Kitchen Basics: How To Properly Trim Chicken Breasts

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Chicken is something we all eat, and for many of us chicken breasts is an essential part of at least two or three meals of the week. Although you can find chicken breasts bone in, bone out, skin on, skin off, you still need to do a little bit of cleaning with those breast fillets. The general rule is to remove anything white, yellow, or bloody in order to have a perfectly clean piece. This posting will show you how to do that.

First, check out your breasts. The chicken, not your own thanks. From the store, you can find them sold as follows:
  • Whole: both breasts and tenderloin connected, bone removed, skin on or off
  • Separated: breast is cut in half including tenderloin giving you a fillet; bone in or out, skin on or off
  • Breast fillet: no tenderloin
  • Tenderloin: the small strip of meat found under the ribs of the breast
[1 whole breast, cut in half, with tenderloins, bone removed and skin off, sitting side by side]

Removing The Connective Tissue
Sometimes (ok, often) you'll find the breast comes with this thin, clear or lightly white skin on top of the breast. This is the connecting tissue between the meat and the skin, and often butchers forget or are too lazy to remove this. You will need to so that the chicken will cook properly, especially if you're planning to sear or braise as this tissue will not melt during cooking.

To remove it, simply slide your sharp boning knife under the skin strip and holding it with one hand and pulling gently upwards to create tension, slide your knife through the chicken right between the skin and the meat like this:

How To Remove Tenderloins
There are two parts to the chicken breast: the bulk of the breast which sits on top of the ribs and on either side of the breastbone, and the smaller thinner piece called the tenderloin which sits on the underside of the breast, near the ribs. When you purchase bone out chicken breasts, they will come with or without this tenderloin piece. If they come without, then fine; if they come with, then it's a good idea to remove them before cooking because they are smaller and will cook faster than the rest of the breast. If you have kids, I particularly like removing them and making them separately for the kids "chicken finger" style, even if we're grilling because they are the perfect side and shape for them to pick up with their hands, cook faster and more evenly, and often can be served before the meal for them if they are starving.

To remove the tenderloins, simply locate the smaller piece on the main breast. You'll know it because it will literally hang off of the main, larger piece. Then take your knife, and just cut it off the main piece like this:

Notice how the tenderloins are smaller and skinnier compared to the main breast piece:

[left: main breast; center and right: 2 tenderloins]
You can finish cleaning up the tenderloins and cook them with the breast, then take them out about halfway through the cooking process because they will cook faster than the main breast, or save and use later for another dish.

Removing the Cartilage
The hardest part of cleaning up the larger breast piece is removing the tissue around where the cartilage met the bone. It's very tough, extremely unpleasant to eat, and often comes blood-tinged which will carry over into your cooking and turn that part of the meat bloody also (even though it's fully cooked). So although totally edible, for aesthetic and texture reasons, we like to remove it. 

To remove, pinch the top of the cartilage with your hand, then make an incision with your knife to pull up a larger piece. Take a good grab of it and gently pull away with the hand that's holding it away from the knife, as you cut following your hand that's pulling. This is creating resistance which will make it easier to cut.

Notice how I'm holding a good chunk of it -- it's ok if some meat comes off with it -- and I'm pulling downward with my left hand that's holding the cartilage piece while I'm following in a downward motion, sliding my knife after my left hand.

Another part of cartilage that is often found is this strip of gristle:

It's extremely tough and unpleasant, so remove it. Same technique at work here: pinch a piece of it, pull with one hand while sliding your knife under and following to remove it.

And here's an example of that bloody connective tissue I was talking about. Remove it the same way and discard.

Wash and Pat Dry
After trimming your chicken breasts, wash then under cold water and then pat dry with paper towels. They are now ready to be seasoned and cooked.

Date Night: Cherry Pecan Stuffed Chicken Breasts for Two

Monday, February 14, 2011

This recipe was born out of one of those I'm So Sick Of Chicken moments, but two naked breasts were staring at me from the fridge (chicken breasts sickos!!). I didn't do the market run yet so had to use what I had on hand. Sometimes, those are the best kind of recipes! This included a stuffing began with a quick saute of onions, garlic, and celery that was simply flavored with salt and pepper, then to that mixture was added dried cherries, white bread (I'm talking simple Wonder toast style!), thyme, and blue cheese. Rolled up into the chicken, tied with string and then baked off for 35 minutes and served! You can use any stuffing combination you like: if you don't have blue cheese or don't prefer it, use goat cheese or even feta. Have cranberries but not cherries? Use those! Add rosemary and or instead of the thyme. And you could make this with walnuts or even hazelnuts as well.

Cherry Pecan Stuffed Chicken Breasts
2 large chicken breasts, washed and trimmed
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
extra virgin olive oil
1/2 white onion, chopped small
3/4 celery stalk, ends trimmed and chopped very small
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh thyme, leaves picked off the stems OR 1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 slice white toast bread, crusts removed and cut into 1/4" cubes
2 Tbsp dried cherries (or cranberries, apricots, other dried fruits)
2 Tbsp pecans, chopped
1 Tbsp crumbled mild bleu cheese (recommend: Point Reyes, Danish Bleu, Gorgonzola)
kitchen string or twine

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Take the chicken and remove the tenderloins, save for later use. Using a mallet, smash the chicken until 1/4" thick (or as close to that as you can get). The idea here is to get the chicken into one even layer of thickness, or as close to that as possible so the chicken can be stuffed and rolled easily and cook evenly. Season both sides of the chicken with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in a saute pan. Cook the onions and celery until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Remove from heat and transfer into a mixing bowl, including any additional oil left over. Add the thyme, bread, cherries, and pecans and another drizzle of oil to help moisten the bread. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the bleu cheese if using and set aside.

To stuff your chicken, place half of the cherry-pecan mixture in the lower 1/3 of one chicken piece. Then fold the end of that chicken piece over the stuffing, and keep rolling until you reach the other side of the chicken piece. Try to keep the stuffing inside, and don't roll too tightly so the stuffing comes out of the sides; the string will help keep it all inside shortly. Repeat with the second piece of chicken. Then using the kitchen string, cut 3 pieces large enough to go around the chicken. Slide a piece under the chicken and position it directly in the middle at the thickest part. Tie the string into a knot. Then using the other two string pieces, slide it on either side of this center string, and tie it to secure it. Then cut a slightly longer piece of string, then slide that one under the chicken but perpendicular to these three pieces, then bring up and tight to secure in the middle right above your first string in the middle. You should have a sort of "package" of stuffed chicken. Repeat this exactly with the second piece of chicken. Cut off the excess string but cutting near to the knot and discard those pieces. This can be done up to a full day in advance, tightly wrapped with plastic wrap and refrigerated.

Grease a baking dish with a little olive oil and place your stuffed chickens on top. Bake in 350 degree oven for about 35 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. Let stand 3 minutes before slicing so juices can redistribute. To serve, simply cut the strings and remove from chicken, discard. Serve as whole or cut into medallions.

I served this with french fries seasoned with salt, pepper, and truffle oil.

Spicy Black Bean Soup with Monte Cristo Style Sandwiches

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

As late winter now transitions into early spring, or if you're still stuck in winter back east!, a pot of soup is the best thing in the world. Black bean soup, although pretty simple in its preparation, can satisfy all cravings and give you a healthier alternative to battle those last few holiday pounds lingering around. It's cheap to make, extremely easy, and very hearty and satisfying without bloating you. My recipe uses canned black beans which speeds up the process considerably -- the beans have been parcooked already for you so it cuts down your cooking time more than half as opposed to using dried beans. And simple seasonings from smoky cumin, deep ancho chile powder, and earthy oregano and bay leaf give the soup a wonderful foundation. I like using poblano peppers for this, but you could just as easily substitute with green or even red or yellow bell peppers. Add the jalapeno to taste -- a perfectly balanced soup will use half of the jalapeno, seeds and all, but if you want it more or less adjust accordingly.

And a perfect side dish? Monte Cristo-style sandwiches of course! Traditionally made with ham, cheese, and turkey "croque monsieur" style, I used ham and manchego cheese which is what I had on hand. I loved the subtle nutty flavor of the manchego against the ham. If I had it I would have used jambon but simple black forest ham works beautifully as well. I also dotted the bread with the traditional strawberry jam (yes, strawberry jam) that adds a wonderful sweetness to the dish especially when paired with the decidedly savory black bean soup.

This recipe serves 2-4 people; 2 for a heartier dinner and 4 for smaller appetizer portions. Enjoy!

Spicy Black Bean Soup
1 white onion, chopped small
1 poblano pepper, seeded and chopped small
1/2 jalapeno pepper, minced (seed it for less spicy)
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 (15 oz) cans black beans (recommend: Goya brand)
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
1.5 Tbsp ground cumin
1 Tbsp dried oregano
1 tsp ancho chile powder
4 cups vegetable broth
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
2 roma tomatoes, chopped
2 limes
sour cream (optional)

Heat the olive oil in a pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions, poblano pepper, and jalapeno and season with salt and pepper to taste. Saute for about 10 minutes, or until vegetables are softened and starting to caramelize. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute until fragrant. Add the bay leaf, cumin, oregano, chile powder, black beans (with juice from can if you want it thicker; if you want a thinner soup then rinse the beans in cold water first; I prefer with juice!) and broth and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat and let simmer for at least 25-30 minutes for flavors to meld. You'll know it's done when the color of the soup darkens and the soup becomes thicker. Add the cilantro and cook another 5 minutes. To serve, garnish with tomatoes, a squeeze of lime juice, and sour cream if desired. Serve a lime cut into wedges on the side for more acid if desired.

Monte Cristo Style Sandwiches
white sandwich bread
sliced black forest ham
manchego cheese, sliced thin
strawberry jam
1-2 eggs*
2-3 Tbsp heavy cream*

To assemble the sandwiches, take one slice of bread and smear a little strawberry jam. Add a slice of ham on top then some cheese on top of that, and the other slice of bread. Set aside and repeat with desired amount of sandwiches. Beat the egg and cream together in a shallow bowl. Preheat a griddle pan or non-stick saute pan. Dip the sandwiches in the egg mixture, flipping to coat both sides. Cook on griddle until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes each side. Remove and slice in half to serve.

*If making two full sandwiches (meaning 2 slices of bread per person), then use 1 egg + 2 Tbsp cream. If making for 4 people, then use 2 eggs + 3 Tbsp cream.

The Little Black Dress of Mexican Cuisine: Pico de Gallo

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Pico de gallo (pronounced "peeko-de-guy-o") is a condiment found throughout Mexican cuisine. It's technically not a salsa, for salsas are sauces and the whole point of the pico de gallo is to be chunkier in consistency with actually very little juice, but nonetheless is sometimes referred to as salsa fresca ("fresh sauce"). It is traditionally compromised of finely chopped tomatoes, onions, and chili peppers (most often used jalapeno or serrano) and often flavored with fresh cilantro, lime or lemon juice, and simple salt and pepper. Some pico de gallos even include cucumber, jicama, and mango, but the super traditional version that we're all most familiar with is the tomato-onion-chili version.

The name is of interest for trivia. It means "rooster's beak" but the reference is up for debate. Some say it's from the the way you eat it: picking up the chip and resting it on your thumb while pinching with your forefinger to grab the salsa. While others say it's in reference to the macho rooster, who in Mexican culture is the definition of masculine men. As the story goes, only the macho men can withstand the heat of the chilies so only "real men" can eat the pico de gallo. As a chick with an affinity for the ghost pepper myself, I think I'm going with Option A on this one. Because I guarantee I can "out-masculinize" any dude on the chile scale. So maybe they should rename it "Pico de Mishy." But I digress...

Pico de gallo is a wonderful condiment, adding instant bright flavors and a lightness to any dish. This is why it's often served as a side to heavier tacos, burritos, fajitas, and other meat-centric dishes. The cool and crisp tomatoes and onions work classicly with any protein (from meat to fish) and the heat from the chile can be subtle or powerful to add a punch to the dish.

But for me, I most prefer a freshly home-made pico with homemade, just-fried and still warm tortilla chips. It is heaven. Add a cold beer or glass of sangria and you can park yourself for hours enjoying total bliss as the world crumples down around you. For this reason, in addition to the necessity of the "salsa" to be prepared a few days in advance, it makes for the perfect Game Day food.

This is my own recipe I've developed over the years. The key is to make it days in advance -- preferably 2 -- to let the flavors really meld together and incorporate throughout. I also take careful attention with each ingredient I'm choosing to make sure everything is balanced out. I choose roma tomatoes for their juiciness and perfect meaty texture and gorgeous red color; I like a sweet onion like vidalia to balance out the spicy serrano, which is in my opinion subtly more aggressive than the jalapeno without being over-the-top; I always include cilantro for some bright flavor and color; and take the opportunity to use fresh limes for the acid. Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, some fresh garlic for a savory note round out the basic profile. But my secret ingredient (shhhh! don't tell anyone!) is a little bit of mint. What?! Mint?! In Mexican cooking?? Oh yes. The smallest amount will give the entire dish a pleasant coolness that works beautifully with the sweetness of the onion and the heat of the chiles. Add some freshly made tortilla chips still warm to the equation and I guarantee it will be gone by half-time!

This recipe makes about 3 cups worth which is more than enough to feed a crowd for a football party or other. If you have leftover, simply store in an air-tight container for up to 7 days.

Mishy's Party Pico de Gallo
2 cups roma tomatoes, chopped small
1/2 cup yellow onion, chopped fine
1 serrano chile, chopped very fine (+ more to taste)
1 Tbsp garlic, minced
1/4 cup fresh cilantro picked off of stems, then roughly chopped (you'll end up with about 2 Tbsp when chopped)
2 tsp fresh mint, finely chopped
2 limes, juiced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Combine the tomatoes, onion, serrano pepper, garlic, cilantro, and mint in a bowl. Add the lime juice and season with salt and pepper to taste (I personally use around 1/2 tsp - 3/4 tsp of salt and 1/2 tsp pepper, depending on how salty my chips are). Toss gently with a spoon or spatula until incorporated well. Set in refrigerator at least 6 hours but preferably overnight to 2 days in advance. Serve.

Homemade Cumin-Scented Tortilla Chips
1 package white corn tortillas
4 cups vegetable oil
kosher salt
1 Tbsp cumin (the powder, not the seeds)

special equipment: deep fry or candy thermometer for oil; heavy saucepan for frying

Cut the tortillas into chip shapes. To do this, stack all the tortillas up in a pile. Cut them in half, creating two half-moons. Then cut each half into thirds, creating the classic triangle shape. Set aside.

Place the oil in a heavy saucepan. You want the saucepan or pot to be tall enough so there is 4 inchs of room from the layer of oil to the top (the oil when cooking will bubble up so you need room to allow for this). Attach your thermometer and heat the oil until the temperature reaches 360 degrees. Working in batches, add the tortilla triangles you cut and fry until golden brown, about 1-2 minutes, turning a few times to ensure even cooking. Remove with a slottes poon and onto a baking sheet lined with paper towels to help drain the oil. Season immediatly with salt and a sprinkle of the cumin when they just come out of the oil -- the seasonings will "stick" to the chip better when the oil is still hot and not dried yet on the chip. Repeat with remaining tortillas until all are fnished. Serve warm.

If making in advance, simply fry up the tortilal chips and heat them in a 300 degree oven for 3 minutes. But don't forget to take the paper towel off -- it'll burn in the oven! ;)

Passport to Portugal: Cod A Gomes de Sa

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

This is a traditional Portuguese recipe based largely on Emeril's version, but with some added flavors on my own. Originally, this recipe is Bacalhau a Gomes de Sa, and uses the dried, salted cod known throughout Mediterranean cooking as baccala. It was named after Gomes de Sa, the son of a weather merchant in Porto, Portugal who made lots of money dealing cod and baccala. This dish comprised of potatoes, sauteed onions and garlic, together with flaky salted cod is wonderfully satisfying and filling. But perhaps my favorite part is the use of boiled eggs and olives on top as a garnish. Both add unexpected color and flavor that's both delicious and beautiful to look at. The whole dish is the essence of home cooking, as it's prepared and served "casserole style" (but casserole done right!).

My version uses fresh cod instead of baccala. I'm personally not a huge fan of baccala -- I find it too salty and finicky to work with and much prefer fresh cod. But if you want the original feel free to use the baccala. Just remember to soak it in water for 24 hours first! (see what I mean about high maintenance?) I also use roasted garlic in addition to fresh for added sweetness and depth of flavor I think works very nicely in this dish, and use Spanish black olives. You can use any olives you wish, but I like the color and mild flavor of the Spanish black olives. Kalamatas and green Sicilian olives would work very well too but will be considerably brinier. I also add a sprinkling of paprika (regular, not smoked) for color at the end.

Cod A Gomes de Sa  (Cod with Potatoes and Onions in the Style of Portugal)
1.5 lbs cod, cooked*
1 lb waxed potatoes
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
2-4 cloves garlic, minced  (garlic is to taste...I use 4!)
1 Tbsp roasted garlic, finely chopped
extra virgin olive oil (about 1/2 cup)
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
4 boiled eggs, peeled
1/4 cup Spanish black olives (whole or sliced)
1 Tbsp fresh parsley, very finely minced

Take the cooked cod and using your fingers or a fork, gently flake it but careful not to pulverize the pieces. Set aside.

Fill a pot with cold water. Wash and scrub the potatoes, then cut them in 1/4 inch thick slices. Add them to the water and cook until fork-tender (about 13 minutes). Drain the potatoes well and set aside.

While the potatoes cook, make the sauteed onions. Heat 2-3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a saute pan. Add the onions and season with salt and pepper to taste. Saute onions on medium heat until very soften and starting to get golden brown, about 6-10 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to cook another minute. Take off heat and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Take a casserole dish and drizzle enough olive oil to layer the bottom of the dish. Add half of the potatoes and season them with salt and pepper. Add half of the cod on top of the potatoes. Add half of the onions on top of the cod. Add the remaining cod on top of the onion layer, then the remaining onions on top of the second cod layer. End with the remaining half of potatoes right on top. Drizzle a generous amount of olive oil to cover the potatoes and season with salt and pepper. Bake in oven for 30-40 minutes or until potatoes have turned golden.

While the cod bakes, slice the eggs into 1/4 inch thick slices. To serve, garnish the casserole with the sliced egg and sprinkle the olives about and parsley. Serve hot.

*This is a great recipe to use up leftover cooked white fish, especially cod. If you have some leftover from fish n chips for example, simply take off the batter and use the cooked flaked fish inside. If you're starting from scratch, simply cook the cod fillets in a fryer with a little olive oil and salt and pepper until the fish flakes when you touch it. This means, when you poke it with a spatula or fork it will break off into flake pieces. You can use any leftover white fish for this recipe -- cod, halibut, sea bass, tilapia, rockfish -- but cod really tastes the best and is most authentic!

Everything You Wanted To Know (or not) About: Plantains

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

[above: plantain; below: banana]

Plantains are very often confused with bananas. Some people (ahem) will buy one thinking it's a banana and then think "why the hell is the skin so fucking tough?" and then take a big bite only to find it's terribly unsweet and tastes like a creamy potato. Well, that would be because I (I mean "people") have bitten into a plantain, not a banana. That banana is technically called a "dessert banana."


Conversely, the plantain is considerably less sweet than its cousin, the dessert banana. It's often bigger than a dessert banana (see picture above) and its skin is a lot thicker. Dessert bananas when ripe are very easily peeled; plantains even when very ripe still need a knife to help the peeling process along. There are more key differences: dessert bananas are tastier the riper they get; plantains can be eaten very underripe or very overly ripe. Two common dishes are tostones (aka patacones or "plantain chips") which utilize the underripe green plantain and fry pieces into golden "chips" while the riper yellow plantain will yield wonderfully sweet dessert banana-type flavors that go excellently with caramel and sugars.

Plantains are found throughout the tropical regions in the world, including Hawaii, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and parts of Southern Asia and Africa and are a central food in their various cuisines. Plantains can be boiled, fried, grilled, baked, or even steamed. The consensus is that raw plantain (unlike it's dessert banana cousin) is not particularly pleasant when eaten raw. The versatility of the plant also makes for wonderful dishes ranging in taste and texture. When the plantain is underripe, it has a wonderfully meaty texture and starchy flavor that makes it perfect for frying or to be put in soups. When ripe, the sugars become more concentrated and yields beautiful caramelization that makes the dessert banana jealous in a dish like Bananas Foster. Simply grilled ripe plantains are wonderfully creamy and sweet, and an unexpected side dish to savory grilled meats seasoned with spicy adobo and other spices. Ripe grilled plantains can be cut into small pieces and added to rice dishes. They can even be boiled and combined with water and sugar to make an alcoholic drink called chapo juice.

Even the flowers and leaves of the plantain plant are utilized. The flowers and buds are used for salads and dry curries while the leaves when steamed offer an amazing flavor to tamales and rice dishes.

So next time you pass by your bananas in the market, you might want to pick up a plantain or two. Tostones are a great appetizer and alternative to the french fry for dishes, especially if you're going the grill route for dinner. Check out a recipe here for a basic fry technique using plantains.

Tostones aka Patacones aka "The New Chip"

The Hubsters is half Colombian so occasionally (admittedly not often enough) I'll make a treat in honor of his heritage, and fry up some plantains.

Called tostones in Cuban, Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and other island cuisines, the very same recipe is called patacones in South American cuisines including Colombian and Peruvian. They are found in various Latin cuisines as mentioned, and also in West African cuisine where they are referred to as either above or simply as "plantain crisps."

The recipe is quite simple and does not vary in preparation throughout cultures. Simply take an unripe green plantain and carefully peel it, exposing the lightly peach colored fruit. Then you twice-fry it and season with salt. Different dipping sauces or toppings vary regionally from the mojo in Puerto Rico and Cuba to simple salsa in Colombia to even cheese or just plain with a sprinkling of salt. They are crispy, starchy with a underlying sweetness, and extremely addicting. It will quickly replace your favorite potato chip or french fry as a side dish for meals. They are also extremely easy to make. A few steps are involved, but if you follow each one you'll end up with a batch of tostones/patacones in under 10 minutes.

Patacones aka "Tostones" aka "Plantain Chips"
2 unripe (green) plantains
vegetable oil
kosher salt

Take each plantain and cut off the ends. Run your paring knife down the length of the plantain, careful not to go too deep, to create a long slit; this will help you peel the tough skin of the plantain. Remove the skin of the plantain and discard. Cut the plantain into 1.5 inch thick slices and set aside. 

Heat enough oil in a non-stick frying pan to cover the bottom of the pan util hot but not smoking. Add the plantain pieces and space them out evenly, careful not to overcrowd the pan. You'll have to do these in batches depending on the size of your frying pan.

Cook on one side about 1-2 minutes or until golden, then flip and cook the other side until golden.

Remove the plantains from the oil and place on a cutting board. Turn the heat off under your oil, but keep the oil in your pan to do the second fry.

Take the flat side of your knife and place it on one piece of fried plantain like this:

Then using the palm of your hand, gently press down to smoosh the plantain into a disk shape.

A slow and gently motion you'll find will work better than smacking the knife down harshly. Conversely, if you own or would want to invest in a plantain smasher, use that for perfect disks (but a knife works just as well). Repeat with the other pieces of plantain until they are all flattened in the disk shape.

Return the heat under your frying pan with the oil. When hot, fry the smashed plantains in the oil a second time, flipping once, until both sides are golden brown. Be careful as they will fry very quickly, about 30 seconds to 1 minute per side so don't walk away or else they'll burn! Remove from the oil with a spatula and set on a wire rack to drain. Season both sides immediately with salt.

Serve immediately.

You can serve the plantains as is with just salt, or add a dollop of guacamole or salsa like this:

These are best served right out of the fying pan, but if you have to make then in advance you can keep them warm for 20 minutes in a 275 degree oven.

Check out The Enchanted Spoon for some guacamole recipes that would go great with plantains!