Friday, December 21, 2012

Spinach Stuffed Chicken Breasts and Balsamic-Glazed Brussels Sprouts from Weeknight Paleo

A couple of months ago, Amber Beam at Paleo Savvy contacted me about reviewing her cookbook: Weeknight Paleo: 9 Weeks of Quick and Easy Gluten-Free Meals.  We corresponded a bit and I explained that I don't review cookbooks per se, but recipes.  She graciously sent me a electronic copy of the book.  Life took over and well I didn't get around to cooking anything from the book until this past weekend.  Thanks for your patience Amber and the cookbook.  I am always looking for new recipe resources and am proud to add this book to my paleo library.

While I don't review cookbooks, I'll first give some general observations about the book.  First off,  the concept of her book is having a weekly menu.  Some of the recipes within that menu are derived from other elements of recipes you have made earlier in the week.  My goodness the thought and work that Amber put into this book.  The pictures are beautiful.  

But you know we aren't all about pretty pictures here at The Paleo Review, so let's put some recipes to the test.  

I had a hard time selecting a recipe for two reasons.  First, each time I saw something that really looked good, it ended up that you needed to have made a whole other recipe.  For example, Amber suggested that I make her Spaghetti with Meatball Sauce. When I looked at the recipe, I found I would have to make pesto first.  The second reason was that many of the recipes have ingredients that I personally typically avoid (e.g. fruit, nuts, honey).  Of course, if you don't avoid these things, you won't have troI finally decided to live a little and have the Spinach Stuffed Chicken and Balsamic-Glazed Brussels Sprouts from Week 3. 

Spinach Stuffed Chicken Breasts

First I gathered my ingredients. 

But wait, you may be thinking, these are chicken breasts and its well known on this blog that I typically do not like chicken breasts.  After having awesome juicy success brining my turkey breast, I decided to test this recipe by brining some of my chicken and not brining one chicken breast.  Because these were boneless, I only needed to brine them for 2 hours.  I used a salt-water ratio of 3/4 cup kosher salt/ 1/2 gallon water.  Of course, you don't have to brine your chicken if you don't want to.

Also, when I prepped my brined chicken, I pulled out 5 ounces of frozen spinach to defrost.  I put it in a plastic storage bag and floated it in cold water in my sink.  I guess I could have also put it in the microwave to defrost as well.  

Two hours later, I started to cook.  I took my chicken out of the brine, rinsed it well and pounded my chicken breasts between layers of wax paper until flat.  The recipe does not give a suggested thickness, so I just pounded until I felt like things were getting any flatter.  

And here is where my cooking session became quite hectic and my picture taking suffered because I prioritized getting the dish cooked.  Sorry.  Something I really didn't get through my thick skull when I started to cook this dish was that all of it was on the stove top, so there were more pots to mind than I typically like to have.

The next step in the recipe is to make the stuffing.   I heated some coconut oil over medium-high heat and quickly chopped up a shallot.

I put some garlic through a press over the pan and mixed things around a bit.  The shallot and garlic were quick to start to burn.  I turned to start prepping my apple and realized things were too brown already.  I turned down the heat and threw in my spinach which I had squeezed dry in some paper towels.

The recipe doesn't specify what sort of apple to buy.  Cooking with apples intimidates me because I think I'm going to choose the wrong kind and dish will taste bad.  I chose a gala apple because they looked pretty.

The recipe doesn't say whether you should peel your apple or not either.  I decided that I probably wouldn't like the texture of apple peel in my chicken, so I peeled mine.  I also cored it.  This made it easier to grate once I cut the apple in half. 

The recipe also does not specify how finely to grate the apple. I used the medium grate on the fist half of the apple and ended up with a pile of apple sauce. 

You'll see I donned my cutting glove which certainly saved my fingers during this grating session.    

I don't think she meant the apple to be saucy, so I grated the other half of the apple with the large  grate and the results were much better.  In the midst of this, I removed my stuffing from the pan and poured it into a bowl.

I folded everything together.  

The next step says to mound some of the stuffing on the chicken breast.  It doesn't give any suggested amount to mound per chicken breast.  I didn't weigh my chicken pieces before hand to see if they were large given the 6-8 ounce suggested ingredient list weight, but I had just enough stuffing to put a thin layer over my 3 flattened chicken breasts.  

I decided against the mound idea after looking at the beautiful picture of the recipe again that showed a rolled breast with stuffing throughout.  I decided that having a thin layer of the stuffing and then rolling more likely produce a roll as pictured.   

I rolled up the chicken and secured them with toothpicks.  I used 3 toothpicks on the unbrined chicken breast so I'd know which was which.  I quickly wiped out my pan from making the stuffing and heated some oil.  Once the oil was hot, I put my chicken in the pan and started browning them on all sides.  

I decided I could start the sauce and Brussels sprouts while the chicken was browning.  While the bacon was crisping, I chopped up 2 shallots (one for the sauce and one for the Brussels sprouts) and started washing and quartering the Brussels sprouts   At this point, I noticed that my chicken was brown on all sides but I could see that my inner rolls were not getting cooked.  As this is chicken, I didn't want to risk the inside of the roll not being cooked or continuing to brown the chicken rolls and burning the outside to get the inside to cook.  I turned off my burner and turned my oven on to preheat to 350 degrees.  Luckily, my Scanpan skillet is oven safe to 500 degrees so I didn't have to get out another pan.    

While my oven was preheating, I continued with the sauce.  Once my bacon was crispy I removed it from the pan and added my chopped shallot to the bacon grease.  

Once my shallot had softened a bit, I carefully added some vinegar to the pan.  Amber is kind enough to warn of the potential dangers of adding vinegar to a hot pan.  Seriously, be careful.  

I added honey mustard, salt and pepper and whisked it all together.  Once it was simmering, I turned off the burner.  I used Whole Foods organic honey mustard.  I really didn't want to use honey mustard at all as I typically don't add sweeteners of any kind to my food.  The book doesn't have a recipe for making your own.  I know I could have just added a little honey to mustard instead of buying a prepared product, but I didn't want to buy a whole bottle of honey that would most certainly be eaten.  I can hear the evil honey calling my name from the pantry.

After the sauce came to a simmer, I turned off my burner.  My oven wasn't ready yet, so I started with the Brussels sprouts.

Balsamic-Glazed Brussels Sprouts

Sadly, because I was so distracted with having the chicken and sauce, I evidently didn't take any further pictures of the Brussels sprouts recipe.  When I saw that this recipe was to be prepared on the stove top I was skeptical.  I love roasted Brussels sprouts.  I have stove cooked Brussels sprouts before, but usually steam saute them for a while to soften them before I try seasoning them up with coconut aminos or vinegar.   I should have trusted my instincts.  I've never been more glad that my dinner guest was late. 

I cut up the bacon for the Brussels sprouts and put it in a 3rd pan to brown.  Once it was brown, I added my shallot.  After a minute I added my sprouts and took the final picture.  After 5-7 minutes, the Brussels sprouts started to brown, but were not soft.  I threw the lid on to try to get the sprouts to soften a bit more.  I added the vinegar and cooked them for another 1-2 minutes.  

At some point, while cooking the sprouts,  I put the chicken in the oven for 15 minutes.  When the chicken was close to done and the Brussels sprouts were done, I turned the heat on the sauce again to get it hot for serving.

I sliced up some of the brined and unbrined (marked with toothpick) chicken and plated it with the Brussels sprouts.    

A fuzzy hurried picture of the stuffing.
I spooned sauce on the chicken but decided against adding the bacon pieces.  After using bacon fat in the sauce and bacon in the sprouts, it felt like bacon overkill.  

I then surveyed the tiny kitchen stove top carnage.  Whew. 6:36 PM -Dinner is only 36 minutes late.  

Accessibility and Cost of Ingredients:  You should be able to find all of the ingredients needed for this recipe at your big box grocery store.  

Preparation and Cooking Time:  The stated preparation time for the chicken and sauce is 15 minutes.  My actual prep time for the chicken alone not counting the time for defrosting the spinach was 30 minutes (start to ready to brown on the stove).  I prepped my ingredients for the sauce while the chicken was browning.  It took me about 5 minutes to cut up ingredients.  The stated cook time for the chicken and sauce was 30 minutes.  My cook time for the chicken was 10 minutes on the stove and then 15 minutes in the oven for a total of 25 minutes.  My cook time for the sauce: was about 13 minutes (most spent crisping bacon).  My preparation/cooking time for the Brussels sprouts was 25 minutes.  Some of this was over-lapping and some not.  I allotted 45 minutes for preparing/cooking based on the total prep/cooking time for the chicken and sauce was 45 minutes.  I figured I would be able overlap prepping/cooking the Brussels sprouts in that time, but that did not pan out.    

While preparing this review, I went back and looked at the recipe.  Because this book is set up on the premise that you are going to cook all of the dinners in the book for a week, at the beginning of each week she has "Make Ahead Schedules" suggesting preparation work to do "ahead" at some point.  I don't think she accounts for this time in the actual recipes stated preparation time which would account for some the timing issues I had.  Having to switch to oven cooking, didn't help with my time either.  

Clean Up:  This clean up was a bit heavier than usual as I had three pots to hand wash.  If my Scanpan wasn't oven safe, I'd have had to add another oven safe dish to the clean up.  The vinegar from the Brussels spouts recipe was pretty caked onto my pan and required some soaking and Bar Keepers Friend.  I used my cheap knives so I could throw them in the dishwasher.  

As there was bacon involved, my stove top required an extensive wipe down from grease splatter.  

A friend of mine tells me that she believes that I am hyper-sensitive to kitchen mess and that most people don't care.   Did I mention that her husband often cooks for her?  I have no doubt that there are people out there that don't care about what clean up they have after making a meal for whatever reason or no reason, but I think that total labor prepping, cooking and clean up can be a reason that people use to not cook real meals.  

I realize most of the time, thank goodness, it seems that most recipes I have made haven't been huge on clean up, but I think that's just as important to say as when there is a bigger mess.  Again, I'm thankful that I have a dish washing machine that does a lot of my clean up and truly applaud those of you who do not and especially those of you who do not and don't have helpers either. 

The Paleo Review:  Thumbs up for Taste &  Thumbs down for Recipe Construction/Process

Taste Review:  After everything was said and done the food tasted good.  There was no discernible difference between the brined and unbrined chicken breast.  Both were juicy and thankfully fully cooked.  The sauce pretty much overpowered any specific flavors of the chicken or stuffing.  The sauce was tangy and good, but for the effort of pounding out the chicken and making stuffing, I'd like to taste that too.  

I might make the sauce again and experiment with olive oil and regular mustard to serve with thin sliced chicken or beef made in a skillet.  The Brussels sprouts also tasted fine.  For less effort in the cooking and cleaning, I could have thrown them in the oven to roast for 30 minutes.  My general feeling is that this recipe tasted fine and I even ate the left overs, but I've had better for less effort.  

Recipe Construction/Process Review:  The preparation of this recipe was hectic.  I don't shy away from difficult and/or preparation intensive recipes nor do I think I'm a bad judge of how much preparation time/cooking time I need to allow myself, but I was frazzled by the time this dinner was ready and I have 2 burns to prove it.  Was I just having a bad cooking day?  Why did this happen?  Here are my observations and lessons learned that I will apply to cooking any other recipes from this book.  

1.  Check for extra prep time.  If you are not making all of the dinners, make sure to check for unaccounted for preparation work in the "make ahead schedules."  If I was sticking with cooking these recipes as intended through the week this might not have been an issue, but I simply don't cook that way.  Even if you are making all of the dinners, you're going to have to find the time to do this preparation work at some point.  

2. Trust your cooking Intuition.  Read the recipe instructions carefully and trust your intuition if you feel that a cooking method isn't optimal in your experience.  Cooking everything on the stove top for essentially 3 dishes made this cooking session hectic.  It also wasn't very efficient as I could not turn my attention really from the pans to prep other things.  If I make this chicken again, I will go in knowing that I will brown the chicken rolls and put them in the oven.  I likely wont ever make this Brussels sprouts recipe again simply because I don't think a stove top preparation of Brussels sprouts saves any time or is as good as roasted.  

3.  Mise en place.  If everything is cooked on the stove top, mise en place is super important.  That way your only job while cooking will be to dump your ready ingredients into the pans.  With that said, watch your skillet temperatures closely and adjust for your stove's power so you don't burn your garlic or shallots!   I'll admit, though I do try to get my ingredients together in one spot before I begin cooking, I don't always get everything chopped before I start cooking.  I try to cut prep/cooking time by doing some chopping while cooking and that just didn't work for these recipes.  

4. Re-type/format the Recipe.  The recipe and instructions for the Chicken, Sauce and Brussels sprouts were printed over 3 pages of the cookbook (4 including the picture page).  I printed out a copy of the whole cookbook and so I had the picture and the first page with the ingredients and some instructions on one page and then more instructions and the Brussels sprouts recipe on the second.  I found my self constantly flipping back and forth. Also, the instructions for all recipes in this book are in paragraph format, not list/bullet.  This made it very hard to pick out my next recipe step as I rushed to chop and tend my stove.  

Often, when I pull recipes off the internet, I will cut and paste them into word documents so that I can re-format the instructions into lists/bullets so that I can easily pick out the recipe steps.  If needed, I'll also make sure that the entire or at least majority of the recipe is on one page for easy reference.  I will reformat/type any recipe I attempt from this book in the future. 

With that said, this book is a great resource and is obviously product of many hours of hard work in the kitchen.  Now that I've cooked something from the book, I'm going to use these lessons to test another recipe from this book over the weekend.