Regarding the pain of others, I am ever at a loss.
I haven’t gotten any better at figuring out what to do with these masses of grim humanity that get hurled our way, without warning, without reason, without pattern. How are we to negotiate a world in which I can sit here, typing away on an expensive computer in a comfortable home stocked with food and supplies, while a few hundred miles south and east of me survival is far from certain and bodies are piling up in the street?
At the gym this week I found myself standing on the elliptical machine, my usual routine interrupted by this footage of the rawest, gnarliest grief and despair in a place that really isn’t that far away from me at all and I thought to myself AND WE ARE WORRIED ABOUT BURNING SOME CALORIES?
Paradox is the sea we all swim in. I think perhaps the trick is to be aware of our contradictory selves, to fleece out any illusions about this wild and willful world. To delight in what there is to delight in, to mourn what there is to mourn. To give our best shot to holding it all in somehow. To look at the screen, because we must.
My old neighborhood in Tucson was very close to the University and its Medical Center; a whole crew of dogs lived on our particular block, lording over dusty yards behind battered fences. Whenever an ambulance would go by, the dogs would howl. Pure, unadulterated noise. It always seemed to me an appropriate herald: here, you see, pay attention, someone’s life is changing forever.
Two of my favorite people in the whole wide world are right now in the hardest possible places: waiting for news about mother and sister, respectively. The former in a hospital ICU, the latter in Haiti. I love these human beings so much, more than I can rightly say and yet I cannot make their pain go away, I cannot fix this, I cannot do anything that will make a damn difference.
This is me, howling.
CHICKEN & DUMPLINGS
Sometimes all you can do is dish up a big pot of comfort, stand over the stove with a whisk in hand, scrape dumplings with all your heart and trust that it all adds up to something.
I’m from Memphis, so it’s practically a genetic obligation to be able to make this stuff. Started adding leeks a few years back when I saw the idea in Cook’s Country magazine—I like the flavor they add, but it’s especially nice to have a dimension of color in the stew which is traditionally all-white. While I don’t like to clutter my chicken & dumpling up with other veggies, you could easily add diced carrots to the leeks & onions and/or toss in frozen peas at the end.
Also, I’ve at times made a modified version of this recipe which is a little bit less high-maintenance and ostensibly healthier, given that it doesn’t involve rendered chicken fat. If you have chicken stock & leftover roasted chicken, you can skip steps involving browning the thighs & just add your chicken meat to the stew when you pour in the milk. Since you won’t have schmaltz for the dumplings, substitute butter.
for the broth:
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
3 leeks, white & light green parts only, cut into thick rings & then in half
1 large yellow onion, diced
3 T flour
3 T dry sherry or cooking sherry
4 ½ – 5 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
¼ cup whole or 2 % milk
2 T fresh or 2 tsp. dried tarragon
1 T fresh or 1 tsp. dried thyme
1 bay leaf
salt & pepper
for the dumplings:
1 ½ cups flour
1 T baking powder
1 tsp. salt
½ cup buttermilk
2-3 T chicken fat or butter
equipment: If you have a Dutch oven or enameled soup pot, this is the occasion to use it. If not, use something tall with a heavy bottom.
Get your chicken nice and dry with the aid of some paper towels—this step is essential or it won’t cook up properly. Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper, then heat up a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in the bottom of your pot over medium-high heat.
Brace yourself for some splattering–cook the chicken until the skin is brown & crisp on both sides, about 4-6 minutes on each side. Move the chicken to a plate to cool a bit. Pour off and reserve the delicious! chicken! fat! that has gathered at the bottom of the pot. (You’ll use some of it for the dumplings, but I urge you to save whatever’s leftover for adding flavor to soups, roasts, even pie dough).
Return the pot to medium heat & melt a big ole knob (2-3 T) of butter in the bottom. Add the leeks and onions to cook until soft, about 8 minutes. Sprinkle flour on top of the vegetables, then whisk in the sherry, thickening the broth base. Scrape the bottom of the pot to get all of the juicy bits, then stir in the chicken stock, milk, & herbs.
Remove the skin from the chicken thighs, then return them to the pot, cover it all, and let them simmer in the goodness to cook fully, 30-45 minutes.
When the chicken has cooked fully, turn off the heat and remove the thighs & the bay leaves from the pot. Using forks, carefully shred the chicken meat off of the bone & return it to the pot. Check and adjust the salt & pepper in the stew, then bring it back up to a simmer for dumpling-dropping purposes.
For the dumpling dough, combine all ingredients in a small bowl and stir until it looks like unappetizing paste. Fret not! They are going to taste de-li-ci-ous. Using two big spoons, gather up a tablespoon’s worth of dough into one spoon then scrape it into the stew with the other. You’ll get the hang of it.
Fill the top of the pot with dumplings, leaving a bit of room because they will grow. Reduce the heat on the stove to low and let the dumplings cook, turning them once, after about 10 minutes. Cook the other side of the dumplings for another 10 minutes and then serve.
Oh humble chicken, you have been much-abused. Penned-in, overfed, packaged on sterile Styrofoam and pumped full of watery broth, deboned, all-too-often rendered dry and tasteless.
It doesn’t have to be that way, of course.
Out of a whole set of reasons which are probably suited for a separate blog post, Jill and I made the decision over a year ago to stop buying conventionally raised & processed meats. I could say a lot, lot more about how and why we did this and how glad I am that we did, but for now I’ll just stick with: I’ll be damned if the chicken sure doesn’t taste a heckuva lot better. You know, like food you’d actually want to eat.
I also find it brings great satisfaction to use the bird in its entirety, from neck to wingtip. It’s what your grandma—well not my grandma, but someone’s grandma—would do. I want to be that grandma in the kitchen: thorough, efficient, capable, fearless.
So let’s reclaim the chicken in all of its juicy, satisfying glory! It’s amazing how well you can feed yourself and, if applicable, your family, with one respectfully-treated bird.
Today’s somewhat complicated post proceeds as follows:
Roast a chicken
Make chicken salad out of leftover breast meat
Make chicken stock using the carcass
Make chicken soup with the stock & any remaining chicken meat
You don’t have to go through all of these steps, of course; you can easily make the chicken salad or soup with a store-bought rotisserie chicken. But I hope at some point you will take a second look at the humble chicken, perhaps splurge on a free-range version, and spend some time in your kitchen with her, for she is so much more than the zebra-striped grilled breasts she’s so cruelly reduced to.
Okay. There are lots of fancy recommendations out there about tucking slivers of garlic under the skin or mixing up ten-ingredient spice rubs with which to coat the entire bird, and you can do all of that, I am not going to stop you.
But promise me you’ll try, at least once, the almost sinful simplicity and ease of roasting a chicken practically naked. Planning to eat it for dinner? Roast some potatoes and parsnips (drizzled in olive oil, seasoned with salt & pepper) underneath. Planning to reserve the meat for later? Roast carrots, onions, a few cloves of garlic, & celery underneath to transfer directly into a stock pan.
Take the chicken out of the refrigerator about an hour before you plan to cook it. Preheat your oven to 450°.
Using paper towels, dry the chicken extremely well, inside and out. Cover the skin liberally with salt (kosher, if possible) & pepper. You may stuff the breast with herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme, etc. and/or half of a lemon.
I like to roast my chicken this way: in the roasting pan go the potatoes and veggies. On top of those, I set a small rack (the same kind I use for cooling baked goods), and on top of that, I set the chicken. This allows for more even cooking than if the chicken sits directly on top of the vegetables.
You can truss the chicken, as you see I did here, but honestly I’ve roasted without and just don’t think it’s necessary. Roast the chicken, breast side up, for 45 minutes to an hour, depending upon the size of your bird.
Make sure you let the bird rest for 10-15 minutes before cutting into it. Divide the bird into breasts, legs, & wings, but watch out for eager kitchen visitors trying to snatch bites from over your shoulder (ahem, cough, Jill, cough cough).
CURRY CHICKEN SALAD
My version of the classic. You’ll see I like my chicken salad chunky, but feel free to chop everything into smaller pieces if you prefer. Tastes even better the next day.
2 cups cooked chicken breast meat, chopped
1 apple, peeled, cored, & small-diced (I used a McIntosh)
1 rib celery, small-diced
½ cup pecans, toasted & chopped
¼ cup red onion, small-diced
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup Dijon mustard
1 tsp. curry powder
splash of white wine vinegar or lemon juice
salt & pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients. Serve on toasted bread or, if you must, lettuce.
HOMEMADE CHICKEN STOCK
Just as with roasting a chicken, there’s no one way to make chicken stock. If you do make it at home, though, I swear on my Kitchen Aid mixer that it will be about 8 million times better than the stuff you can buy at the store.
Time is your friend when making chicken stock, so you can’t be in a rush. I find that a minimum of 3-4 hours are required for a concentrated, brightly-hued batch.
3 ribs celery
2-3 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
splash of vinegar
salt & pepper
optional: white wine
If you roast the vegetables with the chicken, you can cut everything into big pieces and transfer them directly to a large pot along with the chicken carcass when you’re ready to make stock. Deglaze the roasting pan with white wine and then add that liquid to the pot as well.
If you’re making stock separately, dice the veggies and sweat them out in the stock pot first, with a little olive oil. Once they’re translucent, add the chicken carcass and enough water to cover the whole mess. Throw in the seasonings and a splash vinegar (said to help draw flavor out of the bones).
Bring to a boil and then simmer on low to medium heat, skimming the surface to remove any foam that appears in the first hour or so of cooking. After that, keep an eye to see how the liquid is reducing down the side of the pot. Once you can see a three-to-four-inch gap between where you started and where you are now, you’re in business. Like I said, give it at least three hours.
Allow the mixture to cool a bit before removing the carcass with tongs and then straining the liquid through a sieve. Discard vegetables and pick carcass clean of any extra meat bits.
Store the chicken stock in the refrigerator or freezer in an airtight container. The fat solids will rise to the top upon cooling; if you like, you can remove them. I don’t!
CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP
I made a noodle-less version of this soup for my friend Courtney a few weeks back, when she was feeling rather under-the-weather (see: germy students). She texted me the next day to say “I’m healed! And I’m pretty sure it was your soup that did it.” Hey, maybe becoming that grandma after all!
Credit for this recipe goes to Chef Roger Elkhouri, who taught the only cooking class I’ve ever taken. He was the head chef for my dorm in college and even though I hold him responsible for my Freshman 15 (it was bread and cakes for me, people, not beer!), he’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met and a culinary hero still.
1 yellow onion, diced
2 ribs celery, sliced thickly at a diagonal
2 carrots, peeled & sliced thickly at a diagonal
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
6 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
1 tsp. curry powder
½ tsp. nutmeg
2 cups cooked chicken, shredded
4 cups broad egg noodles, cooked
Cook the onion, celery, & carrots in the bottom of a soup pot in a little vegetable oil. Add the garlic once the vegetables have begun to soften. Once the mixture is translucent, add the stock and spices.
Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer gently at least thirty minutes. Add the chicken and egg noodles to warm through. Remove bay leaf, cinnamon stick, & cloves before serving.
Maybe you’ve already heard this, but, um, the economy is broken.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to launch into a politics and blame and shame and fiscal responsibility and healthcare reform and offshore tax shelters. I’ll leave that stuff to NPR and my mother. Suffice it to say that all of the aforementioned events have caused us here at Blue Jean Gourmet to be a little more thoughtful about what we spend and where we spend it. And as much as I admit to being a sucker for my expensive food habits (see: imported cheese, peach lambic, olives!), tinkering with the Blue Jean Kitchen budget has actually been a great boost to my culinary creativity. What is it they say? Necessity is the mother of invention?
And so, necessarily, I learned some new skills. For instance: you’ve totally got to start buying whole chickens and cutting them up yourselves. Seriously people, as my sixth graders would say. You’re going to get SO much more bang for your buck–I bought a lovely little organic, free-range whole chicken for less than ten bucks and it fed the two of us twice! Don’t be intimidated, okay? There’s this handy little guide up at MarthaStewart.com, and it will take you through step-by step. I promise, after the first time, you’ll feel like a pro. A cleverly frugal, old-school pro.
If you can afford it, buy a few chickens at once and cut them all up together, freezing what you won’t use right away. Not only is cooking whole chicken economical, it’s also gastronomical–meat always tastes better when cooked on the bone.
This chicken recipe is super-easy to make and very satisfying. It’s one of our “nice-but-not-fussy” dinner staples, especially when we’re craving something substantive but not heavy. Pairs very nicely with roasted potatoes*, which you can cook at the same time and in the same place as the chicken itself! Or, dress it up for company via wild rice and a green vegetable–say, asparagus sure is lookin’ purty these days!–and it, too, takes well to an oven-roasting. As my good friend Coco would say, aaaaand done!
OVEN-ROASTED BALSAMIC CHICKEN
for the marinade:
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
2 T. honey
2 T. Dijon or whole-grain mustard (the yellow stuff is not going to taste good here)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced (feel free to scale back if you’re not a garlic fiend like I am)
juice of one lemon
salt & pepper
to be marinated: 1 whole chicken, cut-up (you can substitute just chicken breasts or legs)
Whisk marinade ingredients together in a large Ziploc bag (saves you bowl cleanup!) Toss in the chicken pieces, seal the bag, and use your hands to distribute the marinade. Store the chicken bag in the refrigerator, being sure to lay it flat so the chicken pieces are evenly coated by the marinade. Marinate at least one hour or up to all day.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 400. Turn out the contents of the bag into a heavy-bottomed, shallow baking dish. Bake 45-55 minutes (if you are cooking boneless pieces, your cooking time will be reduced by about 10-15 minutes). Cover the pan carefully with foil if the chicken starts to brown too much. Now, some people will tell you to use a fancy meat thermometer and others will tell you to develop your cooking instincts (which you will!), but the simplest way to figure out if your chicken is done is to take the biggest piece out and cut it in the middle. You’ll know if it’s ready to come out or needs to stay back in, and this prevents you from blasting the heck out of chicken and drying it out, which is not tasty.
optional: You can make an easy pan sauce for your chicken using some chicken stock. Once you’ve removed the chicken from the pan, place it over your largest stove burner and turn the heat to low. Pour about a cup of stock into the baking pan–this is called deglazing, and it allows you to get up all of the yummy browned bits on the bottom of your baking pan. Use a spatula or wooden spoon to help you loosen the fond (nope, I’m not making that word up). Allow the sauce to thicken a bit over the stove’s heat before pouring over your plated chicken.
* ROASTED NEW POTATOES
2-3 lb. small, starchy potatoes (red, Yukon gold, new)
salt & pepper
optional: 2 T chopped fresh parsley or rosemary, OR 1 T dried parsley, rosemary, or herbs de Provence
Scrub potatoes well but don’t remove peel–dice into cubes of similar size (about 1/2 inch). Toss generously with olive oil, then sprinkle with salt & pepper (herbs, if using). Spread out on a sheet pan and bake, 20-25 minutes or until fork-tender.