Wednesday, July 30, 2008


I’ve long admired Jamie Oliver from a cuteness standpoint, but this is the first of his recipes I’ve actually made. I must say, I’m impressed, even though I’ve tried this twice and not yet managed to execute it perfectly. Don’t worry—the fault is not with the recipe, which is of the simple mix-things-together-and-throw-in-dish-then-bake variety—but with my supply chain. Namely, the pancetta. I think of it as a fairly common ingredient, but neither my beloved Trader Joe’s nor my usual big corporate grocery store carry it sliced, only cubed. So the first time I attempted this recipe, I went to a new Italian market near my house (which I’d been looking for an excuse to visit, but it turned out to be lamer than I’d imagined—mostly an overpriced sandwich shop with a half-assed selection of imported groceries), walked up to the meat counter, asked for a half-pound of pancetta, and watched as the guy cut it off the big marbled chunk in the glass case and wrapped it in paper for me. But I guess I wasn’t really paying attention, because it wasn’t until I got home that I realized the pancetta wasn’t sliced. (Not really the Italian market’s fault, but I still don’t think I’ll be going back there again.) I had to slice it myself, which resulted in thick, rather stubby strips I sort of had to lay awkwardly across the top of the chicken breasts instead of wrapping them around. It worked OK, but it wasn’t the thin, crisp, elegant layer of meat I’d imagined.

I wondered if one might substitute good-quality bacon, and so I tried that the second time I made this recipe (documented in the photo shown above). Bacon did indeed work much better for wrapping, but surprisingly, I didn’t notice the same depth of flavor in the finished dish. Also, the bacon released a lot more fat than the pancetta, so that my leeks were basically swimming in grease by the end of the cooking time and had to be lifted out with a slotted spoon.

Obviously the answer is to embark on a thorough search for proper sliced pancetta (I’m hoping Whole Foods might be the solution to this conundrum) and try this a third time, but I wanted to share the recipe with you now because regardless of all my ingredient problems, I can still tell that it’s a great recipe. This is the kind of dish that takes barely any effort to make and yet produces food delicious and sophisticated enough to serve at a dinner party and spend all night basking in the compliments. The pancetta and thyme do much to spruce up boring chicken breasts, but it’s the leeks that are the superstars here, cooked until they’re meltingly tender and sweet, with winey and porky undertones. Served with a refreshing green salad, it’s an easy yet impressive meal—quick enough for a weeknight, yet worthy of a special occasion.

The original recipe served just one person and was written in Jamie’s casual, almost careless style—few precise measurements, just a knob of this and a pour of that. So everything is pretty much to taste, but in increasing it to serve four, I’ve tried to quantify things as best I can. The one thing that befuddled me about the original was that it called for 6 or 7 pancetta slices for just a single chicken breast (and you’ll notice that in the accompanying photo, that chicken is pretty well blanketed). This seemed excessive, especially when multiplied by four, unless those slices are super-short or something? With the bacon, I found that two slices wrapped around each breast covered it adequately, and for my own serving (shown above) I only used one—both for health reasons and because I like the spirally look of the single slice with peeks of chicken showing through. So I’m leaving the pancetta quantity totally to your whim, along with the oil (you don’t need much) and the wine. Experiment—I think no matter what, you’ll be impressed with the result.

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (if the breasts are large, as they all seem to be nowadays, I like to use just 2 and slice them in half to make 4)
4 large leeks
about 12 sprigs fresh thyme
olive oil
1 tablespoon butter, cut into pieces
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
white wine
enough sliced pancetta (or good-quality bacon) to wrap around the chicken breasts

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Place chicken breasts in a bowl. Wash and trim the leeks, remove outer leaves, and cut white and light green parts into ¼-inch-thick slices. Add leeks to the bowl along with leaves from about 6 thyme sprigs, a splash of olive oil, the butter, salt and pepper, and a swig of white wine. Toss everything together.

3. Remove the chicken breasts from the bowl. Pour the leek mixture into a baking dish just large enough to hold the chicken snugly (an 8- or 9-inch square glass dish works well). Wrap each chicken breast in a single layer of pancetta and place in the dish. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and scatter remaining thyme sprigs atop and around the chicken.

4. Bake in the center of the oven for 25 to 35 minutes.

Serves: 4
Time: 45 minutes

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Over the July 4th weekend I paid my first-ever visit to the Pacific Northwest, spending most of the time in Portland, which is revered as a foodie mecca for its bountiful fresh produce and local microbrews. I hoped to eat and drink as many tasty things as I could, documenting all of the tastiness with photos of every meal. In this I was only marginally successful. First of all, I was only there for three full days, and I would have needed about a month (or possibly a second stomach) to make my way through my wanna-eat list, so I regretfully shelved some of my food dreams (seafood, brewery tour, Tillamook ice cream, Pix, The Tin Shed, Roots Brewery) for another time. Secondly, travel eating always involves compromise for the sake of expediency—you’re hungry or someone else in your group is, you don’t know the lay of the land, and you just need to eat what’s readily available at the moment so you can get on with your sightseeing. Even I’m not about to spend an entire vacation in the pursuit of restaurants, not when there’s Powell’s and The Grotto to see. And the photo thing fell by the wayside on the second day. Restaurants were dark, or I was too eager to eat, or the food wasn’t that exciting, or I would have felt weird whipping out my camera. I can, however, present you with this excellent portrait of my first morning’s breakfast (I must say, our breakfasts were uniformly excellent on this trip, but this one was my very favorite), an open-faced bacon-tomato-avocado-poached-egg sandwich at CafĂ© Marron in Spokane:

Here are three more delicious Portland moments:

1. Circumstances conspired to allow us to dine in the home of a real Portlander, a sort of friend-of-a-friend (well, actually, a father-of-a-friend-of-a-brother) none of us had met before. I knew it was a good sign when we arrived at his lovely house and were immediately drafted to pick raspberries for the dessert. Sitting in the backyard, we drank wine (a good Syrah we’d picked up, at the Maryhill Winery on our way into town) and chatted while dining on a delicious homemade chard-rice casserole and salad featuring vegetables from the garden, followed by an amazing chocolate tart (like this one, from Jamie Oliver’s book Cook With Jamie) garnished with the fresh-picked raspberries. It was our first night in Portland, and it was perfect.

2. In Portland I became determined to finally try this year’s (or last year's?) food-blogger-darling dessert, the French macaron (not to be confused with a coconut macaroon, this is a ground-almond-based sandwich cookie that looks rather like a tiny hamburger, with two rounded layers enclosing a creamy filling, available in a wide array of colors and flavors, making it as photogenic as it is delicious). Of course these are probably widely available in L.A., but in my normal, sensible, well-balanced life I try to avoid bakeries, and traveling is always such a good opportunity to (a) try something new and (b) indulge. Though we weren’t able to make it to Pix, where my source assured me that the salted-caramel macaron was so good “you almost need to eat it in private,”* two varieties of macaron, chocolate and mango, were available at Ken’s Artisan Bakery, just a couple of blocks from our hostel. On a restless late-afternoon walk while my travel companions were resting, I decided to go for it. I had chocolate, of course, and it was delicious—lightly crisp on the outside, tender within:

3. On the final night of our trip, we decided to splurge at Higgins, a highly recommended restaurant in downtown Portland that emphasizes local, organic, seasonal, sustainable food. And wow, it was a great dining experience from beginning to end—excellent food in a relaxed, unpretentious-but-still-fancy atmosphere. K and I both had good regional wines (I don’t remember what mine was called, but hers was “Jezebel”). S had a roasted-beet salad and a cold vegan soup made from pureed potatoes and almonds, seasoned with smoked paprika (it sounds odd, but was quite good). K had a beautiful piece of salmon with vegetables and homemade spaetzle. I had a fabulous sweet-pea risotto featuring three forms of peas—peas, pea pods, and a pea puree swirled in. The sweetness of the peas was perfectly balanced by rated Grana Padano cheese, smoky little chunks of coppacola, and salty wafers of fried Parmesan. I don’t even particularly love peas or risotto, but I loved this. It was the kind of restaurant where you sensed that anything you ordered was going to be delicious, even if it was something you didn’t normally like. This caused us agonies of decision-making over the alluring dessert menu, but at last we settled on house-made rhubarb sorbet and hazelnut ice cream, both served with an assortment of tiny house-made cookies and an amusing cube of Cognac gelee (think freestanding, upscale Jell-O shot). But the show was stolen by the third dessert, and utterly amazing raspberry-ricotta tart with a lavender shortbread crust (I’d been skeptical, fearing it would taste like potpourri or something, but was pleased to be proven wrong—thanks for sticking to your guns on that one, K!). In short, I will definitely be returning to Portland, and Higgins will be on the itinerary.

*This turn of phrase led us to fantasize about opening a restaurant featuring a dessert so supposedly decadent and delicious that when you ordered it, you would simply be brought a plate with a silver key on it. You would get up and go to the back of the restaurant, where your key would open one of several little phone-booth-sized red-velvet-padded rooms, inside which your dessert would be waiting on a silver platter, for you to eat in private, able to groan and gorge to your heart's content, away from strangers' eyes. The dessert wouldn't really even have to be that special; it would all be in the fun presentation. If anyone executes this idea, I demand a lifetime of free desserts!