July 26, 2013

(A Careful and Composed) Cobb Salad

(A Careful and Composed) Cobb Salad
Earlier this week, I had an insatiable craving for a Cobb salad- a really good one.  I have had quite a few Cobb salads in my life and there are a few strong themes- I like grilled chicken, I like including avocado, I like a good green- although sometimes romaine hits the spot- and hard boiled eggs- well executed with nice yellow centers that haven't been cooked too long (which gives them a greenish color and sulfur-like smell).  Creating a well executed Cobb salad requires some precision and attention.  But, it's satisfying, relatively healthy, and a great summer meal.

Let's begin!  First, let's get our chicken marinating, so it can have a nice flavor.

Cobb Salad
Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a part of a larger meal
Chicken Marinade
0.75 lb. to 1 lb. chicken tenders (skinless, boneless chicken breast cut into strips about 1.5" wide)
4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
pinch (or two) sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 large garlic clove, through a press or finely chopped

Other Salad Components
6 pieces of bacon
2-3 eggs
2-3 handfuls mache or other small, flavorful green
10-15 grape or cherry tomatoes
1/2 avocado
1/2 lemon
2-3 Tbsp. gorgonzola
8-10 olives
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Salad Dressing
1/2 Tbsp. lemon juice (fresh squeezed)
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
3 Tbsp. olive oil (good quality)
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Combine the ingredients of the chicken marinade in a bowl and add the chicken.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.  I let the chicken marinate about 45 minutes to an hour.  You can do a little less or a little more- overnight might be too much.

Bacon pieces draining
Take your 6 pieces of bacon and cut them, perpendicular to their length, in pieces about 1/2" wide.  In a pan on the stove (that you'll also use to cook the chicken), cook the bacon over medium-low to medium heat.  When crispy and browned (to your liking), remove the bacon pieces and allow them to drain on a paper towel.  Save the pan with the bacon fat, you're going to use it to cook the chicken (why let it go to waste!).  If you're making this ahead of time, after the bacon is drained, refrigerate the bacon pieces until you're ready to put the salad together.

Now for the eggs.  Making hard boiled eggs is something of an exact science.  You want to do four major things- 1) keep the water at a simmer, not a roiling boil, 2) lower them into the water in some type of vessel that keeps them from moving around and breaking, 3) only cook them for about 12-13 minutes and 4) place them in an ice bath immediately following.  Why all these rules?  Well, back before my kids, I sat next to a guy at work that brought hard boiled eggs in for a snack pretty frequently.  Obviously, admired the habit- healthy, protein makes you feel fuller longer, not a bad idea at all.  But, he must have cooked them for years because they had that slightly bad sulfur smell of the yolk.  This is caused by overcooking.  Just say no!  Ok- bring some water to a simmer and lower 2-3 eggs (I used a wide mesh strainer to hold them) into the water.  The water should cover them, add more if you need to.  Leave them in there for 12-13 minutes, when you remove them (just by lifting the mesh strainer), place them into a bowl of ice water.  If you're making these ahead of time, let them cool before refrigerating them.

Lowering eggs into simmering water

Post boiling ice bath
I think we're ready to put together our salad!  The reason I call it a composed salad is because it isn't tossed and mixed together.  I like this sometimes, I think it makes really beautiful presentation and also, if one of your guests doesn't like a particular component, they can avoid it.

Remember your bacon grease?  Heat it over medium heat and take your chicken out of the refrigerator.  Heat your pan for a good 5 minutes or maybe a few more to really make sure it's hot before you start cooking the chicken in batches.  I did about 2.5 to 3 minutes per side.  This bacon grease may pop a little, so put it on a back burner to do this and your clothes and face can avoid any pops of grease!  Place the cooked chicken on a plate or cutting board to cool.  While all this is cooking, you can assemble your beautiful salad!

Wash and dry (paper towel or salad spinner) your lovely greens and remove any undesirable items.  I used mache, which I like very much, but it can wilt quickly.  So, either you can work fast or leave it until the end.  Place your greens in the first stripe on your platter.

Next, wash your tomatoes.  I used grape tomatoes and sliced them in half.  You may use any type of small or large tomatoes, just cut them to your desired size.  Place them carefully as your next stripe.

Mache and grape tomatoes
Take your eggs, remove the shells (carefully) and slice or chop.  You'll see that because you cooked them very carefully, the whites are not too firm or rubbery and the yolks are a lovely yellow.  Place the pieces of egg as your next stripe.

Mache, grape tomatoes and hard boiled eggs
Avocado is our next stripe, cut an avocado in half and remove the pit.  Use half of the avocado for something else- feed the baby with it, etc.  While still in the skin, use a knife to cut it (without piercing the skin) once length wise and then across several times so you are cutting it into neat pieces.  Now, gently peel the skin and empty the avocado half into a small bowl.  Dress it with juice of half a lemon.  Arrange the neat pieces as your next stripe on the salad platter.

Mache, grape tomatoes, hard boiled eggs and avocado
Using a spoon, arrange the gorgonzola as the next stripe.  (This is regular gorgonzola, not gorgonzola dolce).

Mache, grape tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, avocado and gorgonzola
Next, arrange the olives- I used Kalamata olives that still had their pits inside, you can use any type of olive, with pits or without.

Mache, tomatoes, eggs, avocado, gorgonzola and olives
Finally, our bacon stripe.

Mache, tomatoes, eggs, avocado, gorgonzola, olives and bacon

Combine the ingredients of the salad dressing in a mason jar, simply close and shake.  So easy, right?  Drizzle about 1/3 to 1/2 of the dressing over the salad.  Sprinkle a little salt and pepper.

Salad dressing made in a mason jar

Your cooked and cooled chicken is now ready- cut it into bite sized pieces and place it over the top of the salad.  Although I prepared 1 lb. of chicken, I used only about 0.75 lb. for the salad.  I saved the rest in the refrigerator for another meal.  Pour not quite all of the remaining dressing from the mason jar over the chicken, another tiny pinch of salt and pepper- and serve!  Enjoy.  This salad can have all its components made ahead of time and then you can just assemble it and serve- even the chicken.  Just refrigerate it after cooking it.

I hope you are all having happy and healthy summers!

July 20, 2013

Fennel, Butter Lettuce and Avocado Salad with Lemon Marinated Chicken

Fennel, Butter Lettuce and Avocado Salad with Lemon Marinated Chicken

This salad feels like summer- light and delicious- and healthy!  Lay it out on a platter for a lovely lunch, maybe serve it with some rose- pair it with a light pasta like we did- excellent warm weather dining.  I can already picture your al fresco dinner party!

Fennel, Butter Lettuce and Avocado Salad with Lemon Marinated Chicken
(serves 3-4)
Chicken and Marinade
3-4 chicken breast cutlets (this would be either one or slightly more whole breast half, you can get 2-3 cutlets from each breast half by cutting them like a deck of cards, ideal thickness is about 1/3" thick)
zest of one lemon
juice of one lemon
3-4 Tbsp olive oil
about 5 fresh basil leaves, chopped
3 sprigs fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 large garlic clove, through a press or minced
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Salad and Dressing
1 fennel bulb, sliced into 2-3" pieces
about 6 whole butter lettuce leaves (about 2 ounces)
1 avocado
1 lemon
olive oil
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

First, marinate your chicken.  Some important thoughts here- the lemon juice actually will actually begin to poach the chicken if you let it marinate too long- so 15-20 minutes is really, really adequate to impart a strong lemon flavor.  The zest, also, imparts a good lemon flavor.

Chicken cutlets marinating in lemon, olive oil, garlic and herbs

While the chicken marinates, let's put together our salad.  Rinse your fennel bulb, discard to long stem and fronds.  Slice off the root portion, then slice the bulb into thin, roughly 1/4" slices.  Take apart and pieces that are a little too big to be a bite of salad, cut them again.  Place on your serving platter.  Rinse your butter lettuce leaves- you might notice that this is really one of my go-to salad greens.  It is for a reason- well a few reasons- first is that it is delicious, second, a lovely, creamy green color, and finally, and in hot weather this can't be underrated, it's not as likely as some greens to wilt.  Love that!  Rinse your lettuce, and dry it with paper towels, or, if you feel the need, a salad spinner.  Unless I have a lot of volume of salad, I can usually make paper towels work.  In addition, we're only drizzling the dressing over this salad, not tossing it, so it's less necessary that it be 100% water free.  Tear the butter lettuce leaves into 2" or so pieces, arrange on top and around the fennel pieces on the platter.

Sliced fennel and butter lettuce

On to your avocado- and have your lemon ready, because once we cut our avocado, we'll need to dress it in lemon juice to prevent it from browning.  Cut your avocado in half.  Remove the pit by lightly embedding a 6" chef knife in the center of the pit, then turn the knife at an angle to remove it.  Now, with the same 6" chef knife, which is usually my knife of choice, while still in the avocado skin, cut it into cubes.  Now, just gently remove the skin- instant avocado cubes that look neat and attractive.  Not hard at all, right?  Place them in a small bowl and dress with the juice of half of the lemon for our salad and dressing.  After coating them with lemon juice, discard the extra juice and arrange the avocado pieces on the salad platter with the fennel and butter lettuce.

Your chicken has had time to marinate, now let's grill it!  I use a grill pan on the stove, a Le Creuset pan, but you can do a variety of things depending on what you have and what you like.  An outdoor grill would be lovely, but a pan on the stove (not a grill pan) is just fine, too.  These chicken cutlets will cook fairly quickly, I'd estimate about 2 1/2 minutes per side at medium heat.  I spray the grill pan with Pam grilling spray, then let the pan heat up for a few minutes.  I place the chicken, without really removing any of the marinade from it- these small pieces of garlic, herbs and lemon zest are nice to include.  Let it grill or cook for about 2 1/2 minutes per side, then turn it over.  When the chicken is finished, let it rest for a few minutes on a plate or a cutting board.  I don't cover it, because it's not too important for this salad that it's warm, in fact, since the rest of the salad is cool, it's a little better if the chicken's temperature isn't very high.  But a little warmer than the rest of the salad is fine.  Cut the chicken into nice pieces, I just cut it perpendicular to the shape of the cutlet, and place it on top of the salad.

Chicken cutlets in a Le Creuset grill pan

Add a little sea salt, freshly ground pepper, maybe 1 to 2 Tbsp olive oil drizzled over the salad and the remaining juice of half of the lemon- and enjoy!

We paired this with a fresh angel hair pasta with pancetta, vidalia onion and oven roasted heirloom cherry tomatoes- delicious!

Happy summer!

July 19, 2013

Peach Rocket Pops (or Sorbet!)

It must be 'sorbet month' at our house, because I can't seem to stop making sorbet!  Blackberry, peach, strawberry and raspberry are now in the freezer in various forms, sorbet and rocket ships.  How beautiful are the peaches right now?  It's so exciting to go into your stores and start to see really summer-y things, ripe peaches, nectarines, sweet corn, fresh figs- really lovely, isn't it?

My initiative to get more fruit into my son continues- this very, very simple one was a hit with son and father alike.

Peach Sorbet
1 cup water
2/3 cup sugar
7 medium peaches (ripe)

This could not be simpler.  Three ingredients, seriously!  If you're making sorbet, pre-freeze your ice cream maker attachment.  Overnight is usually the minimum requirement.  When in doubt, consult the instruction manual.  Ok- in a small sauce pan, heat the water and sugar over med-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves.  Increase the heat to medium until it just begins to simmer.  Remove from heat and chill, about 15 to 20 minutes should do it.

Wash the peaches.  Cut the peaches as well as you can, so you get as much peach flesh as possible, throw out the pits.  You don't need to skin them, we're going to be using a chinois (or fine strainer) to remove the skin when we strain it.  Place the peach pieces and the chilled syrup in a blender, we have a Vitamix.  Mix, beginning at a low speed and increasing just until it's pureed nicely.

Using a chinois for peach sorbet
Now, last time I made sorbet and shared it with you, I used a screen strainer, which is absolutely fine.  But, if you have a chinois, this is a great thing to use it for- the pestle and the shape make it very, very efficient.  I am all about efficient.  Over a large enough bowl, use either a chinois or a screen strainer.  Use the pestle of the chinois to maximize the liquid extracted, if you aren't using a chinois, use a large spoon to extract as much liquid as possible.  Discard the solids.

If you're making popsicles, stand the molds up in the tray or in narrow enough glasses (like a juice glass) to keep them upright.  Pour in the mixture, but leave about a 1/2" at the top.  Insert the stick part of the mold, freeze, usually at least 4 hours.

Rocket popsicle molds, filled with peach sorbet mixture

For sorbet, chill about 15-20 minutes, then pop it in the ice cream maker for about 30 minutes, scoop out and freeze for maybe an hour, then enjoy!  We've been having multiple sorbet flavors for dessert this week!

Peach sorbet being made in an ice cream maker

Try these other recipes from La Dolce Duchessa for more frozen delights!  And stay cool!  My car temperature said it was 107 this afternoon, crazy!

Honey lavender gelato

Blackberry, rose and mint sorbet

July 17, 2013

Mommy Solutions: The Buff Manicure

Buff Manicure
Mommy hands!  They get used for an awful lot, don't they?  Cooking, cleaning, maybe I should say cleaning about three more times to do it justice, smoothing cowlicks, patting boo boos- well this list could just go on for about another paragraph or so...  Ok- so your hands as a Mom are taking a beating- at least mine are!  Now, everyone is different, but I really like to have manicured hands.  I really like bright nail polish, and my nails don't get too long, so by default I have relatively short nails with bright polish (when I'm keeping it together / presentable).  However- now this is the motivation for this post and recommendation, my nail polish gets ruined pretty fast by the sunscreen I am continuously slathering on (now) 3 people at least once a day...  Literally, under these conditions, my manicure will last maybe 24 hours before the nail polish starts to chip, flake, generally look yellow or like it's separating from the nail.  Foo!  (Light colored nail polish looks worse faster, showing the yellowing effect.)

So I got to thinking.  What's my goal here?  Well, for me, I would like for my hands and nails to look healthy, neat and attractive, and be able to withstand all the summer sunscreening.  Then it hit me, I need a manicure that buffs my nails into a lovely smooth shine that is polish-free!  If you also experience this frustration, why not go get yourself a buff manicure?  Most nail salons offer this choice in addition to the traditional manicure.  The additional upside is that there is no drying time- you can just walk out and back onto duty as super Mom!

A dear friend of mine, who read this original post, offered some very sage advice that I share with you- while buff manicures are lovely, don't do them too, too often, the sanding and shining of the nail makes it slightly thinner.  So, if you do this continuously, you'll have weaker nails :( and that was never the goal!  So, treat yourself with care!

To do a buff manicure yourself, which is 100% doable, you will need a special buffing block.  Here is one available on amazon: Buffing block  The whole process here is that the nail is first smoothed with a little abrasion, then it is rubbed with a smooth surface and the friction actually causes the nails to become shinier and more water-resistant.  What Mom doesn't need that?

Now your hands, Mom, are ready for anything!

July 10, 2013

Blackberry, Rose and Mint Sorbet

Blackberry, Rose and Mint Sorbet
Hello, summer!  Blackberry sorbet with rose and mint- for adults and kids!  This is a successful way to get my 3 year old son to eat fruit- in a rocket ship shaped popsicle- a serious victory!  I was recently feeding our 1 year old daughter some blackberries, they were so unbelievably ripe and delicious- and huge- and I thought, I need to make these into sorbet, ASAP!  While I was getting some more blackberries- because this young lady eats so much fruit- seriously- I think I go fruit shopping at least twice a week, primarily for the baby- as I was standing in the check out line, while the baby was smiling and cooing with an older French woman, there they were- rocket shaped popsicle molds.  Where have you been all my son's life?!  I thought, and they went up on the check out conveyor belt too.  I should explain a little more of that- my son is highly suspicious of all fruits and vegetables in their natural form.  With a few loopholes- corn is delicious and acceptable to him, as are sweet potatoes and dinosaur shaped spinach/potato bites- and recently, orange segments get all their juice sucked out of them.  Contests to do so against Daddy seem to be appealing.  Occasionally a bite of a banana gets eaten, and, if it is cooked with the other ingredients, broccoli rabe will get eaten in this La Dolce Duchessa recipe: Broccoli Rabe and Sausage with Pasta.  So, as you can see, this list is not long, and it is limited, and I am always looking for ways for him to get more fruits and vegetables.

Rocket Pop Molds (Whole Foods)

All that being said, this is also a really, really delicious sorbet that I have really been enjoying- the addition of the rose and the mint give it almost a vegetable, plant like flavor in addition to the great fruit and sweetness- so it doesn't taste like a one note fruit sorbet.  I would be delighted to serve this for dessert at a summer dinner party- especially if you were seated outside.  It's refreshing and delicious!

Blackberry, Rose and Mint Sorbet
1 cup water
1 cup white sugar
1 cup (not tightly packed) dried red rose buds and petals
10 large mint leaves (fresh)
4 cups (not tightly packed) blackberries (about 13-14 ounces)

Dried red rose buds and petals
The dried roses I bought from Amazon, here's the link: Dried Roses, I bought them for some Persian recipes that called for them and was inspired to add them to this sorbet.  Regardless of where you get your dried roses, make sure they are intended for culinary use.  Let's get started!  First, make sure you have pre-frozen the bowl for your ice cream maker.  It usually needs to have been in your freezer for about a day- when in doubt, check the directions of your particular machine.  In a medium pot, combine the water and sugar over low-med heat.  Stir to dissolve the sugar, then bring to a simmer over med-high heat.  Remove from the heat, add the roses and the mint, and allow to sit for 30 minutes.  These mint leaves, I'm pleased to say, came from the container garden outside on the patio- the mint plant is much larger now and we have several beautiful tomatoes forming!  When I say large, I mean really large mint leaves, so if yours aren't as big, (some are literally 2 inches long), use more leaves to make up the difference.

Making simple syrup, 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar

1 cup dried rose buds and petals

Syrup with dried roses and mint leaves

Once 30 minutes has passed, strain the mixture.  I like to use this screen strainer with a handle.


Isn't that a beautiful color?  Cool this off in the refrigerator for a little while, 30 minutes at a minimum is probably fine.  Now, wash your blackberries.  Blend in a blender with the syrup.  You'll need to strain the mixture now- primarily for the blackberry seeds and solids.  I use the same screen strainer with a handle over a bowl, and, because the mixture is fairly thick and the screen's openings are very small, I need to use a spoon to press the juice out.  This takes a little while.  Leave it alone for a few minutes and let the weight of the mixture do some of the work for you.  What is ultimately left looks a little like jam.  When in doubt, peek at the underside of the strainer, you should be able to tell if any liquid is still coming out.

Pouring the mixture from the blender into the strainer

Using a spoon to press liquid through the strainer

Once you've extracted everything you can- you can go ahead and either make popsicles or chill it to make sorbet.  For the rocket pop molds, I used a small juice glass to keep a single rocket upright in the freezer (this is a way to keep it upright while freezing if you aren't using the tray).  If you have a different popsicle maker, follow those directions.  This one needs to freeze for 4 hours.

Keeping rocket popsicle mold upright in a glass

To make sorbet, chill your mixture for about 30 minutes before you put it in the ice cream maker.  This was in my ice cream maker for about 35 minutes before I spooned it out and put it in the freezer.  It was not as solid as I have experienced with gelato in the same ice cream maker, but once it's been in the freezer for a little while it scoops and serves very nicely- fairly quickly actually- meaning it seems to melt fairly fast.  This is definitely easier than making gelato- even though making gelato is very much worth it!  Why not try this?

In the ice cream maker

This would probably work well in the Zoku popsicle maker- although we were given one as a lovely gift, I haven't used it yet- but now I'm inspired to use it!  I think some nice ripe peaches with some cream and cinnamon might be next on the sorbet / popsicle agenda- maybe also some chocolate and anise concoction...

Our inspiration for the sorbet!