Archive for the ‘Family favorites’ Category

The Chicken Conundrum


Chicken….it seems like the perfect food, right?  Reputed to be simultaneously budget-friendly, easy to prepare and popular; many clients ask for it on their event menus.  The surprising fact about chicken in a banquet context, it is often neither inexpensive nor easy to prepare.   How many bad “mystery” chicken entrees have you endured at weddings, parties, galas and BBQ’s?  Who can forget the boneless, skinless roast chicken breast that seems to grow in your mouth as you chew?  How many times can you remember tasting chicken at a large event that was savory, flavorful, juicy and tender?

In the kitchen, chicken goes from hero to zero in a matter of minutes.  The most popular form, the skinless and boneless breast filet, has no internal fat to baste the meat as it cooks.  Thought to be a frequent source of food poisoning, chicken must be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165F.  This almost guarantees that a breast filet will be dry and tasteless.  On the other hand, legs and thighs are perceived to be less elegant, more suited to a picnic than to fine dining.  In fact, a chicken thigh is the one piece of the bird that stands the greatest chance of remaining supple and juicy when cooked to a safe temperature.  However, it is often red or pink at the bone, even when cooked to the proper serving temperature, causing guests to suspect it is undercooked or even raw.

Chicken’s saving grace as a banquet entrée is its portion size.  A single 6-8 ounce portion (breast or thigh) serves one guest.  How many other proteins arrive in the kitchen already portioned?  If you choose to serve whole roast chicken at a function, you are faced with either carving to order or hacking the bird up Chinese-style into serving portions.  Neither option is particularly attractive or easy to serve to a large group, especially if the meal is served plated.

In an attempt to add flavor to a commodity boneless, skinless chicken filet, chefs resort to stuffing, pounding, stewing, frying or saucing.  The net result is stunningly predictable; dry and mealy meat swimming in a flavorful fat or sauce.  In kitchen parlance, boneless, skinless becomes “b/s,” and we all know what B. S. really means.  I have yet to meet a chef that really enjoys preparing boneless, skinless chicken filets.  While enjoying fine dining status in the early 1980’s (as the chicken paillard, a thinly pounded cutlet seared and served hot from the pan with a light sauce), this cut is noticeably absent on restaurant menus outside the mainstream chains.  Favored by cardiologists and dieticians for its low level of fat, this cut is almost impossible to serve flavorfully outside the a la minute environment of a small restaurant.  The only way to add moisture is to brine, adding enough salt to send a chill down the spine of any self-respecting health professional.  Yet are Americans just accustomed to dry, white chicken meat on their plates?

At a recent event, we prepared an apple stuffed boneless, skinless breast roulade; roasted, sliced and sauced with a cider-mustard beurre blanc.  The guests consumed it with gusto, but while tasting a slice in the kitchen, I personally found it dry, mealy and insipid despite the well balanced flavors in the sauce.  As an experiment, I prepared the same dish using skin-on boneless breast filet and boneless, skin-on chicken thighs.  The skin-on breast was juicier, but still largely dry.  The skin-on thighs were unctuous, savory and tender.  The crisp skin provided a necessary counterpoint to the tender meat and moist stuffing.  It was almost as if the meat of the breast filet actually pulled moisture out of the stuffing, leaving the entire entrée somehow unfinished, even after the addition of sauce.  The thigh, on the other hand, remained moist and delectable even after three days in the cooler and reheating in the microwave.

We use primarily California raised, free-range chicken for our dishes.  Since these chickens are active, and consume feed that is supplemented by foraging, the meat is more deeply colored than the factory farmed counterpart.  Because these chickens are larger, they are often slaughtered at a younger age, and their bones are softer, leaching hemoglobin into the surrounding muscle, especially in the legs and thighs.  What this means is that the dark meat of these birds resembles duck or turkey more than chicken.  Americans are taught from childhood to fear raw chicken, and they are also taught that the primary indication of raw chicken is red or “bloody” meat near the bones.  However, per the USDA, “Darkening of bones and meat around the bones occurs primarily in young (6-8 weeks) broiler-fryer chickens. Since the bones have not calcified or hardened completely, pigment from the bone marrow seeps through the bones and into the surrounding area. Freezing can also contribute to this darkening. This is an aesthetic issue and not a safety one. The meat is safe to eat when all parts have reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer.”  (source:

As a requirement of our food safety training, chefs are taught not only to cook potentially hazardous foods, such as poultry, to the correct finish temperature; but we are also taught to record the cooking temperature, conditions, time and finish temperature in order to maintain a controlled process .  As a result, we are very aware of how chicken is cooked before serving to the customer.  Yet time and again, chicken legs and thighs are sent back as “underdone” or “raw” by guests.  In our kitchen, we actually increase the cooking time and look for a finish temperature of 180F at the bone in legs and thighs, hoping to produce a finished dish that is delicious as well as visually appealing to the customer.

When a client begins menu discussions, chicken is almost always on the list.  As a result of our experience, we have begun to discuss not only the presentation and the flavors with our customers; we also discuss the cuts and methods of preparation.  An added complication today is that many recipes for boneless skinless breast filets also include a crust or coating of nuts to make up for the lack of fat in the meat itself.  With the emergence of nut allergies as a concern, we have been forced to look for new ways to add flavor and texture.  Many of our tastiest recipes for chicken are not pretty on the plate or platter.  In buffet service, the use of chafing dishes and other means of keeping chicken at a safe serving temperature almost guarantee it will be overdone for at least half of the guests.  We have found the best way to preserve the texture and flavor of chicken on a buffet is to serve it over a vegetable sauté or braised white beans with greens.  The moisture in these items helps maintain moisture in the chicken, and the layer of food underneath insulates the chicken itself from the drying heat of the pan.  For plated meals, we prefer roulades or stuffed pieces that can be shingled or cut offset to display the filling, then sauced.  Our ultimate aim is to see that our customers get a preparation that will meet or exceed not only their expectations, but those of their valued guests.  This means we do a lot of talking about chicken, and we ask a lot of questions.

Ultimately, a tasting may be the best way we, as caterers, can address the chicken conundrum.  Under these conditions, we can serve the same recipe prepared with different cuts, or with skin on or off.  When a customer actually tastes the difference, most agree with our recommendations and swap out the boneless skinless breast filet for another option.  After all, we really want the same thing; happy and satisfied guests who feel they have been treated to an exceptional and celebratory meal, while still respecting the customer’s budget preferences.

Post by Julia Conway on June 22nd, 2012

A Seasonal Change


chef as a child
Already a chef


Changing eating habits can be quite a task.  In the wake of the last few years’ surge in popularity of so-called comfort foods, I had developed a real taste for such calorie splurges as buttermilk fried chicken, braised pork belly and the infamous maple bacon scones from fellow blogger @gas*tron*o*my.  Having cooked my way through several Thomas Keller tomes, and sampled the favorites of @The Pioneer Woman Cooks, I had rapidly begun to run out of available wardrobe options.  My ever expanding waistline was also hormonally attenuated, compounded by three years sitting in a home office and behind the wheel of my truck.

 After a recent review of the New York Times coverage of the Fall 2010 couture collections, and calculating the replacement value of my existing wardrobe of beautiful “investment” clothing, albeit several sizes too small, I made the decision to stop this freight train of middle-age spread.  I engaged the services of a local personal trainer and was promptly faced with not only increasing my levels of regular physical exercise, but taking a good hard look at what I was eating and drinking.  The old calorie swap of wine for dinner, so effective in my twenties, was no longer a viable option.  At 36% body fat, I had to make some tough choices, or face far more serious consequences than wardrobe malfunctions.

I had kept a food journal about a year earlier, during a half-hearted attempt to discover a magic solution to my increasing weight.  As a result, I had reduced wine intake from four large glasses on a typical evening to two, and eliminate snacking on sunflower seeds. (One smallish bag turned out to contain over 1750 calories and an unimaginable amount of sodium; who knew?)  However, I had failed to note that my regular menus had increasingly been made up of fried or fatty meats, large bowls of creamy risotto, buttery pasta or sesame oil laden noodles and an occasional artichoke consumed with loads of melted butter.  Though I love locally grown fresh vegetables, I rarely took the time to prepare them, grabbing meals on the run without a thought to nutritional balance.  I had even begun to consider popcorn a meal option; a reasonable alternative for a college student perhaps, but not as a regular dinner choice.

 The new “meal plan” (I refused to call it a diet) required that I eat 5-6 small meals per day, with a specific ratio of protein, fruits and vegetables.  In addition, I was required to log each and every item I put in my mouth, including the date, time, quantity, meal type, how hungry I was when I ate, and where the meal was eaten.  Wine was essentially off the table, with the possibility of a single glass being substituted for a serving of fruit every ten days or so.  Dutifully, I made the grocery lists, and filled my refrigerator with the items on the “allowed” list.  The first few days were literally painful; my seemingly pitiful servings of fruit and lean protein left me hungry within minutes of finishing.  I would awaken in the middle of the night craving popcorn.  I found myself lusting after my husband’s morning toast.  I had no idea that my body was literally addicted to simple carbohydrates.  Not being a fan of prepared foods or junk food, I though I was immune to this typical American condition.  However, I was as strung out as any MacDonalds or Starbucks junkie.  The only difference is that I binged on “foodie” indulgences.

 After about a week, most of the major cravings stopped, and I began to be satisfied, even full after consuming my allotted ration.  Amazingly, I hardly missed the wine, but rather anticipated the point in the meal plan in which I could begin to phase grains back into my daily routine.  After week three, I had lost ten full pounds, and three percentage points of body fat.  All of a sudden, I was able to start seeing visible results in addition to the twice-weekly weigh-ins on the magical digital scale.  I was able to literally slide into my dressy jeans rather than having to exhale deeply to even zip them up.  The prospect of fitting back into my closet full of clothes began to seep into my consciousness.

 From the food side, I began to enjoy some of the regular items from the meal plan.  I lingered for almost twenty minutes over a 7 ounce container of plain 2% Greek yoghurt, accompanied by a tablespoon of freshly ground organic peanut butter.  For my birthday dinner, I prepared ground chicken Chinese lettuce wraps, without the fried noodle garnish, of course.  I actually began to crave roasted baby asparagus, eating the spears right off the sheet pan, hot out of the oven.  When the time finally came where I could begin to integrate grains again, though only in those meals immediately following exercise, I found myself uninterested in my prior heaping portions.  One slice of multi-grain rustic bread toasted and placed in the bottom of my soup bowl was positively sublime.  Coarse bulghur, mixed with parsley, mint, green onions and chickpeas and marinated in fresh lemon juice and our local olive oil, and scooped on romaine leaves rather than pita bread was a celebration of taste and texture.  Instead of country potatoes, I enjoyed sautéed sweet onions, mushrooms and yellow chard with my bacon and egg breakfasts.

 Do I still crave those “forbidden” comfort foods?  Absolutely!  For one (post workout) dinner, I prepared boneless, skinless chicken tenderloins marinated in buttermilk and Crystal hot sauce, breaded with seasoned flour and quickly seared in peanut oil, then carefully drained and finished in the oven.  It tasted like fried chicken to me and, instead of four or five, I was satisfied with two, yes two, accompanied by a whole pile of crisp roasted baby asparagus.  The prior weekend, I reveled in slowly braised beef short ribs with a fabulous reduction of red wine and vegetables.  My husband ate it over buttermilk smashed potatoes, but I enjoyed in with just the carrots, celery and onion cooked with the meat and a pile of pan-seared baby Brussels sprouts.

 As a chef, I take pride in the fact that I can juggle flavors and textures successfully in almost any dish.  This new way of eating has challenged me to recreate familiar flavor profiles with different ingredients and methods of preparation.  Instead of smearing homemade romesco sauce on thick slices of toasted rustic bread, I used slices of crisp organic cucumber.  Replacing the ubiquitous (and high-fructose corn syrup laden) whole grain toaster waffles for breakfast was a smoothie made with papaya nectar, 2% milk, almond butter, toasted golden flax meal and frozen wild blueberries.  In return, I can snack on such seeming forbidden treats as cheese, whole roasted almonds, and yes, sunflower seeds (unsalted and in measured quantities).  Bacon was never forbidden and whole farm fresh eggs provide a regular source of protein.  This meal plan allows 30% of my daily caloric intake to come from fats (both in foods and for cooking, one third each from animal sources, olive or nut oils or fish).  A glass of wine is now a delightful adjunct to a meal, and I comfort myself regularly with a single square of rich, dark, unsweetened Scharffenberger chocolate for dessert.

 After four weeks, I began to sense that some of my old habits had been broken, or at least replaced with new ones.  The meal plan continues to evolve, but now basically consists of the 5-6 small meals a day, pairing at least one protein and one fruit or vegetable in each meal.  My sleep has improved, hot flashes have all but disappeared, and I have more energy and fewer lapses into lethargic inaction.  I know that this is only the beginning of longer term change, but I am encouraged.  I can still be a “real” chef.  I can still prepare stunning and decadent meals for myself, my clients and my loved ones, but I now realize that I have choices.  I can eat reasonable portions of just about whatever I want and still be fit and healthy. 



Post by Julia Conway on April 13th, 2010