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)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That sounds absolutely lovely! I have a chicken in my freezer and I’ve been wondering what to do with it. I’m thinking that this sounds perfect!

  2. It _is_ nice. And it would work really well with a frozen chicken, since any tendency to dry out (which you sometimes get with frozen chicken) will be countered by the fact that you’re simmering it in liquid.

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