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Tastes Like Chicken

Fri Sep 7, 2007

I promised myself, when I first started cooking for friends, that I wouldn’t be a whack-a-mole hostess, always a pot on the stove or something else to retrieve from the fridge, popping up from the chair (always strategically chosen for its proximity to the kitchen) then barely having sat down, suddenly popping up again for something else. My mother’s done it. My grandmother’s done it. And I’m sure your mothers and grandmothers have done it, too. I could tell you this bothers me for the way it relegates women to some sort of subservient role, but really it’s nothing so lofty as that. It bothers me because the whack-a-mole hostess doesn’t enjoy her food.

I started cooking for friends because I didn’t like eating alone. Dinner conversation was drab and the food I made myself, frankly, was even worse. Boring. I would invite friends to dinner for the excuse to try something new and to have someone to commiserate over pizza with if I failed. I didn’t start out cooking for friends because I wanted to feed them, but because I wanted to feed myself.

Since then I’ve become a bit less selfish in my cooking. I delight in surprising my friends with little nods to their likes and dislikes—a favorite dessert, a particular wine selection, a tweak to a dish that leaves out the thing they hate or can’t eat. And I’ve learned to start cooking as far in advance as possible, and to prepare for as much as I can when I set the tables (which these days means strategically placing myself near the wine rack so I can grab another bottle without having to get up).

Last Friday one of my dearest friends was down from San Francisco. Rather than fight the crowds at Mozza (or anywhere else) I invited him and his lady friend over for dinner. Excited that it had been years since I’d cooked for him I ditched my recipes and went (mostly) commando, with a little input from some friends, and the results were delicious and, I think, pretty easy to repeat.

Pepper and Bay Brined Chicken
Caprese Polenta Cakes
Sautéed Swiss Chard


Nancy Silverton’s Rosemary Olive Oil Cakes w/
Vanilla Ice Cream, Olive Oil and Fleur de Sel


2006 Domaine de la Pépière Classique Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie
2005 Joel Talau St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil “L’Expression”


Organic Whole Brined Chicken

Organic Whole Brined Chicken:

1 whole Organic chicken (3-5 lbs)
1 ½ cups course kosher salt
1 cup pure cane sugar
3 Bay leaves, bruised
1 tbsp whole peppercorns
1 sprig fresh rosemary
8 cups water (enough to completely submerge the chicken)

I’ve brined a whole chicken once before, overnight, using a simple mixture of course kosher salt, brown sugar and water. This time I prepared the chicken in the morning before work, switching to pure cane sugar and adding the Bay leaves, peppercorns and rosemary. I quickly stirred the mixture to dissolve the salt and sugar, then cleaned the chicken, submerged it in the brine, put the pot in the fridge and left for the day.

To avoid making the house any hotter than it needed to be (it was about 100 degrees out), I decided to cook the chicken on the grill. The last time I brined the chicken I did this, using a covered roasting pan on the grill, basting the chicken the whole time. It came out great! This time I opted to cook the chicken directly on the grill, rubbing its skin with olive oil, cutting it in half, and placing bone side down onto the grill to cook slowly. The problem with this method was that there wasn’t really a way to keep the chicken from the flame on my little grill, so the chicken cooked a little faster than I’d hoped, charring the outside. Thanks to the brine the chicken was still moist and tender and all of my guests loved the crispy skin, but I’d still recommend cooking the chicken whole in a pot and finishing on the grill if you can’t keep the meat away from the flame.


Two Corn Caprese Polenta Cake

The Caprese Polenta Cakes:

2 ears of fresh corn, cut off cob
1 cup polenta (course corn meal)
4 cups water, salted
1 tablespoon butter
1 basket heirloom cherry tomatoes
½ lb fresh bufala mozzarella
1 cup large fresh basil leaves

Bring the salted water to a boil in a large saucepan. Slowly add the polenta, stirring frequently so that it doesn’t clump. When the polenta is the consistency of hot cereal, remove from heat and stir in butter and whole corn kernels, season with salt to taste.

Coat a large, glass baking dish with olive oil (a splash on a paper towel and spread around will do) then spread the polenta out in the dish. Chill, about an hour.

Cut cherry tomatoes into quarters. Chiffonade the basil and slice the bufala mozzarella into thin slices and put aside.

When the polenta cakes are cooled, cut them into 2 ½ inch squares and plate them on a serving dish, topping with two small slices of mozzarella, a pinch of basil and a pile of tomatoes. Finish with a little fleur de sel.


Sauteed Swiss Chard

Sautéed Swiss Chard:

1 head Swiss Chard, torn (no ribs)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp olive oil

Heat the oil in a sauté, tossing around the garlic to unlock the aromas, but being careful not to overcook it. Add the chard, moving it around in the pan and cook until it turns emerald green. Remove immediately from hot pan. Finish with salt and pepper to taste.

Rosemary Olive Oil Cake

Rosemary Olive Oil Cakes

Rosemary Olive Oil Cakes:
(This recipe was originally published in the LA Times)

2 cups plus 2 tbsp pastry flour
1 ½ cups sugar
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp baking powder
3 eggs
1 ½ cups whole milk
2 cups Extra Virgin Olive Oil, divided
2 tbsp chopped rosemary
3 tbsp finely grated lemon zest

While the oven is heating to 350 degrees, sift flour, sugar, baking soda and baking powder into a large bowl. Make a deep well in the center, pouring eggs, milk and 1 ½ cups of olive into the well. Whisk the wet ingredients, slowly incorporating the dry ingredients until smooth. Whisk in lemon zest.

Grease mold or muffin tin with 1 tsp olive oil per cup, brushing sides with a pastry brush and allowing the remaining oil to pool. Fill each cup ¾’s full. Sprinkle each muffin with ¼ tsp rosemary. Place on center rack in oven and bake until golden; finish with fleur de sel.

I wasn’t so ambitious as to make my own olive oil gelato like they serve with these rosemary olive oil cakes at Osteria Mozza. Instead I drizzled vanilla ice cream with olive oil and sprinkled it with fleur de sel. It wasn’t as good, but it was good.

Results: Overall the meal was a verifiable success. The chicken, while a little, um, blackened, was moist and sweet with a little herbaceousness and spice. The polenta cakes held together well and weren’t too crumbly, which was a concern. I might try to grill them next time, but in the heat the cool, sweet corn was refreshing and the tartness of the tomatoes, the smooth texture of the mozzarella and pungent basil were fantastic. I must admit, when I conceived of the recipe, I’d imagine the cakes being fluffier—these were pretty dense—so I’ll have to experiment to get the right texture. The chard was fabulously earthy and tasted delicious after it’d cooled a bit. The rosemary oil cakes, one of my favorite restaurant desserts, were moist and fruity with clear olive oil flavors with a potpourri-like rosemary infusion. The salt on both the cakes and the ice cream creates the perfect counterpoint to the sweet cakes. And the best part? The only time I got up was to clear the dishes for dessert.

Pairings: I recently discovered the Loire Valley through a dear friend at work and I’ve been excited about the fresh, acidic and mineral-laced whites through the end of the summer. The Domaine de la Pépière Classique Muscadet Sévre et Maine Sur Lie isn’t just a mouthful in name. Made by Marc Olivier in a traditional, hands-off style, it has cool, crisp wine with tons of stone fruit yumminess. I could have drunk this wine all night, it paired perfectly with the meal, but alas, I only had one bottle. The 2005 Joel Taluau L’Expression is 100% Loire cabernet franc. Dark fruits and violet aromas with amazing acidity and balanced structure kept this wine from being too big for the meal.

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7 Responses to “Tastes Like Chicken”

  1. Erin Says:

    Great post! I’m also working on honing my hostess skills, and love when I discover new dishes that mean that I’ll only have a few quick things to do once guests arrive. I’m finding that different pasta dishes work well…

  2. ramon Says:

    that was the bestest dinner ever! thanks for having us over! MUAAA!


  3. Nicole Says:

    Haha, I love the whack-a-mole hostess thing 🙂 I know exactly what you’re talking about because that pretty much always happens to me no matter how well prepared I am!

    This dinner looks gorgeous! You have some very lucky friends 🙂

  4. Elle Says:

    That looks like an amazing dinner. I can’t wait to start grilling again! The little cakes are adorable.

  5. abadeeba Says:

    Hello…it’s me again. Found the rosemary olive oil cake recipe. Fantastic. I am not at all a baker but I’m definitely going to make these. Can you let me know approximately how many little bite sized muffins this recipe makes? I gotta go buy some mini muffin tins. Thanks so much. Sorry for the bother.

  6. Leah Greenstein Says:

    No bother at all. Try about 3 dozen little (I mean bite-sized) cakes. About 16 cupcake size. It’s a really easy recipe so it should be fun. Let me know how they turn out!

  7. Rosemary Olive Oil Ice Cream | SpicySaltySweet Says:

    […] and snuck it chopped up fine into an earthy rhubarb crisp. I was looking forward to baking it into Nancy Silverton’s rosemary olive oil cakes when the Indian Summer heat finally started to retreat— the lemony-fresh smell of the rosemary […]

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