Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A romantic chicken salad, not forgetting the vinaigrette

The next big date flagged up with a huge red star on the calendar (apart from Superbowl weekend of course, which is marked in blue and yellow highlighters by the way) clearly has to be Valentine's Day. An occasion to have yourself legally robbed, both of cash and guilt, and put each and every one of us under the pressure we rarely would give to an enemy of the state while persuading them to reveal where they've hidden the big bombs.

Why cook at home and go to all that effort and mess rather than take the bother out to your favourite restaurant (which will be mercillesly jacking their prices up for the joy of the occasion)? Where is the fun in actually cooking at home, creating something to be proud of, watch it eaten (hopefully) and reaping the benefits of that warm fuzzy feeling of acomplishment. Who actually does this sort of nonsense anymore? There can be precious few of us left who really, trully and honestly want to cook for a loved one, making them happy through nourishment... Well stop right there daddy'o, we all should...Each and every one of us can make a wee difference in our kitchens, and trust me here, even if stuffed up, the effort goes a long long way at home.

The first time a girl cooked for me on, ironically it had to be on Valentine’s day, was when I was 16. Her parents were out of town, well I think that's what she told me. She dressed up a set of foot stools in her living room and built a fire in the fireplace.

For dinner, she made us each an enormous salad—a bowl piled high with spinach leaves, grilled chicken, walnuts, either dried cranberries or raisins I think and a cheese of one form or another, hopefully it was a goat's.

I do recall she wasn’t much of a cook, and was incredibly nervous about making everything perfect. So nervous, in fact, that she forgot to put any description of a dressing on our salads. It was close to awful; each mouthful was a chore to swallow, each bite crackled like the log fire, and every time I dug in for another forkful, the poor thing had to be accompanied by a coy smile or acknowledgment towards her efforts.

If I was you, I'd be thinking along the lines of something as straight forward as this (don't forget the dressing) for your love this Valentine's, well that or book your favourite over-priced restaurant as soon as you possibly can.

Jerusalem artichokes provide carbohydrates and starch in this all-in-one salad. I think it is ideal for a light lunch and it leaves you with just enough room for a quick dessert. If you’re short of time, of course you can leave out the hassle of the deep-fried onion rings, but they do give a nice bit of crunch to the salad.

This will serve 4 as a starter, or a cosy generous 2 on its' own.

400g Jerusalem artichokes, scrubbed and washed
2 tblsp olive oil
4 free-range chicken breasts, with skin on
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A few knobs of butter
150g baby spinach leaves, washed

For the vinaigrette
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
50ml sherry vinegar
150ml olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of caster sugar

For the onion rings
1 medium onion, peeled, cut horizontally and separated into rings
125g plain flour, plus 1 tblsp extra for dusting
30g corn flour
½ tsp fine sea salt
300ml light beer (or soda water)
Groundnut oil, for deep-frying

First, cook the Jerusalem artichokes. Boil them with their skin on in a pan of salted water until tender when pierced with a sharp knife, after about 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the vinaigrette. Mix the chopped shallot, vinegar and oil together in a small bowl and season to taste with the salt, pepper and sugar. Set aside and allow the flavours to infuse.

When tender, drain the Jerusalem artichokes and leave to cool slightly. Heat a frying pan with the oil until hot. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper and fry, skin-side down, for 3-4 minutes until the skin is golden brown and crisp. Turn over the breasts to cook the other side for another 3-4 minutes. Add a few knobs of butter and as it begins to foam, spoon over the butter to baste the chicken breasts. The thickest part of the breasts should feel firm when cooked through. Remove from the pan and leave to rest.

Cut the Jerusalem artichokes into thick slices. In the same pan that you cooked the chicken, melt a few more knobs of butter and add the artichoke slices. Fry for a few minutes each side until golden brown at the sides. Remove from the pan and keep warm.

To make the onion rings, sift the flour, corn flour and salt into a large bowl and make a well in the centre. Using a balloon whisk, mix in the beer or soda until the batter is just smooth.

Heat a deep-fat fryer or a heavy-based saucepan with about 15cm of groundnut oil until hot. (A small piece of bread dropped into it should sizzle immediately and float to the surface.) Deep-fry the onion rings a few at a time. Dust them lightly with flour then lightly coat in the batter. Gently drop the rings into the hot oil and fry until golden brown on both sides. Drain on kitchen paper and repeat with the remaining onion rings.

Toss the baby spinach and Jerusalem artichokes with some vinaigrette, then divide on to individual plates. Thickly slice the chicken breasts and place on top of the leaves. Scatter over the onion rings and drizzle more vinaigrette. Serve at once.

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