Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Summer Braise, Makes Me Feel Fine

You know how some people forget the same thing over and over? Where they left their cell phones, or their keys, or their sister's birthday? I have the same problem with braising. Like the person that is so distracted with the kids and bills and work that the placement of their keys takes a backseat, braising always seems to fall by the wayside for faster, easier, more time saving preparations. Or so I think. Braising is ideally done with thicker cuts of meat, sinuous bits that need tenderizing and long stewing in liquid in order to be beaten into submission. But the truth is that you can essentially braise anything that can cook for a few minutes without overcooking and becoming tough. Lately I've favored fresh veggies and fish that need little done to them and have therefore ignored this wonderful and flavor packed cooking method.

Because braising is cooking in liquid, usually with the lid on, everything in the pot ends up reducing and concentrating their flavors, so you get the most out of the ingredients you're using. That means, little effort by the cook spent on browning and stirring, and more time spent on sitting and relaxing, or getting something else done. With this in mind I decided to find out if I could use something as simple and quick cooking as boneless, skinless chicken tenders with a braising method. I had some leftover from another recipe and figured I should take them on a test run for a light, braised dish that would work well for warmer weather. After all, we already have to wait until summer to grill (mostly), do we really have to limit another cooking method to fall and winter? Of course not.

The first thing that came to mind was a simple and paired down version of arroz con pollo. Traditionally made with whole chicken parts, it's a delicious, complete meal of skin-on chicken with rice, infused with onions, peppers, garlic, chicken broth and paprika (among other things, depending on where you're from). It's a classic braised dish that can easily serve a huge crowd and always satisfies. To cut down on prep time (and quantity) I used boneless, skinless chicken breast, which is quick cooking and lean (although I looove crunchy chicken skin!). I coated it very lightly in flour, then browned it, taking it out while it was still slightly underdone in the center, then cooked the onions and red bell peppers in the lovely drippings that remained. I deglazed the whole thing with chicken stock and lime juice to pick up the salty browned bits at the bottom of the skillet and added a little cilantro for a bright herbal hit. I let the whole thing reduce for a bit to concentrate the flavor, then added the chicken again, with a lid and let it braise and reduce.

When it was done, the sauce had thickened and coated the chicken, the peppers were like long languid strings, and the onions had melted into the sauce, which was perfumed with cilantro and slightly tart from the lime juice. To counteract that tartness I topped the dish off with sweet avocado. And instead of rice, I served the dish over my new favorite grain, quinoa. I found a gorgeous organic red variety and I haven't looked back since. It has a nice toothy bite, and mild flavor, and tastes even better when cooked in chicken stock. Together the chicken and quinoa dish was delicious, and the leftovers lasted me for two days (it reheated really well, even at work). I also made sure to serve it with fat lime wedges for those who like extra kick (like me), and to keep the avocado nice and green. Overall I was so happy with it, that I've been convinced that braising is the way to go. From now on, I'll be looking into new ways to apply this great technique to everything I cook. Here's my recipe, and remember, you can use this for thicker, bone-in cuts of chicken, or large chicken breasts, just add a little more liquid and a longer cooking time.

Easy Braised Chicken with Quinoa

1 tray boneless, skinless chicken tenders

1 cup flour
4 tsps olive oil
1 thinly sliced onion
2 small red bell peppers, cored and thinly sliced
3 large garlic cloves, minced
3 3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 Tbsps chopped fresh cilantro, plus 1 teaspoon for garnish
2 limes
1 avocado, chopped
1 cup quinoa (I used Inca red quinoa, but any variety will do)

1. Bring 2 cups chicken stock to a boil and add quinoa cook until all liquid is absorbed and quinoa is cooked through. Add water to cook further if necessary.

2. Meanwhile, season chicken with salt and lightly coat each piece with flour, shaking off any excess. Heat 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil in a medium sized skillet and add chicken, browning on both sized. Remove to a plate once browned.

3. Add bell peppers to skillet and saute on medium high heat until softened, then add onion and garlic. Cook until onions have softened, then add remaining chicken stock (1 3/4 cups), juice of one lime and 2 tablespoons cilantro. Bring to a boil and cook for five minutes, then add chicken (and any accumulated juices), cover and allow to simmer and reduce, about 10 minutes.

4. Remove chicken to a plate or bowl and allow sauce to boil until reduced further. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add chicken (and any juices) and serve over quinoa, topped with chopped avocado and sprinkled with remaining cilantro. Garnish with remaining lime. Enjoy!


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