Chicken Soup with Fregula Sarda

March is always a welcome relief to the many months of winter, with its hints of warm, spring days. But it also seems to be the month in which my family develops the last great sickness of our cold season. This week has proven to hit my family hard in the viral department, with my son bringing home some unwelcome germs, then my husband contracting the disease, and now, finally, my daughter. Fortunately, while I type this post, I have not yet come down with this bad cold, and I am extremely happy about that, because as any other mother knows, if mamma falls ill, the whole ship goes down with her!

There’s nothing more comforting than a bowl of chicken soup when you aren’t feeling well. You can feel the warm liquid nutrients working their magic as they pass into your body, working their sickness-healing magic. Science has now confirmed that chicken soup actually helps to break congestion and contains an amino acid called, cysteine, which inhibits white blood cell production and the triggering of the inflammatory response, causing sore throats and phlegm. I guess grandma did know a thing or two.

For this chicken soup, I decided to use some fregula sarda I had in my pantry, which is an Italian pasta, originating from Sardinia. The pasta dough is rolled into tiny balls, resembling Israeli couscous, and toasted twice, which promotes its pleasant nutty flavor and golden colors. If you aren’t able to purchase fregula sarda, then Israeli couscous (or another type of small pasta) would be an excellent substitute for the following soup.

Of course, this soup is delicious whether you are under the weather or sailing atop clouds of health. But if you find yourself with a bit of a cold, this soup will definitely hit the spot. Stay healthy and happy eating!

1-1.5 lbs. chicken thighs, bone-in, skin removed
1 small onion, whole
4 stalks celery, cleaned, halved and chopped into small pieces*
5 md. carrots, peeled, halved and chopped into small pieces**
4-5 cloves garlic, peeled, whole
small bunch of fresh thyme
2 dried bay leaves
salt, pepper to taste
12 cups water
1/2-3/4 c. fregula sarda
small bunch Italian parsley, finely chopped

In a pot, large enough to accommodate 12 cups of water, add the chicken thighs, one carrot, one celery, the onion, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, and some salt and pepper. Be sure not to add too much salt at this time. You can add more before you add the fregula sarda. Bring the water to a boil and skim off any fat that floats up to the top. Cover the pot and lower the heat to low. Allow the base of your soup to continue cooking for about 1- 1 1/2 hours. Remove from heat, and discard the garlic, onion, carrot, celery, and bay leaves. I find it works best to do this with a large, cook’s spoon that has holes. Remove the chicken thighs, and allow them to cool slightly before you remove the meat from the bone. Place the chicken back into the pot, along with the chopped carrots and celery. Bring the liquid back to a slow boil. After about 15 minutes, add the fregula sarda, along with about 1.5-2 cups of water. Allow the fregula to cook through, about 8 more minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings accordingly. Add the finely chopped parsley. Serve with some nice crusty bread.

*Leave one celery stalk whole to make the soup base
**Leave one carrot whole, unpeeled to make the soup base

Cilantro-Tomato Sauce Over Chicken

This recipe came about when trying to concoct something for dinner that would use up several random items hanging out in my fridge. And, as luck would have it that night, my family loved it! The cilantro-tomato sauce works very well with chicken, but it can be served over rice, vegetables, tofu, potatoes, eggs, or fish, as well.  In fact, this is a wonderful recipe for when you are cooking for vegetarians and meat eaters in the same meal because you can keep the sauce and meat separate until the very end. This also makes a great weeknight meal — with a little prep work, your entire dinner can easily come together in 20-30 minutes.

2 large boneless skinless chicken breasts
3/4 cup buttermilk (for marinating the chicken — optional)
olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1-inch chunk of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 tsp. ground cumin
1 to 1 1/2 cups fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 cups or 1 can diced tomatoes with juice
1 Tbl. tomato paste
zest from one lemon
1/4 c. plain Greek yogurt (can be substituted with sour cream or buttermilk)
coarse salt
freshly ground pepper

Either in the morning or the night before you plan to make this (8-24 hours prior), prepare your chicken by trimming the fat and cutting the breasts into small serving sizes, about 4 pieces per breast. The small size makes the cooking go fast, and it also gives a lot of surface area to be coated with sauce later on. Place the chicken in a well-sealed container with the buttermilk and a teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Let sit in the refrigerator until ready to cook.  You can omit this step, if you want, but the buttermilk makes the meat super moist and tender.

Prepare a large frying pan over medium-high heat and add enough olive oil to grease the bottom. Drain and pat dry your chicken breast pieces; season them on both sides with a little salt and pepper. Lightly brown the chicken in a single layer in the pan, about 3-4 minutes per side, depending on the heat and size of your cuts. When lightly browned and fully cooked, remove the chicken from the heat and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat a large skillet or sauce pan over medium heat and add a quarter cup of olive oil — the oil should be hot, but not smoking. Add the garlic, ginger, and cumin. Season with a little salt and pepper and cook for a few minutes while the mixture becomes fragrant. Stir in one cup of the chopped cilantro leaves, the tomato paste, the diced tomatoes, and the lemon zest and bring to a slow simmer. If necessary, add 1/4-1/2 cup of water to prevent the sauce from becoming too thick. Taste, and add more salt, pepper, or cilantro, if desired. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and, using a standing blender or immersion blender, purée the sauce until smooth (just be very careful if you have to transfer the sauce out of the pan to do this!) Return the sauce to the pan and stir in the yogurt. At this point, the sauce is ready to be served over vegetables, rice, eggs, etc.  However, when serving chicken, add the browned chicken to your pan and cook over low heat for just a few more minutes to allow the flavors to meld.

I like to serve this dish with simple brown rice and steamed vegetables. Fresh green beans pair very nicely, as does a light, citrusy white wine. Feel free to garnish your meal with any remaining chopped cilantro. Quick, healthy, versatile, and delicious – enjoy!

Winter Chicken Stew

Every Wednesday I try to browse through the Dining section of the New York Times, looking for interesting recipes and other food-related news. Last week I came across a recipe for an Italian-style rabbit stew, and since I thoroughly enjoy rabbit, I tore out the article and tucked it into my stack of “to try” recipes. As I was planning my upcoming week’s dinners, I decided to pull out the rabbit stew recipe and give it a whirl. I placed a call to one of my local grocers, who specializes in carrying wild game, to make sure they had some on hand. I had never had a problem ordering rabbit in the past, but after three days and still no rabbit, I gave in, settling for some organic, free-range chicken instead. I must say, I was pretty happy with the results, and I hope you will be, too.

9 whole chicken legs (preferably organic), skin removed
olive oil
flour, for dredging
2 md. onions, finely diced
3 leeks, cleaned and finely diced
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbl. rosemary, leaves removed from stem and roughly chopped
8 oz. baby Portobello mushrooms (or a mix of wild mushrooms)
1 c. chopped canned tomatoes
1/2 c. beer
1 c. unsalted or low-sodium chicken broth

Prepare all your vegetables; set aside. (Be sure to remove all the silt and dirt that tends to accumulate between the layers of the leek. This is most easily accomplished by slicing the leek in half, chopping it into pieces, then thoroughly rinsing the pieces inside a colander.) Season the pieces of chicken with salt and pepper; set aside. Prepare a large Dutch oven, or other oven-proof dish with a lid, with about 1/4 of an inch of olive oil on high heat. Prepare some flour onto a large plate and dredge each chicken leg, shaking off any excess flour. When the oil is hot, lightly brown the chicken on both sides, working in batches of about 3 legs at a time. Remove and set aside on a large plate.

Preheat the oven to 375° F. Lower the heat to medium and add the chopped vegetables and rosemary to the Dutch oven. Season with salt and pepper and allow to cook for about 4 minutes. Be sure to add a bit more olive oil if the vegetable mix becomes too dry. Once the vegetables have begun to soften, add the tomatoes and beer. Allow the liquid to reduce for about 2-3 minutes. Add the broth and adjust seasonings to your liking. Place the chicken legs into the pan, spooning the mixture evenly over top. Cover the Dutch oven or dish you will be using in the oven. Place it into the oven and allow it to cook for about 1-1.5 hours. Serve with a side of rice or pasta of your choice, or even a simple, crusty baguette.

If you would like to try the rabbit version that inspired this dish, you can find the NYT recipe here.

A Toast to Roast Chicken

A roasted chicken does have the ability to strike fear in the hearts of some home cooks (or so I hear), perhaps conjuring up bad memories of a Thanksgiving turkey gone wrong. Roasting a whole chicken must be too time consuming for a typical week-night dinner. Or is it??? I’m here to tell you that it honestly isn’t! With a small amount of preparation, it is possible to whip up a chicken worthy of praise. Roasted chicken, with it’s crispy, golden skin, does look impressive, not to mention taste delicious. If you simply do not have the time to prepare a chicken during the week, consider preparing one during the weekend, as you can use the left-overs to make a delicious stock to add to other recipes you may be whipping up during the rest of the week.

You certainly get the most chicken for your money when purchasing a whole bird. Next time you are at the store, check out the price per pound on those boneless, skinless chicken breasts that are so popular today. You may be shocked to find that the price could be triple the amount per pound as a whole chicken. Plus, if you think about it, the chicken is less processed, meaning less handling by factory workers (or preferably, farm hands on a local farm!), chopping and de-skining your cuts of meat. Typically a whole chicken can feed four adults nicely, so it makes a lovely entertaining dish, as well.

Feel free to use whatever vegetables you prefer as an accompaniment. However, I tend to use a variety of potatoes that are available at the farmer’s market on a given week, along with some chopped carrots, and some whole garlic cloves. If you happen to have a half-eaten bag of baby carrots lingering in your fridge from the last playdate you hosted, feel free to toss them in instead. I have used baby carrots when roasting chicken on numerous occasions, with fantastic results.

I have used numerous spice combinations, when dry-rubbing my chicken pre-roasting, to much success. It ulitmately depends on your tastebuds and perhaps the season you are roasting your chicken. In the fall, I tend to use a bit more nutmeg and allspice, and in the summer, I use more citrus, such as orange and lemon zest. Happy roasting!!

1  3-4lb. whole chicken, preferably organic, giblets/neck removed, rinsed, patted dry*
2 Tbl. butter, cut into small chunks
6 cloves garlic, left whole, unpeeled
1/2 lemon
1 Tbl. ground cumin
2 Tbl. salt
1 1/2 Tbl. freshly ground pepper
1 tsp. dijon mustard
small handful of fresh herbs (thyme, parsley, dill, rosemary)
olive oil for rubbing
12″ kitchen twine for tying the chicken’s legs together
water

For the Vegetables:
10 small (or 4-5 large) potatoes, such as blue, red, yukon, etc.
15 baby carrots, whole (or 3 large carrots, halved, and chopped into 2″pieces)
6 cloves garlic, unpeeled
salt, pepper to taste
1/3 c. olive oil
fresh or dried herbs, such as oregano and rosemary, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350° F. After rinsing the chicken with water, inside and out, place onto some paper towels and thoroughly pat dry. You want the skin to be as dry as possible, since you will be dry rubbing the spice marinade onto the chicken. Place into a large roasting pan.  Sprinkle the cumin, salt, pepper, and whatever other spices you desire, onto and inside the chicken. Rub the spices into the skin slightly. Place the lemon, garlic cloves, and fresh herbs inside the cavity of the chicken.

Cut the butter into 1/2″ cubes. You will now slide your finger under the skin of the chicken on top of the breast, near the legs. You want to open a small hole where you will slide the pieces of butter between the skin and the meat. Once under the skin, you can move the pieces of butter where you like by pushing it around from the outside of the skin. The breast meat has a tendency to dry out more quickly than the dark cuts of meat, and the butter provides extra moisture and a fantastic element of taste. (I mean, what doesn’t taste better with butter???)

Once the butter is in place, cross the chicken’s legs together. Take the kitchen twine, which can be found in just about any grocery store or butcher’s shop, and wrap it around one of the legs one time. Then, using the opposite end of the twine, start wrapping both legs together in opposition to the other end of twine, two or three times. You will then want to either knot the strings or tie them in a bow.

Pour some olive oil over the chicken, making to sure to coat the entire bird. Measure about 1 3/4 water into a liquid measuring cup. Whisk in the mustard, then gently pour into the pan. Place in the oven, and allow to roast for about 1 hour, basting every 20 minutes with a basting brush. Keep checking to see if there is enough water in the bottom of the pan each time you baste the chicken. You want the pan to have about 1/2″ depth of water at all times.

Once the bird is in the oven, begin chopping up all your veggies. Try to keep everything uniform in size, or the cooking time will vary too much between the pieces. Place all the vegetables into a large bowl. Season with salt, pepper, and some chopped fresh herbs, or a combination of dried herbs. Pour about 1/3 c. of olive oil into the bowl. Give everything a few good stirs and set aside.

After about 1 hour, remove the chicken from the oven. Arrange the vegetables around the chicken, and give the chicken another good baste. Gently pour a little water in the roasting pan if necessary. Place back in the oven, and allow to continue cooking for another 45 minutes to 1 hour. Occasionally stir the vegetables around while they are cooking, so as not to stick to the pan. When the potatoes and carrots are fork tender, and the chicken has reached an internal temperature of about 180° F (insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh to take this reading), your “bird is cooked!” Allow to cool slightly and serve. If your day is anything like mine, however, you might not be able to roast a chicken after all the kids have been picked up, after-school activites finished, and the homework completed. Instead, roast the chicken and vegetables during the afternoon. Once the oven has been turned off, store your dish inside, which will keep it slightly warm so everyone will have a delicious meal at their fingertips when the key opens the front door. A toast to you…..roast chicken!

* If you do choose to use a standard, non-organic chicken, which tends to be much larger in weight, make sure to adjust the cooking time. An organic, 3-4 pound chicken will cook in about 1 3/4-2 hours, however, if your chicken weighs more, adjust the cooking time accordingly.