Paprikas csirke: “Paprika Chicken”

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Chicken is invariably the cheapest meat in my neighborhood supermarket. This means the bird in some form often ends up on our dinner table: roast chicken, fried chicken, chicken soup, white stew chicken, to name a few.

To avoid a “Not chicken again, Pop!” remark from one of my sons, I’ve taken to using spices as camouflage—thus homemade chicken curry, Moroccan chicken tagine, and most recently when I cracked open a 25-year-old Hungarian cookbook, Paprikas csirke “paprika chicken.”

This Hungarian recipe calls for lard, chicken fat, and the labor intensive practice of cutting up a 3-pound chicken. After looking at half a dozen recipes in other cookbooks and on the Internet, I put together a recipe that is easy, quick, inexpensive, relatively low fat, and adapted for ingredients found readily in Japanese supermarkets.

Testing out my new recipe , I used Spanish paprika, and the meal was very good. However, I wanted to try the real deal. So, I spent a long afternoon on subways and JR lines traversing the city in search of the elusive Hungarian spice, inquiring at seven supermarkets and three gourmet food shops, including a famous New York City-based delicatessen where one young female clerk told me, “We don’t stock many spices anymore. Japanese don’t cook with spices.”

You could have knocked me over with a saffron stamen.

Spice racks abound in every Tokyo supermarket. Paprika is always between freeze-dried parsley and pepper. But all that red powder comes from Spain.

In desperation, I called the Hungarian embassy in Tokyo and was told that Hungarian paprika is no longer imported into Japan. Serendipitously, however, Japan was celebrating Hungarian Weeks, a new Hungarian restaurant had opened in Ginza, and food and wine events were taking place in Tokyo and Osaka. And the chef at the embassy generously blessed me with a small packet of the delicate, noble sweet édesnemes quality paprika.

Seek out this wonderful spice. It is available via the Internet. Hungarian paprika has a deeper, more floral fragrance than its Spanish cousin, and a richer, more complex taste. Spanish paprika though, especially the sweet, pimenton dulce, is a very good substitute.

Ingredients:

• 900 grams rough-cut boneless chicken thigh

• 400 grams rough-cut chicken breast

• 2 medium onions

• two large ripe tomatoes or one 14-oz. can diced tomatoes

• one large sweet red pepper, 2-3 green peppers (or more depending on size)

• two tablespoons vegetable oil

• two tablespoons best paprika (preferably Hungarian)

• pinch of ground clove

• one teaspoon salt

• 100ml water

• two tablespoons heavy cream

To thicken the sauce:

• two tablespoons sour cream

• one tablespoon all-purpose flour

• one teaspoon water

The noodles:

• 250 grams fettucini egg noodles prepared as per package instructions

• a little sweet butter to finish the noodles

Use the heaviest lidded casserole or pot you have. You’ll be simmering the chicken in its juices at the lowest possible heat, and you don’t want it to burn.

First, get the chicken ready. Using the “mizutaki” chicken is a cinch because it’s already cut into boneless chunks. To make this a more “low fat” dish, I remove the skin remaining on the meat. A five minute task. Sometimes you’ll have to resort to a knife, but usually all it takes is a firm tug to remove the skin. The “sasami,” breast meat, chicken pieces should be cut roughly into 3-centimeter long pieces too. This takes about a minute.

When in season, use two large ripe tomatoes, the best you can find. Skin and dice them. However, when those sad supermarket objects labeled tomatoes are barely pink and about as edible as tennis balls, a can of diced tomatoes is the ticket.

Dice two medium onions. Heat two tablespoons of vegetable oil in the casserole, add the diced onions and let them sweat on low heat for 5-10 minutes covered until the onions become soft and translucent, but not browned. Stir occasionally.

Now add the chicken chunks and the diced tomatoes. Stir to coat everything with the softened onions. Cover and let simmer again for ten minutes.

Stir in two heaping tablespoons of paprika, one teaspoon of salt, one pinch of ground clove (optional), and 100ml of water. The earliest published recipe for Paprika Chicken appeared in 1829 and included a pinch of clove. Modern cookbooks neglect this spice, so I’ve added it back in for old time’s sake. Cover again and let everything simmer for 30 minutes on the lowest possible heat. Stir occasionally.

Now cut up the peppers. The green peppers sold in supermarkets in Japan are fairly puny—usually four or five to the package. I use all of them. Cut, remove the seeds, the white membrane, and the stems. Chop the flesh roughly into chunks. Repeat with the sweet red pepper. I’ve added this vegetable for its color, and to complement the powdered red pepper of the paprika.

Combine two tablespoons of sour cream with one tablespoon of all-purpose flour and one teaspoon of water. Mix thoroughly until smooth and creamy.

Once the chicken, tomato, and onions have simmered for 20 minutes, stir in the chopped green and red peppers. Cover and simmer for another ten minutes until the peppers have softened.

With a slotted spoon, remove the chicken pieces and peppers from the casserole to a large bowl. You’ll have about two cups of rich sauce remaining in the pot. Turn up the heat and reduce the sauce for a few minutes until it thickens. It shouldn’t be watery.

Turn down the heat to low and stir the sour cream/flour/water mixture into the sauce. Whisk the sauce until very smooth. Return the chicken and peppers to the pot, stir to coat evenly. Cover and let everything simmer over low heat for 5-10 minutes.

Turn off the heat, pour in two tablespoons of heavy cream. Stir thoroughly. Serve with buttered fettuccine egg noodles.

What did my sons think of another meal of chicken? They asked for seconds. And at the end of the meal, the table was noisy with spoons scraping against plates, gathering up every last bit of sauce.

“Can’t waste a drop,” said Nick. I’ll chalk that remark up to the authentic Hungarian  édesnemes paprika.

Chestnut Cranberry Pear Stuffing: For Bernice

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Stuffing close up

Bernice, my father’s mother, was of French ancestry and the head cook at the local Eagle’s Club in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. I remember her mostly in her kitchen, almost always wearing an apron, and her hands always busy with a knife or a peeler or a stirring spoon.

Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, my father would herd us into the Rambler and we’d make the two-hour drive to her house for a feast that now seems unimaginable. Such holidays would fill her kitchen and dining room with aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, and sometimes the parish priest. Altogether we must have been close to 30 people, sometimes, sitting down to one of her meals. Thinking about her roast turkeys (two were needed to feed that clan), stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, gravy, coleslaw, and apple or mincemeat pies still makes my mouth water.

Stuffing, or dressing—the terms were interchangeable—seemed a fantastic and somehow mysterious food to me as a child. How could bread mixed with chopped hearts, gizzards, and liver become so savory and delicious?

For my holiday meals here in Tokyo, I have always taken the shortcut of buying a box of herb-flavored croutons that could be turned into “stuffing” in a few minutes. Last autumn, however, I decided to make a stuffing that my grandmother would approve of.stuffing mise en place

Autumn is chestnut time, and I had recently discovered Tokyo’s best roasted chestnuts, Hisaya kyo-yakiguri, at a Yamanote Line station kiosk. These chestnuts, the size of golf balls, have a tangy wood-smoke aroma and are conveniently pre-split for very easy snacking. Some ten tiny Hisaya kiosks are scattered about the city in major train stations.

Autumn is also when pears, one of my favorite fruits, finally become affordable. I decided to use both in my stuffing.

Research on the Internet revealed that chestnuts and dried cranberries was a popular stuffing combination. So, after turning to the Joy of Cooking, and experimenting with several recipes, I came up with a recipe that Bernice might have liked.

Ingredients:

• dried cranberries (130 grams)

• two shallots

• one can low fat chicken broth

• roasted chestnuts (300 grams)

• shiitake mushrooms (5 to 6 mushrooms)

• one medium yellow onion

• six-eight slices bread (white and/or whole wheat), less bread means moister stuffing

• one stalk celery

• Italian parsley

• two large pears

• hearty bottle of red wine

First, preheat your oven to 150 degrees centigrade. Arrange eight slices of bread (I use four white and four wheat) on a cookie sheet (or two) in one layer and let them toast lightly for 20 minutes. The bread won’t color much, but the slices will become dry and crisp.

Get small bowls ready for each chopped ingredient. While the bread is drying in the oven, dice one onion and finely chop two shallots.

Dice one stalk of celery (about one cup). Finely chop the parsley to obtain two tablespoons. Peel 300 grams of chestnuts and try not to eat too many. Usually I quarter the chestnut meat because I want big hunks in the stuffing.Stuffing diced onions

Because there are no giblets in this stuffing, I needed something to provide umami, the deep savory taste. Shiitake mushrooms and red wine do the trick by adding richness and depth.

Cut the shiitake into large dice. Wash the pears, core them, then dice—not too small. Make sure to use pears that are quite firm. There is no need to peel them. Measure out ½ cup dried cranberries. Don’t skimp. The Mannao brand cranberries are tart and delicious. They’ll plump up nicely in the stuffing.

Stuffing chestnuts, etc.By now the bread should be dried. Remove from oven and turn up oven to 180 degrees C.

Cut the slices of bread into approximately 2 centimeter cubes and put them into the largest bowl you can find. After cutting the bread, you’ll have some breadcrumb dust on the cutting board. Be sure to add it to the bowl of bread cubes.

In a large fry pan or skillet, melt two tablespoons of unsalted butter over medium heat. When the butter foams and starts to sizzle, add the shallots, onions, celery, parsley, and one teaspoon of salt. Cover and let them sweat and soften for about 5 minutes. Stir occasionally. Add one tablespoon of Herbes de Provence (an indispensible herb blend of rosemary, marjoram, basil, bay leaf, and thyme), the chestnuts, shiitake and cranberries. Stir gently to mix well. Let cook uncovered for 2-3 minutes.

Stuffing with pearsAdd diced pears and ½ cup of red wine. Make sure the chef gets a sip. A Beaujolais nouveau works well.

Stir gently again and let cook uncovered for another 2-3 minutes.

Now comes the tricky part. Add the contents of the skillet to the bowl of bread cubes. Mix gently but thoroughly until all the bread cubes are coated. Pop open the can of chicken broth and pour over the mixture. Mix gently, but well, again.

Grease a 2-quart casserole dish with one tablespoon of softened butter. Add the stuffing. Cover with aluminum foil and slip it into the oven for 20 minutes. Then remove the foil and bake for 5-10 minutes longer. The top of the stuffing will brown slightly and crisp along the edges.

Of course, instead of baking the whole batch, you can stuff your holiday bird with as much of this ambrosia as it will hold and roast it. The remaining stuffing should be baked as above.Stuffing bird stuffed

You’ll be surprised how good this stuffing tastes the next day, with the sweetness of the pears nicely balanced by the tartness of the cranberries. In warmer months, when making this stuffing, I substitute a couple of apples for the pears.

Before tasting this dish the other night, Nick, my eldest son, asked, “There’s no liver in this stuffing is there?”

No, not a bit, I assured him, and he proceeded to wolf down three helpings in a row. Maybe even Bernice would ask for seconds.

For more information and locations of Hisaya Kyo-yakiguri kiosks in Tokyo, go to www.kyo-yakiguri.com

Pasta alla Elaine

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

pasta-elaine

As to which pasta sauce reigns supreme in our house, it’s a toss up between “red sauce” and “pepperoncini.” I’ll save the pepperoncini recipe for another day.

The “red sauce” is my version of the tomato-based pasta dish my mother made so often when I was growing up. Unfortunately, we’ve got no Italian blood in our family, but I’ve eaten so much pasta over the years, I consider myself an honorary Italian.

tomatoesMy cupboard is always stocked with packets of dried porcini, cans of whole Italian tomatoes, and spaghettini. So all I need to do for a quick, easy, and delicious meal is bicycle over to my local supermarket to pick up a couple of ripe avocados, a packet of shiitake mushrooms, some ground beef, and salad greens. I’ve been making this pasta sauce for so many years, I do it on automatic pilot while listening to National Public Radio and sipping a tumbler of red wine.

Basically, you’re making a marinara sauce. For marinara, tomatoes are the most important ingredient. Any brand of whole Italian plum tomatoes will do. I’ve made this sauce many times with the cheapest canned tomatoes I could find, but it’s worth seeking out San Marzano tomatoes. They are richer tasting and meatier than any other type.

First, let’s do the prep work. Get yourself a glass of red wine. All right? Let’s go.

3 cans (14 oz. each) San Marzano tomatoes

• two bay leaves (preferably Turkish, the most flavorful)

• one package dried porcini (30 grams)

• 6 to 8 fresh shiitake mushrooms (caps only: sliced or roughly chopped)

• one medium onion (finely diced)

• 4 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

• 200 grams ground beef or pork

• 4-5 large cloves of garlic (whole and peeled)

• 1 tsp.salt (preferably sea salt)

• 1 tsp. herbes de provence

500 grams spaghetti or spaghettini

• freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

For the Starter: two ripe avocados, one lemon, olive oil, balsamic vinegar

In a small bowl, add a half cup of luke-warm water to the dried porcini to cover. Let them soak and soften for 20-30 minutes. The water will become a deeply perfumed, dark brown broth.

Dice the onion. Peel 4 or 5 large cloves of garlic. The easiest way to do this is to smash the cloves with the flat side of a chef’s knife. The papery skin will come right off. Open the three cans of tomatoes. Remove the stems from the shiitake and slice the caps.

Add 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive to a large saucepan. My family loves garlic, but I don’t want it to dominate the sauce, so I saute the garlic cloves on medium-low heat until they’re colored a pale gold. Be careful to turn the garlic frequently so that it doesn’t burn. When nicely colored, remove the garlic to a paper towel.garlic 1

At this point one of my sons will come over and snag a crisp clove or two. They’re delicious. Add the chopped onion, turn up the heat to medium and saute the onions until they’re translucent: maybe five minutes.

tomato masherNow add the San Marzano tomatoes. I use a potato masher to crush the whole tomatoes to an even consistency in the sauce pan. Toss in a bay leaf or two and a teaspoon of sea salt. Most marinara recipes call for oregano, but I’m partial to herbes de provence and use a teaspoon of that fragrant melange instead.

Add the sliced shiitake mushrooms. Squeeze the reconstituted porcini in your fist to drain them, reserving the broth. Chop the wrung out porcini roughly. Add them to the sauce. Pour the porcini broth, but not the grit at the bottom of the bowl, into the sauce. Stir.

In a separate fry pan, brown the ground beef, then add it to the sauce. Stir and let the sauce simmer and thicken uncovered on low heat for at least 45 minutes.ground beef

The great thing about this sauce is that it’s so versatile. You can add other types of mushrooms. Use ground pork or chicken instead of beef, or leave out the meat entirely. I’ve got no name for this sauce, but I’m sure my mother would approve of naming it after her: “Pasta alla Elaine.”

A couple of points to note when cooking the pasta: Make sure the water is properly salted. And don’t rely on the timing written on the package. Set your timer a minute or two earlier than the recommended timing and keep tasting the pasta until is done al dente. Drain then immediately toss the pasta with a cup or two of the sauce.  Serve with some extra sauce on top and some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

My son, Christopher, who always votes for “red sauce” says if you add more cheese, it’s double the goodness.

avocado starterThe starter is easy too. Halve an avocado, remove the stone, peel and slice the avocado. Arrange the slices on a plate. Mix one tablespoon of fresh lemon juice with two tablespoons of olive oil. Drizzle the lemony oil over the sliced avocado, add a few drops of balsamic vinegar, sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Finito.

Serve these dishes with some crusty bread and a green salad and Buono Appetito!

I never get to eat right away, though, because at this point my dog starts pestering me until I dust her kibble with freshly grated cheese.