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!

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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

Stock-free Soup: Whey to Go

In today’s culinary world it’s all about building layers of flavor—and for further clarification we use terms like big, bold, and complex.

In Lois Anne Rothert’s well researched book, The Soups of France, she points out that for centuries thrifty French housewives have created delicious, nourishing soups without the benefit of heavy hitting stocks. Rather, they often use water and rely on local products like olive oil, herbs, spices, garlic, and garden vegetables to flavor and take center stage.

In the same mode, I am getting serious about a particular item in my fridge that is mushrooming out of control.  I have way too much whey.  Since I have been making yogurt and tinkering with fresh cheeses whey is multiplying in my refrigerator.

Several years ago I recall reading countless recipes using whey in Nancy Fallon’s ground breaking book, Nourishing Traditions.  At the time, it was interesting, but I wasn’t ready. Yes, whey is loaded with food value and I’m doing what I can to not waste it. I add it to my morning muesli, use it for pasta water, pour it on plants, and feed it to stray cats…

I’ve previously mentioned my fascination with spiced Paneer cheese and I continue to revise and refine it, further adding to the whey backlog. Out of curiosity, I recently tasted this deeper colored whey and discovered it has a nuanced, delicate flavor, layered with coriander, fennel, and nigella seeds and a whisper of lemon tartness. What’s not to love?

One batch of seeded whey ended up in a Red Pepper Soup from The Soups of France. Or more accurately, in the Basque soup made with water, flavored with red peppers, garlic and sausage–plus a couple or red potatoes added for good measure.  It receives bonus points for the suggested inclusion of poached eggs!

Red Pepper Soup

If I can break away from the whey glut, I still intend to try this soup made with water.  If it is good with whey, it will likely be as delicious on its own merit.  Also, note that a simple dash of red wine vinegar at the table adds to its intrinsic earthiness. Since the soup relies on the best quality sausage, I opted for plump sage breakfast sausage, which goes well with a perfectly poached egg.

Basque Garlic, Sausage, and Red Pepper Soup

Inspired by Lois Anne Rothert’s The Soups of France

  •  ½ lb spicy sausage, bulk pork breakfast sausage is good
  • 2 red potatoes, cube
  • 3 red peppers, seed, slice into strips
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 8 cloves garlic, mince
  • Pinch cayenne or Piment d’Espelette
  • 2 quarts water, chicken stock, whey, or a combination
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Accompaniments:  Red wine vinegar, Poached eggs, Toasted French bread

In a large soup pot heat the olive oil over low heat.  Add the garlic, sausage, and pepper strips, potato, and sauté to break up and brown the sausage, about 10 minutes. Drain excess fat.

Add the cayenne, water, and salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to low and simmer uncovered 15-20 minutes.  Adjust seasoning.

Ladle into soup bowls, top each with a poached egg, pass the vinegar to drizzle onto soup and serve with toasted French bread.  Serves 6

Mollet World

What is the difference between a poached and a soft boiled egg?

A poached egg is cracked into simmering water and cooked until the white is firm and yolk is runny.  A soft boiled—or rather a soft-cooked egg—is not boiled, but simmered in the shell and cooked until white begins to set and yolk is runny—or according to preference.  My clan is picky about this: we err on the side of runny.

This gets confusing.  As with the soft-boiled or soft-cooked egg, a mollet is an egg  that is simmered in the shell until white is firm enough to hold its shape and the yolk is runny.  It is cracked and released from its shell whole, or chilled and then peeled whole.

Jacques Pepin agrees. “The mollet, which means ‘soft’ in French, refers to eggs [likely refrigerated] that are cooked in water in their shells for a longer period of time than soft-cooked eggs, but not as long as hard-cooked eggs — about 6 minutes total.  The yolk is creamy and the white less watery than in soft-cooked eggs. Then the eggs are shelled, leaving their shape intact.”

In sous vide world,  poached egg is the term loosely used to refer to an egg cooked in its shell.  Whatever your choice, the process comes down to temperature of the water bath and cooking time.  Many contend 145°F is the way to go, and to cook the eggs for an hour. Right, and yet this can result in a barely set egg. America’s Test Kitchen steps up with a good compromise.

sous vide bath 1

At ATK’s recommended 167°F for 12 to 13 minutes, the white holds its round shape, and the yolk is runny.  Even better, it is not necessary to peel the mollet. To everyone’s amazement, simply give the warm egg a good crack and the round mollet will fall gracefully from its shell, leaving behind any of its watery residue.

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Mollet egg, sous vide

Final results also have a lot to do with the temperature of the pre-cooked eggs.  If cold, a longer cooking time is required. For consistency, I like to hold my eggs in warm water while readying the water bath, rather than start with cold eggs.  This is also insurance against cold eggs cracking from the sudden heat change and expansion during the cooking process.  Same goes when using the mollet as part of a cooked dish.  When using refrigerated mollets, let the eggs sit in warm tap water for 5 minutes to take the chill off.

Red Pepper Soup

You will have mollet perfection.

Eggs: Mollets, Soft-Cooked & Poached

 Mollet Eggs
  • 4 eggs, room temperature
  • 3 cups water, or enough to cover eggs

Bring the eggs and water to a boil in a small pot, reduce heat and simmer 4 minutes.  Drain.

Rinse eggs with cold water and set in ice water bath to stop the cooking.  Let rest 5 minutes. Crack the eggs and release or and gently peel under cold tap water. Hold in warm water bath.

 Sous Vide Mollet Eggs
  • 4 eggs or more, room temperature
  • 4” water in sous vide water bath

Using sous vide circulator, bring 4 inches water to 167°F in water bath container.  Gently lower eggs into water with a slotten spoon, cover and cook for 12-13 minutes.

Transfer eggs to an ice bath and cool for 1 minute or cool enough to handle.  To serve crack egg into individual bowls.

 Soft-Cooked or Soft-Boiled Eggs
  • 4 eggs, room temperature
  • 3 cups water, or enough to cover eggs

Bring the water to the boiling point in a small pot. Reduce heat to a simmer

Lower eggs in their shells into the water. For soft cooked: simmer 2-3 minutes. For medium cooked about 4 minutes and hard booked 10-15 minutes.

Poached Eggs
  • 5 cups of water
  • 4 eggs, room temperature
  • 2 tsp. vinegar

Bring a 2-quart pot with 3” of water to a boil and add the vinegar.

Lower the heat to a simmer and break egg into a cup and slip it into the water, repeat with the other eggs.  Simmer for 3 to 5 minutes, until the white are firm, the yolks are barely set and have turned color.  Remove with a slotted spoon onto toweling and neatly trim any ragged edges.

Reversal of Fortune

On St. Paddy’s Day I am reminded of the joys and pleasures that come from a simple pot of corned beef.  For me, one of the best benefits is the corned beef hash that follows the big blow out.

If you happened to read the previous post then you know it all changed this year.  Because of that, I suddenly had a glorious portion of corned beef already cooked and ready to go before St. Paddy’s Day— If I so wished.

It was indeed an awesome awareness when I awoke this St. Paddy’s Day realizing  I could have my favorite corned beef hash for breakfast!

hash plate,Pepper
Easy Corned Beef Hash

In the past it would have taken another day before I pulled out the food processor or meat grinder to process the leavings of the previously cooked corned beef, cabbage, and boiled vegetables into a lux hash.

On this morning, I keep the hash at its essence:  mere sweet onion and corned beef, and into the pan it goes.  I break up a bit of the moist corned beef, but for the most part that’s not necessary.  It forms its own hash.

hash, tabasco

Joy upon joy, on this St. Paddy’s morning as Irish music lifts the air, breakfast breaks forth with sweet, succulent hash—miraculously transformed from a simple corned beef.

Easy Corned Beef Hash topped with Egg

Ingredients

Per 2 servings

  • 1 tbsp butter
  • ½ small sweet onion
  • 2-½ cups corned beef, chop and shred lightly
  • 2 eggs
  • Tabasco Sauce
  • Salt and pepper

  Directions

Set a skillet (with a lid) over a medium setting, add the butter and heat until bubbly. Add the onion and sauté to softened, 2 – 3 minutes.

Add the corned beef and gently combine with onion; sauté to heat the corned beef and the onion browns around edges. 3 – 5 minutes.

In the pan, form the hash into 2 serving portions, make a slight well in their centers and crack an egg into each.  Drizzle @ 1 tablespoon water around edges to create steam, and cover with lid. Cook 3 to 5 minutes until the eggs are set and cooked to personal preference.

Pass tabasco sauce, and salt and pepper.    Serves 2

An Unconventional St Paddy’s Day

I was raised outside of Boston, Mass. where St. Paddy’s Day is reason to celebrate like nobody’s business and a big corned beef and cabbage dinner is expected, without discussion.

Corned beef still pulses through my veins, but I have to admit, I’ve started picking at the traditional boiled dinner.  I love the corned beef—but I’m ok with smaller doses, and those vegetables are looking pretty boring.  More accurately, it’s the spicy cooking broth I’m after—that’s where all the flavor and nutrients go.

Then it hit me.  This year, instead of hunks of meat, cabbage, potatoes, onions and carrots, why not scale down to a stylized soup?  OMG, what a sacrilegious thought… Is it wrong to shirk tradition?  Well, how about a small adjustment?   No problem, I was game.

I started by ensuring the corned beef and the soup stock it yielded were not left to chance:  I precooked the corned beef with onion, garlic and my private selection of special spices: cloves are key, as are coriander and mustard seed, dried chile pepper, peppercorns and bay leaf.

Boiled Beef

Once the beef was tender, it was cooled and chilled. The stock was strained and sampled:  was it too salty, did it have enough flavor?  It needed nothing but chilling time to remove any excess fat.

The next day I was on a roll and again, bucked tradition:  into the soup pot went spunky kale rather than worn out cabbage. I piled in plenty of sweet root vegetables like carrots and turnip, along with good ole potato, onion, and more garlic plus a bit of tomato and green pepper for good luck. The luscious soup stock was added along with a handful of barley, another bay leaf, and a sprinkling of thyme.

The soup needs to simmer for about an hour—or 22 minutes in pressure cooker. Once the barley is cooked, the tender corned beef pieces are added to the soup and it can wait for 20-30 minutes.

corned beef soup
St Paddy’s Soup

There is so much going on with this soup, it needs nothing more.  No horseradish, no lively snips or squiggles required.  Seriously.

St Paddy’s Soup: Corned Beef, Kale, Root Vegetables and Barley

Ingredients

  • 2 lbs (or more!) uncooked corned beef (I used lean round)
  • 1 onion, divided
  • 1 clove garlic, slivers
  • Pickling spice:  ½ tsp coriander seed, ½ tsp mustard seed, 8 cloves, 12 peppercorns, 1 hot dried chile pepper seed and mince, 2 bay leaves (divided)
  • 6 cups water

Soup Additions

  • 2 carrots, peel, cut into small chunks
  • 3 red or 1 baking potato, part peeled, chop into bite-sized chunks
  • 1 turnip, peel, cut into small chunks
  • ½ poblano or similar pepper, seed & chop
  • 1 Roma tomato, seed & chop
  • 1 small head kale, trim center veins, chop
  • 1/3 cup barley
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • ½ tsp thyme

 Directions

Cook the corned beef ahead:  trim and rinse the beef and place in soup pot or liner of multi-cooker along with ½ onion and garlic. Add the spices and 1 bay leaf.  Cover with water and simmer according to package instruction. If using multi cooker, bring to Hi Pressure and cook for 70 minutes.  Wait 10 minutes and slowly release pressure.

Remove corned beef from pot and allow to cool; cover and chill if not using soon.  Strain the broth, let cool; if time permits chill and skim off congealed fat.

When ready to prepare soup, cut the vegetables into bite-sized pieces and place in soup pot.  Taste the corned beef stock, if very salty dilute with water, the potato will absorb some of the salt. Measure in 6 cups stock.  Add the barley, thyme and fresh bay leaf.   Bring to a boil and cook for 40 minutes.  If using multi-cooker, set timer for 22 minutes. When complete, disconnect, let stand 10 minutes, then slowly release pressure.

Add 1-1/2 cups of corned beef cut into bite-sized chunks and gently heat.  Adjust seasoning and serve.  Serves: 8.

Snow Day Soup

Like much of the nation we have been under snowy condition for the past week.  Highways running east and west over the mountains have been threatened with landslides and avalanches. Even a passenger train found it impassable, horribly stuck on the tracks for two days.

With a new storm approaching, I dashed to the market for a few staples. One essential was a rotisserie chicken—always a handy resource for quick bites and hearty soups.

Earlier in the week, my friend Elizabeth happened to mention she was planning to make a chicken taco soup. Huh, the idea stayed with me.  When I returned home from the store I set about making my own version of her soup.  Short on time, it became more a matter of opening up a few cans and dumping it all into a pot along with a few pieces of chicken.

It’s pretty hard to mess this soup up.  I began by making a chile-laced roux to thicken and flavor the soup along with fresh onion, garlic, and peppers.  More chicken stock and tomatoes were added and simmered briefly to form the basis of the soup.  To fill in the gaps I added part of a can of pinto beans, pieces of the roast chicken, simmered it for a few minutes, then set it aside to rest until ready to eat.

Much like a tortilla soup, it’s the garnishes that make the soup. Thus far, I’ve topped it with avocado, lime slices, grated cheese, salsa, jicama slaw, cilantro, salsa, chips… you name, it’s all good.

Chicken Taco Soup

 Ingredients

  • 1 rotisserie chicken, or 2 each cooked thigh and leg, shred
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 sweet onion, chop
  • 2 cloves garlic, mince
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 pasilla, ancho or other hot pepper, seed and chop
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seed and chop
  • 1 tablespoon chile powder
  • 1-1/2 tablespoon masa flour or AP flour
  • 4 cups or more chicken stock
  • 1 cup canned diced tomato and liquid
  • 1 cup canned pinto beans, drain
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Garnishes: avocado, grated cheese, sliced lime, cilantro, salsa, tortilla chips – any or all

Instructions

  1. In a soup pot over medium, heat olive oil.  When hot add onion and sauté until it begins to soften. Stir in the garlic and oregano.  When aromatic add peppers and cook to soften for 2-3 minutes.
  2. Stir in the chile powder to combine with vegetables.  Add the flour and stir to form a roux.  Slowly add 1-2 cups stock, stirring to dissolve any lumps. Bring to a simmer and let thicken.
  3. Add the tomatoes and remaining stock.  Allow to simmer for 10 minutes.
  4. Stir in the beans and the chicken and cook 10-15 minutes longer.  Adjust seasoning.  Serves 4.

Friday Fennel Pizza

If it’s Friday, it must be Pizza — and I’ve got fennel on my mind.

Today’s pizza showcases a tempting combination of flavors and textures that covers all the bases.  We’ve got creamy ricotta,  fabulous fresh anise-scented fennel, slices of spicy sausage, and more.

This easy pizza begins with a mild ricotta base designed to complement fennel’s sweet and subtle flavors.  Any firm precooked sausage will work, but I’m particularly fond of linguica — or perhaps an Italian or Portuguese style laced with a hit of fennel or anise seed,  garlic, and red pepper.  

It’s not too late to latch onto fresh fennel before it goes out of season.  Its bulb is the most tender and mild part; to easily slice it, first cut the bulb into quarter wedges and remove any lurking hard center core.  Save those tougher stalks and shoots for use in soups, stews and other cooking projects.

 If you are as crazy as I am about fennel’s mild licorice flavor, sprinkle some of the feathery fronds across the pizza before popping it into the oven.

Remember to remove your smartly prebaked pizza crust (see here) from the freezer for a quick defrost before launching into pizza mode. If not, have one medium pizza crust ready for topping.  It’s that easy and that good!   

White Pizza with Fresh Fennel and Sausage

  Ingredients

  • 1 medium prebaked pizza crust or 1 recipe pizza dough 
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • Ricotta filling:
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese, good quality
  • 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
  • 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
  • Toppings
  • ½ onion, sliced
  • 1 cup chopped seeded pepper, pasilla, or other
  • 1 cup fennel, thinly sliced
  • ½ cup sliced olives, optional
  • 8 oz. sliced fennel-flavored cooked sausage
  • pinch red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp. fresh or dried rosemary or oregano
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 2 tablespoon olive oil

Instructions

  1. In a medium pizza pan, roll out the pizza dough and prebake, or have prebaked pizza on hand. (see pizza crust)
  2. Preheat oven to 375° to 400° F.
  3. Prepare the ricotta filling: if the ricotta is watery, drain it well. Season with Parmesan, garlic, nutmeg, salt and pepper and fold in freshly chopped parsley. This can be done ahead.   
  4. Toppings: thinly slice the onion, fennel, olives and precooked sausage.
  5. To assemble: lightly brush the crust with olive oil.  Spread the ricotta filling evenly over the crust.  Distribute the onion, pepper, fennel and olives over the ricotta and top with the sausage.  Season to taste with red pepper flakes, rosemary or oregano, and sprinkle the Parmesan and fresh fennel fronts on top.  Drizzle a little olive oil across the top.   
  6. Bake until the center is bubbly and the crust is browned, 15-20 minutes. Let stand briefly, then slice.  Yield: 1 medium pizza.