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Grilled Lemongrass Chicken

29 Jan

Keen observers may have noticed by this point that I tend to go on extended benders when I become interested in making particular types of food.  Over the summer I made more tarts and galettes than any rational human should consider consuming in the span of a mere 3 months, and not long after that I became enamored with all things related to Mexican food.  A short glance at the most recent archives will more than give away the fact that my heart currently resides on the continent of Asia, bringing us food from India, Japan, and undetermined (but it sure tasted good).

A couple of those recipes are courtesy of Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford, a formerly-married couple from Canada (and now Canada and Thailand) who make their living traveling around (mostly through Asia) with their children and researching recipes.  They have written numerous cookbooks (including two books on baking and one book entirely about rice), and I can only imagine that, given their track record of producing incredible recipes and cooking techniques, time will only bring us more of their wonderful work.

This recipe for lemongrass chicken is taken from one of Duguid and Alford’s books with a focus on the cuisines of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar (Burma) to Vietnam.  As is often the case, I was reading this cookbook as I would read a non-cookbook, sitting down and flipping through it page by page, reading everything in detail before moving on.  My best friend once revealed to me that sometimes she liked to sit in bed and read a cookbook before falling asleep, as one might read a novel or a magazine, and I could not stop nodding my head in agreement (needless to say, there is a reason we are best friends).

The recipe originally calls for beef, but I, recent indiscretions aside, am not the biggest fan of beef, so I swapped it out from some chicken breasts.  Say what you want to about everyone’s favorite meat to belittle, but boneless, skinless chicken breasts really work well in this application, subtly sitting in the background so the lemongrass marinade can receive all the glory.  For a dish so simple, it is a huge winner in our household.  We eat it over steamed rice, over thin rice noodles sprinkled with herbs, or sometimes over a pile of fresh and snappy arugula.  I can’t say that I’ll ever possess the gumption to cook an everyday meal like Duguid and Alford are prone to doing (I recall an article in the New Yorker that detailed the couple making a casual meal of homemade crackers, hand-rolled noodles, and roasted wild boar), but with inspiration culled from time spent with many a cookbook, I am at least hoping that, little by little, I’ll be able to take these little bursts of global cooking and transform the bulk of them into regular staples on our table.  This recipe is a good place to start.

Grilled Lemongrass Chicken

From Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

2 stalks lemongrass, trimmed and minced

2 to 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped

2 shallots, peeled and chopped

1 bird or Serrano chile, finely chopped

2 teaspoons Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon water

1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 tablespoons roasted sesame seeds

To prepare the marinade, combine lemongrass, garlic, shallots, and chile in a mortar and pestle or a food processor and pound or blend to a paste (adding just a little water if necessary to make a paste).   Transfer the paste to a bowl, add the fish sauce, lime juice, and water and blend well.  Add sesame oil and stir well.  Set aside.

Cut the meat into very thin slices (less than 1/8-inch) against the grain (this is much easier if the meat is cold).  Duguid recommends you then cut the slices into 1 1/2 –inch lengths, but I kept our slices longer and was quite fond of them that way.  Place the meat in a shallow bowl, add the marinade, and mix well, making sure that the meat is well coated.  Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, or up to 8 hours.

Prepare a grill, grill pan, or broiler on medium high heat.  Sprinkle the meat with sesame seeds, then grill or broil until cooked through, about 2 minutes for the first side and 1 minute for the second side, depending on how hot your grill or broiler is and how fast the chicken is cooking through.

Serves 4 as part of a meal, more as an appetizer.

Chicken Biryani

12 Jan

This is my new favorite chicken dish.  In fact, it is my new favorite dish, period.  I am not being hyperbolic in the least.  In fact, when I took a bite of this dish, the very first words that ran through my head were, “Holy —-, this is the best chicken I have ever eaten.”  (Edited for posterity.)

Which is odd, really, because to be quite honest, the chicken is not what makes this dish.  Sure, the chicken is cooked nicely, nestled amongst a cushion of basmati rice, softened onions, and fresh cilantro, but it’s the flavors of the marinade enveloping the chicken that really permeate this dish and make it shine.  The spices, seemingly simple, are subtle, but with a great build.  The first bite is pretty astonishing, but as you eat, each bite seems to take on a different characteristic.  Some bites are packed with the sweet and mellow taste of slow cooked onion, while other bites are flecked with cinnamon and coriander.  Occasionally I happened upon a strangely spicy bite, an unexpected, yet pleasant, surprise in a dish that is relatively mild on the spiciness scale.

And that’s one of the things that makes this recipe so mysteriously satisfying.  There is no abundance of spicy sauce.  There is no interplay between sour and spicy to test the agility of your taste buds.  It doesn’t taste predominantly of chicken, but it doesn’t taste mainly of rice, either.  Everything just sort of works together, tasting comforting and warm, well rounded, but also delicate.  Does it seem odd that I am speaking of a chicken dish as though it were a fine glass of wine?

I hate to make so many grand statements at once, but I really do think that this recipe is darn near close to perfect.  Even the casual side notes from the recipe’s authors are indispensible.  Taking their cue, I paid special attention to the layer of crisped rice and chicken that had formed on the bottom of the pot during the long baking time.  Though the recipe recommended that this layer of deeply browned bits be scraped from the pot and laid on top of the turned-out rice, I instead took the instinctive step of placing the browned bits directly into my mouth, a decision I highly recommend to anyone else who chooses to cook this.

All that said, I am not going to lie to you.  This is not a quick dish.  You are going to have to set aside some time to turn this baby out, but when you do, you will most certainly not regret it.  Make it a weekend affair, when you’ve got your afternoon ahead of you and you can take some time to prep the ingredients without being rushed.  Though the effort may seem to be a time challenge, I promise you that the result is nothing short of a reward.

Chicken Biryani

Nearly perfect as is, there are a couple of things about this recipe that I have altered only slightly.  One is the preparation of the garlic and ginger.  I find that grating both items into a bowl and then mashing them with a spoon is a far simpler and more reliable method of turning them into a paste, rather than trying to wrestle with them in a mortar and pestle.  I also decreased the amount of oil called for, as I had enough oil left over in the end that I thought it prudent to simply use less next time around.

From Mangoes and Curry Leaves, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

1 pound boneless chicken breasts or thighs, or a mixture

3 large cloves of garlic, grated finely (you want to end up with about 2 teaspoons total)

1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger

1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander

½ teaspoon cayenne

¼ teaspoon turmeric

¼ teaspoon garam masala

½ cup plain yogurt (full or reduced-fat are both fine)

2 teaspoons salt

2 cups basmati rice

3 medium-large onions (about 1 pound)

½ cup vegetable oil

1 cup minced cilantro leaves

2 tablespoons of water

Rinse the chicken, then chop into 1-inch cubes.  In a large bowl, combine the grated garlic and ginger, then mash together using the back of a spoon.  Add the chicken cubes to the bowl with the garlic and ginger.  Add the coriander, cayenne, turmeric, garam masala, yogurt, and 1 teaspoon of the salt.  Stir to mix until everything is combined, then cover with plastic wrap and allow to marinate in the refrigerator for 2 to 4 hours.

While the chicken is marinating, rinse the rice in several changes of cold water.  Place in a bowl, cover with water, and allow to soak for about half an hour.

About 1 ½ hours before you want to serve the dish, place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Slice the onions as fine as possible.  You will want about 3 cups of sliced onions.  Place a large heavy ovenproof pot with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat.  Add the oil and, when it is hot, add the onions.  Lower the heat to medium.  Cook until the onions are very soft, wilted, and just touched with golden brown (I love the way that is phrased), 12 to 15 minutes.  Lift the onions out of the hot oil and set aside.  There should be a little over ¼ cup of oil left in the pot.  Remove 2 tablespoons of oil from the pot and set aside for later.

When the onions are cooking, precook the soaked rice.  Place about 8 cups of water in a large pot and bring to a boil.  Add the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt, and allow the water to come back up to a boil.  Sprinkle in the rice.  Allow rice to boil for 4 to 6 minutes, or until the rice is no longer brittle but still firm to the bite.  Drain in a colander and set aside.

Place the heavy pot containing the oil over medium-high heat.  Distribute half of the chicken pieces over the bottom of the pot, then sprinkle on half the precooked rice.  Scatter half the cooked onions over the top, then sprinkle on half of the cilantro leaves.  Repeat with the remaining chicken, rice, onion, and cilantro.  Sprinkle on about 2 tablespoons of water, and drizzle on the reserved 2 tablespoons of oil.  Lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the top of the pot to cover it completely, then top with the lid.

Transfer the pot to the oven and bake for 1 hour.

Carefully remove the lid and the aluminum foil (the pot will emit a great deal of steam, so stand back and be careful to steer clear of the hot cloud).  Remove the biryani to a platter.  Scrape out the crusty layer of chicken and rice from the bottom of the pot, and lay it on top of the biryani.  Serve hot or warm.

Serves 6

Balsamic-Glazed Chicken and Zucchini with Grilled Limes

30 Sep

It may seem a little late for a recipe centered around grilling, but summer came so late around here that we’ve been able to keep our grill working well into September.  It’s a good thing we took advantage of that long stretch of dry weather, too, for right now it is raining and I am wearing a scarf.  Over my sweater.  And crying.

But let’s not talk about that.  Let’s instead talk about something that I think everybody needs in their arsenal of quick meals: a fast weeknight dish.  It’s not the most exciting of topics, I know, but maybe pretend you are making this quick meal before you take off to meet some friends for drinks and then go to your favorite bar to see the Hold Steady.  Only that bar has closed down now, and the Hold Steady no longer plays in little bars anyhow, so you might have to see them play some big club with far too many beer-sodden patrons who think they should jump up and down in front of you like the (now departed) keyboardist in the Hold Steady used to do, only when the keyboardist did it it was charming, and when this dude in front of you does it it just blocks your view and makes you a little tired of being violently leaped on every two seconds.

I seem to have veered off course a bit.

So, chicken!  I know that boneless, skinless chicken breasts have a bad reputation, and I completely understand why.  It’s very easy to make something as simple as a chicken breast taste terrible, what with that portion of the chicken being so utterly plain, devoid of fat, and easy to overcook.  The other side of that equation is, it is also fairly easy to make a chicken breast shine, what with its versatility and unrivalled ability to absorb flavor.  With this simple balsamic glaze that requires very little action other than a periodic swipe across the chicken, you can produce a quick chicken dish that is flavorful, fast, and totally satisfying.

The greatest asset of the entire dish, however, lies not in the chicken, but in the grilled limes.

Just a couple of minutes on a hot grill will coax untold amounts of juice out of each lime, and with just a bit of the bright, caramelized fruit squeezed over each serving of chicken, you instantly add a layer of flavor to each bite that will make you wonder how you ever managed to produce such a fantastic meal in such a short amount of time.

Balsamic-Glazed Chicken and Zucchini with Grilled Limes

Hey, lady, why on earth are you giving us a recipe for grilled chicken when it’s no longer grilling season?  Because if you have a grill pan sitting in your kitchen, that grill pan will work just as well as an outside grill.  Good grill pans are available for as little as $19 on Amazon, and I’ve yet to enter a discount kitchen store that hasn’t had at least half a dozen grill pans sitting around looking all well-priced and ready to be taken home.

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large garlic clove, crushed and finely chopped

salt and pepper

4 boneless, skinless, chicken breast halves

2 medium zucchini, sliced lengthwise into ¼-inch slices

2 limes, sliced in half

In a medium bowl, whisk together balsamic vinegar, olive oil, chopped garlic, and salt and pepper to taste.  Add zucchini slices to glaze, toss to combine, and set aside.  The zucchini slices will only have to sit in the glaze for a minute or two.

Heat a grill or grill pan to medium high heat.  Place chicken breasts on grill.  Remove zucchini slices to a plate, and set aside.  Using a heatproof brush, brush a generous amount of the balsamic blaze on the exposed side of each chicken breast.  Cook the first side of the chicken breast for 4-5 minutes (until chicken has dark, visible grill marks), then flip chicken and brush glaze on the cooked side of the chicken.  After 4-5 more minutes, brush chicken with glaze again, flip again, then brush once more.  Cook chicken until done, occasionally brushing with more glaze. Chicken will be done when it reaches an internal temperature of about 160 degrees Fahrenheit.  When poked with a knife, the emitting juices should be clear, not tinged pink or yellow.

While the chicken finishes cooking, add the limes to the grill, cut side down.  Add the zucchini slices to the grill, and cook for 1-2 minutes on each side, until zucchini is soft but not mushy, and has visible grill marks on each side.

If you are using a grill pan instead of an outdoor grill and do not have enough room to cook chicken, zucchini, and limes all at once, cook the chicken first (for a total of about 7-10 minutes on each side, depending on how large the chicken breasts are), set aide, and then cook zucchini and limes.

Serve each chicken breast sliced, accompanied by zucchini and half of a grilled lime.  I like to serve the chicken and zucchini on a bed of greens, often with slices of fresh tomato.  When ready to eat, squeeze the juice of the grilled lime over the chicken and vegetables.

Serves 4-6 people.

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