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 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!

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