large kettle grill. Make a medium hot fire. I use a big pile of lump charcoal. Once flames have died down I cover the grill and open the vents, and wait until there are red embers. The whole thing usually takes about 30 minutes. My grill has a thermometer & the temperature needs to be about 450 for this to work well. 
For the chicken, salt four chicken thighs, bone in & skin on and set aside. Make a paste of paprika and oil. You can use smoked or regular paprika and whatever oil suits you. We have tried canola and olive with success. Use about a quarter cup of oil and three tablespoons paprika. Spread over the chicken breasts. Grill, covered, for 20 minutes or so, turning once.

Chicken Soup with Herbes de Provence

If you think this is not a thrilling post–“Chicken soup??”–you have never tried herbes de Provence. The French may be a pretentious, snooty, and cold people, but if they do nothing else besides create herbes de Provence and demonstrate to the world that six-week vacations ought to be mandatory, they deserve our love and respect.

Herbes de Provence are a magical mix of, obviously, herbs, chief among them thyme and lavender flowers. The proportions and spices will vary and can include savory, basil, fennel, sage, rosemary, and marjoram. My source, Whole Foods, offers a great combination in their bulk spice section–one of the few places you can actually get a bargain there.

Herbes de Provence are ideal for vegetables, fish, and chicken dishes. This soup allows their flavor to stand out, and the aroma alone makes it worth making on a cold day.

Chicken Soup with Herbes de Provence

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1 – 2″ pieces (small enough for spooning)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium clove garlic, minced or grated (do not add more or it will overpower the herbs)
4 smallish/mediumish red potatoes, cut into 1″ pieces (3 – 4 cups)
2 cups peeled and sliced carrots
Chicken stock/broth to cover
1 – 2 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. herbes de Provence
Salt and pepper to taste

In large soup pot, melt butter. Add onion and saute on medium-high heat until translucent. Peel and slice carrots and add to onions; saute about 5 – 10 minutes. While carrots are sauteeing, cut up potatoes, then chicken. Add garlic and stir. Add chicken to pot and cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, until chicken begins to be cooked through. Add potatoes, herbes de Provence, and salt and pepper; stir to coat ingredients with spices. Add stock to cover. Cover pot and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until potatoes are tender, 20 minutes or so. Add cream to serving bowls if desired.

Chicken Liver Pizza

We love Rockwood Filling Station deeply and the idea of their chicken liver pizza even more. But I’ve never been entirely satisfied with their version, in which whole fried chicken livers are scattered over the top of the pizza in a grand clash of North Carolina-meets-Italy. The fried livers are too big to munch in a respectable bite of pizza, and there are too few of them to imbue the entire pie with their rich livery goodness.

Last weekend I solved the problem. I chopped up the livers and sauteed them in carmelized onions and spices before adding them to the top of the pizza. I won’t say that you’ll like this even if you don’t like chicken liver, because people who don’t like chicken liver never like chicken liver no matter how it’s served. But I will say that this tastes a lot like sausage, and that everyone needs to learn to like liver a lot more.

I have included a crust and sauce recipe if you need one.

Pizza with Spicy Chicken Liver and Carmelized Onions

Crust (from Cook’s Illustrated: The Best Recipe, p. 333)

I like to keep homemade pizza crust in the freezer, then put it into the refrigerator to thaw a day or two ahead. In this case, “a day or two” turned into a week, and the crust was gluey on one side and stiff on the other by the time I went to bake it. Still Fred declared it the best pizza crust he’s ever had, and even I have to admit it was quite good–thin and crispy, without a hint of sogginess.

1/2 c. warm water, at about 105 degrees
1 envelope (2 1/4 tsp.) active dry yeast
1 1/4 c. water, at room temperature
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
4 c. bread flour, plus extra for dusting hands and work surfaces
1 1/2 tsp. salt
Vegetable oil or spray for oiling bowl

Measure warm water into 2 c. measuring cup. Sprinkle in yeast; let stand until yeast dissolves and swells, about 5 minutes. Add room-temperature water and oil; stir to combine.

Pulse flour and salt in workbowl of large food processor fitted with steel blade to combine. Continue pulsing while pouring liquid ingredients (holding back a few tablespoons) through feed tube. If dough does not readily form into a ball, add remaining liquid and continue to pulse until ball forms. Process until dough is smooth and elastic, about 30 seconds longer.

Dough will be a bit tacky, so use rubber spatula to turn dough onto lightly floured work surface; knead by hand with a few strokes to form smooth, round ball. Put dough into deep oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours. Punch dough down with your fist and turn out onto lightly floured work surface.

Roll out dough to about half desired size. Let rest while preparing other ingredients. Continue to roll out and let rest until dough is desired size. Roll edges in to form edging. Brush with olive oil just before adding toppings.

Sauce

1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, minced
Salt and pepper

Mix together in large bowl. Extra will keep for several days in refrigerator and can also be used as a base for pasta sauce.

Chicken Liver Pizza Topping

1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 tsp. thyme
2 tsp. red pepper flakes
Coarse kosher salt to taste
3/4 to 1 lb. chicken livers, drained and chopped
1/2 cup grated sharp white cheddar cheese

Saute onions in olive oil over medium high heat until carmelized, about 10 minutes. Add remaining ingredients except cheese. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until liquid has evaporated, about 10 – 15 minutes. Reduce heat about halfway through cooking time to prevent burning.

Place oven rack on bottom level and slide in pizza stone. Preheat oven to 550 or hottest temperature possible. Place rolled out dough onto pizza peel sprinkled with cornmeal. (I use a cookie sheet without edges.) Spread tomato sauce over crust, leaving about 1/4 inch around edges to prevent spillage. Spoon chicken liver mix evenly over crust. Remove pizza stone from oven and slide pizza onto stone. (Imagine you are trying to pull a tablecloth out from under a fully loaded table without moving anything and you might avoid disaster.) Return to bottom rack of oven and bake for 6 – 12 minutes, until edges of crust begin to brown. Add cheese to pizza and cook for 2 – 3 minutes longer, until cheese has just melted. Transfer to cutting board. Slice and serve.

Chickenless Chicken and Dumplings

Faced with a fresh pile of vegetables from our CSA once again, I was forced to turn down an invitation to the Durham Bulls game last night to stay home and cook them. (The unpleasant prospect of sitting outdoors on a cloudy, muggy, rain-splattered evening had nothing to do with it.) And so I felt compelled to Do Something.

My first thought was to make a vegetable pot pie, so I pulled out my handy Cook’s Illustrated: The Best Recipe for some guidelines. But the book magically opened instead onto the recipe for chicken and dumplings.

It’s been years since chicken and dumplings crossed my lips, and what a sad thing that is. They were a childhood favorite (back when the first line of my grandmother’s recipe would have read, “Kill chicken”), but I don’t find myself making them very often. The main reason is that I can no longer call my grandmother to get the recipe because I’ve forgotten it and could never remember to write it down.

Unfortunately my mother cannot be of help here because this is an area of deep division between us. Her mother (my other grandmother) was a proponent of flat dumplings, which are rolled out before they are added to the dish. My father’s mother was squarely on the side of drop dumplings, which are formed into balls and “dropped” in.

The flat/drop debate has raged in our family for decades now with no clear resolution. My mother, usually right about everything, has yet to see the merits of my argument in this particular case. To me, flat dumplings cannot even approach the fluffy perfection of a well-made drop dumpling. Properly done, drop dumplings are exceedingly light, with an inside like a tender, cakey biscuit, all surrounded by a very thin layer of rich, creamy dough. How can a flat, chewy lump even compare?

Still, the biggest obstacle to my making chicken and dumplings last night was that I had no chicken, and I wasn’t going to send even Fred out into a misty, damp evening to get one. Luckily, the Cook’s Illustrated recipe is called “Chicken and Dumplings with Aromatic Vegetables”–and I figured I had the second part of that covered. So I modified the recipe and came up with this dish.

Of course, the dumplings are not quite as light and fluffy as my grandmother’s. But lost recipes are like that–always made better by the fact we can’t have them anymore.

Note dumpling’s fluffy, tender goodness

Vegetable Stew with Dumplings

4 tbsp. butter
1 onion,chopped
3 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1 large zucchini, cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 medium yellow squash, cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 1/2 c. frozen peas
6 tbsp. flour
2 tsp. thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
4 c. chicken stock
Cream, if desired

Melt butter in soup pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add onion and saute until translucent. Add carrots and saute for 5 – 10 minutes. Stir in zucchini and squash. Cover and cook for 5 – 10 minutes, until vegetables are just tender. Make dumplings and set aside. Stir in flour, thyme, salt, and pepper until flour vegetables are coated. Add chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Add peas. Add cream if desired. Lay dumplings over top of liquid. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes until dumplings are done.

Baking Powder Dumplings (from Cook’s Illustrated: The Best Recipe, p. 162)

2 c. flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. butter
1 c. milk

Mix flour, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl. Heat butter and milk to simmer and add to dry ingredients. Mix with a fork or knead by hand two to three times until mixture just comes together. Form dough into balls about 2″ in diameter.

The Wages of Gluttony

It’s a good thing Durham is indeed buried in two, maybe even four inches of snow. Last night Fred and I went on a fried chicken extravaganza that rendered us nearly motionless, barely able to drag our churning stomachs out of bed this morning. I think I consumed roughly two cups of gravy alone.

I would offer the recipe here, but all I can say at this point is that I have not cooked a really great batch of fried chicken since the late 1990s. Even Fred’s well-honed frying instincts failed us. At one point, we found ourselves staring in bewilderment at a meat thermometer sticking out of a slightly blackened thigh in gently roiling oil, as the temperature read a good 60 degrees lower than “done.”

We’ve decided that we need to try Fred’s grandmother’s technique, in which you reduce the heat immediately after placing the meat in the skillet. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll be up to eating fried chicken again until 2011.

Chicken Livers and Sweet Potatoes in Our New House

After two months of signing papers, carrying boxes, fussing at Fred for misplacing things he’s never seen, and the other horrors associated with moving, we are finally settled in a house here in Durham. It’s only about eight blocks from the Federal and has a garage that will become an art studio. Fred is in heaven. I’m pretty happy too, because most of his paints, drawings, canvases, stretchers, tools, paintbrushes, and empty watercolors jars are no longer inside my–I mean, our–house. He has his cave, and I have my kitchen.

I am, however, beginning to suspect that we may never see each other again. Last week, as we were just starting to unpack, Fred disappeared into the basement with a load of boxes. Some time later, when he still hadn’t returned, I began to be concerned. I went to investigate.

Our basement is only partially finished. Half consists of a room with a tiled floor and finished walls, with a smaller room containing a shower, sink, and sump pump attached. The other half is unfinished and contains the heating and air conditioning system.

I entered the basement just as he was emerging from the unfinished portion. “What are you doing?” I asked.

He was aglow with pleasure. “I’ve been looking at the sump pump while you were running the washing machine upstairs! Fascinating! And just now I was checking to see how the basement was holding up after the rain. Everything looks fine.” He spread his arms out, his face beaming like a king who’s just learned his wife gave birth to an heir. “Isn’t this GREAT!?”

“Yes,” I muttered, barely able to reign in my enthusiasm–and suddenly realizing that unpacking was going to take much longer than I had planned.

While Fred explores the underbelly of our home, I’m getting the kitchen in order. Despite the chaos, the creative spirit was upon me this week. Most interesting and surprisingly good were the chicken livers and sweet potatoes we had last night. We continue our weight watching–Fred has lost 29 pounds and I’ve reached my goal of losing 15. The trick here, then, was to find a way to cook chicken livers without resorting to the default mode of frying. This method, cobbled together from James Beard and others, is simple and tasty.

Chicken Livers with Mashed Sweet Potatoes

Serves 2

1 lb. chicken livers
1 large onion, chopped
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp. butter
1/2 cup or more red wine
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat. Saute onions until translucent. Add garlic and stir. Add chicken livers, wine, salt and pepper, and stir. Cover and cook 3 minutes. Uncover and cook until livers are done and sauce has reduced slightly, about 5 more minutes. Serve with the sweet potatoes, below.

Mashed Sweet Potatoes (from James Beard’s American Cookery)

Preheat oven to 400. Clean and dry 2 sweet potatoes and place on cookie sheet. Cook until tender, about 1 hour. Remove skins and mash with 1 tbsp. butter, salt, and lots of freshly ground pepper.

Chicken from Heaven

Our wingless friend–the chicken from Rainbow Meadow Farms from last Sunday’s cooking extravaganza–was a testament to the local food movement. It tasted . . . like chicken. Like the hens my grandparents raised, almost as if you’d infused the chicken with a rich broth, or red wine, or even a little tiny hint of bacon. It tasted like real food.

For the purposes of our weight watching, it also offered a revelation. I served it in a variation of an orzo pasta dish from February 2007. That particular recipe included the ingredient “lots and lots of olive oil” and cheese. So when I went to prepare the dish in the weight watching version, I was grumpy. The orzo will be dry, I thought. And tasteless. And who wants to have a life with less olive oil in it?

But when we ate the dish, with only two teaspoons of olive oil and no cheese, we were stunned. Because the chicken actually tasted like something–and, admittedly, had been roasted with the skin on and basted in butter, as I always do–the whole dish was rich and flavorful. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the extra olive oil and cheese would have overpowered the flavor of the chicken.

I’ve long believed that much restaurant cooking in America relies on salt, fat and heavy flavors like bacon and cheese to cover up the poor quality of the ingredients. (You especially notice this if you travel to Italy and come back.) I think that our feathery friend drove this point home.

Orzo with Chicken and Squash (serves 2; 8 points each)

1/4 lb. orzo
2 tsp. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 – 3 medium crookneck/yellow/summer squash, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup fresh parsley, minced
1/4 cup fresh oregano, minced
1 cup Rainbow Meadow farms or other great chicken, roasted with skin on, skin removed, chopped
1/2 – 1 cup homeade chicken broth

Cook pasta according to package directions. Saute onions in olive oil in large skillet on medium heat until translucent. Add squash and garlic and saute for 5 minutes. Add garlic and stir. Add enough chicken broth to moisten. Cover and cook until vegetables are tender, about 5 – 10 minutes. Add parsley, oregano, and chicken. Uncover and cook for a few minutes more, until chicken is heated through, adding more chicken broth as needed to moisten. Transfer to bowl and stir in with pasta.