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In the Kitchen with Anne, Nigel, and a Chicken and Leek Pie

April 1, 2013

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When winter arrives, I think the snow is so pretty and making a fire, having a scotch, snuggling under blankets is perfect cozy comfort. When winter just won’t quit after five months, cozy becomes claustrophobic and all that comfort just becomes sad slothfulness.  I sink into the depths of despair.  When this happens, I look to Anne Shirley’s wholesome optimism to buoy my spirit. And I ignore Marilla Cuthbert’s fire and brimstone quip that “to despair is to turn my back on God.” Sometimes Marilla just doesn’t understand. Anne-girl reminds me how gorgeous spring looks, feels and smells: orchards bedecked with boughs and boughs of wee pink and white flowers, babbling clear and cool brooks, flowers fragrant enough to drink in their scents, undulating grassy fields that roll to the sandy shore, warm breezes, and lush woodlands dotted with ferns. Anne rhapsodies better than I do but you get the picture.

anne and diane

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Side note: I love you Gilbert.

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This winter seemed to have been worse than anything I remember in the past. I read all of the L. M. Montgomery’s Anne books this winter (except for Anne of Windy Poplars because it’s boring) and watched the whole mini series. It felt like a lifeline that pulled me out of the winter dregs. It helped me feel that spark of the old me – the one that loves to cook. Finally having the urge to cook again for the first time in months, I reached for a book from my favourite cookery writer, Nigel Slater. He’s a friend in the kitchen and I wouldn’t want to celebrate my return with anyone else.  I plucked his latest, The Kitchen Diaries II (Fourth Estate, 2012), off the shelf and read through the recipes like a brand new, and starving, woman.

My eyes landed on a chicken and leek pie recipe with gentle and wholesome flavours.  It’s a recipe that reads like it’s from a simple and homespun era; it looks like something Anne would make. But not in the first book, Anne of Green Gables, because she had no idea what she was doing in the kitchen – like when she baked a cake and forgot the flour. We have to wait until the second book, Anne of Avonlea, before Anne becomes quite the domestic doyenne under Marilla’s tutelage. The flavours in this recipe are old-fashioned and the cooking methods are simple and straightforward. You just need some patience and steadfastness to see you through the multiple steps. The chicken is poached in whole milk with simple aromatics straight from a kitchen garden – onions, bay, and thyme. The chicken is then diced and folded into a creamy sauce with sautéed bacon and tender leeks and everything is then wrapped up in a flakey buttery pastry. Even using whole milk for the poaching seemed more Anne-like and well…wholesome. 2% or 1% wouldn’t have cut it in this recipe.

As I’m cooking, I wonder if Nigel and Anne would have a good time in the kitchen together. I think they would. They both love the domesticity of the kitchen. Neither of them begrudges the time it takes to prepare a dish; there’s no rushing to get through a task. They both madly love to garden and they find the beautiful in the earthly everyday. Nigel seems kind of quiet, though. And Anne sure does like to talk. I’m not sure if he’s the quiet type, like Matthew Cuthbert, that likes it when someone shares every thought. If he’s not, Anne might drive him bonkers.

I’m just going to believe that they would be fast friends.
Who would have known there was so much scope for the imagination in a pie recipe?

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Chicken-and-Leek-Pie-filling

A Hearty Chicken and Leek Pie
From The Kitchen Diaries II (Fourth Estate, 2012)
By Nigel Slater

My only addition to the original recipe is that I added some thyme sprigs to the poaching liquid.

350g chicken thighs on the bone (about 3)
350g chicken breasts on the bone (1 large)
half an onion
8 peppercorns
a bay leaf
a few thyme sprigs
whole milk, enough to cover
30g butter
6 rashers smoked streaky bacon
2 medium leeks, only white and light green parts
3 tablespoons plain flour
3 teaspoons Dijon mustard
two sheets of puff pastry (purchased is perfectly fine)
a little beaten egg and milk
grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Put the chicken pieces into a large saucepan, together with the half onion, peppercorns and herbs and pour enough milk just to cover the chicken.

Bring to the boil, then, just when it starts to bubble, lower the heat and leave to simmer, partially covered by a lid for about twenty minutes.  Remove the chicken from the poaching liquid, reserving the milk. The poaching milk will smell savory and rich. Once the chicken isn’t too hot, pull off the skin and cut the meat off the bone into small, plump pieces.

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

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Slice the bacon into small pieces and the leeks into thin half moons.  Oh and make sure you wash those leeks really well so there’s no grit between layers. Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add the bacon. The bacon should soften without colouring over a moderate to low heat. Add the leeks to the bacon and continue cooking for about fifteen minutes more, until the leeks are totally soft.

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Stir the flour into the leek and bacon, continue cooking for a couple of minutes. Gradually strain in enough of the warm milk to make a thick sauce. You don’t want this to be a paste, you want it to be a sauce, albeit a thick sauce. There should be enough ‘give’ in the sauce so that the chicken can be mixed in well and coated properly by the sauce. Season generously with salt and pepper and stir in the Dijon mustard.

Unroll your first sheet of puff pastry onto a lightly floured surface.  Roll it out to about 10.5 x 14.5 inches. You might need to put a little flour on your rolling pin to keep it from sticking. Place it on a baking sheet. Spoon the filling onto the pastry, leaving a wide rim all the way around. Brush the rim with the beaten egg and milk. Roll out the second piece of pastry to the same size as the one before and lower it over the filling. Press and crimp the edges together firmly to seal them. You don’t want the filling to leak so make sure the edges are sealed tightly.

Brush the pastry all over with the beaten egg wash and scatter a handful of the grated Parmigiano Reggiano over the surface. Bake for thirty-five minutes or until golden.

Enough for 6.

It is delicious.

Fancy Feast

December 28, 2012

Don’t be alarmed. This post is not about cat food.

King crab legs with drawn butter and lemon. The fishmonger took visa (thank god).

King crab legs with drawn butter and lemon. The fishmonger took visa (thank god).

My first job after graduating from college was in Washington, DC at an NGO. I won’t rehash what I did there since I’ve mentioned it before here.  For a place that I never would have thought to have any impact on how I think about food, I have some amazing food memories that are a direct result from working there and the people I met. The very first thought of what would become my most beloved annual food holiday sprouted when standing in the copy room/kitchen talking to Marty, who ran the finances for the NGO. Marty was Italian-American and grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan.  I had never met anyone from the lower east side of Manhattan and even though I knew that the place really existed I felt that it only existed in movies and that Marty was a character from a Scorsese film. Marty was telling me about his plans for Christmas Eve, Italian-style. For the first time ever, he was the one responsible in his family for frying all the different seafood for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. I didn’t know what that was so he told me all about it. And then I was jealous. I told him I celebrate Christmas January 7 and we eat herring on Christmas Eve. His seafood extravaganza sounded so much better than my herring non-extravaganza.

It wasn’t until years later, living with my boyfriend in Toronto, with both of us off work that whole Christmas week that I thought that we should do something celebratory even though we both don’t celebrate Christmas then. I remembered Marty’s story about the Italian Christmas Eve and all that seafood. So, on Christmas Eve we would do a seafood fest, using the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes as an inspiration rather than an exact blue print.  I made a seafood paella with large prawns and mussels and clams and calamari. I didn’t want to call our little holiday Feast of the Seven Fishes because it wasn’t a bona fide Italian Christmas Eve. We decided to call it Fancy Feast instead.

That inaugural Fancy Feast back in 2005 was a humble affair in retrospect.  Fancy Feast has now grown into a two-day (sometimes three-day) eating extravaganza. But no holiday just happens. There’s the planning and the list making and the shopping that is almost as much fun as the holiday itself. Oh the anticipation! All of my cookbooks are pulled off the shelves and all of my favourite recipe blogs are perused during the hunt for what will be our Fancy Feast Menu. I take this research very seriously, like it’s a job. Once the menu is drawn up, the shopping list is drafted, the who picks up what details are confirmed between me and my boyfriend, and then we set out to the stores to pick everything up. In between the food purchasing, we make sure to stock the shelves with wine and to get a big stack of DVDs from the Film Buff.  Everything on our lists is bought by the afternoon of December 24th. All that planning and prepping pays off;  we don’t have to leave the house for the next few days.

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I kept track of which oysters were which using post-it notes (OCD behaviour does not go on holiday). The Kumomotos and Shigokus from Washington state were our favourites.

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Clams steamed with Spanish chorizo, white wine, orange, bay leaf and garlic.

The 24th is always a big seafood dinner. Oysters have become the official kick off and king crab legs have become the traditional main attraction. We rotate through a number of other dishes with clams or scallops or prawns or lobster. December 25th feasting starts with breakfast, something more elaborate than eggs and toast. In previous years, it’s been freshly baked cinnamon rolls, coffee cakes or pound cakes, or potato pancakes with smoked salmon. This year it was sugary orange scented olive oil sticky buns.  This recipe might become breakfast tradition, it was that good.

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Orange Olive Oil Sticky Buns with a Buttermilk Glaze

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Allspice, thyme and bay leaf scented country terrine with cornichons, Dijon mustard, and my own pickled mushrooms.

A French rustic terrine with baguette, cornichons and Dijon mustard is now tradition for lunch on the 25th. Dinner is a carnivorous extravaganza (a yang to seafood’s ying). One year I made a beef wellington, a tenderloin wrapped in puff pastry! So much fanciness in that recipe. The following year I topped that by making an osso buco with porcini mushroom risotto. That dish was sobbing good.  Last year I roasted a whole veal shank and served it with wild mushrooms and duck fat roasted potatoes. I didn’t stop there. The next day I took that veal shank, shredded all the meat off and made a savoury veal ragu and served it with pappardelle. An awesome 1-2 punch. This year we got a large T-bone steak from Sanagan’s Meat Locker, seared it off in the hottest pan and then basted it with a garlic and thyme butter as it finished cooking. And the perfect side to this fancy steak? Onion rings.

I let myself buy this pile of Chantrelle mushrooms for Fancy Feast

I let myself splurge on this pile of chantrelle mushrooms for Fancy Feast

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Yes, we are eating this fancy dinner at the coffee table in front of the TV.

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Here’s a close up of that lovely whole roasted veal shank with a parsley and lemon gremolata.

We plan a menu of delicious dishes that, at any other time of year, we would never attempt because it costs way too much or takes too much time to make or is not really the healthiest to eat or just feels too special to have at any other time of year. And it’s not just about being extravagant with the food. If we want to eat our fabulous dinner sitting on the floor watching TV in our pajamas – we can. And watch movies.  And drink. And crack open that bottle of wine that costs too much to drink with any other meal. But we have learned that getting drunk and still having things to cook that have multiple, elaborate steps and that have never been attempted before will result in failure.  There has to be some restraint before sitting down to the table. After that, not so much. Fancy Feast isn’t fancy because it’s just about being fancy. It’s fancy because we let ourselves be extravagant with whatever we want to do.  We created a holiday! How fancy is that?

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40-day aged T-bone Steak. I made the little salad (in the background) for show just to make ourselves feel better about eating all that steak.

Onion Rings are totally fancy.

Onion rings are totally fancy.

Cassettes and Chicken Kiev

December 17, 2012

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My mom would give me $2 a day to buy a hot lunch in high school. This was in the early nineties in suburban Cleveland to give you some context. She wasn’t being stingy – it was just how much (or how little) a full hot lunch cost back then and there. But instead of buying a full lunch, I’d only spend $1 and pocket the rest so I could buy cassettes. My $1 a day, Monday to Friday, savings plan would yield a cassette every two weeks.  For my lunch, I subsisted on a slice of pizza or a bowl of fake mashed potatoes with fake gravy (better than it sounds). At this rate, it would take me so long (too long!) to buy the whole Replacements back catalog let alone all the bands I read about in Sassy Magazine. I needed a job.

My best friend Natalie got me a job working with her as a waitress at a Ukrainian church hall on Saturdays doing weddings and other big dos. Every Saturday after Ukrainian school, we’d show up to the hall to begin the set up. Natalie and I were just two of the crew of teenage Ukrainian-American girls that worked these events. We draped the tables in coloured tablecloths, fold the colour coordinated napkins, and set the tables with plates, silverware and glassware. We’d then change into our sensible black skirts (to the knee!) and white blouses (blousey blouses!) and tie on our white dainty aprons (random ones from the kitchen). With no intention of looking good (or cool which is better than looking good), I just cobbled together a uniform, primarily made out of polyester, that was machine washable and didn’t rely on me actually spending money on it.

Ukrainian lady cooks ran the kitchen; they’ve been running things every Saturday since I think people first started having weddings. After suiting up for service, we headed into the kitchens to load up our carts with large platters and bowls of family style food to serve the guests. We’d roll out the carts into the big hall, a parade of sensibly dressed teenage waitresses pushing heavy carts, moving as fast as possible so that the food was hot, hot, hot when it hit the table.  As soon as the food was served, all the waitresses and cooks sat down to a long table in the kitchen to eat the same big meal as the guests.

It was pretty much the same menu every wedding – roast beef and gravy, boiled potatoes tossed with butter and dill, cabbage rolls, salad, vegetables ‘California-style’ (broccoli, cauliflower and carrots), rigatoni with meat sauce. Something Ukrainian, mid-western meat and potatoes, something Italian and of course something Californian. And then the fancy bit – there was either Chicken Cordon Bleu or Chicken Kiev. Mind you, neither of the fancy chickens were homemade; they came frozen out of box and were reheated in the oven. But it didn’t matter to me; fancy chicken (even out of a box) was something extra-ordinary. My mom didn’t make anything like this at home. I preferred the Chicken Kiev, just because of the name. Capital of Ukraine! Even though it’s the Russian spelling! Especially compared to that French imposter Chicken Cordon Bleu.

After our staff meal, we’d head back out into the hall to see if anyone wanted seconds. We hoped that they didn’t since the sooner everyone was done eating the faster we could clear the tables and get out of there. We’d do a first blitz around the dining room grabbing anything that we could clear off the table. Then we waited for the rest of it all. Leaning up against the wall in the back, watching like hawks for any piece of cutlery or glassware that was left unattended, we’d swoop in and clear.  Sometimes this took a while. We watched the crowd, chatted amongst ourselves, judged people on how they danced, and wished to be home already. Occasionally, a drunk guy, around the same age of a granddad, would come out of the bar and ask us to polka. The answer was always no, no matter how much we wanted to. We were professionals.  Once everything was off the tables, aside from the tablecloth and decorations, we’d head back into the kitchen to polish and put everything away for the next Saturday.

Oh and what about the cassettes? Each Saturday I earned about $30 cash – under the table, no tax, and all mine.  I can’t believe how much money that seemed to me when I was handed that envelope. That money, from just one shift, was enough for three tapes and I didn’t have to endure 6 weeks worth of weekday school lunch malnourishment to get them. And I got to have fancy chicken every Saturday night.

My mom never made Chicken Kiev and for all the Ukrainian women cooking and the Ukrainian girls serving, I don’t think any of them ever had this dish made at home, either. It didn’t really seem Ukrainian. And I found out that it’s not; not organically Ukrainian, a dish made in the family home generation after generation that becomes part of a people’s collective food history. Its history is unconfirmed  – either it was created by a chef in the 1960’s for the grand opening of a four star hotel in Kiev named the Hotel Moscow or it was created by a French chef and served at the Russian imperial court when Tsars were still around. Either way, this is not a dish something families (like mine) would be making back on the farm in rural western Ukraine.

I attempted two recipes to see which worked best. The Chicken Kiev recipe from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book (Ten Speed Press, 2004) was anxiety inducing, unnecessarily difficult and failed. Hugh actually wants you to buy a whole chicken, break it down, and then debone and skin the breasts. Which is fine, I guess. I know how to breakdown the chicken but then wasn’t sure how to debone and skin the breasts with the first joint of the wing still attached (that wing detail he says “makes it ‘authentic’). I flip to the page in Hugh’s book where he is supposed to detail how to do all of that.  His instructions on how to debone and skin the breasts with that little f*@#ing wing joint attached are: “trim out the lean meat.” That’s not exactly helpful, Hugh.

Felicity Cloake’s recipe in the Guardian was the exact opposite of Hugh’s. She actually calls him out on his version. She’s done a bit of research on the dish and offers up a lot of helpful hints. The link is below.

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Chicken Kiev
Mostly from Felicity Cloake’s recipe in the Guardian

I don’t usually mention kitchen tools and supplies with recipes, but please make sure you have enough cling film on hand. You’ll need it for three different steps.

4 tablespoons softened butter
2 garlic cloves, minced and then crushed to a paste with a little salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 chicken breasts, butterflied
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
1 cup breadcrumbs, seasoned with salt and pepper
Oil for deep frying (peanut, sunflower, or vegetable)

Beat together the butter, garlic, parsley and lemon juice with a pinch of salt and plenty of pepper. Divide into two blobs, place each in the middle of a piece of cling film, fold one half of the cling film over the butter blob, shape the butter into a sausage, then roll it up. Twist the ends of the cling film to secure the butter and place the little packages in the fridge to chill. I did lick some of the garlic butter off the spoon. And then off my fingers.  It’s delicious.

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If you can’t find butterflied breasts, here’s how you do it. Place each butterflied breast of chicken between two pieces of cling film. Using a meat mallet, pound the breasts until they thin out to about 1/4 of an inch. Be really careful that you don’t create any holes in the breast meat or the dish is ruined. If there are any holes, then when the butter melts it will leak out. That butter staying inside is the whole point of the dish. No pressure!

Season both sides of the chicken with salt and pepper. Place the chicken breasts horizontally in front of you. Place a piece of butter close to the edge of the breast (breast and butter both placed the long way), fold the bottom flap of chicken over the butter, fold in the sides, and roll up. Same method as if you’re rolling up a burrito. If the edges aren’t staying put or the end flap won’t stick, then use a little bit of beaten egg and flour like glue to seal the deal.

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When I rolled up one of the breasts, the sides wouldn’t stay put even with the flour and egg so I used toothpicks to seal the seam. There is no shame in this.

Place the rolled up chicken breasts on a piece of cling film, and wrap them tightly, rolling them up (again) like a burrito. Place in the freezer for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Lay out your flour, beaten eggs and breadcrumbs in shallow dishes. Take the Chicken Kievs out of the freezer and dredge them: flour first, then eggs, and then breadcrumbs. Repeat the eggs and breadcrumbs. Set them on a plate in the fridge and let them thaw out for an hour.  Your Chicken Kievs should have a nice oblong shape and they should be sealed like Fort Knox.

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When ready to fry, heat the oil in a large frying pan (or even better – a dutch oven) to 325 F. The oil should come up and cover or almost cover the entire chicken bundle.

Preheat the oven to 350.

Fry the chicken in the oil for about 10 minutes. Turn them periodically so they colour evenly on all sides. They should be golden brown.  If you’re making multiple batches, you can keep the fried Chicken Kievs warm in the oven while you wait for all of them to fry up.  I also like to have a preheated oven on the ready if my chicken starts to brown to quickly and I feel I have to pull them out before I think they’re cooked all the way through. I can then finish off the little Kievs in the oven.  This ended up happening to me on the latest attempt. I pulled them out when I didn’t want them to get any more ‘golden brown.’ They then went into the oven for five additional minutes to make sure they were cooked all the way through.

When you cut open the Chicken Kiev, the herb and garlic butter should ooze out onto the plate. When I was making these, I thought this dish was way too fussy and troublesome. I knew why those Ukrainian church hall ladies bought these premade. But when I cut the Chicken Kiev open and that herby, garlicky butter oozed out, all that trouble was worth it.