Playing with Food

the semi-successful walnut roulade experimentNo matter where anyone is as a cook, however long or short a time they've stood over a hot range, there are few things as important as having fun playing with the food. Sometimes you've just got to dig into the creative urge and tinker around, no recipes and no boundaries. At that moment, it's just you and a few great ingredients making something unique.

Maybe it'll be a successful food experiment, maybe it won't. The critical thing is to not be too harsh a critic or get too uptight about getting it right on the first stab. It will be great experience in playing with flavors and textures, mixing and meshing cuisines, creating something which is yours alone and that's a fucking awesome thing. Even if it's the polar opposite of the culinary masterpiece you envisioned, at least you'll know what NOT to do next time. You'll have a better platform for the next experiment in food alchemy.

Sometimes it's just fun to take something you know, or think you know, and turning it a bit on its ear. Classic foods, unlike say classic films, are made to be tinkered with and re-imagined. They're not meant to be museum pieces, mired in religious recipe adherence.

What fun would that be?

With that in mind, I focused almost exclusively on tinkering with classic ideas this past week. Sometimes it worked out brilliantly, like tonight, others it was a step toward a new successful recipe.

In one case, it was *sigh* an abject failure. On that vein, I must state publicly and for the record:

I will, never again, allow myself to get sucked in to buying ass-tomatoes at the supermarket for tomato-based dishes, no matter how tempting the price.

Last night, I roasted up a big, fat bag of Roma tomatoes to make some tomato ginger soup. They smelled heavenly out of the oven ... so far so good. Then after a whack with the processor and a quick taste. *Bleh!* A distinct flavor of dead fish + old pennies hit my palate like a ton of bricks. There are not enough fillers in ten kitchens to cover that shit. With the addition of some fresh ginger, yoghurt, Aleppo pepper, and turmeric, it was sort of edible when eaten with some cheese toasts ... at least to two starving people desperate to finally eat at last. 

steamed cauliflower + butter + saffron = NOMNOMNOM!Fortunately the experiment in a new idea with chicken roulade was far better. It's not recipe-ready just yet, but well on the way. After pounding chicken breasts, I stuffed and rolled them with a processed mixture of walnuts, cooked spinach, roasted garlic, and goat cheese. Then I made a sauce of roasted garlic and peppers to go with it. Next time I think I'll braise them rather than cook them up in the oven. If it succeeds, I'll be sure to post some details.

Tonight's dinner, inspired by finding fresh raw pistachios at the market, was by far the greatest success. I wanted to take a spin with some Persian flavors but do it a little different from the classic dishes. A nifty bag of dried tart cherries to give a contrast to the soft flavor of the nuts and the menu really came together. I decided to cook some chicken leg quarters in tart cherries and wine, combined with saffron rice speckled with fresh pistachios and a light veg, cauliflower with saffron butter. The Boss says it's the best experiment in recent months, and I choose to believe him. The chicken was the real victory, sweet yet savory, tart and sexy ... I already want to eat more of it, despite my full belly.

Here are the details:

The whole meal should probably feed about 6 people or allow for some fab leftovers.

Persian-inspired cherry chicken with pistachio saffron riceCherry Chicken
3 chicken leg quarters
kosher salt + sumac (to season)
olive oil (just enough to brown)
1/2 white onion - very finely diced
3-4 cloves garlic - finely minced
1 cup dried tart cherries (I used Montmorency from Trader Joe's)
juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp sumac
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground clove
1 cup red wine (I used a Cab)
2 cups chicken stock (or 1 14.5 oz can broth)

1 - Season the chicken and allow to rest to lose chill, then brown in olive oil in a large skillet on MED-HIGH. Reserve and lower heat to MED.

2 - Add onions to the skillet and stir until they start to go clear, then add the garlic and mix well, stirring for 2 minutes. Then add the lemon juice and mix well, using the liquid to deglaze the pan, before adding the spices and cherries.

3 - Add wine and stock/broth and add the chicken back to the skillet. Bring just to a boil and lower to SIMMER for 1 hour (or more if larger pieces ... I had big legs so went to 1.5 hours), turning the chicken during cooking time. Reserve chicken and remove skillet from heat to cool while starting the sides.

4 - Once cherry liquid is cooled and sides are almost ready, skim off excess fat if you choose (I like to for reduced fat + more robust flavor) and add in batches to the processor or blender until all is smooth.

5 - Return sauce and chicken to skillet and heat to serve!

pistachio saffron ricePistachio Saffron Rice
2 TBSP butter
1/2 cup fresh pistachio nuts (can use roasted unsalted, too) - chopped well
1 large pinch (15-20 threads) saffron - crushed in the hand
1 cup rice (I used plain old long-grain)
2 cups chicken stock (or 1 14.5 oz can of broth with rest of 2 cups filled with water)
kosher salt to taste

1 - Melt the butter on LOW and add the nuts, then the saffron and stir to warm. Then add the rice and mix to warm, until a clear sheen starts to show on the grains.

2 - Add the broth and salt and bring to a boil, then cover and reduce to SIMMER for 15 minutes. Allow to stand for a few minutes after done before mixing the rice mix well and serving.

Saffron Butter Cauliflower
1 head cauliflower
4 TBSP butter
1 large pinch (15-20 threads) saffron - crushed in the hand
kosher salt to taste

1 - Steam the cauliflower to your preferred doneness (I like about 6-7 minutes for just barely firm) and remove from the pot to let briefly.

2 - Melt butter in the pot at LOW and return the cauliflower, adding the salt and saffron after. Mix well until all pieces are coated and the saffron is turning them bright crazy cartoon yellow, which should take a few minutes, before serving.

Well, that's enough yammering about food for one week. I'll be returning my over-fed ass to the kitchen to work out next week's craziness. Until then, hope you have some fun dreaming up your own re-imagined classics.