What to Do?

The weather does not know what to do with itself.  Half of the time it’s nearly 50 degrees and raining, and half of the time it’s 30 degrees and snowing, and half of the time it’s below zero and too cold for either one.  (And yes, the extremes really DO make it feel like I’m living a life of three overstuffed halves).

Weather like this wouldn’t be unheard-of in late March (though it would still be annoying) or even April, but in February it’s a little discombobulating.  What’s more, it has an adverse affect on meal planning.  Do I want something sprightly and light?  Or do I want to hunker down with comforting stodge?

Even if I do need warmth and comfort, I don’t know how much in the mood I am for real winter food — say, sauerkraut or ham hocks.  On the other hand, I still don’t want to eat anything cold and aesthetically ascetic.  Whatever the official temperature, it’s a safe bet that the day—and the people in it—will be wet and miserable.  Luckily, there’s a world-renown remedy for this condition: chicken soup. 

How to make chicken soup comforting enough to combat the drear, but light enough to look forward to spring and not back to winter?  How about a clear, glistening broth, un-muddied by a hodge-podge of disparate ingredients?  How about poached chicken?  A few weeks ago, when Teacherman and I had some friends over for dinner, I determined to serve just such a dish.

I have often poached skinless, boneless chicken breasts, bringing them to a boil in a saucepan and then turning the heat off and letting them sit, covered, for 30 minutes.  The result is perfectly cooked and moist, but in spite of my wish for lightness, a plain slab of poached breast seemed TOO unadorned—more cuisine minceur than I was going for.  Also, I felt that we needed a bit more fat than a chicken breast alone would produce.  Nothing that would be noticeable, but just enough to round out and deepen the flavors of the final dish.  I did not, however, want to poach only chicken thighs; a dark meat-only mixture often results in a rather gamey, cloudy broth, and that did not fit in with my idea of lightness.

Instead, I decided to poach a whole chicken.

I got out my favorite Dutch oven, and filled the bottom with 1 onion (peeled and cut in half), 3 carrots (peeled and cut into chunks) and 3 celery stalks (wipe clean and thinly sliced).  The onions would be present merely to flavor the broth, but I wanted the option of serving the carrots and celery along with the chicken; thus their more careful preparation. 

I put a 3.5 lb frying chicken (I prefer these to ‘roasters’, because the breasts are more in proportion to the rest of the body) on top of the vegetables and nestled it down far enough that it fit below the rim of the Dutch oven.  I sprinkled a big, three-finger pinch of whole black peppercorns on top of the vegetables, and then an equally big pinch of kosher salt over the chicken.  I then poured water over all of this—I’m not sure of the quantity.  The liquid came nearly up to the top of the chicken, but it was low enough that I knew it wouldn’t boil over, if it came to that.

I brought everything to a boil over high heat, then lowered the flame to the point where the liquid just simmered, and covered the pot.  I left the pot alone for an hour, then checked the internal temperature of the chicken.  It was perfect, so I turned off the heat, remove the chicken to a platter, and strained the broth into a large bowl.  I removed the onion, then added the carrots and celery back into the broth to keep warm

When the chicken was cool enough to handle, I deconstructed it, removing the meat, leaving aside all the bones and tearing the meat into bite-sized pieces.  The chicken was silkily tender but still resilient to the tooth, and moister than anything short of a confit.  The peppercorns and carrots had infused the meat with a spicy sweetness that was subtle but moreish. 

I put the chicken, vegetables and broth back into the Dutch oven and reheated it gently, checking the seasoning of the broth.  It was very deep and complex in tone, but needed MUCH more salt than I’d given it.  I believe I added an entire teaspoon of kosher salt, which immediately pulled all the flavors of the broth together, without making it appreciably salty.

To serve, I dropped a handful of spicy greens into each of four big bowls.  On top of the greens I laid chunks of the chicken and vegetables, and then ladled broth overall.  On the side, there were obscenely thick slices of sourdough toast, spread with homemade salted butter. 

The whole meal DID manage to be both comforting and sprightly.  The flavors — chicken soup, buttered toast — were utterly familiar, but done extremely well.  No one would have thought of complaining about ‘the same old’; they were too busy enjoying their meal.  The broth was just as crystal-clear as I had wanted, light on the tongue, but full-flavored and mellow.  It was hardly cutting-edge in any way, but it was one of the nicest meals I’ve had in months.

Published in: on February 29, 2008 at 8:27 am  Comments (2)  

Maybe I Should Just Get Over Myself

I’m having a bit of a crisis of faith.  Faith in myself, that is.

I’m beginning to wonder if I don’t talk up my own cooking skills too much—or rather, not my cooking skills, but the results of my cooking.  (This might sound like it’s the same thing, but consider how wonderful a salad of individually fabulous ingredients is—its transcendence has nothing to do with any artistry of arrangement, but is the result of the wonderful flavor of the components).

The last several times I’ve cooked something for other people—for a potluck, say—I’ve made something that I thought was really great.  A fruit crisp with cherries cooked in red wine.  A batch of popcorn dressed in duck fat and smoked salt.  Each time it was something that I’d made before and loved (this is out of the ordinary for me—usually I take a brand new, unattempted recipe, one for whatever I’m the most excited about at the time), and that Teacherman had loved as well. 

In every case, I excitedly presented the dish to the guests—fun, food-loving people with widely ranging tastes—only to receive comments along the lines of: “What’s so special about this?”  No one hated anything (well, okay, one person hate the cherry crisp), but no one thought the recipes were anything special, anything worth talking about, anything worth any amount of enthusiasm.  “It just tastes like popcorn.”  “I can’t taste any of that stuff.”

Upon seeing my startled reaction to their nonplussedness, my friends back-tracked and praised: “Oh, don’t worry, I like it, but. . .”, “It’s not that there’s anything wrong, but. . .”.

I can only wonder: am I over-hyping my results?  Have I become some kind of culinary girl who cried wolf?  I can’t deny that I’m given to flights of hyperbole in my everyday life, but I never thought I was self-aggrandizing about my cooking.  I genuinely believe that these recipes are delicious and distinctive-tasting, and was excited to share them with other people.

Even worse than making a recipe and having it turn out terribly is making a dish and loving it, but having no one else agree.  It makes one wonder if one is flawed in some intrinsic but inexplicable way.  What’s wrong with me that I love this when no one else does?  What am I missing?  What do I not understand?

I know that I am not A Great Chef—I’m a competent cook who’s been lucky enough to have access to what I think are wonderful ingredients, ingredients that I think combine into meals worthy of enthusiasm.  But are the ingredients really as delicious as I think they are?  Do I produce food that is merely passable and not worthy of additional comment? 

It’s a trying situation, and one that I don’t know how to resolve.

Published in: on February 25, 2008 at 11:57 am  Comments (1)  

Silk

As difficult as it is to find things to write about when confronted with uninspiring winter produce, it’s even more difficult to write about food when one has a stomach bug. 

Blech.

Even when one has a head cold, there are plenty of comforting, brothy soups to savor, plenty of heady teas to sip.  With a stomach bug, this does not work.  With a stomach bug, the sort of food that one (or at least, I) eat tends to be of the I-haven’t-eaten-in-48-hours-I-can’t-take-it-anymore-oops-it-was-a-mistake-to-eat-anything-yet variety. 

After two days of nothing but water, I was not only faint from hunger and weak from illness, but cranky from a lack of creative output.  What makes me feel comfortable and full of well-being?  Cooking.  Cooking both for myself and — even more so — for other people. 

This morning, though, I finally managed to eat breakfast, albeit a distinctly unchallenging one.  Greek yogurt, liberally laced with minced fresh ginger, topped with supremed red grapefruit and juice. 

It was soothing, silken comfort.  And it was FOOD.  I was refreshed not just by the nutrients and density of the meal, but by the act of preparing it, setting the table for it, and sitting down to eat it with cutlery and linen. 

I’m still staggering and shaky, but just those tiny things made me feel better.  Soon I’ll be back to my old tricks.  Soon, I will be hungry.

Published in: on February 18, 2008 at 8:57 am  Leave a Comment  

There Are CSAs AND CSAS

I work at a library. Believe it or not, though, it is still extremely difficult to find anything to read during my lunch hour. In spite of the fact that I am surrounded by books, and in spite of the fact that I usually have stacks of the things to take home with me at the end of the day, I cannot read any of them at lunch. Why? Because people want to talk to me. Or talk to each other. Or turn on the lunch room television set and watch some horrific daytime show. It isn’t possible to concentrate on a book while this is happening. Sometimes it isn’t even possible to concentrate on a cookbook.

This convoluted story is by way of explaining why it was that I found myself reading a diet/exercise magazine at lunch yesterday. The lead article proclaimed, with shock and outrage, that the average American gained five pounds during the winter months; we should be doing everything humanly possible, they urged, to combat this! Here were their exercise tips and 2-calorie, out-of-season meals to prevent this revolting and pointless weight gain!

Hmm. Pointless? My immediate thought upon hearing that most people gain weight during the winter is to remember–oh yes, that used to be an evolutionary advantage. Want to live through the winter? Pad yourself out. These days, we insulate our houses; even just a hundred years ago, we insulated ourselves. Admittedly, the people of the western world don’t live in paper-thin shacks or eat at the subsistence level, but I still think it makes a sense to take into account those centuries of history.

I live in a modern house with central heating, but I walk three miles a day, outside, to get to and from my train station. This isn’t back-breaking farm work, but it is exertion — exertion that requires more energy when it’s extremely cold. (And extremely cold it has been: three blizzard-level storms in less than a week? Whose idea was THAT?).

On a day when you’ve plowed through miles of unshoveled sidewalks covered in calf-deep snow, something like a barely-dressed seafood salad isn’t going to cut it, no matter how much I might love it in July. A lot of the time, I want soup, and a lot of the time, I want meat. Something juicy, something fatty, something comforting and something filling.

Teacherman and I know that we eat a greater quantity of meat and stodge during the winter, and we’re happy with this. We know this, and thus, when we were presented with a unique and related opportunity, we immediately took advantage of it.

In December, we noticed that a vendor at the downtown farmer’s market was selling spaces in a winter CSA. We were intrigued, given how difficult it is to find local anything during the colder months (in the Midwest, even a heated greenhouse might not do you much good). The CSA in question, though, was not the type that everyone has heard of — no boxes of vegetables delivered to your grateful door. Instead, the boxes would be full of meat.

Yes, really: meat and meat alone. The farm sells chicken, pork, beef and lamb (and woolen yarn) at the farmer’s market, and, given that they sell everything frozen, it’s easy enough for them to continue to sell all through the winter. The farmer’s market closes between December and June, though, leaving them out in the cold (as it were). The solution? The aforementioned CSA. You pay them a criminally low fee, and they deliver 25 (or 12) lbs of free-range, carefully raised, local meat to you every month. Teacherman and I signed up as soon as we heard the schpiel. (We did sign up for the 12-lb half-share, though. We may love meat, but there ARE only two of us).

We got our first box two weeks ago: twelve pounds of ground beef, pork chops, pork cutlets, nitrate- and sugar-free bacon and three kinds of sausage. For the first box the farmer gave everyone safe cuts (in America ground beef is king), but in the future we’re allowed to make requests. We have, of course, requested all sorts of bizarro cuts (pork belly, lamb neck chops) and cannot wait to see what we’ll get next time.

In the meantime, though, we’re delighted with what we have. The bacon glorified two different Sunday breakfasts, the ground beef was made into beautiful burgers, and the pork chops went into one of the most simple and satisfying meals we’ve had yet this winter.

I sprinkled the pork chops with salt and black pepper, then seared them in a big skillet until browned on both sides, and no longer squishily-raw when I poked them with a finger. I deglazed the pan with a heaping tablespoon of whole grain mustard and a cup of the apple wine Teacherman made earlier in the year (technically it’s hard cider, but it fermented itself into a delicate effervescence that’s more reminiscent of a sparkling wine than anything else). I turned the chops in the sauce a couple of times, then took them from the pan when they had lost all but a trace of pink in the center. I reduced the mustard-apple wine mixture until the sauce was thick and syrupy, then poured it over the chops.

They were delicious. It’s hardly a surprise that the flavors of apples and pork work well together, but the match is well known because it can be so good. The pork was flavorful and juicy, plump and resilient, the edges of each chop caramelized and glistening. The sauce was as light as a white wine sauce, but with the subtle, unmistakable sweetness of apples. The mustard emulsified the sauce into a creaminess that almost seemed dairy-based, and added a textural contrast to the unctuous pork with the crunchiness of the whole mustard seeds.

There were only three ingredients, but the dish was perfect. Yes, there was a layer of fat around the edge of each chop. Yes, we ate it (with great relish, even). I don’t think we’ll die. If we gain five pounds, so be it. (If it makes me warmer, I’ll be ecstatic). Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy eating real food, and living through the winter the way many many people have before.

Published in: on February 6, 2008 at 8:48 pm  Comments (2)  

Simple Isn’t Boring

As you might guess, given the number of posts I have written about ice cream and sorbet, I am a big fan of dessert.  I’m not sweet-fiend, but I do feel that every meal should have its corresponding dessert, or at least some kind of sweet component.  At breakfast and lunch, and even sometimes dinner, this is usually fruit.  Sometimes, though, I get a creation itch and make up a new ice cream, or cheesecake, or nut torte, or truffle. 

More often, unfortunately, I want a dessert as elaborate and delicious as one of those things, but don’t have enough time (or am too lazy) to do the work to make one. 

Last night was just such a situation–I was both exhausted (don’t ASK me about the blizzard) and out of time (I don’t want an apple, but it’s 30 minutes till dinnertime!).  A mental review of the cupboards gave me no ideas.   I ducked my head into the fridge to grab an ingredient for the main meal, and spied two small containers of Greek yogurt hiding behind Teacherman’s massive jug of juice. 

Ha ha and ho HO.

Down into the cupboard to grab the balsamic vinegar, up into the freezer for the pine nuts.  A big glug of vinegar reduced in the microwave while I quickly toasted the pine nuts in a pan, all the while keeping an eye on what I was making for dinner. 

I dumped the nuts out onto a cool plate just as the microwave dinged and as my entree finished cooking.  Our meal was delicious (pasta with mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and edamame, in case you’re interested), but the dessert was surpassing. 

Greek yogurt, of course, is strained until it’s almost as thick as cream cheese, but with the unmistakable tang of a cultured product.  It almost held its shape when I scooped it out into serving dishes, like a no-work version of ice cream.  The balsamic vinegar had reduced to a sweet, deep brown syrup, and I dribbled glistening tablespoons over each serving.  The pine nuts–now caramel-colored and crisp–were strewn into each dish, and with bowls and spoons, we sat down to our dessert.

Can such an odd combination be comforting?  It was.  We each held a little bowl of creamy comfort, but it wasn’t too much.  The throat-catching sweetness of the vinegar countered the tangy richness of the yogurt, while the pine nuts added texture to the unremitting creaminess.   I wanted to hug the bowl to my chest and wallow in the comfort, but I refrained. 

I did, however, lick the bowl.

Published in: on February 2, 2008 at 8:04 pm  Leave a Comment