Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sweet-Glazed Cornish Game Hens and Roasted Vegetables

Today one of my co-workers was snacking on a big plate of strawberries, and I could smell their sweet-tartness as I walked past her desk. As I looked down at her plate of half-eaten strawberries, sliced thinly and starting to leek juices and color the dish a light pink, I noted how good they smelled. She replied, “Yeah, but they’re really sour.”

That got me thinking about the impending spring season and all the wonderful produce that’s about to come in season. For the last few months we’ve had to subsist on vegetables from hothouses or shipped in from the other side of the globe, and I CAN’T WAIT for the first wave of farmers’ markets to hit the scene with all their juicy, colorful and inspiring offerings. Those mushy, overly sour strawberries will morph into tiny flavor bombs I will be more than happy to stain my fingers pink over.

I was thinking about this especially when we did a tasting for our friends who are getting married this summer. Jackie and I were trying to be mindful of what would be in season, readily available and totally delicious by then, and we decided to go with two of our favorites – asparagus and tomatoes. Now, anyone who reads this blog (and let’s be honest, there are millions of you) will know that we’re absolute tomato-philes, so it should come as no surprise they’d show up again. The only problem is right now tomatoes are . . . well . . . dull. Kind of watery, lacking in texture and severely lacking that bright, acidic burst they have in the summer and beginning of fall. And the same goes for asparagus – tender, grassy, and bright-green turns to wooden, flat and gray in the winter months.

With all that in mind, why would we choose these two misfits when they’re not nearly up to their potential right now? Because they point to how good they’re going to be. In a few months when asparagus and tomatoes are in season, our friends and their wedding guests will be thrilled at the mixture of the roasted vegetables, the burst of concentrated acidic sweetness from the tomato and pleasantly tender asparagus. And that’s something we can all look forward to.

And let’s not forget the main event of this dish: the sweet-glazed Cornish game hens. Have you ever had one of those “Of Course!” revelations where you are doing something you think is complicated, only to find out there’s a much easier way if just stopped and thought about it? Happens to me all the time, and it happened when we were trying to split these hens in two. We were trying to cut through the backbone with a chef’s knife, and there was no way that was working out. So we tried going the other way through the breast bone, and that just tore the skin we were going to crisp up and glaze. Then one of us said, “Why don’t we use shears?” After a moment of blank stares between two college graduates, we tried the obvious and more effective solution, which took about 2 minutes to prep 3 birds.

To contrast with the bright crunch of the vegetables and the sweet, digit-smackin’ awesomeness (“finger-lickin’ good” is trademarked) of the hens, we made our stand-by of sautéed mushroom risotto. We also saved the backbones of the hens to make stock out with, along with the duck breastbones from this dinner, recipes for both of which will be forthcoming.

Molasses-Glazed Cornish Game Hens

3 Cornish game hens (half for each person)
1 cup molasses
½ bottle dry red wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon
2 tbl balsamic vinegar
2 sprigs each thyme and sage
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat your oven to 350°.

Using kitchen shears, cut down each side of the hens’ backbones to remove them (Freeze them for stock. Recipe is forthcoming.), then turn them over and cut them down the center through the breastbone. Pat them dry and season them with salt and pepper inside and out.

Put the molasses, wine, vinegar and herbs in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Reduce until thick and syrupy, coating the back of a spoon. Season to taste.

Place the hens on sheet trays skin side up, drizzle with olive oil on both sides and roast for 30 minutes (or when an instant-read thermometer reads 180° in the thigh), basting with the glaze every 10 minutes. Serve immediately with tasty roasted vegetables and mushroom risotto (recipe’s coming, really).

Roasted Asparagus and Cherry Tomatoes

1 bunch asparagus, washed, ends trimmed
½ quart cherry tomatoes, washed

Okay, seriously? There’s no need for a recipe for this dish; it’s that easy. Thinly peel the asparagus starting just under the tip, put in a casserole with the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil, roast in the oven next to the hens for 10 minutes, or until the tomato skins start to split. Done and done.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Pan-roasted duck breast, parsley salad and sauteed mushroom risotto

“I messed up; I’m sorry.” Those five words can help you so much, whether at work, with your spouse, or in my case, with dinner.

A hunter friend of mine scored big the last time he went duck hunting, and he was nice enough to give me 4 pairs of duck breasts – still on the bone, mind you, so duck stock is in my near future. I’d never cooked duck before, so I was excited to try it out on my family AND have it as our first meat-centric blog post. I researched different methods and preparations and decided it was best to just Keep It Simple, Stupid: season with salt and pepper, sear on the stovetop and finish in the oven ‘til they’re medium rare – medium at the most. We’ll get to my mistake further down.

So after I removed the duck breasts from the breast bone (with considerable effort and expert help from Jackie), I started on the two side dishes. We make risotto a lot, but we’ve only recently been including sautéed mushrooms in the mix, and now we’re hooked. Portobello, shiitake, oyster . . . it doesn’t matter to us. Mushrooms + oil + hot pan = golden brown and delicious. Unfortunately (kinda), risotto is so delicious that it deserves its own post, so I’ll have to skip over it for now.

I wanted another element to cut through the richness of the duck breast and creamy, cheesy risotto, plus I wanted to feel like I was eating somewhat healthy, so I made a parsley salad with a red wine vinaigrette leaning toward the acidic side. This was delectable and just what was needed to balance the other dishes, but the parsley leaves were a little chewy. Next time I’ll definitely make more of an effort to pick all the leaves from the stems and probably roughly chop them to cut down on this.

Here’s my moment of humility: the risotto and parsley salad were either done or getting done, so it was time to pan roast the duck breasts. Seared in a hot pan with some oil – easy. Remembering that the duck came from a hunter and not from a grocery store, so the breasts vastly varied in size – not as easy. I should have placed the bigger ones in the oven to finish cooking through and removed the smaller ones to rest in the meantime. Instead, half of the duck breasts were perfectly, and I do mean perfectly, cooked. The other half were cooked to well-done and had the consistency of over-cooked chicken livers. Not inedible, but not what I was going for by a long shot.

Why bring it up at all? Because for a long time when I was first learning to cook and trying new things, if something went wrong I would kinda throw a temper tantrum. It seemed soooooo easy for Jackie and others to walk in to the kitchen, throw some random assortment of ingredients in a pot and come up with something mind-blowing. While I, on the other hand, struggled with still burning toast sometimes. The difference this time for me was I realized nothing bad happened. Yeah, there were some over-cooked duck breasts, but I didn’t poison someone, I didn’t lose a Michelin star, I didn’t get yelled at by a bleach-blonde Englishman. I did, however, learn how to do it better next time.

I think one thing that keeps people out of their home kitchens is the fear of trying something different, doing something wrong and disappointing the people you tried to cook for. While that’s certainly kept me from failing as much as I would have, it also kept me from learning all that I could by burning the toast and then figuring out the right setting. The point is to COOK, and cook as well as you can at this very moment. Food will burn, sauces will over-reduce, cakes will fall, things will be crunchy when they’re supposed to be soft and vice-versa. You don’t have to do everything perfectly all the time to cook for your family and friends. They’re supposed to like you anyway, right? Then what does it matter if the chicken is dry? Learn what you did wrong and how you can do it better next time.

I certainly did, and next time I’ll have duck breasts so tender and tasty people will sing my praises far and wide. And all I had to do was over-cook the first batch.

Roasted Duck Breasts

4 boneless, skinless duck breasts (This is what I had to work with.)
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pat your duck breasts dry and season them on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat a sauté pan on medium-high heat and add enough oil to lightly coat the bottom. Once the oil is shimmering add the duck breasts and cook 2-3 minutes on both sides till golden.

Remove smaller breasts to rest tented under aluminum foil at this point and place pan with larger breasts in the oven to cook until medium to medium-well, 5-7 minutes. When pressed the breasts will feel a little soft, but bounce back (giggle) or when an internal temperature of 130 degrees is reached.

Rest duck for 5-10 minutes tented under aluminum foil and serve.

Parsley salad with red wine vinaigrette

1 bunch parsley, washed and patted dry, leaves picked (freeze the stems to add to stock)
½ carrot, diced small
Parmesan cheese, shaved
Olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Lemon juice
Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper

Instead of the usual 3:1 ratio for the vinaigrette, try to be a little more heavy-handed with the acid. That’s why I included lemon juice (from half a lemon in my case) to tip the scales toward the acidic to cut through the richness of the rest of the dish.

You know the drill: put a little Dijon mustard in a bowl, add vinegar and lemon juice and whisk until combined. Drizzle 2-3 times that amount of oil, whisking constantly, until the dressing is emulsified. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Place the parsley and carrot in a bowl and drizzle some of the vinaigrette around the edges. Toss to coat, season to taste, top with parmesan and devour.