Monday, May 3, 2010

Totally Baked

With summer just a few weeks away and a beachside vacation on the horizon, I've been looking for waist-friendly meals to add to my dinner repertoire. When seeking out new dishes I often start with the ingredients. Being a seasonally minded cook, I try to think about what's around, what's in season, and then find inspiration from there. These days, however, I've been taking a different approach, looking to new techniques as a way to create dishes with the seasonal ingredients I love. I was recently watching Everyday Food--a great cooking show that airs on PBS and other public television channels, and is created by the Martha Stewart test kitchens--for inspiration. Their recipes are significantly less fussy than what you'd normally associate with Martha, and are aimed at home cooks looking to put delicious, fresh meals on the table in a flash. They find a way to keep food sophisticated and seasonal while making it easy and approachable, especially for families. Their first cookbook got me through the early days of my home cooking obsession, and I highly recommend their magazine and subsequent cookbooks to home cooks of all levels. 

A recent episode of their show revolved around finding alternatives to a baked lasagna and other standard pasta dinners. I've never been one to make baked pasta dishes at home, and having grown up with mostly Spanish food at home, anything resembling a casserole was completely foreign to me. But their baked pasta dish really called out to me because it was both healthy and flavorful, and frankly, pretty neat looking. The dish was basically baked orzo with chicken, but also made use of the wonderful citrus that was in season and is still abundant, not to mention some great feta cheese and fresh dill. It didn't use much fat, only a tablespoon of butter dissolved into chicken stock, and boneless, skinless chicken breast. Despite the lack of fat and use of lean lean ingredients, the dish was super flavorful. I definitely made adjustments and felt that it needed a little flavor boosting. It needed more cheese, more salt and pepper, and more herbs, in my opinion, (which is reflected in the recipe below) but otherwise I'd say it's a really solid dish. There's minimal effort that goes into putting it together, and with the exception of bringing the chicken stock to a boil, it's pretty much a case of "everyone in the tub".

What I especially liked about the dish was the potential for adding more things to it. I can easily see sneaking in delicious veggies so that picky kids (or husbands) don't see them (zucchini, asparagus and broccoli come to mind), or playing around with the proteins and adding chopped shrimp or bay scallops, which I know would pair really well with the super lemony and dill scented broth. I can definitely see multiple iterations of this dish in my future, but in the meantime, this original version is healthy and super affordable. It feeds an army for under ten dollars, and would probably be an excellent pantry clean-out dish (toss in that jar of olives, roasted red peppers or artichokes). You could even play with the type of pasta, using Israeli couscous or even orecchiette or pinwheeled shaped pasta or something fun to keep little kids from noticing what else is in there. You could even add a little more crunch with a crumbly topping, say some toasted, seasoned breadcrumbs, perhaps mixed with some crushed nuts and a nice big pile of mint and dill. Regardless of how you may adjust it, it's certainly a dish worth making. Between prep and cooking and even 5 minutes of resting time, I found that the dish was on the table in under an hour. I had leftovers for lunch at work for two days, and with the addition of a few tablespoons of water and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese, it reheated in the office microwave like a dream. Not that leftovers would be a concern if you're feeding a large family--it's so good, I'm sure you'll have a clean baking dish by the end of the night.

Chicken, Lemon and Dill with Orzo
adapted from Everyday Food

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
3/4 cup water
1 Tbsp butter
2 tsp coarse salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 lb orzo
2 cups (4 oz) crumbled feta cheese
1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh dill
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint
2 tsp finely grated lemon zest, plus juice of 1 lemon
2 cups grated Parmesan

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a saucepan, bring broth, water, butter, salt, and pepper to a boil. In a 3-quart baking dish, combine chicken, orzo, feta, dill, mint, lemon zest and juice, plus 1 cup of Parmesan cheese. Pour broth mixture over orzo and stir once to incorporate. Bake until orzo is tender and cooking liquid is creamy, about 40 minutes. Sprinkle remaining cup of Parmesan on top and let stand 5 minutes before serving. Enjoy!



Kathryn said...

Hi Laura! We're going to try this for dinner tonight. I'll report back and let you know what all three of us think. :-)

Laura said...

That's excellent, I can't wait to hear how it turns out!

Kathryn said...

Reporting back: we made it and added broccoli and chicken. Overall we really liked it especially the lemony flavor and the wonderful tang of the mint, but we had two challenges:
--the orzo clumped a little
--the chicken needed a little more flavor.
Any suggestions? We definitely want to make it again. :-)

Laura said...

I didn't have any clumping issues, but I think that might mean that with the addition of the broccoli, you may need more liquid. It's probably absorbing a great deal when it cooks, just like the chicken and pasta do, so you may need more stock/water with each ingredient added.

I noticed the same thing about the chicken flavor, and I think for the next time, I'm going to play around with pre-salting the chicken. I'm going to try tossing it with salt, maybe a little onion powder, and leaving it in the fridge for 30 minutes to absorb the flavor. A really flavorful rub wouldn't hurt either, but I like to start with baby steps!