Monday, May 21, 2007

Grilled Chicken and Polenta with Sage Infused Balsamic Butternut Syrup

Well, I think I'm on to something here.

A couple weeks back, I subjected myself, and my readers (all five of you), to what can best be described as a weekend of pasta madness. As you surely remember, the culmination of this was some great butternut squash tortelloni, the recipe for which came courtesy of Biba Caggiano (or rather, her book). The recipe was pretty straightforward, but there was one thing about it that really got the hamsters that turn the wheels in my head to working overtime, an almost off-handed comment that when squeezing the liquid out of the squash, said liquid should be retained, as it can be boiled down into a syrup. Sage played prominently in Biba's recipe, and I got to thinking, what if I incorporated sage into that syrup... and what if I threw in some balsamic vinegar... Yeeessss, what if... So I put my reserved squash water into the freezer, to be dealt with at a later date. That later date came the other night, when I decided to boil it down and serve up whatever the result with some grilled chicken, as well as some polenta rounds I had hanging around in the freezer.

Now, a few words about polenta here: many of the polenta recipes I've found call for a two to one ratio of water to polenta, cooked for thirty or forty minutes. This will get you polenta, sort of, but it's really not the best way to go. First of all, don't use water. Use an even mixture of chicken stock and milk (if you're a bad-ass, you could replace some of the milk with heavy cream; if you're a sociopath, follow the heavy cream with rendered bacon fat or lardo; me, I stuck with stock and milk). Second, you'll do better to use a ratio of three parts liquid to one part polenta. And third, once you've slowly stirred the polenta into the liquid at a slow boil, cook it for at least three hours, over very low heat, stirring only occasionally. This allows the starch in the corn to break down into sugars, which then caramelize. Have some extra liquid on hand, as you'll need to thin your polenta out from time to time as it thickens. But don't add too much toward the end, you'll want the polenta to end up thick enough that it's just a little difficult to stir. Once it's done, mix in a little butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano and spread it out on a small sheet pan or baking dish into a layer about 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick. Chill it until firm, then use an empty (and clean) 12-14 oz can to cut out rounds. Or cut it into squares if you like. You can grill it, saute it, broil it, whatever. That's up to you.

The chicken's the easy part. Grill it until done. Very simple, especially if you have a cast iron grill pan. You could sautee, but you won't get that nice cross-hatch pattern. I like to grill for 5 minutes on each side, turning 90 degrees halfway through to get the proper visual, then I stick it into a 300F oven to finish for about five more minutes.

Now to the syrup. You'll need a lot of reserved squash liquid to do this, because you're going to really reduce the hell out of it. I started with about 1 1/4 cups of liquid, added one tbsp of balsamic vinegar (figure one tsp for each 1/2 cup of liquid), which brought me to about 1 1/2 cups, and wound up with barely two tbsp of syrup at the end. An entire 2 1/2 lb squash, minus the solids, reduced to two tbsp. So cook up a lot of squash. Fill ravioli with it. Make soup. Make squash custard, squash pies... or just freeze the flesh once you've squeezed all the water out of it and use it later. Here's how you want to do it:

Split each squash lengthwise and scoop out the seeds (save these, by the way; you can roast them just like pumpkin seeds). Don't bother peeling it. Wrap each half in foil, and bake for about an hour at 350F. When the squash is done, let it cool, but don't unwrap the foil until you're ready to scoop out the flesh. You want as much liquid as possible, so it follows that you want as little evaporation as possible. This is why we're not roasting or sauteeing, obviously. Remove as much of the flesh as possible with an ice cream scoop and set into a large mixing bowl lined with a tea towel (don't use a terry cloth towel, as the squash will stick to it). Gather up the squash in the towel and squeeze. For a good long while. The liquid will just keep coming. After you've extracted the last of the liquid, strain it through a medium strainer lined with a couple layers of cheesecloth. Repeat until you're no longer catching any solid matter. You should end up with between 1 and 1 1/2 cups of pale orange liquid per each large (around 2 1/2 lb) squash.

Once you have all of your liquid, add some sage, about 10 good sized leaves per cup, and slowly simmer in the squash liquid for about ten minutes. Strain out the sage, and add the balsamic vinegar. Real balsamic vinegar, that is. Don't go with the mass produced American stuff, make sure it's from Modena, made from trebbiano grapes, aged in wooden casks... There's a difference, trust me. One tsp per half cup of squash water is about as much as you want, any more and the balsamic will just take over. In fact, you could probably get away with a little bit less. Experiment, and tell me what you come up with. Anyway, once you've got the vinegar in there, turn up the heat to a mild boil. Stirring occasionally, reduce the syrup about halfway. A good way to gauge this is to stick the handle end of a wooden spoon straight down into the liquid before you turn the heat up. Wind a rubber band around the handle right at the line of the liquid. You can then stick the handle in later and determine roughly how much the liquid has reduced by how far the top of the liquid is from the rubber band. Once the liquid has reduced by about two thirds, whisk in a little butter until melted. You'll want to stir a little more frequently from this point on. Pretty soon you'll notice that the liquid has thickened considerably, and it will start to bubble and look like caramel. I'm no confectioner, but my guess is that at this point the sugars are in fact caramelizing, and the mixture is indeed becoming something similar to caramel. At any rate, it will be good and syrupy. Continue to boil until it's just napé (click here to see what napé looks like), and pour it into a squeeze bottle to apply to your chicken and polenta. Or butternut squash custard. Or french toast. Or vanilla ice cream. Or whatever else you can think of.

The real beauty of this stuff, I'm imagining, is its versatility. It's equal parts sweet and tangy, with a subtle note of sage and a buttery umami quality. I really think it would work on almost anything.


Trisha said...

So as I'm reading this the word "ice cream scoop" jumps out and me and I start thinking. that's right, I'm thinking about Baskin Robbins and the Skoal Ripple.

tommy said...

Ah yes, Skoal Ripple! And don't forget that other brilliant but unrealized ice cream flavor, Manhattan Style Clam Chowder Swirl!