Thursday, April 30, 2009

When You're In Need Of Serious Sustenance

Greetings from California! I’m writing this from my parents’ house, where I have spent a very happy week cooking in their large well-appointed kitchen and rehearsing up a storm. Tomorrow is the Big Night on which my dad and I are playing the Beethoven Triple Concerto with world-renowned pianist Menahem Pressler, and it would be an understatement to say that we are REALLY excited!

So with a big concert looming large, why am I blogging on Kitchen Fiddler the night before, about to share a fabulous chicken&rice recipe with you? As you may recall, I wrote a post on this blog two months ago about how I’ve often thrown myself into elaborate baking projects as a pre-concert distraction technique. I guess some things never change! Since it’s not possible or even necessary for me to have my violin in my hands all day long, I have definitely been cooking as a way of relaxing this week, and this has actually has helped me mentally focus for tomorrow’s big concert.

It’s been an amazing couple of days in preparation for this performance. I have a long history of making music with my cellist/conductor dad, and it is really exciting to play new repertoire together. In addition to the Beethoven, we’re also doing the Schumann Piano Quartet on the first half, and I’m so happy to be working once again with Sam Formicola, our wonderful violist. It is thrilling beyond words to play with Mr. Pressler, who is seriously putting us all through our paces. Our long rehearsals have been very intense, and I feel that both my mind and my musical understanding are being stretched in a very concentrated and deep way. My brain hurts at the end of each rehearsal, for I’m trying to absorb absolutely everything and pay attention to every last detail. I am being challenged to play as beautifully as I have ever been capable of playing, and I am unspeakably grateful for an opportunity like this.

We’re working hard. Beethoven demands nothing less, as does Schumann. And when we’re ready for a break, everyone comes to our house to eat. My parents and I would rather invite people to dine at our house instead of going to any of the unmemorable local restaurants, and my mom is an especially gracious and welcoming hostess. She and I make a great team in the kitchen, something we've done for many years together. I’m more of the idea girl while Mom is the queen of beautiful presentation, and we both throw ourselves whole-heartedly into the execution of our vision. Between the two of us, we can really lay out a beautiful table of food, one that is often enhanced by the stunning roses that grow in the front yard.

I made one of my favorite dishes for everyone tonight, something that has been dubbed "Puerto Rican Chicken". This is my riff on a fabulous dish made my friend Cenovia, which is actually HER own take on the version made by her Puerto Rican mother, Rita. It’s basically chicken and green olives simmered in a fragrant tomato sauce and served over saffron rice, and it is always a winner. This is a very comforting dish, one which makes you feel very loved and well taken care of when someone makes it for you. And who wouldn’t want to experience that?!

With a bit of chopping, this main course comes together very quickly. Diced onions, garlic and green pepper form the foundation of the sauce, to which crushed tomatoes and white wine are added. The sauce is seasoned liberally with oregano and a large handful of chopped fresh cilantro, but what pushes it over the top for me is the unexpected and generous addition of pimiento-stuffed Spanish green olives. Thin boneless chicken cutlets are lightly sautéed before being added to the crushed tomato mixture, and they become impossibly lush and juicy as they bathe in this olive-studded sauce. Saffron-infused rice dotted with golden raisins is the perfect accompaniment, and the flavors all tie together marvelously.


This is food that is satisfying and filling, nourishing in such a way that gives one the strength to keep going. And that is exactly what we all needed at dinner after our long day of rehearsing, especially since we had yet another rehearsal ahead of us this evening. Our dinner break was short, but my mom and I had prepared the chicken in advance, and it certainly provided all of us with much-needed sustenance and fortification. By the time we began rehearsing the Beethoven Triple Concerto with the orchestra this evening, I felt totally energized, able to concentrate fully on the music and on playing my best. The Puerto Rican Chicken definitely worked its magic.

Adapted from a dish made for me by Cenovia Cummins, who in turn adapted it from a recipe by her mother, Rita.

For the saffron rice:
2 Tbs olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
2 cup basmati rice, rinsed
4 cups chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
1/2 cup golden raisins

For the chicken:
3 Tbs olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 small green pepper, finely diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 - 28-oz cans crushed tomatoes
1 small bunch cilantro, well rinsed, leaves and soft stems coarsely chopped, plus more for garnish (about ½ cup)
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, for seasoning
1 cup all-purpose flour, for dredging
1/2 teaspoon paprika
8 boneless thin chicken cutlets
olive oil, for cooking the chicken
1 heaping cup Spanish green olives stuffed with pimiento, plus more for garnish

Begin preparing the rice first by heating 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat in a medium-sized heavy pot. Add the diced small onion and sauté till the onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the rice and stir well, cooking for a minute until all the rice is coated with the oil. Pour in the chicken broth and crumbled saffron threads, raising heat to bring to a boil. When the mixture is boiling, turn the heat down to low and simmer, covered, until rice is nearly done. Check the rice after 30 minutes and add the golden raisins. Cover again and continue to simmer until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is cooked, probably another 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and fluff the rice with a fork.

While the rice is cooking, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over med-high heat in a large heavy pot. Add the diced medium onion and sauté for 5 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium-low and add the green pepper, garlic, and dried oregano. Cook another 5 minutes until the veggies start to soften, stirring frequently. Add the crushed tomatoes and white wine, and stir in the chopped cilantro. Season to taste with coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Turn the heat down to low and let the sauce simmer while you prepare the chicken.

Combine the flour in a shallow pie plate with the paprika, a 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Dredge the chicken cutlets in the seasoned flour. Depending on the size of your skillet, you might need to cook the chicken in two or three batches since you don't want to overcrowd the skillet. For each batch, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, and add as many chicken cutlets that will fit comfortably in the pan. Brown the chicken about 3 minutes on each side, turning at least once, until they begin to turn light golden brown. (You want to cook them enough so that they just start to turn a light golden color, but don't overcook them in the skillet as they will finish cooking in the tomato sauce.) When the chicken pieces have turned light golden brown, remove them from the skillet and set them aside on a plate.
Cook the remaining chicken cutlets in the same manner.

When all the chicken has been lightly browned, add the cutlets to the tomato sauce. Stir in the green olives and let it simmer, partially covered, about 15 minutes. By this time, the rice should be done. Taste both the rice and sauce for seasoning and adjust as necessary. Serve the chicken and tomato sauce over the rice, garnished with a little additional cilantro and olives scattered over the top as you like. Makes 6 to 8 satisfying servings.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I approve! <: