Easy Entertaining: Chicken Ragout

This hearty chicken dish is the definition of flexibility—and the ideal solution for an easy dinner with friends.

Our Chicken Ragout features plump chicken pieces simmered in a rustic tomato sauce that is enriched with mushrooms, rosemary, sweet carrots, and other vegetables.

We have options with this dish:  it can be prepped and cooked in various stages for enjoyment right away or set aside until later. If you chose to make it ahead,  know that these big flavors will mellow and improve as the ragout waits for you.

The preparation is straight forward, brown the chicken off then use the pan drippings to flavor the basic tomato sauce. Let the chicken simmer in the sauce until tender. When it’s convenient, separately roast the mushrooms, onion, pepper, rosemary, and carrots in a hot oven to precook and bring out their inherent sweetness, and set aside until needed.

The dish can all be assembled for enjoyment later the same day, or refrigerate the components and bring  out when ready to serve.  Reheat the chicken in tomato sauce, add the roasted vegetables, and simmer briefly. The ragout should retain its distinct freshness, yet blend the robust flavors into one dynamic package.

Serve the ragout with Creamy Polenta or a pasta of your choice to round out the rustic tomato sauce that develops.

Chicken Ragout with Roasted Hearty Vegetables

Ingredients

3½ pound chicken, cut into portions, or equivalent pieces
½ salt & red pepper flakes
1 tsp fresh or ½ tsp dried sage or herbes de Provence
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, mash & sliver
1 tsp dried rosemary
1½ cups chicken stock
14½ ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
2 Tbsp tomato paste
Roasted  Hearty Vegetables (follows)

Instructions

  1. Sprinkle chicken with salt, pepper, and sage.
  2. In a large pot or in a multi-cooker set to Hi Sauté, heat 2 Tbsp. oil, add chicken and sauté until golden brown, about 6 minutes per side. Transfer chicken to bowl.
  3. Lower heat to Medium Sauté, add garlic and rosemary and briefly sauté. Deglaze with a ½ cup stock, scraping up browned bits, about 1 minute. Stir in canned tomatoes with juice and tomato paste, remaining broth, and bring to a boil. Drop heat to Low Sauté and simmer 5-10 minutes to blend flavors.
  4. Add the chicken and any juices to sauce and simmer covered over low heat for 20 minutes, or set multi-cooker to HI Pressure for 10 minutes using 10 minutes natural release. Can be cooled and chilled overnight at this point.
  5. Skim off excess fat, add the roasted vegetables to heated chicken and simmer 10-15 minutes longer. Adjust seasoning. Serve with Creamy Polenta, sprinkle with drained capers or fresh basil.  Serves 4

Roasted Hearty Vegetables  Using 1 Tbsp olive oil, 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar, ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ tsp red pepper flakes, 1 tsp fennel seed. 1 small onion in wedges, 2 medium carrots cut up, 1 cup crimini mushrooms halved, 1 green pepper cut.

  • Heat oven to 425-450°F.  Line a sheet pan with parchment or non-stick foil.
  • In a medium bowl, combine the oil, through fennel seeds.
  • Place the vegetables as cut up into the bowl.  Toss with the seasoned oil to coat.
  • Arrange the vegetables evenly on the pan.  Roast for 20 minutes, until tender-crisp. Stir after the first 10 minutes.  Turn off heat and let stand in oven with residual heat for 10 minutes.

Painless Polenta

I just had to stop and pass on this memorable method for cooking polenta.  Finally, the nightmares are over: no more burbling projectiles of searing polenta. With no effort—and no pain—creamy, smooth polenta is ready in 30 minutes.

In cooking your polenta, it’s important to select the right type. There are instant polentas that cook up in a flash, for which this whole episode is likely a waste of your time. Coarser grains, such as authentic polenta, stone-ground cornmeal, or grits require a longer cooking time. That is what we are interested in here, we want the more traditional style for rich flavor and divine mouth-feel.

And, there is no sticking or burning polenta, either…

This may sound like an infomercial, but I have nothing to gain but good food. The secret is in the multi-cooker and the trick is to use a bit more water than usual. Bring it all to a simmer, stir in the salt and polenta, then seal the lid and bring it to pressure. Let it burble away undisturbed for 20 minutes. Once complete, allow the pressure to release naturally (about 10 minutes). In this magical time, the polenta settles down, expands, and blooms. Carefully remove the lid, bring it all together with a wooden spoon and whisk in a little butter and grated cheese.

Now, you are free to do with it what you will. This polenta is good enough to enjoy without a lot of fuss, but the options are endless.

Spoon it loosely mounded into a bowl porridge-style topped with cheese, or with your favorite mushroom topping or tomato sauce.

Polenta thickens as it sits, so you can pour it into a flat pan or dish to firm up and cut into shapes later.

Make crostini type bites or cut into fingers for dipping. Or, form into cakes for a future side. It’s all good!

Creamy Polenta

Ingredients
5 cups water
1 tsp salt
1 cup coarse polenta
2 Tbsp butter
¼ cup grated Parmesan

Instructions

  1. Place salted water in liner of Instant Pot or other multi-cooker. Set to Hi Saute or equivalent and bring to a simmer. Whisk in polenta to dissolve any potential lumps.
  2. Seal lid, set to HI Pressure for 20 minutes.  When complete, turn off unit and disconnect. Let stand 10 minutes, then slowly release pressure.  Before opening, tap or shift pot to remove pockets of heat that may have formed in the polenta.  Carefully open and stir down with long wooden spoon.
  3. Whisk the butter and cheese into the polenta to incorporate and make smooth.
  4. Serve in spoonfuls, or pour onto oiled or plastic lined baking sheet, chill and let set. Cut into shapes and reheat in 375°F oven, or in a skillet over medium high with a coating of butter or oil until heated and toasted on each side.  Serves 4 or more.

Fish du Jour

The other day I received a surprise de-briefing from my local fish monger.  As I obliquely scanned the beautifully displayed case and mumbled ‘red snapper’, he dropped everything, came around the counter, and pulled me aside.

With his hands pressed in front of him, he gazed off to the side and softly explained that Red Snapper is an excellent fish that originates in Atlantic waters and not widely available on the west coast.  He pointed out  that the misleading label Pacific Red Snapper is simply some sort of rockfish.  I guess I’m the last person to get the message.  That’s okay, in Tahiti ‘lagoon fish’ is always a delicious menu choice.  I happily headed out with 3 sweet smelling rockfish fillets.

Rockfish is a bass-like species, with a large mouth and spines on its head. Nothing like the red snapper I recall.  This large variety of fish can range in color from copper or red to blue, green or black, and can even sport colorful speckles or stripes.

Still, rockfish are mild flavored, highly marketed and very popular. With all that demand, some can be subject to overfishing and destructive practices. For a reliable resource, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch provides plenty of recommendations to threatened and endangered species. They have both online information as well as an app available for download.

So here’s the genesis behind the red snapper/rockfish event. The secret to the success of this dish is the outstanding bread crumb marinade. Not only does it add flavor and moisture to the fish, the top crisps and gives an unexpected crunchiness when placed close to the heat.

Of course, any firm fleshed fish will work, including halibut, tuna, cod, shark…

Rockfish Fillets with Bread Crumb Marinade

Ingredients
1 pound firm fish fillets, rockfish/snapper, lingcod
⅓ cup chopped parsley
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 anchovy fillets (or 1 tsp paste)
Few sprigs basil, chopped
½ cup dry bread crumbs
⅓ cup olive oil
2 Tbsp lemon juice
pinch red pepper flakes

Instructions

  1. Combine marinade by mixing together the parsley through red pepper flakes; it should be fairly moist.
  2. Line baking sheet with non-stick foil.  Massage marinade into whole fillets. Let stand for 1 hour at room temperature, or cover and refrigerate several hours.
  3. Using top heat source, broil @ 450°F for 8-10 minutes until flaky and crumbs are crisp and brown. Can be held a few minutes at lower heat.   Yield: 4 servings

Bread-and-Breakfast Special

My Friday pizza routine took a turn last night, it became more of a Saturday morning pizza. It was another affirmation that pizza is good anytime, even with an egg on it.

Pizza with Baked Eggs, fresh out of oven

I’m calling this my Bread-and-Breakfast special because it’s ham and cheese on fabulous pizza crust with as many eggs piled on as you wish.

Of course, the saddest part of this was that it was so good, there was none left for breakfast today.  But that can be remedied, since our standby pizza dough recipe (here) makes 2 medium pizzas or 1 large. It also works well because of the prebake process I’ve built into it. With the crust partially baked ahead, it’s a matter of adding toppings and giving it a final bake.

In this case, I wanted a thicker crust rather than the thinner style I usually prefer.  One that would hold a bit of an indentation for each egg to rest in, and soak up some of that eggy goodness. Since this dough is made with instant yeast, it requires little kneading and it rises in a flash. It takes little extra time to roll or pat it into the pan, spread on a little olive oil and let it rise for an extra 15 minutes.

While that was happening, I organized my toppings and began to preheat the oven to 450°F.  For the first bake that sets the dough, I made indentations in it for the eggs, scattered on strips of Canadian bacon tossed with red pepper flakes, and let it bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until it began to color slightly.

For the final bake I spread the cheese blend across the crust, then dropped the eggs in place with a little salt and pepper and more cheese.  I sprinkled herbs across it all and drizzled on a bit more olive oil.  Into the oven it went for another 8 to 10 minutes, until the cheese was bubbly,  egg whites were set, yolks runny, and the crust golden brown.

I learned the eggs continue to cook and set up once out of the oven.  The ham is a nice touch, but can be omitted for a simple cheese pizza. Or, swap it out with mushrooms, prosciutto, peppers, or whatever.

Ham & Cheese Pizza with Baked Eggs

Ingredients
1/2 recipe Pizza Dough
1-2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 thin slices Canadian bacon, sliced into strips (optional)
½ cup shredded mozzarella or Muenster cheese
¼ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
2-4 eggs
Sea salt and ground pepper
1/2 tsp herbes de Provence, Italian seasoning, or fresh thyme
To finish: 2 green onions, sliced

Instructions

  1. Using fresh dough, roll out to fit a well-oiled medium pizza pan, brush lightly with olive oil. Let it rest 15 minutes while preparing other ingredients.
  2. Preheat oven to 450° F.  Make an indentation in dough for each egg.  Scatter ham on top, and prebake the crust for 8-10 minutes, until set, firm and beginning to color slightly.
  3. If using prebaked crust proceed from here.
  4. Combine and sprinkle all but 1/4 cup cheese over crust. Drop eggs onto crust, sprinkle with salt and pepper and remaining cheese. Season all with herbs and drizzle more oil across the top. Bake 8-10 minutes, until cheese is bubbly, egg whites are set, yolk are set but runny and crust is golden brown.  Let stand briefly, scatter with sliced green onions and slice.  Makes 1 medium pizza.

Soup & Salad in a Bowl

I have been thinking about them for a while now. It’s not that they are complicated or require a lot of effort to make, I just need to be in the right mood.  I suspect I connect them with summer because today we got our first blast of heat, and when it approached the mid 90’s I started rummaging around.

Well, of course I found them!  I had everything needed and proceeded to set up the pressure cooker.  Hot or not.

Yes, you know what I’m talking about.  It’s the crazy green Le Puy lentils that I’m always ranting over.  True characters, those little powerhouses of potassium, iron, and magnesium… with peppery flavor and a firm texture that doesn’t turn to mush.

Earlier, I was in the mood for a soup, but this heat called for something lighter and I waffled toward a salad of some sort.

Lentil soup salad close

That was the answer: an easy lentil soup dotted with vegetables and fresh herbs. This soup is so good, it can be eaten hot, warm, or cold and with the help of the pressure cooker I figured I’d be done in about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, I checked on the radish supply, and mine were huge!  This would require Pink Himalayan salt.  Today’s salad would be an arugula blend laced with more fresh herbs from the garden.

Lentil soup_salad long

I’d keep it simple with a perky drizzle of white wine vinaigrette and crumbled blue cheese scattered about.  Soup and salad in a bowl.

By the time I was hungry, the soup had cooled to warm… and that is the way it was: filling, flavorful and toooootally satisfying.

Le Puy Lentil Soup with Herb Salad

Ingredients

  • 1 cups dried Le Puy lentils, rinsed
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • 1 shallot, small chop
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp mixed dried herbs (Herbes de Provence or thyme, rosemary, sage)
  • 1 carrot, chop
  • 1 stalk celery, small chop
  • 2 tomatoes, seed and chop
  • 3 cups beef stock or 2 cups stock plus 1 cup water
  • Salt and pepper, fresh ground
  • Fresh herbs: 1/3 cup fresh herbs: parsley, thyme, rosemary, savory, dill, any

Mesclun Herb Salad

  • 2-4 ounces mesclun blend with arugula
  • 1/3 cup fresh herbs:  parsley, thyme, rosemary, savory, dill, any
  • White Wine Vinaigrette
  • 2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 2 tsp fresh herbs, chop
  • Salt and pepper, fresh ground
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 3 oz crumbled blue cheese

Instructions

  1. In multi-cooker/pressure cooker set to Medium Saute, heat olive oil. Add the shallot and cook briefly, then the garlic.  Once aromatic, add the herbs and stir to combine.  Then the carrot, celery, and tomatoes, toss to combine.
  2. Add the stock, the lentils and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer.  Cover, lock lid, set to HI Pressure for 5 minutes.  When complete, turn off and disconnect PC.  Carefully release pressure and open lid.  Adjust seasoning. Serve hot, warm, or chilled.
  3. Prepare the vinaigrette and adjust seasonings.
  4. When ready to serve soup, stir in the fresh herbs. Ladle into soup bowls, top with mixed greens, drizzle with vinaigrette, and sprinkle with fresh herbs and crumbled blue cheese.  Serves 4

Raging Ragu

Porketta roasts occasionally come up on promotion at my local market and I’ve deliberated, but have always passed.  Recently, I spotted a good looking pork butt in the meat case and decided to give the porketta concept a try with my own seasoning blend.

You guessed it.  I made easy work of it in the multi-cooker, finished it under pressure, and was done in less than an hour.  The results were great.  Even better, there was enough left for another meal—and the main purpose of this post.

The porketta creates an absolute stellar Ragu, and arguably the easiest and best meat sauce imaginable.

Ragu and Pappardelle

Just to recap the porketta process, a 3-pound seasoned roast was sliced in half.  Both pieces were seared in the multi-cooker. 1-1/2 cups of water were added to the pot to further deglaze and build pressure. A rack was inserted and the meat was placed on it.  The pot was set to HI Pressure for 30 minutes with a 10 minute natural release.  The roast was then ready to go.

I chose a simple marinara sauce as the basis of the Ragu and cut well over a pound of roasted porketta into 1” chunks.  The meat was so tender, it nearly fell apart in the process.  All the better.  Into the sauce it went, along with some of the residual pan drippings.  The Ragu burbled and mingled for 20 to 30 minutes.

Ragu and Spinach Pasta

If you can bear to wait, the Ragu is even better the next day.  Serve this delight over pasta or as an astounding pizza topping.

Porketta Ragu

Ingredients

  • 1 to 1-1/2 lbs roasted porketta, cut into chunks
  • 4 to 6 cups marinara sauce

Instructions

In a large pot, heat the marinara sauce.  Meanwhile, cut the left over porketta roast into 1″ chunks, break it up a bit with a fork and add to the sauce.  Heat until meat is moist and begins to fall apart but still chunky, about 20 minutes.  Serve over linguine, rigatoni, or pappardelle and top with fresh parsley and grated parmesan cheese. Serves 2 to 4

Porketta Seasoning:  1 Tbsp fennel seeds, 2 tsp oregano, 2 tsp salt, 1 tsp black pepper, 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes, 5 crushed garlic cloves, 1 Tbsp olive oil.

Crush the fennel thru pepper flakes in a spice mill or mortar and pestle.  Add the crushed garlic and the olive and combine well.

 

Spatchcock Maneuvers

What’s in a name? What about a blog called Culinary Distractions?  Well, as the blog’s primary writer and producer of content, I am fascinated by just about anything edible and nothing makes me happier than playing with food.

What could be better than gathering up the earth’s magnificent bounty and transforming it into a creation worthy of sharing with others?  That can be a lofty statement, especially when food doesn’t turn out as planned. To paraphrase Julia, ‘There are no mistakes. When you are alone in the kitchen no one knows what you intend—but you’.

That was my attitude the first time I attempted to spatchcock a chicken.  I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of a flattened chicken, even the name makes it sound like vicarious fun.  Besides, no round surfaces means it will cook easier and faster—especially on the grill.

On the weekend of the planned spatchcocking event,  the weather did not cooperate. Forecasted rain shifted the cooking indoors and I would use a small oven suitable for a bird no larger than three pounds. For two days I searched, only to be told that today’s chickens run four pounds or larger. When did that happen?  In the end, I opted for a fat frozen Cornish game hen, which was exactly what I needed.

Hen with knife
Halved Spatchcock

The plump little game hen was the perfect prop for testing my spatchcocking skills.  First, I readied a lemony marinade and set it aside.  With a good sharp chef’s knife in hand and the game hen presented breast side down on a cutting board, I quickly cut along one side of the backbone where the ribs are attached, and detached it. With the cavity opened up, I cut along the backbone’s second edge and removed it.

For the final spatchcock maneuver, to fully flatten it, I flipped the bird breast side up and pressed down on the curved breast plate with palms, then twisted the wings inward to align them down each side. The hen’s soft bones made it effortless—far easier than butchering a whole chicken.  My apologies for not having step-by-step photos, but my hands were full!

The flattened hen marinated overnight in the refrigerator. The next day I brought it to room temperature and spread it onto a pizza pan, a perfect fit for the oven and the bird. As it roasted, I basted and turned it a couple of times until golden brown. Rather than the usual one hour or longer, it took about 45 minutes.

Hen on pan

Turns out it was a success: succulent, flavorful, absolutely delicious, and couldn’t have been easier!

IMG_20190421_174409532_HDR (1)

 

Spatchcock Lemon-Rosemary Game Hen

  • 1 Cornish game hen, rinse, trim, and pat dry

Marinade

  • 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice (1/2 lemon)
  • 1 clove garlic, crush
  • 1 tsp fresh rosemary or 1/2 tsp dried, light chop
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil

For marinade, place the lemon juice through salt in a small bowl and combine.  Whisk in the olive oil and set aside.

To spatchcock: place the game hen breast side down on a cutting board.  With a large sharp knife or shears carefully cut along the length of the backbone where the ribs are attached, and detach on one side. Cut along the second edge of the backbone and remove it. Turn the hen breast side up and flatten by pressing down on the curved breast plate with palms. Twist the wings inward to align down each side.

Place the flattened game hen in a zip lock bag. Pour half the marinade evenly over its interior and then pour the remainder over the skin side.  Shift the marinade about to completely cover all surfaces and close the bag.  Store in refrigerator for 2 hours or overnight. Turn over twice.

Let the game hen sit at room temperature for 20 minutes before cooking. Preheat oven to 425°F.  Line a suitable baking sheet with non-stick foil and lay the flat bird breast side up with wings down each side.  Roast the hen, turning and basting twice with pan juices until golden brown, 35 to 45 minutes (internal temperature 160°F).  Serves 2