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The Thomas Keller Challenge: Potato Hash with Bacon and Melted Onions

(Read about The Thomas Keller Challenge project here. And don’t miss my Thomas Keller vs. Frank Stitt Challenge guest post on Wade on Birmingham.)

This recipe is the absolute best hash browns you’ll ever have. Which is a good thing, because it’s also the most fussy and intricate hash browns you’ll ever make.

Never one to make comfort food simple, Chef Keller has you cook down onions for almost an hour, render bacon for 30 minutes, fry the potatoes, and then cook everything together for a few minutes. This is decidedly not a quick-breakfast meal, but damn is it good.

Let’s start with the Melted Onions, a preparation used in several dishes in Ad Hoc at Home (aff. link). You start by softening the onion in a dry pan for 20 minutes, then adding butter and seasonings before cooking another 30 to 35. The result is a sweet, creamy, and tender pile of onion that somehow holds its shape. You may want to double or triple the onion part of the recipe below, just to have them on hand to put in pretty much any dish.

fried potatoesThe potatoes fry until nicely cooked at a relatively low temperature, so they don’t get terribly crisp. You’ll crisp them briefly at the very end of the recipe, but you don’t want ‘em crunchy—it’s kind of the perfect texture to eat with a fork.

And the bacon, well, what isn’t better with bacon? Keller’s recipe makes it sound like the bacon’s not really supposed to get very crisp, but it calls for 30 minutes of cooking. Even at low heat, you’re gonna end up with crispy bacon. And it works in the dish.

You can cook this dish in about an hour if you time it right: Cook the onion for 20 minutes, then add the butter and seasonings and start the bacon. While the bacon and onion finish cooking, fry and drain the potatoes. Finally, throw everything together and you’re done in roughly 55 minutes. (Or you can cook the onion up to 3 days ahead.)

This is supposed to be a side dish, but as a main course paired with a simple green salad, it was a big hit.

This may be sacrilege atop Chef Keller’s pristine potato hash, but as a good Southerner, I found that a couple dashes of Tabasco Sauce made this dish even better.

Now, if I could just find someone to make this for me Saturday mornings…

Potato Hash with Bacon and Melted Onions

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The Thomas Keller Challenge: Sautéed Chicken Breasts

(Read about The Thomas Keller Challenge project here.)

Finally, a recipe from Chef Keller that anyone with a reasonably equipped pantry can make without a special grocery expedition! This is a really simple dish, but it looks elegant and tastes wonderful. You rub some chicken breasts with curry and paprika, pound ‘em flat, cook ‘em, and make a really simple white-wine pan sauce.

The only really odd part of this recipe is that you’re supposed to season the chicken with the paprika and curry powder, and then let it sit for two hours. I’ve never heard of “marinating” meat in just dry spices (even spice rubs usually have some liquid component), and I’m not convinced it made any difference. It’s not like the inside of the chicken tasted like the spices, and the outside would with the two-hour “marinade” or not. I’m leaving the step in my version of the recipe because I did it, but if you want to skip it I think you’d still be okay.

Otherwise, my changes to the recipe were for convenience and personal preference. I swapped in pimentón picante (spicy Spanish smoked paprika) for regular paprika because I love the stuff, and my parents brought me a really nice jar of it after they went to Spain this spring. I used fresh basil instead of the fresh tarragon Chef Keller calls for because I have a basil plant, and who in God’s name has fresh tarragon just lying around?

A very important thing to note: Do not use a non-stick pan to cook the chicken! You want browned bits sticking to the bottom; it makes a better pan sauce. I have a full set of nonstick cookware, but I have two clad-copper pans I keep around just for this purpose (and because they’re oven-safe).

We served the chicken with Okra Pancakes from Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s The Gift of Southern Cooking, one of my very favorite cookbooks (and also the source of the world’s best chocolate cake recipe). The flavors didn’t match terribly well, but both are very tasty dishes, and we had a bunch of okra we needed to use up anyway.

Sautéed Chicken Breast with Basil

Sautéed Chicken Breasts with Basil (adapted from Ad Hoc at Home)
Serves 2

1/2 tsp. pimentón picante (spicy smoked paprika)
1/2 tsp. curry powder
2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
Canola oil
1 Tbsp. butter, divided
1/2 small shallot, minced
2 Tbsp. white wine
1/3 cup chicken stock
1/2 Tbsp. fresh basil, roughly chopped

Stir together pimentón and curry powder. Sprinkle onto both sides of chicken breasts. Wrap chicken in plastic wrap and refrigerate for two hours.

Heat a pan over medium-high heat. Pound chicken between sheets of plastic wrap to 1/4 to 1/2-inch thickness. Season on both sides with salt and pepper. Add oil to pan and sauté chicken until cooked through and browned, about 2 minutes per side. Remove chicken to a plate.

Melt 1 tsp. butter (1/3 of your total tablespoon), add shallot, and cook 30 seconds. Add wine and cook another 30 seconds. Add chicken stock and cook until reduced and slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Stir in basil and remaining butter, and any juices on chicken plate, and swirl until butter melts. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Slice chicken on the bias and arrange on plates. Pour sauce over top.

The Thomas Keller Challenge: Green Bean and Potato Salad

Okay, so it’s been a while since the last Thomas Keller Challenge. My apologies. I don’t know if this will continue to be a weekly series, but it will continue occasionally. (And keep on the lookout for a special Thomas Keller vs. Frank Stitt Challenge guest post on Wade on Birmingham in August.)

LSU Purple figs from Petals from the PastAnyway, I bought the beautiful LSU Purple figs you see at left from Petals from the Past at the farmer’s market on Saturday (That’s really the name of the variety), and wanted to use them in a Thomas Keller recipe. His Green Bean and Potato Salad with Mission Figs and Iberico Ham sounded like a good one.

Chef Keller apparently has a thing for green bean and potato salads, and this one was better than the other one. Once you get around his complicated instructions, it’s actually a pretty easy recipe: a salad of blanched green beans, boiled potato slices, walnuts, figs, radishes, and ham or prosciutto with a very simple red wine vinaigrette.

Instead of the haricots verts called for, I used some more Chinese long beans from my CSA farm, and because I couldn’t find radishes anywhere, I used turnips. (What magical land does Keller live in where figs and radishes are in season at the same time? Oh yeah, California.)

The key to this salad is its balance of flavors and textures. It’s got salty ham, sweet figs, sour dressing, crunchy walnuts, creamy potatoes, and crisp green beans. My only objection is that it’s awfully stingy with the figs. Four figs in a recipe that’s supposed to serve six? Ha! I used eight figs in a half-recipe.

Green Bean and Potato SaladAs a main course with this, I spread a combo of mustard, horseradish, and dill on some salmon pieces, let them sit for 15 minutes or so, and sauteed until just cooked. It helped at Publix had wild Alaskan sockeye salmon on sale for 10 bucks a pound. (Go take advantage if you get a chance.)

The Thomas Keller Challenge: Buttermilk Fried Chicken

Last night I finally made the dish I’ve been most looking forward to in the Thomas Keller Challenge. Not having grown up in the South, homemade fried chicken is something of a mystery to me. When I was little, without a mama’s or grandmama’s recipe to turn to, we ate a lot of Brown’s. (Their fried mushrooms are still awesome, BTW.)

And then it was the ’90s and fat was evil and we stopped eating fried chicken.

Now, I love good fried chicken, but it’s a rare treat for me. Well, the fried chicken at Ad Hoc is so beloved that Williams-Sonoma started selling a kit to make it; I had to try the stuff.

Keller’s recipe, as usual, isn’t simple, and it takes two days. You make a brine with lemon, honey, garlic, salt, and spices, cool it down, and then brine the chicken for 12 hours. (No more, no less, Chef Keller says.) Next, you take the chicken out of the fridge for an hour and a half to dry and come to room temperature before frying. Dredge in heavily seasoned flour, dip in buttermilk, coat in flour again, and you’re ready to cook (at very specific temperatures for each piece, of course).

Since my previous (and only) attempt at fried chicken managed to create legs that were both blackened outside and ice-cold raw within, I made sure to follow Chef’s directions to the letter this time. It paid off.

Thomas Keller's Buttermilk Fried Chicken

Brining makes the chicken juicy and sweet (there’s a lot of honey in there), and the frying technique leaves the chicken perfectly crisp and just the right brownness when it’s cooked through.

If you’re afraid of deep-frying, this is a good recipe to start with: Frying goes at an almost leisurely pace, with each part of the chicken getting its turn in the oil. Thighs first and legs next, both at 320°, then you raise the oil up to 340° and do the breasts and then the wings. It’s gonna take you 45 minutes or so to fry everything. That’s okay—you already devoted most of yesterday to this recipe.

I used to wing it with oil temperature, but I’ve become a firm believer in thermometers. You need a candy or fry thermometer for the oil and a meat thermometer to check doneness to pull this chicken off.

Fried chicken kitchen setupDoing this assembly-line style makes things easier. My setup’s at left. I breaded all the pieces before I started anything else, put the oil in my largest, deepest pot (note the thermometer in there), and put a cooling rack over a baking sheet right next to the pot (note the other thermometer on there).

You want to use a lot of oil; once it gets up to temperature it’ll stay there even when you drop in the chicken. This also makes fine adjustments easier—if it’s a bit too hot, turn the stove way down, and the oil will slowly cool rather than dropping all of a sudden. You can also reuse your frying oil. I let mine cool, then strained it through cheesecloth right back into the container it came from.

I also have to give a locavore shout-out to my chicken. I’m part of a co-op that picks up pasture-raised chickens from Goose Pond Farm in Hartselle, Ala., once a month. Their chickens have all been great, and huge. Last night’s was the smallest chicken I’ve gotten so far, and half of it fed five people. Gigantic chickens are usually tough or stringy, but that’s not the case with Goose Pond. (Or maybe is was Chef Keller’s brine. Who knows?)

If you’re ready to try it, here’s the recipe. Me? I’m off to grab a cold piece from the fridge.

The Thomas Keller Challenge: Potato and Green Bean Salad with Creamy Pepper Dressing

(I’m cooking once a week from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home cookbook. For more info, read my intro post on the Thomas Keller Challenge.)

This week’s Thomas Keller recipe went on the road: I brought it to a potluck dinner at a friend’s house. Unfortunately, the photos I took (outside, in the dark) of the finished salad turned out horrifically. All I’ve got is this one of the salad pre-dressing:

Thomas Keller's Potato and Green Bean Salad

This is a great, summery salad, and it’s enough for six or eight, easy. As is typical for Chef Keller’s recipes, it’s got a lot of unnecessarily complicated frou-frou steps, but none of them are particularly difficult. You simmer the potatoes until tender, then boil the green beans (in an entirely separate pot for some reason) and drop them in an ice bath. Other than that, it’s just chopping lettuce, shallot, and chives. For the dressing, you reduce pepper, honey, and vinegar, and mix with buttermilk, creme fraiche, and homemade aioli.

(Full disclosure: I used yogurt instead of the creme fraiche—almost everyone at dinner was on a diet—and I mixed garlic into bottled mayonnaise for the aioli. I know homemade is better, but it’s being mixed in with so much other stuff, it didn’t seem worth it.)

Chef Keller’s method of plating this salad kinda veers into the ridiculous: You’re supposed to toss the lettuce with some of the dressing, then mix together the rest of the ingredients in another bowl and toss them with more dressing, then stack a layer of lettuce, a layer of potatoes and beans, another layer of lettuce, and another layer of potatoes and beans, followed by a garnish of fresh tarragon and chervil. Silly. Just toss the damn salad with some dressing. Same difference. (I have no objection to the herbs, but honestly who has tarragon and chervil just lying around?)

Ignoring that, though, this is a great summer salad. Fresh and crisp green beans and lettuce make a great contrast to the potato, and the creamy-tart dressing is something like a mixture of thousand island and ranch. Even with the reduction in fat from switching to yogurt, it was still quite rich. It’s a sophisticated update to your basic potato salad, and pairs well with anything grilled.