Monday, August 1, 2011

Dinner: Starring...

When making plans for a dinner menu, so many people make the mistake of taking on too much by planning on an entire menu of complex courses.  With everyone so busy today with jobs and household responsibilities, to tackle a meal of three to five outlandish and time-consuming courses is no way to de-stress after a hectic day.  If you decide on your next day of freedom from work to spend much of it in the kitchen cooking up a culinary magazine worthy spread so you can feel like a chef-star, have a blast.  When it comes to preparing the weekday family meal, however, I find the more realistic, and less frantic pulling out hair approach, is to put some effort into one course which will stand out as the star of the meal, and keep the remaining courses simpler.  Tonight's dinner  was a prime example of this tactic.  I made simple oven-baked lemon and oregano chicken, which is nothing more complicated than combining equal parts of lemon juice and olive oil, basting meaty chicken pieces, such as thighs and breasts, with the mixture, sprinkling generously with salt, pepper and oregano and baking at 350 degrees for an hour.  What could be easier?  By reserving some of the lemon-olive oil mixture and repeatedly brushing more onto the chicken periodically throughout the baking time, the flavor really shines.  The focal point of tonight's dinner, however, is the accompanying hearty salad, which was a colorful panzanella featuring some of the best summer bounty from the farm stand.  This was where some work came in, but you can pretty much get through it while the chicken is partaking in its sauna treatment in the oven.  Since the salad comprises a vegetable and a carb, it's substantial enough to serve alongside the chicken, add a bottle of wine, and that's a perfect summer meal.

Panzanella is basically a bread salad which originated in Florence, Italy.  Traditionally it was a way of using up the day-old Italian bread.  In its original incarnation, it was simply cubed bread and chopped onions.  Admittedly that doesn't sound so appealing to me.  The dish was later transformed to incorporate tomatoes with the bread, and this is the basic formula which stuck over the years, thankfully.  If you wanted to make the most basic panzanella, it should include bread, tomatoes, olive oil and vinegar.  Panzanella is a way to use up what you have on hand, and modern day recipes incorporate just about everything in your garden.  You can add cucumbers, bell peppers, chilled cooked eggplant cubes would be nice, even olives, fresh basil, capers and cheese are often used.  As long as you have your bread, tomatoes and vinaigrette, the rest is up to you.  Use what you like and what you have on hand that needs to get used up.


3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 loaf of Italian bread, cut into medium-sized cubes
1 pint of ripe cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 yellow pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 red pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 hothouse cucumber, unpeeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, sliced into half-inch slices
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup fresh basil, julienned
1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced

In a large skillet, heat three tablespoons olive oil on medium-high heat.  Add the bread cubes, sprinkle generously with salt.  Sautee until the bread browns slightly and is lightly toasted.  Set aside. 

In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, onion, basil and olives.  For the dressing, in another bowl whisk together remaining ingredients.  Add the dressing to the vegetables, toss to combine.  When ready to serve, add the bread cubes and toss to combine. Serves 3-4.

There's something satiating about biting into a freshly-make crouton of bread that is laced with olive oil and garlic and vinegar.  The vibrant ripe tomatoes and other brilliantly-toned summer produce make panzanella a gorgeous palette for your palate.  And it's a perfect way to make the most of the summer garden fare your local farm stand has to offer.

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