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

Berries, as in Wheat

Lately I’ve been reading up on wheat berries and have learned I need and want these powerhouses in my morning muesli and more…

According to Livestrong.com, “Wheat berries are rich in vitamins B1 and B3; and the minerals magnesium, phosphorus, copper, manganese and selenium.” What that means is they are valuable to overall body care, i.e., nervous system metabolism, blood pressure, cardiovascular and blood formation, bones, you name it.

wheat berries grain

There are different types of wheat berries, too: hard and soft berries, which grow at different times of the year and serve different purposes. Lest we get too far into the weeds, suffice to say, I settled on hard or red wheat berries.

Since wheat berries can take 60 minutes or longer on the stove top, I knew this was a job for the Instant Pot. With the pot loaded and ready to go, I’ve learned it’s much faster to bring it all to a boil before proceeding. It’s then a simple matter of setting the timer to 35 minutes with a 10 minute natural release and walking away. It’s sooo nice to let the pressure cooker work its magic and return to a generous 3 cups of plump chewy kernels.

Med wheat berry plate

In that amount of time I was able to establish a plan for my Mediterranean wheat berry salad. I channeled my pending tiny summer garden, still on the horizon—one with the usual crop of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, green onions, plenty of flowers and herbs. Ahhh, I can’t wait!

Altogether the vegetables’ earthy flavors harmonize and blend well with the hearty wheat berry kernels while accents of Kalamata olives, feta or paneer cheese, and lemon do their part to brighten and shine. The salad holds incredibly well and is equally good chilled or at room temperature. It’s an ideal side for grilling and outdoor dining.

Mediterranean Wheat Berry Salad

  • 1½ cups cooked wheat berries
  • ¾ cup garbanzo beans, rinse & drain
  • ½ cup baby tomatoes, halve
  • ½ cucumber, seed, chop
  • ⅓ cup mixed baby peppers, seed, chop
  • ½ cup parsley, chop
  • ⅓ cup green onions, chop
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, crush, mince
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Accompaniments: Fresh spinach leaves, Kalamata olives, feta or paneer cheese, parsley, lemon slices

For dressing, combine lemon juice, evoo, garlic, salt and pepper in a small bowl, adjust seasoning it should be lemony.

For salad, place the wheat berries through green onions in a medium bowl, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss. Drizzle half the dressing over the salad and toss to lightly coat, add more as needed.

Refrigerate several hours or overnight. Adjust seasoning, add dressing as needed. Serve chilled or room temperature. To serve, pile on a spinach lined plate, garnish with olives, parsley and squeeze lemon juice over the top. Serves 4 or more.

Variations: substitute 1-1/2 cup prepared couscous or bulgur wheat. Add 2 Tbsp or more mint, finely chopped and/or 1 tsp grated lemon. To the dressing add 1/8 tsp cumin, 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes.

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.

One Mug, One Serving

As a follow up to the previous Small Batch, One Bowl, today’s post further down-sizes.

Think of this small personal cake the next time the need hits for a minimal-mess-quick-fix.  You can’t go wrong with the satisfying combination of sweet ripe banana and quick hearty oats. If time permits finish it with a honey-oat topping.

Simply mix all the ingredients in a microwaveable mug and pop it into a microwave oven for 1½ minutes. It’s just that easy.

But wait!  If you haven’t used the microwave for baking before, there are a few things to keep in mind.  In small scale baking such as this, details matter and every second counts.

  • The microwave draws moisture out of food. 
    With our small cake, the size and ripeness of the banana become a key factor. To lighten the cake and provide additional liquid, use either one beaten egg white or 1 egg yolk plus 1-2 teaspoons liquid. When all ingredients have been combined, if the batter is quite heavy adjust by adding a dash at a time of additional liquid to reach a thick cake-like batter.
  • For the optional honey-oat topping Old fashioned oats provide an interesting nut-like quality. Because they are very dry, a bit of milk or water added to the oats will help to moisturize them before adding the honey.  (The honey will soak into the dry oats and become a sticky mess without moisturizing the oats first.)
  • For the cake to rise evenly, turn the cup once half way through baking.
    It is cooked when the cake begins to shrink away from the edges of the mug.
  • When done, let the cake rest for 5 minutes.
    The cake will continue to cook and release moisture.
  • Unmold by running a knife around the edge of the cake.
    If pretty is important, dress it up with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar, a dollop of whipped cream, or a drizzle of warmed local honey.
  • Enjoy!
    For breakfast, snacking, or individual dessert.

Banana Oat Mug Cake with Honey-Oat Topping

Inspired by Quaker Oats Banana Oat Mug Cake

Ingredients

  • 2 ½ tablespoons quick oats
  • 2 tablespoons AP flour
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar, packed
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg
  • ½ ripe banana, well mashed
  • 1 egg white lightly beaten; or 1 egg yolk + 2 tsp milk, water or other liquid, lightly beaten
  • Topping
  • 1½ teaspoons old fashioned oats moistened with 1 tsp milk or other liquid
  • 1 teaspoon honey, agave or syrup
  • Pinch each cinnamon and salt

Instructions

  1. In microwaveable mug, blend together oats, flour, baking powder, sugar and nutmeg.
  2. Add the banana and egg white or egg yolk mixture and combine evenly to form a batter. If quite thick, thin with a dash of milk or water.  Scrape bottom and sides with a spatula.
  3. Combine the topping mixture and distribute over the top.
  4. Microwave on HIGH 80 to 90 seconds until risen and just firm to the touch. Half way through, stop and rotate the mug. Let stand 3 to 5 minutes to further cook and set up before serving.  Yield: 1 serving