Friday, May 20, 2011

Elegant Italian Enteraining... on a Wednesday!

Mid-week dinner guests are always a particular challenge of their own, between having (generally) less preparation time, as well not wanting to keep anyone up or out too late. But I always get a special rush from making a really stunning meal that is all the more appreciated because it came after a hard day of work, or breaks up the doldrums of the weekly schedule. And what guest doesn't love showing up straight from the office to find dinner just coming steaming and bubbling out of the oven?! Long, luxurious, multi-course meals with cocktails and bottles of great wine can be terrific fun, but sometimes it's your closest friends you just can't wait for the weekend to see, and all it takes is a couple of hours on a Wednesday to check in and catch up. With just the tiniest bit of advance planning, the tastebuds of your weeknight guests will tell them it's definitely a Saturday evening!

FineCooking.Com has a fantastic feature which I stumbled across and used for the first time this week... it's called "Make it Tonight" and it's linked right from their homepage featuring a recipe that's easy enough to pull together for dinner even if you just discover the recipe at your lunchtime internet break. Even more fun once you click through are recipes lined up for every day of the week.

This time, I chose the Lemon Chicken with Capers because I already had all the ingredients at home without needing to make a special trip to the store. Except for using chicken "tenders" (instead of full breasts) - which were unexpectedly still large enough to pound out and stuff, then fold in half - I followed the recipe exactly. The ingredients list is totally accessible, the steps are all straightforward, and the results are exceptional. The only drawback in my mind is that it created a lot of dirty dishes between mixing the stuffing, assembling the chicken pieces, searing them, then the tented platter while making the finishing sauce, etc.  It is absolutely elegant and delicious enough to make for a more traditional dinner party, and if it weren't for having to mix up the butter sauce after the chicken has already roasted, this would also be a good make-ahead dish. If I think of a modification so the sauce can be prepared in advance, then this is a superb candidate for a larger-scale dinner party.

Another nice feature of FineCooking is the "Make it a Meal" where suggestions for other recipes to accompany the dish are posted. A recommended side dish for the Lemon Chicken was Spinach and Herb Risotto. As far as the flavor profile, these were delightful accompaniments. I was slightly disappointed in the visually presentation, because both dishes ended up looking essentially white, with significant green garnishes. A little more color contrast on the plate would have made for a more attractive presentation. If you want to make this for your sweetie and spend the meal gazing into each other's eyes instead of examining the aesthetics of plating, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Lemon Chicken Breasts with Capers
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (6 oz. each) I actually used 12 chicken "tenders"
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup fine, dry breadcrumbs
4 Tbs. capers, rinsed, drained, patted dry, and chopped
1 lemon, zest finely grated, and juiced
2 Tbs. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley I doubled the parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground
black pepper
3 Tbs. unsalted butter I only used 2 T
1 Tbs. olive oil
2 medium cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 cup lower-salt chicken broth or I used white wine!!

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Make a lengthwise horizontal slice almost all the way through each chicken breast and open each up like a book. Flatten the chicken with a meat mallet until it is 1/4 inch thick. Put the Parmigiano, breadcrumbs, 3 Tbs. capers, lemon zest, and 1 Tbs. parsley in a mini chopper or food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Sprinkle the mixture on top of the chicken breasts. Fold each breast closed and secure with toothpicks. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat 1 Tbs. butter and the oil in a large (12-inch), heavy-duty, oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat until the butter melts and starts to foam, about 2 minutes. Add the chicken and cook, without touching, until it browns and easily releases from the pan, about 2 minutes. Turn the chicken and cook the other side until browned, about 2 more minutes.

Add the garlic and the remaining 1 Tbs. capers to the skillet, transfer the pan to the oven, and roast uncovered until the chicken cooks through (an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part should register 165°F), about 8 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a serving platter and tent with foil.

Set the skillet over medium-high heat; add the chicken broth, and cook, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen any browned bits, until it reduces by about half, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in 2 Tbs. of the lemon juice and the remaining 2 Tbs. butter. Taste and add more lemon juice, salt, and pepper if needed. Serve the chicken drizzled with the butter sauce and sprinkled with the remaining 1 Tbs. parsley.
As seen on, from Book Big Buy Cooking, pp. 30, April 4, 2011, by Tony Rosenfeld.

Spinach, Artichoke, and Pesto Risotto
If you don't know how to make risotto, you should read up on it. It's very easy (many myths call it excrutiatingly time consuming, with arm-numbing constant pot-stirring, but that's not been my experience.) And once you have the classic base recipe down, it's incredibly versatile with countless add-ons and mix-ins to tailor it to any type of menu you are planning. I've made it enough now that I don't measure my ingredients or set a timer, and I just toss in whatever sounds good that night. The recipe below was inspired by Fine Cooking 26, pp. 40-45, April 1, 1998, and recipe author Alan Tardi, but it is my own.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine (usually I use vermouth, but if you`'re serving wine with the dinner, it can be nice to have the flavor profile in synch by using a bit of the same wine in the meal)
2-3 cups chicken or vegetable broth, heated to hot or boiling
3/4 cup finely chopped spinach
1 large artichoke heart (and stem, if available) steamed until tender (40-50 minutes) and diced into bite-sized pieces
1/3-1/2 cup prepared pesto
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
squeeze of fresh lemon

Heat the oil over medium heat until shimmering. Stir in onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the rice until evenly coated and starting to crackle, but not toast (about one minute.) Add the wine and stir continuously until absorbed and evaporated. Reduce heat to medium-low, and stir in the hot broth about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring until each addition is incorporated before adding additional broth. The total cooking time for the rice will end up being about 25 minutes, but the trick is to add the broth slowly and to cook over low heat; this allows the rice to develop it's soft, creamy texture. After the last addition of broth, stir in the spinach for the final round of stirring. Taste the rice to ensure the grains are fully cooked, but still firm and not mushy. Stir in the artichoke and pesto. My pesto already has cheese it in, so if you aren't going to serve the risotto right away, wait to stir in the pesto until just before serving. Otherwise, the cheese will melt and get sticky and gummy. Squeeze a wedge of fresh lemon over, just to brighten the flavors, and garnish each serving with a sprinkling of freshly grated cheese. Delizioso!

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