Learn something new every day.
At least I do. Especially when I’m cooking.
Recently I was trying to come up with a menu to serve to 14 friends at a dinner party. I wanted something that could be totally done ahead of time so that I could hang out with my guests instead of slicing, sautéing and sweating in the kitchen. I stumbled upon a recipe for Chicken Pipérade in “Bistro Cooking at Home” by Gordon Hamersley. The book is available at Amazon.com.
Pipérade is a classic dish from the Basque region that straddles the mountainous border of France and Spain. The dish is characterized by lots of onion, peppers and tomatoes sauteed in olive oil along with a pepper called the espelette. The colorful mixture pairs especially well with fried or poached eggs, smoked ham, and chicken, as Hamersley’s recipe illustrates.
I’ve always been a fan of Hamersley, who was a leader in revitalizing Boston’s restaurant scene in the ‘80s. (His Hamersley’s Bistro continues to be one of the best and most popular eateries in the city.) And I’ve cooked so many dishes from his book that the pages are splattered and stained.
But somehow I had overlooked Chicken Pipérade.
I whipped it up for the dinner party. Loved it so much that I’ve cooked it three times since then. And, best of all, learned two new techniques that make me a better cook.
Lesson One: The magical properties of Sherry vinegar. I’ve always known that it makes a lovely vinaigrette and adds tang to gazpacho. But Hamersley’s recipe calls for pouring a couple tablespoons of the stuff onto a dinner plate and marinating chicken breast in the vinegar, at room temperature, for 15 minutes. I was amazed at how much flavor and aroma the chicken absorbed. The recipe also calls for adding a couple tablespoons of the vinegar at the end of the cooking process. This added a markedly bright, lively flavor to the sauce and filled the kitchen with an intoxicating fragrance. Columela brand is the best I've tasted. It's available in many upscale markets and on Amazon.com.
Lesson Two: Hamersley suggests serving the stew with soft polenta. His instructions for polenta call for an additional step that I’ve never heard of. After bringing half the required water to a bowl in a large saucepan, I poured the measured polenta into a bowl with the other half of the required water and let the cornmeal absorb the water for a few minutes. I then added the polenta-water slurry to the boiling water. I ended up with with the softest, creamiest polenta I’ve ever tasted. (Hamersley also calls for more water than most recipes.)
Live and learn. And eat better, too.
Here’s the recipe from “Bistro Cooking at Home.”
4 tablespoons sherry vinegar
About 1 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut crosswise into 1-inch strips
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 ½ red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and cut into thin strips.
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
8 cherry tomatoes, stemmed and cut in half
3 ounces smoked ham or Canadian bacon, thinly sliced
5 ounces watercress, leaves and 1 inch of stems, washed and dried well, roughly chopped (about ½ cup)
Put 2 tablespoons of the sherry vinegar on a rimmed plate. Put the chicken on top of the vinegar, turning it to coat, and allow the chicken to marinate for about 15 minutes at room temperature.
Heat the oil and butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat until very hot. Pat the chicken dry and season it well with salt and pepper. Brown the chicken well on both sides. Remove the chicken from the pan and reserve it on a rimmed plate. Add the onion to the pan and lower the heat to medium-low. Allow the onion to cook slowly for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the red bell peppers, garlic and cayenne. Cover the pan and lower the heat to low. Cook until the peppers are very tender, another 15 to 20 minutes.
Add the chicken pieces, tomatoes, ham and remaining sherry vinegar to the pan. Cover the pan and continue to cook until the chicken is cooked through, about 5 to 7 minutes. There should be a very flavorful juice in the pan. Add the chopped watercress to the pan and let it melt into the sauce. Give everything a stir and serve the chicken with the sauce.
2 quarts water
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, or more to taste
2 cups medium-ground cornmeal
5 tablespoons softened, unsalted butter
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Bring 1 quart of water and the salt to a boil in a large saucepan. In a bowl, combine the cornmeal and the remaining 1 quart water and stir to combine. Let the cornmeal absorb some of the water for about 2 minutes.
Gradually whisk the polenta and water from the bowl into the boiling water. Continue to whisk until the polenta begins to thicken, about 5 minutes. Lower the heat to low and cook the polenta, stirring every few minutes, until the polenta begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and has a soft, creamy texture, about 45 minutes.
(If the polenta sputters and makes a mess partially cover the pan.)
Add the butter and cheese and stir well to combine. If the polenta becomes thicker than you like, add a little more water or some milk and stir to combine.