Thursday, January 6, 2011

Cioppino, the San Francisco treat

        My mother adored Cioppino, the fish stew with its roots in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco dating back to before the earthquake.  If you knew my mother, or for that matter, read this blog, you know that cooking was not Mother’s thing.  But if it were an easy recipe, one requiring as little time and attention as possible, and one that could reasonably be cooked in as few steps as possible, my Mother would latch onto it with an almost religious fervor.  So it was with Cioppino.  There is very little opportunity to make a bad Cioppino because it is probably the most flexible fish stew on the planet.  And it packs a wonderful punch of flavor in every bite.  The Cioppino I am sharing with you today tasted of the sea itself.  And then there was the richness of the tomatoes, the anise flavor of the fennel, and the bite-sized pieces of seafood brightened with a dash of fresh lemon juice.  Mother was right.  It’s hard to beat a great Cioppino. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Chicken Breasts with Mustard Verjus Sauce

        One of the most fun things about last year’s Farmer’s Markets was the presence of our local winery, Wollfer Estate, at each one of them.  First it was staffed by my friend Cassie, until she landed a spot at the local TV station, and then by my friend Phillip, who took over last fall.   The fun, of course, was the tastings of their very excellent wines.  We had a joke, when we started drinking wine at about 11:00 am, that it was always Wine O’Clock at Wollfer. 
        Wollfer makes a wonderful Rose, an award-winning Chardonnay and a very fine Merlot.  It also makes a remarkable non-alcoholic Verjus.  The translation from the French gives you an idea of what that is: literally, Green Juice.  I read a great article on Verjus in the Times this fall. Written by John Willoughby, it was a concise history of Verjus coupled with a couple of recipes, including the one that I will share with you today.  But first, a bit about Verjus.
 The “Ver” or green refers to the unripe grapes that make up Verjus.  The grapes that are used are ones that have been thinned from the vines about half way on their road to ripeness.  Verjus goes back to medieval times when, according to Willoughby, sour was a taste that was widely appreciated.  Crabapples, grapes, plums were all used to deepen flavors and to add a measure of tartness to sauces, condiments, stews and meats.  The introduction of the lemon almost killed off Verjus production because, in a highly useable form, tart juice was to be had simply by cutting open the fruit—no pressing or bottling needed.        
In the last ten years, however, Verjus has taken off amongst cooks.  Unlike lemons, Verjus is tart but gentler, and there’s a definite sweetness to it.  Instead of contrasting flavors, Verjus complements then.  And especially if wine is to be consumed at the same time, Verjus wins the taste test hands down.   It’s terribly easy to use.  It deglazes the pan forming a perfect pan sauce.  And, without requiring a recipe, you really should try it used as an alternative to vinegar in your next foray into salad dressing making.  Wollfer Verjus can be purchase right on their website for all of $10.00 a bottle. Here it is:
And here is the recipe which takes all of 35 minutes to make:
Recipe for Chicken Breasts with Mustard Verjus Sauce courtesy of John Willoughby
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
5 tablespoons Verjus
1 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves.
1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Sprinkle chicken generously on all sides with salt and pepper.
2. Heat oil in heavy 12-inch ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add chicken and brown well on both sides, about 6 to 8 minutes total. Turn the chicken skin side up, put the skillet into the oven and roast until the chicken is just cooked through, about 15 to 17 minutes. Being very careful of the hot pan, remove it from the oven, transfer chicken to a platter, and tent with foil to keep warm.
3. Return pan to stove top, add verjuice and bring to a boil over high heat, scraping up all those brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add stock and continue to boil gently until reduced by about 1/3, about 5 to 7 minutes. Whisk in mustard and thyme, adjust seasoning and spoon the sauce over the chicken. Serve with any remaining sauce separately.
Yield: 4 servings.