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.

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

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.

Turkey Adventures

Thanksgiving turkey is such a tradition, it’s hard to imagine the perfect holiday dinner without it.  But, when faced with wresting a big honking turkey  I’ve often fantasized with options less overwhelming… like succulent bundles of turkey wrapped around a luscious filling.

This year, it finally came to pass.  Of course, my fantasy wasn’t quite as easy as imagined.  It would have been smart to prepare the exotic mushroom pâté ahead of the big day.  I opted to go with a fresh turkey breast cavity… with two breasts.  That meant double the effort; and naturally, I wanted to test this idea in the multi-cooker.

The good news is that it worked out just fine.  Once I had boned the first breast and pounded it out, the second went very quickly.  Happily, the two stuffed and rolled breasts fit nicely in the bottom of the pot, too. The mushroom pâté filling was the perfect complement, it provided great flavor which penetrated into the the turkey breasts.  Apologetically, there was such urgency to eat, I was barely able to get one photo…

More good news.  My favorite part of the turkey is the skin, so how would that work in a pressure cooker? Turns out, browning the breasts in the pot with a sprinkling of paprika was enough insurance to maintain a beautiful color and tasty skin—no flabby weirdness!  With a mere 20 minute whirl in the multi-cooker, dinner was ready in a flash.  Now that’s something to be thankful for!

Turkey Breasts Stuffed with Mushroom Pâté, Multi-Cooker

Ingredients
Whole turkey breast, bone-in, skin on (2 breasts total)
Salt and pepper
1-2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 cup chicken stock

Mushroom Pâté
1/4 pound mushrooms, combination domestic, exotic and dried soaked, sliced
1 tablespoon butter and evoo combination
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme, rosemary, sage each
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
salt and pepper
1-2 tablespoons dry sherry or brandy
3 green onions, chopped
½ lemon, juice of, approximate

 Directions

  1. Prepare pâté and cool completely: sauté the  mushrooms in butter and oil to soften, add garlic and toss, add thyme and rosemary, sage, nutmeg and salt and pepper add sherry, cook down, and point up with lemon juice if necessary.   Process until well minced, not pureed.  There should be no liquid.  This can be done ahead.
  2. Bone the turkey breasts: with boning knife, remove one breast at a time from the cavity. From the top of the cavity, cut the breast away from the bone, scrape down with boning knife along the bone to loosen; work around the cavity until the breast is removed. There will the oyster and other random pieces which can be used or reserved for another purpose. Repeat with second breast.
  3. Lay out one breast at a time, skin side down and cut horizontally from the narrowest part of the breast to about ¾” from the thick end. Open the breast to form a large piece. Cover with plastic wrap and pound evenly to ½” thick.  Season both sides with salt and pepper. Repeat.
  4. To fill and roll: Divide the pâté in half. Cut side up, starting in the center of each breast, spread an even layer of pâté over the cut sides, leaving ½” or more uncovered at edges. Roll the breasts up by starting at narrowest part of the breast and tightly roll up like a jelly roll, tucking in the edges.  Tie the rolls securely with kitchen twine.
  5. With multi-cooker set to Saute, heat enough oil to thoroughly coat the bottom of the pot until shimmering. Brown the two rolls on all sides for about 10 minutes, adding a light dusting of paprika.  Pour in 1 cup chicken stock and heat the stock. Turn off the pot and reset to High Pressure for 20 minutes (45 minutes to 1 hour in conventional oven).  Seal the pot and bring to pressure.  Once the cycle is complete turn off the pot and let the pressure come down normally for 10 minutes.  Carefully remove the lid and check the internal temperature. It should reach at least 155 degrees, as it will continue to cook as it sits.  If not, reset pot for another 5 minutes.
  6. Remove the breasts to a warming plate or board, cover, and let stand for 10 minutes before artfully carving into slices. The pan dripping will make delicious gravy.  Yield: 2 rolls, 4 or more servings.

 

 

 

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Birds of a Feather

Dear readers: please be advised that some may find this post objectionable as it skirts the very edgy topic of guns. No, I’m not writing about the latest gun-related tragedy nor is it a rant on gun control.  I’m just waxing nostalgic, because guns have not always been defined by mayhem and murder.

I grew up in the mid-part of the 20th century when guns were a big part of our existence. My dad was a marksman, an avid hunter, and was very proud of his gun collection and the many trophies that surrounded us.  We belonged to a gun club where we regularly took turns at target practice and skeet shooting.  He saw to it that I had my own .22 rifle and later a .410 shotgun; I learned how to care for them, to use them responsibly, and I became a pretty good shot. It never occurred to me that they could be used for violence against another person. At our house, guns were a form of recreation and largely related to delicious food—our freezer was well stocked with bear, deer, quail, pheasant and whatever else was fair game that year.

My mom was an excellent cook and prided herself in knowing how to best prepare whatever game came through the door. Those meals were highly anticipated events and deeply appreciated by everyone.  As I think about it now, one of my particular favorites was her Pheasant Cacciatore.

Since pheasant can be quite lean, she would soak the pheasant ahead in an herb and red wine marinade to moisten, tenderize, and remove any potential gaminess. Sometimes she would start with a bit of bacon and then brown off the pheasant.  She’d proceed to develop a hearty sauce with plenty of mushrooms, onions, carrot, tomatoes and capers—perhaps she’d throw in a little green pepper, celery, or olives.  I suspect she’d combine the pheasant and all the trimmings in a heavy covered pot and gently braise it in a moderately slow oven.

The recipe has long since been lost, but that’s my best recollection.  I recently reflected on those fabulous meals while preparing my easy mid-week Chicken Cacciatore.

It is made effortlessly with this Instant Pot treatment, yet it is a distant second to my mom’s ‘classic’ version.  When nearly done, mine became a one-pot meal with the addition of a few handfuls of penne pasta!  Still, with those flavors and few favorite pieces of plumb chicken, you really can’t go wrong.

Chicken Cacciatore, PC

Although this is presented in Instant Pot format, directions are included for standard stove top preparation, too. If using dry penne pasta on final, more liquid maybe required.

Ingredients
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 to 6 chicken thighs (bone-in)
1 onion, slice
1 carrot, chop
2 ribs celery, chop
1 pasilla pepper, seed and chop
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, mince
½ teaspoon thyme leaves
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ pound mushrooms, trim and slice
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 cup chicken stock, water or other liquid
1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes with juice
2 tablespoons capers
2 cups approximate, dry penne pasta
Garnish:  ½ cup parsley and 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese

Instructions

  1. If using an Instant Pot, set it medium Sauté, and heat 2 tbsp. oil. Pat the chicken dry, season with salt and pepper, and place in the hot pot. Brown 4-5 minutes per side and remove to a holding plate. Pour off excess fat.
  2. Add the remaining tablespoon oil and sauté the onion until soft. Add the carrot, celery, pepper, the fennel, rosemary, thyme and red pepper flakes, and cook 4-5 minutes.
  3. Add the mushrooms, garlic and a pinch of salt and pepper to the pot. Stir to loosen the fond in bottom of pan with the liquid released from the mushrooms. Increase to medium if necessary, cook 6 to 8 minutes.
  4. Stir in 1 cup chicken stock or water, the tomatoes and the capers.
  5. Return the chicken to the pot, nestle the pieces into the tomato mixture to barely cover them and bring to a simmer.
  6. Lock the lid, set pot to high Pressure for 12 minutes. (If using standard stovetop preparation, cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the chicken is tender.) When time is up, turn off the pot, disconnect, and let rest 10 minutes. Carefully release any remaining pressure and open.
  7. There should be enough liquid in the pot to also cook the penne pasta. Set the pot to medium Sauté and bring back to a simmer.  Add 1 handful of pasta per serving (about 2 cups) and simmer for 10 minutes, until al dente.  Adjust seasoning and dust with fresh parsley and Parmesan cheese.  Serves 4

Light of my Life

It’s always a party when I pull out my kitchen torch.

Today’s occasion:  French onion soup.  Earlier at the farmers’ market, pearly white sweet onions—still kissed with morning dew—looked almost too gorgeous to touch.

A sudden vision of the well-picked-over roast chicken carcass in the fridge at home was a wake-up nudge that a tasty chicken stock was  waiting in the wings.

A hearty beef stock really makes onion soup sing, but a chicken stock simmered in the remains of a flavorful roast is a beautiful thing, too.  In my slow cooker, stock is an effortless commodity.  For the onion soup stock, I’d add onion cuttings, a carrot for a touch of sweetness, and fresh herbs, then cover it all with boiling water and check back later in the day.

My go to Onion Soup follows, but I tend to change it up it depending on what I have on hand.  Sweet onions with a high sugar content are key; sauté them over moderately low heat until they begin to turn color and caramelize. If necessary, add a teaspoon of sugar while sautéing the onions to encourage the full caramelization process. Once the stock is added, the soup is ready within a half hour—or it can be set aside and reheated when ready.

BonJour Torch

 

To finish it all, I carved and toasted thick slices of a multi-grained artisan bread and sprinkled them with a combination of shaved Parmesan and Havarti cheese. No need to crank up the broiler on this warm summer day.

My trusty torch was on hand for the artful transformation of simple ingredients into a glorious soup crowned with essential rafts of toasted cheesy goodness.

 Onion Soup

Ingredients
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 large sweet onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoon brandy
6 cups rich beef or chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
½ teaspoon each fresh savory and rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup white wine or dry sherry
Accompaniments:  6 croutons (1/2” thick slices toasted baguette)
¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. In a soup pot, sauté onions with butter and olive oil over medium heat until aromatic. Reduce heat and stir occasionally, cook until onions are deep golden and caramelized, 30 minutes or longer.
  2. Deglaze pan by carefully pouring in brandy and stir well. Add stock, seasonings, wine, and simmer partially covered for 30 minutes.
  3. In individual bowls, place a crouton in center and sprinkle with cheese, pour a generous amount of onion soup over each. If using oven proof bowls, broil 3” from heat source, watching carefully until tops bubble and brown. Serve with more cheese.   Serves 4 – 6.

Anise Chicken: Ready for Summer Heatwaves

When summer arrives and the heat sets in, my eating habits change. I shift to lighter, easier meals—foods that perk up an often peckish appetite.

I’ve always been a big fan of the Chinese method of poaching chicken.  It results in a beautiful clear broth, utterly pristine flavors, and meat that is succulent and tender. Here’s an outstanding riff on that approach which requires very little actual cooking time—much relies on the broth’s residual heat to do the work. It’s an ideal technique for summertime heatwaves.

The idea comes from Wendy Kiang-Spray’s lovely cookbook The Chinese Kitchen Garden. A whole chicken (here I’ve used the equivalent, 2 Cornish game hens) is dry rubbed with salt, stuffed with whole star anise, and refrigerated for 1- 3 days. When ready to launch, it’s brought to room temperature before lowering into to a pot of simmering water and cooked uncovered for a mere 10 minutes. Then, it’s covered and allowed to steep in the hot broth’s residual heat for 45 minutes. The chicken is fast cooled in an ice water bath for 15 minutes and patted dry.

The resulting broth is bewitchingly addictive: the star anise flavor is present, but not overtly so.  It’s a lovely liquid for cooking rice, grains, vegetables, etc.  For a soup stock, I opted to keep it light and not overwhelm it with too many heavy flavors.

A few slices of ginger, some garlic, and a dash of soy sauce hit the right balance for a soba noodle soup with chicken and a few fresh vegetables.

The anise chicken has happily starred in a variety of applications. When pressed, I have whipped up a simple Asian dipping sauce, but Wendy also suggests a Ginger-Onion Garlic Oil, also included because it is such a nice touch.

Of my favorite uses, I remain a big fan of an easy Asian Chicken Salad served with plenty of sesame crepes (yum—coming soon!) along with spoonfuls of hoisin sauce for stuffing/rolling purposes. Welcome to summer 2017, rolling out with record 101° heat.

Anise Poached Chicken

Inspired by The Chinese Kitchen Garden by Wendy Kiang-Spray

Ingredients
3 pound whole chicken
2 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon coarse salt
20 pieces whole star anise
Ginger-Onion/Garlic Oil (optional)
2” section ginger, peel and slice
3-4 garlic whistles or 3 “bunching onions” (a leek-like variety), cut in 2” lengths
¼ cup oil

Directions

  1. Rinse and pat dry chicken. Rub inside and out with 2 tablespoons coarse salt. Place the star anise in the cavity. Place in zip lock and refrigerate 1-3 days.
  2. Remove chicken and bring to room temperature (about 1 hour ahead).
  3. Fill pot with enough water to cover chicken and bring to a boil.  Lower anise-filled chicken into pot.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium low.  Simmer chicken uncovered 10 minutes. Skim residue off top of water. Turn off heat and cover with tight fitting lid.  Allow to steep undisturbed for another 45 minutes, until chicken is cooked through.  Meanwhile make Ginger and Onion Oil. Crush ginger and onions with mortar and pestle or pulse in food processor. Place the paste in heatproof bowl and add 1 tsp salt.  Heat the oil until hot. Carefully pour the hot oil over the ginger and onion mixture.
  4. When chicken is cooked through, remove from pot, reserving pot liquid for another purpose:  cooking rice or other grain, etc.  Lower chicken into an ice water bath to quickly stop the cooking process. In about 15 minutes when cooled, remove and pat dry.
  5. Chop into pieces and serve with a drizzle of ginger-onion oil. Nice over steamed white rice or other. Serves 4-6.