Vinegar Chicken: Seeking Crispy Greatness

My Dad spent formative years on his grandparents’ farm in New Jersey and one of his chores was to feed the chickens. He also was called upon to help prepare them for dinner and, as a result, grew disinterested in eating them.

After all, familiarity breeds contempt or at least, boredom. When my parents married, my mom was stumped: how was she going to cook without chicken in the menu mix?

Sauteed chicken with vinegar.

Dad changed his mind about chicken in the ’80s, when he became a devotee of Marcella Hazan’s Italian cookbooks and discovered there are ways to bring variety to chicken dishes. The preparation is key too.

I’m more of an ad-libber when it comes to cooking. Yes, I follow recipes, but I also go my own way. For chicken breasts, I usually buy the big pack of breast with rib meat and trim it with shears. Usually, I place the trimmed meat in a gallon Ziplock with flour and spices, seal it and shake it all around.Chicken after flour dredge

For vinegar chicken, I placed the meat in a large bowl and nearly covered it with white vinegar (buy the big jug of supermarket brand white vinegar). I added water and about an 1/8th of a cup each of Kosher salt and white sugar. Put it in the fridge for about a half hour.

After the brine, place the chicken on a cushion of paper towels and pat dry. Then, coat them with the flour and spices in the plastic bag.

In a large skillet or pan, heat the oil. Use two kinds; I used vegetable oil and olive oil. Once hot (medium to medium-high or 6 on my dial on a gas range), place the chicken pieces in the skillet and cover. Walk away for at least 10 minutes. It is not helpful to fuss over meat while it is cooking. Turn once browned and lower the heat to medium.

Add fresh ground pepper. Walk away again. You want the meat to really cook through.

The chicken should have a nice crispy finish. This was served with sauteed cauliflower and a salad.

Ingredients:

  • Chicken breasts
  • White vinegar, water
  • Kosher salt
  • White sugar
  • Vegetable oil
  • Olive oil (basic, not the fancy unfiltered olive oil for salads)

Ham & Biscuits, Timeless Tradition

Biscuit recipes vary their ratios of fat and flour to milk, but they all aspire to fluffy perfection. Too moist and they won’t rise well, let alone sop up gravy. Too dry and they won’t taste good.

My boyfriend contends the best biscuits are made with lard. His grandmother kept her flour in one of those pull-down bins in the kitchen cabinet.

Byron relates her biscuits were really flaky and full of flavor. They were fairly big and nicely browned. She would take them to sell in her son’s drugstore in their small town in North Georgia. The town is still there, his uncle is still a pharmacist on the square, but Byron doesn’t have the recipe.

“She just did it. There’s no written recipe,” Byron said. “We’d open up the cupboard and there’d be tubs of lard.”

Look for biscuit recipes and you may find boastful claims. A lot of this comes down to personal taste. By comparison, I think I’ve heard it said that there are as many recipes for Pad Thai as there are Thai families.Copy of Charleston Receipts.

Despite what I’ve read about the supposedly ultimate Southern biscuits, you gotta allow for some variety. I am going to embark on a biscuit recipe exploration.

To start this journey, I consulted a classic cookbook: Charleston Receipts. My copy was my paternal grandmother’s and she dated it 1964. On that front page, she also marked certain recipes and their page numbers. From this, I deduce she is recommending the Chicken Tetrazzini casserole recipe. So, turns out Italian-inspired food has long been appreciated in the South.

Charleston Receipts has a couple of pages of biscuit recipes and I started with the first one. They baked at 500 degrees for 15 minutes. In the meantime, I started the country ham, which we picked up on our last trip to Georgia. The local supermarket sells $1 vacuum packs of sliced country ham, which means it is easy to bring home and so affordable!Country ham, eggs and biscuits.

To fry the slices, I heated a cast-iron skillet to medium high. Then I mixed equal parts water and Dr Pepper in a glass. Once the skillet is hot, pour the liquid in to just cover the bottom. Place the ham slices in and cook for about two-and-a-half minutes on each side. The liquid will burn off and the sugar from the soda will caramelize.

Finally, I cooked eggs over easy so the yolk was runny enough to be picked up by the biscuits. This was great. Next time, I plan to make a tomato gravy to go with the ham and biscuits. This is lieu of the sausage gravy that usually pairs with biscuits. For a tomato gravy, you cook up tomatoes and onions while you work on a roux. More on that later!

When Counter Surfing Goes Wrong, the Sandwich Disaster

My boyfriend endured a stressful work week so I wanted to make a perfect sandwich for him on Friday. The bakery-fresh English toasting bread held ham, turkey and cheese with sliced lettuce and tomato.

I placed the mayo and mustard on just right. I evenly layered the meats and cheese. I adorned each quarter with a half a jalapeno olive, affixed with toothpicks. The plate also had green grapes and pretzel sticks. I placed this work of art up on the bar-height counter.

Byron walked in and I went to present this masterpiece, only to realize Buster the Catahoula Leopard Dog ate one of the quarters, toothpick and all. The vet said to keep an eye on him. We prayed it would pass without injuring him.

Checking the aftermath of the puppy’s counter surfing reminded us of this scene from Jaws.

The dog seemed unfazed and he enthusiastically ate a big bowl of kibble for dinner, per usual.

We settled in to watch Dateline and the puppy became uncharacteristically quiet. We praise him for calmly laying down. But, it was an upset stomach that brought him down. Suddenly, he stood to the barf position. I guided him to his crate and gave him a bowl of fresh water. Within minutes, the poor doggie barfed up dinner along with other things.

Mercifully, Buster rejected the toothpick and there was no apparent blood. I felt like the Richard Dreyfuss character in the autopsy scene in Jaws when he pulled a license plate and other random items from a shark’s belly; when the puppy coughed up his dinner, we found the toothpick, the olive, tomato, turkey, a rubber band and a dryer sheet.

He felt good enough for a little second dinner. We encouraged him to drink extra water. He went to bed at his normal time and woke us up for his breakfast.

We updated the vet’s office with his condition. I am very relieved he did not eat the green grapes, which are harmful to dogs.

For breakfast this morning, I opted to prepare a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. Buster watched and sniffed as I cooked the bacon, which at no time was left unattended. While I fried the egg, the bacon dish was secured in the microwave for storage. Buster himself was secured. It is a good idea in this house to place a wayward or begging dog in a crate or the bedroom to prevent counter surfing.

The next time you make a sandwich that won’t be immediately eaten by a human, be sure to lock it a way. The microwave is a great spot to stash food to keep it away from the doggies!

Bargain Bin Cooking & Baking: From Peppers to Bananas

Byron stumbled upon the 99 cents bin at Kroger and this discovery is opening up a new direction in my cooking and baking.

The bargain bin is a transfer station of sorts for produce that isn’t quite good enough anymore for top billing in the main displays but isn’t yet relegated to be tossed. Byron picked up the bag o’ jalapenos in wonderment and an idea sprang to mind: grilled jalapeno poppers.

We even have a grill rack specially designed for jalapenos that came with a jalapeno corer. This way, you can bore into a jalapeno after slicing of the top and neatly draw out the seeds and core. No fuss, no muss. The jalapenos are ready to be stuffed.

For a ham and cheese take on the poppers, we bought a thick slab of baked ham in the deli. Rather than dice it, I opted to slice it into spears to be vertically inserted in the middle of the peppers. First, though, I combined room temperature cream cheese (a brick) and 1/3 cup crumbled feta in a bowl. I added freshly chopped parsley as well as garlic salt and a little Cajun seasoning. Using a teaspoon, I charged up the peppers with the cheese mixture. Then, I inserted the ham spears. That’s it. They hit the grill for about 20-30 minutes on medium heat.

Driving Me Bananas

Next thing I know, Byron brought home a huge bag of bananas. There is only one solution. Banana bread and muffins. I used a banana oatmeal muffin recipe I love and quadrupled it. I opted to use agave instead of brown sugar and added chocolate chips and peanut butter chips.

Here’s the crazy part: after perfectly measuring all the dry ingredients, including the baking soda, baking powder, nutmeg and cinnamon, I actually omitted eggs. The recipe X four would have called for 8 eggs. Ooops, they taste great anyway. Let’s call them low-cholesterol egg-less muffins. I sprinkled shredded coconut on top. A dozen went into the fridge, a Bundt cake is being given to friends and the rest of the muffin are in the freezer.

Bag O’ Mixed Peppers

The bargain bin is quickly becoming a way of life around here. Byron pointed to a big bag of peppers. Perfect! After all, we were grilling steaks so grilled veggies always pair well with grilled meat. I simply seeded the peppers, which appeared to be orange bell pepper, poblanos and wax peppers, and quartered them. I drizzled them with a generous amount of olive oil and tossed with salt and pepper. They went into a grilling basket.

I had mistaken the light yellow peppers for banana peppers, but after handling them, I realized, whoa, these are yellow wax peppers, which are hot! The spiciest came down a bit after they were grilled. And, yes, they were very nice with the steak, potatoes and grilled corn. Good news: leftovers!

Citrus Dreaming

A bag of more than a dozen limes with a ruby red grapefruit for 99 cents? Amazing. The limes were still ripe and in their juiciest prime. I happened to be getting chicken breasts to grill and the limes would be perfect for a marinade. I bought a pack of chicken breasts with rib meat with for $1.99 a pound.

First things first: I juiced 10 limes and the grapefruit into a one gallon bag held up in a large mixing bowl. Then I trimmed the meat and placed the chicken pieces in the citrus juice. Once all the trimmed chicken breasts were in the bag, I added about a quarter of a cup of olive oil and generous shakes of chicken seasoning, plus a little cayenne. I made sure the bag’s zip top was locked and placed the chicken in the meat drawer of the fridge for about an hour before it was grilled.

So, we obtained a lot of bananas, peppers and limes in big bags that only cost 99 cents each. That’s very cool and a great way to cook with basic ingredients

This bargain-bin approach is the essence of The Sage Leopard’s philosophy: enjoy everything you can and make do really well!

Cheers,

The Sage Leopard

 

 

Italian Sausage with Meatballs and Pasta on the Side

Spaghetti and meatballs might need a trial separation. Traditionally, pasta is served as a first course and meat as a second course.

Our Sunday dinners with Grandma always observed this practice: cook the meat in the tomato “gravy” (sauce) and ladle the meat-flavored tomato sauce over the pasta. Then, serve the meat on a platter accompanied by a salad, as I’ve recalled before.Meatballs, sausage and salad on a plate.

My father and I recreated this last night. In a saucepan, he started the tomato sauce with garlic in oil and diced tomatoes (imported from Italy). While he browned the sausages in a large saute pan, I prepared the meatballs, according to Grandma’s instructions:

  • 1 egg per pound of meat, in this case lean ground beef
  • handful of parsley (clench hand on a bunch, grabbing leaves within fist, then twist to rip off bottom part of stems. Then remove leaves from stems and finely dice with French chef nice)
  • Italian breadcrumbs (around 1/3 of a cup per pound of meat, this is really to preference)

Meatballs browning in oil in a saute pan.Rinse your hands in cold water before kneading the meatball ingredients together in a large bowl. Re-rinse hands occasionally in cold water to keep the meat from getting warm from friction as you evenly combine and then shape the meatballs. To shape, pinch together a golf-ball sized amount and roll in one palm with pressed fingers of opposite hands. The meatballs should be smoothed by the wet hands.

While I shaped the meatballs, Dad moved the browned sausages to tomato sauce. I then used the same saute pan to brown the meatballs in canola oil. No need to cook them through – just brown them mostly all the way around and pick them up one by one with tongs to place in the tomato gravy. Add a little water to the gravy to smooth it out. Simmer on very low for at least 45 minutes.

Select the pasta of your choice, either short tubular or long, such as spaghetti or even bucatini, which is rather thick.Short pasta in bowl with tomato sauce.

Cook the pasta according to package directions. While the pasta is cooking, move the meat out of the gravy and onto a platter. Drain the pasta in a colander in the sink. Place pasta in a large bowl and ladle on the gravy. Serve in pasta bowls. Enjoy.

Now, for the second course, toss a salad of greens with sliced tomatoes and sweet onion. Dress with olive oil and a little vinegar. Serve the meat and salad together. Again, enjoy!

Spring Fettuccini with Ham, Asparagus and Peas

Asparagus always heralds spring and a wonderful way to eat your veggies is to pile them into a big bowl of pasta. This dish is similar to the Italian recipe for “straw and hay,” which combines spinach and semolina pasta in a creamy sauce with pancetta and peas.

Straw and Hay is a favorite of mine and one of the best renditions I had of it was in Murano, the island in Venice where all the beautiful glass is made. This dish I made lacks spinach pasta and instead of heavy cream, it gains creaminess from feta cheese stirred into the sauce.Bowl of fettucini with ham and vegetables.

Ingredients:

  • Asparagus (1 bundle, trim by gently snapping off the weak part by gently pushing down in the middle with an index finger , then chop)
  • Peas (I bag frozen)
  • ¾ lb. ham (sliced at the deli at 1 and diced at home)
  • yellow bell pepper (3)
  • feta (1 package low-fat feta)
  • carrot (1 large)
  • artichoke (1 can quarters)
  • sweet onion (half cup diced)
  • garlic cloves (3 peeled, smashed and sliced)
  • dried fettuccini (1 lb.)

Directions: Prep veggies and ham ahead of time and set aside. To get it started, heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven on low heat.

Dice carrot and toss in. Add chopped garlic and onion. Once the onion turns golden, fold in the chopped ham. Saute at medium heat until ham edges start to curl and brown, stirring from time to time.

Meanwhile, start a big pasta pot of water on the stove’s biggest burner on high heat. Then to the saucepan, add chopped asparagus and yellow pepper. Cover the pot. Take bag of frozen peas out and cook in microwave, according to bag directions.

Bell pepper and asparagus in a saute pan with ham and onion.

Once these two veggies soften, add can of artichoke, including the juice. Heat through at medium-high heat. Pour in peas. Then stir in feta crumbles. Cover and heat through on low heat while you wait on the pasta water to boil. Once it reaches a roaring boil, throw in a dash of salt. Add a couple of drops of oil to the water. Then, place fettuccini in the water. Cook according to box directions. Drain cooked pasta and place in a huge pasta bowl and pour veggies and ham sauce over the top. Gently toss until mixed. Place servings in bowls and add to taste the following: salt, pepper and red pepper flakes.

The most important part: enjoy. And enjoy the leftovers too!

Cheers,

The Sage Leopard

Grilled Chicken with Chimichurri Sauce

I love supermarkets. They are my inspiration, at least for regular food shopping. I just don’t think I’ll ever be a digital food shopper who logs in the order, or lets the fridge do so, and sends a driver-less car to pick them up. Tonight’s inspiration was chimichurri.

It sat gracefully poised in a beautiful jar on a shelf in the middle of the condiment aisle, gleaming with its bright green color. I paused and wondered, why would anyone buy this in a packaged, processed state when you just need to mix up fresh parsley and cilantro with some oil? The metaphorical dinner bell clanged and I had dinner plans: grilled chicken with chimichurri sauce.Chimichurri sauce in serving dish

Ingredients:

  • Chicken breasts
  • 1 cup Meyer lemon juice
  • Avocado oil
  • Cajun seasoning
  • Cracked black pepper
  • Salt
  • Parsley
  • Cilanto
  • More avocado oil
  • Kosher salt
  • One vine tomato
  • Two cloves of garlic

Trim chicken and place in large plastic, zippered storage bag with lemon juice, about a quarter-cup of avocado oil and a liberal amount of seasoning. I actually spilled Cajun seasoning into the marinade bag and that worked out fine. Tightly close bag seal and place in fridge. Marinade at least a half-hour.

For the chimichurri sauce, place the following in a food processor or hand-crank salsa maker:

Making chimichurri sauce in a food processor.Rip off a handful or two of parsley and cilantro (each)

  • Drizzle in a lot of oil
  • Shake on some salt
  • Add tomato quarters
  • Thinly slice garlic and place in the mixing bowl

Let it spin! If you live in Texas, you might just have a hand-crank salsa maker like mine. I got mine at either a home & garden or a hunting show at the Reliant Center in Houston. I always get the coolest gadgets at these events.

Place your chimichurri in a bowl or keep in the processing bowl and put in fridge while the chicken cooks. Light your outdoor grill; use a propane gas grill to maintain an even temperature. Grill chicken for approximately 20 minutes to a half-hour at about 350 degrees. Because of the oil, it will take a bit for the meat to brown, but rest assured it is cooking on the inside. My boyfriend also had to take pains not to accidentally cook a lizard that normally lives in the grill but was temporarily evicted during the dinner preparation. Once done, bring to table on platter and serve sauce in separate dish with serving spoon.Grilled chicken on platter

You can serve this with a variety of sides. We had leftover risotto and I freshly made sautéed vegetables: mushrooms with chopped red pepper and asparagus (all cooked together in a covered non-stick pot).

The moral of the story: do not buy anything in a jar you can easily make yourself.

Cheers!

The Sage Leopard

 

Veggie Rotini with Veggie Sauce

Want the comfort of pasta with a lot of vitamins? This is a recipe for veggie pasta with veggie sauce. This is extraordinary easy, especially with a slow cooker. Veggie rotini with veggie sauce in a bowl.

  • 2 (28 oz.) cans Cento San Marzano peeled tomatoes
  • 3-4 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 5-6 stalks celery, diced
  • ½ large sweet onion diced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 cloves garlic (optional) diced
  • half-and-half cream (optional)
  • 1 12 oz. box of Ronzoni SuperGreens rotini
  • Grated cheese of your choice

Start this sauce with several hours to spare so you can use the slowcooker to get a nicely developed full flavor from the tomatoes. At lunchtime, I was dicing onion, carrot and celery to a tuna salad and realized I should just go ahead and dice all the veggies to use them to start a veggie pasta sauce. My family calls this “V8” sauce and it’s wonderful on tortellini. It also is great with spaghetti or, as this evening turned out, with a SuperGreens rotini.

Saute the diced carrot-celery-onion in a tablespoon of olive oil or grapeseed oil in a large pan. Cover and let soften over a low flame. (About 10-15 minutes, stir a little in the interim.) Using a spatula, pull the softened veggies into the slow cooker. Add tomatoes with a sprinkle of dried parsley and the bay leaf. Set the low and cover. Walk away. Do your thing. Come back about four hours later, stir, add salt and pepper, turn up to high and walk away. An hour or two later, turn back to low. Spoon through to find the bay leaf and remove. Then mix the sauce with an immersion blender. Add a quarter-cup of half and half (optional, but really good). Cook pasta according to directions, drain and place in a pasta bowl. Add a pat of butter (optional, but nice!). If you are going to add grated cheese, do so now to melt it into the pasta. Finally, ladle over with sauce. Be sure not to over-sauce pasta. This is not soup. Ladle and gently stir to ensure a good pasta to sauce balance. Place in bowls.

The Catahoula Leopard Dog and the Foxhound: Jealous Much?

The Sage Leopard is a lifestyle blog primarily about cooking, but bear in mind it is named for a dog who thinks he is a prince. Today, Higgins reminded me I have always told him I love him more than anything, except he now notices I love someone else too.

That someone is Buster Tobias, our Catahoula Leopard Dog, who is at this writing is 50 pounds and counting. He’s nine months old and new aspects of his personality continue to emerge, including jealously.Catahoula Leopard dog in jealous repose.

As I pet Higgins on the love seat tonight, Buster first sat in disbelief and let out a protest howl. He then laid down and bore into my soul with the guilt-trip eyes. Higgins challenged me to stop giving him my undivided attention.

This dynamic might be part of the reason I’ve struggled to train them alone. Instead, my boyfriend and I took them to our favorite dog trainer. Higgins immediately knew his master from his boarding school days and Buster is so happy-go-lucky he had no idea what we were bringing him into. After a few visits, Buster started crying on the way to obedience training, even if training mostly amounts to heel, sit, stay and lay down.Foxhound-Catahoula mix lounging on couch.

The truth is Buster is not a fan of rules any more than Higgins is. When he first was learning to stay in lay-down mode, he started stretching out his back and front legs to inch forward with his paws.

His trainer was not letting him get away with it. Whining ensued. I think I caught Higgins laughing at Buster. The key to getting this training to stick was bringing Byron along so the four of us trained together. That’s when the hounds realized I was serious. Now they had two humans to follow.

Tonight when Byron got home, Buster had not immediately noticed because he was outside. When he came back in, I asked, “where’s Daddy” and Buster ran to the front door. When he eventually found his human daddy in the master bedroom, he wagged his tail and wholeheartedly greeted Byron.

This begins a night of relaxing and a cycle of habits: Higgins racing around the backyard looking for possums and barking like crazy, Buster climbing furniture to watch Higgins through windows and crying, and of course: Higgins and Buster vying for the role of top dog.

Real Men Eat Quiche

What is a quiche really, other than an omelet in a pie crust? What do you serve men holding a homeowners’ board meeting when “refreshments” are expected? Quiche.

How do you pull this together when working? I left a midday meeting and stopped at the grocery for two Pillsbury pie crusts, spinach, a small carton of mushrooms and green onions. I already had eggs, milk, cheese, red pepper and such at the house. I threw everything in the fridge and returned to work.Skillet with diced shallots, red pepper and green onions.

About an hour-and-half before anyone was expected, I did the following.

  • Prime pie crusts by thawing and pre-baking per package instructions for 10 minutes in a pre-heated 400-degree oven.
  • Dice one jumbo green onion, four shallots and one red bell pepper. Saute in skillet with 1-2 tablespoon of butter. Split into two bowls.
  • Saute a bag of spinach in a splash of avocado oil.
  • Return to cutting board and chop a big handful of cilantro.
  • Chop spinach with scissors and fold into one bowl with onion-shallot-pepper mixture. To that, add 1 cup milk, two eggs and your choose of shredded cheese (amount to taste. Try a couple of handfuls). Fold together and then roll into one of the pie crusts. Place in oven and set timer for 30 minutes.
  • Now, saute the mushrooms. Mix those into the other bowl of onion-shallot-pepper mixture with cilantro. Add chopped queso fresco (a quarter of a wheel). Roll into other pie crust and place in over.
  • The quiche should be done in about a half-hour, but you can add 15 minutes to make them extra golden.Leftovers of quiche

Saute mushrooms in skilletThese were a big hit. Oh, and the leftovers are a wonderful alternative to an omelet for breakfast.

–The Sage Leopard