Three Possible Titles: (1) Sunday Night Chicken; (2) Cooking For The Week Ahead; (3) Roast Chicken with Million Dollar Gravy and Arborio Rice Salad

Titling these posts takes effort. So you can pick which one you like the best. All three are appropriate. (Especially the last one–it makes a topical Oscar reference. I’m glad Million Dollar Gravy swept the oscars!)

Cooking a Sunday night dinner is a good idea. Many cultures build rituals around it. Like Italians. They have Sunday night gravy. They know cooking dinner Sunday night is a good idea.

Here’s why: whatever leftovers you have, you can eat for the rest of the week. (Or at least the first part of the week.)

And, pulling in from another source, I read (I think in Nigel Slater’s Appetite) that the best thing you can make in terms of stretching it over the week is a roast chicken. I have to agree with him. I definitely have enough for two more meals and even after that I’m going to save the bones for stock. Yes, Amateur Gourmet readers, very soon your beloved AG is going to make stock.

But first the chicken. Admire this chicken, don’t you want to eat it?

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I used the Barefoot Contessa’s recipe. This recipe is fantastic. Here’s what you do. Buy a chicken. Rinse it inside and out and then pat it dry. Thomas Kellar in his Bouchon book says to put a lot of effort into patting it dry—you want to avoid steam in the oven. After that, sprinkle the inside with salt and pepper. “Be liberal!” says the Contesa. Then stuff that cavity with a bunch of Thyme, a head of garlic (a whole head) sliced on the equator, and a lemon cut in half. After that, melt 2 Tbs of butter and paint that on the chicken with a brush. Apply salt and pepper all over the chicken (be liberal, again!) and then tie the legs together. Put in a roasting pan and roast at 425 degrees for 90 minutes or “until the juices run clear when you cut between a leg and a thigh.” This time, actually, I used a meat thermometer and it worked really well. The arrow rose to “poultry” and I knew it was time to come out of the oven.

Now here’s the part that’s spectacular. Return to that pic above. What do you see next to that chicken? A tiny bowl, right? Well that’s the Million Dollar Gravy. A brief spiel on gravy.

I hate gravy. I’ve always hated gravy. I never accept the gravy boat at Thanksgiving, in fact, if I had any control over it, I’d sink the gravy boat. (Sorry, after writing that sentence, I regret it, but I’m not going to delete it.) I just don’t like gravy. It’s gooey and thick and messy and unpleasant.

However, with that said, after making this gravy I’m a gravy convert. This gravy is delicious. It tastes like all those delicious brown crunchy bits you savor when you eat a roasted chicken. It’s like liquid chicken skin. Here’s how you make it:

So take the roasting pan after you remove the chicken from it and pour out the chicken fat into a bowl. (This is called “shmlatz” in Jew world.) There will be brown bits on the bottom of the pan—don’t lose these! Put the roasting pan on the stove, turn up the heat, and add 1 cup of chicken stock. “Cook on high heat for 5 minutes until reduced scraping bottom of the pan.” Once that happens, combine the 2 Tbs of chicken fat with 2 Tbs of flour and add to the pan. Boil for a few minutes to cook the flour.

Now when I did this, everything got crazy thick really fast. So when the time came to do the next step–strain into a small sauce pan–there was very little gravy and it wouldn’t go through the strainer. So I returned it to the roasting pan and added more chicken broth. I boiled it together and then just poured it into the bowl you see above. Honestly, that’s fine. It tastes so good. Especially if you follow this recipe, it tastes like brown chicken bits with lemon and garlic and thyme. All together now, k? Mmmmmm.

But I did not serve this chicken alone. With it, I made Amanda Hesser’s Arborio rice salad. I am really happy with this salad as a chicken accompaniment. It’s also really easy. But first, a picture:

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I’m doing all this from memory, but that’s good because if I put it in my own words it’s not illegal!

So bring a big pot of water to boil. Add enough salt so you tatse the salt but it shouldn’t be salty. (That’s Hesser’s instruction, not mine.) Add 2 cups of the Arborio rice and stir stir stir. You can walk away a bit but come back and stir. The instruction is to cook until it’s chewy but not gummy. The thing is they don’t give you an approximate cooking time. In my mind, it took about 5 minutes. But I did a lot of tasting while I stirred. I tasted every few minutes or so and I suggest you do the same. Eventually, the rice won’t be crunchy, it will be chewy. Once you get there, pour it into a strainer and then from the strainer into a large bowl.

In that bowl, immediately pour 3 Tbs of olive oil over the rice, and 3 Tbs of red wine vinegar. Then zest a lemon over the bowl and grind some pepper over it. Use a spatula and distribute the rice around. You should let it sit for an hour. Go watch the Oscars like I did. You can do this while your chicken’s in the oven. If you start right when you put the chicken in, you’ll have a 30 minute window to do this salad leaving 60 minutes for the flavors to meld.

You should come back every so often and shift things around with the spatula. You should taste ample samples like I did because it’s delicious.

Now, eventually, take 1/3rd of a cup of pine nuts (ok, she calls for 1/4th a cup but I used 1/3rd a cup) and toast them in the oven. Put them on a baking sheet and just put them in with the chicken. They’ll only be in there 4 or 5 minute before they turn brown. Take them out! Add them to the salad! You’re done.

This rice salad’s delicious. I’ve never had a rice salad before, but this one is surely a winner. And with the chicken and the gravy it’s perfect. It all goes together like frick and frack, like Laverne and Shirley. Actually, it’s a threesome—so Moe, Curly and Larry; or Brad, Jen and Angelina Jolie.

What’s great is now I have a ton of rice salad and a huge half of a chicken to eat tomorrow night and the next night and the next night. Did I mention that this salad and the chicken regenerates in the fridge? It’s alive, it’s alive! But seriously, it’s a good Sunday night dinner. I am happy with it.

A Cookie is Just a Cookie, But Fig Chicken is from The Zuni Cafe

The Zuni Cafe cookbook has been ignored long enough. Silenty it’s sat on my cookbook shelf, batting its eyes as I passed it over for Barefoot contessas and Amanda Hessers. But a few nights ago, while the other cookbooks were out smoking cigarettes, the Zuni Cafe cookbook and I made eye contact. I felt a spark and began flipping. I came across this recipe: “Chicken Braised with Figs, Honey and Vinegar.”

What interesting flavors. How sumptuous. How tempting. Ok, Zuni Cafe, here’s your shot.

Now, sometimes I document a cooking experience complete with recipe if I think that recipe is worthwhile. Perhaps I’m giving everything away by telling you that I’m not going to document this recipe. It’s not that it’s not worthwhile, but it’s not recipe-recitation worthy. If it wins you over by the end, carry yourself over to the bookstore and do what any law-abiding American would do: bring an index card and copy it out of the Zuni book before the store manager catches you.

So, anyway, there’s chicken:

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Four chicken legs to be exact. They get browned in olive oil for 8 minutes. To be honest, I don’t think they got browned enough, but who am I to tell a chicken it isn’t tan?

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Now the fun stuff. You add wine, vermouth, chicken stock, a bay leaf, fresh thyme, black peppercorns and an onion cut into 8 wedges.

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You bring it to a simmer, put it into an oven for 40 minutes uncovered and then take it out. Meanwhile, chop 8 fresh figs in half:

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When the chicken comes out, you add cider vinegar, honey and the figs. This is the part that involves the creation of a sauce. I found this part confusing because I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to take the chicken out during the sauce making. The instructions never say to take the chicken out. So you bring it to a boil waiting for it to turn syrupy, which I suppose it did. I liked the flavor of the sauce. Here’s what it looks like all saucy:

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And all in all it tasted good. Terrific? No. Definitely not. The onions tasted good. The figs were fun. The Zuni Cafe cookbook was slipped back upon the shelf while the Contessa and Hesser and I had a 3-way. Sorry. These things happen.

Oy! Meets Grill: Basil-Garlic Chicken Breasts with Grilled Balsamic Peaches

Last week, I asked for your help in my help-seeking post: How Do I Use This Barbeque?.

You offered your help. I appreciate that.

And so tonight I decided to use the advice you gave to conquer my fear of grilling. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, your Amateur Gourmet conquered the barbeque.

It began with a book. A marvelous book, in fact: “License To Grill” by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby. I bought this book last summer when I bought a kitchen-counter grill from Williams Sonoma. This is a gas grill that looks like an open-face George Foreman. I used it to prepare chicken once and it tasted fine. But there wasn’t that “open flame” quality. That’s what I was seeking tonight.

In any case*, “License To Grill” is marvelous because it offers gourmet recipes that you can prepare right in your backyard, just like Tony Soprano make sausages. And by “gourmet” I simply mean recipes that your eaters will say: “Wow this tastes like nothing I’ve ever had before!” Not gourmet like you serve slivers of horse meat in a martini glass.

[* = I think “in any case” is my most overused expression.]

In any case, I was so excited about my decision to tackle the grill that I couldn’t choose upon a recipe. I sat in my car outside of Whole Foods (after several hours of fake studying and 20 minutes of fake exercising) and flipped through the book over and over again. And then I made a bold decison: “I will bring the book into the store!”

Why hadn’t I thought of this before? Oh, I know. I thought they would think I was shoplifting a book when I left the store with it under my arm. These are the sort of worries a neurotic person like my experiences throughout the day.

So here I am pushing my cart with the cookbook in the basket:

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“Daddy! Daddy!” whined the cookbook. “Can I have lucky charms?”

“No!” I yelled. That’s all he needs is MORE SUGAR.

Now I studied the fish case and saw scallops. I looked up the scallops recipe. I thought to myself: “Eh, ok, scallops, that could work.”

I explored the meat department. Also the vegetables.

And then it dawned on me. [CUE ANGELIC CHOIR.] Chicken! I’ll make chicken!

I flipped to the poultry section of the book. I found a glorious recipe: “Basil-Garlic Chicken Breasts with Grilled Balsamic Peaches.” Perfect!

I paid and made my way out of the store.

“Sir!” yelled a manager. “You have to pay for that book!”

Once home, I began my preparations.

First of all, the basil they were selling at Whole Foods was hydroponic. I suppose that’s because “real basil” hasn’t burst through the soil yet. Here’s what hydroponic basil looks like:

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I think hydroponic should become a new hip word.

“Dude! That’s so hydroponic! You totally aced your SATS!”

“Umm, Marvin, a 700 combined score isn’t really acing your SATs.”

“Oh.”

Next I poured one cup of balsamic vinegar into a measuring cup:

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Only there wasn’t one cup of vinegar in the bottle I had. But I proceeded anyway. Who said details were important?

I poured the vinegar into a small sauce pan and began boiling it:

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I did this for 20 minutes until half of it evaporated. Then I added molasses:

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This was my first experience with molasses. I enjoyed it. I am frustrated because a while ago I encountered a recipe I wanted to make that required molasses and now that I have it I can’t remember what recipe that was. If I found it that would be so hydroponic.

So I mixed the molasses in with the vinegar and added some black pepper. Set that aside. We won’t be using that again until later.

Now, in other news, I combined olive oil, garlic and basil in a bowl:

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I stupidly used Nigella Lawson’s spring whisk into which the garlic and basil got caught. I spent 20 minutes picking it out.

Put my two chicken breasts (not skinless! not boneless! although the recipe does call for boneless, the store didn’t have boneless without it also having to be skinless) into Tupperware and added the garlic, oil and basil mixture:

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Now the peaches. Aren’t they lovely?

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I sliced them in half and removed their pits. I contemplated eating one with some basil but Peaches and Herb don’t go together.

“GO together?” says Peaches. “Why honey we used to date… Hit it Herb!”

“REUNITED AND IT FEELS SO GOOD…”

Quiet Herb.

Anyway I stacked everything up for carrying out:

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I carried it out:

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Now the barbeque (as Ross conjectured) had a self-igniting feature but, alas, it was broken. So I had to go the alternate route. I had to light with a flame:

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Am I just a pervert or does that look dirty?

Don’t answer that.

Whooooooosh! THE HEAT IS ON! [Quiet Condoleezza.]

On goes the chicken:

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Ah a nice sizzle. I sat back and relaxed, meditated, wrote a psychic letter to my spiritual penpal Dion. It came back Return to Sender.

After 10 minutes, I flipped the chicken over:

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The skin looked brown, though not as brown as I should have let it become. These were thick cuts of chicken and I would soon learn my lesson the hard way. [DUN DUN DUN!]

Soon I added my peaches:

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How pretty is that picture? That should be on the cover of my acid rock album “Sizzling Peaches.”

But, they weren’t getting charred enough on that top shelf, so I moved them down a floor to Apartment A:

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Now we’re cooking. Two minutes later I flipped them over and brushed them with that balsamic molasses solution from before:

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Don’t they look yum?

But now we’re on the chicken. The peaches are done. And the chicken?

It’s so hard to tell. I cut into one (after the requisite cooking time) and it’s raw inside. I move to the back of the fire so it will get more heat:

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I close the lid. I let it cook. I take it off. I cut into it. Still raw. I put it back. This goes on for a while.

And so this was the most challenging aspect of my BBQ adventure. How do know when it’s done. I was far beyond the suggested cooking time from the cookbook, yet it was definitely not cooked enough.

I followed my gut. Sometimes you gotta do that. Eventually (probably 20 minutes longer than anticipated) I took it off the flame, cut into it, and it looked perfect:

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And doesn’t that skin look wonderful?

Here’s the final plate:

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And trust me, it tasted as good as it looks. And it looks fiiiiine mama. Hydroponic! Back to you, Rod.

My First Lasagna (Plus, A Nightmare Table Spread)

&uotI was a difficult kid to invite over for dinner. Growing up in a cheeseless home (my father being a cheeseophobe), I would inevitably find myself at a friend’s dinner table, starving, only to find his mother waddling over with a big tray of lasagna.

“Hope you’re hungry boys!” she would say, inevitably.

I would then proceed to mash the lasagna around my plate, creating a sense of consumption without actually consuming. I think my mother got a few angry phonecalls on the matter.

“Your son hardly touched his dinner,” I recall one mother informing my mother.

And yet today, with my bold forays into the kitchen, I have acquired more generous tastes. If I were allowed to play with youngsters (damned court order!), their mothers would be calling my mother to commend my hearty appetite.

“Your son ate three whole trays of lasagna!” a mother would say, inevitably.

Tonight, for a reason I can’t really fathom, I found myself craving lasagna. And sitting before me was one of my birthday books, The French Laundry cookbook to be exact.

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Buried between recipes that would take the most expert experts eons to complete, is a simple recipe under the heading: “Staff Meal.; The recipe? Lasagna.

Before I tell you about how I made it, I feel compelled now to highlight the most disturbing page in a cookbook I have ever seen. I am going to post an extra-large picture of it so you can see it too (click to make larger):

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Do you see what this is? This is supposed to be a beautiful spread on a beautiful table somewhere in the French Laundry. To me, it looks like the final scene from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Let’s play a Highlights Magazine game of What’s Wrong With This Picture:

1. There is a pig’s head on this table!

2. There is a dead bird on this table!

3. There is a dead fish on this table!

I am most disturbed by the dead bird because in my wildest dreams, I can’t think of any other reaction to a dead bird on my lunch table other than: “Aahhhhhhhhhhhhh!!”

Unless, of course, there’s a pig’s head on the table too in which case my reaction would be: “Blech! Aaaaaaah!”

With that said, the lasagna came out delicious. It was incredibly easy to make. In fact, it was so easy, that I will not narrate the process. I will simply show the way through pictures:

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(Ok, so I cheated on the sauce. Thomas Keller wants you to make a sauce that takes three hours. My sauce took two seconds: I lifted it off the shelf and put it in the cart. And it tasted pretty good!)

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(This part was a little tricky. Those noodles are so thick I never thought they’d all cook together. But they did. I tore a few in the process though; and had too few by the end).

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(That’s ricotta and eggs. I used brown eggs because the store was out of white. Can anyone tell me the difference between brown eggs and white eggs?)

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(I think chopped parsley is what makes this lasagna so special. It brightens it up, so to speak).

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(This is pretty interesting: he has you flavor the mozzarella with salt and pepper before you sprinkle it on the top. Never done that before!)

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Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until the cheese is golden brown.

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Mmmm.

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Ok, so the ricotta’s a little unevenly distributed, but so what!

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Terrific!

Tasty and scrumptious. Lauren liked it too. Except when she got to the dead bird.

“What is this?” she asked, in horror.

“Dead bird,” I said, cooly. “It’s in the book.”

Some people just don’t appreciate great cooking.