January 1, 2008

Happy New Year!

I hope you spent the last bits of 2007 and the first bits of 2008 with those you love, or doing something you enjoy (or, ideally, both). E and I spent New Years Eve at G's house with friends, making and enjoying a 4-course meal that spanned two years.

We ended 2007 with an extremely labor intensive mushroom and ricotta stuffed pasta (a BT-invention of sorts), which, predictably, like all invented from scratch BT recipes, went a little wrong and needs to be done again, properly.

This time, the mistake I made was that I stacked all of the pasta pockets on the same plate in the hot steamy kitchen. They stuck together and the dough ripped when BC, who volunteered to help, started trying to boil them. I had to feed 8, so what else could I do, but admit failure and roll about half of them into mushroom pasta balls, which surprised me by maintaining their structural integrity when boiled.

My advice to you is to keep the pasta separated from each other at a minimum and ideally in the fridge or freezer until they are boiled, and remember that good ingredients will taste excellent even with structural failure. Also, for efficiency, remember to buy and use a pasta cutter to avoid hand-folding the pockets on all sides, and if you forget the pasta cutter, settle for knife-edge pasta. Finally, melted butter with chopped sage and porcini broth makes an excellent mushroom-stuffed pasta and mushroom-pasta-ball sauce, which gets even better when you top it with shaved parmigiano and truffle oil.

After course 1, we briefly left the table to toast the new year with each other and via Skype with our sister-party of G's siblings.

We started 2008 with a wonderful winter vegetable soup from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which, when O announced where she found the recipe, all of the current and former vegetarians at the table chimed in to say it was their favorite cookbook. Carrots, potatoes, parsnips, onions, leaks, milk and more -- hearty and delicious. I may have to add the Deborah Madison cookbook to my wishlist, although, truth be told, I already have more recipes in my kitchen than I could cook in a lifetime.

What surprised me, however, was that the third course of fontina-basil-prosciutto-stuffed chicken seemed to beat out the pasta with the majority of the crowd. It's a favorite of E's that I hadn't made in years, that came to mind because O doesn't eat red meat and it can be easily modified for non-red meat eaters. I figured it would be good, but not as good as the mushroom decadence. Given everyone's delight with this offering, and the fact that it's relatively healthy and not very difficult, I think the best way to start the new year is to share it with you.

Fontina, basil, and prosciutto stuffed chicken

-1 chicken breast per person (I bought the fresh, pre-skinned, de-boned, free-range expensive chicken breasts and suspect that may explain why this was such a hit -- they were moist and flavorful)
-1 slice of proscuitto per 2 persons
-1 small slice of fontina per person (1.5 inch X 0.5 inch is fine)
-1/4 basket of cherry tomatoes per person, stemmed, rinsed, and halved
-1/4 shallot per person, minced
-2 basil leaves per person, chopped
-dash of chicken broth per person
-olive oil
-balsamic vinegar

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Clean the breasts and pat dry. With a knife, on the wider side of the breast, slice a pocket into the breast ensuring that at least one side of the pocket (the bottom) stays intact.

2. Salt and pepper the inside of the pocket. Layer chopped basil, prosciutto, and fontina in the pocket and close so that nothing is showing (feel free to wrap the lower, thinner end of the breast up towards the top if the end of the pocket isn't sealed.

3. Salt and pepper the outside of the breast and lightly pound to flatten (but don't let the pocket contents peak out).

4. Place breast in the olive-oiled baking dish. Repeat steps 1-4 for each breast

5. Place dish in the oven and bake until done but not dry (no one likes dry chicken!), which will depend on the size of the breasts, but you can cut them open and check without anyone knowing because they will be topped with the sauce. Small breasts take about 15-20 minutes and larger ones, if stacked together, side-by-side in a pan will take about 22-25 minutes.

6. While the breasts are baking, sautee your minced shallot in olive oil. Add all leftover chopped basil and tomatoes and simmer for a minute or two. Add a douse of balsamic vinegar (once around the pan, quickly for 8 breasts) and a dash of chicken broth and cook for another few minutes until the sauce thickens. Remove the sauce from heat.

7. When the breasts are done, place them on a plate and top with the cherry tomatoes and sauce.

Serve immediately. Enjoy!

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