It’s so easy for contemporary home cooks and chefs who consider themselves sophisticated in the kitchen to poo poo casseroles. Many of us grew up in the days of tuna embalmed in noodles and Campbell’s mushroom soup. Or macaroni and ground beef. Yeah, we’ve all been there.

But think of it this way: lasagna is essentially a casserole and we all love lasagna. It’s really a matter of what you do with the concept, which is basically a meal in a baking dish. For some, it’s a way to use up leftover ingredients. For others, it’s the quintessential dish you bring with love to friends or family who are too stressed (from grief, illness, new babies) to be able to make meals themselves. For personal chefs, it can be an easy way to prepare a comprehensive meal packed with nutrition in a single container that just needs reheating by clients.

I got to thinking about this recently when I saw a piece on casseroles in The Kitchn. They ran a list of casserole links and what was interesting was that recipes not only described how to prepare the dish but in advance of that, how to prep the ingredients for freezing and provide instructions to the recipient for  making it later.

One of those recipes struck a chord with me. It was baked chicken with rice. Once I sorted through the freezing instructions, which I didn’t need, I realized that this was a casserole I could fall in love with. After all, it takes two dishes I really enjoy–roasted or baked chicken and grains filled with vegetables and herbs and spices. All this does it put them together in an easy-to-make, one-dish meal.

Like all great casseroles, you can change this up, depending on the season or the ingredients you have or prefer. I happened to find elephant garlic scapes at a specialty market in San Diego. These are a rare find so I nabbed what I thought I could use (I usually make pesto with scapes) and decided to add some to my casserole, along with mushrooms, marinated artichoke hearts, and onion.

You could add sliced kalamata olives and capers for one specific flavor profile. Or you could go in a totally different direction with tomatillos, fresh poblano or Anaheim chiles. Or eggplant, zucchini, red bell peppers, pine nuts, and za’atar. Cooking for one? I do–and I easily cut this recipe in half for two meals. I just used a smaller baking dish.

So, use this as a foundation for building your own one-dish wonder for clients. I hope you’ll share with us what you came up with.

Chicken and Whole Grains Casserole
Serves 2 to 4

Ingredients
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
½ cup of your favorite vinaigrette
½ cup onion, diced
½ cup fresh shitake mushrooms, sliced
½ cup garlic cloves sliced (or, when in season, garlic scapes)
1 cup marinated artichoke heart quarters
2 cups brown rice
¼ cup wheat berries, wild rice, farro, or other grains
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4 cups water, white wine, or chicken broth, depending on your preference

Directions
1. The day before you make the dish, combine the chicken thighs and vinaigrette in a freezer bag. Seal and massage the bag to coat the chicken. Refrigerate overnight.
2. Preheat the oven to 375˚F.
3. Grease a 9X13-inch baking dish with olive oil.
4. Combine the vegetables, grains, and herbs and spices in the baking dish. Stir in the liquids. Remove the chicken pieces from the bag and place them on top of the grains mixture.
5. Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for 1 hour. Uncover the dish and bake for up to another hour. You want the grains to have absorbed the liquid and the chicken to be cooked through with crispy skin.

Do you enjoy a casserole or make them for clients? What is your favorite?

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.

And if you are a member and have a special talent to share on this blog, let us know so we can feature you!

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La Cocina Que Canta

One of my favorite food writing jobs was contributing to Rancho La Puerta’s blog and app. Every month, I would go down to their cooking school, La Cocina Que Canta, and participate in a hands-on class taught by a renowned cooking teacher, restaurateur, or cookbook author. One month it was Deborah Madison and it was memorable. For one thing, it was pouring rain, so the usual routine of participants first going to the magnificent garden just outside of the cooking school and picking the produce before returning to cook had to be scratched. But that was okay because the plan for that day was to make soup.

The kitchen

So, 15 of us sat around a long table and Madison led us through what you could call the soup-making journey—10 basic steps that most soups require, a concept she developed for her book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, a book she’s just updated and reissued. See, while recipes are wonderful, being liberated from them to make delicious soups through inspiration and basic knowledge is something any cook or chef aspires to. Of course, we had seven of her recipes on hand to guide us in the kitchen that rainy day—from Red Lentil Soup with Lime and Spinach to Quinoa, Potato and Spinach Soup with Feta Cheese (recipe below).

New Vegetarian Cookbook

Not familiar with Madison? You should be. A chef, writer, and clearly talented cooking teacher, she was among the first contemporary chefs to develop the farm-to-table menu style now so popular among restaurants across the country. With Greens restaurant in San Francisco, where she was the founding chef in 1979, Madison established a career that has led to more than a dozen cookbooks (which have earned awards from IACP and the James Beard Foundation among others) and writing assignments from Saveur, Cooking Light, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Fine Cooking, and Garden Design.

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While she admitted she doesn’t spend time thinking about the connection between words and food, Madison believes that food is bigger than a recipe and has everything to do with what we are. For her food is a lens through which anyone can view his or her life.

“It has nothing to do with being interested in food, or a good cook, or a lousy one, or a foodie or any of that,” she told me that day. “It has to do with everything we are, starting with nurture or the lack thereof.”

Given her enthusiasm for the bounty of the garden and farm, it makes sense that Madison’s starting point is the contemplative space of her home garden in New Mexico, and the community scene of the local farmers market. In fact, Madison spent time as a market manager and is a big fan of the Santa Fe Farmers Market. “It’s about running into friends, some of whom are the farmers, exchanging greetings and news, maybe sharing a recipe idea for some new squash or other produce, sometimes planning an impromptu dinner.”

One of her books, Local Flavors, gives advice on how to shop at a farmers market, but she also offered some tips for those just venturing away from the grocery store and into the open air:

  • First of all, shopping at a farmers market for the first time is an adventure, and adventures are good for us to have, so go with an open mind and don’t worry.
  • Always make a pass through the market and take a look at what’s there, the prices, the quality, what appeals to you, before you buy. That way you get the lay of the land. As you shop more and more at a market, you may find you have favorite vendors that you always return to—I know I do —but even so, I like to take a look around first just to see what’s there.
  • Do accept tastes and ask questions about foods that may be unfamiliar.  And just because you took a taste of something, it doesn’t mean you have to buy. You’re sampling and informing yourself.
  • If you feel very unsure about what the food you see at the farmers market, for you might well see different varieties than what’s in the supermarket, start with those vegetables and fruits that are familiar, that you already use—carrots, onions, garlic, apples, strawberries. Then maybe choose one food that’s new to you—a white eggplant, a different variety of cabbage, an exotic fruit.

Once you have that produce back home—and maybe it’s a soup kind of day like ours was—Madison has suggestions that include making your own quick vegetable stock from the trimmings you would ordinarily immediately toss into the compost pile, tasting the soup not just for more salt but perhaps acid to create balance (it turns out a little lemon juice can go a long way to creating that “aha” flavor moment), and to just make plenty.

“Soup generally gets better as it sits,” Madison said. “It can make an instant homemade meal when you’ve got a big pot on hand, and, if you give a little thought to the garnishes and textures, you can turn one pot into many soups.”

That’s the über cooking teacher offering practical guidance. But now that we’re into cool, even cold, weather when soups become more than just a flavorful meal but, in their heartiness, are embracing and nurturing, it’s worth thinking about the connections Madison draws between food and our inner lives.

“Perhaps that’s where the magic lies,” she proposed. “Food is really about our larger, deeper lives, and we all have those, whether we’re close to our deeper selves or not.”

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Quinoa, Potato and Spinach Soup with Feta Cheese
From Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
Serves 6

“This grain-based soup is light, delicious, pretty, fresh, and very simple to make. And with the quinoa, it’s highly nutritious. What more could one ask of a recipe?” DM

Ingredients
3/4 cup quinoa, rinsed
1 small bunch spinach, stems removed, leaves washed and chopped
8 ounces Yukon Gold or other potato, diced in 1/4-inch cubes
1 jalapeño chile, seeded and finely diced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground, toasted cumin seed
1 teaspoon salt, to taste, and freshly ground pepper
4 ounces feta cheese, finely diced in small cubes
3 scallions, thinly sliced in rounds, including a few of the greens
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1 hard-cooked egg, diced (optional)

1. Simmer the quinoa in 7 cups water for 10 minutes. When the quinoa is done, drain it, reserving the water, which you’ll use in the soup.
2. While the quinoa is cooking, cut the vegetables and set them aside.
3. Heat the oil in a 3-quart saucepan with the garlic and chile, cook for about 30 seconds, without browning the garlic, then add the cumin, salt and potatoes. Measure the quinoa cooking liquid plus water, if needed, to make 6 cups. Add it to the vegetables, bring to a boil, then add the quinoa and simmer, partially covered, until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes, then turn off the heat. Taste for salt and season the soup with pepper. Add the cheese, then stir in the spinach and the scallions. As soon as the spinach is wilted, serve the soup, garnished with the cilantro and hard-cooked egg, if using.

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Is there a chef/cookbook author who inspires you? Tell us about that connection!

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.

And if you are a member and have a special talent to share on this blog, let us know so we can feature you!

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Radish Greens Pesto

Radish Greens Pesto

We promised you that we’d keep you posted on 2017 culinary forecasts. Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants just released its Third Annual Culinary & Cocktails Trend Forecast. And while this is more or less directed toward restaurants, personal chefs are also at the forefront of cool new stuff in the kitchen for weekly clients as well as catering events and teaching classes.

The forecast findings were uncovered via an extensive survey of leading chefs, sommeliers, general managers and bartenders from 70+ acclaimed Kimpton restaurants, bars and lounges across 30+ U.S. cities. New this year, the report also includes insights from renowned food influencers, photographers and videographers. These culinary and cocktail aficionados partnered with Kimpton to create original content via videos, recipes and images, to showcase their unique take on interesting forecast findings. You can find them at this website.

“When it comes to culinary trends, Kimpton chefs and bartenders are on the hunt for the flavors and techniques that tantalize taste buds and expand diners’ culinary universe. They’re true trendsetters and innovators in our kitchens and bars,” said Alex Taylor, Kimpton’s senior vice president of restaurants & bars. “These are the most creative and cutting-edge culinary concepts that will pepper menus and home kitchens in the coming year.”

Kimpton.2017.C.C.Trends.Infographic

So, here’s what they’re predicting:

Top Culinary Trends:

  • A surge in Mediterranean-inspired dishes like creamy sesame hummus with braised chickpeas, olive oil charred octopus, and Moroccan spiced lamp chops with tomato-cucumber fattoush and lemon yogurt
  • New twists on favorite childhood desserts like boozy berry sundaes with blackberry chartreuse and sour cherry mascarpone-flavored frozen push-ups
  • Ongoing interest in using the whole beast to create rich, flavorful dishes like oven-roasted bone marrow burgers, chicken skin chips crusted with quinoa and marcona almonds, braised pork neck ragout pappardelle, and cheekily named pig face candy bars with country style pâté and raw sugar brulée
  • The sustainability-driven “root to leaf” movement that embraces using vegetables in their entirety in dishes like radish greens, carrot top pesto, salt roasted beets, and celery root purées
  • More lean meat alternatives popping onto menus to be featured in dishes like smoked elk carpaccio and venison tartare as well as ox, bison, boar, ostrich for the more adventurous diner
  • Spices like cardamom, cumin and turmeric that add an extra kick to any dish.

Leading Cocktail Trends:

  • Adding a culinary twist to classic cocktails with unique ingredients like roasted grapes, salt-roasted plantains, smoked tomato water, puréed red pepper, snap peas, corn, or even pickling brine to create either sweet or savory culinary cocktails
  • South American-inspired cocktails like a Caipirinha using mezcal, cachaça, jalapeño-infused cachaça, serrano chili syrup or pisco
  • Fat-washing cocktails with alternative non-meat-based fats like milk, coconut and peanut butter
  • Wine and cheese remain the top food and drink pairing, but fresh new combinations like oysters and gin or sherry and fries will emerge as chefs and bartenders collaborate more on tasting menus and small plates
  • Signature cocktails developed out of fermented beverages like Kombucha, ginger beer and coconut kefir for creations like a cranberry and tangerine Kombucha cocktail

What culinary trends have you been noticing that you’re gearing up for in 2017? Anything you’re dreading?

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.

And if you are a member and have a special talent to share on this blog, let us know so we can feature you!

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