Saturday, June 21, 2008

Creamed Chicken and Other Delights (with apologies to Soul Asylum)

Creamed chicken, heck, creamed anything, gets a bad rap, and that's unfortunate.
Dishes like this are not only tasty, but they're a really good way to make use of leftovers, and you can create a lot of dishes from the very simple base of "creamed something".

What you start with, besides the chicken, is a sauce, specifically, a bechamel sauce. Bechamel is the base of a bazillion sauces (it's called a "mother sauce"), and is simply milk + a roux (flour and butter). If you substitute chicken broth, you get a veloute sauce*. If you mix in cheese, you get a mornay. (You get the idea). Saute some aromatics (like diced onion, celery, and carrots), add the bechamel and chicken, and serve it over rice, and you've got creamed chicken.

If you boil some egg noodles, and then toss them with parmesan in a casserole dish, you can take that same creamed chicken, add an egg yolk or two, and then pour the mixture over the noodles. Sprinkle it with more cheese, and then bake that in an 350-375deg oven for about 25 minutes, and you've got a pretty good chicken casserole. Heck, get rid of the chicken, and substitute a can or two of tuna, and you've got tuna casserole, and all you need is maybe some bread crumbs over the top to toast. Get really crazy, and get rid of the meat altogether, and you've moved into macaroni and cheese territory.

Or, you can take that creamed chicken, add some sherry, some frozen peas (I like frozen peas), and an egg yolk, and serve it over pastry shells for chicken ala king (which you see below):

My point is that things like creamed chicken were popular once for a reason, and it's not because every person 20 or 30 years had really bad taste. It's because dishes like this are simple, they're flexible, and they fulfill our need for something homey and satisfying.

Chicken ala King: (from Fanny Farmer, filtered thru my memory)
2tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
1 - 1 1/2 cup hot chicken broth
1/2 cup cream
1 cup diced chicken
1/2 cup frozen peas
2 tbsp sherry
1 egg yolk

Melt the butter over med heat in a medium sauce pan, and stir in flour. Cook, stirring often, until toasty smelling and brown. Whisk in chicken broth, and simmer for 3-4min. Stir in cream. Beat the yolk in a small bowl, and add a small amount (1/4 c) of sauce to the yolk, stirring constantly to temper it. Add the yolk mixture back to the saucepan, stirring to incorporate. Add the chicken, the peas, and the sherry, stir to combine, and let simmer until heated thru. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve over pastry shells (or rice).

Friday, June 20, 2008

First, you start with a chicken...

I do most of the cooking in our house, and have done so ever since I met my wife, so I have a certain amount of sympathy for people who complain about not having the time to cook. I don't think it's ever impossible to find the time, but as my family has grown, I've found that my time has shrunk.
I mean, before we had kids, I had all the time in the world to cook, and I can definitely remember times when we ate pretty late, since I could afford to think about cooking things that were more involved. Even after we had kids, it wasn't really until the kids started having evening activities (gymnastics, horseback riding, the pool...) that I got cramped for time. Add in the natural pickiness of kids, which turns dinner into a crap shoot sometimes (I mean seriously, the things kids won't eat is amazing, and I could easily turn this into a boring post about kids and the mysteries of their dislikes), and I can come around to the idea of quick and easy meals.

So, that's the perfect segue to lead into the subject for this post, chicken. What I want to do is show how I try to make dinner a little easier and faster in our house, and I hope to show this by doing a chicken in 3 stages. The first stage is today, hence the title of this post.

One of the great merits of chicken is its simplicity and versatility. Off the top of my head, I think you can grill it, roast it, cut it up and bake it, fry it, and a bunch of other things. For today, since I'm trying to be fast, I decided to butterfly and grill my chicken.

1. I took the chicken below, and removed the insides:

2. Then, I cut along one side of the backbone...

3. And then down the other to remove the back bone, which goes in the same bag with the "inside stuff" for later.

4. Then I took my chef's knife, and split the breast bone to "butterfly" the chicken:

5. Since I was grilling it, I decided to rub the bird down with some achiote seasoning I got in the Hispanic section of the grocery. (That's why the bird is orange in this pic).

6. Then I went to the pool, because my youngest always wants to go to the pool.

7. After I got back from the pool, I fired up the grill, and seared the breast side over a high heat for about 4 minutes or so, just to brown the skin. Then I turned off two of the burners, moved the chicken so that it would cook indirectly, and covered the grill. 40-45 minutes later, it 's done once a thermometer registers 165deg in the breast (180 in the dark meat).

8. While that was cooking, I made some easy sides, rice and some zucchini.
For the zucchini, I cut it lengthwise into 1/4" slices (or thereabouts), and sliced some onions, and then tossed them with olive oil, salt and pepper. Then I grilled them on the grill for a couple minutes per side, and then mixed it all together, like so:

So there you go. An easy chicken recipe, plus rice and green veg, all in less than hour (roughly), and with not a whole lot of cleanup, since everything except the rice went on the grill.
And this is the remains of the day

Here are the formal recipes:

Grilled butterflied chicken:
3 1/2 - 4 lb whole chicken
achiote seasoning (or coarse salt and freshly ground pepper)

Remove the giblets and neck, and rinse the chicken inside and out under water. Pat dry with paper towels.
Butterfly the chicken by cutting along one side of the backbone, and then the other (to remove the backbone), and then using the tip of your chef's knife (or some other heavy sharp knife), split the breastbone (but do not cut all the way the through). Turn over the chicken and press down on the chicken to flatten. Rub all over with the seasoning of your choice. If using charcoal, build a fire on one side of the grill, and wait until coals are ready (white). If using gas, turn heat to high on all burners until grill is hot, and then clean grill with grill brush, and brush grill with an oily paper towel (using tongs). Sear chicken, breast side down, over hot part of grill until skin is browned. If using gas, turn off two burners, move chicken to that side, and cover grill. If using charcoal, move chicken to the side of the grill without coals, and cover the grill. Temperature should be 375-400deg. The chicken will be done when a thermometer registers 165deg in the breast, 180deg in the thigh.

1 cup white rice
2 cups water

Combine water and rice in a saucepan, and heat water to boiling. Reduce heat to lower, cover, and cook for 25 minutes. Season to taste.

Grilled Zucchini and Onions:
2-3 zucchini, sliced lengthwise into 1/8-1/4" slices
1/2 white onion, sliced into 3/8" slices
olive oil
coarse salt
freshly ground pepper

Using toothpicks (or skewers), skewer onion slices so that they stay together during grilling.
Drizzle zucchini and onions with olive oil in a bowl, and toss gently to cover. Season with salt and pepper. (It's important to be somewhat liberal with the salt, and to use coarse salt, not table salt, or the texture won't be right).
On a hot grill (over all burners on a gas grill set to high, or the hot part of a charcoal grill), lay zucchini slices and onion slices. Grill on each side for 2-4 minutes, or until a good set of grill marks is on both sides, and the zucchini is tender, and the onions are still slightly crunchy.
Remove the vegetables from the grill, and combine onion and zucchini in a bowl, after removing toothpicks from the onions. Using a knife, cut up zucchini and onions into smaller chunks.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Music Break...

Yes, another non-food, non-beer post. I'm working on a food related post that should be up in a day or two, but for now, my legions of loyal subscribers (all 2 of you) will have to be happy with this.
I've been on a music binge lately, getting a number of new albums in the last couple of weeks. It started when I got the new Arcade Fire album (Neon Bible). Ok, it was new to me. I really liked their previous album, and had enjoyed all the tracks I heard on Sirius, so I figured this was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, I'm really not digging it. I think what's turning me off is that the production completely stinks. Most of the songs sound very muddy, and it's keeping me from getting into it. I listened to it a couple of times after getting it, and then put it on the shelf. Maybe I just need to give it another listen. I dunno.

Then I got the new Raconteurs album (Consolers of the Lonely), which is a pretty darn good album. It's a little less power-poppy than their previous (which is both good and bad), and it's kind of eclectic. It's a good album, but man, I'd hate to be in a band with Jack White. I mean, he's a great musician and everything, but it seems like the Raconteurs are less of a "super group" and more of "Jack White + 3 other guys no one's heard of", and the album definitely seems to reflect his vision.

We all have guilty musical pleasures, and one of mine is metal. I love loud music in general, and sometime the only kind of music that will do is just heavy heavy metal. So, my next purchase was Mastodon's Leviathan. This is one heavy album, and it's basically a musical version of Moby Dick. While that would ordinarily sound like something to poke fun of, in this band's hands it gets carried off pretty well. It doesn't hurt that they have one kick-ass drummer. I mean, the guy just whales on the drums.

Finally, I got the new My Morning Jacket album, Evil Urges . I loved their last album (Z), and I really like this one too (give me a couple of weeks to fall in love with it). It's not quite as "jammy" as Z was, but it's still a great album. Occasionally, I will play music for the kids, and they'll just click on a song (like the time I played "Super Bon Bon" by Soul Coughin; man they loved that song). They definitely "clicked" on "Highly Suspicious", and it is one catchy, weird song. Good stuff.

Finally, I got some music a while ago from a friend of mine, and one of the albums he gave me, which I really didn't give much of a listen to, is Bright Eyes' Cassadaga. I guess the intro to the title track (which was also the first track) left me cold, because I just didn't get it at all. Fortunately, for whatever reason, I decided to give it another listen, and I'm glad I did. I don't know if I'm going to be joining the Conor Oberst fan club or anything, but it's a good album.

That's enough about music. I'm working on a post about chicken, and hopefully I'll have it done tomorrow or the next day, so stay tuned.