August 23, 2012

Devine Eats

I cannot believe that in over two years of posting on this blog I have never posted about this chicken club salad. I'm embarrassed.  Even more so because it's now showing  up in this hastily photographed state.  I had to snap this with my phone before I even finished mixing it all together because I knew the second that it was ready, it would disappear in the blink of an eye.  My apologies for a messy bowl and unevenly distributed dressing.

Chicken club salad is the food of gods. This is not an exaggeration. Right up there with the perfection of a summertime BLT or this lovely dish of Vietnamese noodles, stir fried beef and veggies, this salad has been a favorite from first bite. I've made it for friends and roommates who have in turn made it for their friends or special someones and every last one of those people has proclaimed this "salad" as devine perfection. I can give you references if you don't believe me, or you can just go and make it yourself. Like, right now.

You might think, after taking a quick glance at the ingredient list, that this is merely a salad or panzanella form of a BLT, but in fact it's a whole different beast.  Sure, it has brightly acidic tomatoes, and bacon, and mayonaise and toasted bread but then that mayonaise gets transformed when it's blended with basil and yogurt and lemon juice.  And there are cubes of gently poached chicken and thin rings or green onion dotted throughout.  This is nothing like that classic sandwich.  I'll repeat: this is the food of the gods.

A recent search for the original recipe lead me to a Food Network page saying the contents I was searching for could no longer be found.  Which would really be a shame, except I have here my version, one I've tweaked over the years and I think is even better.  There are more croutons for more crunch!  I use half mayonaise (Best Foods only, please!) and half plain yogurt for the basil dressing and then slather the whole thing over the salad instead of a measly 1/2 cup.  And the bread, use whatever your heart desires as long as it has some structure to it.  One time I used an Italian loaf with lemon zest in it and it was heavenly.

You're welcome.  I single handedly just saved the internet.

Chicken Club Salad
adapted from Sara Moulton

There are several elements to assemble here: poach the chicken, make the croutons, blend up the dressing, fry the bacon and cut up the veggies, but all of this can be done in advance if need be. Store the croutons in an air tight container, the veggies, dressing and chicken separately in the fridge but the bacon is probably best freshly crisped up. About 10 minutes before serving toss everything together in a big bowl and you're good to go.

6 to 8 servings

6 cups of 3/4-inch cubes day old country loaf
3 tablespoons olive oil
6 slices bacon, chopped
3 pounds whole chicken breasts OR 1½ pounds boneless/skinless breast, poached and the meat cut into bite-size pieces
1 pint cherry tomatoes, quartered
4 scallions including the green part, sliced thinly
Quick Basil Mayonnaise, recipe follows
Salt and pepper

Quick Basil Mayonnaise:
2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
½ cup mayonnaise
½ cup plain yogurt 
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
salt and pepper

In a food processor or blender blend together the basil, mayonnaise, yogurt and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper.  Refrigerate until ready to use.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a bowl drizzle the bread cubes with the olive oil, tossing them to coat evenly, and season generously with salt and pepper. Spread the bread cubes in a jelly-roll pan (or cookie sheet) and toast them in the middle of the preheated oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until they are golden.  Let them cool. 

In a skillet cook the bacon over moderate heat, stirring, until it is crisp and transfer it with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. 

In a large bowl combine the chicken, tomatoes, scallions, bacon, quick basil mayonnaise, and salt and pepper to taste. Just before serving, mix in croutons and let sit 5-10 minutes.

August 17, 2012

Of Summertime Spritzers

This past week has been a "please, get this girl a cocktail" kind of a week.  

A Sunday afternoon, people watching in the park and soaking in the warm sunshine totally calls for a cocktail.  Or at least a beer or some wine.

Stressing myself out planning my Fall semester and realizing that my free time, my precious commitment-free, care-free, free time is about to come to a screeching halt?  Please, get this girl a cocktail, hopefully it will take the edge off.

A gathering of good friends, reunited after what feels like way too long?  Let's celebrate and drink a cocktail!

Realizing that I only have about 10 more days of summer break left?  You know the drill.  Fetch that cocktail.

This particular cocktail was dreamed up on a whim as I stood in my kitchen, refrigerator door open, trying to figure out the fate of the latest batch of foraged blackberries.  (They're still going strong, those urban blackberry bushes, and I still cannot resist the little hike and filling another tupperware full of sun warmed fruit.)  In the crisper draw just below them was a big bunch of basil and on the counter were a few lemons.  You know, when life gives you lemons and all that...

It's tart and fruity but neither overwhelmingly so.  The herbaceous licorice notes from the basil make it a bit more sophisticated, a grown up lemonade.  Fizzed up with a bit of club soda and poured over some ice and sparkling wine, this spritzer is just what my week, and weekend needs.

Blackberry-Basil Lemonade

This is just the lemonade portion of the aforementioned cocktail. I trust you guys can mix it up to your liking.  I've really been digging the spritzers lately so I mixed mine up with 2 parts sparkling wine to 1 1/2 parts lemonade and topped it off with a splash of club soda.  Refreshing, low alcohol, and perfect for afternoon sipping.  It's also totally delicious just on it's own.

yields 4 1/2 cups

juice of 3 lemons
1/4 cup sugar
10-12 basil leaves
1/2 cup fresh blackberries
4 cups water (or 3 cups water and 1 cup club soda)

In a blender add lemon juice, sugar, basil leaves, blackberries and 1 cup of water.  Blend for 1 minute, or until the sugar has dissolved.  Strain through a fine mesh sieve to remove the seeds and pieces of basil leaves.  Add remaining water to strained mixture and refrigerate until chilled.  If you're going the sparkling route, add the rest of the water, chill, then add the club soda just before serving.

August 9, 2012

...Take Me Away

I've never had much of the traveling itch.  I rarely feel the need to get away, somewhere far away, and  discover something new.  Experience life differently.  In the past I've been quite content with mini domestic explorations and weekend road trips.  I felt grounded and rooted and wholly connected to my time and place.  But then something changed.  Maybe it's all the fog and cool summer days or the realization that after a year of living in this city, it'll never be my city.  Maybe my jam packed busy schedule for the upcoming fall semester is factoring in too.  Either way, a little late to the game, I'm ready to pack a bag or two and fly off to far away lands.

But summer comes to a close in 2 weeks and my student loans for the year have yet to come through so here in the city I'll remain, traveling by way of cooking and daydreaming; planning for a next big adventure.  And all that is okay really, because that just means something exciting will be waiting just over the horizon.

There are bowls like this Vietnamese rice noodle and stir fried beef salad to transport me and tide me over.  A salad so perfectly summer, so perfectly balanced that I can hardly find fault with it.  A tangled   base of translucent noodles mounded so high with tender beef and colorful crisp vegetables that I didn't leave us enough room to mix in the nuoc cham dressing.  Bowls filled all the way to the tippy top with eyes much larger than our stomachs.

I love all the elements and flavors that Vietnamese cuisine is based on.  Fresh vegetables garnishing so many dishes, a medley of herbs that not only work in taste but make for wonderful aromatics as well.  Salty fish sauce and acidic lime juice, balanced with a little raw sugar and a spicy heat, perfection.  A little marinated and (in this case) tender beef boost the savory quotient and I'm one happy eater.

And someday, instead of just eating, I'll be the one sitting on the beaches of Southeast Asia, satisfying that itch.

Bun Bo Xao
adapted from Use Real Butter

This recipe is mostly prep work, but once that's all done, the actual noodle salads are a cinch to assemble.  Just pile the ingredients on top of the noodles, splash a little of the nuoc cham dressing and give it all a good toss.  Every ingredient plays a key roll in the overall flavor, so really, the prep work all becomes worth it.  You'll totally understand once you take your first bite.

4-6 servings

1 stem lemongrass (the tender white part), minced
1 lb. steak (I used ribeye), sliced thin against the grain and at an angle
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 small white onion, sliced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 package vermicelli noodles/rice sticks, cooked
2 cups bean sprouts
2 Persian cucumbers, halved and sliced
a handful of mint leaves
a handful of cilantro leaves
pickled daikon and carrots
chopped salted & roasted peanuts

nuoc cham (dressing):
juice from 2 limes
2 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1/4 cup water
4 cloves garlic, minced
sambal olek paste to taste

Whisk together all the nuoc cham ingredients until sugar is dissolved. Set aside.

Follow the instructions on the rice noodle package. If there aren’t any, place the noodles in a large pot of boiling water and let boil for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and cover the pot for 3 minutes. Drain the noodles and rinse in cold water.

To make the bun bo xao: Mix 2 teaspoons of the lemongrass (reserve the rest for later) with the beef, the garlic, and 2 tablespoons of fish sauce. Set it aside and let it marinade for 20 minutes. 

Gather your serving bowls and place a large handful of rice noodles in each bowl. Sprinkle a handful of bean sprouts and some cucumber slices over the noodles. Roll the herbs together and give them a good chopping. Sprinkle some over each bowl. Set aside. 

Heat a wok or frying pan on your highest heat setting. Add the vegetable oil, the rest of the lemongrass and the sliced onion. Stir the contents around the pan and toss the beef in, from here it should only take 2 or 3 minutes for the meat to cook through.  Add the remaining teaspoon of fish sauce and give everything in the pan a good stir. Place a scoop of the beef on each noodle salad. Dress with more herbs, Vietnamese pickled carrots and daikon, chopped peanuts and nuoc cham.