Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Dinner with Friends

I'm always happy to invite friends for dinner -- it gives me an excuse to spend a few hours in the kitchen without feeling (as) guilty that I should be doing something else (taxes, cleaning, etc.). On Sunday night, we invited a couple of friends to join us for dinner and to watch The Station Agent. After assessing the ingredients from our latest delivery, and staring down a loaf of bread that had suffered from my lack of understanding the timer function on our breadmaker, I came up with a menu: Chicken Milanese with Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto and bread pudding for dessert.

One of the nicest things about cooking for a small group (Dan and I have been known to throw dinner parties for as many friends as we could squeeze into our apartment) is that it's a fairly low-stress affair and I can indulge myself and cook "Food TV"-style. Cooking "Food TV"-style doesn't mean I provide a running commentary -- though Caryn, that's a good idea for next time -- instead, it means that I prep and measure all the ingredients before I start cooking. I suppose, more patient cooks may do this all the time, but I find myself being obsessed with efficiency and how to arrive at a completed meal as quickly as possible, so I rarely take the time to cook this way. Everytime I do though, I realize how calming it is -- and in the case of risotto, it was a requirement, as the risotto requires constant stirring, so there's no time to pound out chicken breasts for brining while the risotto cooks.

This risotto was surprisingly creamy and rich, despite only using a tiny bit of butter, and really could be served as a main dish, but the chicken milanese was deliciously crisp and moist (thanks to brining!) and was a nice accompaniment.

For dessert, I used a moderately healthy bread pudding recipe to transform my ultra-dense cinnamon raisin bread into a moist dessert. Bread pudding is such an easy dessert to make, and appeals to my frugal-side, which hates to see a good (or even bad) loaf of bread go to waste.

As for menu planning, while the squash roasted, I pounded and brined the chicken. I then breaded the chicken and began the risotto while the chicken breasts dried on a rack and cooked them as the risotto was finishing.

Chicken Milanese
adapted from Cooks Illustrated

4 boneless chicken breasts
1/4 C table salt (1/2 C kosher salt)
1/2 C sugar
6 slices white bread, crusts removed (I used Pepperidge Farms)
1/4 C grated parmesan cheese
black pepper
3/4 C flour
2 eggs
1 T oil
6 T vegetable oil

1. Dissolve salt and sugar in 1 quart of water in a Ziploc gallon bag. Pound chicken breasts to 1/2 inch thickness and add to brine. Refrigerate bag for about 1/2 an hour. Remove chicken from brine and dry breasts thoroughly with paper towels. Leave chicken to dry while preparing breading.
2. Finely chop or use the food processor to make bread crumbs from white bread (about 20 seconds in food processor). Combine bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese in a shallow bowl. Place flour in a shallow bowl. Combine eggs and 1 T oil in a third shallow bowl, beating well.
3. Season chicken breasts with freshly ground pepper. Dredge chicken breasts in flour, egg mixture and then in bread crumbs, pressing coating into chicken to help it adhere well. Place breaded chicken breasts on a drying rack over a baking sheet. Allow cutlets to dry until you begin the risotto.
4. Heat 3 T oil in a large, heavy bottomed pan. Add chicken breasts, two at a time, and cook for about 3-4 minutes on each side, until nicely browned. Place cooked chicken on a 9pre-heated) baking sheet in a 200 degree oven to keep warm while preparing the second batch. Heat additional oil and brown remaining chicken breasts, storing in the oven while completing the risotto.

Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto
adapted from Epicurious

3 lb butternut squash
6 C chicken broth
1 medium onion, chopped
1 T butter
1 1/2 C Arborio rice (12 oz package)
1 t minced garlic
1/2 t cumin
5 T grated Parmesan
1 t salt
1 1/2 t chopped fresh sage
6 C coarsely chopped spinach or arugula leaves (I used spinach)

1. Cut squash in half length-wise, and then into 1 1/2 inch sized wedges, discarding seeds. Roast squash in a 450 degree oven for about 50 minutes.
2. When squash is completed, turn oven down to 200 -- keeping 6 squash wedges warm in the oven, while cutting the remaining squash into 1/2 inch pieces, discarding the skin.
3. Bring broth to a simmer in a saucepan, keeping it covered.
4. While broth heats, melt butter over moderate heat in a heavy-bottomed pan, and cook onion until softened. Add rice, garlic and cumin to pot and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes.
5. Add broth in 1/2 C increments, allowing broth to completely absorb before adding more. Stir the mixture constantly. It took about 18 minutes to add all of the broth and have it all absorb -- leaving a creamy, al dente risotto.
6. Add squash pieces, mixing briefly and then mix in remaining cheese, salt, sage, and spinach (or arugula). Cook for about a minute, until spinach wilts. Serve immediately.

Old Fashioned Bread Pudding
adapted from Moosewood Restaurant

3 C milk (I used Skim Plus)
3 large eggs
1/2 t salt
1/2 t cinnamon
juice from 1/2 a lemon
2 t vanilla extract
3 T honey
3 T sugar
4 C coarsely chopped bread
1 1/2 C grated apple
1/2 C raisins

1. Combine milk with next 7 ingredients (through sugar) in a large bowl and beat well (I used my immersion blender).
2. Add bread, apple and raisins to milk mixture, and allow to soak for at least 30 minutes and up to several hours, depending on the firmness of the bread.
3. Bake at 350 degrees for about 35 minutes. Serve warm with whipped cream or frozen yogurt.


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