Chicken Salad with Red Grapes and Smoked Almonds

April 15, 2012

A few month’s ago I saw Adam (from the equipment corner) singing the praises of sous vide, the technique of vacuum-sealing food then submerging it in a water bath that’s been preset to the food’s ideal cooked temperature; e.g. 165-dergees for chicken breasts.  The latest issue of Cook’s Illustrated tries to bring the technique to the masses, without the necessity of spending $500. Today’s results are good. The chicken was perfectly cooked, tender and juicy. But because today’s technique did not vacuum-seal the chicken, some of the flavor was washed away by the poaching liquid. Surely that oversight is the main difference between new sous vide and old-fashioned poaching (here is a woman poaching in the early 1600’s).

Really more poached than sous vide.

This chicken salad is 4-stars, but owing to the well-balanced flavors of the grapes, almonds, and other ingredients. Without any browning, the chicken itself is only 3-star. Personally, I find better and more complex flavors brought about by the Maillard Reaction to be more important than perfect texture.

Comments:

  1. The “sous vide” instructions in this recipe are only an approximation. I followed the timing in the recipe exactly, but after 17 minutes when the chicken was supposed to be done, the poaching liquid had fallen to just 150-degrees. The chicken breast also had only reached an internal temperature of 150-degrees. I had to re-light the burner and heat for another 8 to 10 minutes to obtain the final internal temperature of 165-degrees.
  2. Without any browning, the salad had to rely on its other ingredients for flavor. If I make this recipe again, I will take the 150-degree chicken and brown in quickly in a very hot skillet.
  3. This method is certainly not as even as true sous vide, so be sure to flip the chicken occasionally while the burner is still turned on.
  4. Chris Kimball warns that you should not use breasts that weigh more than 8 ounces or are thicker than 1″. But even if your chicken falls within these parameters, you will still likely need to adjust the cooking time.
  5. Primarily the article was about sous vide, and offered a few recipes. In addition to the Chicken Salad with Red Grapes and Smoked Almonds that I made, there was also Curried Chicken Salad with Cashews and Waldorf Chicken Salad.

Rating: 4 stars.
Cost: $8
How much work? Low.
How big of a mess?  Low/Medium.
Start time 5:00 PM. Ready at 6:15 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. My descriptions of how I prepare it are given below:

Salt and pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (no more than 8 ounces each, and no more than 1″-thick).
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 celery ribs
1 shallot
6 ounces seedless red grapes
1/2 cup smoked almonds
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary

  1. Fill a dutch oven with 6 cups of cold water and stir in 2 tablespoons table salt until dissolved. Trim away any excess fat, then add chicken to cold water. Turn on burner to medium and slowly heat until the water reaches 170-degrees. While the burner is on, flip chicken a few times to ensure even cooking. Turn off burner, cover the dutch oven and allow to stand for 17 minutes. Put chicken onto a paper-towel lined plate.
  2. If the internal temperature of the chicken is below 165-degrees, pre-heat a skillet with 1 tablespoon vegetable oil until it begins to smoke. Pat chicken dry with paper towels and brown in very hot skillet until the internal temperature reaches 165-degrees.
  3. Refrigerate chicken for 30 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, add mayonnaise, lemon zest, lemon juice, Dijon and 1/4 teaspoon of ground black pepper to a medium/large bowl. Mince celery, shallow, parsley and rosemary and add to bowl. Coarsely chop almonds and cut grapes into quarters, then add to bowl.
  5. When chicken is fully cooked, use paper towels to dry the chicken and cut into 1/2″ dice. Add to bowl and toss together all the ingredients. Adjust the salt and pepper according to your taste.
  6. Serve as a sandwich or over leafy greens.
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The Last Straw for Kingsford Charcoal

April 14, 2012

There was a time when Kingsford Charcoal was undoubtedly king in my house. Then a few years ago they reformulated. I’ve expressed my disappointment with their reformulation, and was not alone, see here and here. Others complained about changes in grilling temperatures, that the coals would burn out quicker, as well as lack of charcoal flavor. However, my biggest complaint was that the juices from the meat would extinguish the new formulation (which never happened with the older formulation).  I never got the full burn of the briquettes when cooking juicy meat.

This year’s Kingsford Corporate Blunder was to drastically downsize their “value packs” by over 30% without lowering the price. Last year their “Value Packs” consisted of twin 20-lb bags (total of 40-lbs of charcoal for about $12).  This year, I went to Home Depot and paid about the same price. When I got home I noticed they downsize each of the two bags from 20-lbs to 13.9-lbs (total of 27.8-lbs for $13). Come on, did they really think we wouldn’t care?

A bag from last year compared to this year's downsize.

While Kingsford charcoal is still the best selling brand, they have used their market dominance to squeeze more profits by substituting lower cost (and heavier) materials, such as clay and other “binding” materials. In the past Kingsford has decreased the size of each individual briquettes so that they could claim the bags are the “same size” (based on briquette count in the bag). Do they really think we’re that gullible? This latest corporate blunder is the last straw. I’m done with them for good, like Netflix before them. I will try to find other brands and let you know the results.


Sichuan Stir-Fried Pork in Garlic Sauce

April 12, 2012

I have always dreamed of having the dish-washing arrangement where I would be gently told after making a delicious dinner, “s/he who cooks doesn’t need to wash the dishes.” OK, right, all dreaming aside. I wash my own dishes and always strive to minimize the mess, which is why I clean up as much as possible during the cooking process whenever I have a free moment. The problem with the original recipe as published was that I was expected to dirty at least 6 bowls. I re-used bowls whenever possible (of course being cognizant not to re-use anything that had raw or partially cooked meat), and was able to reduce that down to 4 bowls; the first two are medium and the second two are small.

A long list of ingredients make for a delicious meal

The dinner itself was delicious. The pork was perfectly cooked; tender, juicy and flavorful. The combination of vegetables may have been a little light; only celery and mushrooms, but they were also perfectly cooked. Much better than take-out; 4-stars.

Comments:

  1. While the ingredient list seems long, most of the list is just dumped once into the sauce. Many of the more unusual ingredients are the same ones Chris Kimball’s uses in all his Asian recipes, so I already had the fish sauce, toasted sesame oil and Sriracha sauce in my kitchen
  2. My supermarket sells shiitake mushrooms in 3-1/2 ounce pre-packaged containers. So I made up the short-fall with portabello mushrooms because I didn’t want to spend the extra $3.50 for another package.
  3. I’d recommend that you start cooking your rice while,in step 2, the pork is still sitting for 15 minutes. Chris Kimball often just says “serve with rice”, but I sometimes forget until the end when it’s too late.

Rating: 4 stars.
Cost: $10
How much work? Low/Medium.
How big of a mess?  Medium.
Start time 5:00 PM. Ready at 5:50 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. My descriptions of how I prepare it are given below:

Sauce:
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
4 teaspoons Chinese black vinegar (2 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar and 2 teaspoons of rice vinegar)
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
2 teaspoons ketchup
2 teaspoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch

Pork:
12-oz boneless country-style pork ribs , trimmed
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup cold water
2 teaspoons Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
2 teaspoons cornstarch

Stir-Fry:
4 garlic cloves
2 scallions
2 tablespoons Asian broad-bean chili paste (substitute 2 teaspoons of Asian chili-garlic paste or Sriracha sauce)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
6-oz shiitake mushrooms
2 celery ribs

  1. Add all sauce ingredients to a medium bowl and whisk together, then set aside.
  2. Slice pork into 2″-lengths and cut into 1/4″-thick by 2″ strips. Put in second medium bowl and add baking soda and water. Allow to sit for 15 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, begin to cook your rice. Also remove the mushroom stems and slice them thinly. Cut the celery on a 45-degree bias into 1/4″ slices.
  4. Rinse pork in cold water and use paper towels to dry. You are just trying to remove the water, not drying them so that they caramelize in the pan.
  5. Whisk rice wine and cornstarch in the pork’s bowl. Return pork to bowl and toss to cover evenly.
  6. Slice scallions and separate into two piles of greens and whites, then mince the whites. Add the white part of the scallions to a small bowl (third bowl), press garlic cloves directly into bowl and add chili paste. Stir to combine.
  7. Place a 12″ non-stick skillet over high burner. Add 1 tablespoon oil and pre-heat until the oil begins to smoke. Add sliced mushrooms and cook for 4 minutes until they become tender; stir often.
  8. Add celery and continue cooking for 3 to 4 more minutes. Set vegetables aside into a fourth bowl.
  9. Return skillet over burner, reduce to medium-low. Add 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, and allow to pre-heat for 30 second. Add the garlic/scallion/chili-paste mixture to skillet and saute for just 30 seconds.
  10. Remove 1 tablespoon garlic/scallion/chili-paste mixture to a small bowl (same bowl that contained the mixture before sauteing) and set aside.
  11. Increase  burner to medium, and add pork to skillet and saute for 5 minutes. Cook until it is no longer pink, but remember that it will continue to cook in Step 12.
  12. Give the sauce mixture from Step 1 a whisk to recombine the ingredients, then add to the pork already in the skillet. Increase burner to high and saute for 2 more minutes. Mix the vegetables back into the skillet and allow everything to re-heat.
  13. Place on individuals plates or a large serving platter. Evenly spread the sliced scallion greens and the garlic/scallion/chili oil. Serve with white rice.

Cherry-Port Glazed Easter Ham

April 10, 2012

I’ve been baking ham for years without following any particular recipe. Sometimes I glazed them using the enclosed packet, other times I glazed them using honey. Up until now I haven’t really had anything to say about ham. In fact, the only other ham that I’ve posted was this mediocre, 3-1/2 star Apple-Cider Baked Ham. Happily, I finally found a recipe worth writing about. The ham is gently warmed, first for 90-minutes while still wrapped in plastic in a hot water bath, then in an oven bag in a 250-dergee oven. After baking, a 15-minute rest will increase the internal temperature by 10-degrees. The port and cherries are reduced in a saucepan to intensify their flavor; half of which is brushed on the exterior of the ham and the other half is made into a delicious sauce. This Cherry-Port Glazed Easter Ham was the best ham I’ve ever made. 5-stars.

The best ham I’ve ever made


Picking the Best Ham:
A few years ago I was watching America’s Test Kitchen and they had a segment about selecting the best ham. All the information you need is right there on the label, you just have to read the fine print. There are 3 main types of supermarket ham: (1) Ham with their natural juices, which can contain up to 10% water. (2) Ham, water added, which can contain up to 15% water. And (3) Ham and Water Product, which can contain any amount of water up to 50%.

Comments:

  1. Supermarket hams are generally pre-cooked at the factory, so you don’t need to reheat to any particular temperature for health reasons. You are re-heating only to bring up to serving temperature, ideally 115-degrees.
  2. I made the prescribed about of glaze, which was barely enough for Easter dinner. But there was no extra sauce for the left-overs and it is the sauce that makes this the “Best Ham Ever.” I’ve increase the sauce recipe below by 50% to that there will be enough sauce for leftovers.
  3. If in step 1 there is a tear in the ham’s plastic covering, use several layers of plastic wrap before soaking in the hot water.
  4. I’d recommend using a plastic oven bag, but Chris Kimball has a back-up plan of covering the ham tightly with aluminum foil. It would add 3 to 4 minutes per pound to the heating time, but the ham would be a little drier.
  5. I paid a total of $15 to make this 11-pound ham. But the artificially low price is is because I had a “free ham” after spending $300 at my supermarket over the prior month. However, the free “ham” was labelled “Ham and Water Product”, which was precisely the type of ham I was trying to avoid. My supermarket let me pay a $1/pound upgrade to get a “Ham with it’s natural juices”. The full price of making this ham without any type of discount would have been $35.

Rating: 5 stars.
Cost: $15 for 11 pound ham. (including $20 discount)
How much work? Low.
How big of a mess?  Low.
Start time 2:00 PM. Ready at 6:00 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. My descriptions of how I prepare it are given below:

1 spiral-sliced, bone-in ham (7 to 10 pounds)
1 large oven bag (plastic)
3/4 cup ruby port
3/4 cup cherry preserves
1-1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1-1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

  1. It is important that you do not unwrap your ham. Leave it fulled wrapped in plastic, but remove any outer wrapping (such as plastic mesh). Discard any glaze that comes with your ham, after reading the list of ingredients so that you understand how disgusting it would be to actually use it.
  2. Put wrapped ham in a large tub (or small ice chest) and fill hot tap water. Allow to sit for 45 minutes. Drain the water and fill with more hot tap water, and allow to sit for another 45 minutes. This will allow the ham to gently come up to temperature, and significantly reduce the amount of time that the ham spends in the oven.
  3. Set an oven rack to the bottom of your oven and pre-heat to 250-degrees. Unwrap the ham and remove the plastic disk covering the bone from the bottom of your ham. Put in an oven bag, and close the bag snugly over your ham. Put ham in a roasting pan (or Pyrex casserole) cut-side-down. Use a paring knife to make four 1″ slits in the top of the bag, which will prevent the bag from inflating (and popping) during baking.
  4. Bake for about 10 minutes per pound (e.g. 11-pound ham took 110 minutes). The center of the ham should reach 100-degrees; measure only in spiral slices, not the unsliced top portion. Remember the ham was fully cooked at the factory, you are only re-heating it; not re-cooking it.
  5. With 20 minutes cooking time remaining, put small saucepan over medium burner and reduce 3/4 cup port to 3 tablespoons; about 10 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and continue cooking over medium heat for 10 more minutes; until it reduces to 1-1/2 cup.
  6. Remove ham from oven, and increase your oven to 350-degrees. Cut the oven bag open and roll down the sides to that the ham is exposed, and brush the ham evenly with 1/3-cup of the glaze. Bake for 10 more minutes.
  7. Remove ham from oven bag, reserving the juices to loosen the glaze. Again, brush the ham evenly with another 1/3-cup of the glaze. Loosely tent with aluminum foil and allow to rest for 15 minutes.
  8. Add 1/2-to-3/4 cup of the ham juices to the remaining glaze. Place over medium burner until it becomes a thick sauce.
  9. Carve your ham, serving with the sauce passed separately.

Spice-Rubbed Picnic Chicken and Easter Egg Peeling Tip

April 9, 2012

I promised that I’d post the picnic chicken that I took to the Natural History Museum. I have been making a barbecued version of this recipe for a few years (see here), but this is the first time I’ve baked it according to Chris Kimball’s original recipe. The results are delicious and the heavy spice rub is powerful enough so that I don’t miss the smokiness lost by skipping the grill. There are two main drawbacks to using your oven, (1) baking anything at 500-degrees will mean a smokey kitchen (instead of smokey chicken), and (2) clean-up was slightly more work as I had to soak my wire rack overnight before I could fully clean it. Still the chicken is 4-stars, both on the grill and in the oven. The chicken is delicious served either hot or cold.

Flavor-filled chicken still just as tasty when eaten cold

Also for everyone with a few dozen hard-boiled Easter eggs, I wanted to remind everyone of the best way to peel a sticky egg shell.  Two years ago I tested a three different methods, and it turned out that Chris Kimball’s method was the clear winner. “Tap the egg all over against the counter surface, then roll it gently back and forth a few times on the counter.” Then, “Begin peeling from the air pocket end.” I’d also add peeling under luke-warm tap so that water can help separate the membrane from the egg. The temperature of the water is unimportant, except for your personal comfort.

Rating: 4-stars.
Cost: $5 for 3-1/2 pounds of chicken.
How much work? Low.
How big of a mess?  Low.
Start time 5:00 PM. Ready at 5:50 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. My descriptions of how I prepare it are given below:

3-1/2 to 5 pounds bone-in chicken
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

  1. Make 2 or 3 slashes in the skin of every chicken piece, but be careful not to cut into the meat.
  2. Mix together brown sugar, kosher salt, and other spices in small bowl.
  3. Remove ribs from chicken breasts and cut breasts in half for even cooking. Trim away any excess fat or skin.
  4. Coat the chicken pieces with spice mixture, lifting the chicken skin in order to rub the spices underneath. Use 2 or 3 toothpicks to secure the skin.
  5. Put chicken with skin-side-up on a wire rack over a foil-lined baking sheet. Tent loosely with foil, and refrigerate for between 6 to 24 hours to allow the spices to permeate into the meat.
  6. Set an oven rack to the middle of your oven and pre-heat to 425-degrees. Bake for 20 minutes until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the chicken reads 140-degrees.
  7. Increase oven temperature up to 500-degrees, and continue baking for 7 more minutes until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the chicken reads 165-degrees for white meat, and 175-degrees for dark meat.
  8. Allow to cool completely before wrapping and refrigerating.

American Museum of Natural History

April 6, 2012

Because my two sons are on spring break, I took a day off from work to take them into the Big Apple to visit one of their favorite places; the Museum of Natural History.  We spent the entire day from 10AM to 5:30PM admiring its many wondrous exhibits: from Dinosaurs skeletons, to a meteorite the side of a small car, to the history of the universe from the big bang, to a full-size Blue Whale, and new and detailed side-by-side comparisons of homo ergaster, homo erectus, homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.

Matt and Nico admiring Saturn.

I had packed a nice lunch (I will post the Picnic Chicken recipe on Monday) with the intention of having a picnic in Central Park, but ended up parking 20 blocks away. So we picnicked on sandwiches from a nearby deli and enjoyed the beautiful day.  On the way back to the museum, I noticed people with food from the “Shake Shack“, which was featured on a 2010 episode of America’s Test Kitchen. We followed the distinctive milkshakes back to the corner of 77th and Columbus; there is stood. Oh well, we’ll know for our next visit to New York City’s upper west side. In 2010, I did make the 5-star Best Old-Fashioned Burgers that were based on those available at Shake Shack.


Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies

April 4, 2012

Every day my peanut-loving son takes a PBJ sandwich and Nutter Butter cookies to school for lunch, so my son was especially interested in the outcome of this recipe. As I expected, he loved the cookies and said they were 10 times better than pre-packaged Nutter Butter. The crisp cookie was fresh and tender, not at all dried out, and the peanut butter filling really intensified the nutty flavor. 4-stars.

Final cookies were a home run for my peanut-loving son

  1. The recipe calls for raw peanuts, but after looking in 3 different supermarkets I wasn’t able to locate raw peanuts anywhere. In the end, I bought pre-roasted peanuts labelled as “party peanuts”, because the ingredient list was very simple. It appears to be a much better substitute than Planter’s.
  2. The recipe yields 35-ounces of filled cookies, a little more than two 16-oz packages of Nutter Butters.  The full retail price of Nutter Butters is $4.50 per pound, but I usually buy them when they are $2.50 per pound. So while this recipe won’t save a careful shopper any money, they are still worth making because they are fresher and free on weird oils and other additives; what is hydrogenated rapseed oil anyway.
  3. If you use a level tablespoon to measure out the dough, the recipe will make 24 filled-cookies; i.e. 48 halves. I slightly heaped my tablespoons and ended up with 18 slightly larger cookies; i.e. 36 halves.
  4. There was barely enough filling to fill all the cookies. I had to be careful and sometimes under-estimated and the filling didn’t make it all the way to the edges. Next time I will increase the filling by 20%, so that I don’t have to be so stingy with the filling. Also there are two other fillings available; milk chocolate filling or honey-cinnamon filling.
  5. Chris Kimball warns against using unsalted peanut butter in this recipe, but I have never seen unsalted peanut butter for sale in my main-stream supermarket.

Rating: 4-stars.
Cost: $4.50 for 35-ounces.
How much work? Low/Medium.
How big of a mess?  Medium.
Start time 4:45 PM. Snack time 6:00 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. My descriptions of how I prepare it are given below:

Cookies:
1 -1/4 cups toasted peanuts (6-1/4 ounces)
3/4-cup all-purpose flour (3-3/4 ounces)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter (4-3/4 ounces)
1/2 cup granulated sugar (3-3/4 ounces)
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar (3-1/2 ounces)
3 tablespoons whole milk
1 large egg

Peanut Butter Filling:
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter (7-1/2 ounces)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup confectioners’ sugar (4 ounces)

  1. Set two rack to the upper-middle and lower-middle of your oven, and begin to pre-heat to 350-degrees. Line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper.
  2. Add toasted peanuts to bowl of food processor and pulse 8 times until they become finely chopped.
  3. If a medium bowl, add flour, baking soda and salt. Whisk to combine.
  4. Put butter in another large bowl and microwave for 25 seconds until melted. Whisk together peanut putter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, milk and egg. Then add flour mixture and stir using a rubber spatula until well combined. Add the chopped peanuts and continue mixing until the peanuts have been evenly incorporated.
  5. Use a level (or ever so slightly heaping) tablespoon to measure out 12 mounds onto each of the two parchment-lined sheet pans. Moisten your hands with water and flatten each cooking into 2″ rounds.
  6. Bake at 350-degrees for 16 to 18 minutes, or until they turn a deep golden brown. Be sure to switch racks and rotate 180-degrees halfway through cooking.
  7. Allow the cookies to cool for 5 minutes on the sheet pans before moving them to a wire rack, where they will take an additional 30 minutes to completely cool.
  8. Repeat steps 5 to 7 with remaining dough, though the recipe may not yield the full 48 cookie halves.
  9. For the filling, add butter and peanut butter to a medium bowl and microwave on high for 40 seconds. Use a rubber spatula to combine, then add confectioners’ sugar. Again, stir until there is no more powdered sugar.
  10. Because some cookies will be slightly different size, group them in pairs so that the two sandwich halves will be approximately the same size. Put 1 level tablespoon of the filling into the middle of one side of the sandwhcih, then put the second cookie on top and use a twisting motion until the filling works it’s way to the edges.
  11. It’s best to allow the filling to firm up for an hour before serving, but my son and I couldn’t resist and they were delicious, though the filling squished out a little.

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