Thursday, April 16, 2009

Day 29 - Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Barley, and Kale with Shell Beans

Oh my... where do I begin??

I should start off by saying that Tracy Katz Paladini is my BFF times 1000. Seldom does a day go by that we haven't talked 10 or 12 times, but the face to face times are few and far between. Tonight, she's visiting from Virginia Beach with her children, Samantha (11) and Ben (9), my godkids. When Tracy announced she was coming to town, we started planning what their Martha meal would be. Macaroni and cheese? Too ordinary. Her kids are adventurous eaters. Rabbit? She blanched. Not that adventurous. Fried chicken? Deal.

I thought I'd make some unusual grain, too, just so the kids could eat something they'd never tried before. Barley - familiar, yet off the beaten path as a side dish. Perfect.

And Samantha is preparing a prose performance piece for a forensics tournament, and in it, she mentions kale, so Tracy thought that would be a fun addition.

Hence, tonight's menu. (I also roasted broccoli and potatoes, to have a backup, sure thing.)

Kale with Shell Beans (p. 327)

Just to clarify right up front, Martha doesn't mean green beans, or string beans. She means the kinds of beans that we usually buy dried in bags, or canned, except that she wants us to buy them still fresh in the pod/shell. I knew this recipe was coming up, and I thought I had seen some nice shell beans at Fairway last week, but this week all I found were Fava beans. And Martha wanted me to use Cranberry/Borlotti beans. What to do? Yesterday, I swept Whole Foods and Gristede's, to no avail. So today, I was holding out for a day-of miracle.

Then, this morning, my dear friend Adinah happened to offer to take me on a Fairway Uptown run. (For those of you who live outside of NY, Fairway Uptown is in Harlem, and it's like Fairway on 74th Street, but bigger and better. At least in my memory of it. I've only been there once.) Desperate as I was to go, I had a doctor's appointment and couldn't accept her offer, but I did ask her to call me when she got there and give me the bean rundown, which she agreed to do.

She called, having found the afore-mentioned Fava beans and flat beans. A quick Google search indicated that flat beans would be close enough to what I needed. So I gave her the go-ahead and, angel that she is, she not only bought them but delivered them right to my door! Savior! I was booked so tight today, and it would have been a major burden to go fetch these, so I bow down to you, Adinah, for going A and B the C-O-D. (Above and beyond the call of duty.) I should also mention that she gave me an early birthday present of an ice cream maker, so I can make all of Martha's ice cream and sorbet recipes! THANK YOU!!!

Meanwhile, once I saw the beans, I knew I had a problem. These flat beans weren't what Google led me to believe they'd be. These are like enormous, wide, green beans. (They looked just like Roman Beans, pictured in the book on p. 302.) The beans themselves are tiny, negligible - it's the pods that are the main attraction. I didn't want to waste these beautiful beans, so I blanched and refrigerated them and the kids gobbled them up as a snack while waiting for me to finish cooking. But I was still shell beanless.

Luckily, Tracy had mentioned that her kids loved black beans, which reminded me that I had some dried ones with exactly enough time to quick soak them and use them for the recipe. So tonight's dish should be retitled: Kale with (Dried) Black Beans, and I will make this again when fresh Cranberry beans pop up. (Summer? Fall?)

Turns out, the beans cooked à la Martha are delicious, with cinnamon sticks, oregano, salt, and peppercorns. And the flavors in the dish overall are great. By the end, there's garlic, red pepper flakes, the salty beans, olive oil, and that final, bright splash of lemon juice which I always think I'm going to hate, but always love.

Let's talk about kale for a minute. First of all, I developed a trick for getting rid of the thick spines. I run the leaf through my fingers backwards, like a feather, and strip the greens off them. Like pulling the needles from a rosemary stem. Makes quick work of it.

I blanched the kale for a minute or so, so it was slightly wilted and bright green. Later, when I added the greens to the pan, they sat on the heat for quite some time, and they never turned even slightly brown or icky. Bright green and almost crunchy to the end! I was pleasantly surprised about that. Kale can take a beating and come shining through!

This dish will be a pleasure to repeat, which I will have to do because I don't think this round counts, delicious though it was.

Jeff: Incomplete
Martha: A

Barley (p. 413)

As common as barley is, my guess is that most people haven't experienced it outside of Mushroom Barley or Beef Barley Soup. At least, I hadn't.

It cooks up like rice, i.e. absorption method, 2:1 water to grain, boil, simmer and cook, cover and steam, serve. This barley steamed extra long, so it was really fluffy. I served it completely straight, so we could get the full impact of naked barley. It was fine, completely edible, even tasty, but I think some sauce, flavoring, herbs, something in there would have put it across even better. I have quite a bit left-over, so maybe I'll get creative with it.

As for Martha's instructions, as far as I could tell, they were right on. And the extra steam time didn't seem to hurt it.

Jeff: A- (for oversteaming)
Martha: A

Buttermilk Fried Chicken (p. 269)

Frying is a pain in the butt. And it's smelly. And messy. And fried food is bad for you and gives you indigestion (if you're over 35).

However, it tastes really good. Really, really good.

This adventure began last night, when I cut up a chicken (no prob to marinate the parts overnight in buttermilk with salt, cayenne, and Old Bay Seasoning, which I'd never tasted before and I was surprised to find to be pretty spicy. I wondered if this fried chicken would be too spicy for the kids....

Today, the the parts got dredged in a flour, cornmeal, more cayenne, and S+P combo, while the oil heated up in the pan. Now, here's the part of frying I hate. Regulating the temperature of the oil. I have a candy thermometer, and thank god, because how else would I ever know what the temperature is? But my oil got so hot so fast, too hot. I turn down the heat, nothing happens. I turn it down more, it drops too low. What a pain! Finally, it's 375°. Hallelujah. In goes the chicken.

Now, Martha has warned me that the temperature is going to drop a lot once the chicken goes in, and I'm supposed to do whatever it takes to keep it around 340° while the chicken is cooking. The thermometer says 290° now, and I want to turn up the heat, but I don't want to overshoot it again and burn the chicken. Plus I'm supposed to cover the pan so the chicken cooks through. I can't do all these things at the same time!?!

And then, I'm supposed to take the internal temperature of the pieces to know that they're done. So much work! And spattering all the way....

I think I turned the chicken over too soon, as the second side got quite dark and the pieces weren't cooked enough yet. I ended up turning them back to the first side, which did the trick, but my chicken ended up two steps shy of burnt.

That said, YUM! The flavor of the chicken was great! Not too spicy at all... couldn't even locate the spice. The breading was perfect, not too chunky, just a light coating with a little bit of texture. I prefer my fried food very crispy and very brown, so the almost-burnt thing was happy-making for me, but my little guests were wary, so they peeled off their skin. (The best part!?! OK, more for me!)

Like all the fried recipes I've done so far, I'm so happy to have had the experience, and I'm so happy to be done with it. I'll think I'll leave the frying to Popeye and The Colonel.

Jeff: C
(points off for bad oil management, over-browning, and whining)
Martha: A

In the end, I'd say the kids were very game. They tried everything, they were very polite and complimentary, perfect dinner guests, and I'm pretty sure that their favorite part of the meal was the blanched flat beans. Thanks again, Adinah!

Saving the best for last, I have to tell you about the incredible present that Tracy, Mark (her husband, in absentia), Sam, and Ben gave me. When they arrived, I was in a flurry of cooking, at that phase when three or four dishes are mid-process and there's no room for distractions. Why is Tracy insisting on giving me a present now, not later? Then, it occurs to me that it might be a thing I've really wanted for weeks... an apron.

And she does, in fact, whip out an apron, but not just any apron. A very special, very personalized, hysterical, absolutely genius apron, my new favorite kitchen accessory of all time, which I will wear constantly this year. Paladini's, you are the best!! (See picture below)

Until we eat again...

The Paladini's! From left to right, Ben, Tracy, and Sam

My amazing apron! Can you see what the picture is?