Archive for June, 2010

Spatchcock Chix

June 29, 2010

My first grill was a little hibachi. I thought I was smart with my charcoal briquettes, starter fluid and masses of smoke. It took so long to grill chicken outdoors that I usually half cooked it in the oven and used the coals for finishing flavor.

Everything’s different now with my kettle cooker. I’ve abandoned briquettes for lumps of hardwood charcoal and chased away smelly petroleum-based lighter fluid with a chimney starter and one sheet of newspaper. I cook a whole chicken, plus everything else for dinner, on my kettle grill in half an hour. It’s a great way to keep heat out of the house in summer.

Spatchcock is not only a fun word that hardly anyone knows anymore, but it explains one of the most efficient ways to grill a whole chicken. A shortened form for “dispatch the cock,” it refers to a split-open, flattened chicken ready to grill. Back in the 18th century the cock was no doubt turned on a spit over a hearth fire, and it works even better on the back patio barbecue.

You’ll find spatchcocking a simple operation that depends on a sharp chef’s knife and a sturdy wooden cutting board. You can also use a poultry shears if you have one, but the knife does the task faster.

Spatchcock Grilled Chicken

1 whole frying chicken, 3-4 pounds

salt to taste (suggest 1 ½-2 teaspoons)

Freshly ground pepper, ground allspice, paprika

Fresh sage, thyme or tarragon, optional

Stand the chicken upside down with the legs pointing up and cut down on either side of the backbone. Remove the bone (wrap and add to your stock stash in the freezer). Flatten the chicken, pushing down on the breastbone. To insure that the chicken remains flat, bare each knee pushing it out from under the skin and cut through the knee tendon without cutting through the joint. Replace the skin cover. This will prevent the legs from popping up as they roast. Tuck the wing tips under the shoulders and sprinkle both sides of the chicken with salt. For added flavor, dust the chicken with freshly ground pepper, a bit of allspice and paprika. If possible allow the chicken to rest at room temperature for half an hour before cooking. To fancy things up, tuck a few sage leaves or thyme springs under the breast and thigh skin along with some slivered fresh garlic.

Using a kettle grill, ready a charcoal fire, heating the grate and waiting for the temperature under the dome to reach 400º. If your kettle does not have a thermometer, test the heat by holding your hand over the coals, making sure it feels oven-like hot.

Place the chicken bone side down on the grill, cover and wait 20 minutes. (Use this time to scrub your cutting board well with soap and hot water.) If the skin has not begun to brown, turn the chicken over using tongs and grabbing one of the leg bones with a mitted hand. Replace cover and grill ten minutes more. Turn skin side up again and test with an instant-read thermometer, which should register 160º in the thigh.  Remove chicken to a wooden cutting board and allow it to rest 10 minutes before cutting.

Note; To cook an entire meal along with the chicken, add a large onion cut in ½ inch slices, a few small red potatoes parboiled 3–5 minutes and broccoli spears or halved zucchini. After the vegetables are cooked, sprinkle them with salt and drizzle with olive oil.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at

A Handful Of Summer

June 20, 2010

It’s surely summer when mulberries rain over the sidewalk and purple footprints stain the driveway. Some people call the berries a nuisance, but I know they’re an heirloom treasure. When I walk out in the early morning, I tuck a small plastic bag in my pocket, and when I reach low-hanging mulberry branches, I stop for a brief foraged harvest. I pop handfuls of berries into my mouth as a pre-breakfast snack, and others wait to top a bowl of oatmeal at home.

An ancient fruit, mulberries originated in China and have migrated worldwide. They’re long-lived, sturdy trees that demand little care and are often lumped in the “weed tree” category. Many people today are unaware that mulberries are edible and delicious. When a woman walking her dog passed me picking mulberries, she told me she’d had these trees in her yard for ten years and had never tasted the fruit.

I grew up with mulberries. The best tree along our road was in the Guy’s back yard. With pinkie-finger-long, dark berries, this giant tree arched over a small patch of lawn. I remember stretching out a tarp under the tree and shaking the branches with a staff hook while heaps of berries tumbled down. We gathered the bounty in a milk bucket and marched back to our house, where cherry trees stood, spotted red with ripe fruit. My mother concluded that the blander mulberries sweetened the tarter Montmorency cherries. A gorgeous pie gave us the best of both fruits with very little added sugar.

Clafouti is a French country pudding of cherries baked in a crepe-like batter. A few years ago I sampled clafouti sold by the slice in small French shops. I found the current version a light cake baked on top of fruit. To reconstruct this pastry I thought of an old-fashioned hot milk sponge cake. It’s almost unknown in our current cookery canon, but I found a recipe in a 1953 edition of The Joy Of Cooking. By reducing the sugar and using the sabayon technique, I came up with a dessert that works the wonder of my mom’s mulberry and cherry combo right back into the present. Leave the pits in the cherries for additional flavor and to prevent bleeding. This cake, low in fat and sugar, would be welcome at brunch or afternoon tea.

Mulberry Cherry Clafouti

5 oz. cherries with pits (1 cup)

2 oz. mulberries (1/2 cup)

1 ½ oz. all-purpose flour (1/3 scooped cup)

½ teaspoon baking powder

1 tablespoon butter

3 tablespoons milk

l large egg

tiny pinch salt

1 ¾ oz. sugar (1/4 cup)

¼ teaspoon vanilla

1/8 teaspoon almond extract (optional)

dusting of cinnamon/sugar

Butter a 7-inch round, shallow baking dish. Dust with plain cookie or graham cracker crumbs, if you have some. Strew in the cherries and the mulberries, making a solid layer of fruit. Preheat oven to 350º.

Sift together the flour and baking powder. Place the milk and butter in a glass or plastic cup and microwave just to heat the milk and melt the butter.

Choose a Pyrex or stainless steel bowl that will nestle on top of a saucepan with an inch of simmering water. This will be your double boiler. When the water is hot, break in the egg into the bowl, whisk with a pinch of salt and the sugar plus the vanilla and almond extracts. Continue to stir over the hot water until the egg mixture feels warm. Now beat with a whisk or a hand held mixer for 2 to 3 minutes or until the mixture increases in volume by 4 times and rises into a light sabayon, like soft whipped cream.

Remove the bowl from the double boiler and fold in the flour in two additions. Before the flour is fully combined, begin to dribble in the warm milk and butter at the side of the bowl. As soon as everything is mixed, pour the batter over the prepared fruit. Sprinkle with a bit of cinnamon sugar and place in the middle of the preheated oven. Bake 20-25 minutes or until lightly golden and tests done. Serves 6.

Mary Jo’s Cookbook is available at

Beans ’n’ Greens

June 14, 2010

It was an eastern seaboard summer holiday. We headed east first to New York City, where we walked through the hilltop Cloisters, sat near the stage at the Irish Repertory Theatre and dined on duck at Union Square. We crossed the George Washington Bridge and drove north, stopping near the shore to walk along rocky beaches and to wade in soft surf. We crept through quaint towns in snail-paced traffic and finally cracked lobsters on paper-topped tables. Dipping back from L.L. Bean country, we motored along the Finger Lakes bordered by gardens of blackberries and sugar peas alongside trellised vineyards. After the luxury of city tables and north Atlantic shellfish, I found my most memorable taste at a clapboard roadhouse just outside Geneva on the upper tip of Lake Seneca.

It was our last chance to gather road food before we hit the Interstate; I clamored against highway fast food. It was a lucky stop. The old-time Italian place smelled so inviting I wished it was time for lunch. A menu board listed the usual calzones and sandwiches; then I saw my dish: beans ’n’ greens. I ordered and breathed in the garlic aroma as I watched escarole bits dance in an oiled skillet. Sprinkled with Parmesan and tipped into a foil container, the dish tempted me for two hours in the car behind my seat. When we finally pulled up to a rest stop and dove in with plastic forks, it was, for me, the best dish of the whole trip.

Italian style beans ’n’ greens makes a side dish, a first course or a light lunch. It’s best with your own home-cooked beans, but rinsed canned beans will do. Choose the coarser, slightly bitter lettuce for the best flavor. Since I’m currently on a roll with garden greens, I used perennial arugula, young kale and some dark leaves of romaine. Here’s an example of memorable peasant food you can create at home for pennies.

Beans ’n’ Greens

1 ½ tablespoons olive oil

½ tablespoon chopped garlic (2 cloves)

pinch crushed red chili (optional)

4 loose cups chopped strong salad greens such as escarole, arugula, endive, romaine

1 cup cooked great northern or other white beans

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar, or to taste

Kosher or sea salt

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Cracked black pepper

Heat a medium skillet or wok. Swirl in olive oil and add garlic and crushed red chili pepper.

As soon as the garlic is fragrant, toss in the chopped greens, stirring lightly with a wooden spoon. As the greens wilt, add the beans and heat through, including a little water or bean broth if needed. Season with vinegar and salt.

Spill the contents of the skillet onto a small platter; sprinkle with grated Parm and dust with cracked pepper. Serves 2 – 4.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at

Strawberry Tres Leches

June 3, 2010

I’ve been a fan of Rick and Deanne Bayless’s work in Chicago for decades. I’ve dined at Topolobampo and Frontera, studied their cookbooks, and even once had the coveted experience of spending a day in the restaurant kitchen where I learned a technique for roasting dry chilis. I continually admire the cultural boost for Mexico the Baylesses bring to the U.S.  New Year’s can’t come to my house without a slow simmering mole based on Rick’s authentic Mole Poblano plus a steaming cauldron of tamales, and lately I’ve been delighted with ideas from the Frontera newsletter. When the last issue featured a strawberry tres leches cake, I jumped right on it.

With dairy farming in my heritage I’m drawn to all things milk, cream and butter. This Mexican feather light cake, moistened with a three-milk syrup is a cake of my dreams. I’ve found it wonderful plain, and the addition of strawberries to lighten the milk sweet makes it even better. I’ve borrowed most of these ideas from the Frontera newsletter recipe using my own basic yellow cake and giving the finished dessert a different look. A strawberry tres leches makes a perfect celebration cake for summer.

This dessert may have been originally promoted in Latin America to encourage the sale of canned milk products and it soon became a favorite. The flavor depends on the combination of evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and fresh milk or cream. You can quadruple the following recipe making a two layer 9-inch cake which will take the entire amount of both types of canned milk (a 12 oz. can evaporated and a 14 oz. can condensed) or you can make the smaller cake, divide the evaporated milk into four portions, using one and freezing the other three in small plastic containers for later. Follow the same procedure for the sweetened condensed milk; however, you can freeze the excess in one container since even frozen, it will remain soft enough to remove by spoonfuls.

Strawberry Tres Leches Cake (Gracias a Frontera)

3 oz. all-purpose flour (spooned in ¾ cup)

¾ teaspoon baking powder

2 oz. unsalted butter (½ stick)

3 ½ oz. sugar (½ cup)

1 large egg

½ teaspoon vanilla

scant ¼ teaspoon salt

2 fl. oz. milk (¼ cup)


3 fl. oz. evaporated milk (scant 1/3 cup)

2 ½ oz. sweetened condensed milk (2 heaping tablespoons)

2 tablespoons whole milk

¼ teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon Grand Marnier or Cointreau (optional)


6 oz. strawberries (1 cup in small dice)

2-3 teaspoons shaved piloncillo (Mexican unrefined sugar) or sugar

¼ teaspoon balsamic vinegar (optional)

½ teaspoon Grand Marnier or Cointreau (optional)


1 cup whipping cream

½ tablespoon sugar

½ teaspoon vanilla

To make the cake: preheat the oven to 350º; butter and flour a 7- or 8-inch layer cake pan.

Sift together the flour and baking powder; set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar until light. Whip in the egg until the mixture is fluffy. Add and beat in vanilla and salt. Alternately add the flour and milk in three additions, beginning with the flour and ending with the milk. Scrape the thick batter into the prepared pan, and bake in the preheated oven for  20-25 minutes. When the cake tests done, remove from oven, cool 5 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack.  Cool completely.

Prepare the strawberries by combining the diced berries with sugar and flavorings. Allow to macerate at least 10 minutes.

Combine the sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, whole milk and flavorings.

Once the cake is cool, split the layer. Place the bottom half on a serving plate and drizzle over 1/3 milk syrup. Lay the top half, cut side up, on a sheet of plastic wrap and drizzle it with the remaining 2/3’s milk mixture. (note: since some of the filling will soak into the bottom half of the cake, use less of the milk syrup there to prevent a soggy bottom layer.)

Whip the cream with sugar and vanilla. Spread a heaped tablespoon of whipped cream evenly over the milk soaked cake on the serving plate. Drain a tablespoon of syrup from the sweetened berries and save. Distribute the berries evenly over the cream. Top the berries with several small blobs of whipped cream and use a palate knife to connect the dots forming another thin layer of cream. Slide your hand under the plastic wrap holding the top layer and place it cut side down on top of the cream and berries. Drizzle the reserved syrup over the top of the cake allowing it time to soak in.

Frost the cake with the remaining whipped cream, piping rosettes for decorations and topping the cake edge with halved whole berries if desired. (See photo) Serves 6 to 8. (note: if making a large cake, quadruple the cake recipe and the milk syrup; double the strawberry filling and whipping cream.)

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at