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Dinner tonight reconfirmed for me how badly misguided are the stereotypes about the military which are so firmly entrenched in my mind.  For the first 90% of my life the only exposure I had to people in the military was through the movies.  The image I still struggle to overcome is of a testosterone-charged, sports-loving, hard-drinking bully.  I am perpetually astonished when I meet a new colleague of my soldier-husband’s.  Without exception these officers are courteous, kind, empathic, smart, intellectual, well-read and deeply engaged with world around them.  Our dinner guest tonight was no exception, a mid-level naval officer (I think of roughly equivalent rank to my husband, although I’ve only more-or-less managed to get a handle on army ranks, navy ranks are still totally opaque to me) winding up a fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy school (see what I mean about smart?!). Nevertheless, for long stretches the conversation made me wish I’d picked a more complicated menu that demanded more time in the kitchen.  So often my husband’s chatter with his colleagues is about as comprehensible to me as that cab driver in Rome the day you step off the plane and try to dredge up something (anything!) you learned in your one year of college Italian 15 years ago.  “So this E7 said to the RL9 that if he didn’t get the PMX-81 to the J4 on the QT then the oodle-oodle-oo would be hugwhumped and we’d need a dozen P10s tomorrow.”   Unfortunately, the simple-but-delicious menu I’d selected afforded me no refuge in the kitchen.  I nodded and smiled and was eternally grateful that our very considerate guest stopped to translate for me now and then.

…Which brings me to the menu.  Marcella Hazan’s Lemon Roasted Chicken, pearl couscous, salad and chocolate mousse.  I love this menu because it requires minimal time in the kitchen, is elegant enough for guests, is delicious and everyone eats it (well…except vegetarians).  Substitute rice and even your gluten-intolerant friend can eat (and they’ll be so excited that you even made a dessert they can eat).

The couscous and salad are easy – no recipes required.  Cook couscous according to the instructions that come with it (you can use regular couscous if you can’t get the fabulous north African pearl kind).  I like to add a little salt and butter while it’s cooking.  Make your favorite salad and try the herb vinaigrette from my Snacking Around post or this simple mustard vinaigrette.

Recipe: Lemon Roast Chicken

Source: Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

1 3-4 lb. chicken (works just fine with larger chickens which are much more readily available)
2 small lemons
Salt
Pepper

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Remove the gizzards from inside the chicken.  Wash the chicken thoroughly in cold water (inside and out) and leave to drain for 10 minutes or so (set it on a slightly tilted plate).  Use paper towels to pat it completely dry.  Sprinkle plenty of salt and fresh-ground pepper on the chicken (both sides and don’t forget the inside) and rub it in.  Wash the lemons in cold water and pat them dry. Press down hard on the lemons while rolling them against the counter several times to soften them and loosen the juices then pierce them several times with a fork (in 4-5 places to get around 20 little holes). Put the lemons inside the chicken.  Close the opening by pulling the extra skin over the lemons and pinning the edges together with sturdy toothpicks or a trussing needle (look for these at Thanksgiving – they look like little skewers and usually come in packs of 5, sometimes with some twine).  If you want you can tie the legs loosely together with cooking twine, but I usually don’t bother.  Put the chicken breast-down in a roasting pan.  You do not need to add any fat or liquid.  Better yet, you don’t need to baste.  Starting the chicken breast-down ensures that plenty of juices will flow into the breast and keep it nice and juicy.  Pop the chicken in the oven.  You are going to cook the chicken for a total of 20 minutes per pound, turning the chicken over part way through and turning the temperature up at the end (timing follows, but first how to turn the chicken over).  Turning the chicken over is very easy if you have silicon oven mitts.  Just put them on your hands, grab the bird and turn it over, then wash the oven mitts.  If, like me, you don’t have silicon oven mitts you have two options.  One is to use regular oven mitts, just wrap them in tinfoil to keep them clean while you grab the bird.  The other, which I usually use, is to use tongs in my right hand to grab the bird and guide it and a spatula in my left hand to provide heft and force.  Now for the timing.  Cook the bird breast-down at 350° for 30 minutes, then turn it over.  Continue cooking at 350° until there are only 20 minutes left in the total cooking time (the time for this stage will vary depending on the size of your chicken).  Turn the oven up to 400° and cook for another 2o minutes.  You know the chicken is done if the juice that comes out when you cut deep into the thigh is clear.  If the juice is pink, put the chicken back in for a bit (note that the dark meat will look a little pink even when fully cooked so check the color of the juices).  Carve the chicken in the pan, then pour all the juices from the pan into a small pitcher.  Pour off a little of the fat that rises to the top if you want, then serve the juices as a sauce.  They are fabulous poured over the couscous.  Pour any remaining juices in with leftover chicken when you store it.  Leftovers are best at room temperature.  You can save the bones and carcass for making stock.

Active time: 15 minutes (total time varies depending on the size of the chicken but is about 1 1/2 hours)

Recipe: Chocolate Mousse

1 c. (6 oz., usually 1/2 package) chocolate chips (I prefer semi-sweet)
5 tbs. boiling water
4 eggs, separated
2 tbs. dark rum

Blend the chocolate chips in the blender until they are ground up fine.  Add the water and blend until the chocolate is melted and smooth.  Add the egg yolks and rum and blend again until smooth.  In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they stand in stiff peaks.  Gently fold the chocolate mixture into the egg whites until no white shows.  Spoon the mixture into individual serving dishes (I like to use my grandmother’s crystal sorbet/champagne glasses, but you can use ramekins or small bowls) and chill for at least an hour.

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My dad was the cook in the family when I was growing up.  My mom did some baking, but she cooked dinner only on my dad’s birthday or when he was out of town.  Invariably the first night a parent (either one) was out of town we’d go out for pizza.  When mom was out of town we’d then proceed to have all sorts of things she didn’t especially care for – hamburgers, tacos, etc.  When dad was out of town we’d eat spaghetti (with sauce dad had made and put in the freezer) or whatever he’d cooked for us and left in the fridge.  If he was out of town for long enough (4 or more nights) then one night would be mom’s piquant chicken.  I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit.  Here’s how I do it these days:

Recipe

1 whole boneless, skinless chicken breast (i.e. the breast from one chicken, you can buy it as two halves)
1/2 c. flour
salt & pepper
3-4 tbs. butter
1/4 c. white wine
1/2 c. chicken stock (preferably homemade)
2-3 tbs. fresh lemon juice (1/2 – 1 lemon’s worth)

This is best served with rice cooked European style (with a little butter and salt).  Start the rice first because the chicken will cook in the time it takes the rice to cook.

Your chicken may be good to go straight from the store, or it may need a tiny bit of preparation, depending on how your butcher sells it (I’m assuming you buy it boneless and skinless – I do).  Assuming you buy the breast as one piece here’s what you need to do to get it ready to cook.  First, split the whole breast into two halves by cutting through the thinnest part in the center.  You’ll see a thin line of connective tissue there (it’s whitish).  Try to make your first cut all on the same side of the connective tissue because the next step is to cut that little strip of connective tissue off and throw it out.  Lay the halves smooth side down.  On the not-so-smooth side of each half you should see a flap of meat (although some butchers remove these and sell them separately).  Cut these flaps off and save them – they’re good to eat.  Remove any remaining bits of fat (the yellowish-white, opaque stuff) from all 4 pieces.  You’ll notice a vein down the middle of each flap.  If you want (but it’s certainly not necessary), you can cut these out (easiest to just slice through the flaps on either side of the veins leaving you with 4 half-flaps).  That’s it – you’re done.  It sounds like a lot, but it will take you about 3 minutes total.

Now that your chicken is ready to go, prep your flour coating.  There are two methods that work.  The one that’s slightly neater and slightly faster, but a little less environmentally conscientious is to use a large ziploc bag.  Put the flour in the bag along with about a teaspoon of salt and 1/2-1 teaspoon of ground pepper.  Shake the bag to mix the contents up (preferably with the top sealed).  One at a time put the chicken pieces in the bag, shake to coat, then shake off the excess flour.  Note that it’s best to wait to coat the chicken until the pan is ready to go so you can put the coated chicken right in to cook.

Melt the butter in a large skillet (preferably not non-stick) over medium heat.  Lay the flour-coated pieces of chicken in a single layer in the pan (put the thick pieces in first).  Cook the chicken until it is golden brown (about five minutes for the thicker pieces and a bit less for the thinner ones), then turn it over and do the same for the other side.  Take the chicken out of the pan and set it aside.  Add the wine to the pan.  As it boils, scrape up all the yummy brown bits from the pan.  Once the liquid in the pan has started to thicken a bit (it will both look thicken and should turn brownish and slightly opaque) add the chicken stock.  Let it cook down for a couple of minutes then add the lemon juice.  Cook for another minute or so more, then taste.  Add more lemon juice and salt if you want.  Put the chicken back in the pan and turn the heat down.  After a minute or two turn the chicken over.  Just keep the chicken in the sauce over low heat until your rice is done (or for at least 5 minutes).

Eat up (and don’t forget to use the tasty liquid in the pan as your sauce)!

Notes

Serves: 2
Start-to-finish: 30 minutes
Active: 30 minutes

Cooking rice: Use 1 c. of regular, long-grain rice (serves 2). In a medium saucepan, melt 1 tbs. butter over medium heat. When melted add the rice and stir with a fork for a minute or so. When the butter is mixed into the rice the grains will all look a bit translucent. When you start to see opaque grains add 1 3/4 – 2 c. hot water (less water will result in dryer, firmer rice, more in moister, softer rice) and 1/2-1 tsp. salt. Cover and bring to a boil. As soon as the water starts to boil turn down to the lowest possible heat. Leave undisturbed for 20 minutes then turn off the heat. Just before serving, stir the rice with a fork to fluff it up.

Homemade chicken stock: I like to make huge quantities in my giant, 24 qt. stock pot.  Since most people don’t have one of those, though, I’ll give quantities that will work in a more normal 8 qt. stock pot.  Put about 3 lbs. of chicken spare-parts (e.g. backs, necks, wing-tips, feet but NOT organs) into your pot.  If the store where you buy your chicken cuts up its own they will usually sell you (or sometimes give you) these parts at minimal cost.  Stores that don’t butcher their own chicken probably won’t have scrap parts but maybe able to get them for you with a few days notice.  If not, though, don’t worry, wings work great (preferably whole wings, not the ones that have had the bonier parts removed – bones are what this is all about).  You can also use the carcass from a whole roasted chicken after you’ve finished with it, although I wouldn’t recommend using one from one of those heavily-seasoned, store-roasted, rotisserie chickens – that will add a lot of odd flavors you don’t necessarily want in your stock.  To the chicken in the pot add a couple of stalks of celery (washed and snapped in half, you can leave the ends on), a carrot also snapped in half (washed but you don’t need to peel), a peeled yellow onion (cut in half vertically if you want), a small parsnip, 6-8 sprigs of Italian (flat-leaf) parsley (stems and all), 3 -4 dried bay leaves (you can use fresh if you have them), a small handful of whole peppercorns and a couple of teaspoons of salt.  Fill the pot with water and bring to a boil.  When the water starts to boil turn down the heat.  You want to keep the stock at a gentle simmer (probably medium-low will work, but you’ll need to experiment with your equipment).  If you want you can skim the foam that comes to the top in the early part of the cooking, but I never bother.  Simmer gently for 2-3 hours (or more).  Taste occasionally.  You can add more salt if you want.  When the stock tastes good it’s done.  Pour it through a very fine strainer (or a not-so-fine strainer lined with cheese cloth) into a large bowl.  Allow it to cool in the bowl for a while.  Once it is no longer boiling-hot cover the bowl with plastic wrap such that the plastic wrap sits on the surface of the stock.  Put the bowl of stock in the fridge over night.  Once the stock has cooled fully you may see a layer of congealed fat on the top of the stock.  Without taking the bowl out of the fridge (you’re going for minimal disturbance here), gently peel back the plastic wrap.  If everything goes according to plan, most of the fat will come off with the plastic wrap and you can just toss it.  You can take the bowl out of the fridge and use a spoon to skim any remaining fat off (although leaving a little bit won’t hurt you and will add richness).  Now you’re ready to use or freeze your stock.  When using stock from the freezer, make sure to thaw the whole container completely, even if you don’t need all of it.  You can refreeze it with no difficulty but the flavor and water components thaw at different rates so if you only partially thaw the container you may find that some of the stock from the container is under-flavored and some is too strong.

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