Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Smoked Chili Bark: Homemade for the Holidays, Part 5

Bark--peppermint bark, pistachio bark, and chili bark, to name a few--has got to be one of the easiest and most gratifying candies to make. People simply love this simple dessert and how few think to make it themselves. Next time you get invited to a potluck, and you need to make something impressive but don't have the time to think about it, here's the answer: Smoked chili bark. Simply smashing and with a surprisingly light, smoky afterburn.

12 ounces dark chocolate
3/4 cup chopped unsalted nuts (pistachios, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, pecans--or whatever you have on hand)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle (smoked jalapeno) peppers (available cheaply at Cost Plus World Market)
1 teaspoon ground smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Melt the chocolate in either a double boiler over boiling water or in a large bowl placed over a pot of boiling water. Once melted, stir in all but a handful of the nuts and all of the ground spices, continuing to stir until well-blended.

Pour the mixture out onto either waxed paper, parchment paper, or a silicone non-stick mat on a baking sheet. Spread to make the bark as this as desired.

Sprinkle with the remaining nuts and press the nuts lightly in. Sprinkle the top with more smoked paprika. Chill in the freezer for 10 minutes.

Break up into bite-sized pieces.

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Homemade for the Holidays Series

Part 1: Pistachio Bark

Part 2: Curry Powder (Garam Masala)

Part 3: Chocolate Truffles 

Part 4: Peppermint Bark 

Part 5: Chili Bark

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Homemade for the Holidays, Part 4: Best. Peppermint Bark. Ever.


If you go to your local membership warehouse this time of year, you will surely see tins of peppermint bark, festively wrapped, with ginormous pricetags. Sure, who can resist peppermint bark? Even those of us who don't care for hard candies. Peppermint bark says Happy Holidays in every way—that minty smell, the bonus chocolate, the odd little red and white trapezoids. But once you have made peppermint bark yourself—or tasted homemade peppermint bark—you will scoff as you walk by those displays. For if there is ever anything worth making at home, it is surely peppermint bark. Easy, fast, fun for kids to help with, and much less expensive than store-bought. Did I mention that homemade peppermint bark will knock those hideous Christmas socks right off your feet? It's crazy-good—with a couple of easy tricks, that is.

You will most certainly hear, "This is the best peppermint bark I've ever tasted." The lavish quantities of chocolate make this bark thicker. And the peppermint extract makes it refreshingly slightly sassy.

Peppermint Bark for Gift-Giving

2 12 oz. packages white chocolate chips (real chocolate--not the "white chocolate baking chips" that are sold in supermarkets--check to make sure the main ingredient is cocoa butter)
8 oz. peppermint candy (stick, candy cane, or puffy)
1 pound artisinal milk chocolate (great sources for bulk chocolate are Fresh & Easy and Trader Joe's)
1 pound artisinal dark chocolate
2 to 4 teaspoons peppermint extract

  1. Just as in the preparation for Pistachio Bark (Homemade for the Holidays, Part 1), line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Unlike for pistachio bark, you will make peppermint bark upside-down. That is, white chocolate first, and then dark chocolate on top. The reason why is those crushed peppermint candy bits will tumble all over the place if not squished into the white chocolate. Melt the white chocolate chips in the top of a double-boiler (or use a stainless steel bowl on top of a pot with some boiling water in it). Stir to mix.
  3. While the white chocolate is melting, crush the peppermint candies. Either the candy cane style, the stick style, or my favorite, the puffy style. (Put candies in a plastic resealable bag and whack with a rolling pin or gently with a hammer). The crushed candies do not need to be tiny—rough and varied is perfect.
  4. Pour the crushed peppermint candies onto the parchment paper and drizzle on the melted white chocolate. Now, this is a bit tricky—use a chopstick to swirl the white chocolate out to the edges of the baking sheet and try to mix the peppermints evenly without mixing them all in. That's the hardest part. It's smooth sailing from there.
  5. Allow to cool in the refrigerator or freezer while you melt the dark chocolate and  milk chocolate together, using a double-boiler or the "bowl on top of pot of boiling water" trick again.
  6. While the chocolate is melting, pour in two teaspoons peppermint extract. This kicks it up a notch. If you want to go all crazy on peppermint, you could always increase the amount of peppermint extract up to four teaspoons —but go easy—taste test as you go. Too much might make the chocolate bitter. Start with two and go from there. Mix to disperse the mintiness (is that a word?).
  7. When the white chocolate layer is firm, drizzle on the darker chocolate later. Smooth as evenly as you can, and let firm.
  8. Break into smaller pieces, wrap, and distribute, while chuckling smugly to yourself about your cleverness. 
Notes:

  • This recipe makes a hefty quantity—4 pounds. Granted, that's a bucket load of candy--but, you will be giving this away, won't you? Don't eat the whole thing yourself—seriously!
  • Michael's craft stores are a great source for candy wrapping accessories. I recommend the food-safe cellophane bags, but you could get fancy and use special boxes or tins. However you choose to package your delectables, be sure to use food-safe tissue (also available at Michael's) or wax paper. If you have to use plastic food wrap directly, eventually, your candy will taste like plastic. At least first wrap in food-safe tissue or wax paper and then wrap in plastic food wrap.
  • Peppermint bark made this way will not go stale or bad because there is no ganache, e.g., we didn't add cream or butter. You start with solid chocolate and you end with solid chocolate. Just wrap enough to keep other food flavors away and to seal in the good minty flavor. Also freezes beautifully.

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Homemade for the Holidays Series

Part 1: Pistachio Bark

Part 2: Curry Powder (Garam Masala)

Part 3: Chocolate Truffles 

Part 4: Peppermint Bark 

Part 5: Chili Bark

Monday, September 08, 2014

Cold Savory Soups for Hot Days


What to Serve Your Loved Ones When It's Hot Outside

Hot days got you in a daze? Feel like going into the kitchen and firing up the oven? Naaah. Want something refreshing, simple, yet pallet-satisfying for a summer supper? How about a cold soup with a simple garden salad and a loaf of fresh artisanal bread (the chewier, the better)?

You may be imagining cold soups are frou-frou dishes served only in uppity restaurants. Would you even like a cold soup? Wouldn't it be, well, icky? Once you get over the idea of a cold liquid as an entrée, I think you'll find yourself enjoying it.

The loveliest way to serve cold soup is in two concentrically sized bowls: the smaller bowl holds the soup. The larger bowl holds ice, and the smaller soup bowl nestles atop this bed of ice. But you don't have to be that fancy.

I almost forgot to mention—all these soups can be vegetarian (if you substitute vegetable stock for chicken stock). None contain any meat. You do not have to serve meat to have a satiated and happy feeling after eating. But don't mention this lack of meat to your resident carnivores and probably no one will notice.

Here are my favorite savory cold soup suggestions. Have any other favorites? Let me know—I'd love to add to the list.


Gazpacho

Gazpacho is one of the most-loved and best-known of the cold soups. If you serve gazpacho, which is rich in veggies, you may want to skip the salad and simply serve with a delightful chewy bread, like sourdough. Ahhh. How yummy is that? I like recipes for gazpacho that do not involve the cheat of adding tomato juice. Nothing beats whole, fresh tomatoes as the basis for gazpacho—if you have them. If not, use canned tomatoes along with the juice they are packed in. You are basically making a salsa. Feel free to be flexible about adding other garden ingredients as you like.
  • Six fresh medium-sized tomatoes or two cans tomatoes and their juice
  • One or two cloves of crushed garlic. (Go easy on the fresh garlic so as not to overwhelm the other flavors. If you have the roasted garlic that comes in little jars, that would be ideal--it's much milder and you can use it more lavishly.)
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped coarsely
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and chopped coarsely (or half of a large one)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Add all ingredients to a blender or food processor. Pulse lightly, only until ingredients are slightly melded but not pulverized (coarse texture is good). Taste and adjust the seasonings, as desired. Add a few drops of hot sauce, if you like.


Vichyssoise (Potato Leek Soup)

Vichyssoise is another soup that's been around forever--for a good reason. Once you taste it, you will understand why. Potato flavor, rich and delightful, with leeks adding to the inscrutability, with butter and other ingredients all playing roles in this operetta of a soup. For any guests--or children--who might be afraid of the fancy name of this soup, you could always call it "Potato leek soup." My grandfather was a Francophobe, so whenever I made him quiche, I always told him it was "egg pie." If I mentioned it was quiche, he wouldn't eat it. Egg pie disappeared from his plate. Go figure. Bon appetite, er, enjoy!
  • 2 cups chopped leeks, using all of the white part and a couple of inches of the green part
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 cups coarsely chopped, peeled potatoes
  • 3 cups chicken stock (I especially love the chicken stock paste that comes in little jars--the brand name is Better-than-Bouillion. If you use the paste, reconstitute one teaspoon of paste for each cup of water)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup half and half (or heavy cream if you dare!)
Basically, you add everything except the half and half to a pot. Cook until the potatoes and leeks are very tender. Remove from heat. Then, either pour the soup into a blender or food processor and blend, or, if you have a hand-held blender (I do--it's a marvelously handy gadget), blend the soup in the pot. Puree until the ingredients are uniform. The soup will be a beautiful creamy, light green color. Add in the half and half and allow to chill in a refrigerator for about an hour. Serve cool, not cold, however. Top with chopped chives, if you have them. In the winter, vichyssoise is superb hot (I serve it with Thanksgiving dinner).

Cold Cauliflower Curry Soup

Don't let the name fool you--cauliflower curry soup is righteous! I invented this recipe, and I am proud to say, it is one of my favorite soups—it's surprising, luscious, and no one can tell what's IN it. When you serve this cold soup, you will see many empty soup bowls and contented smiles.
  • One head cauliflower, coarsely chopped, with most of stem removed
  • 1/2 white onion, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder (preferably the fresh kind that you make yourself, see Homemade Curry Powder)
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger root
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup half and half (or whole milk)
  • Cornstarch to thicken
Like vichyssoise, add everything to the pot except for half and half and cornstarch. Cook until the cauliflower and onion are tender and falling apart. Add in the half and half, and blend, as for the vichyssoise, with a blender, food processor, or hand-held blender, until the soup is pureed and of uniformly creamy texture. Mix a tablespoon or so cornstarch with enough water to make a loose paste. Stir this into the soup as you are heating it to thicken it to a lovely consistency (vichyssoise doesn't need it because the potatoes do the thickening). Chill for at least an hour in the refrigerator before serving.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Egg Fu Yong: Make This Easy, Quick Chinese Dish for Your Loved Ones and You Will Be a ROCK STAR!


Quick! What are your favorite Chinese restaurant dishes? Can you make any of them from scratch? I didn't think so. Well, now you can—and win accolades and glory—without going through a lot of trouble (or slavishly following a recipe—once you get this down). I'm talking about the much-loved Egg Fu Yong. (Also spelled Egg Fu Young, Egg Foo Yong, or any of many permutations. In Japan, it's known as Kanitama.) You know what I am talking about—savory, light eggs with that indescribable something luscious and that to-die-for light sauce. You won't believe how simple this is to do—even a fledgling cook can make it easily!

It's an Egg. It's an Omelet. It's Egg Fu Yong!
Egg fu yong is basically an omelet, only it doesn't have to be as pretty. My favorite way to eat it is with crab as the meat of choice, but you can use whatever meat or tofu you have on hand. The sauce is a breeze—
it's your basic gravy recipe. As with most of the foods I write about, the creation is simple—what's hard is making sure you have the ingredients on hand, like dried shiitake mushrooms (a great staple item that lasts forever), and crab (which isn't easy to have on hand fresh, but you can get decent crab meat in cans, or better yet, fabulous crab meat in jars in the fish department at your local grocer, although it's costs much more).

Stir-fry and Conquer
Heat one tablespoon vegetable oil in a nonstick skillet (you do NOT need a wok). Stir-fry a couple of stalks of sliced celery and a half a cup of peas until tender in the skillet. You can use other veggies, or course. Traditionally, Egg fu yong calls for bamboo shoots, which are yucky in their most available form—canned. My thought is that it's the crunchy texture that counts, and better to have a fresh alternative veggie (celery) than a canned traditional one (as a matter of fact, that's more or less my philosophy of life). Now, if you are lucky enough to have access to fresh bamboo shoots (Yude-takenoko, in Japanese), then your Egg fu yong will be the most perfect of all—just lightly steam and shred 1 small fresh bamboo shoot.

In a microwave-proof cup or bowl, put a handful of dried shiitake (black) mushrooms in a couple of tablespoons of water. Heat on high for one minute, until the mushrooms are softened.

It's About the Omelet
Add another tablespoon of vegetable oil to the skillet. Stir in six lightly beaten eggs, 1/2 teaspoon salt (I prefer Vege-sal vegetable salt, but it's all good), 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1/2 cup chicken stock, and one can or jar of crab meat (about 6 ounces), making sure to pick out any cartilage. (Again, you can substitute a cup of cooked meat or cubed tofu for the crab.) Add in the shiitake mushrooms, and cook over medium-low heat as the crab omelet sets (it takes a while for the egg to set because of the extra liquid of the chicken stock, but it's worth it). Roll the pan to one side and gently lift the omelet to encourage the loose egg to flow to the pan so it can get cooked. When there is enough egg cooked to give the omelet a foundation, gently lift half of the omelet and fold it on top of itself.

Don't Stress about How It Looks
Because this is a huge, six-egg omelet, it's not going to be picture-perfect. Do not worry—Egg fu yong is never pristine like a French omelet might be. When the omelet is firm enough (be sure it's not browning on the bottom—if so, turn the heat down), flip it gently. If it tears, that's OK—just make sure it's cooked though without being stiff.

Yummy Egg Fu Yong Sauce
While the omelet is cooking, heat a cup of chicken stock in a small sauce- or gravy-pan. Add 1 teaspoon sugar, and 1 teaspoon soy sauce. In a small bowl, stir a couple of tablespoons of water into 2 teaspoons of corn starch until smooth. Pour this into the chicken stock mixture, stirring constantly to avoid the dreaded "gravy lumping" effect. Keep stirring for a minute until the sauce thickens, and then remove it from heat.

Ready to Rock, Crab-lovers!
Divide the omelet among the hungry guests (serves two or three), preferable served half on and half off of steaming hot white rice (we love Jasmine rice). Drizzle the sauce on top and serve immediately with steamed veggies (especially broccoli). You can also pour the sauce over the veggies, and thus not have to season them at all. Voila! A beautiful, simple, and elegant meal, ready in a flash.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Quick Trip to the South: Down Home Tastebuds Do an Appalachian Jig


Collard greens, delightfully overcooked in pork fat. Buttermilk biscuits, flaky, tender, buttery. Okra with tomatoes. Fresh corn chowder. Summer squash. Real fried chicken.

My recent trip home to the mountains of North Carolina was not a gourmet trip. Far from it. I went home to help move my Mom's things into storage now that she is (happily) in a nursing home. But wherever I go, there's a chance for good food and I will take it. First on my must-have list of southern foods was Bojangle's Cajun chicken and biscuit. For those of you not from the south, Bojangle's is a fast food chain that serves New Orleans-style delectables like "dirty rice," pinto beans, collards, and Cajun-spicy friend chicken. No trip to the south is complete without a taste of what the locals eat. I get a jonesing for Bojangle's about the time I see those Blue Ridge mountains poking up in the windshield. Ahh--rich, satisfying heaven of my childhood food dreams. Fast food is just one option--a sinful pleasure at best. Now home-cooking, that's where the real treat lies.

Back to biscuits, in California where I live now, they are so just not the same. In an effort, perhaps, to reduce the guilt and the voluptuousness of a bad-for-you food, Californians zap the sanguinity out of biscuits, which end up tasting like blobs of dry dough--ick! (Funny, there doesn't seem to be a compunction to diminish doughnuts--Kirspy Kreme is so popular, lines snake around the buildings everywhere you go in SoCal--amazing to me, because I cannot stand doughnuts). A real southern biscuit is rich with buttery flavors and simply must have buttermilk and either real butter or lard, or bacon grease, or some combination of the above. Most chain restaurants, sadly, use the unthinkable shortening in baked goods, the same stuff that is wisely banned in New York City. An honest biscuit, however, uses the good stuff. And buttermilk in goodly amounts.

When I describe southern food to people not from the south, it never sounds quite right--oh, that's gotta be unhealthy--all that salt, all that fat--and sweat tea?!? Sure, it sounds dreadful--sausage gravy on biscuits--but it's the association that gives any food its magic. Yes, foie gras is innately tasty, but would you really--c'mon now, be honest--get a frisson of delight eating it if you knew it were as common as grits? Hardly. It would still be tender and delectable. But thrilling? No way. What we ate happily as a child is where the real heart of food joy lies. Food that feeds more than our bodies and comforts more than our spirits. When I bite into sausage gravy on a buttermilk biscuit, my heart soars with joy. If I ate such heart-ful heavy fare every day, it wouldn't be the same thrill either. Rarity makes food delicious too. Maybe twice a year I get real southern cuisine. And I am grateful for those times.

Here's a recipe for real buttermilk biscuits. If you use lard, buy the rendered kind. You can also use half lard and half butter (trust me--lard has gotten an unfairly bad reputation. See Lard--the New Health Food.) Never fear using butter either. Butter ain't the bad boy it used to be considered either. No worse than cheese, I always say.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 cups King Arthur white flour (or other good-quality all-purpose flour)
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup lard or butter
  • 1 cup buttermilk

PREPARATION:

Preheat oven to 400°.
In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, soda, and salt. Cut in chilled lard or butter until you have pieces the size of small peas. Make a well in center of dry ingredients; pour in buttermilk. With a wooden spoon, gently blend dry ingredients into the buttermilk, just until mixture is clumping together. If necessary, add a few more teaspoons of buttermilk.
Transfer dough to a lightly floured board. Pat out in a circle about 8 inches in diameter and 1/2-inch thick. Using a 2 1/2 to 3-inch biscuit cutter, cut out and place on ungreased baking sheet. Bake on center oven rack for about 15 minutes, until tops are browned.
Makes 10 to 12 biscuits.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Bombar Bar & Grill Transforms into Bombay Magically Great Burger Bar & Grill

Bombay Bar & Grill
143 S. California St
Ventura, CA 93001
(805) 643 - 4404

Exquisite gourmet burgers with a mind-blowing assortment of made-from-scratch condiments. The sweet potato fries and the garlic-truffle fries are reason enough to go. Adore the Upstream--a juicy salmon burger. Crazy about the tobacco onions--crunchy and decadent nest of deep-fried-crispy onions to knock your burger into the stratosphere. The fire-roasted pepper ketchup alone had me at first bite. Award-winning chef Andy Brooks has worked his multi-star high-end food magic on Bombay and made it a delight for foodies.

Bombay has always been a hotspot for nightlife, but now it's a hotspot for foodie life too and our little foodie family could not be more thrilled. Thanks, Bombay, for making this fine upgrade and for putting our little town on the culinary map. Now, where is Guy Fieri and his Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives to come give Bombay a taste-see?!?

Check out this burger menu.

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Note: Ventura friends, if you haven't been by the Bombay Bar & Grill to try their absolutely scrumptious gourmet burger menu, then drop everything and head on over. New items include the finest chicken-burger in the Solar System. Get this, award-winning chef Andy Brooks has crafted a freshly ground in-house chicken patty, topped with a roasted made-from-scratch chili relleno, and that topped with his house-made tangy piri-piri sauce. Truly a taste sensation! Hubs and I ordered one Angus burger (the Steakhouse is supremely great with caramelized onions, Bleu cheese and Portobello mushrooms) and one SoCal Lovebird burger and we each got half--a fun way to go. Add in an order of sweet potato fries (sprinkled with smoked paprika) and dipped in their signature chi-chi sauce--heavenly doesn't begin to describe it.

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Another update: We hosted our daughter's 10th birthday party at The Bombay--it was a French-themed dance party, complete with a live DJ, mustaches and berets for everyone, and killer pomme frites and several kinds of sliders and salads, provided by The Bombay. The party was a smash hit and so easy to do, with the wonderful Bombay staff helping in every way possible. The cost was quite resonable and stacked up well compared to other, less scrumptious food and party venues. We were thrilled! our daughter was the rock star! Would have another party at The Bombay any day! 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Arroz con Pollo (or con Tofu), a la WhatEye8

Arroz con Pollo, a la WhatEye8

When I worked at a Mexican restaurant back in the 80s, we had a delicious arroz con pollo dish--steamed, fresh chicken on yellow rice that was smothered in sour cream and cheddar cheese. Not very Mexican at all, but it was yummy. Over the years, I've tried to craft a more authentic arroz con pollo dish--truly one of the great classic entrees of the world--with not a great deal of satisfaction--until now.

Arroz con pollo is a basic pilaf, after all, not that different from jambalaya or paella.What follows is not strictly traditional--it's more of a variation on a theme. But it's a family-pleaser and is certainly easy to pull together. It just takes a bit of juggling with several different pots and containers. But the result is intensely flavored and simply delightful--makes wonderful leftovers, too.

You can always make this into a vegetarian dish using vegetable stock and tofu or tempeh, if you like. If you go for chicken, you can always use bone in chicken. I like it with boneless thighs--easy to work with and always tender.

Chicken (or Tofu)

1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon  ground cumin
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs (or use bone-in if you don't mind picking the bones out later)
Pepper and salt to taste (go easy on the salt--see Notes, below)

Rice

One white onion, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil for frying
1 1/2 cups white jasmine rice
2 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
1 can organic tomato chunks and sauce
1/4 cup tomato sauce
8 large or 10 small green pimiento stuffed olives, sliced
2 slices cooked bacon, chopped into bits (optional, but recommended)
1/2 cup corn (optional) 
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
Chopped parsley, cilantro for color

  1. Dredge the raw chicken (or tofu chunks) in the dry seasoning ingredients from the Chicken (or Tofu) list. Set aside.
  2. In a heavy-bottomed pot (like Le Creuset), saute the onions in the olive oil until just tender, around 5 minutes.
  3. Rinse the rice and then add to the pot with the onions. Stir fry for around 5 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, saute the dredged chicken for around 5 or 6 minutes per side in a frying pan. Set aside.
  5. Heat the stock (chicken or vegetable) in a microwave or on the stove until boiling. Add all at once to the onion and rice mixture.
  6.  Begin adding in the other ingredients on the Rice list, stirring after each addition.
  7. After all the ingredients have been added to the rice mixture, gently place the semi-cooked chicken on top. 
  8. Cover the pot but leave about an inch for the steam to escape (there is extra moisture built into the recipe with the tomatoes and the tomato sauce--that needs to go somewhere, or it will make the rice mushy)
  9. Set the timer for 20 minutes (the length of time it takes for the rice to absorb the liquid) and then remove from heat and remove the top to allow the remainder of the liquid to be absorbed.
  10. Before serving, sprinkle with chopped Italian parsley or cilantro. 

Notes

  • You can add other vegetables, depending on what you have on hand. Peas are good. So are small carrot chunks. My family loves this with sweet corn.
  • Don't use too much salt in the dredging part--the stock and the bacon and the green olives all have enough salt to carry this without adding much extra. 
  • Even though I rarely use powdered garlic, it's a great ingredient for dry rubs--and that's what we are doing by dredging the chicken (or tofu) with the seasonings.
  • The green olives and the bacon bits add a flavor punch. Of course, leave out the bacon if you are doing vegetarian