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Simple to Spectacular

Transform basic ingredients into a quick weeknight meal or an elegant dinner for company.

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We're entering the season of culinary highs (the holidays and all those great parties and get-togethers) and lows (the intervening weeknights). Either swing can test the most experienced of cooks. Entertaining always induces stress, while finding the energy and inspiration to make dinner other nights can be even more challenging.

Breathe easy. The solution can be found in the same tried-and-true formula: Start with a few good ingredients and prepare them smartly. The difference between a casual supper and a dolled-up dinner is the commitment of time and expense they require. For the weeknight meal, both should be within reach, while cooking for company merits a more generous approach. Whether you start with boneless chicken, pasta, or even the lowly potato, you can transform a few ingredients into comforting daily fare or a dinner suitable for the most special of occasions.

DINNER FOR TWO
Main Ingredients:
CHICKEN BREASTS AND MUSHROOMS

Harried weeknights call for a quick saute of chicken and mushrooms. On weekends, stuff chicken breasts with spinach and exotic mushrooms and light the candles.

SAUTEED CHICKEN AND MUSHROOMS
SERVES 2

3/4 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper, plus more for sprinkling
1/4 cup flour
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 ounces cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
1/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons creme fraiche or sour cream
1/8 cup fresh chives, thinly sliced, plus some for garnish
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

In a medium bowl, toss the chicken with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Spread the flour on a plate. In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the butter and 1 tablespoon of the oil until the butter melts. Dredge the chicken in the flour and add to the pan. Cook, without touching, until the chicken starts to brown, about 2 minutes. Turn and cook until the chicken loses most of its raw color, about 2 minutes. Transfer the cooked chicken to a plate.

Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to the skillet, raise the heat to medium high, and add the mushrooms. Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring, until the mushrooms brown and soften, about 4 minutes. Stir in the chicken broth and creme fraiche or sour cream, chives, and thyme and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, stir in the chicken and cook for 2 minutes, until the chicken is done throughout. Arrange the chicken and cream sauce on a plate, sprinkle with chives and pepper, and serve.

CHICKEN BREASTS STUFFED WITH SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS AND SPINACH
SERVES 2

POLENTA
1 1/2 cups low-salt chicken broth
1/3 cup instant polenta
1/4 cup ricotta cheese
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste

In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a boil. Whisk in the polenta and cook, stirring occasionally, so the polenta thickens and soaks up all of the liquid, about 5 minutes. Stir in the ricotta and season with salt and pepper. Cover and keep warm over low heat.

CHICKEN
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
3 1/2 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced
1/4 pound baby spinach
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 6-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and thinly sliced
1/2 cup low-salt chicken broth
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or balsamic vinegar

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. In a heavy, ovenproof skillet, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat until it is shimmering hot. Add the scallions and mushrooms and cook until browned, about 4 minutes. Add the spinach, sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper, and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, transfer to a strainer, and gently squeeze out any excess liquid.

Meanwhile, using a chef's knife, horizontally slice the chicken breasts almost all the way through so that they open up like a book. Gently pound the chicken with a meat pounder or the bottom of a skillet to flatten slightly.

In a small bowl, toss the spinach mixture with the Parmesan and tomatoes. Set half the spinach mixture, centered, on one side of each breast and fold the other side over (closing the "book"). Use toothpicks to seal each breast. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.

Wipe the skillet clean with paper towels and set it over medium-high heat. Add the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil and heat until shimmering hot. Add the chicken and cook, without touching, until it browns, about 2 minutes. Turn and cook until the other side browns, about 2 minutes.

Transfer the skillet to the oven and roast until the chicken cooks through (an instant-read thermometer should register 165 degrees), about 12 minutes.

Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and tent with foil. Set the skillet over high heat, add the chicken broth and vinegar, and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon to pick up any browned bits in the pan, until the mixture reduces to a couple of tablespoons, about 4 minutes.

Remove toothpicks from the chicken and slice on the diagonal. Set a large spoonful of the polenta in the middle of each plate and arrange the chicken slices next to it. Drizzle with pan sauce and serve.

PASTA
Main Ingredients:
SPAGHETTI AND CLAMS

For a weeknight meal, keep it simple with garlic, white wine, and herbs. For company, add shrimp and mussels and an herb-studded tomato sauce for cioppino, the famous seafood stew from San Francisco.

SPAGHETTI AND CLAMS IN WHITE WINE SAUCE
Serves 4

Salt
3/4 pound spaghetti
6 cloves garlic, smashed
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 pounds littleneck clams, rinsed and scrubbed
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup chopped fresh
Italian parsley
Juice of 1 lemon
Black pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook, stirring, until it's tender but still has some bite, about 11 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium heat, cook the garlic in the oil, tossing occasionally until the cloves brown lightly all over, about 4 minutes. Turn the heat to high, add the rosemary, red pepper, and clams and cook for 1 minute, shaking the pan. Add the white wine, stir for 1 minute, then cover and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until all the clams open, about 4 minutes. Discard any clams that do not open.

Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking liquid, then drain the pasta and transfer it to the skillet with the clams. Add 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking liquid, 1/4 cup of the parsley, half the lemon juice, and salt and pepper, to taste. Cook over medium-high heat, tossing often with tongs, until the pasta is tender and has picked up the flavor of the sauce. Add more pasta water if the mixture becomes dry. Season with salt, black pepper, and lemon juice, to taste. Sprinkle with remaining parsley and serve.

SPAGHETTI WITH SEAFOOD IN TOMATO-THYME SAUCE
Serves 4

You can make the sauce in advance. Reheat it and add the shellfish as your guests arrive. To make it even more spectacular, stir a quartered raw lobster into the broth when you add the clams.

1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1/4 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, smashed with side of a knife
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/3 cup dry white wine
Salt
3/4 pound spaghetti
1 pound littleneck clams, rinsed and scrubbed
1/2 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
3/4 pound mussels, beards removed, rinsed and scrubbed
1/2 cup chopped fresh
Italian parsley
Black pepper

In a food processor, puree the tomatoes with their juice. In a large Dutch oven or casserole over medium heat, heat the oil and garlic, tossing the cloves occasionally until they brown all over, about 3 minutes. Add the thyme and red pepper and stir for 30 seconds. Adjust the heat to high, add the white wine and pureed tomato, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover with the lid partially askew, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook, stirring, until it's tender but still has some bite, about 11 minutes.

Meanwhile, adjust the heat for the tomato sauce to medium high, add the clams, cover, and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until most of the shells open, about 4 minutes. Add the shrimp, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until they become firm to the touch, about 3 minutes. Add the mussels, cover, and cook until they just open, 2 minutes; discard any clams or mussels that do not open. Stir in 1/4 cup parsley and season with salt and black pepper, to taste.

Drain the pasta, return it to its pot, and add 1 cup of the tomato sauce. Cook over medium heat, tossing until the pasta absorbs most of the sauce, about 2 minutes. Divide the pasta among 4 bowls, top with sauce and shellfish, sprinkle with remaining parsley, and serve.

VEGETARIAN
Main Ingredient:
POTATOES

SPICY INDIAN CURRY WITH POTATOES AND CAULIFLOWER
SERVES 4 to 6

1 14 1/2-ounce can coconut milk
1 14 1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 Spanish onion, finely diced
2 tablespoons ginger, finely chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or more to taste
1 tablespoon Madras (hot) curry powder
1 medium head cauliflower broken into 1-inch florets (about 6 cups)
2 medium russet potatoes (about 1 pound), peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 cups frozen peas, thawed
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Juice of 1 lime

In a food processor, puree the coconut milk and diced tomatoes and their juice. Set aside.

In a large Dutch oven or casserole, heat the olive oil over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the onion and ginger, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt, and cook, stirring often, until the onion becomes translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the curry powder and cauliflower and cook for 2 minutes, stirring often. Stir in the potatoes, coconut-milk mixture, and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the potatoes and cauliflower are tender, about 30 minutes.

Stir in the peas, 1/4 cup of cilantro, and half of the lime juice. Cook about 3 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and lime juice, to taste. Sprinkle with the remaining cilantro and serve with steamed basmati rice.

WINTER STEW WITH PORCINI AND PARMESAN
SERVES 4

I like to use the more delicate and tender lacinato or "dinosaur" kale for this dish. To add to the stew's complexity, stir in some truffle butter or white truffle oil.

3 1/2 cups water
1 ounce dried porcini or cepe mushrooms
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Spanish onion, finely diced
1 bulb fennel, cored, quartered, and cut in 1/4-inch dice
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, freshly chopped
2 teaspoons salt
4 medium russet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
3/4 pound kale, ribs removed, cut into 2-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon pepper, or to taste
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 cup coarse fresh bread crumbs (or 3/4 cup panko bread crumbs)
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon truffle butter or 1/2 teaspoon white truffle oil (optional)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Turn off the heat, add the mushrooms, and let soak until tender, about 15 minutes. (Set a large spoon on them to keep them submerged.) With a slotted spoon, transfer the mushrooms to a cutting board and coarsely chop. Strain the mushroom soaking liquid through paper toweling to remove any grit. Reserve the liquid.

In a large Dutch oven or casserole over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil for 2 minutes. Add the onion, fennel, and 1 teaspoon rosemary, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt, and cook, stirring, until the onion becomes translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the potatoes, kale, mushrooms, soaking liquid, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook until the potatoes and kale are tender, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and the garlic and cook until the garlic sizzles steadily, about 1 minute. Add bread crumbs, the remaining 1 teaspoon of rosemary, and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the crumbs are golden, about 7 minutes.

Stir 3/4 cup of the Parmesan cheese, vinegar, truffle butter or oil (if using), and mint into the stew and season with salt and pepper. Ladle the stew into bowls, sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese and the bread crumbs, and serve at once.

DESSERT
Main Ingredient:
CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE DOUGH

This recipe can do double duty, producing a fabulous cookie by day and an elegant, rich plated dessert by night. Make a double batch and freeze half for future use.

CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE DOUGH
Makes 26 3 1/2-inch cookies or 8 4 1/2-inch individual desserts plus 8 extra cookies

Don't deviate from the salt mentioned, as other brands may vary in crystal size, and thus, saltiness. For an even more spectacular plated dessert, use a premium chocolate chopped into small pieces instead of chocolate chips.

1 cup pecan pieces (optional)
15 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon iodized salt
2 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg plus two large egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Have on hand two large (12- by 17-inch) cookie sheets lined with nonstick pan liners or parchment paper. Set the rack in the middle of the oven. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. On a separate cookie sheet, spread the pecan pieces, if using, in a thin layer and bake for 8 to 10 minutes until lightly toasted. Transfer the nuts to a bowl and add 1 tablespoon of the butter and toss. Sprinkle with the iodized salt and toss again. Let cool; set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, kosher salt, and baking soda and set aside. In a large bowl, use a wooden spoon to combine the remaining 14 tablespoons of butter with the granulated and brown sugars. Mix until homogeneous. Add the egg, the yolks, and vanilla and stir to incorporate completely. Add the flour mixture, stirring until barely incorporated. Mix in the pecans and the chocolate chips.

Note: You can make the dough a day or two ahead and keep it refrigerated. Allow the dough to soften slightly at room temperature before scooping. To freeze, place scoops of dough on a lined sheet tray and form rounds as directed below. Cover with film or foil and freeze directly on the cookie sheet. Store the frozen rounds in a freezer bag. Thaw before baking.

COOKIES

Set two racks in the middle of the hot oven, still set at 350 degrees. Divide the dough into 26 balls (about 3 tablespoons each). Place 13 balls on each baking sheet, spacing them evenly. Using your fingers, pull the dough into rounds about 2 1/4 inches wide and 3/4 inch high. They should be about 1 1/2 inches apart, as they will spread.

Bake 14 to 18 minutes, swapping the sheets between the two racks and rotating pans halfway through baking. Remove from the oven when the edges of the cookies are beginning to brown lightly. Do not overbake. Cool on the cookie sheets for 5 minutes, then, using a spatula, transfer to a wire rack and cool completely.

WARM COOKIE TARTS WITH VANILLA ICE CREAM

Make the caramelized "cookie" garnish ahead of time. But because nothing beats the taste of warm chocolate chip cookies, bake the cookie tarts while guests are digging into their entrees.

Have on hand a rimmed cookie sheet and 8 porcelain ramekins with a large surface area, such as a 4 1/2-inch, 6-ounce dish (available at chinafairinc.com). Set the rack in the middle of the hot oven. Spray the ramekins with nonstick spray. Add a heaping 1/3 cup of dough (about 4 ounces) to each dish and spread evenly. Place the ramekins on the rimmed sheet and bake for 22 to 25 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking. When fully baked, the cookie-tart surface should be a uniform light brown and slightly puffed. Use the remaining dough to make 8 extra cookies.

Remove from oven and place the individual dishes on a baking rack to cool slightly, about 10 minutes.

CARAMELIZED "COOKIE"
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1/8 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup toasted, buttered pecan pieces (make extra if you are toasting them for the cookies), optional
2 tablespoons semisweet chocolate chips
1 pint vanilla ice cream

Have on hand a sheet tray lined with a heatproof nonstick liner or a flattened sheet of aluminum foil. In a 2-cup Pyrex glass measuring cup, combine the sugar, corn syrup and vinegar, mixing until no dry spots remain. Microwave on high to melt the mixture. Times vary with ovens, but start with about 2 minutes. After the sugar melts and begins to bubble, watch the mixture carefully. Bubbles will be piling on top of each other and the mixture will begin to color. Microwave in 20-second increments until color starts to change, then go to 10-second increments. Remove from the microwave while it is a light amber color, as it will continue to cook and darken once removed. Allow to sit for 30 seconds.

Pour caramelized sugar in 8 disks about 2 1/2 inches in diameter on the lined sheet tray. Immediately sprinkle each "cookie" with 1/2 tablespoon of the pecan pieces, if using, carefully pressing them into the hardening sugar. Wait a few minutes, and while the sugar is still warm, place a few chocolate chips on each "cookie." Let cool completely. If necessary, chill faux cookies in the refrigerator for a few minutes to reset chocolate. Don't store in refrigerator or the "cookies" will get sticky. Carefully remove them from the sheet and use at once, or place them in an airtight container and store at room temperature for up to three days.

Place the warm cookie tarts on a dessert plate, top with vanilla ice cream and insert the faux cookie and serve.

Tony Rosenfeld authored 150 Things to Make With Roast Chicken. E-mail him at aerosenfeld@ureach.com.

Denise Drower Swidey is executive studio chef of Simply Ming on PBS and owner of Cook to Order, a cookie and cooking-school business. E-mail her at denise@cook2order.com.

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