I am going to skip marveling at the weather–everyone in the continental 48 knows this was one weird winter–and just skip to the part that usually comes sometime in April. We are in our fourth year in this house, and every spring I continue to be amazed and grateful that we are so lucky to live somewhere that my kids can watch the world wake up from the winter in such an exciting, up close and hands on way.
Every spring, the first sunny day that is warm enough to imagine sticking our feet into winter-cold stream water, the kids and I head down to the creek to see what we will find. We had several firsts this year. We found our first tadpole eggs (at least we are pretty sure that is what they are), attached to a large leaf floating down the creek. I grabbed it to show Alex, who held it in turn while I snapped a shot with my Droid (pardon the creek photos–they are all taken with the cell phone). We then carefully stuck it back in the creek, so that Mother Nature could send it on its way to its final destination.
Skamp had his first time down at the creek. He got into the watering hole first, which may have been a mistake because in the spring, when water levels are high, the water is deeper than his little puppy body. Which was a little scary for him I think. However, it was totally worth it to realize just how skinny he is under all that hair!!! And once we got past the watering hole, he had a blast, running all over the place.
The last big first, as many of you may have already figured out, is Alex finally caught a frog. She has been desperately trying for 4 years now to catch a frog (we had them at our previous house too). It is so much harder than it sounds–those suckers are fast and since we usually have the dogs with us they are spooked to boot! The frogs we saw on Wednesday were itty bitty–the shot above is massively blown up–which does not help in catching them. (If you are wondering, we also set the frog free–I encouraged Alex to share blown up photos with her class rather than take any frogs out of the creek.)
The other exciting thing about any creek visit after an extended absence such as what comes with winter, is that we essentially have a new creek. Whatever storms and flooding the previous year has brought inevitably erodes the path and layout of the stream, leaving new architecture in its wake. This year we found a new tight bend in the creek, as well as a second sitting log, from a tree that had been uprooted in a storm and left to lie peacefully and securely across the breadth of the creek. It is always awe-inspiring to contemplate that Mother Nature has, often violently, provided us with a whole new playground every spring.
Believe it or not I made this dish the same afternoon we went down to the creek. Which is only relevant insofar as the fact that it was simple and relatively fast, given that we spent a good chunk of the after school afternoon down there, instead of preparing dinner (granted you do have to multitask with the grains, but they could also be made ahead if that intimidates you). This was also delicious, a delightful surprise. I say surprise because casseroles bound with a béchamel sauce are pretty much out of my league with the exception of macaroni and cheese. I was concerned this would be bland (note: it does not have any cheese) and I could not have been more wrong. I found the recipe I adapted from in The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever by Beatrice Ojakangas.
There is one potentially crucial ingredient that might be a little difficult to get a hold of, but I think a common sense substitution is at least worth trying. While in San Francisco, I visited the Farmers’ Market, and came across a booth for All Star Organics. I recognized the packaging as being that of a particularly yummy garlic salt a friend had sent me a few years back. I decided to buy more, as well as some other products. When I added the rosemary salt (SO amazing smelling!) to my purchase, the proprietor urged me to smell the French Herb Salt. Oh wow. A fragrant combination of thyme, lavender, rosemary and marjoram, it just smells fantastic. Into the bag it went, and it worked wonderfully in this casserole.
Although their website does include the ability to order their products, it also looks to be a little out of date, and I did not see some of the products that I bought, including the French Herb Salt. So if you are interested in acquiring some, I recommend giving them a call or sending them an email. But if you don’t feel like doing that, I recommend subbing those herbs, especially the rosemary and thyme. Use a tad more if you use fresh.
- 6 oz 1/2 bottle hard cider
- 1 cup dried cranberries
- 1 cup wild rice, cooked according to directions and drained of excess liquid (I cooked this in chicken stock)
- 1 cup red rice, or brown rice of choice, cooked according to directions and drained of excess liquid
- 1/4 cup farro, cooked according to directions and drained of excess liquid (I used semi pearled and threw this in with the wild rice after it had been cooking for a while)
- 1/3 cup AP flour
- 1/2 T French herb salt, or sub 1 t sea salt plus 1 t thyme and 1/2 t rosemary, see directions below
- 1/2 t paprika
- black pepper, to taste (approximately 1/2 t)
- 4 chicken breast halves
- 2 T unsalted butter
- 2 T vegetable oil
- 1/2 T yellow mustard seeds
- 2 medium-large onions, chopped (I used red but any color is fine)
- 6-8 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1 sweet bell pepper, chopped
- 2 medium or 4 small zucchini, sliced into half-moons or moons, depending on size
Place the dried cranberries and hard cider into a small pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer for 10 minutes, and then turn off the heat and set aside.
Prepare the rices and farro according to the various package directions--if possible, cook at least one of them in chicken stock for additional flavor. Drain the grains of any excess liquid and mix together. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Lightly grease a deep 9X13 casserole dish.
Whisk together flour, paprika, black pepper and French Herb Salt (if you do not have the salt, use 1 teaspoon sea salt plus 1-2 teaspoons of the dried herbs, depending on freshness--my herb salt mixture was quite fresh and fragrant).
Pat the chicken breasts quite dry and then dredge them in the flour mixture. Reserve the remaining flour mixture and set the dredged chicken breasts aside, close to your stovetop.
Preheat a large skillet with the oil and mustard seeds. Place a lid on the pan and let the mustard seeds pop on medium high heat. When the popping slows, add the butter. When it has melted into the oil and is preheated, add the chicken breasts and brown on each side. Remove the chicken to a plate and add the onions to the pan quickly, before the mustard seeds can scorch.
Add a pinch of salt to the onions and let them cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and stir, cooking for 1-2 minutes. Then add the reserved flour mixture, mixing it into the oil, butter and onions. When it is mixed in and cooked for about 30-60 seconds (do not let it burn, but you want the raw flour taste to be cooked away), start drizzling the cream slowly into the pan, stirring constantly.
As you stir, the cream should blend into the fat and onions, becoming smooth and creamy. This is essentially a béchamel sauce, but mixed into a lot of onions. When you run out of cream, switch to the milk. When it is all mixed and smoothly absorbed, add the hard cider, cranberries, zucchini and peppers, and bring the mixture to a boil. Let it simmer for 5 minutes and then turn off the heat.
Assemble the casserole: begin by placing the rice mixture into the bottom of the casserole dish. Spread half of the veggies in béchamel sauce over the rice. Slice the (halved) chicken breasts in half and layer them over this, dumping any accumulated juices into the casserole as well. Spread the remaining sauce and veggies over the casserole. At this point, the casserole can be cooled, covered and placed in the refrigerator to make ahead. Just bake an additional 10 minutes.
Bake, uncovered, for 50-55 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Let sit for 5 minutes before serving.