Well, this was one of those days that I thought I was going to be hating this project and hating Martha, and it ended up swinging really far in the opposite direction!
I've been really cranky lately. About what? Too many things to enumerate, and nothing worth mentioning here. Let it suffice to say, I wasn't relishing the idea of plodding through another ƒ€‡%¡ recipe today.
I listlessly paged through the book, looking for something I might actually enjoy making. I created a bunch of potential shopping lists, so I could play it by ear at the grocery store. But, in truth, I was feeling totally uninspired.
The original plan was that I would cook an intimate dinner for two for myself and the FNBF. But then my friend, Tracy, mentioned she might be able to stop by, which changed everything because Tracy has a serious case of condiment-o-phobia and is interested in eating only the plainest, most straight-forward, shlar-free foods. Any kind of sauce is a serious no-go for Tracy.
And then, FNBF's BFF (Fabulous New Boy Friend's Best Friend Forever), Paula, joined the plan, and that changed things even more. You see, Paula, in addition to being a super-creative, crafty, fashion designer, is a total gourmand. I attended her Oscar night get-together, where she served all these fancy-shmancy hors d'oeuvres featuring sliced filet mignon and gruyère puff pastry, etc. Very impressive and delicious. According to FNBF, she has every known kitchen gadget in existence AND knows what to do with them and can make ANything EVer. And while she does not own Martha Stewart's Cooking School, she has every other cookbook in the galaxy and a subscription to Bon Appétit and Martha Stewart Living. (Have I ever mentioned how much I love my MSL subscription? Thanks, Greg and Leann!)
So I needed something that would satisfy one really conservative eater while allowing me to attempt to dazzle a dazzler, yet without pushing myself too far. As it turns out, I picked perfectly!
Most of the elements of this salad are made individually from other recipes in the book, and then they come together when finished, so my reporting will take the same format.
Poached Chicken Breast (p. 225)
Well, one day after making Basic Chicken Stock, here I am again... Basically it's all the same ingredients but using a slightly different technique. The chicken gets poached in the stock at a rather low temperature, just until the chicken is cooked through (160° at the thickest part). I got out my new, trusty candy thermometer to check the temperature of the water, and let me tell you, it was difficult to maintain this very medium temperature (170°-180°) throughout the cooking time (about 20 minutes). After the chicken is done, you strain the stock and let the chicken cool in it, which is great. You don't have to think about it, you don't have to worry about it drying out, just pour and walk away.
Once it had cooled and I was ready to serve it, I took it off the bone and sliced, per Martha's instructions, against the grain in one-inch slices. Actually, Paula thought it might be better to slice with the grain, so I did one her way and one Martha's way. The difference was minimal, but I'm going to give Martha a slight edge. I think cutting against the grain made for a somewhat cleaner and easier slice.
The chicken needed a flavor boost, which it got from salt and dressing, but the texture was perfection. Super moist! All in all, an excellent chicken preparation option. I'd do that again.
Lemon Vinaigrette (p. 357)
This was my first attempt at making a Martha vinaigrette. She talks a lot about emulsification, i.e. blending the acid (vinegar/lemon juice) and oil in such a way that the acid is suspended in the oil. It's like the balsamic vinaigrette you're used to getting in restaurants. The ingredients are olive oil, which is light green, and balsamic vinegar, which is dark red-brown. If you just poured them in a jar and stirred, it'd be like the Jets and the Sharks at the dance at the gym. But when you emulsify it, you get that out-of-nowhere light brown color. And once it's been emulsified, it pretty much stays that way. Cool!
This vinaigrette involves olive oil, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt and pepper, and instead of whisking it, you just shake it up in a jar. And it's totally magical what happens. It becomes that cloudy, pale yellow color, and tastes like a classic French vinaigrette. So simple, yet totally delicious. I may have to stop using store-bought dressings now... Martha, what are you doing to me???
Leeks Vinaigrette (p. 305)
I've never prepared leeks before, but luckily I watched FNBF prepare them a couple of months ago, and he showed me the leek cleaning trick (slicing them lengthwise and fanning them out to rinse the grit from between the layers). Martha also explains this trick, but I'm not sure I would have found it as understandable as FNBF's private tutorial. :-)
The leeks got poached in five quarts of water with juice of half a lemon, two teaspoons of salt, and one thyme sprig added to it. One thyme sprig in five quarts of water? Talk about spitting in the ocean... Martha must have some reason for adding this, although I can't imagine what it could be.
Drain leeks, pour lemon vinaigrette on top, and wait for them to become delicious. Which they definitely did.
Buttermilk Herb Vinaigrette (p. 359)
This is the dressing that goes on top of everything. The base of the dressing is buttermilk and the acid here is white wine vinegar, for which I substituted champagne vinegar. (Champagne is basically white wine, right?) The olive oil gets emulsified by whisking, and I have to say, this took some doing, even with adding the oil slowly. I found a technique that I think sped it up, which involved whisking with my right hand and sort of jerking the bowl with my left. (Did I see this on TV?) In any case, it was finally done, and then it was time to add a pile of fresh herbs, which included tarragon, chives, and thyme. I'd never cooked with fresh tarragon before. Yum! I'm definitely developing a taste for fresh herbs - they really make a difference. (Oh my gosh, I think I'm becoming a food snob...) Another delicious dressing!
Jeff: A- (should have chopped the herbs smaller)
Conspicuously absent from this entry is Marinated Artichoke Hearts, p. 305, which is supposed to be a component of the salad, however it was not to be. Would you believe I visited Fairway, Citarella, Westside Market, and Zabar's, and there was not a fresh artichoke to be had!?! So, I bought grilled artichoke hearts at Zabar's and poured Martha's lemon vinaigrette on top. I'll have to catch this recipe another time....
Poached Chicken Breast and Spring Vegetable Salad (p. 226)
Here's the great thing about this salad: you can serve everything at room temperature. Which makes it a very low-stress salad. You don't have to time it perfectly. In fact, you can basically do one thing at a time. The chicken, the dressings, the leeks, the potatoes, the artichoke hearts, the asparagus, and once they're done, just forget about 'em. In some cases, the longer you let them sit, the better they taste!
The salad came together like a dream. Everything tasted just right together, and it was really well-balanced. The simplicity of the potatoes and chicken paired with the freshness of steamed asparagus and the tang of marinated leeks and artichoke hearts, all dressed with a creamy herb-laden dressing? Heaven. And all at room temperature.
FNBF was held up on set, so he came really late, and the meal tasted just as good, even at that point. Oh, and Tracy ate some poached chicken breast, plain, and some boiled potatoes and steamed asparagus that I had put aside, undressed, for her.
What a versatile recipe! This is going in my permanent repertoire, for sure! (Annie, you should try this one - it has no garlic in it!)
Jeff: A- half grade off for unspectacular presentation and pre-cooked artichoke hearts
Until we eat again...
That's Paula on the left and Tracy on the right. They just met tonight!