Friday, May 30, 2014

RECIPES: Pollo Al Mattone (Chicken Under a Brick)

Early summer is a great time for grilling -- either outdoors, where it's not too sweltering, or indoors in a grill pan, when the night may be a little too crisp for lingering outside. Either way, a great dish perfected by the Italians and beloved by everyone who enjoys a delicious, flavorful, juicy chicken dish (and who in their right mind doesn't -- vegetarians excluded, of course...though you really must know you're missing out)? Pollo Al Mattone, or chicken cooked under a brick, in English.

 Most likely Etruscan in origin (there are frescoes depicting the cooking of this dish in ancient Etruscan tombs), this dish in modern times is very Tuscan: simply prepared, using a few top-quality ingredients, with rosemary and lemon as prominent flavorings. Italians in central Italy have mastered the art of grilling, and this method is a wonderful way to create a crisp, flavorful, charred skin while keeping the meat juicy on the inside.Opening the chicken up by removing its backbone allows the chicken to lay flat on the grill or grill pan. The flattening of the chicken allows for even cooking. You can find terra cotta weighted covers for grill pans both in the U.S. and in Italy, but it's just as easy to use the weight of a cast iron pan, or an actual brick to weigh down the chicken. (If the brick is not used specifically for cooking, you can wrap the brick in foil beforehand). Even better is placing a brick on top of a cast iron skillet to really weigh things down. Just make sure to place the "bricks" on the chicken from the very beginning of its cooking time to flatten it -- this is essential for even cooking and crisping the skin properly.
And don't be shy on the seasonings. Lots of salt and pepper, particularly on the skin side, will offer great payback at the end of cooking. I love to add lots of dried peperoncino (chili pepper) flakes to make the chicken spicy, which then makes the chicken dish Pollo alla Diavolo al Mattone. Once you flip the chicken to cook the other side, adding some rosemary and lemon is always a good idea. Other tasty additions would include fresh thyme, a little chopped garlic, and even more peperoncino. Brushing with a good, peppery Tuscan olive oil helps to keep the chicken moist.

Enjoy the cooking process by sipping a chilled Vernaccia di San Gimignano, the Tuscan white of choice, or try an Orvieto Bianco from nearby Umbria. Since Tuscany's wine production is 80% red, however, you could also match the smoky fire and spice of the diavolo with a hearty red like a Brunello di Montalcino, a Sangiovese (the grape comprises the majority of Chianti Classico wine), or a Morellino di Scansano, a lesser-known wine from Maremma in Southern Tuscany. Nibble on some prosciutto and salame toscana, and maybe some piave vecchio cheese and wait for your chicken to cook. Serve with some wilted greens or a salad of arugula and tomato with great olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and you have a fantastic, casual meal. This is the bella vita...and the start of summer!

POLLO AL MATTONE (Chicken Under a Brick)

Serves 2-4

1 whole chicken, 3-4 lbs.

fresh herbs – thyme, rosemary, and/or sage

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt & pepper to taste

Peperoncino (optional)

1 lemon, cut into quarters

-          Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

-          Wash the chicken and dry thoroughly.

-          On a cutting board, with the chicken facing breast side up, cut along either side of the backbone to remove it and open the chicken up. (Alternatively, have your butcher do this for you, so you can lay the chicken flat).

-           Rub the entire chicken with olive oil, even under the skin of the breasts. Fit herbs into the cavity and under the skin if you like. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper (and peperoncino, if desired).

-          Put a heavy skillet, large enough to fit the chicken when opened flat, onto a burner on high for 3-4 minutes. Add a glug of olive oil to the pan and allow to heat for another 30 seconds.If using a grill, heat on high so it's searingly hot when meat touches the grate.

-          Place the chicken, skin side down, into the skillet (or on the grill). Cover with another skillet, as heavy as you can find, and then place a brick or heavy stone or piece of marble or granite on top to weigh it down. The idea is to flatten out the chicken as much as possible while it cooks.

-          Cook for approximately 15 minutes like this (you can turn the heat down to med-high if your stove burns hot).

-          Remove skillet and weights from the stove, still in place, and put into the preheated 450 oven, or on the grill, for approximately 10 more minutes.

-          Remove skillet and weights from oven/grill, take off weight/brick and top pan, and very carefully turn the chicken over in the skillet or on the grill.

-          Return to oven without anything on top, simply in the skillet, and cook for another 15 minutes to let the skin side continue to crisp up.

-          Remove from oven and let rest for 5-10 minutes outside of the oven or grill before carving. Serve with lemon quarters if you like.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

HOLIDAYS: Mother's Day

Being a mother, as the saying goes, is the hardest job in the world. But my Mom has always done it with such aplomb and such devotion to her kids and her family that she made it look almost -- almost -- easy. Since I can remember, my Mom spent a large portion of her time shuttling my brothers and me from school to activity to sport, to rehearsals and games and lessons and competitions. As grown adults, she's been our counselor and reference and moral compass, our confidante and friend. And as the only other female in our family of 5, my mother and I have had a special bond between us, planning girls' afternoons shopping or lunching, or nights at the ballet with just the two of us. I started ballet lessons at the ripe old age of 3, in part because my mother had studied throughout her youth and she thought I might love it too. (I did, and continued studying and performing dance over the course of 25 years).
Dance turned out to be one of the longest-standing and greatest loves of my life. But not only. I share much more than genes with my mother: my tendencies come both from chromosomes and from shared experiences. The part of me that enjoys chemistry and math, that's inborn, and that's my Mom. My love of art and culture and travel comes from exposure to these interests, from my parents. A nurturing nature and fascination with flora and fauna...a positive outlook and aesthetic appreciation and a love of travel to foreign places...a cackle of a laugh, and a devotion to mint chocolate chip ice cream...they're all aspects of me that I can trace back to my mother.

Then, there's what my Mom taught me about cooking. Or rather, about feeding people. I loved cooking from a very young age -- mostly baking. Desserts. I am still a devout chocoholic, and I love making sweet treats for myself and for others. There's something so personal and heartfelt about a beautiful birthday cake, for example. My Mom and I used to bake together about once a week, either over the weekend or after school, making chocolate chip cookies and fudge and cupcakes.
Her mother also had a sweet tooth, and was an excellent baker as well, so we were our own great audience and tasters. We loved baking. I remember some great dinner parties we'd host at our family home in New Jersey, and my mother always did all of the cooking from scratch. I loved to help her with this elevated dinner party fare, or for a family summer BBQ, or for a Thanksgiving feast. I remember sprinkling a chocolate glaze over a deep chocolate-mint dessert bar of some kind, thinking how elegant it was. I think I was 9 years old at the time. And so I learned not only about cooking, but about the joy that cooking for others can bring to families and friends. I learned from a young age how eating together brings people together, and I loved being able to have that positive effect on people. I found it intoxicating enough that I would one day make it my profession.

From a very young age, my Mom helped me to cultivate an interest in cooking, in culture, in nature, and in the plants and creatures that end up as our food. And so I thank my beautiful, sweet, intelligent, and loving mother for all that she's done for me, for our family, and for the many people whose lives she's touched over the decades. I thank her for her dedication and for her love. I thank her for letting me be my own person, even when I've taken paths in life she might not have taken, or made decisions she might not have wanted me to make for myself. I thank her for her support in all of my endeavors, for putting up with me when I was problematic or resisted her advice, and for giving me a shoulder to cry on when I needed it. And as much as anything else, I thank her for being my strong female role model.

I love cooking for my Mom now -- a little positive payback for all the meals she made for me over the years, all of those delicious grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch, tasty dinner dishes, and decadent desserts. I recently made my first attempt at sauerbraten, one of her favorite all-time dishes. I am not terribly familiar with the dish, nor with German food in general (her favorite), but I pulled together what I thought would be the best ideas from many different recipes, and tried to combine them to make one great meal. I sauteed mushrooms with roasted potatoes, and I cooked red cabbage in apple cider vinegar, herbs, and spices. I'm not sure if I succeeded with this foray into classic German home cooking, but my Mom certainly gobbled up the food...for 3 nights in a row. I think it tasted better because she knew it was made with love. The perfect dessert afterwards? A cup of mint chocolate chip ice cream. With two spoons.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


I'm not a big fan of bitter. Bitter food, bitter drinks, bitter people: not my thing. Except for greens. I adore bitter greens in their many forms: from arugula to puntarelle, chard to endive to radicchio, they make me happy. I think I developed a palate for bitter greens with all my time spent living in Italy. Their bracing flavor can stand up to a powerful dressing or sauce, including the many versions of a "Caesar" dressing that are so often paired with crisp, bitter greens. A slick of olive oil, the bite of garlic and pepper, the salty, umami zing of parmigiano cheese, cut through by the acid of citrus juice or vinegar...well, I'll stop here. Because I want to name-drop my favorite of all bitter greens: watercress. It's not so much straight-up bitter as it is peppery, spicy. Perhaps that's why I adore it. And its versatility.

Spring is the perfect season for watercress and its varietals (try upland cress, sold still attached to its roots, and just snip and sprinkle into salads or over grilled fish or meat). It's so much more than a simple accompaniment for the classic English tea sandwiches of "egg and cress": egg salad bound with mayonnaise and spread on white bread, topped with watercress, and cut into crustless triangles. Don't get me wrong, these sandwiches have their place, and I adore them as part of a classic English high tea, or as cocktail nibbles at spring soirees. But watercress in a salad breathes life into an overused mesclun mix. I love the bite and plump crispy leaves when tossed with fresh herbs in a salad. I particularly love the salad pictured here, which I make with roasted butternut squash cubes, goat cheese OR gorgonzola, pumpkin seeds, and pomegranate arils. I like to bring it together with a sweet-tart pomegranate vinaigrette.  
One of my favorite dishes of one of my very favorite cuisines -- Vietnamese -- is shaking beef, a wonderful combination of vinegar- and soy-marinated beef fillet cubes cooked with onions and served on crispy watercress, which absorbs the sauce but doesn't wilt much (another benefit of this wonderful green). And speaking of benefits, watercress is an incredibly healthy green among greens, as well as among other fruits and vegetables. It boasts more calcium than milk, more vitamin C than an orange and more absorbable iron than spinach. It's rich in vitamins C, B1, B6, K, E, Iron, Calcium, Magnesium, Manganese, and Zinc. And it contains more potassium than apples, broccoli, and tomatoes. Not bad for a spring salad green!