"I'm sick," my friend Cindy sniffled into the phone.
A summer cold, the kind that works its way through your entire body and makes you feel like jello, had taken hold, so we had to let go of our plan to spend last Sunday evening cooking together.
A few weeks ago, when Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice and Cath of A Blithe Palate invited me to join other bloggers and cook from Faith Heller Willinger's new book, Adventures of an Italian Food Lover: with recipes from 254 of my very best friends, I knew instantly which Italian food lover I'd invite to dinner. I called Cindy, not because she is my most Italian friend (she is), or because she is a professional food stylist (she is), or because she is a certified executive pastry chef (she is). And not because we have gone on several food adventures together, to an Asian supermarket in Boston and to farm stands closer to home (we have), and not even because she runs highly entertaining "insider" walking tours of Providence's Federal Hill, the most Italian neighborhood in Rhode Island (she does).
I wanted to cook for Cindy, and her husband Ken, because she makes friends wherever she goes. She knows the man who sells her pasta and proscuitto, the woman who grows giant zucchini blossoms, the ladies who bake the best pastries, and the neighbor who grows grapes in his backyard vineyard and makes wine in the garage. Food shopping, to her, is a person-to-person experience, and that is the premise of Ms. Willinger's book, too.
Choosing a menu was easy.
For four or five months each year, my garden supplies fresh herbs to The Perfect Pantry. You might not think of the garden as an extension of your pantry, but fresh herbs, like onions and garlic and salt and pepper, are essential to good cooking, and truly robust herbs, when you can find them in the grocery store, are hideously expensive. If you're lucky enough to have a little space outdoors -- a few square feet of soil, or a balcony or window box -- there is nothing more satisfying than gathering ingredients for a recipe by grabbing your nippers and heading out to harvest. And nothing does more to lift everyday food to extraordinary heights than an infusion of fresh herbs.
It's prime time in my herb garden this month, so as the centerpiece of our meal I chose Brick-Grilled Chicken Breasts or Thighs (page 123), a recipe from Lorenzo Guidi, chef at Nanamuta in Florence.
Then, Cindy and I pored through the book, and selected Ricotta-stuffed Zucchini Flowers (page 96) and Ginger Apricot Biscotti (page 64) to complete the menu.
The chicken needed to marinate overnight, so on Saturday afternoon I harvested basil, mint, rosemary, thyme, lemon thyme and sage. I chopped the herbs with lemon zest, mixed in some lemon-rosemary seasoned sea salt, and rubbed both chicken breasts and thighs with the herb mixture.
The recipe included cherry tomatoes with basil, so Ted and I decided to skip the zucchini blossoms -- too much food for two, with Cindy and Ken unable to join us -- and to cook our chicken on the grill instead of stovetop. Ted washed three bricks and wrapped them in aluminum foil. (When you live in the country, bricks, like rocks and wood and pine cones, are easy to come by.)
I worried that the marinade for the chicken did not include any oil, or any liquid at all. Would the chicken be moist? Would the herbs burn off? No cause for concern; the chicken was absolutely delicious, tender and still tasting of fresh herbs, fully cooked after less than eight minutes on the grill.
For the biscotti, Ted and I followed the recipe (oh, how I hate to measure!) and produced lovely shortcake-like cookies. Unlike traditional biscotti, these are baked just once, making them easy to throw together in just a few minutes.
I packed up some of the chicken, tomatoes and biscotti, along with the book itself (which I'd received from the nice folks at Clarkson Potter), into a little get-well-soon package for Cindy -- a small gift in exchange for the wonderful gift of her friendship.
Brick-grilled chicken thighs
One of the very best chicken dishes I've made in years, this recipe, from Faith Heller Willinger's Adventures of an Italian Food Lover, takes full advantage of the abundance of fresh herbs in my garden. Of course I made a couple of changes here and there (indicated in parentheses), and added two items that I think really bumped up the lemon flavor: lemon thyme, and lemon-rosemary sea salt. Serves 4.
1 tsp fresh rosemary leaves (I used 2 tsp of all of the herbs)
1 tsp fresh sage leaves
1 tsp fresh mint leaves
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves (or half lemon thyme)
1 Tbsp fresh basil leaves (I used 2 Tbsp)
1 strip lemon zest (I used 2)
1-2 chili peppers (I used jalapeno, with the seeds and ribs removed)
1-2 garlic cloves
Fine sea salt (try this one)
4 boned chicken breasts or 6-8 boned chicken thighs (I used 3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts and 5 boneless, skinless chicken thighs)
1-1/2 to 2 cups cherry tomatoes
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (I used 1 Tbsp)
Bricks (we needed 3 to cover all of the chicken)
Mince the rosemary, sage, mint, thyme, 1 tsp of basil, the lemon zest, as much chili pepper as desired, garlic, and 1 tsp sea salt together (you can do this by hand or in a small food processor). Sprinkle the herb mixture over the chicken, coating both sides. Put the chicken and any leftover herbs in a plastic bag or bowl to marinate in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
Cut the cherry tomatoes in half or quarters. Chop the remaining basil and add to the tomatoes. Season with sea salt and 1 Tbsp extra virgin oil, and set aside.
Rinse the bricks and cover with aluminum foil. Or prepare two plates, each large enough to cover a couple of pieces of chicken, and two heavy weights (cast-iron pan, pot of water, bags of beans, boxes of rice, etc. -- creativity helps). Lightly oil a ridged grill pan or a cast-iron pan large enough to hold the chicken. Place over high heat. When the pan is smoking, put the chicken in one layer and cover with the bricks or weighted plates. Turn the heat down to medium and cook the chicken for 2-4 minutes. Remove the bricks, turn the chicken over, replace the bricks, and finishing cooking for another 2-4 minutes.
(What we did: Heat a gas grill to high heat; place the chicken on the grill with the bricks on top. Close the lid. Immediately turn the grill heat to medium. Cook 4 minutes; then, turn the chicken, cover with the bricks again, put the lid down, and cook 4 minutes more, until done.)
Let the chicken rest for 3 minutes, then cut diagonally into 1/2-inch slices. Drizzle with the remaining oil (our chicken didn't need this), and serve with the tomatoes.
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