Kitchen Tips and Tricks


Tip #1: A spoonful of mustard will brighten up a slow cooked stew.

My dad is a stew man. He’s a fan of any pot of food that makes its own gravy, which can be sopped up with slices of bread one the juice is all that’s left. Or maybe even before, alternating bites of soaked bread with slow cooked meat and vegetables. But that slow cooking process also mutes bright and punchy flavors so that by the time you’re ready to ladle it out everything is a bit flat, a bit one note. It’s a common problem and recipes suggest adding one or another ingredient to liven things up.

Let’s just dismiss all the suggestions that involve cooking or preparing something extra before serving, like some finely minced herbs or lightly sauteed garlic. There are times when I have the patience to do that but in general, stew is something I serve when I’m short on time or energy. The cooking happens days in advance (or weeks if I’ve stashed some in the fridge) and when it’s on the night’s dinner menu mostly I want to just heat it up. Nothing more. The other option for sprucing it up is to add something, either at the beginning or the end of the process, to refresh the flavor.

Adding at the end doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t solve the problem of having a one note dish. The stew becomes too overly tart or acidic to the exclusion of other flavors and you end up with a different version of the same problem. The secret weapon I’ve found over years of trial and error is a spoonful or two of mustard, added to the stew at the beginning of cooking. The strong nose-tingling kick mellows during cooking but it doesn’t disappear entirely. Unlike vinegar or lemon juice which have distinct “cooked” flavors that can be off-putting, mustard tends to cook out into an indefinable yet noticeable brightness that cuts through the rich slow-cooked flavor without unbalancing it. It works for just about every stew recipe I’ve tried and when I leave it out, I notice the difference. Given the negligible extra time it takes and the fact that I always have mustard in the fridge, it’s a no brainer.

The Last Melon of Summer

By 5 pm, there were only two slices of melon left. We went for a walk around 2:30 to buy “treats.” I bought a chocolate bar flavored with coffee and studded with pieces of buttery toffee. Jeff bought a crenshaw melon, bright yellow and weighing at least five pounds. It smelled floral and sweet, and he happily lugged it the few blocks home. Split open, it was even more fragrant as he scooped out the interior seeds and went to work breaking it down. He cut up half of it, piling the slices into a bowl that he demolished over the next hour. I had a slice. It tasted like summer, aromatic and heady and sweet without being cloying. A clean flavor, “as close to juice as fruit gets,” Jeff told me.

The melon’s gone now, was gone before dinner time. It’s probably the last melon of summer. Even San Francisco’s delayed summer is wrapping up although this week still promises some hot days. Even in California, melons worth eating are only around in the late summer. Now is the time for plums, pears, and dark purple grapes.

But, if you happen to find yourself with a late summer melon like we did, don’t hold back. Let the rinds pile up over the course of the afternoon. I’ve never found a better way to eat a melon than by the slice, although on the rare occasion we end up with more than we can finish plain I’ll chop it up into a salsa with jalapeno, red onion, and cilantro. Mostly though, it ends up eaten fresh, plain or with salt sprinkled on top (the salt! If you haven’t tried it, please do; it changes everything) and maybe a little chili powder. Slice after slice, until it’s gone.

Dinner Dreams: Rosh Hashanah

I won’t be in synagogue tomorrow, observing Rosh Hashanah. You wouldn’t have found me there last year, or the year before. When family have asked over the last few weeks what we’re doing for the holiday that answer has mostly been “nothing”. But that’s not really true either. It’s just that after years of celebrating the holiday with a day spent in synagogue, the things that I find the most meaning in is the food and the togetherness it creates.

The standard joke is that most Jewish holidays can be summed up in three lines and the last line is always “let’s eat.” Each holiday has it’s own special foods and Rosh Hashanah is all about sweetness. Crisp apples dipped in honey (Palo Alto honey this year, from a friend’s hives). Raisin studded and sweetened challah, from this cookbook, wrapped into a round for the start of a new year. My father-in-law asked if there will be brisket, perhaps the most iconic Jewish holiday meal. Well, there won’t be a brisket, but there will be a roasted chicken. And maybe some chipotle carrots to balance out all that sweetness. If there were more of us there might also be a noodle kugel, Jeff’s mother’s recipe most likely although I’d love to try this one.

I made the honey cake pictured above with Rosh Hashanah in mind although I don’t think it will show up at tomorrow night’s dinner. It’s just a banana bread recipe, this one in fact, with the banana swapped out for 1 cup of honey and the sugar reduced by about a quarter cup and without the chocolate and ginger. So really it’s a wholly different thing built from the roots of original tradition. Kind of like how this Rosh Hashanah will be. There won’t be hours of prayer or long sermons. There won’t be uncomfortable itchy tights or squashed toes from all the people getting in and out of their seats all morning long. There won’t be a lot of people at all. What there will be tomorrow will be two people spending time together, making a meal, celebrating the last year of accomplishments, and thinking about how to grow from here. L’Shanah Tova.

Eggplant Parmesan for One

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I don’t often find myself alone in the house for more than a few hours. I prefer it that way. I like the companionship of having other people around, of being together even if that means sitting quietly on opposite ends of the apartment doing different things. It’s comfortable for a psuedo-introvert like me to “spend time” with people without always having to interact. There were and are always people coming and going in my home. Someone arriving, someone knocking on your door to chat, someone to sit and watch tv with at the end of the day. Now there are three of us: Jeff, me, and our roommate living in this relatively small apartment. And while the extreme rents of San Francisco are certainly part of our decision to live together, that’s not the whole story. It’s nice to have someone else’s perspective around, to have someone else’s thoughts and ideas and friends and presence filling up the house. Like now as we sit in different parts of the house, working on separate projects, listening to someone’s music in companionable quiet.

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The flip side of that is there are rarely more than a few hours when I’m the only one home. A few weeks ago I found myself home alone for a whole weekend and it dawned on me that it might be the first time even in this apartment that it’s happened. And naturally I took full advantage. I blasted my most embarrassing music (Backstreet Boys and LFO) without worrying about someone coming home and catching me mid-lip sync. I curled up on the couch with a pile of blankets and a new TV show to binge on. I left my dirty dishes on the living room floor for far longer than I would have gotten away with if someone else was home. It was wild and crazy times around here. Or at least indulgent and selfish times. It was good.

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I ate a lot of eggplant that weekend while I had the time to myself, which seemed like a kind of weird craving. I mean, I like eggplant roasted or fried or blitzed into baba ghanoush, but it’s never at the top of my favorite foods list. But I also almost never eat it. No one else in this house likes it much and so it’s never really around. There are too many other foods that come first on my “you must eat this” list to bother much with eggplant. But with a house to myself and no one else to feed it was what I ate for at least four meals over the weekend. Two eggplants go a long way when there’s only one person eating. And sometimes, it’s nice to just sit and eat eggplant for one.

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Eggplant Parmesan for One
Inspired by the roasted eggplant dish in the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

1 small eggplant, about 1 lb, stem removed and cut in half
1 cup cherry tomatoes or half cup tomato sauce
A few spoonfuls of pesto
Grated cheese (optional)
Kosher Salt
Olive oil
Fresh thyme (optional)

PREHEAT the oven to 425. Line a baking sheet with foil and rub it with a few spoonsfuls of oil. Place the eggplant halves on the baking sheet, cut side up and sprinkle them with salt.

TOSS the cherry tomatoes in a medium bowl with some salt and olive oil, and thyme is you’re using it. Then set the bowl aside.

ROAST the eggplant halves for 15 minutes, then flip them cut side down and add the cherry tomatoes to the pan. Roast for another 15 minutes until the eggplant is soft and the cut side is browned. At this point the tomatoes should also be softened and burst. Remove the pan from the oven.

TRANSFER the eggplant halves to a plate and top with the cherry tomatoes or tomato sauce. Add grated cheese if you’re using it, I like provolone or parmesan. Then top with pesto.

Since it’s a solo meal, it’s best enjoyed with a stack of magazines or a trashy TV show. You can also roast several eggplants at once and reheat them as needed. They’ll keep for a week or two in the fridge.

Dark and Stormy

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Old habits die hard. I still think of Labor Day weekend as the end of summer even though I finished up my schooling several years ago and my vacation isn’t tied to the seasons. Nevermind that San Francisco gets hot in late September and October and that it’s never really beach weather here. That tomatoes and peaches will still be available for another month and that strawberries practically never go out of season. That over the last few months I’ve left the house with a sweater or coat more often than not. I’m still sad to see the summer go.

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My family always had a lobster dinner to send off the summer around Labor Day. Sometimes neighbors joined us, sometimes it was just the four of us. There were lobsters for each of us, dishes of garlic butter all over the table, a lot of mess and piles of cracked shells at the end. I thought of that a lot last month when Jeff and I were eating lobster in Maine after our wedding. Not so much about the lobster, but about saying goodbye to summer. It’s not something I think of often here where summer bleeds into fall and fall into winter with little change in the weather.

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This year I’d planned to toast the end of summer with my favorite summer cocktail given the general unavailability of lobster. I don’t know what exactly I planned on toasting – the end of three day weekends until Thanksgiving? The end of weekday evening frisbee because even though it’s warm, the sun goes down too early? I’m still not sure. The feeling that something is over even without the start of a school year or the end of vacation. Sort of like Christmas in the Grinch, it comes without all the expected trappings or accompaniments. And unlike Christmas, it comes without the excited anticipation beforehand and instead brings a sort of sad resignation. It’s an ending and those always require a bit of send off. And if we can’t have lobster, at least we can raise our glasses, maybe make a toast, and drink to the end of summer.

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Dark and Stormy
Makes one drink

Traditionally this is made with ginger beer and dark rum. But I don’t usually have dark rum around, so I used a mixture of bourbon and a medium rum which makes this almost appropriate for fall.

1 bottle ginger beer, I prefer something spicy but ginger ale would work here too
½ shot bourbon
½ shot rum
A quarter of a lime plus additional slices for garnish

FILL a pint glass with ice and pour the bourbon and rum over the ice. Squeeze in the lime and either add the lime wedge to the glass or discard it and add a fresh slice to the glass.

POUR the ginger beer into the glass to fill it the rest of the way. Give it a quick stir with a straw and then enjoy. Cheers.

Summer Tomato Pie

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In the summer of 2009 I treated myself to a subscription to Gourmet magazine. I was one miserable year into law school and all I wanted was to escape. I imagined the collection of Gourmets that I would have one day, stacks of magazines from years of subscriptions that I could pull out and flip through in my obviously spacious apartment. Or maybe in the day dreams it was a house with a whole room dedicated to books and a whole bookshelf to old issues of Gourmet. Except that dream is no longer. I don’t have much interest in collecting back issues of magazines now that the old recipes are all available online and I still don’t have an apartment spacious enough for a whole bookshelf of them anyway. Plus, Gourmet magazine went out of print later that year. I only had time to collect a handful of issues.

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I’ve pored over all of those issues, but especially that first one I received. Over the few months after it came in the mail I took it off the shelf at random intervals to flip through the pages, reading it again, tagging recipes I wanted to try. But I only ever made one recipe from that book and it didn’t take a dog eared tag to convince me to make it. Tomato and corn pie. For the past few years we ate it every summer when heirloom tomatoes and sweet corn appeared in the market at the same time.

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This year though, I skipped the corn. California corn just isn’t as good as what I remember growing up in New England. It’s not as sweet as what I remember growing up with in New England. The kernels aren’t as plump and juicy as the corn Jeff and I have with our patents if we get the chance to visit in the summer. Add to that the challenge of cutting corn off the cob which always means chasing kernels as they leap off the cutting board. I skippd the whole issue, simplified the recipe to the essentials – tomatoes, mayo, parmesan cheese, crust. No corn needed.

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Summer Tomato Pie

One recipe flaky pie crust, with an added 1/2 cup of cornmeal in the dough plus some extra water to bring it together
4 medium to large tomatoes, heirloom preferred, thickly sliced; discard the top and bottom slices
1/3 cup bread crumbs
1 tsp dried thyme
2-3 clove garlic, crushed
1 tsp kosher salt
2-4 tbs mayo
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
freshly ground black pepper
Large flake sea salt, to taste

MAKE the dough and let it rest, covered, in the fridge for at least a half hour.

PREHEAT the oven to 400F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Flour a counter or cutting board liberally. Roll out the dough to about 1/8 inch thickness. Transfer the dough to the sheet.

SPRINKLE the dough with the bread crumb mixture, leaving the outer two inches of the dough clear. Then layer the dough with tomato slices. As you add the tomatoes, sprinkle them lightly with salt so each slice is well seasoned. Spread the mayo over the top of the slices and sprinkle with the parmesan cheese. Fold the dough over the tomato slices and season with the pepper and flaky sea salt.

BAKE the pie for 40-50 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling. Remove it from the oven and let it cool to room temperature before serving. As a bonus, cold slices of this pie make a hell of a breakfast.

The Basic Burger

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My parents used to have a burger shaping device that we used to make our own patties in the summer. It was a patty-sized cylindrical mold with a flat lid used to press a handful of seasoned ground beef so that it’s perfectly even and flat; so it comes out looking like one of the patties you can buy in bulk from the freezer section of the grocery store. I loved using it, putting my entire body weight into flattening the meat into a uniform disc. I ruined countless burgers, turning loosely packed ground meat into a dense circle sure to cook into a tough and chewy hockey puck. It would be years before I learned that a tender and juicy burger is the result of gently handled meat.

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In my vegetarian years I traded over-pressed patties for veggie burgers, most of which had a uniform texture and tough chew reminiscent of what I grew up with. Then a few years ago burgers became a hot menu item. Besides the craze for fast food done slightly better, a la Shake Shack, Five Guys, and In N Out, gourmet versions were everywhere. They came oozing cheese, stuffed with caramelized onions, served with no fewer than five condiments. They were great and Jeff and I ate them until we could eat no more. But they were never really about the burger. In most of those creations the meat could have been removed entirely without any real change in taste to the meal.

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There’s certainly a time for the blue cheese and bacon burger with onion rings and barbecue sauce eclipsing the obligatory lettuce. But if I’m making them at home there’s probably not much going on between the buns; lettuce, tomato, something pickled, mustard, maybe some mayo. I make my own patties without the help of any shaping or mushing tools. It’s just salt, pepper, sometimes Worcestershire sauce but usually not, and a light hand. The only pressing is the little divot in the middle, supposedly to prevent the middle from puffing up as it cooks. There’s not much of a recipe below because there’s not really a lot that goes into making a simple burger. It’s what you leave out that makes all the difference.

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The Basic Burger

Makes 3-4 burgers

1 lb ground beef
1 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
1 tbs worcestershire sauce (optional)

COMBINE the ground beef with the salt, pepper, and worcestershire (if using) in a large bowl. Loosely toss the mixture together so that the seasoning is evenly distributed. A folding method, similar to incorporating beaten egg whites into a batter, works well here.

DIVIDE the meat into three or four equal portions, depending on how many burgers you’re making.

SHAPE the meat into patties gently, patting it into place with your hands – no need to squeeze. The patties should be a little loose when you’re done and feel like they might fall apart if you’re not careful with them. When you have the shape you want, lightly press a thumb into the center of each patty to create a little divot.

GRILL the patties on a grill set to medium heat – too hot and they will char on the outside before they’re cooked, too low and they won’t get nice caramelized bits. It may take some testing to find how how your grill should be to achieve this. I like to cook mine about 7 minutes on each side, flipping them at the four minute mark so each side gets cooked for a four minute period and a three minute period. If you like your burger closer to medium than rare, add a few extra minutes. You could also cook these in a pan on medium high heat, following the same steps when it comes to timing and flipping. If you don’t use a non-stick pan, grease it a little before cooking. While the burgers will give off some grease as they cook, it won’t be fast enough to lubricate the pan while the first side cooks.

Avocado Lime Dressing

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There are usually a couple of avocados sitting around my kitchen, getting ripe on the counter or tucked into the fridge for eating now. They’re a staple. When did that happen? Do you ever wonder about how much food has changed in the last few decades? It’s my own special brand of reminiscing about the good old days, except in this case the good old days were sans avocado. It’s better now.

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Still, I don’t remember when avocados shifted from occasional treat to everyday purchase, when guacamole became a party staple and salsa was the second best choice. The leathery green fruits somehow insinuated themselves into everyday life. Jeff and I sometimes joke that “California style” on a menu really just means “with avocado” California has more than it’s fair share of avocados year round, but it’s not just a west coast thing. At least, I don’t think it is.

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Avocados find their way into everything, especially in the summer. I slice them on scrambled eggs, mash them on sandwiches, and I’m still not sick of them. It makes me wonder how I lived without them. And also, what I’ll be eating in twenty years.

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Avocado Lime Dressing

1 avocado (make sure it’s very ripe)
Juice of 1-2 limes (about ¼ cup lime juice)
1 tsp kosher salt
1 clove garlic, finely minced
¼ cup chopped cilantro (optional)
Up to ¼ cup olive oil

COMBINE avocado, lime, salt, and garlic in a blender, food processor, or a bowl. Blend, process, or mash the ingredients with a fork or use a stick blender. With the fork, the end result will be like a thin guacamole.

SLOWLY ADD the olive oil to the blended avocado mixture while still mixing the ingredients together so that the oil can be fully incorporated.

TASTE and adjust any seasonings to make it to your liking. It’s a thick dressing so make sure to toss the salad well to distribute it. With all the lime juice it will last a week in the fridge without losing it’s color.

Pickled Red Onions

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Sometimes I forgot that the steps in most recipes are suggestions rather than rules. The recipe seems so authoritative that I ignore all the ways the dish could more flavorful, or steps that can be abbreviated. I don’t question the necessity of steps or ingredients that don’t enough to justify the added difficulty. I forget that there must be an easier way to make the same dish on a regular basis, saving the more complex version for special occasions And I end up cheating myself, relegating the dish to the made-it-once category instead of trying to simplify and make the dish easy to repeat.

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I used to follow a complicated recipe for pickled red onions and as a result, I almost never made them. The process was long and messy and had to be repeated three times. It left my kitchen perfumed with the choking smell of vinegar from it simmering on the stove. It wasn’t worth it even though the onions were delicious and good on everything we tried them with to boot. I never even thought to change up the recipe until a friend served a very close fascimile of those same pickles, except they didn’t need any heat or much time at all. I cheated myself out of these pickles for months because I forgot my own first rule of cooking – the recipe is not always right.

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Playing fast and loose with recipes doesn’t always work out as well as these pickles. Sometimes the result of my experimentation isn’t pretty or the cake falls or it ends up mediocre rather than delicious. But often it ends up almost as good as the original and much easier to put together. I learn new things about how ingredients work together or flavors that blend surprisingly well. And sometimes I end up with a new favorite.

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Pickled Red Onions

Makes about two cups

Given the ubiquitous presence of red onions all year round and the fact that these go well with everything, from grilled cheese to burgers to stew, this is a staple recipe you can make all year long.

About 2 cups, packed, thinly sliced red onion (this is about equal to one medium or half of one large red onion)
2 bay leaves
1 tbs whole peppercorns
1 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp sugar

STUFF the onion slices into a 2-cup container. They should be packed in tightly at this point and maybe stick out a little over the top of the container – they’ll soften and fit better after soaking in the vinegar.

ADD the bay leaves and peppercorns to the container

COMBINE the vinegar with the salt and sugar in a separate container. Stir them around until the salt and sugar dissolve.

POUR the vinegar mixture over the red onions and let it sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. If the onions are still above the vinegar line, poke them down after about 15 minutes so they all fit below the vinegar. After 30 minutes you can serve them or store them in the fridge for several weeks and just grab what you want.

Unfussy: Yogurt Chicken

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The first thing I made when I got back from the weddings was this chicken. I planned it out on the flight home from Boston, right down to the shopping list. It was the first food I’d made in weeks that wasn’t a sandwich or a plate of leftovers. It was the first plated meal I’d had that wasn’t catered or eaten at a restaurant. It was heaven. Not that it’s such an exciting recipe – it’s pretty minimalistic and while it’s a good piece of grilled chicken, it’s also just that: grilled chicken.

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There’s not a whole lot to say about grilled chicken but that’s kind of the point. Food isn’t always exciting or particularly beautiful or noteworthy. I make a lot of everyday food, the kind that magazines list as “quick weeknight meals” rather than guest-worthy dishes. It’s the kind of food I like making the best. The kind that’s uncomplicated and doesn’t leave a lot of room for questions about whether I’m doing it right. The kind where the perfectly cooked version is just about as good as the missed-a-step-but-still-ok version.

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Sometimes, especially when thinking of thing to share here, I get caught up in making “impressive” dishes or ones that are “unique” and use “interesting flavor combinations.” And sometimes that’s fun. But more often I’m in my kitchen making something more intuitive and less exciting, something more everyday. Something more like this chicken. And yes, I’d still proudly serve it to guests.

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Yogurt Chicken

3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
1 cup yogurt
2-3 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tsp kosher salt
A few spoonfuls of spices (optional, I used a citrus blend in the photos above)

COMBINE yogurt, minced garlic, salt, and spices (if using) in a zip top bag or shallow container. Mix everything around and then add the chicken and make sure it’s fully coated with the yogurt mixture. Let the chicken marinate for about an hour and up to four hours

PREHEAT your oven to 425 F or your grill to medium. If you’re roasting, line a baking sheet with foil and place a rack on it. If you’re grilling, oil the grill using a piece of paper towel dipped in oil and wipe it across the grates while holding it with tongs.

REMOVE chicken from the marinade and let any extra drip off – you want it to still be coated but not soaked. For the oven, place the thighs on the rack and roast for about 40 minutes, flipping the pieces half way through cooking. For the grill, place the thighs on the grates and cook for about 4 minutes a side, flipping halfway. They’ll need to be grilled twice on each side but flipping them often will prevent the skin from burning. If they start to look too charred but the insides aren’t done, turn the heat down on half or all of the grill and let them cook on the cooler side until they reach 160 F inside and/or the juices run clear when you cut them.

SERVE hot, warm, or cold from the fridge. They’ll keep in the fridge for about a week so any leftovers can be turned into chicken salad or just eaten off the bone.