Monday, August 16, 2010

Ninette is Back: Chicken Pesto Meatballs

Oh man, these pesto meatballs are a hit.  If you haven't made anything from this blog, this is the one to try.

Even though our recent house sale and house purchase did not go smoothly, one of the real blessings that came out of the experience was housesitting at my friend Christine's for the month of July.  Christine is elegant, kind, intelligent, generous, and balanced ... in fact, she and her family are the kind of people we should all strive to be. 

In addition to Christine's house being the most lovely, warm, and comfortable house one can imagine, the house had a vegetable garden from which we could take what we wished.  I never had a vegetable garden before, so I reveled in going outside and cutting lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, green peppers, and herbs, including basil.

The fun thing about having a garden is that things keep growing!  This is common sense, I know, but the joy I felt from going out and getting some basil and then going out a couple days later to find more basil waiting for me was immense.

How true that small things can make such a big difference.

Thanks to the bounty of the basil plants, I made lots of pesto.  Bright and flavorful, pesto is versatile and can go practically anywhere.  It's like summer's version of the LBD (Little Black Dress).

I would take a spoonful and add pesto to vinaigrette, slather it on chicken breast destined for the grill, and toss it with hot pasta.  I would fold some pesto in eggs for a savory omelette and mix it with cooked chicken and a tad of mayo for chicken salad.  All delicious.

Then I thought, what about pesto chicken meatballs?  That sounds good.  Good for appetizers with those little toothpicks with the frilly plastic on the ends, good in sauce, and good sliced and layered with spinach in a white lasagna.

And yes, these are good.  So so good.  You must make them.

Chef's Tips:

  • When I make meatballs, I usually eyeball the salt, pepper, and other spices.  The easiest way to do this is to spread the meat out on a cookie tray in a layer the thickness of a hamburger and salt and pepper the top as you would your own cooked food.  This goes for the other spices, breadcrumbs, etc. as well.  I teach my kids this trick as everyone knows how to salt and pepper their own food at the dinner table, so this is a way to take cooking larger amounts and make it more accessible.  Once you get a hang of this, you can eyeball ground meat in a bowl and know how much salt to put.  If it's a measurement, it's probably about 1 tsp. kosher salt to one pound of ground meat, but I still have to test this ratio out to be sure.
  • Before I roll the meat into balls, I cook a small test sample in a skillet and taste the mixture first.  That way, if I want to adjust the seasonings or the texture of the meatball, I can do it easily.
  •  With the ground chicken meatballs, you want the mixture to be on the moist and sticky side.  This will make them harder to roll, but they will stay moist during the cooking process.  Be sure to wet our oil your hands so the mixture doesn't stick.  Otherwise, your meatballs will look like porcupine balls.

Pesto Chicken Meatballs
(makes about 35 meatballs)

1 lb. ground chicken
1/3 cup pesto sauce, homemade (recipe below) or store-bought
1 small-medium onion, cut in fine dice
1/2 cup-3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs (I take bread and shred it in the food processor or you can use panko)
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 egg, beaten
Splash of milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix ingredients together until just combined and seasonings are distributed.  Mixture will be on the "wet" side.

Heat up a small skillet on the stove and put a little piece of the mixture.  Cook and then taste.  Adjust your meatball mixture as needed.

Using a tablespoon a a general measure, roll your meatballs and put them on a Silpat-lined cookie sheet or non-stick cookie sheet.  These will be cocktail-size meatballs.  Wet your hands beforehand or coat with oil, so the meatball mixture doesn't stick to your hands as much.

Cook the meatballs for 15 minutes or until cooked (you can cut into one and see if it's cooked all the way through).

Heat a large skillet over medium heat until hot.  Add some olive oil and add the meatballs.  Brown and serve.

Pesto Sauce
2 cups basil leaves, picked from their stems and loosely packed
1/3 cup fresh parsley
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
3 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 extra virgin olive oil or more

Rinse basil thoroughly to rid it of any dirt. I use my salad spinner to do this and/or I soak the basil in a large bowl of water so the dirt will fall to the bottom of the bowl.

Bring a pot of water to boil. Add the basil and blanche, cooking less than a minute or so, or until the color turns a little darker. Cool immediately in an ice water bath or under cold running water.

Use the salad spinner to dry the blanched basil and or wrap in a dishtowel remove any excess water.

Blend the basil and the rest of the ingredients except for the oil in a mini-food processor or blender. Slowly drizzle in the oil until a paste forms.

TO TOAST PINE NUTS: Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add pine nuts and cook, stirring, until you can start smelling the nuts and they get a little brown. Keep an eye on the nuts and stir as they can burn.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Ninette is Back: Naan Bread ... Or Is It Roti?

I need my Indian food experts to chime in on this one ...

To go with chicken tikka masala, I wanted to make some flatbread to dip into the sauce.  When I order chicken tikka masala at the Indian restaurant, I always get a side of naan.  Naan is a slightly puffed flatbread, and it has a light smoky taste from its quick visit to the tandoor.

I was familiar with making an unleavened flatbread dough for scallion pancakes, which is flour, water, salt, and sesame oil. I figured naan must be similar but use milk/yogurt instead of water and ghee (clarified butter) instead of sesame oil.  It may have yeast or baking powder, but I decided to stick with unleavened dough.

Here are my ratios for making flatbread: 1 part flour to almost 1/2 part of liquid.  Splash of oil/fat for tenderness and salt for seasoning.  A little sugar if that makes sense.  For me, the sugar is not necessary for scallion pancakes, but since naan has milk in it, I thought a little sugar would be nice.

I let the flatbread dough rest for 30 minutes until the gluten relaxed, and then I cut it into 5 pieces.  I rolled them thin, brushed them with ghee, and then we cooked them on a hot grill.

They were crisp yet flexible -- perfect for dipping into the chicken tikka masala sauce.

If it had been winter, I could have easily cooked them on a hot skillet, although I do know that this is the way you cook roti, which my friend Mala taught me to make.  Her roti were also a little thicker and softer.

So here lies the issue of whether this bread is naan or roti or something in between.  Is naan always leavened or can it be unleavened?  Does the method of cooking -- on the grill/in the tandoor -- make it naan?  Does the use of white flour make it not roti?

I don't know the answer, but I do know that whatever we made was terrific.

Indian Flatbread 
Makes 4-5 pieces

1 cup flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
Almost 1/2 cup milk
Splash of ghee or vegetable oil

Put flour in a bowl and mix in salt and sugar. Make a depression in the middle (I use the bottom of a 1 cup measuring cup) and pour in milk and oil.  Using a fork in a circular fashion, take the flour from the edge of the depression and slowly incorporate it into the liquid.  When you can no longer use the fork and have a shaggy dough in the bowl, dump it out onto a floured board.  Lightly dust your hands with flour and knead the shaggy mass until it becomes a smooth ball of dough, about 10 minutes.  As with any dough, you may have to add a little more flour as you knead (it depends on the humidity in the air).

Wrap the dough in plastic and let rest for about 30 minutes.  Cut into 5 pieces and roll on a floured board (flour your rolling pin too) until you have oblong shaped of thin dough.  Brush with oil and ghee.

Preheat grill to 500 degrees and make sure the grates are clean.

Place dough on grates and when it bubbles and is dry on the edges (a couple minuted), flip it over and cook the other side for a minute or two.  The flatbread will cook quickly.

Before serving, you can brush the flatbread again with ghee or leave it plain.


Saturday, August 14, 2010

Ninette is back: Chicken Tikka Masala

In early May, I had the crazy idea to put our house on the market. Three months and one wild-n-crazy ride later, I can finally sit down in our new home and blog again.

It's nice to be back to normal.

Even if normal means not yet finding the plates and wondering where my blog camera is.

My first blog back from the world of moving resulted from a craving.  A foodie, my 12-year-old daughter Christina wanted chicken tikka masala.  And she wanted it BAD(ly).

I can understand why.  CTM is addictive, with its yogurt-marinated, spiced and grilled chicken pieces and luscious cream-tomato sauce, perfect atop fluffy basmati rice or as a seductive pool for naan bread.  There's a reason why chicken tikka masala has been called Britain's national dish and is a mainstay at almost every Indian restaurant.

Christina was pouting, however, because at my in-laws' lakehouse where the kids were visiting for a few weeks, there isn't an Indian restaurant for miles.

No problem, I told her, I would make it the next time her dad and I came up to the lakehouse.

"Yeah, right," was written all over her face.

Did I mention she was 12 (i.e., teenager-in-training)?

When I was home, I really did mean to pack the things I needed to make chicken tikka masala, such as garam masala, and bring them with me.  But time got away from me, and the next weekend I showed up at the lakehouse spice-less.

Do you think Christina forgot about the promise of chicken tikka masala?

Not a chance.

The chicken tikka masala recipe at Rasa Malaysia saved the day as it used easily found chile powder and cumin as its main spices.  And while I would have liked some garam masala, it was delicious without it.

If you haven't ever made Indian food, this is a good way to start.  It's super easy and delicious.

To anyone who followed this blog, thanks for waiting for me.  I look forward to reconnecting with you.

Chicken Tikka Masala
(based on Rasa Malaysia's recipe with slight modifications)

3-4 boneless chicken breasts, skins removed and cut into approx. 3/4 inch pieces
1 cup thick natural yogurt
1 medium onion
1 tablespoon fresh ginger
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoon chili powder
1 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
Kosher salt and ground pepper
Take cut chicken and put it in a large bowl.  Generously salt.  Add rest of spices and some freshly ground pepper.  Mix together until the chicken is evenly coated.
In a food processor or blender, puree the onion, ginger, and yogurt together.  Add yogurt mixture to chicken and mix together well.  Cover the bowl or transfer to a Ziploc bag.  Let marinate at least 2 hours or overnight.
When ready, remove chicken from yogurt marinade and discard rest of yogurt marinade.  Grill pieces over medium heat until done, about 10-15 minutes.  You can also cook them in a skillet or under the broiler of your oven, flipping occasionally.

1 cup tomat puree
1 cup heavy cream or half and half
2 garlic cloves, minced
1-2 jalapenos or red chiles, finely chopped (remove seeds if you don't like it too spicy)
2 teaspoons ground cumin 
2 teaspoons paprika powder
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1 tablespoon ghee or clarified butter or vegetable oil.
Handful of coriander leaves/cilantro, chopped
Salt and pepper

 Heat a dutch oven or large skillet to medium and melt the ghee/clarified butter. Sauté the garlic and chopped jalapenos until fragrant. Sprinkle the ground cumin, paprika powder and a pinch of salt. Sauté for a further minute or two until the mixture turns into a paste-like texture.
Pour in the canned tomatoes, scraping the bottom of the skillet to deglaze it and to release any bits stuck to the pan. Simmer uncovered for approx. 10-15 minutes on low heat until the sauces begins to thicken, then add the grilled chicken pieces and cream. Simmer for a further 10 minutes, thickening the sauce further and to heat the chicken and cream through.
Serve sprinkled with fresh chopped coriander leaves and with steamed Basmati rice, fresh naans and pickles.