Dining out or eating in the homes of friends and family, teaches me new techniques or ingredient combinations.
They are dishes that send me home to develop my own spin, simplifying the creation if it’s complex, changing it just enough to make it approachable for home cooks without sacrificing flavor.
Here are three of my 2014 FAVORITES (whittled down from a very long list – but more on that later):
Chicken with Caramelized Onion and Cardamom Rice:
My niece Holly Sue is a chef. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, many years ago she left a restaurant career to raise her family, but later started a highly successful at-home personal chef business when her boys were approaching middle school age. Her clients pick up made-from-scratch family dinners twice a week. The wait-list for folks who want to get in on those meals is substantial, filled with the names of hungry households that long for scrumptious food eaten at their own dining tables.
Holly Sue told me that one of her go-to dishes for her family is a vibrantly-seasoned chicken and rice dish from Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook, “Jerusalem” (Ten Speed Press, $35). I tasted it and fell in love.
The combinations of flavors are both surprising and delicious. Cinnamon sticks, cloves and cardamom pods come to the party, along with currants, deeply caramelized onions and fresh herbs, ingredients that give the mixture irresistible appeal.
If you want, the dish can be made in advance and chilled, then reheated slowly on low heat adding some chicken broth to the bottom of the pan to prevent scorching. It’s served topped with a good dollop of Greek-style yogurt and a sprinkling of chopped parsley.
Raj’s Avocado Spheres Stuffed with Crab
These perfectly round, bright green spheres are constructed with fresh avocado on the outside and crab salad on the inside. They are the brainchild of Raj Dixit, executive chef at Michael Mina’s Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point.
Dixit puts the elegant bite-sized spheres on silver spoons and presents them as passed appetizers. Or he makes a little larger version and serves each one as a plated amuse-bouche, a gift from the chef that arrives before the first course is served.
To speed up the preparation, I lightly coat the crab with simple Louis dressing. Dixit uses a condiment he calls “yuzu- miso,” a sauce made with egg yolks, yuzu juice, white miso, extra-virgin olive oil and creme fraiche, plus a little minced shiso (fresh Asian herb from the mint family) and orange zest.
I won’t kid you, it takes some time to peel and cut avocados and form them into the spheres that surround seafood salad. It’s the kind of dish to make when you have some time and aren’t pressured. Turn on some good music, pour yourself a glass of wine and dig in.
Or, take an easy route, and mound the salad atop peeled-and-halved avocado; rest them atop crisp baby greens and crown each with some thinly sliced green onion, a lemon wedge off to the side.
Herbed Green Rice
This dish transformed the way I think about the liquid I use to cook long-grained rice.
As a teen, I learned that lightly browning rice in warm oil or a combination of oil and butter before it is cooked in broth, creates both desirable flavor and texture. I used chicken broth, vegetable broth or beef broth. Simple.
But this year I learned how to add irresistible flavor by heating the broth and whirling the hot liquid it in a blender with handfuls of fresh herbs; fresh parsley, mint, cilantro and chives. The smooth, deep green potion is the liquid used to cook the rice.
The fragrant basmati rice is supplemented with toasted ground fennel seeds and sautéed vegetables as well, along with a smidgen of hot sauce. I omit the hot sauce when making this dish for my one-year-old granddaughter Francoise. She adores it.
The dish can be made in advance, refrigerated, and reheated in the microwave oven.
Chicken with Caramelized Onion and Cardamom Rice
Yield: 4 generous servings
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use
2 medium-large yellow onions, halved, thinly sliced
2 1/4 pounds skin-on bone-in chicken thighs, see cook’s notes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
10 whole cardamom pods
4 teaspoon whole cloves
2 long cinnamon sticks, each broken in two
1 2/3 cups raw basmati rice
1/4 cup currants
2 1/4 cups boiling water
3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley, divided use
1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
Optional garnish: 1/2 cup plain Greek-style yogurt mixed with 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Cook’s notes: I like to trim away excess skin that hangs over the sides of the meat, leaving about a 2-to 3-inch wide piece of skin atop the chicken thighs.
1. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in large deep skillet or Dutch oven on medium heat. Add onions; cook until deep golden brown, stirring occasionally, about 10 to 15 minutes. Place in small bowl and wipe out pan. Place chicken in large bowl and season with 1 1/2 teaspoons each salt and pepper. Add remaining oil, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon; use clean hands to mix together well. Heat pan again and place chicken (skin side down) and oil-spice mixture in it. Sear chicken 5 minutes per side and remove from pan (this is important because it partially cooks the chicken). Remove chicken from pan. The spices can stay in the pan but don’t worry if some spices stick to the chicken. Remove most of the oil in the pan, leaving behind a thin layer in the pan. Add rice, caramelized onion, 1 teaspoon salt and plenty of black pepper. Add currants and stir well; return seared chicken (skin-side up) in single layer, pushing them down into the rice.
2. Add boiling water over the rice and chicken; cover and cook on low heat for 30 minutes. Take pan off heat, remove lid and quickly place a clean tea towel over the pan and seal again with the lid. Leave undisturbed for another 10 minutes. Add herbs, using half of the parsley. Use a fork to fluff the rice. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Serve hot or warm, each serving topped with a good dollop of yogurt and some chopped parsley.
Source: adapted from “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ten Speed Press, $35)
Raj’s Avocado Spheres Stuffed with Crab
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons purchased chili sauce, such as Homade or Heitz that contain tomato sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon finely minced orange or lemon zest (colored portion of peel)
3/4 cup cooked, chilled crab meat, picked over to remove any shell
2 ripe (but not squishy) avocados
Juice of 1 fresh lime or lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil spray
Coarse salt, preferably fleur de sel
1. Combine Louis dressing ingredients in small bowl; stir until combined. Add salt and pepper to taste. Place crab in a separate bowl and stir in just enough dressing to lightly coat the crab; toss.
2. Work with 1 avocado at a time. Cut avocado in half; pit and peel. Working with one half of an avocado at a time, place cut-side down on work surface; cut lengthwise horizontally so the top portion is about 3/4-inch thick (the top portion is what you will use). Place top portion flat-side down on work surface. Cut lengthwise slices 1/8-inch apart, leaving the avocado in place on the board. Use your knife to separate the 2 bundles of avocado slices into 2 equal portions, sliding your knife down the middle cut and pushing one away from the other. Use the palm of your hand to fan out the slices of each bundle so the slices are slightly overlapping. Trim a 1/8-inch portion off each end of the slices. Spray a square of plastic wrap with nonstick vegetable spray and squeeze on a little lime or lemon juice in the middle. Place 1 avocado “fan” on wide knife blade (scoot blade under “fan” to lift it) and invert each fan onto separate prepared plastic wrap squares. In the middle of the fan put a knob of crab salad (about 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons).
3. Cradle the plastic in palm of your hand, cupping it to start the rounding process. Then pull up the corners of the plastic and twist plastic to form a sphere. Repeat with remaining pitted and peeled avocado. Each avocado should yield 4 small spheres. Sprinkle lightly with coarse salt. Use avocado trimmings to make guacamole or a tasty snack.
Source: Raj Dixit, executive chef, Stonehill Tavern
Herbed Green Rice
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 cup chicken broth plus 1 1/4 cups water
1/2 cup packed Italian parsley
1/4 cup packed mint leaves
2 tablespoons minced chives
1/4 cup packed cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon hot sauce, see cook’s notes
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup finely diced fresh fennel bulb
3/4 cup finely diced red onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups raw white basmati rice
1 tablespoon butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cook’s notes: The original recipe called for adding 1 crumbled chili arbol when sautéing the vegetables. I prefer to use one teaspoon of Frank’s RedHot sauce to the cooking liquid in Step#2. I like it because it adds a spark of acidity and (for me) has just-right spicy heat. If you use Sriracha “rooster sauce” use 1/2 teaspoon.
1. Toast fennel seeds in a small pan over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until they release their aroma and turn light golden brown. Cool. Grind in mortar and pestle, or place in small zipper-style plastic bag and pound with mallet or bottom of a pot until ground.
2. Bring chicken broth and water to a boil in medium-large saucepan. Turn off heat.
3. Place parsley, mint, chives and cilantro in blender. Add 1 cup of the hot liquid and puree herbs at medium speed (cautiously hold down lid of blender with potholder). Add remaining liquid and puree at high speed for about 2 minutes, stopping to wipe down sides and lid as needed. You should have a smooth, very green broth.
4. Rinse out pot and heat it over high heat. Add oil, fennel, onion, toasted ground fennel seeds and 1/2 teaspoon salt; cook over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until onion and fennel are translucent. Add rice, 1 teaspoon salt and pinch of pepper; toss to coat and cook just until rice starts to turn a very light brown. Add herb broth and bring to boil. Reduce heat to simmer. Add butter. Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender and liquid is absorbed. Turn off heat and leave rice covered for 5 minutes. Fluff rice with fork. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
Source: adapted from Chef Suzanne Goin and “The A.O.C. Cookbook” (Alfred A. Knopf, $35)