Monday, January 16, 2012

Inspiration from Anne

Make cupcakes, not war.

I am so sick of the garbage on Food Network. It seems the day of Ina Garten demanding good vanilla on Barefoot Contessa, Alton Brown making dry smokers out of pie tins and dowels on Good Eats, and Mario Batali dishing out heartbreaking pasta to celeb pals on Molto Mario are over. These masters have been unceremoniously usurped by the hack parade of Guy Ferry (yep, that's right, he "Italianized" his name once he started fame whoring), queen of the mediocre Rachael Ray and the unspeakable horror who is Sandra Lee. Even worse are the reality shows like Cupcake Wars and Worst Cooks in America that have nothing to do with becoming a better cook, but rather gawking at the same dregs of humanity every other lowest-common-denominator network is signing on.

It makes me sad, because watching Food Network was a huge part of how I learned to cook. After watching the proper way to cook pasta or barbecue chicken enough times, you start to pick up some good techniques. Combined with good recipes from chefs with decent talent, there's a lot to play around with. You're not going to learn a damn thing you can apply in the kitchen by watching jerks try and put together a cake in homage to The Smurphs or make-over a dirty, crappy restaurant.

Luckily, actual food fans have been thrown a small bone: Cooking Channel, which (for now) plays a legit amount of cooking shows. One of the chefs keeping the food instruction tradition alive is Anne Burrell, the wild-haired former sous chef of Mario Batali. A couple weeks ago she was putting together a one-dish dinner with Israeli couscous, veggies and chicken. I didn't make exact notes on the ingredients, but I watched her technique carefully. Cook the couscous to al dente, add extra stock in the baking dish, sear the chicken and nestle happily atop the pilaf. Bake covered. With these basics, I was able to reconstruct the recipe to suit my own tastes.

For the foundation of couscous I used Trader Joe's Harvest Grains blend. It contains five kinds of grains including the Israeli couscous, colored orzo, dried garbanzo beans and quinoa. The beans and quinoa are great because they add a little extra crunch and texture; Israeli couscous is very chewy. Alone it can be a bit cloying. I tossed the cooked couscous with roasted zucchini, sundried tomatoes and the always-wonderful combination of onions and garlic sweated in olive oil. Spread evenly along a baking dish, it's colorful enough to make your eyeballs grumble in hunger.

I seasoned the chicken with a vaguely Mediterranean mix of paprika, oregano and garlic salt. After placing the pieces atop the couscous, I let it cool and refrigerated overnight to bake in the morning. I didn't feel like worrying about dinner tonight, heading back to work after 10 days away at residency and all.

Dinner tonight was warm, comforting and effortless. To anyone else making this, I'd recommend a liberal squeeze of lemon over the whole thing (though ya'll should know why I can't do that). I don't know how it compared to Anne's dish, but she inspired something satisfying for me. That's the best thing about learning to cook--you can just cook without waiting around for the perfect recipe. And unless you're trying to concoct a meal out of melba toast, Taleggio cheese, Vienna sausages and Cheetos, it's a lesson Chopped can never teach.

Anne Burrell-esque Chicken and Couscous Bake
1 package of Trader Joe's Harvest Grains Blend, cooked with chicken broth
1/3 cup sundried tomatoes, diced
1 large zucchini, cooked and sliced
1/2 onion and 4 garlic cloves, cooked in olive oil until transluscent
1 1/2 tsp Penzey's Mural of Flavor spice
Salt and pepper to taste
8 pieces chicken (legs and thighs), skins removed (if you're trying to be healthy, at least).
Olive oil
1 tsp sweet paprika
1 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp garlic salt

Toss cooked couscous, sundried tomatoes, zucchini, onion, garlic and Mural of Flavor together. Spread evenly along the bottom of a baking dish. Add about 1/2 cup of additional chicken broth to keep the couscous moist throughout the cooking process.

In a large mixing bowl, toss chicken, paprika, oregano and garlic salt with 1-2 tbsp olive oil. Mix until well-coated. Heat an additional 1-2 tsp of olive oil on a grill or frying pan over medium-high heat. Add chicken and sear until crispy on all sides. Top couscous in dish with chicken, and cover the dish tightly in foil. Bake at 350 for one hour, until chicken is cooked through. Can be refrigerated and cooked the next day.

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