Thighs ‘n Veggies

I can make a mean mess in the kitchen and somehow end up using every pot and pan within reach. That’s why one-dish dinners are appreciated around here, especially by my husband who normally takes on the task of washing whatever I dirty.

Most of my one-dish dinners are kind of a spinoff of a Jamie Oliver recipe. They’re simple, rustic (my favorite kind of presentation), and feature lemon. And yes, I know lemon isn’t locally sourced around here, but I balance it out (hopefully) by buying from a local store, not one of the chains. Trust me, if lemons could grow around here, we would have an entire backyard.

Roast dishes should never be limited to the fall/winter because they are a great way to utilize seasonal veggies. Of course, a more summery version is going to include tomatoes, squash, onions, etc. In the fall/winter, root vegetables can easily replace the ingredients used here.

To top the dish off, I went with gremolata (because I just can’t serve something without a green in it). It’s a simple condiment, traditionally accompanying ossobuco and made with lemon zest, garlic, and parsley. I subbed in basil and added olive oil and some salt, just because I think recipes are made to be adapted (and I kinda hate parsley). At any rate, gremolata adds a nice “pop” of bright flavors and could easily be used on fish, steak, etc. Since herbs are so abundant during the summer, it’s easy to locally source leafy ones (or, even better, to grow some at home with minimal space needed).

Roasted Chicken Thighs with Summer Vegetables (serves: 2, with some veggies leftover)
Note: It takes some time, but you may want to pick out the lemons before serving so no one accidentally takes a big bite. Especially if you use yellow squash. Trust me. It’s hard to spy the difference when you’re hungry.

1 lb. chicken thighs
1 lemon, thinly sliced (If you make gremolata, just use the lemon you zested.)
2-3 large garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
4 c. assortment of seasonal vegetables (carrots, onions, yellow squash, etc.)
1 Tbsp. duck fat (or olive oil)
Salt
Pepper

Put the duck fat (or olive oil) in a large glass casserole dish. Place the dish in the oven while heating the oven to 400 degrees (this warms the fat and helps prevent sticking). When the oven has heated, add to your dish the chicken thighs, lemon, garlic, and vegetables and toss to coat with the fat/oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Bake for about 45 minutes, stirring the vegetables halfway through. The chicken should get brown and golden on top. (Alternately, if you want brown, crispy thigh skin all over, sear the chicken while the veggies roast the first 20 minutes. Then, add the chicken for the remaining roasting time.)

Serve over a bed of rice (we went with a wild rice medley) and top with the gremolata (below).

Gremolata
Note: The traditional parsley could be used here instead of basil.

Zest of 1 lemon
2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 c. basil, finely chopped
Olive oil
Salt

Mix the lemon zest, garlic, and basil. Add the olive oil and season with salt.

Twisting Classics: Julia Child’s Roast Chicken with Grilled Grits Cakes and Peaches

For lovers of all things food, whether professionals or home cooks, Julia Child (who would be celebrating her 100th birthday next month) is one of those models of excellence. To me, she’s simply a class act and represented all I wanted to become: a chef who came into her own at a not-so-tender age, confident, striking, bold enough to get on TV and suggest that if you drop a chicken just pick it up and move along (if the guests aren’t in the kitchen, they won’t see your mistakes). She also inspired some of my favorite “Cosby Show” scenes during which Cliff Huxtable would mimic her unique timbre.

I envied, and still do, Julia’s life as a cook, and I still look to that classic French cookbook for guidance (even reading the section about how to properly handle a knife worked wonders).

By now, that cookbook automatically falls open to one section: roast chicken. It’s a butter-spattered page, one well used. I think it was Anthony Bourdain (or maybe I just like attributing most culinary wisdom to him because he’s just as equally inspiring as Julia: everyone needs a little devil on their shoulder dropping the f-bomb once in a while in the kitchen) who once said that all home cooks should learn to roast chicken. And for good reason. When done right, it’s just simple perfection (although I admit my love of roast duck now exceeds my love of roast chicken). It’s versatile in that leftovers can be used for myriad purposes (sandwiches, soups, etc.). And really, it’s not a difficult meal to master. For the sake of full disclosure, yes, my roasting has resulted in quite a few dry chickens in the past, but that’s because I would always doubt myself. The trick here is one I follow when making anything involving yeast: just go into it sure of yourself. Be confident, be cocky. Success will happen, and the reward is slices of juicy chicken dripping with fat and oil, all surrounded by a perfectly salted, crispy skin. What more could you want?

Now, I’ve tried other roasted chicken methods. There are tons out there. But none–none–beat the Julia Child method. Yes, it requires extensive time at the stove (we’re talking more than an hour), but it’s a small sacrifice to pay. And yes, maybe this recipe is more suited to cooler, fall-like temperatures, but screw it. I want chicken, I fix chicken. The recipe involves flipping, basting, and (ugh) math. But don’t freak out. Just grab a pen and paper and write all the necessary times down in advance, using it as a checklist. (I’m sorry, I majored in communications, my brain is just automatically geared to hate numbers.) It beats the hell out of getting 30 minutes into the process and forgetting if you have another
10 minutes, or are you supposed to flip after this? Shit, I should have taken notes. So just, you know, take notes from the start.

I’ve labeled this entry “twisting classics” because the original recipe uses butter and oil with only salt sprinkled and butter smeared in the chicken cavity. (Yep, if you’re squeamish just reading the term “chicken cavity,” you’re not going to last long in this process because it involves the use of a whole chicken, not those sanitized chicken breasts. Just get over it and be thankful you didn’t have to cut the chicken’s neck and de-feather it.)

I’m not sure if what I’ve done here would make dear Julia roll over in her grave, but I did it anyway. I used cilantro-lime butter and stuffed the cavity with a cut lemon. I also added fresh, whole jalapenos during the roasting process in lieu of the traditional carrots (and to supplement an onion). I’m sorry Julia, I am, but if you tried the final result, you couldn’t possibly be upset with me. This was make-you-wanna-slap-your-mama-it’s-so-good chicken. (And I don’t know why you’d want to slap your mom if something is good, but there you have it.)

Technically, I can’t reprint the recipe because I don’t have permission from the publisher, and I didn’t adapt the recipe enough to really claim such. So, you know–go buy the cookbook. You’ll get your money’s worth with the roast chicken recipe alone, trust me. But don’t be afraid to change it up, as I’ve done. Add a lemon or even an orange or quartered apple in the chicken cavity (after salting and smearing with butter, of course). Try out a flavored butter (the cilantro-lime version can be made by smashing fresh cilantro
and lime zest into softened butter). Add veggies other than onions and carrots. Try out the jalapenos if you like some heat or toss in red peppers for a milder bite. But, above all, do not overcook your bird. If you’re at all hesitant, things will go wrong. Follow the cooking
times prescribed in the cookbook, bearing in mind that, as I’ve found, a chicken that has been purchased from a local farm (e.g., not stuffed to the gills with antibiotics) cooks faster than its less fortunate grocery store kin. (Yes, even if the fresh chicken has been previously frozen.) I used about a three-pound bird I purchased from a local farm (Weathertop Farm), so I opted for a 1:10 total roasting time. Eagle-eyed readers will note my “cheat sheet” says 1:20, but I backtracked because it’s always easier to stuff the
bird back in the oven to undergo some additional roasting than it is to recover
from a dried-out chicken.

Now, I can include my recipe for grilled peaches and grits cakes topped with feta, roasted onions, and honey. I’ve become fond of grilled fruits, especially peaches, which pair well here with the roasted onions and the creaminess of the grits. Remember my catfish n’ corn from the previous night? I made enough grits so that I could have some leftover for this meal. A simple way to use up leftover grits, as I’ve done here, is to pour them into a glass baking dish (I used an 8×8 dish), press the grits down into the pan to mold to its shape, then pop in the fridge to chill and set overnight. The next day, just slice and grill. They’re great topped savory or sweet, for breakfast, lunch, brunch, or dinner.

Grilled Peaches and Grits Cakes with Feta and Honey (serves: 2)

Olive oil

2 ripe peaches, peeled

4-5 slices of grits cakes (see above method)

Roasted onions (these were roasted with the chicken, but you could easily roast whole onions for about 40-50 minutes in a 400-degree oven)

Fresh feta (I prefer locally made, but whatever you have available)

Honey

Over medium high, heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom of your grill pan. Add the grits cakes on one side of the pan, the peaches on the other. Drizzle both with more olive oil. Grill about 8 minutes per side, or until grill marks form. Plate the grits cakes, top with the roasted onions and peaches, crumble over some feta cheese, and drizzle over some olive oil.

Catfish ‘n Corn

Catfish are one of those great Southern foods and are surprisingly versatile. It can be gussied up (or fixed with an ethnic flare, as I’ve done before). It can be blackened and grilled. It can be battered and fried. But, as far as I’m concerned, cornmeal and catfish can’t be beat. It’s like peanut butter and chocolate, but better (some of us aren’t chocolate fans, okay?). Because cornmeal isn’t heavy it doesn’t detract from the natural taste of catfish. I like to say the fish is “cornmeal dusted” because it’s just a lighter breading. Plus, it makes me sound fancy.

I started this meal knowing I wanted a version of shrimp and grits, a true Southern staple (and one I’ll cover further down the line). Except, you know, catfish and grits. I decided I wanted to use a tomato base instead of the classic roux (a thickening agent comprising a mixture of flour and fat) found in most shrimp and grits recipes. I originally planned to try out a tomato gravy recipe from (personal food obsession culinary hero) Sean Brock that I stumbled upon in a magazine. However, somewhere along the line during a mass recycling effort, that magazine got tossed. Sinful! As I couldn’t find the recipe online, I just decided to wing it and stew some bright cherry tomatoes from the market in sauteed onions and cilantro-lime butter.

The grits? If you’re not in the South and don’t have easy access to locally milled grits, then a) I’m sorry and b) Bob’s Red Mill has a decent version. For my money, though, I’d rather support a smaller operation. Unfortunately, our supply of Geechie Boy Grits from Edisto Island, SC, had quickly dwindled, so during a recent outing to the farmers market in Abingdon, VA (what’s up hometown?!), I picked up a bag of White’s Mill stone ground yellow grits.

Recipes are below for my take on catfish and grits topped with what I’m going to call a chunky tomato gravy. You can serve these with a side of greens (which provides its own entertainment if you have an eater like my husband who physically recoils at the sight of greens), but honestly, this was incredibly filling on its own.

Cornmeal-dusted Catfish (serves: 2, with some leftovers)

1/2 c. cornmeal
1/4-1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper (depends on how spicy you want this)
1-2 tsp. smoked paprika or pimenton
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
1/4 c. milk
1 pound catfish fillets
Olive oil
Hot sauce
Fresh cilantro, chopped

In a small, flat dish, mix the cornmeal, cayenne pepper, paprika, salt, and black pepper. In a separate bowl, pour the milk. Dredge the catfish fillets in the milk, then dredge in the seasoned cornmeal, lightly coating each side of the fillet. Place the fish on a plate and put in the refrigerator until ready to cook. (I’ve found breading seafood/meat then letting it chill in the fridge results in a crispier texture when grilled.)

When ready to grill, remove the fillets from the fridge. In a large skillet or cast iron grill, heat over medium high enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Once the oil is heated, add the catfish and cook about 10 minutes per side (if the fillets are thicker, add another 3-4 minutes per side). The fish is done when it flakes easily with a fork.

Place the fillets over the grits (below) and top with a few spoonfuls of the chunky tomato gravy (below) and chopped fresh cilantro. Serve with hot sauce (obviously).

Corny Corn Grits
Note: You can omit the milk and use an extra cup of water, or you could sub in chicken stock. Basically, you want a 3:1 ratio of liquid:grits.

2 c. water
1 c. milk (I use raw, but 2% works well)
1 c. stone ground grits
1 tsp. salt
2 c. fresh corn kernels
1/4 c. grated hard cheese (I used a locally made cheddar-style cheese, but any mixture will do of a sharp, hard cheese)
3-4 dashes hot sauce
Pepper

Bring the water, milk, and grits to a boil over medium heat. Add corn and salt, then reduce heat to low. Let simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring frequently. Keep an eye on the grits, because in just a few minutes’ time, the consistency can turn from perfection to plaster. You’ll know the grits are done when the ingredients all come together while remaining creamy.

Pull the grits off the heat, then stir in the cheese, hot sauce, and pepper. Taste and add more salt as needed.

Chunky Tomato Gravy
Olive oil
1/4 c. yellow onions, diced
3 Tbsp. cilantro-lime butter (this can be made by just mashing chopped fresh cilantro and lime zest into softened butter)
1 pint cherry tomatoes (an array of colors makes for a better presentation)
Salt
Pepper

In a small sauce pan, heat over medium high enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Once the oil is heated, add the diced onions and butter. Let sweat, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, or until the onions are translucent and soft. Add the tomatoes, cover, and let sweat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the tomatoes are softened, smash with the bottom of a spoon (you still want to keep a chunky consistency). Season with salt and pepper.

Simple Tuna Steak

Some days simple is best. Actually, almost all days simple is best, especially when it comes to food. And especially when I get home after a long run and want dinner done in 30 minutes because, yeah, I’m hungry. Girl’s gotta eat!

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to buy my fresh fish out of the back of a truck. (You’re probably better off clicking the link for that explanation if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Go ahead. I’ll wait.) I was able to get some tuna steaks, and there’s a reason they call them “steaks.” They are meaty. As such, I like to treat them like a piece of red meat, literally. That means just olive oil, salt, and pepper. That’s it. Just grill over medium-high heat until desired doneness. (I think these can technically stand to be a bit pink , maybe a medium rare or medium, but I usually cook them all the way through, which took about 12 minutes per side.)

To “gussy” this up a bit, I topped the tuna with a cilantro-lime butter I picked up from one of my favorite vendors at our market: Beyond Homemade.

Not only does she make some flavorful butters, but she’s also my sole source for freshly ground flour. We’re incredibly lucky in this area to have someone willing to grind wheat berries by hand so more wholesome flour is available (basically not stripped of all its good, nutritious stuff, which is what happens to processed flour). She’s also my go-to for a treat after especially long training runs as she not only uses her flour in her baked goods, she also avoids processed and refined sugars, ingredients which I’ve come to avoid. Anyway, more about the flour later as I’m going to try my (somewhat more confident) hand at making bread at home this weekend. For now, the cilantro-lime butter was the perfect pop for a no-fuss tuna steak. See? You don’t need a litany of ingredients to make something special.

Don’t have access to a great vendor who makes flavored butter? Just chop up some fresh cilantro, zest a lime, and smash the two into your favorite butter. (And hopefully it’s not the margarine kind; real, honest-to-goodness butter is going to work so much better here.)

The sides for this were leftover lemon-herb quinoa salad and roasted tomatoes (just slice fresh tomatoes about 1/2-inch thick, place in a glass baking dish, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and roast for about an hour in a 400-degree oven). Easy. Simple. Healthy.

Leftover: Steak and Quinoa

What’s that? You have some cooked quinoa sitting in the fridge or some dry hanging out in the pantry, and you don’t know what to do with it? It’s your lucky day! Not only is there a previous recipe for a quinoa salad on this site, but I tried out a new one last night that’s equally refreshing. This one involved peas, basil, lemon, a great dressing that could pull double duty over greens; basically, everything that screams “summer.”

The recipe came from one of my bookmarked cooking sites, Food 52. I followed the recipe, only excluding the hemp seed and using 3 cups of cooked quinoa, so I won’t include the recipe below. It’s a simple side to pull together (even after a long-ish run and not getting home until 6:30, I was able to stir this up in about 30 minutes using cooked quinoa I already had on hand) and is incredibly flavorful. I admit, I was skeptical about the dressing at first, but it ended up pairing well with the quinoa, basil, and peas. The next time around I may include some lemon zest (just because I’m a sucker for citrus pops of flavor) and maybe some red pepper to provide some contrasting crunch. Other than that, this was the perfect complement to some mock tender steak that was begging to be used.

Another great summer side? Sauteed onion, squash, and zucchini. If you’ve ever grown squash or live in the South and leave your car unlocked only to come back and find squash in the front seat, you know how easily this vegetable can multiply. People become crazed after the excitement of the first squash of the season dissipates, and you start getting emails at work begging you to please, please take some squash home. There’s too much. Then you run into those same people in the hall, and they become like drug pushers, only the drugs are squash. We chose not to plant any squash in our garden this year, instead trying out some cantaloupe and preserving our sanity. Hopefully. This has turned out to be a wise decision since my parents are growing some monstrosities and are desperate to give away as much as they can because there are only so many ways you can fix squash and zucchini before you become incredibly tired of it. Luckily, I’m not bored with it yet, and sauteing squash with onions is still my favorite way to consume such a pervasive veggie. Just heat some olive oil in a saute pan (or a wok), throw in sliced onions and squash, season with salt and pepper, and cook for about 20 minutes (or until fork-tender).