March 24th, 2009

A Dinner for Jim

“These are making me so hungry right now,” my brother Jim said, eyeing my photos of spinach-ricotta stuffed shells, “but I can’t eat ‘em.” We were in his graphic arts office hovering over his Mac; I was trying to entice him with a couple of my posts.

“How about these?” I scrolled to the page with golden peppers and Israeli couscous. “Tasty and healthy. With no cheese.”

That idea hit with a thud. “Peppers, Nan.”

Then he said, “Post on piccata.”

“Piccata?” I was surprised by the request. A simple, maybe not-so-exciting dish. “Really?”

“Oh, yeah. I’m down with that,” he said. “I don’t know why…I love chicken cooked that way. ”

Piccata conjures up the word piquant—zesty, spicy. For varying reasons of health, my brother has myriad foods he must avoid; the worst perhaps is his pepper—as in sweet red, cayenne, paprika, poblano, jalapeno, serrano, banana—allergy. Ingesting even the smallest bite can cause blistering disfigurement.

So I understand his piccata enchantment: while much of his eating necessarily treads on the bland side, (hard to get through a day if your face is a combo of Rocky Balboa, post-prize-fight and Mick Jagger, post-collagen-lip-treatment) piccata, with its deeply tart lemon-wine piquancy, satisfies.

Even in its simplicity, I’ve seen it prepared with many variations:
Some use capers, some use cream, some use chicken stock, some use a roux.
My take is straightforward, using none of the aforementioned.
In my piccata, I like an intense garlicky-lemon-white wine reduction. Capers distract. Cream and chicken stock don’t belong.

Now, in his honor, at his request—he’s an excellent brother, after all—I’m posting my recipe and method: one that works just as well for catered dinners for 200 as for the small one given below. And, I’ve included recipes for piccata accompaniments—a complete dinner to pique your interest and tastebuds.

A small amount of butter with the olive oil aids in flavor and browning. I like the balance of fresh lemon juice and white wine and recommend Meyer Lemons if you can get them. You’ll note their darker yellow rind and sweeter juice. As the sauce deglazes, it thickens from the flour dredged onto chicken, and gets a rich brown gloss from the cooked-on bits in the skillet.

Chicken Piccata
¼ cup Flour
¼ teaspoon Salt
¼ teaspoon Black Pepper
1 heaping Tablespoon Italian Parsley
1 lb. Boneless Chicken Breast fillets, trimmed of all fat
1 Tablespoon Butter
1 Tablespoon Olive oil
1 large clove Garlic, minced
1 Meyer Lemon, juiced (3-4 Tablespoons)
3-4 Tablespoons White Wine

Mix flour, salt, pepper, and parsley together in a shallow bowl.
Heat a skillet, add olive oil and butter. Melt the two together.
Dredge chicken fillets in seasoned flour and shake off any excess.
Stir in garlic to heated butter/oil mix, then add chicken.
Sauté for 4 minutes on one side, then flip, and repeat.
Mix juice and wine together and pour over the fillets. Swish and swirl the liquid around in the skillet, scraping any browned bits. In a couple of minutes, the sauce will deglaze, brown, and thicken.
Serves 2-3

Cook’s Note: If you have a large quantity of chicken to cook, increase ingredients accordingly and brown all the chicken first (remove the breasts when they’re done) before adding the lemon juice/white wine. Return the breasts to the skillet with the reduction, allowing them to get drenched with the lemon-wine sauce.

These festive little drums of butternut squash may look otherwise, but are easy to make. The texture is silken, custard-like.

Savory Butternut Squash Timbales

1 large Butternut Squash, roasted to make 3 cups
3 Eggs
½ cup Half-n-Half
1 scant t. Salt
½ t. Black Pepper
¼ t. Nutmeg
fresh Italian Parsley–a few leaves to place on the bottom of each cup before filling

4 T. Butter
1 cup toasted Walnuts
2 T. fresh Sage

12 custard cups or cupcake/muffin pan

After you’ve oven-roasted the squash, scoop out the tender inside—about 3 cups. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, then puree with eggs and half and half. Liberally coat custard cups or muffin tins with butter. Fill the cups and place in a shallow baking dish. Create a water-bath (bain-marie) by filling the baking dish with water until halfway up the sides of the cups. Cover the tops of the cups with a piece of lightly oiled cooking parchment cut to the approximate size of the baking dish.
Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes, then carefully invert to unmold. These can be prepared in advance and gently rewarmed. Garnish with Walnut-Sage-Brown Butter. Makes 12 timbales.

Walnut-Sage-Brown Butter
4 Tablespoons Butter
2 Tablespoons fresh Sage leaves
1 cup toasted Walnuts

Using medium heat, melt butter in a small saucepan. Add sage leaves. Stir and increase heat. Butter will begin to bubble and brown, sage leaves will frizzle. Remove from heat.
Put toasted walnut pieces into a food processor fitted with the swivel blade. Pour in browned sage butter and pulse the mixture until the walnut pieces are very small. The mixture will be thick. Place a spoonful on top of the timbale and serve.

The penne with asparagus that you see in the dinner-plate picture below is so simple, it barely warrants a recipe. You want use “mezze penne”—a smaller, thinner penne, and pencil-thin asparagus. When the asparagus spears are sliced into pieces on the diagonal, they mimic the penne shape.

The penne takes about 10 minutes to cook; I plunge the asparagus pieces into the pasta pot for the last minute of cooking. Drain, toss with a drizzle of your favorite olive oil, season with salt and black pepper, and little fresh dillweed, if you like. Makes 2-4 servings.

1 cup mezze penne
1 bunch pencil thin asparagus
salt, black pepper, good olive oil, fresh dillweed

Posted in Meats/Poultry, Recipes, Vegetables

7 Responses to “A Dinner for Jim”
  1. John Says:

    I love chicken piccata and make it often. I do like capers, however. The next time I make it I will be trying your butternut squash timbales. Can’t wait!


  2. Jim Adinnerfor Says:

    Fabulous! I enjoyed every little browned bit. And when I look in the mirror I am gladdened by remaining undisfigured, but saddened by the way life has eroded my youth.

  3. Barbara Says:

    Hi Nancy,
    Your chicken piccata recipe looks very inviting. I am anxious to hear how brother Jim’s cooking adventure went. It’s nice to hear about men liking to cook. I wish my husband enjoyed it or cared to learn a little.
    Great reading too!

  4. BAN Says:

    Chicken piccata looks great, but it’s the savory butternut squash timbales that have me excited.
    I imagine this recipe would work with other winter squashes??

  5. goodfoodmatters Says:

    BAN-Sure, other winter squashes would substitute beautifully: try acorn squash or pumpkin. You can also make this recipe with sweet potatoes with tasty results.

    Barbara-look no further than above your comment for the bro’s tragi-comic report….

  6. claudia (cook eat FRET) Says:

    i’m a huge piccata fan. and mine, like yours is very straightforward but i need my capers in there. the timbales – i can smell them from here. sage and walnuts and cream and sweet squash… huge wow. really that was a perfect plate of food.

  7. we are never full Says:

    those timbales are REALLY calling my name. we recently made a version using celaric root… it was awesome. i love this.

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