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Saturday, December 21, 2013


How do you solve a problem like a craving?

It started out very simply. I had a craving for chicken marsala. I know, right?  Sometimes, the relics of the past just seem so right. Think about it. What could possibly be wrong with pounded chicken scallopini dredged in flour, pan fried in butter, deglazed with fortified marsala wine, finished with sauteed button mushrooms, and served over pasta? Italian-American old school. Think of candlelit red and white checkered tablecloths topped with rope-entwined bottles of chianti covered with dusty white candle wax. Yep.  I craved old school chicken marsala. The problem? With the frenzied energy of the holidays richocheting off the walls like rubber Wham-O Super Balls, I wanted the familiar flavors of chicken marsala without all of the last minute fuss. I wanted it to calmly cook itself while I took a nap on the couch.

Braised Chicken Marsala.
I was determined to find the path of least resistance.

I picked up a beautiful (albeit incredibly expensive) organic fresh Pike Valley Farm Foods whole chicken from Good Foods Market & Cafe. The pricey little bird was so fresh that it only took a few swipes with a sharp knife to easily break it down. I seasoned the chicken pieces with liberal amounts of salt and pepper before dropping them into sizzling hot oil. When the chicken started to lightly brown, I added 3 whole garlic cloves (peeled), a handful of pearl onions, and a few untraditional trimmed yellow carrots. Just before the carrots took on any color, I deglazed the pan with 1 cup marsala wine and let it reduce by half before adding 2 cups of chicken stock. I brought the stock to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, tossed in a bundle of fresh thyme, covered the pot, and slid it into a preheated 350 oven.

After a short blood mary-induced nap ( about 30 minutes), I knew the chicken needed a bit more marsala and stock. I could tell from the aroma. Trust me. I've walked that fine line between perfectly reduced stock and burned stock, so I added 1/2 cup each  wine and stock before returning the chicken to the oven.

After 20-25 minutes, I pulled the chicken from the oven to rest while I played around with the finishing garnishes. Typically, chicken marsala is served over pasta with sauteed thinly sliced button mushrooms, sauteed shallots, and minced fresh parsley. Hell, I'd already taken the old out of old school, so I stepped outside of the box.

In lieu of button mushrooms, I went with gorgeous  hard to find fresh chanterelles. Instead of shallots, I chose pearl onions. Frozen pearl onions. The path of least resistance. Pasta? Nope. I went with Lexington Pasta Company potato gnocchi.

After chugging a few glasses of wine with Michael, I warmed the chicken over a low flame before sauteing the chanterelles in equal parts butter and olive oil. When the mushrooms were beautifully caramelized, I seasoned them with salt and pepper before pulling them from the heat.

I tumbled the chicken pieces into large pasta bowls filled with pillowy cooked potato gnocchi, scattered the onions to the side, topped the chicken with the mushrooms, and smothered everything with the insanely reduced sauce. To perk things up, I finished with a tangled combination of pea shoots, lemon zest, and orange zest for an unconventional riff on gremolata.

Here's the deal. Ditching the a la minute version of chicken marsala for a braised version deepened the slightly sweet smokey undertones of the wine and produced  meltingly tender chicken.  Napped with the garlic-infused sauce, the succulent meat slipped from the bones like softened butter. That said, the pricey chicken took a back seat to the mushrooms. It was all about the rich meaty chanterelles. Plumped somewhat by the slightly sweet sauce, the caramelized bits on the chewy flesh intensified the natural nutty earthiness of the marsala glazed mushrooms. Golden sponges.

Chanterelle Marsala with Chicken.
A twisted take on a familiar craving.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Christmas Pears

It's been ages since I've poached pears. Even though they seem so old school, I still cling to the notion of those nostalgic relics. Nowadays, I'm more likely to toss sliced fresh pears into salads or crisp them up in a low oven for chips to serve alongside whipped gorgonzola mousse.  The last time I poached pears was for a swanky Christmas supper at my father's country house on his lakeside farm. While others stayed busy cueing up the ham, turkey, and usual holiday fixings, I casually danced around the chaos and quietly banged out a totally retro platter of poached pears. Nobody saw it coming. Although  my father was a big time bourbon drinker, he always stashed boxes of cheap red wine on the enclosed second story back deck, so I used a few glugs of his cheap stuff to poach pears as a savory side to accompany the familiar holiday trappings. While a wee bit over the top, I'm not quiet sure the glistening ruby-red pears brought a heck of a lot to the party or tickled the fancy of the hungry crowd, but they certainly packed a stunning unexpected punch to the holiday table. In my book, more is more. I really haven't thought much about those happy holiday pears since that night.

It's coming on Christmas.

Red Wine Poached Pears With Chevre and Candied Pecans.
Most preparations for poached pears require tons of sugar simmered in wine (red or white) to create simple syrups for pear desserts. Nope. I reduced the sugar and took a savory route.

Small effort. Big payoff.

After peeling four firm Bosc pears, I left two whole before coring and halving the other two, leaving the stems attached. I filled a stock pot with a bottle of Merlot, added black peppercorns, fresh lemon juice, 2 bay leaves, a whole semi-dried chili pepper, 3 cloves, and 1/2 cup sugar to balance the acidity in the wine. I carefully plunged the pears into the wine, brought the wine to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, covered the pot, and let the pears poach until they were tender, turning them over in the simmering wine every 10 minutes to insure they cooked evenly. I used very firm (almost under-ripe) pears, so it took about 40 minutes until they were tender enough to pierce with a knife.

I pulled the pot from the heat and let the pears come to room temperature in the reduced wine. When they were completely cooled, I carefully placed them into a deep pan with the aromatic wine, covered them with plastic wrap, and slid them into the refrigerator to chill overnight. Occasionally, during wine refills or snack attacks, I basted the pears with the chilled wine until they were deeply stained. Like fruity sponges, they continued to absorb the wine.

I knew I was going to fill the pears with cheese. Wine and cheese. Classic. Pears pair beautifully with any blue veined varieties, so I thought about gorgonzola or stilten. I toyed with the notion of grating Boone Creek Creamery blackberry wine-infused gruyere ( my current favorite) over the pears, but that seemed like overkill. In the end, I went with whipped cracked black pepper chevre.

After nestling the poached pears onto baby arugula, I piped enough whipped chevre to fill the hollowed cavaties, seasoned them with pepper, drizzled the reduced poaching wine over the flesh, and finished with a scattering of candied pecans.

With hints of pepper, chili, and bay, the soft acidity of the wine balanced the inherent sweetness of the pears, tipping them over to the savory side. Paired with the subtle graininess of the cooked pears, the creamy tang of the chevre and the sweet crunch of the pecans created a fantastic play on textures.

Holiday (or any day) Red Wine Poached Pears.