“Everything aspires to the light. You don’t have chase down a fly to get rid of it–you just darken the room, leave a crack of light in a window, and out he goes. Works every time. We all have that instinct, that aspiration.” -Tobias Wolff (Old School)

Today was the first day in my house-sitting stint that the sun shone for more than a few hours and, needless to say, it was glorious! The house was alive with light; at one point I even needed to pull the blinds down because it was becoming positively hot in here (and, no, that’s not a complaint; it’s about time). In short, it was just what the doctor ordered: reading for pleasure (Mr. Wolff makes a fine companion on a lazy summer day), trimming my bangs (surprisingly, they look good; let’s be grateful they’re supposed to be the slanted kind) taking a walk through the hills, a little house maintenance and quality time with the pooch.

Oh, and of course there was food. Much food, in fact. I not only polished off Saturday’s dinner (today’s topic of conversation), but baked a Cardamom Banana Bread with raisins simmered in a dark rum. Though my love of banana bread runs deep, the simple truth is that my bananas were becoming overly ripe and thus inedible, leading me to experiment with both an old and a current favorite, the latter clearly being cardamom (it’s the spice of summer, in my humble opinion). But I must confess that I didn’t anticipate that the rum would catch fire (yes, people, I do know that alcohol is flammable, but I thought I had it under control) and right when I was leaning over the pot to look in, blithely humming along to Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby.” *Oops* All I can say is that today must have been my lucky day because a) I still have the bangs that I so painstakingly trimmed this morning and b) the professor’s house is still standing. I even managed both to enjoy and snap a photo of the amazing sunset that I witnessed (picture below). My advice to you, dear readers: when bringing dark rum to a simmer, don’t turn up the heat to save a few seconds, especially if you’re using a gas stove. Also of equal importance: don’t throw water on the burning rum. Despite my advanced (advancing?) age and various experiences, I’m always amazed at how much there still is to learn in life…..At least I can now safely check the “little stove-top burning rum incident” box, particularly as that lesson has been learned.

Besides this near culinary calamity, my day was fairly peaceful. I reheated Saturday’s crowning achievement–a Chicken Dijon and White Bean Brown Betty–which was adapted from and inspired by my new cookbook, Savory Baking (can you imagine the decadence? It’s a brilliant idea to take sweet things and, with a few substitutions, turn them into dinner), that I purchased on a walk with a friend last week. When she and her boyfriend came up to the castle on Saturday night, cake ingredients in tow, I decided it was only fitting that I should use this book to find something to make for dinner. I do, however, have to say that the funny thing about my recipe selection is that, before actually preparing the dish, I had no idea what a Brown Betty was. Only today did I put my scholarly training and google-savvy self to work and take the trouble of looking it up; according to “Baking 911”, “Betty was a popular baked pudding made during Colonial times. It’s made by layering spiced fruit with buttered bread crumbs. All sorts of fruit can be used, but apples are the most common.” Truly, looking at the site, it’s amazing how many desserts there are out there! Two of my favorites, based on their names alone: “The grunt” (Fruit topped with biscuit dough, covered, and baked so that biscuits steam rather than bake. Also called a slump) and the “Roly Poly” (made by rolling fruit up in a type of pie pastry, wrapping it in cheesecloth and steaming it. Sailors made this dessert and often called it a duff). Maybe it’s time to come up with a new dissertation topic on the evolution of sweet things and food etymology. I see a New York Times bestseller in my future. 🙂

Onto the recipe! Despite my lack of “Brown Betty” knowledge, the fact that I’m certain there wasn’t enough chicken in the freezer (while the recipe calls for a pound, my estimate is that I had only 8-10 ounces) and the sad moment I experienced when, after walking to the closest grocery store, I realized that I must have been dreaming to have believed they were ever going to carry fennel bulbs (hey! This is not a sign of my snobbery; it’s a small market and sometimes small markets just don’t carry these things…even in upscale suburban areas!), inspiration and a little bit of faith can work wonders. No fennel bulbs: use celery and add crushed fennel seeds; not enough chicken, add a can of white beans (yeah, I would have preferred fresh, but beans should soak overnight and time was of the essence)! It was flavorful and comforting (the fog was thick that night), not to mention filling. Brown betties just may be the way of the future. Well, at least my future….

Chicken Dijon and White Bean Brown Betty
(Adapted from Savory Baking)
Yields 4 servings

Topping
2/3 cup bread crumbs (I made my own in the food processor with some wheat bread that sorely needed using)
1/2 cup Panko (Japanese bread crumbs, literally “little bread”)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh parsley (I mixed Italian and curly parsley)
1 Tbsp. Pecorino Romano

Chicken Dijon and White Bean Filling
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
1 stalk of celery, chopped, and mixed with 1 tsp. fennel seeds (crushed in a mortar)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 8-10 ounce boneless chicken breast, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups Half and Half
3 Tbsp. Dijon mustard (I prefer Maille)
1 Tbsp. clover honey
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 can white beans (drained)

-To prepare the topping, put the dry bread crumbs, panko, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Stir in the melted butter and 1 Tbsp. of the chopped parsley.
– To prepare the filling, preheat the oven to 375. Butter and spray four 8-ounce ceramic ramekins and arrange them on a baking sheet.
– Melt better in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, celery with fennel seeds and salt. Cook until soft and tender, 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
– Add the chicken, nestling them down into the bottom of the pan. Continue to saute until the chicken is cooked through, another 3-5 minutes.
– Add the white wine and stir to scrape up any carmelized bits on the bottom of the pan.
– Stir in the half and half, Dijon mustard, honey and pepper. Bring the mixture to a rapid boil and cook for 1-2 minutes to reduce the sauce slightly.
– At this point, stir in the white beans.
– Divide the chicken and white bean mixture equally among the prepared ramekins and sprinkle each with 3-4 tablespoons of the topping. Sprinkle Pecorino Romano on top.
– Put in the oven and bake until golden brown on top and bubbling around the edges, about 15 minutes.
– Remove from the oven and sprinkly each ramekin with the remaining chopped parsley.
– Serve piping hot!

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