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.

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

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)  

Trashy Bar Food OR Why Garlic Powder is a Necessity

It was the day after Thanksgiving.  I was sick, out of my mind on decongestants and at work anyway.  I was also severely lacking in leftovers.

This year, my Thanksgiving repast was surprisingly austere.  We only had one guest, and I was under the weather, so my meal barely required two hands.  I made pumpkin soup, toasted pumpkin seeds, a big salad, cranberry-chocolate ice cream, and some last-minute biscuits.  We also bought a smoked turkey breast from our favorite butcher (who is a genius). 

It was all delicious (well, the soup wasn’t quite what I’d hoped), but I’d planned it to be a single meal, not a Lucullan feast that would produce fridge-busting overflow.  The salad was gone.  The soup was gone.  The pumpkin seeds and biscuits were gone.  There were a few slices of turkey left, but barely enough for a sandwich.  Ordinarily, this would make me happy–I become nigh-upon panicked at the idea of food, not ear-marked for any meal, just SITTING in the fridge.  That way lies Rot, Mold and Waste.  (Trust me, I know my household). 

This time was different, though.  I was so sick that while cooking was not beyond my abilities, I just didn’t want to do it.  I wasn’t prostrate, but on cold medicine my brain was muffled in cotton batting, and off cold medicine (to drive, etc), I was coughing so hard that I couldn’t breathe.  I needed something brain-dead simple for dinner–and something comforting wouldn’t hurt either. 

Thank heavens for Teacherman. 

When I got home I discovered that he had been shopping and was ready to do everything for me.  There was a package of jointed chicken wings and a huge bag of parsnips on the counter, and he was hard at work at the mandoline and deep-frier.

While he sliced and fried the parsnips to shattering crispness, I bestirred myself, determined to help in some way.   I tossed the chicken wings in an easy spice rub–equal amounts of a random grab of things from the spice cabinet.  Cumin, (one of my ur-spices), marjoram (Teacherman’s favorite herb), smoked paprika (which is one of the best things ever invented), salt (of course), and garlic powder. 

I almost never use garlic powder.  I admit that I use jarred minced garlic on a daily basis (I hear you draw back in horror), but I am lazy and hate peeling the cloves.  When I’m making something garlic-heavy, I do use “real” from-the-head garlic.  Garlic powder, though, lives in the back of my spice cupboard and only comes out for one purpose–dry spice rubs.  Real garlic is wonderful in a marinade, but in a rub, when everything else is in tiny, dried particles, powder is the way to go.  (Garlic SALT, though, is anathema.  Do not mention it again).

In any case, I rubbed the wings with the spices, then arranged them on an olive-oiled baking sheet.  I roasted them at 425 for 20 minutes, then flipped them over and left them in for another 20.  Even my addled brain could handle it. 

Dinner–the sweet and salty parsnip chips and the smokey, spicy, blisteringly hot chicken wings–was perfect.  The fat on the wings had melted away in the oven, leaving behind tender meat that pulled away from the bone at the slightlest pressure.  The skin was crispy, but not greasy, almost like the parsnip chips.  The parsnips emerged from the frier as caramelized shards of the essence of parsnip, so well-fried that they left no residue of oil on our fingers.

(Moreover, all of the flavors were assertive enough to register well even on my cold-suppressed taste-buds, while not being too strong for Teacherman). 

Wings and chips?  For dinner?  Yes, those are things that most people buy in bars, or ready-made at the grocery store.  I make no claims that our meal was cuisine.  It was, however, satisfying; the next day, I started to get better.

Published in: on November 26, 2007 at 12:28 pm  Comments (2)  

Oh Dear

I think I may have ruined my oven. 

All right, that’s being a little overdramatic.  Rephrase: I think I may have really really messed up my oven.

All I did was roast a chicken.  I bought it from the store I always buy it from.  I bought the same size (3 lbs) and type (fryer) that I always get.  I cooked it the same way I always do (15 minutes at 450, 1 hour at 350).  I did EVERYTHING the way I always do!

I guess this chicken just had malevolent designs upon my oven.

I can’t say that I noticed it being particularly fattier than usual when I was prepping it for the oven.  I did cut off about two tablespoon’s worth of fat from inside the cavity, but I always do that.  The skin was difficult to separate from the flesh, but not unduly so. 

Somehow, somewhere, SOMETHING caused the fat in this chicken to just explode all over the inside of my oven.   The top, the bottom, the sides, the door–they all have floor-to-ceiling 4-inch-wide streaks of greasy soot.  From about 30 minutes in to the cooking time to the end of it, big billows of smoke pushed their way out of the vents and filled the house, no matter how many windows I opened. 

The chicken is not burnt (in fact, it tastes quite nice).  The pan is not warped.  It’s just the oven that’s a disaster area.  And, of course, the house that is now permeated with smoke.  (Not to mention my hair).  And have I mentioned that my oven does not have a self-cleaning cycle. 

At 9:30 pm I will get home from work.  I don’t know how long it will take me to clean the oven.

Published in: on October 31, 2007 at 11:56 am  Leave a Comment  

Food and Memories

The other day I was reading a collection of American food writing—a massive tome, actually, comprising examples of such from the entire history of America.  One of the essays mentioned the fact that, apparently, every person who cares about food has had a ‘food epiphany’ at some point in their lives.  Naturally, I started casting about in my memory to see if I had anything of the kind. 

I don’t really think I did—not the way the author meant it, anyway.  There was never a moment at which I thought “I will now CARE about food!  I will now only eat The Best Foodstuffs and PITY those who don’t!”  Well, probably the author didn’t mean it to be quite that harsh, but it did come off that way in writing. 

I have, however, had two tiny moments of what I suppose you might call clarity: moments where I suddenly realized that a certain food was good and that it had flavors that I’d never noticed before.  I don’t know if these count as epiphanies, but they were certainly formative experiences. 

The first one is rather embarrassing.  I was living away from home for the first time, and making all of my own food in my own kitchen in the requisite grad school tiny one-room apartment.  I was mostly subsisting on ramen (as one does) with occasional forays into chicken baked in canned soup and things like that.  I didn’t particularly mind.  The meals were satisfying, in their way, and I used the herbs and spices I had to vary the flavors from night to night.  Also, though, I was reading cooking magazines.  I’d gotten a subscription to Gourmet as a reward for something—good credit, I think—and I’d become fascinated by the pretty pictures.  Most of the recipes were too elaborate for my budget, if not my ambition (I’ve always had a complete inability to grasp that a recipe is too advanced for me—when I decide not to make something it’s usually from laziness, not defeatism) but every month they had one article devoted to a recipe using five ingredients.  Five ingredients, unless the five included saffron and truffles, was something I could handle. 

One month’s recipe in particular caught my eye—Chicken Piccata.  Chicken, lemon juice, capers (what were those?), parsley (and something else, surely, though I don’t remember what).  I could easily obtain all of these ingredients.  When presented with the price of capers, though, I was taken aback.  These days, three dollars for a jar of capers does not cause hyperventilation, but at the time it was so much that I almost sat down in the aisle of the market.  Even in my inexperience, though, it was obvious that capers were the point of Chicken Piccata, so HAD to buy them.  How to justify the price?  Back went the lemons—I had a few drops left in the squeezy bottle at home.  Back went the fresh parsley, and into the basket went a tiny bag from the bulk section, filled with about a tablespoon of dried parsley.  I’m sure that if someone had asked me at the time if I thought bottled lemon juice and dried parsley were as good as fresh, I would have said something like “Probably not, but it doesn’t matter.” 

And it didn’t matter, because the dish turned out beautifully.  It was delicious, and started me on a caper addiction that continues to this day, but what I really noticed about the meal was the parsley.  Yes, really—the dried parsley.  I remember the actual sentence in my head after my first bite: “Parsley has a flavor.”  I wasn’t excited: I was astonished.  After years of dealing with my sister’s and my refusal to eat anything green, I’m sure my mother had given up on fresh herbs altogether (at least on our food), and I don’t think that I’d ever eaten any kind of parsley before.  I’d smelled dried parsley at my friends’ houses, and it had smelled like grass; I’d ignored it thereafter.   This must have been fresh dried parsley, because it smelled astonishingly like the bunch of live parsley I’d almost purchased in the produce section, and it tasted just like it smelled. 

I know that I’m opening myself up to the scorn of thousands by admitting that one of my most formative food memories is based upon dried parsley, an herb widely renown as tasteless dust when dried, but there it is: it’s a true story.

My other formative food moment came earlier in my life.  I was fifteen—not “cool” by any means, but at least mildly aloof.  I was fifteen, and my stomach hurt.  My stomach hurt so badly that I began to scream and cry and call for my parents, who came running from each end of the house, convinced that I had broken a bone or put my hand through a window or something—my tolerance for pain is pretty high, and they knew it couldn’t be something tiny.  But no, no horrible disaster had taken place, my stomach just hurt.  After a few minutes of questioning it became obvious that it wasn’t my appendix or a broken rib or anything that would require a visit to the emergency room, but no one knew what it was.  My mother put me to bed with a heat pad, a cat and some Tylenol.  I sobbed for an hour or two, while my family ate dinner very quietly downstairs, speaking in whispers.  At about 8 pm, the stomachache began to wane, and by 8:30 it was gone, with absolutely no sign that it had ever been there. 

I came downstairs to the kitchen, where my mother was grading papers at the table.  She got up and handed me my leftover dinner, a bowl of rice and black bean picadillo.  I’d never much liked picadillo before, but I can remember the flavors of that particular rendition perfectly—how the tomatoes softened the beans, the juxtaposition of the hot green chiles and the sweet chopped apple, and the way that all of the ingredients melted into each other, and melded with the rice.  I had never noticed the way flavors worked together until that night and I had never been so comforted by familiar flavors.  Because of that moment alone, black bean picadillo has become, for me, the most perfect comfort food ever invented.  Even thirteen years later, if I’m craving comfort, I crave that particular picadillo recipe more than any of the typical comfort foods.  Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes: none of these can hold a candle to it. 

Herewith, therefore, I will give you an actual, written-out recipe for my mother’s black bean picadillo.  I don’t know where the recipe originally came from (a cooking magazine? the back of a can?), but I’ve never been tempted to try any of the trendier, more modern, and infinitely more authentic versions I’ve encountered since.

Black Bean Picadillo
(serves 4-6)

1 14-oz can of diced tomatoes (these days I use fire-roasted Muir Glen tomatoes)
1 15-oz can black beans
1 lb ground beef (round, not chuck or sirloin)
1 small chopped onion
1 small can of chopped mild green chiles (fresh work, but roast and peel them first)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp orange peel (dried, but fresh would be fine—just use a light hand)
1 tsp cumin
1 finely chopped apple (I’ve always used Rome apples in this even though I prefer incredibly tart apples for everything else—the soft sweetness is important)

Sauté the beef and onion together until the beef is no longer pink.  Add all other ingredients and cook over low heat, uncovered, for half an hour to forty-five minutes, stirring occasionally.  Serve over rice and melt back into your childhood.

Published in: on August 27, 2007 at 1:48 pm  Comments (3)  

All Right, Already

The single most common search query that pops up in my statistics is, unsurprisingly, “Poulet Basquaise.” Back in February my best friend’s husband asked if I had an actual recipe for it somewhere within the site, which, let us not forget, is named for the dish. Well, no. It’s not that I objected to having a recipe up, but that I haven’t made Poulet Basquaise in the entire time I’ve been writing the blog, so all of my posts were on things that I was currently eating.

After months of repetative search queries, though, I’m finally giving in.

Poulet Basquaise was my favorite meal when I was growing up, and one of the first things I learned how to cook on my own (I can’t remember if it was THE first–I think that distinction may fall upon beef stroganoff). I’ve made it for all of my friends at some point, and it was the basis of the first meal I ever made for Teacherman. It is definitely comfort food, of the best meat-in-sauce variety, and, in spite of my mother’s occasional claims that I can’t possibly like her ‘ordinary, plain’ cooking anymore, I adore it still. This recipe is entirely hers–I’ve only ever made one deviation* therefrom–taken straight from the recipe card I’ve had since I left home.

Poulet Basquaise

2 lbs skinless, boneless chicken thighs
8 oz fresh mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
sliced pepperoni to taste
1 large green pepper, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
32-48 oz of good quality tomato sauce
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 Tbsp olive oil

Remove any visible fat from the chicken and pound meat gently to tenderize. Cut each thigh into two pieces, then brown in the olive oil.

Remove chicken from the pan and saute mushrooms, onions and peppers. When onions are translucent, add chicken and all other ingredients to the pan. Use as much sauce as you need to get the consistency you want.

Simmer all ingredients on low heat (after heating on high for a few minutes) for about 45 minutes. Better when made the day before.

* Deviation: My mother dredges the chicken pieces in flour before sauteeing; I do not.

It may not sound like much (and indeed, an ex-boyfriend once turned up his nose at a description and called it “goop”), but the flavors work magic together. It isn’t altogether different from chicken cacciatore, but the pepperoni sets it apart. When I was growing up we always used a major brand of stick pepperoni, sliced into great chunks, but since I moved to the city I’ve used the pepperoni from my favorite butcher. The flavor profile is similar (one wouldn’t want to create an entirely unfamiliar dish), but the one is the platonic ideal of the other.

I usually use button mushrooms or creminis; for all that the former are scorned as common, I find that they have a pleasant meatiness that works well in this dish, adding an earthy contrast to the chicken without dominating. As for the tomato sauce, I use whatever plain, tomato-based pasta sauce I have on hand; marinara-style sauces work the best.

The vagueries of my childhood memory say that my mother always served this dish with rice, using the greater amount of tomato sauce in the preparation, but I prefer to serve it as a kind of stew, with no starch to take away from the intense flavors. And she is right–Poulet Basquaise, like almost all other tomato sauces, is better when left to mellow overnight before serving.

Writing this post has made me hungry, and I’m beginning to crave a bowl of my own. I will have no free time until Sunday, however, and on that day I leave for two weeks abroad. Forays into making Poulet Basquaise will have to wait, but wait they will, and so will I.

Published in: on June 20, 2007 at 8:06 am  Leave a Comment  

A Little Bit Jumbled and Jivey

I have been on an oat kick recently.

After a few years of ignoring the grain, I recently rediscovered the joys of hot oatmeal in the morning–it is still early spring here, no matter what the calendar says–and oats have become a staple freezer item.  (I treat oats like nuts and store them in the freezer, to prevent any oils from going rancid).  I’ve purchased many different varieties of oats for my experiments: mostly ordinary old-fashioned rolled oats, but lately also steel-cut oats, those little nubbins that most would be unable to identify as oats at all.  They make a wonderfully rustic and grainy oatmeal, but since it takes half the amount of steel-cut oats to make the same finished quantity of oatmeal as that made from rolled oats, I always miscalculate, overbuy, and end up with uncooked steel-cut oats that languish in the freezer while I finish my overabundance of leftover breakfast.

As part of my search for perfect oatmeal, I checked out Lorna Sass’s new cookbook Whole Grains: Every Day, Every Way.  I certainly enjoyed her recipes for hot breakfast oatmeal, but what really intrigued me was a recipe for a Tex-Mex turkey soup with steel-cut oats stirred in at the end, instead of rice or pasta.  It seemed a perfect use for the leftover steel-cut oats in my freezer and a perfect Sunday night dinner–warming enough to cut the chilly wind, but not so stodgy as to repulse, given the vaguely spring-like tendancies of the weather. 

The stew is simplicty itself, the only deviation from the norm being the presence of the oats.  Sweat an onion and a stalk of celery in oil, add stock (or water) and that beloved southern staple, a can of diced tomatoes and green chiles.  Plunk in some turkey thighs (boneless and skinless in my case, though the recipe calls for bone-in) and various spices, simmer for a short while, then add a measure of steel-cut oats and simmer again until the oats are soft.  Finally, add in some corn kernels, diced avocados, lime juice and chopped cilantro.  The result?  A deeply flavorful bowl of tomato-y stew, enriched by the turkey and stock, spiced by the green chile, and thickened by the addition of the oats.  The oats serve the same purpose as barley in a beef-barley soup, but add a toasted flavor that deepens and enlivens the dish. 

I would definitely make this stew again, and am excited to try other oat recipes from Sass’s book.  If I can get my hands on some whole oat groats, her oat pilaf might be in the offing.  But wait–whole oat groats?  I wonder what kind of hot cereal that would make. . . ?

Published in: on May 7, 2007 at 8:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Sine Qua Non

Really, there isn’t anything in the world better than a roasted whole chicken.  I don’t have anything exciting and pithy to say about it, no scintillating adjectives to fling around–roast chicken is simply the best. 

Every Sunday, I tend to make enough of something to feed myself for an entire week.  I prize my evenings hours too much to spend them making a new and different lunch every night, but (though I do nearly always insist on a homemade lunch) I don’t want to eat unending tuna salad (or some analog) out of a tiny tupperware.  Thus, I make a big meal of “real” food on Sunday night, then portion it out to last me the rest of the week. 

Most Sundays I make a stew or a casserole and eat it, unaltered, for both Sunday dinner and my week’s worth of lunches.  This weekend, though, fooled by the piercingly sunny weather into believing that spring was truly, finally here, I developed a craving for a multi-colored, multi-vegetabled salad with ancillary protein of some kind.  After cataloging the contents of my produce drawer (too many carrots! an enormous cucumber! some of those utterly cool Easter egg radishes!), I decided that chicken would be the best match.  My inner glutton immediately siezed upon the idea and hissed “Roast chicken for dinner.”

Tearing myself from my shaded spot on the back patio, I reconnoitered the grocery store and returned with two three-pound frying chickens.  Note: I said frying chickens.  I far prefer to roast two smaller birds than one large ‘roasting’ chicken, with its oversized breast (which always overcooks) and undersized everything-else.  Two small chickens cook in less time than one large one, and give the cook a much greater proportion of thighs, drumsticks, oysters and crispy skin.

My mother has roasted large chickens (or, more often, at least in my memory, capons) for my entire life, but the first time I ever made one myself I was living alone, almost one thousand miles away.  I scrounged around online, and almost immediately found a recipe by Julia Child for ‘Perfect’ Roast Chicken that called for a three to three and a half pound bird.  Accordingly, I went out and bought just such a one, and as instructed, roasted it for 15 minutes at 425, then turned it down to 350 for one hour.  

I was thrilled with the result–bronzed, shatteringly crisp skin, breast meat that was moist and thigh meat that was completely cooked through.  Faced with such a triumph in spite of my inexperience, I have almost never deviated from this roasting method, and when I do, I am inevitably disappointed: the breast meat dries out, the juices run bloody, the skin stays limp and palid. 

It is a fact, though, that every meat-eating cook I know is almost evangelical about their own personal chicken-roasting method.  My mother, for instance, does not cotton to the short blast of 425-degree heat at the beginning of roasting, saying that it makes the fat spatter all over the inside of her oven.  She prefers to roast her (usually larger) chickens at 350 for the entirety of their sojourn; she gets good results, but I cannot replicate them.

For these specific chickens, I did nothing unusual.  I plunked them in a cooking-sprayed jelly roll pan, deployed my crisp-skin insurance policy (that is, I scrunched my fingers under the skin on the breasts and thighs, separating it from the flesh and letting a little air inside), sprinkled it with salt and various dried citrus peels, and put it in the oven.  I spent fifteen minutes preparing the side dish for dinner that night, turned down the oven, and returned to the back patio and my book.

Teacherman got back from Cleveland just as I took the pan out of the oven and was torn between attacking it as it stood, or taking a quick shower while it cooled slightly.  He opted for the shower, poor thing.  By the time he got out, only five minutes later, the chickens were entirely denuded of skin.  I have no defense against the charge of eating two chickens-worth of skin.  Luckily, he loves me anyway.

Published in: on April 23, 2007 at 7:19 pm  Leave a Comment