No Recipe Chicken – I Dare You to Wing It

Gentle Reader: Do you think you are not expert enough to try a 1 pot dinner without a recipe? Here I tell you how I did it so, hopefully, you aren’t intimidated by the idea. As you can see, I’m also not formatting it like a recipe. Think of this post like when you would ask your grandmother how she made one of your favorites and she’d rattle off some stuff. Sit back and just read this post. Then trust yourself to give it a try — “wing it.” (No, not related to chicken wings.)

Back story: Lots of business travel this past month left little to eat in the house so I went to the grocery store to by some chicken thighs* which are always a good ingredient to make sure I’m fed for a few days. Now it’s 5:00pm and I’m bordering on starving but I have no plan. Then I reminded myself that I could, indeed, wing it.

Onward! I splashed a bit of olive oil in the bottom of a pot, placed the chicken thighs skin side down to brown a bit and turned them over to brown on the other side. Then I took them out of the pot onto a plate so I could lightly brown some onion in that same pot.

Next, I smashed up and added a clove of garlic. I threw (well, not literally) the thighs back in the pot along with the accumulated juices and by now I’d decided to add a can of diced tomatoes. (No fresh tomatoes on hand which clearly shows I didn’t have this plan when I was in the grocery store 20 minutes earlier.) After that I sprinkled in about a tablespoon of pizza seasoning, splashed in some wine and let it all simmer down for awhile to let the chicken cook through. Now what?

Pasta!? Sure, why not. Boil the water and threw in some noodles. In the meantime, I noticed the tomato sauce was still too runny so I sprinkled in a little Wondra flour which I keep on hand for just this sort of thing. Voilà! Just the right consistency.

About that time, my sweet neighbor, Joan Alice, called and I invited her over for yet another experiment. She is such a brave woman. Two hours later we were well fed and had solved all the world’s problems. Isn’t that what simple food is all about?

* Don’t be buying those tasteless boneless skinless chicken breasts. If you’re a fanatic about lowfatlowcal, find another way to get the job done but this is not it!

Provence in my Periphery

Gentle Reader: Several years ago, I had the good fortune to spend 10 days in Provence France on a wine and food tour. I knew I was entering a different world when, during the flight into Marseilles, passengers were served brie and tomato sandwiches. Yes, French bread, butter and fresh basil. From that day forward, I’ve almost always had a good brie in my house.

Our group stayed in a bucolic Gites de France called L’Ecole Buissonnière. It is a 300-year old restored farmhouse or “mas” in the Provencal countryside near Vaison la Romaine.

Each day we ventured out to visit the different vineyards such as Beaumes de Venise or Gigondas. Lunch was always at a different café then off again to villages, historic sites, and the street markets. The traditional weekly street markets, “le marché,” are held in a different village each day. A typical shopping list will take you to a different village, depending on where the market is that particular day.

Each evening we returned to the mas with a few of our favorite wines purchased at a vineyard tasting room, a few cheeses from le marché  and we enjoyed a rustic dinner prepared by our hosts. We’d recount impressions of our adventures like the famous Abbaye de Senanque, a Cistertian community of monks whose buildings date back to the 12th century.

In addition to the region’s endless fields of grape vines and lavender there are amazing stands of olive trees which are also the stuff of legends. Small and craggy, some –protected of course, date back hundreds of years. On visiting one little shop specializing in all things olive, I came home with two small bottles of the greenest EVOO I’d ever seen and a couple of olive wood kitchen utensils.

From that day forward, when I’m in need of olive oil, I search and research the internet for the best crop of the season then purchase it by the case. I keep it, cool and dark, in my wine cellar. Like a good wine, I gift a bottle here and there to friends who appreciate it.

Back home on the high plains of North Dakota, my collection of olive wood utensils has grown and I must caution myself occasionally not to let it become an obsession. However, there is something deeply satisfying about cooking with a well-loved wooden spoon and spatula or chopping olives and garlic on that lovely cutting board. Olive wood’s grain is a work of art. It is strikingly heavy and dense with swirls of rich color and markings.

With almost every use I’m reminded of the magic of Provence, the smell of lavender, and sound of Cistercian prayers.

Tomato Sandwich Social

There are tomatoes and then there are Tomatoes. In this part of the country and especially the sandy river-bottoms along the Missouri River, we grow some of the best. Yes, we have the boring greenhouse-grown and hydroponic offerings in the grocery stores—which I avoid unless it’s between November and June. There is a big difference between the luscious, sun-ripened, garden tomatoes and ones from which the stuff runs out in a pool of seeds and mysterious liquid. Ish!

When you can get over-the-moon flavor and moistness that is similar to a juicy beef tenderloin, then it’s time to eat until you can’t eat any more. Rest up a bit and eat some more . . . or in my case, have a party.

Yes, a party. I’m talking about my first Tomato Sandwich Social. The timing was perfect: I had a free day and the tomatoes from the Farmer’s Market were, indeed, over the moon. I set out all the component parts and let everyone make their own sandwich just the way they like them.

Footnotes on the buffet: Yes, those are radishes set in a bed of coarse sea salt. They made great visual appeal and no work involved. The bacon was done on the outdoor grill in a cast iron pan to keep the house from smelling like Perkins. 

Party Recipe: send emails to all my friends, create a Facebook event, gather up all the fixin’s people usually like and then just start answering the door. Friends without email or FB simply missed out because the turn-around time was so short. The goal was to make a simple party to prepare and host. I think people enjoy themselves more when they know you did not kill yourself getting it together. Besides, there is nothing like messy food to put guests at ease—provided the host is also at ease and enjoying the fun.

Desert? Marshmallows from the gourmet section of TJ Max. They were a hit and a conversation piece. Score!

Grilled Cheese Sandwich: Elegant and Ridiculously Simple

Gentle Readers: I’ve taken on mastering the art of making grilled cheese sandwiches. While the one in the picture is actually a grilled ham and cheese, I really prefer the plain ol’ plain old. The juxtaposition between the savory, melting cheese and the crunchy bread is to die for.

I kick it up a notch by using a hunk of French bread split in half. Butter the cut side and fry in olive oil. Grill it? Absolutely! Note: the outside of the loaf now becomes the inside of the sandwich. Don’t worry about the rounded surface. As soon as the bread starts to brown I put on a good layer of sliced Gruyere cheese (Yes, I’ve tried a gazillion other kinds of cheese and it’s Gruyere hands down). I like to put a lid on it for a bit to help melt the cheese but I have also tried pressing it with a bacon press and the difference is not that noticeable. Besides, when I get to this point I can’t wait to eat—forget any unnecessary steps. 

This is the best comfort food – fast! A glass of zin –or any luscious red– is perfect with it.

Pretty Darn Good Stuffed Banana Peppers (and Acorn Squash)

Gentle Reader: While my maiden voyage into Stuffed Banana Peppers turned out well, I think it was due in part to the straight and gentle taper of the beauties I bought at the Farmer’s Market. I think that I would not have done as well with some of the wiry and twisted samples I’ve seen since.

I cut the peppers in half, cleaned out the seeds and stuffed them loosely with a mixture of ground beef (in western North Dakota that can only mean Angus), chopped onion, grated white cheddar cheese, KS&FGP (kosher salt and fresh ground pepper), and a pinch of garlic powder. I say stuff loosely because if the mixture is packed too tight, it does not cook completelty through before the outside is overdone and the stuffing tends to be hard as a rock. Baked at 350 for about 45 minutes. I also basted them with their own juices once while cooking and before serving. If you are keeping any as leftovers, be sure to save those precious juices.

I feasted on these and sent a couple next door to Joan Alice where they were a hit as well.   The banana peppers were tangy and sweet–less acidic than red bell peppers and I would say have a brighter flavor. I’ll make this again and again. It was rich, satisfying and definately a comfort food. When I say something is “lick the dish good,” I do mean lick the dish and there are many a picture to prove it.

As a side note, I also use a similar mixture (minus the cheese) in my Stuffed Acorn Squash: Cut an acorn squash in half from stem to blossom end, scoop out and discard the strings and seeds, brush the squash with olive oil, sprinkle with KS&FGP. I like to bake these face down for about 15 minutes before stuffing and finishing off in the oven at 350 degrees.—usually an hour total time. Why not add the cheese? I guess because the squash is already so rich, the stuffing needs to be less rich as a counter-point to offset all the natural sugars.

Basil Harvest and Pesto Making

Gentle Reader: OK, so I am a basil fanatic. Each summer I grow as much as I can in my big herb pot on the porch. I cook with it and eat it fresh in all kinds of dishes. Then late summer, when it gets really big, I make pesto and freeze it.

It will take another week or so to recover enough to make another batch. This cutting yielded about 5 cups firmly packed–the exact amount needed to make Ina Garten’s recipe. Notice the gorgeous green olive oil which was a gift from my cousin who brought it from Greece on the return trip from Kosovo. (Yes, North Dakota National Guard Peacekeeping Mission).

I freeze the pesto in muffin cups then transfer the little blocks to one larger bag for space-saving storage and pull out as many blocks as needed for the inspiration of the day. I’m waiting, not very patiently, for the Farmer’s Market vendors to bring Heirloom Tomatoes.

The Bread of Life

Gentle Reader: Since recorded time people have been baking bread and talking about it: ancient Egyptians in the 20th century BC, public ovens in Rome, and the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness. Writings abound with metaphors such as: the staff of life and the bread of the world– populating biblical parables and present day parallels.

Father Robert West, former abbot of Assumption Abbey taught me something his mother always did before cutting a fresh loaf of bread. She inverted the loaf and blessed the bread saying the trinity prayer while making a small cross with the tip of her knife. This practice grounds me spiritually and reminds me that North Dakota is the breadbasket of the world.

The loaf in the photo (or what remains of her gift) was made by my friend, Liz– a consummate cook and host. This hearty bread is graced with sunflower seeds throughout as well as crowned on top. Of course, I forgot to take a picture when it was still whole and in its presentation basket wrapped in a lovely French napkin. But like the bread of the ages Liz’s offering was shared with extended family at the lake this weekend, and a piece headed to Hazen while the remainder came back to two households in Bismarck.

I’ve made countless kinds of bread in my life from homemade buns, to quick bread, to caramel rolls, and dozens of loaves from Dakota Maid mixes in my bread machine (these are a product of our state-owned mill and elevator).

I just realized I never make bread without giving part of it away.

I’ll confess that I really don’t have much patience for the act of serious bread making nor does my waist-line have the tolerance for much consumption. However, the best bread I’ve ever eaten (EVER!) was the bread bought at the village street markets in Provence France.  Their flour and baking technique allow the bread to blister on the surface which is the sign that the bread has achieved the proper rise and temperature while baking. One simply does not buy loaves without that characteristic.

Fast forward to today and imagine me grumbling as I scour every loaf of French bread in the supermarket looking for any hint of blisters and the store employee looking at me like I’ve swallowed yeast whole. So, my dear Julia Child, this foodie shall replay your DVR program on baking bread and give it a go. Bon Appétit!