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Monday, February 28, 2011

Date Night

After vacationing in Palm Springs in the dead of winter, returning to below zero weather seems somehow exaggerated. The cold is colder, my coat seems bulkier and my once shiny tropical colored pedicure is now dull *sigh*. I confess that I was awestruck by the palm trees, colorful citrus trees hanging heavy with fruit in nearly everyone's yard and the overall opulence that is California. 

The stars in my eyes have faded but luckily, I did have the foresight to pack some wonderful reminders of that magical land to cook with when I returned home. I brought home a few pieces of incredible citrus, some olive oil and orange blossom honey from the farmers market and dates; beautiful, golden Halawy and deep brown Khadrawy dates grown just a few miles from where I was staying. But, what to do with dates in Minnesota? 

I could definitely stuff them with goat cheese and bacon wrap them. YUM. I have already added them to Apple Crisp and tossed them into a cabbage slaw with nuts and citrus and I will have a batch of oatmeal cookie batter with walnuts and dates in the freezer to bake later. 


But now, I am thinking dinner. Being a giant fan of Mediterranean flavors and North African flavors in particular, it wasn't hard to decide on Moroccan Date and Apricot stuffed Chicken Breasts.


Moroccan Date and Apricot stuffed Chicken Breasts

2 Bone-in, Skin-on Chicken Breasts, pounded to an even thickness

1 c. low sodium Chicken Stock
¾ cup plain Couscous
½ Orange, skinned, seeded and chopped
½ cup diced Dates
½ cup diced dried Apricots
2 Tbsp Moroccan Olives or other dry cured black olives, chopped
2 Tbsp toasted Pinenuts
1 tsp Cumin
½ tsp each Cinnamon and Ras el Hanout*
Kosher Salt to taste

Heat chicken stock to a simmer over a medium heat. Add couscous and stir. Add remaining ingredients, toss together and remove from heat. Let stand 5 minutes. 

Lay out the pounded breasts, skin side down. Mound the couscous stuffing on the chicken breast and pull the ends up over the couscous. Use skewers or tie the breasts to hold the meat in place. 

Brown the rolls briefly, skin side down in a little olive oil in a saute pan, then turn each skin side up into an ovenproof pan. 

Place the chicken breasts in a 350 degree oven for 30-40 minutes until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees. Let the chicken rest 10 minutes. The temperature will continue to rise until it exceeds 165 degrees (essential for chicken to be cooked thoroughly). Remove the skewers and slice the breasts into thick slices.

Juice and pulp of ½ of an Orange (about ½ cup)
¼ cup Chicken Stock
1 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 – 1½ Tbsp Honey
1 tsp Ginger Puree or grated fresh ginger
1/8 tsp each Cinnamon, Cumin and Ras el Hanout
Kosher Salt to taste

While the chicken is roasting, squeeze the remaining orange half into a small saute pan. Add the chicken stock and olive oil. Heat together to a low simmer. Add honey, ginger and spices and heat through. Taste and season as needed. 


Pour a little of the sauce over the roasted, sliced chicken breasts. Serve with any remaining couscous and a salad. Think warm California thoughts.

  • *Ras el Hanout is a middle eastern spice blend that translates to something like 'top of the house' or the 'house blend'. You can buy it ready made or find a number of recipes on line with which you can experiment and create your own 'house blend'.

  • Save those bones! Buying bone in poultry is almost always cheaper than boneless. Whether you are roasting whole birds or creating your own boneless cuts, save the bones in a container along with onion peels, celery and carrot trimmings. This gives you the makings of chicken stock whenever you are ready to make it without any additional cost.
  • Fresh ginger can be kept in the freezer and grated as you need it or you can often find ready to use ginger puree in a tube near the herbs in your local market.


  •  Pinenuts are best toasted in a small saute pan over medium heat. Keep the nuts moving in the pan to avoid burning them until they are warmed through, lightly brown and fragrant.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Local Flavor

An Orange tree in your backyard? Welcome to California.
The Coachella Valley in Southern California is about as far from the reality of Northern Minnesota as possible. Countless varieties of citrus trees, laden with fruit, stand in yard after yard; as ubiquitous as apple trees in the north. Towering date palms, their long fruit-bearing tendrils hanging overhead stand on the street corners, unfathomable to my Midwestern senses.    

Poolside in Palm Springs

When I received an invitation from my summer neighbors, Steve and Kevin, to join them for a few weeks in February at their home in Palm Springs, I was not about to decline. Kevin and Steve are the ultimate hosts. No detail is missing when you visit and their dinners and dinner guests, at home or on the town, are always memorable.

At the Wednesday market in Palm Desert

Note that with a foot and a half of snow standing in my yard at home, I was visiting the local farmers market yesterday down the road in Palm Desert, awestruck by fresh golden raspberries, blueberries and blackberries, an endless array of citrus fruit and oooh, the vegetables. Artichokes the size of softballs, fresh ripe tomatoes covering whole tabletops, gorgeous greens and perfect root vegetables; this is FEBRUARY?

As we walked from booth to booth I looked for fruit and vegetable varieties I had never seen before, like a cross of Mandarin oranges and Kumquat called a Mandarin-quat. These tiny citrus fruits are eaten skin on. The interior is bitter and the skin sweet, creating an amazing burst of flavor in each bite. We bought a couple of Arkansas Black apples and were surprised at their amazing perfume and interesting texture. We tasted (and bought) 2 bottles of absolutely stellar olive oil from Malibu Olive Company, one with a slightly peppery finish and one with a much more floral finish, both perfect for salads or, even better, dipping bread.

Malibu Olive Company

Sharing a scone from L'Artisan

Did I say bread? We were lucky enough to run across L’Artisan Bakery from Thousand Palms, California who displayed an astounding array of breads, focaccia and pastries. This stuff is RIDICULOUSLY good. Blue Cheese Walnut Focaccia? Caramelized Onion and Parmesan Loaf? Fig & Pistachio Boulot?  Who does that?  We bought a delicious scone to share as we walked and a Tomato, Kalamata and Feta Focaccia loaf for later in the day. These guys are definitely on my OMG list.

Tomato, Kalamata & Feta Focaccia from L'Artisan Bakery

Bautista Family Organic Dates were selling an array of date varieties, from the more common Medjool and Deglets to Zahidis and Honey Dates. We chose Halawy and Khadrawy dates along with Medjools for a variety of texture and flavor. Nearby was everything from locally grown olives to honey and cheese.

Locally grown olives

Also at the market was guest chef David Schy who was showing off the beauty of the fresh oranges, herbs and olive oil that were sold in the booths surrounding us. As we chatted, he tossed together this colorful and flavorful salad.

Orange & Olive Salad with Red Onion & Cumin
Recipe by David Schy

1 Tbsp Red Wine Vinegar
½ -1 tsp Ground Cumin (to taste)
¼ tsp Crushed Red Pepper flakes
1 Tbsp cilantro, Italian Parsley or Mint or any combination of the 3, chopped
Pinch of Kosher Salt
1 Tbsp good quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Organic Navel Orange, peeled and cut into pieces
1 Organic Blood Orange, peeled and cut into pieces
2 Tbsp Red Onion or Shallot, very thinly sliced
2 Tbsp Green and Black Olives, minced

Cut the peel from the oranges and slice into small pieces.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the vinegar, herbs, pepper flakes, cumin and salt. Whisk in olive oil.  
Add the orange slices, olives and onion to the bowl and quickly toss together.
This can be served immediately but is better if left to marinate for an hour or more.

Tomatoes that taste like...tomatoes. Crazy.

Did I mention the Orchids?

Last night Kevin and I feasted on a simple salad of Mixed Greens in Ruby Grapefruit-Balsamic Vinaigrette with the focaccia we purchased from L’Artisan Bakery, bringing together the treasures from our morning foray to the market; a delightfully local meal in the desert.

Our farmers market dinner

Mixed greens in Ruby Grapefruit-Balsamic Vinaigrette
This vinaigrette would also be fantastic on a salad with that classic combination of dates, goat cheese and bacon.  

1 oz fresh Organic Pink Grapefruit Juice (from ½ of a small grapefruit)
1 oz Balsamic Vinaigrette
½ tsp Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp local organic honey
1 sprig of fresh Thyme or a pinch or two of dried thyme
Kosher Salt and fresh ground Pepper to taste
3-4 oz good quality olive oil

Squeeze the grapefruit half and measure 1 oz (1/8 cup). Remove any seeds and pour into a medium size bowl. Add Balsamic vinegar.
Whisk in Dijon mustard, then whisk in the honey.
Add fresh thyme or if using dried thyme, rub between your palms over the bowl to release more flavor from the herbs.
Taste mixture and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Add the olive oil slowly whisking constantly until mixture begins to emulsify. This will take a few minutes.

In a large bowl, toss the greens in a little of the vinaigrette. Plate the greens and top with fresh citrus fruit sections, nuts and cheese.

Fresh local berries in February were irresistable

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Soup Night

Wild Mushroom Soup with Truffle Oil

When I was 10 years old, my father retired from the military and moved our family of 11 to Omaha, Nebraska where his parents and our aunt's family lived. We lived in a small house on the far north side of town and each day, unless it was bitterly cold, my sister Barbara and I walked the four blocks to Blessed Sacrament School and back home for lunch.
I remember the walks vividly. Kicking through the piles of leaves in the gutters in the fall with the dry leaves shoosh-shoosh-shooshing in waves over our feet and later in the year, rushing to get home through the snow to the hot lunch that we knew would warm us, right down to our mittened-but-still-freezing fingers.
Perhaps it is every northern kids lunch memory but there is nothing for me, to this day, like the smell of grilled cheese sandwiches and steaming bowls of creamy tomato soup. Pulling off our coats, rubber boots, snow-encrusted mittens and scarves and laying them next to the heater to warm and dry, we sat together, made kid small talk and dipped our sandwiches into the pools of orange-red cream.
            On other days, after a holiday dinner or Sunday roast chicken, mom would simmer stock for hours, filling the house with the rich aroma of chicken and onions and herbs. Hers was not only a true appreciation for good food but more important, a way to use everything she could to feed her 6 strapping boys and 3 growing girls.

Use your freezer to save ingredients for stock

            If eggs were cheap enough, she would make a mound of flour on the table, mix in eggs and begin to hand roll great sheets of pasta. Once the sheets were lightly dry, she rolled up each one and cut great ribbons for soup or to serve with homemade gravy from a pot roast. Today we marvel at people who take the time to make such 'gourmet' items. She did it because it was cheaper than buying pasta for her brood of kids.

            I, too, make my own stocks and soups. Mine are more likely pressure-canned or frozen for future use, as my 'brood of two' enjoy their own homes these days but I did take away many  mental notes on frugal cooking from my childhood. For instance, I keep a container in my freezer for onion skins, carrot tops, pepper and celery trimmings and other items that can be added to stock. When I find myself with bones enough, I have the remaining ingredients at the ready without purchasing a thing.
            Once the stock is finished, all I need to do is grab a jar off the shelf, heat it up and add whatever veggies I have on hand. Gourmet soup in 20 minutes? No problem. One of my favorites for days in a hurry is Wild Mushroom Soup with Truffle Oil. This are not your run of the mill leftover-user but rather a hot meal that features the best of what is in season. This soup is also a great way to lower the amount of meat your family eats without making them feel deprived. Pair a steamy, fragrant bowl of stew or soup with an artisan salad and fresh, crusty bread and ‘Soup Night’ becomes something to look forward to.

Wild Mushroom Soup with Truffle Oil                                       
This soup is fast and fabulous. It also freezes well. Serve this with tiny Taleggio cheese sandwiches and a big whole leaf Caesar Salad for an exceptional dinner.

3Tbsp Olive Oil or Butter, or a combination
2 Large Sweet Yellow Onions, julienne sliced
1 ½# Assorted Wild Mushrooms of your choice, sliced
½ TBSP ground Dried Porcini Mushrooms
Kosher Salt and Fresh Ground Black Pepper
Fresh Rosemary, minced – to taste
Fresh Thyme Leaves, minced – to taste
1 Bay Leaf
5-6 cups beef stock, low sodium
1 tsp Beef or Veal Demi Glace*
White Truffle Oil

Saute onions and mushrooms in olive oil until soft. Add porcini powder, herbs and seasonings.  Continue cooking until lightly browned. Add beef stock and demi glace.
Simmer to reduce slightly and allow flavors to blend. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Drizzle a few drops of Truffle oil into each bowl as the soup is served.


mixed dried mushrooms

                      You can also use a dried mushroom blend but make sure it contains those lovely, fragrant porcinis. I keep a coffee mill in my pantry specifically for grinding spices. It also works beautifully for grinding dried mushrooms.

                      Demi glace is a form of super-concentrated stock that adds great depth of flavor to soups and sauces. You can make your own but it is time consuming. I buy mine from Williams Sonoma. The soup can certainly be made without it.

Dried mushrooms ground to powder
give deeper flavor to soups and stews

                      Truffle oil is, in my opinion, food of the gods. A tiny amount goes a long way and there is nothing that can compare to its fragrant earthiness. Yes, it is expensive. Yes it is worth every dime.

                     Taleggio cheese is a wonderful, soft, slightly 'stinky' Italian cheese. It is GORGEOUS made into little (I use baguette rounds) grilled cheese sandwiches and drizzled with a tiny bit of white truffle oil.

                      If you use dried herbs, use whole leaf style (half as much as fresh – you can always add more, you can't take away) and rub them between your palms over the soup to wake up the flavors.