Being wrong tastes so right: Zuni Cafe’s roast chicken and bread salad

If you’re friends with any of any of the other Sudekum five, then you know we do roast chicken. We do them on Sundays, and we do them well (really, really well). By “really really well” I mean we could make an excellent bird with our eyes closed and by “we” I mean my parents. I’m not quite sure why, but I never once jumped in there to help with the main event. Sure I’ve mashed potatoes or roasted brussels sprouts, but I steered clear of the chicken. I think it might have something to do with its wholeness. And bonefulness.  Much more intimidating than a measly boneless, skinless breast or two.

No need to cue a drum roll for when I tell you I have shocking news…Yes, I was wrong again, people. Roasting chicken really is a great concept every way you look at it. Good one, Mama and Papa Sudekum! They’re inexpensive, easy, fun to cook and satisfying to belly and soul alike. And really, the very part I found most intimidating about it– the sheer animalness of it all was actually the part I liked the best. It feels very nesty and Little House on the Prairie to have a chicken roasting in the oven on a Sunday afternoon. Sharing the feast and a bottle of Prosecco with a few friends doesn’t hurt the overall enjoyability factor either.

My little house really is on the prairie.

Now onto the awesome recipe that I’m begging you to try. It comes from the Smitten Kitchen Blog by way of Zuni Café in San Francisco. Easy deliciousness, with rustic show stopping power is how I’d describe it if forced at gunpoint. As you’ll see, the chicken is served with this nifty bread salad. Of course you can just make the chicken, but really, not making the salad is just a nasty bad idea.

When making the recipe, please keep the following in mind:

  • The chicken is dry brined overnight, so give yourself some wiggle room and plan ahead
  • For optimal juiciness and flavor factors a small chicken works best
  • A slow brine and a fast roast are the secrets to this recipe, don’t get scared when the chicken starts browning right away

Please give ‘er a whirl and tell me about your results. I’d also love to continue testing roast chicken recipes, so please send me your favorite! Maybe I can even get Papa Sudekum to share his with the world…

Zuni Cafe’s Roasted Chicken

Adapted by Smitten Kitchen and then Me

Serves 3

One small chicken, 2 1/2 to 3 1/2-pounds

4 sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage

2 tablespoons salt, plus extra to taste

1 tablespoon pepper, plus extra to taste

Dry brine the chicken:

Twenty-four hours in advance of eating, clean the chicken and dry as well as possible. Drying is so important because a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming smoking before it begins crisp. Turn the chicken breast side up and slide your finger underneath the skin on one breast creating a little pocket. Carefully slide your fresh herb up into the pocket, underneath the skin. Repeat process on the other breast and thighs. Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper. Don’t stress about the seasoning the cavity too heavily, a few sprinkles inside is enough. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders so that the bird is as compact as possible. Cover loosely and refrigerate overnight.

Prepare your oven and pan:

Preheat the oven to 475°F. Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan. Preheat the pan over medium heat on the stove. Wipe the chicken dry again and set it breast side up in the pan. You should hear a sizzle.

Roast the chicken:

Listen and watch for browning and sizzling/yummy cooking noises within 20 minutes. If you’re not getting enough action, raise the temperature progressively until achieving results. The browning happens faster than you’re used to. The skin should blister and bubble, but not burn. If it starts charring, reduce heat 25 or 30 degrees. After about 30 minutes flip the bird. Roast for another 15-20 minutes on the other side, then flip back over to re-crisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes.

Rest the chicken: (The most important step in the Sudekum household!)

Remove the chicken and set on a plate. Carefully skim off the clear fat from the roasting pan, and pour the rest of the drippings into a small bowl. Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, and pour the juice into the bowl of drippings. Continue the resting process while you prepare the bread salad. If you’re not making the bread salad (gasp), let the chicken rest for about 15 minutes and then serve.

She’s as tasty as she is pretty.

Zuni Cafe Bread Salad

Adapted by Smitten Kitchen and then Me

Serves 3

1 loaf slightly stale Italian-style bread

6 to 8 tablespoons EVOO

1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon dried currants plumped in1 tablespoon white wine vinegar and 1 tablespoon warm water for ten minutes or so 
(I couldn’t find these here, but I imagine them adding the perfect amount of sweetness)

2 tablespoons roasted pine nuts

2 or 3 garlic cloves, diced

1 fresh onion or 4 green onions, diced

1 bag arugula

Preheat the oven broiler. Cut or tear bread into irregular 2-inch chunks and drop into a large bowl. Toss them with just enough EVOO to lightly coat, about 2 tablespoons. Sprinkle the bread into the roasting pan you used to cook the chicken and broil just until the chunks turn slightly golden on the edges. You’re really just drying them out.

In the large bowl the bread was in, combine about 1/4 cup of the olive oil with the vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Add the bread back into the large bowl and toss with the vinaigrette; the bread will be unevenly dressed.

Saltysweetmushycrunchy.

Heat one tablespoon of EVOO over medium heat in a small pan and add the garlic and onions and stir constantly, just until softened. Add the garlic and onions into the bread and fold to combine. Drain the plumped currants and fold them in, along with the pine nuts. Next, dribble the chicken drippings over the salad and carefully fold again. Last, while the bread is still hot, add the arugala and taste for salt, pepper and maybe a few extra splashes of vinegar. Pour the salad onto a round or oval serving dish, top with the chicken and serve.

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Super Woman makes her own bread

Since returning from Calabria, Italy I’ve gone a little nuts. When I should have been catching up on much-needed sleep and laundry, I’ve spent this past weekend in the kitchen changing some really big food misconceptions I’ve been living with for way too long.  It all started on day two of our trip when we spent a glorious afternoon in our host’s mom’s house, kneading and baking bread at her side. It was one of those moments when you feel like everything is so simple and exactly as it should be, like really good fresh bread.

How fabulous is she? This modern day renaissance woman also hacked down all the twigs used to fuel the fire with a hatchet.

So, now I’ll admit it. Before that experience, I had this really weird thing about people making their own bread. In my small little mind it was like making sushi at home: something better left to professionals. Well, we all know how this story ends, as it so often does: Lauren wrong again. Turns out, I had the best time gallivanting in my little Italian kitchen yet. Bread is so easy peasy, but made me feel like Super Woman at the same time. As Catherine says, “I’m high on life, guys.” It felt more like severe bloatation, but after digesting my success a smidge, it tasted like sweet sweet yeasty victory.

Putting some muscle into it

For my first time out the gate I wanted a really easy recipe so I went for Jim Lahey’s No Knead Bread, courtesy of Mark Bittman from the NYT, with a few amendments:

Easy Peasy No Knead Bread

Courtesy of Jim Lahey via Mark Bittman

1 1/2 tablespoons yeast (active-dry)

1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt

6 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour, more for dusting dough

1. In a large bowl mix yeast and salt into 3 cups lukewarm water (about 100 degrees, but don’t stress about the temperature). Stir in flour, mixing until there are no dry patches. Dough will be really loose and wet. Again, don’t fret. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, allowing a little air to pass through. Let dough rise at room temperature for at least 2 hours, up to 5.

2. Bake at this point or refrigerate, covered, for as long as two weeks (!). When ready to bake, sprinkle a little flour on dough and hands. With a serrated knife, cut off a grapefruit-size piece for a small loaf, or if you’d rather make rolls, use a lime-size piece. Turn dough in hands to lightly stretch surface, creating a rounded top and a lumpy bottom. Put dough bumpy side down on a floured surface; let rest 40 minutes. Repeat with remaining dough or refrigerate it.

3. Place broiler pan on bottom of oven and pizza stone on middle rack and turn oven to 450 degrees; heating stone for 20 minutes. If you don’t have a stone, you should get one (ha). You can use a loaf pan or any non-stick pan.

4. Slash the top of each dough mound with a serrated knife three times and slide onto stone. Pour one cup water into broiler pan and shut oven quickly to trap steam. Bake until well browned, about 30 minutes. Cool completely (if you have that sort of will power).

No more store bought for this Super Woman

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Fork-smashed hummus and Emily’s balsamic cioppolini

A few weeks ago the roomies and I were treated to an amazing dinner at our Suzie and Emily’s place. While everything was delicious, the highlight for me was Emily’s balsamic glazed cioppolini. Their sweetness came as a shock, a shock that had me thinking about those little guys day and night. Even with the incredible food we encountered throughout Portugal and Spain, Catherine and I agreed that “Operation Cioppolini” was a must as soon as we arrived home.

The idea for hummus came out of sheer desperation. While falafel and schwarma abounded throughout Spain, it seemed that everywhere we went was fresh out of hummus! Really, it happened two or three times this way.

Both recipes are easy, healthy, delicious and flexible. Add what you think will make them taste better; omit what you don’t like. The hummus is especially easy since it doesn’t require a food processor.

Trust me, this one’s a winner

Fork-smashed hummus with garlic and lemon

Makes two lunch-sized portions

We were hoping to add some fresh herbs, but believe it or not couldn’t get our hands on any. I think it’d taste even better with something fresh and green like Italian parsley, basil or maybe even thyme.

1 can garbanzo beans

¼ cup veggie broth

2 cloves garlic

¾ fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons EVOO

1 tablespoon finely minced fresh herb

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the veggie broth to medium in a medium-sized, shallow pan. Rinse the garbanzos in a colander and pour into the broth. Heat until broth has evaporated, about 5-8 minutes. Test the beans with a fork for tenderness about half way through. Once the broth has evaporated they should mash easily. If they’re still hard, heat for a few extra minutes with a few additional tablespoons of broth.

Mashed chickpeas, the consistency of course paste

Move beans to a large bowl and mash with a fork until they’re the consistency of a thick, course paste. Mash in garlic and slowly add the lemon juice and EVOO. Stir until all ingredients are evenly distributed and a course yet creamy texture is achieved. Serve with a drizzle of EVOO in shallow bowls, or topped with balsamic cioppolini.

We dipped green beans, cherry tomatoes, carrots and radish into ours but use whatever’s in season and yummy!

Fresh veg for dipping makes a fresh and filling lunch

Emily’s balsamic cioppolini

Make as few or as many as you want. I’d air on the side of making a lot because fresh cioppolini really shrink down. Also, it’s hard to stop eating them.

8-10 fresh cioppolini onions

1 1/2 tablespoons EVOO

2 tablespoons sugar

¼ cup vegetable broth

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Add the oil to a small non-stick pan and heat to low. Remove the tough, dirty outer skin of the cioppolini and cut both sides so that they are flat, allowing for even browning. When the oil is hot add the onions and let brown on each side for about five minutes, or until golden. Divide one tablespoon of sugar on top of each onion, and then flip. Use the remaining tablespoon of sugar for the other side. Caramelize both sides for another five minutes each, checking for brownness frequently.

Depending on size, some take longer to brown than others

Pour in vegetable broth and heat until evaporated, about 5-8 minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar and reduce until the onions are dark brown on both sides and the vinegar is syrupy. Serve as a side dish, or add a few to the top of hummus and spoon over some of the balsamic syrup.

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On vacation days and port wine

So here it is, people, FINALLY, I know. My first blog post coming at you straight from the cornfields of Colorno. It really has taken this long for me to come up with a suitable format for “Best I Ever,” but I think I’ve got it, and it’s dump simple, of course. As a follower (read: Die Hard Loyal Reader), you’ll be treated to three new gastronomic definitions, ideas or facts that I’ve learned in the past day, week, month, basically whenever I get my act together.

I’ve also decided not to stress too much about my writing on the blog. It’s going to be pretty raw, so if you have questions, comments or criticisms about content or can make improvements to my VERY out of practice writing, please please please write me. This is a year of growth for me, and hopefully not just of my waste line. So, hi, and welcome to “Best I Ever.” But, being the rebel that I am, this first post already breaks all aforementioned set rules. There really is just too much to say about port, so please forgive the transgression. Alrighty here goes nothing! Blog entry numero uno.

Port wine is like unused vacation days. They’re both something you want, even crave, but a lot of times end up forgotten; shoved into the “Damn, I really wish I got around to that,” category. They’re both adventurous, a step out of the ordinary, and a great way to end a week or start a long weekend. But in truth, I guess they really aren’t completely similar because I really do love vacation days, and before my trip to Porto, Portugal I didn’t not love port, but that’s about as far as I went (sorry, Dad).

Porto, Portugal, the birthplace of port, fell into my lap thanks to Ryanair flying direct from Milan for less that 35 Euros (really not kidding). For Carey, Reena, Catherine and me it was the perfect starting point for our two week long “get as far from Italy as possible” two week long Easter Vacation/action-packed adventure. All I can say is, thank you Ryanair Gods of the Sky. Thank you for insisting that I spend 48 hours steeping myself in three hundred year old wine tradition and history.

Porto is the northern most major city in Portugal and hosts a population of about 1.7 million. Lying along the Douro River, it is also considered the economic and cultural heart of the north, sometimes referred to as the “capital of the north.” On one side of the river lies the city center, restaurants, shops etc. while across the river sit the port producers artistically perched one next to the other, large white signs ensuring no passersby is left wondering which producer is which.

She’s pretty, ain’t she?

Our first full day in Porto began at Taylor’s, a three hundred year old producer and one of the last to remain fully independent. Job Bearsley, one of the first port shippers and traders, started Taylor’s back in 1692. Job was definitely a smart guy since he quickly noticed that the British settlers that frequented Portugal had a taste for spicy, rich Portuguese wine.

Port is actually another one of those “created by accident” stories. British settlers loved their Portuguese wine so much they were constantly on the hunt for easy ways to ship it back to the homeland. As a result, entrepreneurial Portuguese like Bearsley began adding wine spirits to the wine, to help extend shelf life. In the beginning cognac or brandy were used, but today grappa is the only spirit used in all Portuguese Port by law.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself with all this talk of spirits. Much like the specificity of wine spirits, the process of producing port is similarly precise. Starting with the vineyards from which the grapes are grown. Top port producers acquire the five varieties of grapes essential for port production from the Douro Valley, a dizzyingly steep valley protected by the Marao Mountains. The climate moves from blazing summers to severely cold winters forcing the grape bush’s roots to push down as much as 25 meters into the earth to find water. Taylor’s most famous vineyard is Quina de Vargellas, which is one of the very few vineyards owned by the production house.

Harvesting is a three-day process and done only in September. Grapes are gathered, and then quickly moved into the treading phase. Yes, it’s true, maceration by human foot is actually the preferred method since it’s believed that the foot (or skin, or both?) brings out the flavor of the grape skin and maximizes color.

A little foot grease (ha?) adds to the overall flavor and color of the port.

Next, the port is fermented only until half of the natural grape sugars are converted to alcohol, to maintain the sweet flavor of the grape. At this point the grappa is added and the product is stored and aged in huge oak barrels. There it remains until master tasters deem it ready for public sale. The aging period depends on what type of port is produced.

Taylor employee pouring port into a large vat…getting ready for bottling!

For example, a vintage port (the best port money can buy) ages in barrels for two years and then bottled, where it should continue aging for a minimum of 10 years and a max of 20. Vintage port is declared as such by qualified tasters and the producer’s board of directors. Taylor’s last vintage port was produced in 2007. We tasted the 2003 and it was like a ruby red explosion that tapered off into the smoothest chocolaty velvet finish.

The other notable type of port is tawny, which is made from a combination of young and very old port. Since port actually lightens in color as it ages (more exposure to oxygen over time that seeps through the oak barrels), tawny is lighter since it’s made from approximately half old port (anywhere from 10-40 year old port is used).

Port is a special drink and Porto was a special city. While a vintage port should be saved for a special occasion (unless you have big bucks lying around), my traveling buddies and I agree that incorporation of port into our daily lives is a must. Which makes me think of another way the wisdom of my port to vacation days metaphor may be lacking. Unlike port, vacation days don’t get better with age. So after posting a comment to “Best I ever,” request a vacation day and promise to cap it off with a glass of the good stuff. Cin Cin!

The grand library at Taylor’s and the girls in their element.

Tips on how to drink port:

1)    If you’re lucky enough to have a bottle of vintage, allow at least two hours for the wine to breathe and also settle. Since the bottles are aged horizontally, this time is necessary for sediment to settle to the bottom.

2)    Serve with Stilton cheese. While I haven’t yet tasted the combination, it’s apparently outrageous.

3)    Port should be the very last thing digested at the end of a meal. Eating anything after inhibits the digestive qualities of the wine.

Note: During our tasting and Taylor’s, we also were served white port called Chip Dry (literally means dry as wood chips). It was absolutely incredible, but unfortunately not sold in the states. I have a small bottle for someone special (yes, you Dad!) but take a look at Binny’s maybe and see if they have something comparable. You won’t be sorry.  It should be served chilled and is actually served as an aperitif; best in warm weather I’d think.

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