Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dinner on the Road, Part II

While we were visiting my new nephew and his family in New York, I took the opportunity to assuage my guilt.  He was born about seven weeks ago, but since we live so far apart, this was our first opportunity to visit.  If we lived closer, I would have brought a complete meal to his mommy, daddy, and big sister in the first week.  That’s how I like to take care of new mommies and welcome new babies!  Since I didn’t get to bring them a meal right away, I decided I would cook a meal for them while we visited and give my sister-in-law a night off.  I know how much I always appreciated a night off, no matter how old my baby was!  I wanted something I could freeze and take along in a cooler, but finish cooking there.  I thought about several casseroles, but I settled on a yummy recipe I got from Cook’s Country last year and that has since gone into heavy rotation in my meal schedule.  Chicken Parmesan Roll-ups are a nice twist on Chicken Parm, which I make fairly often.  This version is quick-cooking—another of their 30 Minute Meals—and has great flavor.  First, the recipe, then I’ll describe how I made it portable.

Chicken Parmesan Roll-ups

onion , chopped fine
garlic cloves , minced
(14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
cup chopped fresh basil
1 ½
cups shredded mozzarella cheese
thin-cut, boneless, skinless chicken cutlets , about 1 1/4 pounds
cup panko bread crumbs

1. Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 475 degrees. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in medium saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and simmer until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Off heat, stir in half of basil. Transfer half of sauce to 8-inch square baking dish.

2. Combine mozzarella and Parmesan in medium bowl; reserve ½ cup. Add remaining basil to remaining cheese. Pat cutlets dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Top cutlets with basil-cheese mixture, leaving 1-inch border at bottom of cutlets. Roll up tightly and arrange, seam side down, in prepared baking dish.

3. Toss bread crumbs with remaining oil in small bowl. Top chicken with reserved cheese, remaining sauce, and bread-crumb mixture. Bake until chicken is cooked through and crumbs are golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve.

I actually broke this recipe up into two stages since I was transporting it.  At home, I made the roll-ups first and froze them in two layers in a Tupperware freezer container.  Since I was feeding four adults and four kids, I roughly doubled the recipe.  I didn’t really measure the amount of chicken.  I got two large packages of fresh boneless skinless chicken breasts and cut them into cutlets, getting about four good cutlets per breast, and there were two large breasts per package.  I am still not great at making chicken cutlets, so I had lots of trimmings that didn’t make it as roll-ups, but that was no problem—I used those for the Chicken,Charred Tomato, and Broccoli Salad.  Usually I would just use thawed frozen chicken breasts, but I knew I wanted to freeze the roll-ups for traveling, so I had to start with fresh this time.  If I can plan ahead well enough, I might stick with the fresh chicken for this recipe in the future, because they were easier to cut and pound than the thawed usually are. 
To make a simple recipe even simpler, I skipped measuring mozzarella and parmesan and instead used the Italian blend shredded cheese from Aldi, which had both types of cheese in the blend anyway.  I chopped up a ton of fresh basil, stirred it into a large helping of cheese in a small mixing bowl, and started rolling.  I had a wide variety of sizes of cutlets, but I figured that would work out since I would be serving a wide variety of sizes of diners.  It wasn’t particularly pretty, but here’s what I had to pop in the freezer the night before our trip:

The chicken traveled well buried in ice in the bottom of a cooler, and thawed in the fridge after we got to New York.  When it was time to make dinner, I put together the sauce (I took all the ingredients with me, figuring that if we lived closer I wouldn’t have raided her kitchen to make dinner for them!)  I roughly followed the recipe, adapting it slightly to double the amount of sauce and adding a bit here and there to make it more like the Quick Tomato Sauce I love.  The two recipes are pretty close to begin with, so it wasn’t much of a change.  Once the sauce had a few minutes to bubble, I poured a bit in an 8x11 baking dish (I think, although I didn’t measure it.  It was smaller than 9x13.)  In went the roll-ups, which packed in there pretty tightly. 

Next came the same Italian blend cheese I used for the filling:

No measuring--just keep sprinkling until it looks good
 And then the panko bread crumbs.  I got these panko crumbs at a discount grocery to give them a try, and I like them, but before I found them I always just tossed some slightly stale bread in the food chopper and toasted it very lightly in the toaster oven, and the results were pretty much the same.  I don’t think I’ll probably buy panko again.  Unless Aldi has it.  I’ll try almost anything there once.
Whoops!  After I generously sprinkled on the panko, I realized that a layer of sauce was supposed to go under there.  Crap.  I briefly entertained the idea of pouring the sauce over the crumbs, but their crunch is an important part of the appeal of this dish, so I decided to bake it and serve the sauce on the side.  Twenty minutes later we had this:

And that’s the last picture I have of this dish.  Once it was on the table with sides of pasta, sauce, a green bean-wax bean-carrot blend, and a big bowl of Fluff for dessert, it was gone in a flash.  It worked out fine without the sauce on top, although the sauce on the side was gone pretty fast.  I should have more than doubled that to feed our hungry crowd.  Kids and adults alike devoured it, and there was one little roll left for someone’s lunch the next day.

If you’re making this, and you want to make it even quicker and you aren’t as fanatical about homemade sauce as I am, you can really streamline it by using a good jarred sauce instead.  It’s an easy dish that’s impressive enough for potlucks or even a dinner party, but easy enough to make for a weeknight family dinner.  If you try it, let me know how it turns out for you!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Dinner on the Road

I’m back!  It feels like forever since I last posted.  Rest assured I have not taken a vacation from cooking—my family still needs to eat!  We did take a little vacation last week though, to visit our new nephew and his family in New York, which is one of many reasons I haven’t been able to post.  The trip was a long one (about seven hours,) but it’s a beautiful drive and we had a lovely day to travel.  In the summer, when we can, I like to pack a picnic for our big pit stop on long trips.  The Rev loves sandwiches, and so do I, but this time I wanted to do something a little different.  I decided to make a salad that has become a favorite of ours.  I first discovered this recipe on delish, the food site that is featured on the msn.com homepage.  It is insane how tasty it is, it’s not at all labor intensive, and it’s easy to make ahead before the day really heats up in the dog days of summer.  I’ve tweaked the original recipe a good bit, and I’ll share those tweaks and some tips and tricks, but first here’s where I started.  Don’t be intimidated by the length of the instructions; this is a true 30-minute meal.  The first three steps take place pretty much simultaneously, and you can easily shred the chicken while the tomatoes cook.  It probably took me less than 30 minutes to make it, since I’ve got the steps pretty much down.

1 ½  pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed, or 3 cups shredded cooked chicken breast (skip Step 1)

4 cups broccoli florets

1 ½  pounds medium tomatoes

2 teaspoons plus 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

½  teaspoon chili powder

¼  cup lemon juice

  1. Place chicken in a skillet or saucepan and add enough water to cover; bring to a simmer over high heat. Cover, reduce heat and simmer gently until the chicken is cooked through and no longer pink in the middle, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board. When cool enough to handle, shred with two forks into bite-size pieces.
  2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add broccoli and cook until tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water until cool.
  3. Meanwhile, core tomatoes and cut in half crosswise. Gently squeeze out seeds and discard. Set the tomatoes cut-side down on paper towels to drain for about 5 minutes.
  4. Place a large heavy skillet, such as cast-iron, over high heat until very hot. Brush the cut sides of the tomatoes with 1 teaspoon oil and place cut-side down in the pan. Cook until charred and beginning to soften, 4 to 5 minutes. Brush the tops lightly with another  1 teaspoon oil, turn and cook until the skin is charred, 1 to 2 minutes more. Transfer to a plate to cool. Do not clean the pan.
  5. Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons oil in the pan over medium heat. Stir in salt, pepper and chili powder and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Slowly pour in lemon juice (it may splatter), then remove the pan from the heat. Stir to scrape up any browned bits.
  6. Coarsely chop the tomatoes and combine them in a large bowl with the shredded chicken, broccoli and the pan dressing; toss to coat.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

I promise you that you aren’t prepared for how delicious these simple flavors are when you marry them in this salad.  But first you have to get past how it looks.  Every time I make this, I pour the dressing from the pan and note that it looks like sludge, and I think, "Oh, crap, I screwed it up and it is going to suck this time." And every single time, I am amazed at how fabulous it tastes!

The dressing--it's not pretty, but the flavor is amazing!

I coarsely chopped the tomatoes on the same platter where I shredded the chicken.
 But what about those tweaks?  For starters, I prefer to use Roma or plum tomatoes--they hold their form a little better for turning, and they fit in the pan better.  I cut them lengthwise and cut out the seeds and gel, but with Romas you still get plenty of flesh left behind for great tomato flavor.  I use fresh broccoli florets because my family prefers fresh broccoli year-round and Aldi makes it affordable, but you could just as easily use a good-quality frozen broccoli (I wouldn’t use Aldi in that case, because I’ve found that their frozen broccoli is more stems than anything else.)  Just be sure not to over cook it.  You want the broccoli to be just a little bit crisp. 

Tomaotes smoking away in the cast-iron skillet
As for tips and tricks—one of the reasons I love this recipe is that I can forget to thaw the chicken (as I am known to do) and it still works just fine.  If you’re poaching chicken breasts, you can drop the frozen pieces right in the water.  That goes for any recipe that calls for poaching.  You’ll just need to let them cook a bit longer—around 20-25 minutes, depending on the thickness of the pieces. 

You have to use a cast iron pan for this one, and it has to be HOT. As in, it should be actively smoking.  I put my gas burner on high and let it go for a couple of minutes.  Keep in mind that cast iron holds the heat like crazy, so as soon as you get the tomatoes out, turn the heat way down.  If you have an electric cooktop instead of gas, I would consider moving the pan to a new burner turned to medium for making the dressing, because electric burners hold the heat, too.  A silicone scraper is a must-have for getting the dressing and all the yummy bits out of the skillet without adding bits of melted scraper, too. 

When the recipe says the lemon juice "may" splatter, they are joking. It will DEFINITELY splatter. A LOT. You can (should) use a splatter screen, or if you don't have one (like I didn't) you can hold the lid from a large pan to protect yourself from the splatter. Either way, you'll be cleaning up a lot of grease from your stovetop, but it is worth it.  And either way, I‘d recommend wearing either a potholder that covers at least to your wrist, or a rubber glove to protect the hand you use to stir the dressing.

When I make this recipe at home, I like to make Rachel Ray's Zucchini and Spaghetti on the side, but for the picnic I wanted something that could travel and would compliment the flavors of the salad without competing with or repeating them.  I invented a pasta salad using what I had in my pantry and fridge.  I started with tri-color rotini, and I added whole olives, diced red peppers and celery, balsamic vinaigrette, and crumbled gorgonzola.  I was going for similar flavors to my favorite savory mixed green salad.  The peppers were leftovers from the veggie tray I made for a backyard party, and they stood in for roasted red peppers, which I would have preferred, but I was out.  I can’t imagine a pasta salad without celery, and the olives were for me (I love them, The Rev not so much.)  I sprinkled on a generous helping of the cheese and packed the dressing separately, tossing it just before we ate.  The kids weren’t big fans, but I loved it.  We rounded out the meal with some fresh fruit, and our little roadside picnic looked downright gourmet!