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Sunday, July 14

Gapers Block

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I've been told by countless people (including a police officer I ran into at a fabric store) that my recipe for a whole roast chicken is fabulous. And I want to thank every single one of you who said that, even if you haven't made the recipe yet.

But for those of you who are ready to "kick it up a notch," as that wacky TV chef exclaims, it's time to get out yer oven mitts and invite someone to dinner. Cause if you can master one whole chicken, you can easily master two cornish game hens (they're just small chickens) and two simple but delicious sides that will have your dining companion eating out of the palm of your hand before the end of the evening. *wink, wink*

I've had a tendency with this column to really explore one ingredient and provide a variety of ways to use it. But I actually got a request from someone who said, "I'm a horrible dresser. I have all these great pieces but I can't put them together. I'm the same way in the kitchen. I can make great dishes, but I'm not sure what to put together to make a meal where everything tastes right together, and not just separately. Can you provide more whole meals?"

And I'll admit that I have the same issues. I get caught on one taste desire and I make it show up in every aspect of a meal. Chicken breasts cooked in lemon, a green salad with a tart lime-juice vinaigrette, and rice that's been flavored with chili powder and pomegranate juice. All three things that taste great but together you end up puckered out. It's like Heidi Klum said all the time on Project Runway, "It's too matchy-matchy. No one would wear all that together."

It's about balance. And this is where I've had my struggles. But it's an area I'm going to try to work on in the coming months. It's all about finding balance between main dishes and sides, marrying flavors, merging competing styles, and still creating a pleasing meal that is balanced on the food pyramid and on the taste buds.

There are four main flavors. Sweet, sour, bitter and salty. There is a fifth one claimed by some chefs called umami, but I'm a long way from being able to explain it except to point it out when I stumble across it. In order for a meal to be complete, it should have all four of these flavors present.

I'll be presenting a recipe for cornish hens brined overnight and then baked with a pomegranate and ginger glaze. To balance this sweetish but slightly tart main dish, I'll present broccoli rapini steamed and then tossed with garlic and chili flakes. For a mild and taming element, a starchy side of rice cooked in chicken broth with sunflower seeds and dried apricots.

Cornish Hens with Pomegranate and Ginger Glaze
2 1 to 1-1/2 pound cornish hens
1/2 cup salt
1 quart of water
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
2-4 cloves of garlic

For the glaze:
1 cup of pomegranate juice
1 tablespoon of fresh ginger, minced
1/2 cup of apple juice (or another non-citrus juice)
1 teaspoon of corn starch
1/4 cup of cold juice or water

The night before you wish to cook, place the cornish hens in a large container or a zipper bag. Combine the salt, water, sugar and pomegranate juice in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir constantly until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Turn off the heat and throw a couple handfuls of ice cubes into the pan. Once they're all melted and the contents of the pan are warm but not hot, pour it over the hens. Seal and place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and preferably 12 to 18.

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Place the hens breast side down in a small roasting pan. Sprinkle the inside only with pepper (it will burn on the outside and turn bitter). Crush one or two cloves of garlic per bird with the flat side of a knife. Rub on the outside of the bird and then toss them into the cavity. Place in the center of the oven. They will cook for a total of 45-60 minutes, or until the juices in the thickest part of the breast run clear when poked with a fork or knife. While they are roasting, bring the pomegranate juice, ginger and apple juice to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally for about 10-15 minutes. The contents of the pan should have decreased by half. If this works right, you'll notice that when you dip a spoon into the pan and pull it out, it will coat the spoon. If it seems syrupy, you're in good shape. If it doesn't seem syrupy, mix the corn starch into a little cold water or juice. Stir until no lumps remain, then slowly pour the mixture into the pan with one hand while stirring quickly with the other with a spoon or whisk. After a minute or two of boiling you should have a thick syrup ready for glazing.

Using a brush, baste the hens with the glaze. You want to begin basting every 10 minutes, but only after the birds have cooked for about 15-20 minutes. The glaze has a tendency to burn, which will cause the outside of the birds to cook too quickly. Baste the birds at least three times while they cook. After cooking for 35-45 minutes (longer for larger birds) turn the hen onto its back and baste the breast. Let cook for another 10 minutes and baste again before removing from the oven. Let the hens sit for about 10 minutes before serving. If you like you can loosely cover them with aluminum foil.

After you glaze the hens for the first time, you're ready to start the rice.

Basmati or Jasmine Rice With Sunflower Seeds and Dried Apricots
1 cup of white rice
2 cups of chicken broth
1/4 cup of sunflower seeds
1/4 cup of dried apricots, chopped fine

In a rice cooker combine all of the ingredients, stir, cover, set to cook and walk away until you're ready to plate and eat.

If you don't have a rice cooker, bring the chicken broth to a simmer in a large saucepan over medium to medium-low heat. Add the rice, sunflower seeds and apricots. Cover. Reduce the heat to a very low simmer and let cook for 20 minutes. After about 15 minutes (since rice on the stove can be tricky) remove the lid and stir with a fork. If it seems done or almost done turn off the heat, cover and let sit until you're ready to serve. If there still seems to be some liquid in the pan, cover and let cook for another three to five minutes before turning off the heat. Keep it covered and out of the way. Just before plating stir the rice with a fork to loosen the grains and make it more fluffy.

About 15 minutes before you're done with the hens, you're ready to begin the broccoli rapini or broccoli rabe. Contrary to what the name tells you, this is not some cute little cousin of broccoli. It's more closely related to turnip greens. It has a slightly bitter taste, which will help offset some of the sweetness of the rice and the hen.

Broccoli Rabe with Garlic and Chili Flakes
1/2 pound of broccoli rabe
3 tablespoons of salt
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon of chili flakes

Bring a large pan of water to a boil over medium high heat. Rinse the broccoli rabe under cold water. Cut off and discard the stem below the first leaf. Cut the stems into 2-inch sections. You don't have to do this one stalk at a time — grab about half of the stems, make sure they're pointed in the same direction and chop. Once the water is fully boiling, add the 3 tablespoons of the salt to the water and toss in the rabe. The salt will help tame some of the bitterness. Let it cook for about 1-2 minutes. Now place a skillet over a medium burner, add the garlic and stir for a minute. Strain the rabe from the water and add it to the skillet. Sprinkle with the salt, pepper and chili flakes and toss until well coated, then let it cook for 1-2 minutes. Turn off the heat, but leave covered.

If everything times out right, you'll have the chicken ready to receive its final coat of glaze now and you'll be ready to begin dishing the plates. Remove the lid from the rice, fluff with a fork, and then place about half the rice on each plate, leaving room beside it for the rabe. Now set one of the hens on top of the rice (the sweet but still slightly tart flavors go together). The bitter and slightly salty greens go just beside the rice and hen. You're now ready to sit with your guest and enjoy the meal which probably took you an hour to an hour and a half to prepare, but it's going to be so worth it.

Now if you're wondering why I think that a fairly labor intensive hour of cooking just before eating is such good date food, I'll tell you. I find there's very little that is more pleasing than watching someone cook especially for me. And if that happens to be someone I'm interested in, even better. And if that person is obviously going outside of their comfort zone, then it means they're adventurous and willing to take risks, and that's sexy.

Instead of inviting your guest over just as you're ready to serve dinner, make the invitation for when you plan on starting to cook. Let them help by rinsing the rabe, chopping apricots, measuring the sunflower seeds, etc. This doesn't have to be a spectator event, just involve them a little. But don't let them mince the garlic. (You can remove the garlic smell by rubbing your fingers against a stainless steel spoon under cold running water.) You'll see how well you work together (even if they claim to know nothing about cooking) and you'll get to chat and drink wine while you prepare your dinner and set the tone for your evening.

And if you're wondering what wine to serve with dinner, here are my three best guesses, one red and two white. Pinot noirs are generally light enough to go well with this dish but strong enough to stand up to the tartness of the pomegranate and apricots without clashing with the bitterness and spice of the broccoli rabe. But if you prefer a white wine you have two options. Go with a slightly sweet semillon. It will be sweeter than the two dishes so it will complement them and the rabe well. If you prefer a dryer white wine, I'd go with one that is a bit on the tart side to make the hen and rice seem sweeter and help to mellow out the rabe if you're worried it may be too bitter. I'd suggest a Pinot Grigio. Since it's hard to find a grigio which tastes less like lemon juice and more like wine, I'm going to give a brand recommendation. Try to find a bottle of Santa Margherita. It will cost you about $25, but it's absolutely worth it. (Keep in mind that I'm notoriously cheap when shopping for wine and delight in finding tasty wines for less than $10.)

I also admit there are a lot of dishes that are involved in the preparation of this meal and I apologize. Not all future meals will require you to have four burners going at the same time as the oven. But if you're trying to impress and push your boundaries, you're not going to be doing it with a casserole.

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