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The right time for a springtime dinner

Although winter in these parts hasn't been a terrible hardship this year, it's still pleasant to anticipate more moderate temperatures when you can put away the winter Crocs and start looking for your sandals. And who can blame you if you jump the proverbial gun and invite friends in for a petite soiree with a springtime theme.

To celebrate the onset of a purportedly milder season, we present this simple —emphasis on simple —seasonal dinner for eight. Begin with goat cheese triangles used as a "garnish" on a salad of spring greens.

Next up —even those of our guests who aren't spring chickens will enjoy a transitional main dish of chicken and artichoke fricassee. With a side that combines new potatoes, tomatoes and green beans.

And even though it's a way to go before local berries are in season, we create a simple —there's that word again —dessert of berry squares.

Get out the flowered tablecloth and matching napkins. Buy a few bunches of daffodils and tulips, and begin.

Spring salad

This concoction has a "Greek-ish" theme. The triangles provide a colorful, textural contrast to the greens. You can make the phyllo triangles ahead, cool thoroughly and freeze in a single layer in an airtight container. Thaw at room temperature, then reheat at 350 degrees, under foil, until just warmed through.

P.S. The triangle recipe allows you to make 20 phyllo pillows; you only need 16 (two per person), so just eat the rest yourself.

A chilled rose or dry white wine makes an equally good first impression for this evening's activities, one you can carry through all the way to dessert. If you want a bit of bubbly then, try some Asti Spumante.

12 (17x12-inch) phyllo sheets, thawed if frozen

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, clarified (spoon off the milky part and just use the clear part)

1 cup rinsed, drained, roasted red peppers, finely chopped, patted dry

8 ounces soft, mild goat cheese, e.g. Montrachet

About 1/2 cup olive oil

Salad

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 teaspoons country-style (coarse) Dijon mustard

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup olive oil

About 12 ounces mesclun (spring greens) or a mixture of spring greens and extra frisee

3 generous tablespoons chopped, pitted Kalamata olives

For the triangles, have red peppers and goat cheese handy. Cover phyllo stack with 2 overlapping pieces of waxed paper, then a damp kitchen towel (to keep them from drying out). Spread a couple of overlapping pieces of waxed paper on a work surface. Lay a phyllo sheet across them. Lightly brush some butter over phyllo sheet. Add another sheet and butter it, then a third sheet and more butter. Use a sharp knife to cut buttered phyllo crosswise into 5 strips (12x3-1/3 inches each).

Put about 2 teaspoons each of red peppers and goat cheese near one corner of a strip and fold corner of phyllo over to form a triangular shape. Continue folding strip (like a flag), keeping the triangular shape. Put triangle, seam side down, on a baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap.

Make another stack of three phyllo sheets, with butter brushed on each layer. Cut into 5 strips, add filling, fold and place on baking sheet under plastic wrap. Continue brushing, filling and folding until you use all the phyllo sheets.

In a large, non-stick skillet, over medium high, heat olive oil until hot but not smoking. Fry triangles in two or three batches until golden, about 1 minute per side. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Keep gently warm until serving time (or reheat); the contrast between warm triangles and chilled greens is a pleasant plus.

For the salad, in a large bowl, whisk together vinegars, mustard and salt. Whisk in oil in a slow, steady stream; continue whisking until emulsified (somewhat thickened). Add mesclun/frisee and olives and toss with dressing. Taste for seasonings. Add pepper if desired.

To serve, mound some salad on individual chilled salad plates. Arrange 2 phyllo triangles along the side.

Spring chicken

This budget-friendly fricassee (aka fancy stew) is in a transitional mood, befitting the early part of the warm-up season. Some traditions call for using only thighs and drumsticks in this dish, but we opt for breast quarters —bone in and skin on. If you can't find morel mushrooms (or even if you can), opt for a mixture —including oyster, shiitake and baby bella.

P.S. You could even make this dish ahead, then gently reheat just before serving time.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

8 chicken breast quarters, skin on, bone in, wing tips removed

Flour, for dredging

8 ounces morel mushrooms or other "exotic" mushrooms, wiped clean

24 baby carrots, stem ends trimmed, thinly sliced lengthwise

3 large shallots, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, divided

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 bay leaf

About 2 cups reduced sodium/fat chicken broth

1 cup dry white wine

16 total frozen artichoke hearts (about 11/2 packages), thawed

1/2 cup creme fraiche

In a large, heavy, non-stick skillet, over medium, heat butter and olive oil. Dredge chicken in flour, shaking off excess. Brown chicken, in batches if need be, in butter/oil mixture, about 4 minutes per side. Remove to a plate. Add mushrooms, carrots and shallots to skillet. Sprinkle with pepper, and salt if using. Saute until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add 1 cup of the chicken broth and wine. Bring to a boil. Return chicken to skillet top-side-down , reduce heat slightly, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Turn chicken. Add thawed artichoke hearts. Cover and simmer 15 minutes longer. If "sauce" seems to be getting too dry, add more chicken broth.

To finish, transfer chicken and vegetables to a heated serving platter. Add creme fraiche to sauce, bring to a boil, stirring, to heat through. Taste for seasonings, adding pepper and salt if desired. Pour sauce over chicken. Sprinkle with remaining half of the fresh thyme. Makes 8 servings.

New potatoes plus

Simple parsley potatoes make an adequate carb-y side dish for the fricassee, but if you're of the "can't have too many veggies" school, try this colorful side dish.

P.S. As with the fricassee, this can be made ahead. Don't add the herbs until you reheat the veggies. Then, simply toss them lightly with the potato mixture and serve.

2 pounds small "new" potatoes (regular, red skin or fingerling), halved, rinsed, patted dry

About 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 pound haricots verts (very slender green beans), trimmed

1 (12-ounce) container cherry tomatoes, halved, or grape tomatoes, left as is

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/4 cup chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons chopped, fresh basil

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Spray coat a (rimmed) baking sheet with cooking spray. In a bowl, toss potatoes with about 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Scatter potatoes on baking sheet. Sprinkle with pepper and a bit of sea salt. Roast until tender, turning occasionally, 45 minutes.

While potatoes roast, steam green beans until crisp tender (about 3 minutes), over lightly salted boiling water. Remove immediately and drain well.

In a large bowl, combine green beans, tomatoes and garlic. Drizzle with another 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add some pepper, and salt if using. Toss. Remove baking sheet with potatoes to the top of the stove. Use a slotted spoon to disperse green beans, tomatoes and garlic among the potatoes. Return to oven and roast until tomatoes begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven, sprinkle with parsley and basil and stir gently. Transfer mixture to a warmed serving platter. Enjoy.

Berry squares

Naturally, you'll want to accompany these lovely treats with some gelato or frozen yogurt, some homemade whipped cream and perhaps some fresh berries.

For ease in removing the sweet treat from the pan, line the pan with foil, then butter the foil. When the dessert is completely cool, you can lift it from the pan to a work surface and cut into as many as 16 pieces (for 2 or 3 per guest). You do the math.

2 cups old-fashioned oats

1/4 cup flour

1/4 cup light brown sugar (packed)

1 teaspoon orange zest

1/2 teaspoon lemon zest

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 and 1/4 sticks (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted

Filling

3 cups raspberries or blackberries, or combination

1/3 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon cornstarch

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a 9-inch square baking pan as mentioned above.

For crust and topping, in a large bowl, combine oats, flour, brown sugar, orange and lemon zests, baking soda and salt, using your fingertips to blend well. Stir in melted butter. Remove 3/4 cup of the mixture and save for topping. Place remaining oat mixture in baking dish and press with your fingertips to distribute evenly. Bake in center rack until golden, 12 to 15 minutes.

For filling, while bottom crust bakes, in a small saucepan, over medium heat, stir together berries, sugar, orange juice and cornstarch. Bring to a boil, stirring, and cook until thick and no longer "cloudy," about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

To finish, when crust is golden, spoon filling over it, leaving a 1/2 -inch border around the edge. Crumble reserved topping mixture over the filling. Bake on center rack until golden and bubbly, 30 to 35 minutes. Place pan on cooling rack and cool completely. If you used foil in the pan, lift the whole package out and place on a cutting board. Cut into desired number of "squares" when completely cool.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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