We’ve all got standby dishes: Those recipes we know by heart and are known for by our friends.
My friend Bonnie Judd is an eclectic and excellent cook and the most gracious hostess at her beautiful country home, Pu’u Pueo. Oh, the parties we’ve had there! Bonnie is known for, among other things, “The Beans,” a melange of different beans baked in a delicious sauce. A plate of that with rice will keep you going for days!
Anyway, Bonnie and I made lunch for a friend a couple of Fridays back and she showed up not with the beans but with a new dish she created, a play on Salade Nicoise made with roasted chicken (our friend doesn’t much like fish). Well, forget the beans. This is The New Dish. It’s DELICIOUS, versatile and hearty and I already plan to make it for the volunteers at the Friends of the Library of Hawaii booksale this summer.
It sounds like a lot of work but none of the techniques are complicated and, if you enjoy time in the kitchen, it’s a pleasure even before you start eating. It began when Bonnie found a large bag of whole cumin seeds at a steal price. . . I’ll tell it to you as she told it to us (actually, she told it twice; the first time, I was eating so enthusiastically, I had no hands left for taking notes).
Bonnie’s Chicken Nicoise
First, roast two whole, unpeeled bulbs of garlic (remember when the old Sunset Grill used to give you a bulb of roasted garlic to squeeze onto your bread?). Line a baking sheet with foil, place the garlic on it, drizzle with olive oil and roast 1 hour at 350 degrees. (Bonnie has a clay garlic roasting pot but you can use this method just as effectively.) Bonnie also scattered thyme on the garlic.
While that’s on, throw a handful of whole cumin seeds into a frying pan on medium and swirl while the cumin toasts. They’re done when they begin to jump and pop. (As when roasting any seeds, don’t turn your back; they burn.)
Have ready some skinless, boneless chicken breast, gently rinsed in cold water, patted dry. Sprinkle these with toasted cumin seeds and pan-roast them on the stove just to glaze them. Finish them in the oven with the garlic for 15 minutes, just until they are white at the center, not pink. Don’t let them get dry. Cut them into thirds or fourths; thickish but manageable slices.
Meanwhile, boil some tiny, new red potatoes in their skins. When they’re done, cut them in half.
Steam some whole, trimmed fresh green beans.
Oven-poach some eggs in the Gordon Ramsay method: Place a muffin tin in a large, shallow baking dish. Boil some water (you’re making a bain marie). Drizzle the pukas of the muffin tin with melted butter. Line the pukas with 2-3 fresh basil leaves each and break an egg into each. Pour boiling water carefully into the baking pan so that it surrounds the muffin tin about 3/4 cup the sides. Bake at 400 degrees 8-15 minutes until eggs are cooked through but still tender. When they’re cooled, cut them in halves or quarters. (If you don’t care to use a muffin tin, use individual ramekins.)
Cut cherry or plum tomatoes in half.
Slice Japanese or English cucumbers (peeled or unpeeled, your choice).
Grab a couple of handfuls of olives. They should be Nicoise olives, but, as Bonnie pointed out, those have to be seeded. She used seeded Kalamata olives, which can be purchased in ginormous jars at Costco or more human-size jars at most groceries.
Bring some soft goat cheese to room temperature. This will be placed atop and around the salad; use a spoon to dip up chevre and snick it off onto the veggies when composing the salad.
Now make your dressing: In a bowl, squeeze the roasted garlic out of its paper. Whisk in the juice of 1 lemon, a little extra-virgin olive oil, a tablespoon of mayonnaise and some white vinegar to taste. Taste and correct seasonings as desired. You want a pourable but thickish dressing.
At last, time to compose: On a large platter, artistically arrange all the ingredients. You can group them or scatter them. Bonnie grouped, which meant we had to dig about to find everything, which was kinda fun and allows those who don’t like a particular ingredient to skip it. You could put it all on a bed of lettuce but why would you?
(Aside: On “Top Chef” one day, judge Hubert Keller said something with which I heartily concur — salad should always be presented on good-sized flat plates. It’s more attractive that way, you can see all the ingredients, and it’s less messy; things don’t hop off a spacious plate the way they pop out of a piled-up smaller bowl, they just move to the rim. I find I like salad better if it’s in a plate. Go figure.)
The result is jewel-bright, gorgeous and oooooooh yum! And, of course, you can switch out ingredients depending on what you have, what’s in season, your preferences and those of your guests. Use a spice other than cumin or herbs other than basil or thyme. Try roasted pork tenderloin slices in place of chicken; or go back to flaked poached or baked fish. Use duck or quail eggs. Use asparagus instead of green beans, or kale or broccoli or something else you like. Use Yellow Finn or other “new” potatoes. Use lowfat mayonnaise or Vegennaise. Use feta instead of chevre. Use larger tomatoes and cut them in eighths. Use a flavored vinegar.