Many foods benefit from a good pounding and leveling.
Gammy Dodger stashed this in Things that might get made
“Flat food” was once a term in geekdom for vending-machine items that could be easily slipped under programmers’ doors so they could continue writing code through the night. That was back when the people working to change our digital lives were postcollege Gen X-ers, happily nourished on Twix bars.
Times have changed. The geeks have taken over, and the Google headquarters has not just a cafeteria but a utopian one supporting the locavore movement. (All the produce comes from within 150 miles of the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif.)
But flat food, at least as an architectural idea, is still of some use to the rest of us: flat food has more surface area to work with, and compressing an ingredient changes its texture. The term came to mind recently as I was sautéing some chicken breasts that I’d pounded until they were as thin as a mouse pad. Flattened chicken breasts cook evenly, while in their natural comma shape, you inevitably end up with a dry end. These chicken breasts took just a minute or two, and they were perfect.
Many foods benefit from a good pounding and leveling. From a friend, I learned to make squashed tomatoes, which can work as a simple room-temperature pasta sauce, a topping for toasts scraped with garlic or with flattened and sautéed chicken breasts (which is how I ate them; a recipe follows). You take small tomatoes, no bigger than golf balls, place them on a baking sheet and put them under the broiler or on a grill until the skins begin to blister and singe and the fruit starts to soften. Then comes the fun part, as you take a fork and do what you should never do with meat: you squash the tomatoes to release their juices. Next you season them with salt and a crushed red chili and douse them with good, buttery olive oil. Unexpectedly, they’re actually better in this rumpled form: slightly broken down, released of their juices, soaking in oil, they taste sweet and luxurious.
Garlic cloves, like chicken breasts, are another beneficiary of the meat pounder. (For smashing foods flat, the kind shaped like an upside-down thumbtack works best.) With a single firm whack, the cloves compress but remain intact, so that if you were to use them to flavor hot oil, they could easily be fished out or left in to become chips rather than charred bits.
Smashing firm green olives before marinating them allows the seasonings to permeate the olives’ flesh. Contrary to what you see in scary grocery-store olive bins — the soggy bits of rosemary, the dregs of unidentifiable spices — you don’t need much to improve an olive. Just a little minced carrot and celery leaf, garlic, a slice of lemon or two. Within a few hours, the flavors integrate, and you no longer have marinade and olives, but densely scented olives.
As enjoyable as pounding the lights out of an innocent garlic clove or olive may be, probably the most satisfying flat food to prepare is Susan Spungen’s potato “tostones” (above). You steam baby potatoes until they’re just tender, let them cool enough to be handled, then press them between your palms until they flatten a bit and you hear their skins begin to snap. Next, you heat up some oil in a skillet and fry the potatoes until they’re nice and brown on their flat sides. Each potato is then crisp and caramelized but still moist inside. Too bad the geeks didn’t know about this one years ago. With better flat food nourishing their minds, maybe we’d have had the iPhone 10 years sooner.
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Flattened Chicken With Cantaloupe and Arugula
This chicken may be grilled — again, two minutes total — and is also delicious paired with the squashed tomatoes that follow.
For the cantaloupe:
2 cups cantaloupe balls
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Coarse sea salt
Pinch chili powder
For the chicken:
6 8-ounce skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
¼ cup olive oil
2 cups thickly slivered arugula (not baby arugula).
1. Mix the cantaloupe, oil and lemon juice in a bowl. Season to taste with salt and chili. It should be a little spicy.
Credit Photograph by Stephen Lewis for The New York Times. Food stylist: Jill Santopietro 2. Cut each chicken breast in half horizontally and place between two sheets of plastic wrap. Using a heavy meat pounder, evenly flatten each piece to 1/4-inch thick. Brush the chicken with oil, season with salt and set aside for at least 5 minutes.
3. Place a large skillet over high heat. Add the chicken pieces in batches to avoid crowding and cook for 1 1/2 minutes. Turn and cook for 30 seconds. (This side may not seem cooked through, but it will continue to cook as it sits.) Lay the finished pieces side by side on a baking sheet to cool slightly. Transfer to a serving plate and pour the cooking juices over the chicken. Serve topped with arugula, cantaloupe and cantaloupe juices (or with squashed tomatoes and their juices). Serves 6. Technique adapted from “Cucina Simpatica,” by Johanne Killeen and George Germon.
2 1/2 pounds large cherry tomatoes
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 dried red chili, crumbled
6 slices country bread (optional)
1clove garlic (optional).
1. Heat a broiler or grill. Set the cooking rack 3 inches from the heat.
2. Place the tomatoes on a rimmed baking pan. Broil until they soften and the skins start to blister and split, about 2 minutes. Using tongs, flip the tomatoes and broil until blistered but not totally soft, 2 minutes more.
3. Transfer the tomatoes to a serving dish and lightly squash with a fork so some of the juices run out. (Be careful to avoid spattering.) Sprinkle with oil, salt, pepper and chili and fold gently to combine. Serve with flattened chicken or over toasted country bread that has been rubbed with a garlic clove. Serves 6.
3 cups firm whole green olives (like lucques) in brine, drained
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped celery leaves
½ teaspoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons finely diced carrots
3 paper-thin slices lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
Using a meat pounder, crack the olives one by one, leaving the pits intact. Place the olives in a bowl. Stir in the oil, celery leaves, garlic, carrots and lemon. Season to taste with pepper and a dash of salt.
Let sit for at least an hour. Serve at room temperature. Serves 6. Adapted from Gabriella Becchina, co-owner of Olio Verde olive oil.
2 pounds small potatoes (about 20), like Yukon gold
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Coarse sea salt.
1. Place a steamer basket in a large pot filled with an inch of water and add the potatoes and salt. Cover and bring to a boil over medium heat. Steam until the potatoes are just tender when pierced with a paring knife, about 25 minutes. (Don’t overcook: they won’t hold together when flattened.) Remove the basket and let the potatoes cool enough to be handled.
2. Gently squeeze the potatoes, one at a time, between your palms so that they flatten slightly but remain in one piece (some will break, but they can still be used). Pour 1/4 inch of oil into a medium frying pan set over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes in batches to avoid crowding, and fry on both sides until crisp and browned, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Arrange on a platter and sprinkle with sea salt. Serves 6. Adapted from “Recipes,” by Susan Spungen.