Making a Spartan Dessert Sing: Chocolate Squares with Lemon Curd

Lately, I’ve noticed that anyone who seeks to join an Upright Citizens Brigade of self-satisfied health types is told they should happily be willing to make do with a “dessert” of monastic simplicity: a naked square (or two, for shame!) of ultra-dark 78% cocoa chocolate, unadorned and unimproved. They reason, sensibly, that this treat is healthy-ish, as it contains all the helpful flavonoids in cocoa, and only a little of the bad stuff.

I have tried to like this. I truly have. But there’s really no way of getting around the fact that I find it only a tad less depressing than having no dessert at all. It reeks to me of silly, self-imposed deprivation, of nutritionism, and, even, of injustice, because the very notion of dessert has been unfairly stripped of toothsomeness.

However, when out of desperation last week I paired the aforementioned lowly chocolate square with some lovely fresh-made lemon curd from local food-shop extraordinaire, Seasonal Pantry, the chocolate and the lemon both sang. Unadorned no longer, its monkishness replaced with kick and verve for the sweet vagaries of living, the chocolate square was, at least for me, saved.

Now I can have my square, and eat it, too, at least for as long as the lemon curd lasts.

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Lemon-Garlic-Herb Roast Chicken

The really nice people that sell the grass-fed organic meat we pick up for a small fortune most weeks at the farmer’s market evidently don’t have the technology to break down a chicken.

So we end up with a whole chicken a lot more often than I have menus that would, er, require a whole chicken. And while I once helped slaughter chickens on a real farm in South Dakota (which is a story for another day), I don’t myself feeling like hacking away until it ends up in pieces, most days.

So I’ve played around a little bit with James McNair’s roast chicken recipe, which is the best one I’ve found. Below is an adaptation with some variations on a theme. No matter how you cut it, lemon, garlic, butter and herbs slathered all over a hunk of chicken is really a no-miss proposition.

Ingredients:

Whole chicken (we like organic, pasture-raised; here’s why)

Fresh herbs: basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, tarragon or whatever compatible mix you have, chopped finely

3 Tbls (grass-fed organic) butter

3 cloves (organic) garlic, chopped fine

1 lemon (organic is best, since you will stick the whole thing in the chicken); halved, juiced and partially zested

Salt and pepper

3 cups (organic) chicken stock or water

3 good-sized (organic) potatoes, cubed

2-3 (organic) carrots, sliced in rounds

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Mix the garlic, zest, salt, lemon juice, pepper and herbs into the butter and put the chicken in a roasting pan.

Decide whether you will take the high road or low road — here are your choices, in that order:

1) Get all up in it by following Mr. McNair’s directions to carefully use your fingers to slip the buttery mixture between the skin and meat of the chicken. This is wonderful when you have the time and inclination to bother, as it seals in the flavors. But it is time-consuming and brings you into very close and messy contact with the bird.

2) Take the easy road by melting the butter mixture a bit in the microwave and pour over the chicken, spreading it around a bit. I’ll admit this is what I do most days and it turns out pretty tasty.

Stick the lemon and any additional fresh herbs you’d like into the cavity. Add the water or stock to the pan and throw in the carrots and potatoes. Put the chicken in the oven for 15 minutes.

Lower the heat to 350 degrees and cook for an additional hour and a half, or until done. Mr. McNair roasts it uncovered, basting every 15 minutes. As I always want to hang out with Maya instead of basting something, I cover it instead and just leave it more or less undisturbed until done. (If you do leave it uncovered, be sure the potatoes and carrots are submerged in liquid or they will dry out.)

Let it rest for ten minutes or so after removing from the oven. Enjoy with brown rice if you wish.

Moroccan-Inspired Lemon Chicken Tagine

My husband and I both like meat that is juicy and falling off the bone. But I can never seem to plan ahead by enough hours to get a slow-cooker bubbling on.

I finally figured out that a Moroccan tagine was a great solution to us: it’s hat-like shape steams chicken or lamb into juicy, falling-apart goodness in fairly short order (under an hour or so), making dinner possible in a whole new way.

I made up this recipe, but the technique is a classic way to cook meat in a tagine. Basically, you saute the base (onions, garlic, vegetables) and spices, add and brown the meat, and then pour in stock or other liquid and cover. It’s truly easy to cook this way, and the signature Moroccan mixture of sweeter and more savory spices also adds depth and interest to otherwise ordinary ingredients.

There are new enamel tagines, like ours from Emile Henry, that may be placed directly on the stove, so long as you bring the heat up slowly and don’t put it way up on high. (Older models, being ceramic, needed a heat shield for use on the stove.) Though it is kinda’ cool, the tagine is a fairly pricey investment for occasional meals. Much the same effect could likely be achieved in a heavy stock-pot or enameled Dutch oven, if that’s what you have on hand.

Ingredients:

2 Tbls oil for sauteeing

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 (organic) yellow onion, chopped

3 cups or so (organic) chicken stock

3 large red-skinned (organic) potatoes, diced

2 1/2 Tbl mixed spices — I used a terrific Moroccan spice mix, Ras el Hanout, which includes, amazingly,: turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, fennel seed, anise seed, cardamom, star anise, cayenne pepper, garlic, nigella, paprika, ajwan seeds (marjoram), kalajeera (black cumin), ginger, lavender, galangal (a close relative of ginger), oris root, rose buds, monk’s pepper, Grain of Paradise, and mace. (Whatever you have ready of those spices, in rough balance, would work well.)

1 fresh (organic) lemon, halved, zested and the zest sliced into small pieces, then juiced

Salt and pepper to taste

4 (organic, and pasture-raised if you can find it) chicken thighs (legs would work well too, if preferred)

Fresh (organic) cilantro

Fresh or frozen peas or other vegetables, such as carrots (optional)

Couscous, prepared according to instructions (optional)

Directions:

Over low heat, heat oil and stir in the spices, then the onions and garlic.

Add the lemon zest, potatoes and any vegetables you are using.

When things have sweated a bit and the onions are translucent, brown the chicken on all sides.

Add stock and cover, keeping the level below the edge of the tagine by 1/2 inch or so, to avoid boiling over.

Cook over medium heat until at a boil, then lower heat to achieve a low boil for 40-45 minutes.

Add fresh squeezed lemon juice and cilantro and enjoy! Serve over couscous if desired.

Toddler-Friendly Vegetable Chicken “Magic” Soup

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Like the wonderful children’s book, Stone Soup, this recipe — or rather, technique (such as it is) — makes do with whatever you may have on hand. I’ve probably made it at least once a month since Maya was six months old, because, like magic, veggies disappear!

It also works for babies, pureed in a blender, for a very healthy and fresh baby food.

The basic technique is incredibly simple — boil a whole chicken until done to make a simple broth, sauté vegetables and spices, chop up the chicken and combine. Cook a while, then add fresh lemon and herbs just before serving.

Sometimes when I’ve made it, it turns out better than others, based on the particular vegetables and flavor combinations. Maya doesn’t really seem to notice, either way. She likes the nourishing, mild broth and mix of vegetables softened in the soup.

But if you’re planning to serve it as a meal for everyone, certainly pay attention to the mixture of flavors, and add more salt, pepper and lemon at the table. My husband adds harissa as well, for heat.

It will make a good week of lunches. And it freezes well, so having a good-sized batch is useful. I use stainless steel ice cube trays, the old-fashioned kind.

In addition, you can save the bones and trimmings, as well as any vegetable parings, in a freezer bag for making stock. An excellent set of tips for that is here. The cost savings, in comparison to buying organic vegetable and chicken stock, are considerable.

My latest batch included a lot of fennel, as well as fennel tops at the end. I do not recommend this, as it ended up too fennel-rific. But a smaller amount (i.e., less than a whole large bulb), should be fine.

It’s delicious over brown rice or pasta. By day three, I also usually add cheese on top, to keep Maya’s interest. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

One whole young (organic, pasture-raised) chicken

(organic) Butter or oil

1 large (organic) Onion (white or yellow)

Garlic — 3-4 cloves

2 (organic) Lemons

Dried herbs: I like Rosemary, Basil, Thyme, Oregano, and Savory, 1 Tbl or so of each

Salt and Pepper (minimal if serving to children)

Fresh Herbs: Cilantro, Parsley, Carrot Greens

Vegetables can include: (organic) Peas, Carrots, Broccoli, Spinach, Chard or Kale (de-spined and chopped), Fennel, Celery, Green Beans, Summer Squash, Zucchini, Tomatoes, Parsnips, even Jerusalem Artichoke

Starch and/or Legumes can include: (Eden Organic or another BPA-free brand, if using canned, drained and rinsed) White or Red beans or Chickpeas, (organic) Potatoes, Corn (including frozen)

Directions:

Using a large pot, cover the chicken in (filtered) water and bring to a boil on the stove over medium heat. Simmer for 45 minutes to one hour.

While that is cooking, rough-chop the vegetables as needed.  Saute onions and garlic in the butter or oil in a large pot (this can be done in a series if you only have one pot large enough). Add the dried herbs, salt and pepper, and vegetables and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have started to lose moisture. Then add the beans, potatoes or corn and stir over heat for 10-15 minutes. If using potatoes, cook until done. Let rest until the chicken is ready. (If adding spinach, wait to add that with the fresh herbs, close to the end, as directed below.)

When the chicken is thoroughly cooked and almost falling off the bone, lift it out of the liquid carefully onto a plate and let it cool for a few minutes. Take the meat off the bones, using your hands as needed, and rough chop (in smaller pieces if you plan to freeze it). It may be a bit stringy, so keep an eye on making it small enough for a toddler to grapple with. Scoop any chicken residues out of the broth.

Add the vegetable mixture, chicken and broth together and heat through. Add in generous amounts of fresh lemon juice, to taste, and fresh herbs (and any spinach). Stir until wilted, and serve, with lemon wedges if desired.

Adopted with modifications from “Baby Love: Healthy, Easy, Delicious Meals for Your Baby and Toddler,” by Norah O’Donnell and Chef Geoff Tracy.

This image shows a whole and a cut lemon.