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Blackened Chicken & Zucchini Carpaccio with a Butternut Squash Vodka Sauce

About a month ago, a foodie friend told me that he found an old recipe for a butternut squash pasta sauce, from back before tomatoes were available in January. Here at the Garlic Press we’re big fans of savory preparations of butternut squash, so a vodka sauce quickly came to mind when we were brainstorming what our “spin” on the sauce might be. The sauce turned out really well and required just a few ingredients.

This dish was born out of an interest in highlighting the sauce and making use of the test kitchen’s new Shun mandoline (which I endorse highly). Zucchini as “pasta” has been an idea that we’ve bounced around the test kitchen since well before the Garlic Press was formalized. Until the mandoline came into our lives, though, we had only experimented with zucchini as a substitute for lasagna, which is nice if you want a lighter dish. Recently, however, we’ve had the opportunity to slice the zucchini so thinly that it barely held together when handled. The result of a marginally thicker cut than this was a zucchini carpaccio similar to a pappardelle noodle or lasagnette. Pappardelle comes from the Italian verb “pappare” which means “to gobble up,” and it is typically paired with very rich sauces. The zucchini carpaccio’s texture and shape lined up nicely with this pasta and as a result worked beautifully with our rich butternut squash vodka sauce.

The zucchini carpaccio is not technically a carpaccio, as that is traditionally a term reserved for thinly sliced raw meat or fish. Carpaccio has only been around since about 1950, so it isn’t exactly stepping on anyone’s national or ethnic culinary tradition to use the term to refer to paper thin, raw slices of vegetables with sauce as a carpaccio. In fact it is an increasingly common appropriation on menus across the US and Europe. That being said, we wouldn’t advise going crazy with the term. Vegetables that are well-suited to this technique include zucchini, beets, and jicama, among others.

Ingredients

1 large zucchini

3 chicken breasts (butterflied)

Blackening Seasonings

  • 3 parts fresh ground black pepper
  • 1 part sea salt
  • 1 part paprika
  • 1 part garlic powder

1 medium butternut squash

3 cloves of garlic

1/4 cup vodka ( Svedka will do nicely)

1/4 cup parmigiano-reggiano cheese, freshly grated

chicken broth (amount variable based on size of squash)

1-2 tsp. sea salt

1-2 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper

2 tbsp olive oil (alternatively, bacon grease, which is what we used)

Enough focaccia to make 6-10 toast points (you’ll ruin at least 3)

Method

Set the mandoline almost to its thinnest setting. Cut the ends off the zucchini and slice it on the mandoline (alternatively, use a wide peeler and a firm hand to slice the zucchini). Set the zucchini aside. Cover the chicken breasts in an even coating of the blackening mixture and place it on a covered plate in the refrigerator. Peel and coarsely chop the butternut squash. Boil the squash for 3-4 minutes, drain, and add to a blender or food processor. Add the 1/2 of the oil/grease and pulse. Begin adding stock and pulsing the squash until you reach the consistency of tomato sauce. Chop garlic and add it to a medium pot along with the other 1/2 of the oil/grease. Sweat the garlic on low heat for 3-5 minutes. Add the squash mixture to the pot. Grate  the cheese and add it to the pot, stirring until melted. Turn off the burner. Add the vodka, stir it in and turn the heat back on to medium-high. Add salt and pepper to the sauce and bring it to a boil. Stir, reduce to simmer, and cook covered for 30-45 minutes. Heat your grill or griddle pan to a high heat, about 350 to 375 degrees. While the sauce cooks, cut the focaccia into long 1/4-  1/2 -inch thick strips and brush lightly with oil. Cook the chicken for 3-4 minutes on each side or until the juice runs clear. Grill the bread lightly. Assemble 3 plates as shown in the photo above. Enjoy!

My thoughts on the dish

For me, this dish was a huge winner. The deep rich flavor of the sauce was perfectly complemented by the warm and peppery blackened chicken. The freshness of the zucchini carpaccio was an excellent contrast to the butternut squash and chicken. The overall dish had the comfortable, homey appeal of Italian and New Orleans cuisine but with a couple of surprising and contemporary (not to mention healthier) twists. Overall the Blackened Chicken & Zucchini Carpaccio with a Butternut Squash Vodka Sauce was a big hit both times that we tested it, and I hope to make it again sometime soon, perhaps with a Hennepin Farmhouse Saison.

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Lentils Take the Lead

Lentils are a consistently underrated protein, so we’re featuring a lentil dish again. This time we decided to go with a Spanish flavor profile, because we were thinking about our trip to Barcelona last March. When we brainstormed flavors and ingredients, a short list came together almost immediately.  Simple but powerful savory items –  such as peppers, grilled vegetables, onions, almonds, olives, and garlic –  were reminiscent of the cuisine in Spain. We didn’t have any olives in the test kitchen, so we shrugged and chose to use some yellow rice instead. The goal of this menu was to make the lentils the star, rather than highlight obscure or possibly expensive ingredients.

The week prior, I had made paella so we decided to develop a Spanish-style sofrito as a base for the lentils. Additionally, a lucky find at a discount store had yielded some grapeseed oil the day prior. The oil was used to tie the asparagus together with the lentil salad. We did this in an effort to not only depart from the commonplace olive oil, but to build a nutty base note for the almonds to work with. Deviating again from the Iberian standard, red onion and orange bell peppers were used. The choice was a matter partially of convenience, as we were out of red peppers. However, the red onions happen to be our preference, even though we also routinely stock the yellow variety. In this dish the more colorful onion added visual punch and bigger flavor. Subtlety was not the approach we chose for the centerpiece of the dish, and it payed off in the end.

When the dish was served, it was better than we had hoped, so I ran for the camera. The new oil made the asparagus warmer, richer, and more complex than the same preparation with olive oil.  Furthermore, the slightly unconventional sofrito lifted up the lentil to a new level of savory, nutty, and aromatic delight.

Ingredients

1/2 cup yellow rice (I know – it is a shortcut… but saffron is $15 an oz., and lentils are the star here.)

1/2 cup lentils*

1/4 cup diced canned tomato

1/2 red onion

1/2 orange pepper

2 cloves of garlic

14 small to medium asparagus spears

3 tbsp grapeseed oil (divided)

3 tsp sea salt (divided)

3 tsp black pepper

1/4 cup chopped almonds

2 cups chicken stock (divided)

Method

Begin cooking the rice in chicken stock (set aside when done.) Add grapeseed oil to a medium pan. Julienne the orange pepper and onion. Coarse chop the garlic. Chop the almonds and set them aside.

Heat the pan to medium and add the garlic, orange pepper, and onion. When they start to brown, remove them and reserve the oil in the pan. Add the tomato to the pan and salt. Reduce the liquid by about 1/3. Add the lentils and remaining stock and cook for 30-35 minutes.

While you wait, clean the asparagus and toss with grapeseed oi,l sea salt, and cracked pepper. Heat the oven to 400 degrees and place the asparagus in while it heats. Cook the asparagus for 10 minutes or until a fork will slide into them easily and remove.

When the lentils have 5 minutes left, turn on the oven’s broiler to High. Add the onion, pepper, and garlic back into the pan, and do not toss yet. Broil the asparagus until they start to develop color and remove them. Add a spoonful of grapeseed oil and the chopped almonds to the lentils, toss, and serve.

As always, enjoy this in good health. For pairing, we recommend a glass of Cava or a young semi-dry to fruity Rioja.

Winter = Chili

In the winter months, a steaming bowl of one sort or another is often the best way to keep yourself full and warm. Chili is a classic and each region has its own distinct style. In many cases, chili seems to be one of those dishes that people are leery about experimenting with or branching away from their  standard. In the Southeastern U.S., where I’m from, chili is almost always beef, tomato sauce, red or black beans, some garlic powder, onion powder, and chili powder served with some shredded cheddar cheese on top. It’s  generally quite good and filling but a bit dull after awhile. Some years ago, I had the pleasure of judging a chili contest in southern Virginia, and the chilies ranged from very good to pretty awful. What struck me the most was that the most deviant or innovative recipe simply added some fresh orange juice to the typical mix. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big proponent of the power of simplicity in cooking, but I think the combination of meat, beans, and sauce lends itself to a bit more creativity.

My goal in the test kitchen was to attack traditional chili with creativity and ramped-up spices. You see, lately I have been taking dishes from where I grew up and combining them with elements of other ethnic and regional cuisines. A few weeks back, I experimented with a tomato-based barbeque sauce infused with black tea and chai spices. Surprisingly, the sauce was a great success, so I decided to try concocting a Chai Chili.

Some of the flavors of chai are regularly paired with beef, so I felt that it could work. Cinnamon, for example, is used commonly in Mexican and Southwestern cuisines to flavor beef.  I chose to keep the spice mix simple as to avoid overpowering the wonderful play between beef, mushroom, beans, and tomato. The fusion of Indian and Southern flavors seemed a bit too strange at first, but I recalled a red bean dahl I’d had once, and I knew this would work.

Ingredients

1/4 lb 80/20 ground chuck

1/4 medium sweet onion

3 cloves garlic

12 oz canned tomato

16 oz red beans

8 oz black beans

1 cup beef broth

1 tsp cinnamon

1 1/2 tsp black pepper

2 1/2 tsp chili powder

1 beef boullion cube

1 bag Chai-flavored tea (Stash or Good Earth are my preferred brands)

2 tsp coarse sea salt, to taste

6-10 mushrooms, quartered (avoid those terrible button mushrooms)

1 Tbsp olive oil OR butter

Method

Brunoise the garlic and onion. Quarter the mushrooms and set aside. Add the oil/butter to a medium pot and heat to medium heat. Sweat the garlic and onion, and once the onion is clear, add the beef. Season the beef while it is cooking and stir until it is lightly browned.

At this point, add the tomato and reduce the heat to low. In a small sauce pot bring the broth to a boil, add the bag of tea, and remove the pot from the heat and let sit for 5-10 minutes. Add the stock to the chili pot, and toss in a boullion cube and the vanilla. Raise the heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the beans and mushrooms and reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook for 20-30 minutes or until the beans and mushrooms are tender. Serve and enjoy. The recipe should make 3-4 bowls.

Judging the Chili

The chili turned out even better than I had expected! It was warm with a hint of spice and reminded me of the chili I ate growing up and the great bowls of curry and red beans I’ve been devouring for the last few years. The vanilla added a lot in the background without taking over the dish. Generally, I was pleased with the results and everyone in the kitchen was surprised and pleased when I told them about the special twist.