Millet Spinach Salad with Pepitas and Cranberries

There is always that sense of ravenous desperation in the spring that sends us on long hunts for the first asparagus, nettles, rhubarb, salad greens, or radishes of the season, the hope against hope that there will be something crisp and juicy and fresh and alive at the farmers market despite my still being wrapped in down and wool. This year that hunger was particularly sharp.  With PATH out of commission from October into January, Hurricane Sandy stranded me on a small island on the far side of the Hudson from the trucked-in variety to be found in Manhattan markets; our own supermarket was flooded with damage that took 15 weeks to repair. Our little greengrocers re-opened sooner but have very edited produce departments. And, honestly, there were other more important things than produce to worry about during this past dark winter.

But spring has finally arrived and the burgeoning farmers markets and longer days have inspired us. So long story short, a few weeks ago we thought it would be fun to be mostly vegetarian for a while to see how many ways we could cram vegetables into our diet, like a tonic to our systems. I appreciate the luxury to have so many things available to cook and I’ve been enjoying the challenge to my creativity. Instead of trying to replicate the meat-and-three-sides meal, I’m looking to more vegetarian (or at least less meat-centric) food cultures for inspiration with vegetable curry, my sriracha soba noodle salad, my beloved pizza with “salad” on top, or black bean and corn chiles rellenos. I’ve been using a variety of whole grains, enjoying their uniqueness when they are the feature rather than the side dish.

IMG_2280

Millet is a staple food in parts of Africa and India but is most commonly seen in bags of bird seed in North America. It is a tiny grain, about the size of a seed bead, and cooks to a similar texture as couscous at the 1:2 grain to water proportion but with a cornier, nuttier flavor (which the toasting or frying I describe in the millet technique section enhances). I’ve used it in a multigrain bread where it adds a little texture to the loaf. I wanted to cover all the bases of texture and flavor in this salad: crunchy toasted pepitas and creamy fresh goat cheese, tangy sweet cranberries and earthy spinach and crisp savory red onion to tie it all together. We ate this with an avocado salad last night.

IMG_2283

Millet Spinach Salad

the millet technique:

1 cup millet

2 cups water

olive oil

salt

Pour a tablespoon or so of olive oil into a heavy bottomed sauce pan, stir in the millet over medium heat. Toast the millet, stirring frequently, until it smells lightly nutty. Raise the heat to med/high and pour  water over the millet. Stir to break up any clumps, add a couple pinches of salt and bring to a boil. When the water boils, reduce the heat to low, cover with a tight-fitting lid and simmer for 20 minutes until the water is absorbed. Turn off the heat and leave the millet covered for another 20-30 minutes until it is cool enough to handle. The millet will be fluffy and all the water should be absorbed.

the salad:

olive oil

½ red onion, thinly sliced

1/3 cup raw pepitas/pumpkin seeds

3 cups spinach leaves (stemmed and roughly chopped if the leaves are big)

¼ cup dried cranberries

white wine vinegar

salt and pepper

fresh goat cheese

In a large skillet or sauté pan, heat 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil and stir the pumpkin seeds into the oil over medium heat. Stir constantly until the pumpkins seeds are golden brown and toasted. Turn off the heat and stir the sliced onion in, it should wilt slightly in the residual heat of the pan, infusing the oil with flavor. Pour the millet into the sauté pan. It will probably be in large clumps like couscous; gently break it up into individual grains with your fingers. Drizzle the wine vinegar over the millet. Toss in the spinach and cranberries and mix into the millet. Salt and pepper to taste. Dollop chunks of fresh goat cheese over the top and serve at room temperature.

Advertisements

Get stuffed

Sometimes you want to have an all out,  pull-out-all-the-stops free-for-all, all day, special occasion, feast day, soup-to-nuts cook-a-thon. And sometimes (most of the time) you just want something tasty for supper that is neither an indulgence in time or in calories, something you can make in half and hour or so with ingredients that are easy to pick up on the way home from a busy day, something that doesn’t make you consider re-upping your gym membership and getting a cholesterol test taken again. I’m talking about “convenience food” in some shape or form, but I’m not talking about a blue box of mac and cheese or a bucket of fried chicken from a drive-thru.

I am talking about chicken, though. Boneless chicken breast is undeniably a convenience food. They are totally easy to find in any market, quick to cook, lean, and easy to portion. It’s not usually my favorite piece of chicken  for a couple of reasons: first, because it is so lean, unlike the legs and thighs, it tends to be pretty flavorless on its own, and second, it can go from undercooked to dry, stringy, and rubbery in a New York minute if it isn’t treated properly. But there are at least a couple of ways to take advantage of  the convenience factor without losing the good eats factor.

    Poaching is one cooking technique that will infuse flavor without drying the meat out. If I’m going to make chicken salad, I usually poach the chicken breast. For some reason, I usually prefer poached chicken when it’s eaten chilled.  Another option (the one I’m talking about here) is to slice a pocket into the chicken breast that will create as much surface contact as you can between the chicken and a flavorful filling, a filling that contains enough moisture to steam itself  through the blander chicken surrounding it, but not so moist that it ends up just turning everything into a puddle.

I guess traditionally I think of a bread crumb based stuffing-like for turkey at Thanksgiving – but if you think about it in terms of a savory tart filling, vegetables can really be the star. I probably had  spanakopita on my mind when I came up with this particular combination but if If you can think of a flavorful vegetable that would be good with chicken, it will probably be good in chicken. I usually quickly roast or saute my vegetables first to cook off a little of the water that they naturally contain, just to soften them and  concentrate their flavor, then add some seasoning and a little something to oomph the flavor (in this case, feta) and then while it’s still hot, stuff the chicken and stick it in the oven for a few minutes.

Chicken Breast stuffed with Spinach and Feta

-2 boneless chicken breast halves (I used skin-on, but boneless skinless may be easier to find)

– Oil to saute’ and oil the baking dish

-1 shallot, minced

-2 cloves garlic, minced

-6 ounces spinach leaves, rinsed and roughly chopped (frozen thawed spinach works well too)

-Pinch each of dried basil and oregano

-1/3 cup panko crumbs (or dry bread crumbs)

2 ounces crumbled feta

-Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 °

In a large saute’ pan or skillet, heat a splash of oil over medium low heat. Add the shallot and garlic  with a pinch of salt and cook until they begin to soften. Sprinkle the basil and oregano over and stir everything together until the herbs become fragrant. Add the spinach leaves to the pan. Don’t bother to dry the spinach when you rinse it; the water that clings to the leaves should be enough to wilt and steam the spinach. Once the spinach has shrunken and wilted, take the pan off the heat. Gently stir in the panko and feta chunks. The panko will absorb most  of the residual liquid in the pan, leaving you a moist but not soupy filling.

 Place each chicken breast on a cutting board, skin side up, so that it looks like an upside-down pear shape. With a sharp knife, make slit all the way down the center of the top of the chicken breast, starting just below the wide end so that it will still hold its shape after it is filled. Then use the point of the knife to slice pockets into the meat on either side of the slit, widening the cavity so that the stuffing is making as much contact with the chicken as possible. This is what will help keep the chicken from drying out while it’s cooking.

Divide the still-hot spinach mixture between the two chicken breasts. It should be a generous amount, enough to fill the pockets in the meat and mound up in the middle. Smear a tiny bit of oil in the bottom of a baking dish to keep the chicken from sticking to the bottom.  Bake the chicken for about 20 minutes, until the chicken is done and the filling is bubbling and beginning to brown on top.