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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Happy Valentine's Day

Bob and I have a Valentine's tradition of not eating out. Instead, we take turns making a nice dinner for each other. It's a chance to try out dishes we might not otherwise make as we try to impress each other.

This year was my turn. We started out with a strawberry chop salad with a strawberry vinagrette dressing. You can find the recipe here. It was not only beautiful (which is not fully reflected in the photo), but even Bob, the non-strawberry eater in our family, gave it a big thumbs up.

Valentine's Salad
The main course was chicken in a basil cream sauce, which was one of our favorite culinary discoveries this year. Here's the recipe. And the photo showing Bob's very own hand!

Valentine's dinner featuring chicken with a basil cream sauce
Sides included a mushroom rice pilaf with red peppers instead of green (it's Valentine's Day!) and roasted asparagus with balsamic vinegar (our new favorite way to roast asparagus).

One of the highlights of the meal was the heart-shaped chocolate cake:

Heart-shaped Valentine's Cake
The cake was fairly simple, but won the title of Coolest Thing Ever from our teenage daughters (they also thought it tasted really good when we ate it later). I remember making this cake when I was 14 or 15 with a church group. But I think the advisor who helped us make them must have had miniature cake pans, because this cake turned out to be enormous. Seriously, the only thing we had that it would fit on was a cookie sheet (aka a jelly roll pan), and then it barely fit.

I used a chocolate cake mix and put half of the mix in a 9-inch square pan, and half in a 9-inch round pan. After it was baked and thoroughly cooled, I cut the round cake in half and placed each half along the side of the square cake (turned it diagonally) so that it formed a gigantic heart.

I debated whether to make the lattice on the cake out of whipped cream or frosting. I opted for frosting; we (we being the girls and I) also debated whether to make the frosting pink, cream-colored, or light chocolate. You cans see that plain cream won out, and I think it was a good choice given the visual intensity of the cake. I used this frosting recipe, doubled it, and barely had enough. The frosting turned out to be a good choice, as we didn't even come close to finishing the cake in one sitting, and the frosting will hold up much better than whipped cream would.

I've already reminded Bob that it's his turn next year. Good luck, Honey!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Creamy Chicken Soup

Creamy Chicken Soup
I intentionally titled this post creamy chicken soup rather than cream of chicken soup, which was the original name. The first time I made it, I told the kids we were having Cream of Chicken soup for dinner. They kept waiting for me to break out the can of Campbell's. They were disappointed.

My quest for this soup started a few years ago, when Bob and I had dinner at a very well-known restaurant about 100 miles north of where we live. They served a creamy chicken soup that Bob has not forgotten. He kept wanting to drive back there, just for that soup, even though they only serve it one day a week (which turned out to not be an especially convenient day for us to go there). I figured it was far cheaper and easier just to figure out how to make it.

I started with a recipe from the Food network, and adapted it from there. It's not an especially healthy soup, but it's wonderful and comforting for special occasions. This was our Christmas Eve dinner this year (well, part of it) and it was hugely popular.

Creamy Chicken Soup
1/2 cup butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
3 medium carrots, chopped
4-5 mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon flour
7 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon parsley
1 teaspoon thyme
1 bay leaf
2-3 cups cooked, diced chicken
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 teaspoons sherry
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion, celery, carrots and mushrooms. Saute until the onions are translucent. Add the flour and cook, stirring for about two minutes until well mixed.

Pour in the chicken broth and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Add spices and mix well. Lower the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes.

Stir in the chicken and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat. Whisk the cream, sherry, and salt into the soup and season with pepper to taste. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Serve immediately.

I've used a variety of types of chicken in this recipe. I've made it with rotisserie chicken from Costco, a fresh chicken boiled at home, and various breast and thigh pieces that I had boiled.

Boiling the chicken takes a little more work, but it gives you a lovely broth that you can use in the soup. I usually start the process the day before, cleaning out the chicken and then boiling it for about an hour. Then I store it in the fridge over night, which makes it easy to skim off a fairly healthy layer of fat before you start cooking. When I used rotisserie chicken, I made broth using chicken base, which gave the soup a little bit of a synthetic taste. Another option would be to use rotisserie chicken with canned or boxed chicken broth.

Keep in mind that your chicken/broth choice will influence the amount of salt you use. If you use chicken base, add it a little bit at a time (tasting between additions) or you'll oversalt it. If you made your own chicken broth, a tablespoon will be about right.

Oh, and if you have fresh herbs, by all means use them.