Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Chocolate or Cheese?

Chocolate or cheese, what shall it be?  While that may present a choice to be made, the two options have a lot in common.  They are both irresistible.  They can both be enjoyed in their most basic forms. A platter of cheeses serves up a perfect palette for snacking, and a cube of chocolate from a chocolate shop sends the senses into blissful contentment.  I have childhood memories as a ten-year-old who, like any child on Christmas break from school in the northeast, would spend days outdoors in the snow with friends from the neighborhood.  I would come home for lunch, my favorite being a grilled Swiss cheese sandwich.  If an afternoon of sledding  was dragging on too long and Jack Frost was really threatening to bite my nose if I dallied any longer, I would be summoned indoors and presented with a cup of hot chocolate to chase away the chills.  Another very comforting way to consume these two basic foods is enjoyed straight from the melting pot.

Fondue, the past tense of the French verb ‘fondre’ meaning to melt, is prepared in a pot placed at the center of the table, the ingredients melted within. Diners around the table take up their long-stemmed forks and dip such edibles as cubes of bread, vegetables, fruits or chunks of pound cake into this communal pot.   Fondue originated in Switzerland and achieved popularity in North America throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Another surge in its popularity arose in the 1990’s, which led to the opening of fondue restaurants as well as an increase in the number of homes whose least-utilized kitchen cabinet houses a fondue pot likely presented as a gift on some Christmas of that decade.

This week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the first week of the winter season, a week typically more relaxing as the holiday festivities are winding down and many family members are home on vacations, this seems like an ideal opportunity to dust off that fondue pot and prepare a dining experience that is meant to be enjoyed together with family and friends.  And it’s a great way to get your finicky kids to eat their veggies and fruits!

The original Swiss fondue was cheese based, prepared by melting Gruyere or Emmentaler with the addition of white wine or Kirsch.  As with the evolution of most culinary presentations, these days anything goes.   One variation may include mushrooms in with the cheese, another might call for the addition of chopped tomatoes, and yet a spicy version would benefit from some red and green peppers and a chipotle chili.  Potatoes can be used for dipping, as can just about any cooked vegetable of choice.  Other cheeses may be used as well.  I once made a recipe using cheddar, stout and a bit of Dijon, and the dippers consisted of red new potatoes, Brussels sprouts, chunks of apples, and flowerettes of cauliflower.

Chocolate fondue is the simple combination of chocolate, cream and a flavored liquour.   This can be served with pound cake, fruits and even pretzel sticks.  The chocolate fountain which is now displayed in shops and on many a wedding banquet table is a spin off of sorts, where cookies and Twinkies are also provided for dipping in addition to the fruits.

There is another variation on fondue, called the fondue bourguignonne, in which cubes of raw beef are cooked in a pot of hot oil and then dipped into a variety of savory sauces.  I have seen variations on this theme on restaurant menus using lobster or shrimp.  No melting is involved here and therefore not a true fondue, however it will help to round out the meal for any carnivorous diners at your table.

Not sure which one to make?  Invite a couple of friends who also possess long-forgotten fondue pots.  Then you can enjoy a meal of all three styles, needing nothing more than a basic side salad and some good wine.  Alternatively - how is this for idyllic - get a fire roaring in the fireplace, light up the tree, and set up a late night snack with your significant other.  The glow emanating from the fireplace, the lights of the tree and the flame beneath the fondue pot will provide a relaxing, warming, shall we say romantic, ambiance.  Pour some moscado or port and try one of these two dessert fondues.  They couldn’t be easier and, hey, you still have until next week when your dieting resolutions kick in, so carpe diem and enjoy something sweet with your sweetie.


4 ounces high quality semi sweet chocolate
2 ounces high quality unsweetened or bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons Cointreau
chunks of pound cake, sliced bananas, strawberries

Chop the chocolates.  Place a glass mixing bowl on top of a pot of boiling water, making sure that the bottom of the bowl is not touching the water.  Gently melt the chocolate in the mixing bowl, stirring almost constantly.  Once all of the chocolate is melted and smooth, whisk in the cream and then stir in the Cointreau.  Transfer the mixture to a fondue pot.  Serve with the pound cake and/or fruits for dipping.


Prepare in the same manner as above recipe, substituting a high quality white chocolate for the semi sweet and unsweetened chocolates, and substitute Chambord for the Cointreau.  In addition to the pound cake and the bananas, slices of Bosc pears would be a nice dipper here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Feast of Seven Fishes

When Brian and I started dating, our first Christmas Eve together was spent with his family.  It was a big deal, I recall, with his parents bustling about the kitchen cooking up a storm.  Shrimps were peeled, pasta was boiled, and red 'gravy' was bubbling in another pot as slices of calamari awaited their final submersion into that savory sauce.  A white box from the bakery, still tied up with string, held the secret of the surprise dessert ending, and it seemed as though chocolates abounded in every corner of the room.  These were the final moments of preparation for the Christmas Eve Vigil dinner, also known as the Feast of Seven Fishes.  Most widely practiced by families of Italian heritage, this custom stems from the Catholic practice of abstaining from the consumption of meat until midnight strikes the start of  Christmas day.  During the final hours of this vigil that precedes the birth of Christ, families come together to celebrate the holiday and to dine on an elaborate meal of several seafood dishes, pasta and desserts.

After Brian's father passed, I made a declaration that we would continue this annual holiday tradition in our home every year, in honor of the man who so loved Christmas and who was so devoted to his family, who always went above and beyond to make the holiday enjoyable for all.  Most Italian-American families still practice this Christmas Eve repast, as is evidenced by the long lines which extend out the door of the fish markets and continue down the block.  It is the perfect venue for gathering the whole family together to celebrate Christmas, dine lavishly, socialize and exchange gifts.  There are a lot of theories depicting the significance of seven fishes, as opposed to three or thirty, such as the representation of seven apostles for example.  Very small families have scaled back and prepare an ultra-gourmet experience of three or four fishes, but I know many larger families push the fish dishes to nine or even more.

Preparing seven different dishes of seafood, plus the other usual suspects that comprise a meal such as a salad, pasta and desserts may sound overwhelming, but if you approach the meal planning in the same manner you would for any other dinner, the result is no different.  You need to start with an appetizer; how about homemade baked clams or oysters Rockefeller?  There's your first fish, done.  Next you'll need a first course.  Lobster bisque?  Cesar salad with shrimp? Another fish down.  The entrees and pastas follow next, and there are infinite dishes which incorporate the use of seafood, and you have five fishes to go into them.  Make an entree whose ingredient list calls for several specimens of seafood, such as a seafood gratin that I made three years ago which utilized shrimp, lobster, scallops and crab.  Cheating?  Keep the wine flowing and see to it that everybody is feeling very well fed and I assure you nobody will be counting after that.  Good thing, because fish just does not work in desserts!

Brian and I take turns each year on which one of us gets to choose the entree and set the tone of the meal.  Last year was my turn and I presented this wonderfully rich seafood stuffed manicotti.  Hmmm, wonder what he'll elect to prepare this year?


2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, chopped
1 16 ounce can imported San Marzan plum tomatoes
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
1 cup seafood broth

3/4 pound shrimp, cooked
3/4 pound lobster meat, cooked
1 cup shredded fontina cheese

1/4 cup butter
4 shallots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup seafood broth
1 cup shredded fontina cheese
2 tablespoons brandy
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese

8 manicotti tubes

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a pot over medium heat.  Add the onion and mushrooms, stir and cook until soft.  Add the tomatoes, breaking them up with the back of a wooden spoon.  Add the parsley, basil and 1 cup seafood broth.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat and set aside.  In a mixing bowl, combined the shrimp and lobster and 1 cup of fontina cheese.  Set aside.  Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil.  Add the manicotti and cook until just al dente.  Drain well and set aside.

In another pot, melt the remaining 1/4 cup butter.  Add the shallots and cook until softened.  Add the flour, cook and stir until bubbly.  Slowly and gradually add the milk and the broth, stirring constantly, allowing the mixture to be thickened by the flour between each addition.    Remove from heat and add the remaining 1 cup of fontina, the brandy, nutmeg and pepper.  Stir until the cheese is melted and incorporated into the mixture.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Spread half of the tomato sauce over the bottom of a rectangular baking dish.  Stuff each manicotti with the seafood mixture.  Arrange the stuffed manicotti in a single layer row in the roasting dish on top of the tomato sauce.  Pour remaining tomato sauce around, not over, each manicotti.  Pour the white cheese sauce over the manicotti, right along the center.  Cover with the parmesan or romano cheese and bake for 25 minutes.

Other countries also celebrate the seafood vigil dining extravaganza on Christmas Eve, so the cuisine doesn't always have to be Italian.  It can be French or Spanish, for instance.  One year I went so far as to plan an entire New Orleans style dinner which included several Cajun appetizers with hurricane drinks, a seafood gumbo, a dessert of a bourbon-pecan yule log served with bananas and butter pecan ice cream, blues-style Christmas tunes on the stereo and holiday colored beads and golden brass instrument ornaments adorning the table.   It turned out fabulous and was a fun change of pace.  Whatever direction you take, enjoy the good food, the family moments and the holiday memories being created right in your home.  

To all of my readers, I wish every one of you and your families a very happy, safe and well-fed holiday.  Joyeux Noel, Buon Natale, Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas Confectionary

The candy stripes of peppermint sticks abound in every direction our eyes happen to glance.  Gingerbread men stand sentry at their sugary iced homes on display in the gourmet shop window.  The sweet scents of fudge emanate from the candy store.   Christmas is definitely a sweet tooth's fantasy come to fruition.  Whether it is the quest for creating lasting holiday memories with family members gathered around the kitchen island, the desire to quell the season's chilling temperatures by firing up the oven for an afternoon of baking, or perhaps a primal response to bulk up our girth for the long cold winter, there is something about the holidays which prompts baking marathons in every home kitchen.

As adults most of us can fondly recall childhood weekend afternoons spent with Mom, Grandma or even Dad, putting those final red and green decorative touches on batches of homemade cookies fresh from the oven.  These memories are so cherished because it returns us to a time of comfort, security and that youthful untarnished magic and joy of the holiday season.  This is probably the most compelling reason for recapturing this activity with the next generations of children and grandchildren.  For foodies like myself, these afternoons spent in the kitchen turning out batch after batch of cookies and other sweet treats are the perfect excuse to take in this holiday tradition as well as play with our mixers and cookie cutters.

There are thousands of cookie recipe variations.  A handful of them have remained tried and true throughout decades of holiday bake offs.  Gingerbread people are one example, an ideal choice for a group of bakers because no two gingerbread men have to look alike when trimming the faces and finishing touches and thus all imaginations are welcome.  Pressed cookies will turn out batches of uniformly shaped wreaths and Christmas trees.  For these one need only tint the dough with some green food coloring before feeding it through the cookie press, and then they can be decorated with a sprinkling red and green sugars.  A few more classics include burbon balls, rugelach, jam-filled cookies and hazelnut crescents.  The cookie which remains the most inspiring for artful creativity when decorating is the sugar cookie.  Once the dough is rolled out, holiday shapes are cut with cutters, baked, cooled and then the real fun begins.  These can be decorated with a whole plethora of embellishment, such as the snowflake covered in an ice blue tinted glaze and then finished off with strategically placed silvery or pearlescent dragees.  Once iced with a white glaze and then striped with red sugar, a candy cane shape becomes festive.  An entire decorator's 'buffet' can be set up with bowls of colored icings, glazes, sugars, cinnamon dot candies, licorice, sprinkles, dragees, chocolate chips, etc.

Homemade candies increase in popularity this time of year as well.  Home kitchens turn into chocolatiers as truffles are formed and rolled in powdered cocoa, chopped nuts, toasted coconut flakes or confectioners sugar.  Fudge is another much loved chocolate treat, dense blocks of rich dark, milk or white chocolate, often with the incorporation of additional flavors such as peanut butter, chopped nuts or toffee bits.  One of my favorite holiday candies to make at home is chocolate peppermint bark.  Very simply, dark chocolate is melted and spread over a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and placed in the refrigerator until it hardens.  Then white chocolate gets the same melting treatment and is quickly spread over the dark chocolate layer.  It then gets dots of red food color lightly swirled over it for a marbled appearance, chopped candy canes get sprinkled over it, and back into the refrigerator it goes until hardened.  Then the parchment paper is peeled off and the sheet of peppermint-studded chocolate gets broken up into snack-sized shards.  

The marriage of chocolate and peppermint result in the ideal holiday couple.  This pairing makes its annual appearance by way of the peppermint mocha drink enjoyed in coffee houses, as well as the adorning crown of a cone at your local ice cream parlor.  On a shopping spree at Williams Sonoma I was welcomed by seasonal displays brimming with tins of their own peppermint bark and of their peppermint hot chocolate, the latter of which I highly recommend.  Recipes for chocolate-peppermint desserts grace the dessert plates at many of the season's holiday dinners.

I have noticed this year's increasing popularity of the meringue cookie, also known as a meringue kiss.  Meringue is a mixture of stiffly beaten egg whites with sugar.  Soft meringue is then baked as a topping over pies and other desserts, such as lemon meringue pie, until the peaks and edges are browned.  Hard meringue is piped onto parchment paper and baked at a very low temperature for a long period of time until it is dry and crisp.  This method can be used to make meringue shells to be later filled with ice cream, pastry cream or fruit salads; or it can be used to make cookies which often have other ingredients mixed into the meringue such as chopped nuts, mini chocolate chips, crushed peppermint candy or toasted coconut.


3 egg whites (room temperature!)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon flavored extract of your choice (see suggestions below)
Red or green food coloring, if desired
1/2 cup stir in of your choice, if desired

Preheat oven to 250 degrees and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.  Place the egg whites and salt in the bowl of a Kitchenaid or other stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.  Beat on a medium setting until the egg whites appear frothy.  Add the cream of tartar and increase the mixer speed.  With the mixer on, add the sugar in increments of one tablespoon at a time.  Then add extract and a few drops of coloring, if using.  Continue beating the mixture until the meringue is thick and glossy.  Turn the mixer off and lift up the whisk.  If the meringue holds a very stiff peak, then it is ready for the next step.  If adding any stir-ins, gently fold them in with a rubber spatula.  Gently spoon meringue into a pastry bag fitted with a star tip.  Pipe the meringue onto the prepared cookie sheets in bite-sized stars, roughly two inches apart.  Bake for one hour, then turn the oven off but leave the meringues in the oven for another two hours.  Cool at room temperature.

Ideas for flavor extracts: vanilla, peppermint, orange, almond, or try a combination of 3/4 teaspoon vanilla and 1/4 teaspoon rum extracts and the addition of 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg for a flavor reminiscent of egg nog.

Ideas for stir-ins: crushed candy canes, finely chopped hazelnuts or almonds, finely chopped toffee, miniature dark or white chocolate chips, finely chopped dried cherries or cranberries.

Note: if you want to decorate the meringues with colored sugars for a festive look, dust them with the sugars before placing into the oven.

As you turn your kitchen into a Christmas confectionary, enjoy this time.  For some, holiday baking is a labor of love.  For others it is a way to bond with family or friends on a Saturday afternoon, and if you make enough to wrap up in colorful tins or cellophane secured with ribbon, it's a nice little gift to share with friends, coworkers, teachers, sitters, etc.  Either way, you will not need to embark on sweet dreams, as the sweets will become a reality as you savor the flavors of the season.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Tree-Trimming Treats

Now is the time to erect the Christmas tree.  Even those who choose the minimalist approach to holiday decorating usually admit the glorious evergreen into their home to adorn that carefully chosen spot where it will welcome all throughout the holiday season.  Whether you make an annual family pilgrimage to select and cut down a live tree because you welcome the pine scent - and the pine needles - in your home, or you choose to go green and bring down the artificial spruce from the attic, once you have set the tree up in its designated space, you now have to trim it.  It looks rather naked and sad without all of the twinkles and sparkles of lights and ornaments.  This is how many people choose this task as an informal and casual opportunity to gather family and friends for an afternoon of festive cheer.

Preparing for a tree-trimming get together should not be a massive endeavor.  This is a casual gathering, for people to hang out, chat and catch up, all the while strategically placing the occasional ornament on your tree.  The nibble offerings should be just as relaxed.  Whether you decide on a dessert buffet or an array of savory bites, my recommendation is to make just one thing, two at most, and purchase the rest.  In recent years, with all of the gourmet markets which have opened up, offerings of quality foods to pick on are plentiful.

Let us consider the dessert route.  Between the appearance of gingerbread mansions in shop windows, the mention of sugar plums dancing in the heads of children tucked in their beds, cookie recipes that infiltrate every magazine on the store rack, candy counters brimming with candy canes, and holiday variations of ice cream flavors and hot chocolate combinations, Christmas is the season of sweets.  So having a dessert buffet seems a fitting menu for such a yuletide pastime as trimming the tree.  In following my recommendation to keep your sanity intact, bake one item, such as a holiday cake.  One of my favorites for such an occasion is a cranberry-orange-pecan bundt cake.  Everything is mixed in one bowl, poured into one pan, baked, cooled and presented.  The end result is a festive cake, studded with holiday red cranberries and dusted with snowy white confectioners sugar.   Whatever you choose to bake, rely on the best bakery in town for a couple of different varieties of cookies.  A trip to a good quality candy counter will result in some truffles.  Arrange all of these things around the cake on a table in the same room as the tree, add a crystal pitcher or a punch bowl of egg nog, and arrange some candy canes in between the platters for added sweet tooth-themed decor.   All you need to complete this buffet, since the sugar rush just might not be enough to get your guests to work on your tree, is a carafe of good coffee, a kettle of water ready to boil and an assortment of tea bags.   If you want to provide a cocktail for your guests, a chocolate-peppermint martini is a perfect option for the holiday season.

Now we examine the savory spread.  An offering of several appetizers is ideal, since this is not a sit-down dinner.  Again, make one or two things, such as stuffed mushrooms and a homemade dip, or bruschetta and clams casino, for examples.  Buy everything else.  Put out a platter of three or four different varieties of cheese with some crackers and either grapes or slices of apples or pears.  A bowl of pistachios or cashews would be another good choice, and you could round this all out with a bowl of olives from the olive bar.  In the way of beverage to accompany this finger food feast, keep it simple and offer a red wine, a white wine, and some good seasonal craft beer.

Homemade dips are so easy to make and are infinitely better than corporate packaged dips.  Here is one to get you started for all of your future entertaining needs.

White Bean Dip
1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
3 cloves garlic
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
pita chips

Place beans, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and rosemary into a food processor bowl and process until well blended.  Scrape into a small serving bowl.  Stir in the chopped sun-dried tomatoes, season to taste with salt and pepper.  Garnish with a sprig of rosemary and a lemon slice.  Serve with pita chips.  Recipe can be doubled.

You will have an enjoyable time relaxing with your friends at this party, because you didn't condemn yourself to being tethered to your kitchen.  All you have to do is visit a couple of gourmet shops, prepare a couple of things before your guests pull into your driveway, have the buffet table ready to feed, put some holiday tunes on for background ambiance, light up your tree, and as your guests arrive you can greet them with a smile and an ornament to put them to work.  Deck the halls!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

One Dish Wonder Saves the Day

Thanksgiving 2011 is now but a memory, the highlights of which we can always revisit through pictures and conversational exchanges next time around.  Now we move into the most bustling season of all.  Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or any other holiday that strikes around the turn of the winter solstice, life gets hectic.  No matter how much we insist that we are not going to overextend our time, our wallets and our energy each year, we just can't help ourselves.  We want to make every holiday the best one ever for our loved ones, and family is what the holidays really are about, right?

Let's examine a typical day of the average individual during the month of December.  You may have just stealthily crept out in participation of the end of day jail break from that daily grind called work.  All that's on your mind these days is that ever-growing to-do list of the season as you rush to your awaiting car to make every second count: got to get a tree, oh now you've got to trim the tree.  What's the weather forecast for this weekend? Can you put up the outdoor Christmas lights without being whisked off of the ladder by blustering winds; and shall you skip a shower that morning because you will likely be the recipient of a cold shower as you disentangle strings of lights out in the pelting rain?  Oh, better stop at the post office on the way home for stamps for all of those cards you haven't yet addressed.  Got to get the kids, the dogs, the cat, the hamster or the iguana in for pictures with Santa.  Oh, and you'd better get hubby or wifey's gifts wrapped up quickly, before your loving spouse starts snooping around!  Just when you thought you were done with gift shopping, yet another trek to the mall has been delegated your way for a last-minute recipient who decided that now would be an opportune time to pop back into your life after an eleven month hiatus.  The kids want to bake cookies this weekend - HOW many different kinds??  And the family wants WHAT tonight?  DINNER??! Who's got time for dinner?

Whoa, stop.  Stop right there.  You do have time to make a decent dinner.  The is where a culinary superhero, called one dish wonder, comes to the rescue.  One dish meals, in which most of your nutritional requirements cook together all in one pot, are the perfect dinners for a busy month such as this one.  Some which take a bit more time, such as a beef stew or a pan of lasagna, can be made ahead of time and heated through for serving later in the week.   Many others, from the first ingredient being chopped to the dish's final trek to the table, can be made in an hour or less.  All you need to make the meal complete is a salad and perhaps some warmed, crusty bread in the quest to fill up those with heartier appetites.

Pasta dishes in particular can be made in record time, especially if you have sauce on hand.  Whenever you make a pot of red sauce, or when making pesto, plan to end up with much more than you need for one meal.  Divide the rest into food storage containers and stash them into your freezer.  This is absolutely the best time saving advice I can offer anyone, it will save your hurried dinner plans every time.  Next time you need to throw together a quick meal, boil some pasta.  When it's al dente, throw in some shrimp and some broccoli flowerettes.  As soon as the shrimp has turned bright pink, drain it all and toss with some halved grape tomatoes and some pesto.  The tomatoes can be halved and a salad can be tossed together while the pasta cooks, you can buy the shrimp already peeled and cleaned and you can even purchase the broccoli already cut up.  This meal can be on your table in twenty minutes.  How's that for fast food?

Plan ahead for one dish dinners.  If you are making boneless chicken breasts on Sunday, roast a few extra ones and save them to cut into bite sized pieces for that pasta or rice dish, or to shred and stir into a pot of soup you might cook up later in the week.  Soups and chilis are also quick one dish meals when they contain a meat, a starch such as noodles, rice or beans, and vegetables.  Another great idea for the one dish dinner is the pizza.  Make some pizza sauce and, once again, make enough to freeze a few containers for future use.  Balls of pizza dough can now be purchased in many supermarkets.  All you need from there is some cheese, whether traditionally simple mozzarella or an interesting combination of other cheeses, a couple of other toppings, ten minutes in the oven and you are ready to dine.  Asian stir fries are also quick to leap from the pan to the plate.  The preparation of cutting the meat and vegetables takes a bit of time, but once that task is complete and your sauce ingredients are measured out and rounded up stove side, the actual cooking process is, to quote all of the nation's Chinese takeout owners, 'about ten minutes'.

There are a few small appliances in my kitchen which have seen very little use.  There is one item, however, which has been put to task on many an occasion and which I could no longer do without: the indoor grill/panini press.  Paninis are heaven-sent sandwiches in my humble opinion, basically grilled cheese sandwiches with some additional filling, pressed together for a cohesive, crisp, melted indulgence.  One of my favorite combinations for a panini is that of mozzarella, pesto and tomato.  Again, a quick dinner whose only necessary pairing might be a salad to round out the meal.

Heartier one dish dinners include stews, made with chicken or beef or even seafood.  There is probably an infinite number of recipes for chicken and rice combinations, which reflect a number of ethnic flavors to satisfy whatever you're craving.   One of the first dishes I ever prepared for Brian was a one dish Cajun entree called jambalaya.  I have tweaked the recipe several times over the years, and here is my own final variation; and yes, this is my final answer!

Jambalaya (4 servings)
4 chicken thighs
1 pound Andouille sausage, sliced into ½-inch thick slices
1 onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
1 cup white rice
2 cups chicken stock
1 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 pound large shrimp, peeled
Bottled hot sauce to taste

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat.  Sprinkle chicken thighs with salt and pepper, then add to skillet.  Brown the chicken on all sides, then remove from the skillet and set aside.  Place sliced sausage into the same skillet and brown on both sides, then remove and set aside.  Add onions and garlic to the skillet, stir until onion is translucent.  Stir in the thyme and Cajun seasoning.  Add tomatoes and rice.  Stir to combine.  Add the chicken stock, stir to combine.  Return chicken to skillet.   Bring to boiling.  Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  After 40 minutes, stir in the shrimp, the peppers, and the sausage, adding a little more chicken broth only if all the liquid has been absorbed.  Replace cover and cook until shrimp have turned pink, chicken is cooked through, the rice is very tender and all broth has been absorbed.  Serve, passing hot sauce as a condiment for added heat.

I love this dish, it reminds me of two happy incidences in my life: one of the the first dishes I ever cooked for my future husband, and of our vacation spent in New Orleans where we dined on some of the best food we ever ate on any of our trips.  Start to finish, I can execute this dinner in forty-five minutes to an hour; and while it simmers?  Well that opens up a nice window of opportunity to wrap a gift, address a couple of holiday cards, and thus cross yet another task off of my to-do list.  Remember, it may have to be fast food for a few weeks, but it doesn't have to be corporate drive-through nutritionally devoid fast food.  You can make a warming, comforting and satisfying dish of fast food in the same amount of time as it takes to wait on that drive through line, and you won't have to check your order as you drive away.