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I'm happiest when the food I make becomes a backdrop to a lively conversation. When I'm not cooking, I'm traveling or dreaming about travel. Come sit with me, and enjoy! Read more here.

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moroccan-spiced chicken with preserved lemon: the best lessons are the hardest

I will use my jar of preserved lemons. I will. I will. I will. If I say enough, it will happen, right?

The unique flavor and pungent taste of lemon preserved in salt make it one of my favorite flavor-enhancers but finding new ways to use it in everyday cooking requires thought.

The first time I made preserved lemons a few years ago, I tried a few recipes but then lost momentum. The jar languished in the pantry, half used, for months. I recently made them again and swore to myself I would use the entire jar. To my surprise, it's been easier and fun. My stash is nearly gone!

I've loosened my grip on the ingredient, releasing it from confines of the recipe. Instead, I've come to think about it as a way to elevate and enhance an already great dish. I add it to tartar sauce to smother on a sardine panini or sprinkle it, minced, on pastas or salads to brighten the flavor.

This dish, inspired by a Cuisine at Home recipe, combines Moroccan spices with the bright, clean flavor of preserved lemon, giving this already tasty dish a little something extra.

Moroccan-Spiced Chicken with Olives and Preserved Lemons

10 chicken boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 large onion, diced
1 tablespoon ginger, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cinnamon stick
1/3 cup white wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 (15-ounce) can of diced tomatoes
¾ cup chicken broth
2/3 cups pitted kalamata olives
2/3 cups chickpeas
1 tablespoon honey
2 quarters of preserved lemon peel, sliced thinly (see recipe below)
1 small bunch of cilantro, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil

Spice rub
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon coriander
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
Pinch salt

Combine all the spices well. Rub the mixture over the chicken thighs and let sit for about five minutes. Heat the olive oil in a skillet and brown the chicken, about five minutes per side. Remove the chicken. Add the onion and sauté for three minutes. Add minced garlic and ginger, cinnamon stick, red pepper flacks, and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Deglaze with white wine. Add tomatoes and chicken stock, then add the chicken back into the pot. Add the olives, preserved lemon, and chickpeas and simmer on low for a half hour.

Season with salt, and top with cilantro. Serve with focaccia bread or couscous.

Preserved Lemons

1 wide-neck sterilized jar with lid (see photo, above)
About 4 - 5 lemons (or enough to fill the jar) plus one for juicing
6 tablespoons rock salt
1 bay leaf
1 rounded teaspoon peppercorns

Quarter the lemons and add the quarters to the jar one layer at a time, sprinkling salt over each layer. Continue until you fill the jar. Squeeze the juice of one lemon over the top and fill the jar with boiling water. Add the peppercorns and bayleaf. Put the washed skin from a squeezed out lemon half on top of the lemons (beneath the lid) so that if any mold forms, it can be easily discarded. Seal and store in a cool, dark place for four weeks, gently shaking the jars for the first few days to distribute and dissolve the salt. (Adapted from Cooking Moroccan by Tess Mallos.)


steak salad with maytag and wine-roasted shallots: dinner salad has never been better

Paul and I have been eating more salad for dinner than ever before. Perhaps, after nearly 10 years together, we've gotten back to enjoying the no-fuss basics of quick preparations with fresh ingredients. One of our favorite dinners is a smoked salmon salad, piled with tiny capers, chickpeas, chopped pecans, and kalamata olives, which we enjoy at least twice a week.  

This scrumptious steak salad pays homage to tagliata, also a weeknight fave of ours and an Italian classic. I trumped it up with roasted shallots, tomatoes, and a slice of Maytag blue cheese. It’s perfect for those Friday nights when we want a little something extra, which is pretty much every Friday night.

Steak Salad with Maytag and Wine-Roasted Shallots and Baby Tomatoes

Serves 2

1 (12-ounce) New York strip steak
1 thick slice Maytag blue cheese
3 - 4  large shallots, peeled and cut in half
6 small tomatoes, sliced in half
5 cups arugula
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 bunches rosemary leaves, minced
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
½ cup white wine
4 tablespoons olive oil

To top:
Balsamic vinegar glaze
Capers (optional)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a large roasting pan, add the shallots, drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Roast the shallots for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, season the tomatoes with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. After 20 minutes, add the tomatoes to the shallots and roast for another 10 minutes. Meanwhile, pour the 1/2 cup white wine into a small measuring cup. Add the balsamic vinegar and half the minced rosemary leaves. When the tomatoes are done, pour the wine mixture over the vegetables and return them to the oven for another five minutes. Remove and let cool.

In a small pan, add the four tablespoons of olive oil, the sliced garlic, and the remaining rosemary and cook over medium heat until garlic starts to cook without browning (about three minutes or less). Set aside to cool.

Pre-heat a pan grill (I like cast iron) so that it’s nice and hot. Season the steak with salt and pepper and sear it for three minutes on the first side. Flip it to the second side, and place it in the oven for 8 – 12 minutes depending on the thickness of the steak and how you like it cooked. Remove it from the pan and let it rest on a plate for five minutes.

In a large bowl, toss the arugula with the cooled garlic-rosemary olive oil, and season the greens with salt and pepper. Divide the arugula onto plates.

Slice the steak thinly and arrange on top of the arugula. Spoon the shallots and tomatoes (with the juices from the wine-balsamic mixture) over the steak. Top with a slice of Maytag blue cheese, drizzle with balsamic vinegar glaze, and sprinkle with capers if desired.


dried cherry and rosemary stuffed pork chops: a dish worth reviving

When Paul and I moved in together, he cooked a lot. I would have been thrilled with a guy who just loved food. A guy who could also make magic on the plate? Swoon. He knew that, and immediately set out to win my heart through food.

One of the first dishes he made for me was stuffed pork chops. He bought two thick chops and sliced them open horizontally, stuffing the chops delicately with a bread and herbed goat cheese filling, and then pan-searing them.

Even though he had never made the dish, he had already discovered the secret behind what makes stuffed pork chops successful: the 'pocket' slice has to be deep enough to allow for as much stuffing as possible while keeping all edges intact to hold the stuffing in place. Packed with flavor and moisture, those chops won my heart.

We moved on to other favorite dishes and eventually forgot about stuffed pork chops. I recently rediscovered the dish, however, 10 years later, in a "Cuisine at Home" trial magazine issue I got in the mail.

Nowadays, Paul lets me be chef, and I've developed a certain style that skews Italian. While the magazine recipe featured apple and thyme, I wanted to put my own flavors to the test: Rosemary and sage with the sweetness of dried cherries and the tartness of grainy mustard and balsamic vinegar.

My experiments don't always work but this one wowed us both. The stuffing burst with flavors that complemented pork while sopping up all the pork juices.

When we took our first bites, we wondered why we ever forgot about stuffed pork chops. With the new flavors of rosemary and cherry, this was one dish worth bringing back to our table.

Stuffed Pork Chops with Rosemary, Sage, and Dried Cherry

2 (6 – 8 ounce) boneless pork loin chops

2 slices toast, diced
¼ onion, diced
¼ cup dried cherries, chopped
¼ cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 sprigs rosemary, leaves finely diced
1 small bunch sage, leaves finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced

½ cup white wine
¼ cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons grainy mustard
Squeeze of lemon
1 small shallot, finely diced
3 sprigs rosemary, leaves minced
1 tablespoon butter

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees a half hour in advance.

For the stuffing, saute the onions, garlic, and herbs until soft.

In a medium bowl, combine the diced toasted bread with the cooked onion, garlic, and herb mixture. Add the cherries, chicken broth, balsamic, mustard, and salt and pepper and toss.

With a sharp knife, slice a 'pocket' into the side of the chops. Be careful not to cut through to the other end of the chop. Also, make sure that the chop is intact on the sides to keep the stuffing in place.

Fill each chop with the stuffing, packing as much as you can into the chop while keeping it intact.

In a heavy bottom skillet, brown the chops over medium-high heat, about 3 minutes on the first side. Flip the chops to the other side, add the rest of the stuffing to the pan, and then move them to the oven and roast for about 10 - 14 minutes depending on the size.

Remove the chops and the stuffing from the pan and tent with foil to keep warm.

Heat the butter in the pan and saute shallots. Combine herbs, wine, grainy mustard, stock, and lemon juice. Deglaze the pan with the mixture. Let reduce about 4 – 5 minutes and pour on top of the chops. Serve immediately.


sour cream and cherry kirsch muffins: a merry muffin makeover

Making a muffin that's sophisticated and delicious is no easy task. The problem? It’s easy to make a bad muffin. I’ve done it. With the wrong ingredients or techniques, they turn out dense or dry or flat, or, even worse, sticky.

This weekend, I wanted the runway model of muffins. I wanted moisture, perfect chewiness, and golden brown crisp.

After reviewing innumerable muffin recipes (and making a few bad ones) I learned the secret ingredient to a great muffin: sour cream. It gives muffins a creamy texture, moistness, and bright flavor. It also browns better, adding a crunch to each bite.

Batter mixed wtih sour cream and dried cherries soaked in Vietnamese cinnamon, sugar, and Kirsch turned out a delicious muffin with the elegance of a European pastry.

Sour Cream and Cherry Kirsch Muffins

2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 cup sugar (plus 1 tablespoon for cherry mixture)
4 tablespoon butter, softened
1-1/4 cup full fat sour cream
3/4 cup chopped pecans
3/4 cup dried cherries, chopped
2 tablespoons Kirsch
1 teaspoon Vietnamese cinnamon

Heat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a 12-cup muffin pan with butter.

Mix together flour, salt, and baking powder. In a small bowl, mix together dried cherries, Kirsch, cinnamon, and a tablespoon of sugar and let sit.

Using a KitchenAid equipped with a paddle attachment, mix together the egg, sugar, and butter until light and fluffy. Add sour cream and mix until evenly blended.

Slowly mix in flour mixture until a thick, sticky batter forms. Add in the berry mixture and pecans and mix until combined.

Divide the batter into the muffin cups, and bake until the muffins are light golden brown or a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 25 – 30 minutes.


chicken provencal with orange gremolata: tasty chow for the comfort-food seeker

Chicken Provençal with orange gremolata is my go-to comfort food. We’re talking chick-flick-and-bottle-of-wine, comfy. Fuzzy-slippers, comfy. Let-the-laundry-pile-up-on-Sunday-afternoon, comfy.

The nicoise olive's delicate, nutty, mellow flavor marries well with orange zest and tomatoes; and the marjoram, thyme, and parsley give this dish a bright, herby lift.

Join me: Put on your oversized T-shirt, forget the laundry, and dig in.

Chicken Provencal with Orange Gremolata

Inspired by Cook’s Illustrated

8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 14.5 can diced tomatoes, drained
½ cup pitted nicoise olives
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 cup white wine
1 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons tomato paste
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 anchovy
1 pinch of cayenne
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
1 teaspoon fresh marjoram, minced
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons orange zest
1 small bunch parsley, minced

Season the chicken with salt and pepper on each side.

In a Dutch oven over medium flame, add the olive oil to the pan, then add the diced onion to the pot and cook for about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, cayenne, and anchovy.

Stir ingredients well and cook for another 2 minutes.  

Deglaze the pot with white wine. Add the chicken stock, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, bay leaf, marjoram, and thyme. Season the chicken liberally with salt and pepper. Add the chicken and simmer on low for 45 minutes.

Add half of the orange zest and the olives and continue cooking for another 10 minutes until the liquid has thickened around the chicken.

Combine the remaining orange zest with the parsley and sprinkle on top. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve.


chicken and seafood paella with argentinian chorizo: leftovers, por favor

Unlike risotto, which is blah reheated, leftover paella tastes delicious. With all the effort and time required to make chicken and seafood paella - nearly four hours end-to-end - leftovers better be good.

While risotto requires constant stirring until cooked, 'NEVER STIR' is the cardinal rule when cooking paella. The lack of motion preserves the integrity and shape of the rice grain while it quietly and uniformly soaks up all the stock and meat juices.

Adapted from a Guy Fieri recipe, this chicken and seafood paella with Argentinian chorizo served as the centerpiece to our special New Year’s Eve date night, and several date nights after that (with this kind of food, every night can be date night).

Chicken and Seafood Paella with Argentinian Chorizo

4 tablespoons olive oil plus a drizzle for garnish
6 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1 ham hock
2 cups onion, diced and divided into two, 1-cup portions
1 cup celery, diced 
1 cup carrots, diced
3 tablespoons garlic, minced
Pinch of paprika
1 teaspoon minced oregano
1 cup white wine
Seafood stock, about 2 cups
1 tablespoon saffron dissolved in 1 cup warm water for 3 minutes
1 pound Argentinian chorizo or other mildly spiced, fresh chorizo sausage (Guy Fieri calls for spicy Mexican chorizo but I prefer the mildly spiced Argentinian chorizo to avoid overpowering the subtle flavor of the seafood)
1 cup red bell peppers, diced
3 cups Arborio rice
30 mussels
1/2 pound scallops
1/2 pound shrimp
1/2 cup scallions, diced, for garnish
1 lemon, cut in wedges for garnish

In a large stock pot over high heat add half the olive oil. Add the chicken thighs and ham hocks and brown on both sides. Remove chicken to a plate, leaving the ham hocks in the pot. Store the browned chicken in the fridge until you’re ready to use the meat. Add half of the onions and the celery, carrots, and garlic to the pot, and cook for 5 to 7 minutes.

Deglaze the mix with white wine and reduce the liquid by half. Next add the seafood stock, saffron, and 2 quarts of water and let simmer for two hours or until reduced by half. When the stock is reduced, straining the liquid through a chinois, pressing the liquid out of the vegetables with a spatula. Return the liquid to the pot, and simmer on low heat. 

Remove the chicken thighs from the fridge and place them in the stock for 8 – 10 minutes to cook through.

Meanwhile, in a large Dutch oven or paella pan add the remaining olive oil, chorizo, red bell pepper, and onion, and cook until the onions are translucent, but not brown. Add rice, paprika, oregano, and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Simmer until all rice grains are coated with oil. Smooth the rice with the back of a soup ladle so it is level around the pan and, using the ladle, scoop about 1 cup of broth at a time into the rice. Do not stir.

When rice is 3/4 of the way from being fully cooked (about 15 - 20 minutes), add the chicken thighs, shrimp, scallops, and mussels.

Bury the seafood in the rice so they cook through. Add a final cup of broth and cover the pan tightly. Let sit off heat for 10 to 15 minutes or until seafood is cooked. Garnish with scallions, lemon wedges, and a drizzle of olive oil. When storing for leftovers, keep the mussels but remove the shells.

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