Fricasseed Chicken with Eggplant and Fresh Tomatoes

Eggplant is a bit funny to deal with.  Unlike most vegetables, it absorbs oil like a sponge, only to release it again.  The texture can be somewhat spongy (styrofoamy?) when raw.  And those who can get past the mouthfeel find themselves complaining about bitterness.    I’ve heard that the older the eggplant, the more of a problem you have on your hands.  I’ve heard more seeds is bad news.  Or to avoid large eggplants.  But I’ve had large eggplants that were fine, and the most repulsively bitter ones I’ve tried could have been confused for habanero peppers (really!).

Fricasseed Chicken with Eggplant and Fresh Tomatoes (1 of 15)

The thing is, despite that intro, I’m a big fan of eggplant, but I admit it’s tricky to handle.  When I was in Spain, my host family always salted their eggplants before breading and frying them, so that’s my method of choice (I’ve seen cutting out the seeds mentioned as well).  I admit, though, to sometimes engaging in a bit of Russian roulette and charging on forward without precautionary measures.  I’m here to tell the tale.  And yet…salting is a worthwhile step as it handles the other bugbear, the texture.  The juices are drawn out of your big purple vegetable-fruit, and the slices go from being almost artificially springy to soft and meltingly tender when cooked.

And I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves (well not exactly–I can’t help providing a few tips for salting eggplant I’ve learned along the way).

Salting-Eggplant

It’s amazing to see how much volume is lost in the process, as the pictures above show–firm batons of eggplant start to collapse and soften.  And that’s just the beginning–the next step is to bundle the eggplant in a kitchen towel and squeeze with abandon (or aggression).  You’ll be shocked at how much moisture you manage to wring out.  Throw that stress ball out, and just eat more eggplant!

Fricasseed Chicken with Eggplant and Fresh Tomatoes (6 of 15)

The picture above is about half of the eggplant, compacted down after much twisting and pressing.  Please don’t use a paper towel (you’ll drive yourself nuts and waste time picking of little bits of shredded paper that have adhered to your otherwise lovely vegetable), and please do it over the sink!  It’s a few minutes (but only a few) of intense work, but think of it as a down payment on the pancetta, olive oil, and vegetable oil that you’re about to be playing liberally with. (I’ll get to that).  And there’s no harm in taking a little break.

OK, so you know that this recipe I’m going to be talking about just might be featuring eggplant.  And even though eggplant is certainly a vegetable that holds it own as a meat substitute, there’s no reason it can’t share the stage–so I decided to try Marcella Hazan’s recipe for chicken fricasseed with eggplant and fresh tomatoes. Soon I was digging up some chicken parts from my freezer to get a head start on the next day’s meal, and checking my stocks of olive oil and pancetta.  Marcella’s not diet food.

Frying-Eggplant

You could think of this recipe as almost two in one:  the eggplant is fried on its own, while the chicken is sautéed with tomatoes and pancetta.  Only at the last minute do you unite the two, where their flavors instantly meld together.  And since the recipe proceeds on these parallel tracks, you can start one step ahead of the other to get a head start–and in fact I fried up my eggplant in the afternoon, and finished the remainder of the meal quickly before dinner.

Fricasseed Chicken with Eggplant and Fresh Tomatoes (11 of 15)

Chicken and eggplant seem an unusual pairing, but the eggplant almost melts into a sauce with the tomatoes, and the pancetta brings all the elements together.  (My husband, who is less enthusiastic about eggplant than I, noted that it’s the pancetta that makes the dish, though he’d probably say that about any meal with pancetta).  While decidedly making the best of late summer produce, it’s a meal that still sticks to your ribs and is deeply satisfying.  And a fitting adieu to summer.

Fricasseed Chicken with Eggplant and Fresh Tomatoes (15 of 15)

Adapted from Marcella’s Italian Kitchen

Fricasseed Chicken with Eggplant and Fresh Tomatoes
Ingredients
  • 1 1/2 to 2lb eggplant
  • salt
  • vegetable oil for frying
  • 2 medium fresh tomatoes
  • 2 1/2 to 3lb chicken parts (a whole chicken cut into 10 pieces or chicken pieces to equal this weight)
  • 2T olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1/2c dry white wine
  • 1/4 lb pancetta
  • parsley
Instructions
  1. Cut the eggplants into small batons, about 1-inch wide by 3 inches long. Layer into a colander with liberal sprinklings of salt, then toss to further combine. Allow to stand over your sink for about an hour. This draws out the juice and with it, any bitterness in the eggplant.
  2. Peel your tomatoes with a serrated peeler and chop. Chop up the pancetta and garlic as much as you can as well.
  3. Close to the hour mark, pour the olive oil into a deep saute pan and when hot, add the pancetta and garlic. When the garlic just starts to turn pale gold, add the chicken, skin side down. (Ideally, to get beautifully browned chicken you will need to pat the skin dry with paper towels. As you can see, I forgot to do this and it was still delicious, so don’t stress if you forget or don’t get it quite dry enough). Brown the chicken on one side, then the other. Add the wine, and once the alcohol has boiled away, add the tomatoes and parsley. Turn the chicken from time to time while it cooks.
  4. Meanwhile, squeeze the eggplant to draw out any further moisture. As pictured, this is best done with a cloth kitchen towel, and is best done by forcefully kneading and then wringing out the liquid. You will be surprised at how much additional liquid is released, particularly with a fresh eggplant. Heat the vegetable oil in a deep skillet–the original recipe called for pouring in enough oil so as to be 1/2-inch deep, but I got by with far less, perhaps a quarter inch. When it is hot (test it by slipping in a small eggplant piece; it should immediately sizzle) add about a third to a half of your eggplant batons. You do not want to crowd the eggplant as it will not brown as nicely. You also risk lowering the temperature of the oil which will render soggy, oily eggplant. Turn occasionally. When cooked to a golden brown (about 6-7 minutes) remove to a paper towel to drain and continue with the remaining eggplant. (You can prepare the eggplant in advance and refrigerate).
  5. When the chicken is done or nearly done, add the fried eggplant and cook about 5 minutes more. Some of the eggplant may disintegrate into the sauce–this is fine. Serve immediately with more fresh parsley. (Note that the original recipe recommends pouring off some of the fat before adding the eggplant. I didn’t do this though calorie-wise, it would probably have been a good idea).

Pasta with Broccoli and Anchovy Sauce

I won’t lie:  often enough when I see a recipe that kicks off by underlining the importance of technique, I proceed warily:  isn’t that just code for “this is going to be a lot of work”?

I don’t mind putting in some time in the kitchen (for goodness sakes, I’m writing a food blog here).  I do weird things like making my own yogurt and nurturing a little jar of sourdough in the fridge (though I’ll admit that neither of those activities require a Herculean effort, or much effort at all).  And I can’t argue that it’s not worth it.  But a soft-focus daydreamy vision of myself, in slow motion, pulling a steamy lasagna out of the oven–with homemade sheets of pasta of course–made with locally foraged mushrooms and herbs will have to wait for the weekend. (Well, the foraging–frankly that’s not going to happen any weekend because hunting down wild mushrooms freaks me out.  And furthermore I am a disaster at homemade pasta).  The other five days of the week have to submit to the practicalities of the fact that I can’t start making dinner until about 6pm.

On top of this, it’s often a challenge to build a meal with a vegetable as a starring role–at least for me.  I often feeling like I’m eating a compilation of side dishes with no unifying center.  Some garlicky greens, a swipe of a cracker through a jar of hummus, a carrot, a few olives, too many slices of bread and cheese, some scrounging for a cookie, a handful of my kids’ cereal…

Broccoli Pasta with Anchovy Sauce (3 of 3)

This recipe that I’m going to tell you about, from  Marcella Hazan‘s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, is one I’ve actually ignored for some time.  It just sounded, well, boring.  Chopped boiled broccoli stirred together with pasta and some cheese on top?  But for some reason (I had broccoli, I had pasta, this recipe sounded easy and fast–and on a Friday evening, that was enough) I finally gave it a try.  Except for the broccoli of course, all the ingredients are either pantry items or the refrigerator equivalent, so I hardly had to think too much before starting.

Broccoli Pasta with Anchovy Sauce (1 of 3)

Of course, using umami-packed anchovies and good cheese goes a long way towards ensuring a simple dish has tons of satisfying flavor. But (bringing me full circle in this post), the real revelation here was the technique and Hazan’s detailed instructions on–yes–how to boil broccoli.

I’m well aware it may sound silly to go on and on about “how” to boil something, but it really does makes all the difference:  the stems are tender, with no unwelcome rawness at the core, while the florets, which often suffer the reverse fate, are firm and green.  Peeling is quick and easy and ensures there’s no unpleasant, tough skin on the stalks.  Giving the stems a 2 minute lead in the boiling process ensures each piece is perfectly cooked, and the salted water keeps them freshly green and verdant.  And I had independent confirmation:  my husband, not knowing the secret tricks I had employed, commented on how good the broccoli was.  (I’ll forgive him the shock and surprise in his voice.  I had the same reaction).

I wish there were more kitchen tricks that produced such a winning effect for such minimal effort.  Sadly, there’s not as many as any of us would like, but rest assured I’m keeping my eyes peeled.  In the meantime, grab some broccoli, and enjoy a weeknight dinner in short order!

Broccoli Pasta with Anchovy Sauce (2 of 3)

Pasta with Broccoli and Anchovy Sauce adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

  • One bunch of broccoli (about 1 1/2 lbs)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 6 anchovy fillets
  • 2 hot dried chili peppers or chili flakes, to taste
  • 12 ounces pasta, such as orecchiette, fusille, concilige (3/4 a standard box)
  • 2T parmesan cheese (grated)
  • 1/4c pecorino romano cheese (grated; i.e. twice the amount of parmesan)

Bring salted water to the boil.  Meanwhile, remove the broccoli stems from the florets.  Peel the broccoli stems using a vegetable peeler or a paring knife.  When the water boils, add the stems only, and once the water returns to a boil, wait 2 minutes.  Add the florets, return to the boil, wait one minute, and remove the broccoli.  (You can reserve the water for making the pasta).  When cool enough to handle, cut the broccoli stalks into 1/2 inch dice and break up the florets even more.

Return the water to  a boil.  Chop the anchovies finely; they will start to almost form a paste as you do so.  Heat the oil in a saucepan, add the anchovies, and move the saucepan over the pot of boiling water (so as to improvise a double-boiler).  Stir the anchovies for a minute or two until they disintegrate.  (Note, that this setup is not an extra step as you must boil water anyway for the pasta.  I have cooked the anchovies over the lowest possible flame but this is a safer method and at least here there’s no reason not to:  you already have the setup ready to go).

Add the broccoli (florets and stalks) and the chili, and return to the burner over medium heat.  Cook 4-5 minutes, stirring frequently.  Invert into a large bowl.

Boil the pasta until al dente, following the suggested timing on your package.  Add to the broccoli mixture.

Stir the broccoli sauce together with the pasta, add the cheese, stir and serve.

Final note:  there’s still time to enter our three year blogiversary giveaway, click on over!

Marcella Hazan’s “Turta” (Spinach and Rice Torta)

Isn’t it fascinating how just like languages and cultures, the same basic culinary idea gets a new accent and a new perspective on life when it border-hops?  Take ravioli:  Little packets of dough bursting with any variety of fillings.  Travel eastward, they become pierogi or pelmeni.  Further on, along the silk road one encounters tiny Turkish manti, and onward to China, they take up residence in the guise of wontons.  And all are seeking to answer, with imagination, a very universal kitchen question:  making a little bit of meat, of fish, of something scarce, go further.

Another familiar combination?  Egg + a vegetable or meat + maybe a starch to fill things out.  This “turta” is similarly yet another riff on that basic formula.  (Think quiche or omelet).    Playing around a bit with proportions, though, yields something new: the egg modestly keeps its head down, quietly binding the components together into a cake with a varied, almost chewy texture.  

The rice is boiled like pasta until al dente, and the greens are quickly blanched, just to soften them up a bit, and then sautéed with onions.  (You can also just use defrosted frozen spinach to cut out a step–it worked beautifully!)  A bit of nutmeg, one of spinach’s closest friends,  and some obligatory handfuls of grated parmesan (our little turta hails from Italy, after all) rounds out the flavor for a light but substantial and satisfying dish, burnished by golden crunchy bread crumbs.

“Turta” di Spinaci e Riso (Spinach and Rice Torta) adapted from Marcella’s Italian Kitchen

  • 2lb fresh spinach or chard, or 3 10-ounce packages of frozen spinach, thawed, or a mixture.
  • Salt
  • 1 generous cup of long-grain rice
  • 4T butter
  • 1/4c olive oil
  • 1/2c chopped onion or shallot
  • 1/2c grated parmesan
  • 1/8t ground nutmeg
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/4c bread crumbs

Note:  While this recipe has many (easy) components, it is easy to split it up into multiple steps–I made the rice and greens the night before, and then baked it up the next day, for example.  You might also just have leftover greens, or leftover rice, and this is a great way to use that up.

If using fresh greens, wash well and drain.  Put the clean greens in a pot with only the water clinging to the leaves and cook over medium heat until tender and wilted. Drain, allow to cool, and coarsely chop.   (If using frozen greens, you can skip this step, but make sure to squeeze out as much liquid as possible).  In another pot, bring water to a boil and add the rice, cooking until al dente.  (In other words, cook the rice as if you were cooking pasta).  Drain and set aside.  (Note:  you can stop here and continue the next day).

Preheat the oven to 450F.  Put 2T of the butter, the olive oil, and the chopped onion in a skillet and saute until tender.  Add the cooked greens and the rice.  Cook, stirring frequently, for 3-4 minutes, put into a bowl, and allow to cool.  (Note:  you can also stop here and continue the next day).   Then add half the parmesan, the nutmeg, salt and pepper, and the eggs.  Butter a springform pan and sprinkle with half the bread crumbs.  Pour in the rice and green mixture.  Mix the remaining cheese and crumbs and sprinkle on top.  Bake for 15 minutes or until the crumbs brown on top.  Allow to cool until lukewarm before serving.

Piedmontese Hashed Beef with Red Wine

I made this last week, and my husband has already asked me to make it again soon–so I guess the decision to blog about this dish is a good one.  

As you know I am a big fan of Marcella Hazan, who I see as something like the Julia Child of Northern Italian cuisine–in the sense that she “translated” Italian recipes for the US cook.  Like Julia Child, she also came to cooking later in life, only after she got married.  Her recipes have (nearly always) worked out beautifully, and while she has some that require true skill (boning an entire chicken while leaving it in one piece to stuff later comes to mind) the majority of her recipes are easy to execute, straightforward, and invariably delicious.  This same no nonsense (and slightly opinionated) attitude comes through in her writing style, as well as being reflected in her choice of recipes themselves.

I own two “Marcellas” as I call them, but have not explored  Marcella’s Italian Kitchen as thoroughly as her magnum opus, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.  My parents-in-law have this book (in fact, I think they introduced me to Marcella more generally) and had it not been for the suggestion of my father-in-law I’d probably never have tried a recipe that had “Hashed Beef” in the title (even if it did also have “Red Wine” right after that).   The Italian, Il Tapulon di Borgomanero, while more glamorous a name, is not particularly elucidating (and is quite a mouthful even for me, an undeniable language geek).

But what a perfect meal, especially to make on a weeknight in winter.  I like to buy savoy cabbage as it keeps fairly well, is inexpensive, and healthy, and perfectly seasonal for this time of year.  I always have plenty of ground beef in the freezer thanks to our Meat CSA.   Everything else you’d need (except maybe the pancetta) is in your pantry.

You simply brown the beef in a mixture of butter, olive oil, and pancetta, and then add the cabbage, spices, and red wine, and simmer for about a half to three-quarters of an hour.

It must be the use of cloves and fennel, but there’s something about the resulting aroma that recalls a medieval feast.  The heady mixture of spices is something unusual in most food these days.  Also, you add QUITE a bit of wine, but fear not, it has plenty of time to boil off.

While I ate it “straight,” Marcella recommends serving over polenta (yum) or rice (which sounds less appealing, personally).  In either case, I think mine would have been a little dry–not having pancetta, I only used butter and olive oil without increasing their respective quantities to compensate (though in my defense, it hardly seems this dish could be accused of lacking in fat).  The extra oil, however, would have made for a nice sauce that could melt into a warm mound of polenta…(Really, I should just keep pancetta on hand–If you cook out of Marcella regularly enough, you’ll find plenty of use for it!)

I only made a half recipe, as follows. 

Il Tapulon di Borgomanero (adapted from Marcella’s Italian Kitchen)

  • 2T extra virgin olive oil
  • 2T butter
  • 2T garlic
  • 1lb ground beef
  • 1lb Savoy cabbage, sliced as thinly as possible or shredded
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 1/2 cloves
  • 1/4t fennel seeds
  • 3/4c red wine
  • salt and pepper

Use a large deep pan with a lid.  Heat the oil and butter and with the garlic until the garlic turns gold.  Add the meat and brown over high heat.  Add the cabbage and spices and cook for a few minutes.  Add the wine, stir and  reduce the heat to medium low; cook for 45 minutes.  Stir from time to time, serve.