Articles in Chicken w/recipe

The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt

When skies turn dark and temperatures plunge, out come the short lists of dishes to warm body and soul. To those lists should be added an easy-to-make hot, savory, deliciously satisfying Moroccan-style chicken tagine.

Making a tagine sounds exotic, but at its heart, the dish is a one-pot braise, a technique as basic to an American kitchen as beef stew.

Traveling with half a dozen food writers on a hosted trip to Morocco, at the trekking hotel, Kasbah du Toubkal, we were given a cooking demonstration by Hajjah Rkia ben Houari (“Hajjah” is an  honorific given to a woman who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca) and her assistant Fatima. In her kitchen with a view of the High Atlas Mountains, she showed us how to make classic Moroccan dishes: chicken tagine, preserved lemons and lamb couscous. She started the lesson by reminding us that having quality, fresh ingredients is essential.

The chickens, lamb, fresh vegetables and herbs came from the nearby open-air market in the Berber village of Asni. The spices were from vendors, much like the ones we saw in the Marrakesh and Fez souks with their finely ground spices organized in mounds next to bushels filled to overflowing with olives, dates, dried fruit, dried beans and herbs.

Home cooking in the High Atlas Mountains

In the pantry between Hajjah Rkia’s kitchen and the laundry room, sitting on short stools around a low table, we felt a bit like nursery school kids on a field trip. With our knees bumping against the table, we were her prep chefs. She assigned tasks — peeling onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes — and the translator explained how we would cook the dish according to our host’s Berber traditions.

At the end of the cooking demonstration, Hajjah Rkia’s son made Moroccan-style mint tea, which meant the teapot was held high in the air as a hot stream of black tea flavored with fresh mint was poured into small glass cups. He explained the long stream aerated the tea and gave it added flavor qualities. Without the benefit of a test kitchen, we couldn’t validate that opinion, but we loved the spectacle and the tea was delicious.

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On a highway stop between Fez and Marrakech, Morocco, a take-out cafe serving different tagines. Credit: David Latt

Just before we sat down for dinner, Fatima cooked flat bread on an outdoor clay stove fueled by wood and charcoal. Charred on the outside, the bread was chewy on the inside. To stimulate our appetites, Fatima’s handmade bread arrived at the table warm from the fire with a plate of fresh feta cheese and a bowl of spicy Moroccan olives. Then the table was set with large platters of the dishes made during the cooking demonstration. What a feast.

Translating Moroccan classics in an American kitchen

Back in my own kitchen, facing an inclement day when friends were coming over for dinner, I remembered that wonderful meal at Hajjah Rkia’s. The chicken tagine appealed to me as the perfect way to beat back the cold. I adapted the recipe to my own palate and the realities of a Southern California kitchen.

In Morocco the pot used to prepare a tagine is a shallow pan with a distinctive conical top. Lacking a tagine, I find the qualities of the dish can be approximated using a covered pot that has a vented lid to promote the thickening of the sauce through evaporation. I use an inexpensive Chinese clay pot, which works well.

Before using a clay or ceramic pot, always check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some pots should be soaked in cold water before using. For some pots, a diffuser must be placed between the pot and the heat source to prevent cracking.

Chicken With Preserved Lemons, Cracked Olives and Golden Raisins

Preserved lemons give the dish a bright, citrus finish. Easy to make at home, preserved lemons will keep refrigerated for months. The lemons can be used after one week, although the longer they have been preserved, the more they will have their distinctive “perfume” flavor.

As a side dish, Moroccan pickled vegetables provide a tangy complement to the savory tagine. The pickles are fun to make and, like the lemons, will keep refrigerated for months.

This recipe calls for cracked olives, which are olives that have been “cracked” sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine to create a deep cut in one side of the olive reaching to the pit. That allows the brine to reach deep into the olive. In cracked olives, the pits are mostly separated from the “meat” because of the cracking. The advantage of cracked olives in a braised dish is the sauce soaks deeply into the olives and the saltiness of the olive passes into the sauce so the effect is different from using regular olives.

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, washed

¼ cup kosher salt

¼ cup golden raisins

1 tablespoon ground black pepper, divided

3 tablespoons lemon juice

4 garlic cloves, peeled

⅓ bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium red or yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped

1 teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon of powdered saffron (optional)

⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)

2 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)

1 preserved lemon, rinsed, white pith removed, finely chopped

1 cup cracked green olives

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)

Directions

1. Place the whole chicken in a large container, cover with water. Add the kosher salt. Refrigerate overnight.

2. Place the golden raisins, ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper and lemon juice into a covered container. Allow the raisins to absorb the juice for at least one hour or overnight.

3. Before cooking, rinse the chicken and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, remove the breast meat, legs, thighs and wings from the carcass. Cut apart the wings at the joints. Debone the thighs and legs, taking off the skin.

4. Place the carcass, skin and wing tips into a large pot, cover with water and simmer 60 minutes. Strain the bones. Reserve the stock. The meat on the bones can be picked off and used in a salad or a soup. Refrigerate the chicken stock. When cooled, remove the fat and discard.

5. Finely chop the garlic and cilantro.

6. Cut each chicken breast into four, equal sized pieces. Cut the deboned thighs into four and the legs into two pieces.

7. Over a medium flame, heat the olive oil in a tagine or pot. Add the onions, ground ginger, saffron (optional), garlic and cilantro. For additional heat, dust with cayenne powder (optional). Stir well and cook for two to three minutes.

8. Sauté the wings, thighs and legs in the seasoned oil until lightly browned. Do not add the chicken breasts, which require less cooking time.

9. Finely chop the raisins, which have now absorbed the pepper-flavored lemon juice.

10. Add raisins, remaining black pepper-lemon juice and chicken stock. Stir well to create the sauce. Cover and gently simmer 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken meat is tender.

11. Add chicken breast pieces, cracked green olives and finely chopped preserved lemon peel.

12. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt or ground pepper. Serve hot with steamed rice as a side dish.

Variations

  • Do not debone the breast, thigh and legs. Traditionally, the chicken is quartered and the wings are kept whole.
  • Along with the onions, add other vegetables of your choice such as leeks, peeled potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and turnips, cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • For added sweetness, dissolve 1 tablespoon honey in the chicken stock.
  • Before adding the vegetables, lightly drizzle them with olive oil and roast for 15 minutes in a 350 degree F oven on a parchment-paper-lined baking tray.
  • Serve with steamed spinach instead of rice.
  • Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes instead of rice.

Top photo: The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt

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The first bite of a homemade pot pie is always the most satisfying. Credit: Susan Lutz

As far as I’m concerned, the best part of holiday meals is the leftovers and the ultimate repurposing of a holiday bird is to make it the star ingredient in a homemade turkey pot pie.

Thanksgiving and Christmas bring a frenzy of foods, all consumed in too large a quantity to be able to savor individually. Of course, there’s something wonderful about this particular form of gluttony. But in the days following a holiday meal I revel in the leftovers, when each dish can be enjoyed on its own, and on its own terms.

In the days after Thanksgiving, I eat cornbread-sausage stuffing for breakfast. I eat pecan-topped sweet potatoes for lunch. But the greatest form of leftover is turkey. While it’s on the holiday table fresh from the oven, turkey actually doesn’t do much for me. I find turkey covered in gravy somewhat dull. Cranberry sauce doesn’t help all that much. Yet I hatch plans to horde leftover turkey, often eating very little turkey during the meal, and noticing with careful detail how much is left on the bird’s carcass. Because after the holiday is over, I intend to transform my least favorite holiday dish into my all-time favorite post holiday meal: pot pies.

My love of pot pie goes back to my childhood. I loved watching my Grandma Willie roll the pie dough for the pot pies she made each winter. In my grandmother’s day, pot pies were what she called “work-a-day food” — a one-dish meal made for men working in the fields. This simple farm food, passed down from my grandmother to my mother and now to me, has become a staple in our house; one that comforts city folk just as well as it did my farmer ancestors.

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Cutting pie dough to form the crust of the pot pie. Credit: Susan Lutz

The beauty of pot pies is that once you’ve assembled them, they make the best convenience food you’ll ever eat. This was the reason they were created for hungry farmers, and the reason they became an early staple of industrial frozen dinners. But those glutinous grey masses in a doughy shell, with only occasional glimpses of a pea or a perfect cube of turkey flesh, are a far cry from the creamy, rich, vegetable-packed delicacies that came from Grandma Willie’s kitchen. Pot pies can be made in any size, but in our house, we make single-serving pot pies in individual tart pans and store them in the freezer.

I didn’t make pot pies much during the 20 years I lived in Los Angeles. The warm climate doesn’t call out for hearty rib-sticking food. But now that I live in a place with cold winters and the first snowflakes have already fallen, the season for pot pies has arrived. On days when the weather is too wet and cold, when my daughters are spent and cranky, and I’m too exhausted to try to fling some sort of meal together, I can take these leftover remnants of holiday turkey out of the freezer and quickly serve a post-holiday meal, compliments of Grandma Willie.

Grandma Willie’s Pot Pies (with Turkey or Chicken)

Adapted by Linda Lutz, daughter of Willie Phillips and heir to the pot pie legacy.

This recipe makes two 9-inch pot pies or 9 individual pot pies using 4- or 5-inch pie or tart pans. Pot pies can be frozen unbaked. They are best defrosted overnight in the refrigerator before baking.

Ingredients

2½ cups chicken stock, divided (1 cup for cooking vegetables, 1½ cups for gravy)

½ cup chopped onion

½ chopped carrots

2 cups cubed potatoes

1 cup frozen peas

6 tablespoons butter or margarine

6 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup milk (Milk with 2% fat will work. Whole milk is even better.)

Salt and pepper to taste

2 cups cooked turkey or chicken in small dice

Your favorite pie dough recipe (enough for two 9-inch crusts)

Directions

1. Place 1 cup of the chicken stock in a saucepan and heat until simmering.

2. Add the chopped onion and chopped carrots and cook for five minutes.

3. Add the cubed potatoes and continue cooking for 10 minutes.

4. Add the frozen peas and cook until all vegetables are tender.

5. While vegetables finish cooking, begin gravy by melting 6 tablespoons of butter or margarine in a medium skillet.

6. Add 6 tablespoons flour and cook over medium heat for one minute, stirring constantly.

7. Add the remaining 1½ cups of the chicken stock and 1 cup milk and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes.

8. Add salt and pepper to taste.

9. Pour gravy in a large bowl and add the diced turkey or chicken. Stir to combine.

10. Drain vegetables and add to gravy and meat mixture. Stir gently.

11. Spoon mixture into pie tins and top with a round of pie dough cut ½ inch larger than the diameter of the top of the pie tin, pressing gently to remove any air pockets between the filling and the pie dough.

12. Press dough into the crevice between the outer edge of the filling and the side of the pie tin. The excess dough should stick straight up into the air. Once you’ve removed any air pockets between the filling and pie dough, fold the excess dough flat onto the flat lip of the pie plate to get a good seal.

13. Place pot pies on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil.

14. Bake at 400 F for 20 to 25 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. If after 25 minutes the crust isn’t brown enough, turn up heat to 425 F and watch carefully until crust reached desired color.

15. Let cool for a few minutes before eating. In our house, we often dump them upside down on a plate to cool. It’s not the most elegant way to serve a pot pie, but it is the most efficient cooling method.

Top photo: The first bite of a homemade pot pie is always the most satisfying. Credit: Susan Lutz

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Carole Murko's grandmother and Bronx shopkeepers on a Saturday morning in the 1940s. Credit: Courtesy of the Murko family.

I am a home cook from a food-obsessed family. Everything that happened centered on food. After all, I grew up in a three-generation household with my Italian-American grandparents as well as my parents. My household wasn’t unique in a food culture sense. But while many of the foods and recipes are similar to those from other families, the stories are what bring the food to life. The best way to delve into Italian-American cuisine and stories is through a typical family meal. And that starts with shopping for the ingredients.

My mom, Josephine Lanzetta Murko, was born on an apple farm in Claverack, N.Y., during the Great Depression and only lived there for a few years. She recounts that my grandfather could not sell an apple for a nickel and had to move the family back to the Bronx. At that time, the Bronx was still quite rural and people lived in a tight-knit neighborhood with everything within walking distance.

Saturdays in my mother’s young life were spent shopping for food with her mom, my nana. The journey, as my mom recalls, was a stroll down the “avenue.” Mom and Nana first visited Mrs. Green’s coffee shop. Mrs. Green would make custom blends for all her customers. My grandmother liked a light blend for her stove-top percolator. The aromas were so keen, and my mom recounts that whenever confronted with the smell of fresh coffee today it still triggers the memory of Mrs. Green’s coffee shop and the Saturday market treks with her mom.

The next stop was the butcher shop where customers stood two-deep and where my mom watched in fascination the knife work and dexterity of the butchers. This was what she wanted to be, a butcher, she thought, and as a little girl she wrote a paper about it. My mom has amazing knife skills, and it’s probably in her blood as my grandfather owned a butcher shop in the Bronx before his foray as an apple farmer.

A butcher shop back then was a different place. Sawdust was on the floor to absorb the meat and blood drippings while the butchers worked their magic. Once up to the counter, my mom would watch the butcher cube and then grind the beef, veal and pork they would then use to make meatballs. Nothing was prepackaged in those days, and the meats were from local animals.

Then on to the produce store where only local, in-season fruits and vegetables were sold. My mom said it was like a photo; she was in awe of the abundance of all the brightly colored fruits and vegetables. She notes that she had never had a strawberry out-of-season and that the fruit was not shiny. Their next stop was the cheese shop where they bought fresh ricotta and mozzarella and other cheeses. Imagine next stepping into a shop entirely dedicated to butter. Butter of all kinds was sold from large barrels by the pound, which sounds heavenly to me.

Saturday markets full of ingredients for soup

The bread store was perhaps my mom’s favorite. The smell alone made her feel warm and cozy and hungry. When she became old enough to shop without my grandmother, Nana would give my mom an extra four cents to buy the fresh-out-of-the-oven warm loaf, which she would then nibble on or devour all the way home. My grandmother knew this was a special treat for my mom, and to this day, warm bread and butter is one of her absolute favorite things. It’s one of mine.

Last but not least, on the shopping extravaganza was the poultry shop. Saturday was soup day. One Saturday when my grandmother wasn’t feeling well, she sent my mom and her sister, my aunt Margie, to get the chicken. They were still little girls. They selected the live chicken and waited patiently for it to be killed and packaged to bring home. While walking home, the bag started to jump.

They so wanted to drop the bag but being the obedient kids that they were, ran as fast as their little legs could go all the way home, imagining as only little girls could, what kind of spooks were in that bag. When they delivered the jumping chicken bag to Nana in a whirlwind of excitement, panic and fear, Nana giggled and told them, “Sweet girls there are no spirits in the bag it’s rigor mortis setting in.”

While my mom clearly describes the rich palette of textures and smells of the Saturday markets of her youth, she also revels about the joys of being connected to her neighbors and friends. She said they were having a great time because all the neighbors, relatives and friends were out on Saturday. This ritual was not a chore, it was an exciting day. It was the social fabric of creating the family meal. I have even heard stories of recipes being shared at the butcher counter. One Jewish lady I know learned how to make killer Italian meatballs from the Italian ladies at the butcher shop.

So, while we seem far removed from the 1940s Saturday shopping trek, I implore you to think about this question:  Is not the farmers market in your neighborhood or community a social hub of sorts?

Modern society has changed the way we shop for food and interact at the grocery store, often with blinders on as we roll our carts down the aisles. But at the farmers market you make eye contact, chat with the farmers and purveyors and smile and chat with your fellow shoppers.  I think we have found the “avenue” of my mom’s youth.

Italian Chicken Soup

I have learned that just about every cuisine has a version of chicken soup and even within a cuisine, there are many variations.  It’s what I call  similar but different.

Ingredients

One chicken cut up into parts and cleaned (this would include chicken feet in the old days)

Enough water to amply cover the chicken

2 to 3 onions, chopped

Bunch of carrots, chopped

4 to 5 parsnips, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced

Parsley, minced

Optional: Noodles, escarole, eggs. Sometimes, we added a little tomato paste, or tomatoes, the butt of the Pecorino Romano cheese

Directions

1. Boil the chicken for about 20 to 30 minutes.  Skim off the scum.

2. Add the vegetables, including the parsley and garlic. Add salt and pepper. Simmer for about 3 hours.

3. Remove chicken from broth.  You can either remove chicken from bones and put back into soup or eat separately.

4.  At this point, you can use the optional ingredients.

If using, add noodles that were boiled separately (thin or medium; your preference.)

Add escarole (cut, steam separately and drain). Mix 2 eggs, ¼ cup of Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper then add to broth.

Top photo: Carole Murko’s grandmother and Bronx shopkeepers on a Saturday morning in the 1940s. Credit: Courtesy of the Murko family

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Cucumbers. Credit: Picturepartners/istock

We gladly eat the flesh of squashes and melons, and we also eat their seeds, often toasted. But although cucumbers are in the same family, we always eat them whole, seeds and all. What’s up with that?

In the Near East, cooks sometimes hollow out cukes and cook them as dolmas. That makes them more versatile, but it also leaves you with a slippery pile of cucumber seeds.

In the middle ages, they knew what to do with cucumber seeds: Make them into a cucumber seed salad and serve a roasted bird on it. It’s kind of a California cuisine idea from 1,400 years ago. In the 10th-century cookbook “Kitâb al-Tabîkh,” this dish is called bârida tayyiba Kisrâwiyya, meaning a cold dish of the Persian king Chosroes I, who died in 579.

It’s a nice effect. The charm of cucumber seeds is slipperiness. In their humble vegetable way, they have the same quality that makes orzo pasta more luscious than rice.

The modern luxury of limes

The original recipe for cucumber seed salad calls for sour grape juice, which is available in Middle Eastern markets under the names ab ghoureh or hisrim. As a Californian, I say this was probably because they just didn’t have limes. Lime juice has a more pleasant acidity and is much more fragrant. On the other hand, I use mild olive oil for this recipe, which is what they would have had in 6th-century Iran, but sour grape juice or even vinegar would go better with a virgin or extra virgin olive oil.

Pick the fattest cucumbers you can find because they tend to have more seeds. Peel them (so you can use the flesh in some other salad), cut them in half lengthwise and scrape the seeds out with a spoon. Chop up the seeds (more exactly, separate them, because they’re loosely connected with stringy stuff) and drain them a little before using.

Preparing the chicken

The chicken part of the recipe poses problems for our time. You’re supposed to use three pullets, which are very young chickens that are all but impossible to obtain today. I just use supermarket-sized chicken. And you’re supposed to cook the chicken in a tandoor, which is out of the question for most of us, so grilling is in order.

The recipe doesn’t mention anything in particular about the chicken, but I like to marinate chicken in onion juice. Chop an onion coarsely, purée it in a food processor for 1 minute and strain the juice from the solids. Open the kitchen windows first. Marinating in this for half an hour produces a nice mild effect, though less noticeable on the breasts than on the wings or legs.

The recipe recommends garnishing the salad with slices of snake melon, which is a non-sweet melon that looks like a long, twisty cucumber with longitudinal ridges. In this country it’s sometimes sold as Armenian cucumber or ghoota. Do that for authenticity’s sake if you wish, I guess.

Chicken on cucumber seed salad. It goes to show you, that what’s old eventually becomes nouvelle.

Cucumber Seed Salad

Serves 2

Ingredients

4 large salad cucumbers

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, stripped from the stems

4 tablespoons lime juice (about two medium limes)

6 to 8 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil

14 to 16 fresh basil leaves

2 chicken legs and 2 thighs, separated or together, grilled until done

Directions

1. Cut the cucumbers in half and scrape out the seeds. Mix them with the thyme leaves. Mix the lime juice and oil and toss the cucumber seeds, reserving 1 tablespoon of the dressing.

2. Divide the salad into 2 serving dishes, arrange the chicken pieces on top and surround with the basil leaves. Spoon the reserved dressing on the chicken pieces.

Top photo: Cucumbers. Credit: Picturepartners/istock

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Hakka chicken, the bird with its seasonings before cooking. Credit: Carolyn Phillips

One of the most classic dishes in the Hakka repertoire, salt-baked chicken is also incredibly delicious. Rarely available anywhere outside of the homes of good Hakka cooks (read: grandmas), this is a dish to master and enjoy.

Like so many other recipes from this ethnic group in South China’s hill country, it is both clever and startlingly flavorful. But despite the fact that the bird is packed solidly in a thick layer of rock salt as it cooks, it doesn’t get unbearably salty because the salt doesn’t penetrate the wrapping. Instead, a tight cocoon of lotus leaf and parchment paper seals in all of the juices, so you are left with what can only be described as the essence of chicken. As you unwrap layer after layer, tendrils of steam curl out, greeting you with the scent of nothing less than a perfect roast bird dusted with a few aromatics and the haunting aroma of lotus.

Some Hakka or Cantonese restaurants in the U.S. offer salt-baked chicken on the menu, but I have yet to be served an authentic salt-baked chicken outside of Hakka homes because it calls for a modicum of work and most people are satisfied with the “white-cut” chicken (the Chinese name for poached chicken) that is usually served instead.

Truth be told, there is little reason why restaurants should be so lazy about this dish because it really isn’t that difficult. Yes, it does require lots of rock salt, but that can be used over and over and over. Yes, the chicken needs to be wrapped, but that is pretty much the extent of the labor required. And yes, it does mean that a great-quality bird is called for, but charge a little more, I say, and let diners order the dish ahead of time.

Or, you can just give up on ever finding a properly made salt-baked chicken and make it at home.

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The finished product: Unwrapped, the chicken is juicy and delectable.Credit: Carolyn Phillips

Long ago, this dish was served by wealthy Hakka salt merchants, whose cooks would actually bury the chickens in hot salt without any wrappers, rinse them off before serving, and offer a sauce on the side for dipping. About 200 years ago, someone came up with the idea of shrouding the bird in layers of paper to keep the salt out and the juices in.

Genius.

Hakka Salt-Baked Chicken

Yánjú jī  鹽焗雞

Serves 4 to 6

 Ingredients

For the chicken:

6 pounds coarse salt (ice cream salt is perfect)

1 smallish chicken (no larger than 4½ pounds)

For the dry rub:

1 teaspoon dry-fried salt and pepper (see recipe below)

½ teaspoon five-spice powder

½ teaspoon ground sand ginger (see Tips)

¼ cup thinly-sliced fresh ginger (unpeeled OK)

3 green onions, trimmed

1 large dried lotus leaf, soaked in hot water until pliable, optional

Spray oil

For the sauce (optional):

¼ cup rendered lard

1 teaspoon dry-fried salt and pepper

½ teaspoon ground sand ginger

Directions

1. Before you start prepping the chicken, place the coarse salt in a rimmed baking tray and heat it in a 550 F oven (or as high as it will go); it should be red hot by the time you are ready to use it.

2. Clean the chicken thoroughly, rinsing it out under cool tap water and wiping it dry (inside and out) with paper towels. If you are using the giblets, rinse and pat them dry. Cut 2-inch-long incisions under each wing and then poke the outer two segments of the wings into the body so that the wing drumsticks lie flush against the body and protect them from burning. Place the chicken breast-side up on a work surface and press down firmly on the breast to flatten it so that the chicken is as compact as possible. Mix the salt and pepper, five spice powder and sand ginger together in a small bowl. Sprinkle half into the chicken carcass and rub it around; add the optional giblets to the chicken and then tie the ends of the legs together with butcher twine. Rub the outside of the chicken with the rest of the spices too.

3. Prepare a 30-inch wide sheet of parchment paper, spray it with oil and also have two 30-inch-wide sheets of foil ready. First, dry the lotus leaf, if using, and wrap the chicken in it. Then turn it upside-down on the oiled parchment paper and wrap the chicken up tightly. Turn this again right-side up and wrap it in a sheet of foil — sealing the edges as much as possible — before turning upside-down on the last sheet of foil and again sealing the edges to keep all of the juices in and the salt out.

4. Select a large sandpot or covered casserole that easily holds the chicken with room to spare for the salt. Place a trivet in the bottom of the sandpot and very carefully pour about a quarter of the very hot salt into the bottom. Arrange the wrapped chicken in the center (breast-side up) and very carefully cover it completely with the remaining hot salt. Cover the sandpot and place the pot on the stove; the heat under it should be between low and medium-low so that the salt stays hot and the chicken slowly bakes. Cook the chicken for 90 minutes this way, remove the pot from the burner and let it cool down until you can touch the pot and bird without being burned. When you open the pot up, pour off at least half of the salt and then lift out the chicken to a rimmed plate. Unwrap the chicken layer by layer, discarding any salt that is sticking to the wrappings. When you get to the parchment paper, carefully dust off any salt before opening up the lotus leaf; there will be lots of juices in there, so be sure and keep them all in the plate. Check the chicken’s doneness by piercing the thickest part of the thigh with a chopstick; the juices should run very clear. (Any meat that is still stubbornly pink can be cooked quickly in the last step with the sauce.)

5. To make the optional sauce, melt the lard in a wok and add the salt-and-pepper and the sand ginger. Drizzle in any juices from the chicken and bring the sauce to a boil. The traditional way to serve this chicken is to cut off and hand-shred the meat and skin; if you like to chew on the bones, pile them in the center of your serving plate so that they won’t be seen. Toss the meat and skin with the hot sauce until every piece is coated, and then arrange these on the serving plate. Serve hot or very warm with steamed rice and a simple vegetable dish or maybe a soup.

Dry-fried salt and pepper: Coarsely grind about 2 tablespoons of black pepper and place it in a dry wok (this means no oil). Add about 2 tablespoons coarse sea salt. Mix these together over medium heat, tossing often, until the pepper starts to smoke a bit and the salt is gray. Scoop it out into a bowl, cool to room temperature, and store in a covered jar. This can be used as a simple dip for things like fried chicken or sprinkled on popcorn or any other place where a bit of salt and spice would make life better.

Tips

  • Sand ginger is a member of the ginger family; its English name is a direct translation of the Chinese name, shājiāng 沙薑. Rarely sold fresh, the sliced dried roots are often available in Chinese grocery stores in the spice aisle or in Chinese herbal medicine shops.
  • Lotus leaves are also sold dried here in Chinese grocery stores; the leaf here is my own addition, as it adds nice flavor to the chicken, but can be left out for traditionalists and those who don’t have a Chinese market nearby.

Top photo: The bird, with its seasonings for Hakka chicken. Credit: Carolyn Phillips

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Surf and turf with penne pasta with caramelized chicken livers and anchovies. Credit: David Latt

In many Italian, Spanish and French dishes, anchovy filets supply a deeply nuanced umami that turns the ordinary into the passionately delicious. Italian puttanesca, Tuscan chicken liver paté and French tapenade are but a few examples that come to mind. Without anchovies they are good. With anchovies they are delicious. Combine skinless anchovy filets with caramelized chicken livers, toss with pasta and dust with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and surf dances with turf in the most beautiful way.

Pasta is wonderful. Pasta is infinitely variable. Pasta can be complex or simple. For many cooks, the best pasta dish is one that allows the ingredients to shine through with a minimum of sauce. Toss penne with fresh English peas, a bit of oil and garlic, a dusting of cayenne and a fresh grating of Romano and all that is necessary to complete the meal is a crisp Fumè Blanc, a farm-fresh green salad and a dessert of fresh fruit with a nice selection of cheeses.

Chicken livers and anchovies are as different as can be. When cooked properly with a charred exterior and an interior still moist and pink, chicken livers are creamy and earthy with a hint of sweetness.

Anchovies on the other hand have a sharper impact on the palate — salty, raspy and tangy. Combined, they bring out the best in one another.

As with any simple recipe, this dish is only as good as the quality of the ingredients. Whenever possible, buy organic chicken livers to avoid the chemicals and antibiotics that can accumulate in birds that are raised in industrial coops. Skinless anchovies packed in olive oil are not overly salty. Because the fish are caught all over the world, experimenting with different brands will lead you to the one you like the best.

Spanish and Italian anchovies are especially good, whether packed in glass jars or in tins. The price can vary from an affordable $2 a tin to well over $15 for a glass jar of the same weight.

Pasta with Chicken Livers and Anchovies

Before using chicken livers, wash and pat dry. Using a sharp paring knife, cut away any fat, sinews or veins and discard. Separate the two lobes. Cut each lobe in half, making bite-sized pieces to facilitate even cooking of the livers.

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 tablespoon kosher salt

¾ to 1 pound pasta (penne, ziti, spaghetti or angel hair)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small yellow onion, washed, stemmed and skin removed, roughly chopped

2 garlic cloves, skins removed, finely chopped

¼ cup finely chopped Italian parsley, leaves only, washed

4 to 8 anchovy filets (the number depends on how much you enjoy anchovies)

1 pound chicken livers, washed, lobes separated, each lobe cut in half

¼ cup finely chopped Italian parsley, leaves only, washed

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

¼ cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

⅛ teaspoon cayenne (optional)

1 tablespoon olives, pitted, finely chopped (optional)

¼ cup cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered (optional)

Directions

1. In a 2-gallon pot, fill with water to within 3 inches of the top. Add kosher salt and bring to a boil. Put in pasta and stir well. Allow to boil 10 minutes, stirring every 3 to 4 minutes.

2. Taste and when al dente, place a small heat-proof cup in the sink next to a colander and drain the pasta, capturing 1 cup of pasta water in the process. Return the pasta to the warm pot and set aside.

3. In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil. Sauté onions, garlic and Italian parsley until lightly browned. Using a fork, add the anchovies, dragging them along the bottom so they break apart. Stir well with the aromatics.

4. Add the chicken livers to the pan, using a large spoon to move them around the pan so they lightly brown all over. Be careful not to overcook and dry out the livers.

5. At this point you have some options. You can season with cayenne for heat, add chopped olives for another layer of flavor, stir in quartered cherry tomatoes to contribute liquid and a bit of acid to the sauce and sweet butter for creaminess.

6. Or keep it simple and do one, some or none of the above. In any case, add ¼ cup of pasta water to the frying pan and stir well.

7. Just before serving, add cooked pasta to the frying pan over a medium flame and toss well until heated. Top with freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese and serve.

Top photo: Penne pasta with anchovies and chicken livers. Credit: David Latt

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Almond boneless chicken. Credit: Tina Caputo

It’s been more than 20 years since I moved from a suburb on the east side of Detroit to San Francisco, and there are a few things I miss about my childhood home. When I say “a few” I mean three: my family, warm summer nights and almond boneless chicken.

If you don’t live in Michigan, you’ve probably never heard of the dish we call ABC — at least not the version served in nearly every Chinese restaurant from Detroit to Petoskey. The dish consists of a battered and deep fried chicken breast cut into thick slices, laid on a bed of iceberg lettuce and topped with mild brown gravy, toasted almonds and a sprinkling of green onions.

My first apartment in San Francisco was a 10-minute walk to Chinatown, but, to my great disappointment, my beloved ABC was nowhere to be found in the neighborhood’s Chinese restaurants and take-out joints.

“Do you have almond boneless chicken?” I asked countless restaurant servers.

“Yes, we have it.” They’d answer.

But when the dish arrived, it was always stir-fried instead of deep-fried. And where was the iceberg lettuce?

After years of disappointment, I finally came to accept that ABC was “a Michigan thing.”

But how did it get there? And why don’t we have it in California?

Tracing a dish’s history

I began searching for clues online and came across a 2010 article on the Detroit Free Press website. They’d asked readers to name the foods that define Detroit, and almond boneless chicken was the dish that came up over and over again.

Marshall Chin, owner of a Chinese fusion restaurant in the Detroit suburbs, theorized that ABC was one of the dishes that originated in the old chop suey houses in big cities where Chinese immigrants settled, including San Francisco.

Another Detroit-area restaurant owner, Raymond Wong, took Chin’s idea a step further. “I know it started in the San Francisco area, but in Detroit it became so popular that all Chinese restaurants had it,” he told the Free Press.

Could it really be true that ABC started out in San Francisco? I had my doubts, so I reached out to Andrew Coe, author of the book “Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.”

Coe had never heard of ABC, or its alias War Su Gai, but my search for its history piqued his interest.

“Although their origins are in China, specifically around Toishan in Guangdong province, dishes like chop suey and chow mein developed specific regional variations as they spread through the U.S.,” he told me. “There’s a Minneapolis-style chow mein, for example, and a Rhode Island specialty called a chow mein sandwich. I have a feeling the same is true for almond chicken.”

I sent Coe a link to an ABC recipe published on a home cooks’ website, and he did some further digging. He discovered a similar recipe in one of the first Chinese cookbooks published in the United States, “The Chinese Cook Book” by Shiu Wong Chan, released in 1917. The dish was called Hung Yuen Guy Ding, and it was made from boneless chicken, almonds, water chestnuts, onions, mushrooms, celery, oil and stock — the same ingredients in ABC.

caputo-abc1

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The secret to the ABC batter is a 50-50 mixture of flour and cornstarch. Credit: Tina Caputo

“It’s a typically goopy dish that was a specialty of the early Chinese-American restaurants,” he said. “I think that’s the root of your dish, but some creative Midwestern cooks have taken that inspiration and totally transformed and Americanized it — deep-frying, iceberg lettuce, gravy.”

Similar adaptations happened in New England with chop suey, he said, which morphed into “American chop suey,” made with elbow macaroni mixed with ground beef and tomato sauce.

Now we were getting somewhere. Did Coe think ABC’s predecessor could have started out in San Francisco and then migrated to Michigan, where it was Midwesternized?

“New York was actually much more an epicenter of Chinese-American food influences than San Francisco,” he said. “During the 19th century, Californians were much more anti-Chinese — violently so — than New Yorkers and refused to eat Chinese food. The American taste for Chinese food was actually first picked up in New York’s Chinatown and then spread all over the country, including to San Francisco.”

Aha!

So now I had a good idea of where the dish originated, and how it ended up in Michigan. But I still wanted to know why ABC didn’t migrate beyond the state borders.

Chinese-American food captured in a menu collection

Further web surfing led me to a blog post about the Sweet and Sour Initiative, an ongoing project at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., which aims to tell the stories of Chinese people in America through food and restaurants. The collection includes thousands of menus from Chinese restaurants from across the country, spanning four decades. If anyone knew about the regional span of ABC, I figured, it had to be the folks behind the Sweet and Sour project.

“Although we have made an exhaustive search for regional dishes such as the one you are pursuing,” curator Cedric Yeh told me, “[ABC] hasn’t been one that we have run across. But all is not lost.”

Yeh put me in touch with John Eng-Wong, Visiting Scholar in Ethnic Studies at Brown University, who’s been working with Yeh on the Sweet and Sour Initiative. Eng-Wong was kind enough to do some research on my behalf.

“Almond boneless chicken seems to be well known and appreciated in Michigan, but it seems to have a foothold in many other places from Canada to Florida,” he said.

A search of Chinese menus posted online confirmed that ABC is, in fact, a staple in eastern Canada (just across the Detroit River) as well as Ohio. And yes, it’s even occasionally found in Florida. I guess that disqualifies the dish as being a “Michigan thing.”

But in my mind — and the minds of thousands of Michiganders — almond boneless chicken will always taste like Detroit.

A recipe for ABC

To create a truly authentic recipe for Detroit-style almond boneless chicken, I enlisted the help of my friends Susie Mui-Shonk and Sandra Lee, two Michigan ex-pats who really know their ABC. When they were growing up in the Detroit area, their families owned Chinese restaurants in Detroit and the suburb of Livonia.

Thanks to verbal instructions from their family members and a recipe-development session in Susie’s San Francisco kitchen, we succeeded in cooking up a heaping platter of Michigan-Chinese comfort food.

Almond Boneless Chicken

Serves 8

Ingredients

For the chicken:

6 chicken breast halves, butterflied

Salt and pepper to taste

Corn oil for frying, about 2 quarts

For the batter:

1 egg

1½ cups of water

¼ cup corn oil

¼ cup milk

¼ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon baking powder

1 cup corn starch

1 cup flour

For the gravy:

1½ tablespoons corn oil

1 large celery stalk, diced

⅓ cup canned sliced mushrooms, drained

⅓ cup canned bamboo shoots, drained and roughly chopped

⅓ cup canned water chestnuts, drained

3 cups chicken broth

1½ tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

¼ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

4 tablespoons corn starch, dissolved in 3 tablespoons water

For the garnish:

⅓ cup sliced  or ground almonds, toasted

4 whole green onions, thinly sliced

½ head iceberg lettuce, sliced crosswise

Prepare chicken and batter

1. To butterfly chicken breasts, place each breast on a cutting board smooth side down. Remove tender and save for another use. Turn breast over and with the edge of a knife parallel to the cutting board, slice breast in half widthwise almost to the outer edge. Keep edge intact and open breast along the fold. Breasts should be fairly uniform in thickness to promote even cooking. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together egg, water, oil and milk. Stir in baking soda, baking powder, corn starch and flour until incorporated.

Make gravy

1. Heat oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add celery and stir fry 2-3 minutes.

2. Add mushrooms, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots and stir fry 3-5 minutes.

3. Add chicken broth, soy sauce, oyster sauce, salt and sugar. Bring to a medium boil, cook about 7 minutes and stir in cornstarch-water mixture. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until sauce is thickened to gravy consistency (about 5 minutes).

4. Keep warm over very low heat.

Fry chicken

1. Heat oil in a deep fryer or wok to 350 F.

2. Dip chicken pieces in batter, letting excess batter drip off.

3. Fry breasts, one or two at a time to avoid crowding, until golden brown, 5-7 minutes.

4. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.

5. Using a chef’s knife or cleaver, cut chicken width-wise into slices about ½ inches wide.

Assemble and serve

1. Arrange lettuce on a platter and top with chicken pieces.

2. Spoon gravy on top of chicken.

3. Sprinkle with green onions and almonds.

4. Serve with steamed rice.

Top photo: Almond boneless chicken. Credit: Tina Caputo

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It is easy to disdain the recipes we find on the backs of those boxes, cans and jars that most of us have in our pantries. Such recipes are usually seen as relics of the 1950s when the can opener was presented as the cook’s best friend, a cunning shortcut to gustatory pleasure. In that era, canned condensed soups were stars of the kitchen and were cast in such leading roles as sauces for meat dishes and casseroles or, when combined, as new kinds of soups of dubious appeal.

But I have found that not all recipes found on products are bad or even quick. I remember the time when I stumbled across a lengthy recipe for a chicken and bean soup I had noticed printed on the plastic wrapping on the backs of chickens that filled a huge bin in my local supermarket. At the time I wasn’t in the mood for that dish since I just had finished off the leftovers of a large roasting chicken. But the soup recipe stuck in my mind, so that a few days later I decided to buy one of those chickens.

When I returned to the market’s chicken bin and turned over one of the birds, I saw that the recipe was for a boring salad and I realized that a new batch of chickens had arrived. Hoping to find the chicken and bean soup recipe, I began flipping over one chicken after another, growing increasingly frantic when I kept running into the salad recipe and at the same time berating myself for not having bought the right chicken in the first place.

So there I was, hunched over and burrowing within the chicken bin, quite overwrought, yet aware enough to realize that I would need a believable alibi if the store manager happened by and asked me what I was doing. “I think I lost my ring,” I would deceivingly reply.

When I finally got to the very bottom of the bin, I found one lone chicken with the soup recipe, and since I figured that the bird was past its expiration date I spent the next several minutes scribbling the recipe onto the back of an envelope, leaving the chicken behind. This recipe is now a mainstay winter dish at my house.

A perfect way to find a lost recipe

Another time I got a pleading request from a friend who had lost the recipe for a blintzes soufflé dish she had first tasted years before at a brunch I had given, and she wanted to make the dish for guests she was expecting. I had found the recipe on the back of a frozen package of blintzes, but had long since abandoned blintzes soufflé as I moved on to frittatas and stratas when I needed an egg main dish.

I no longer had the recipe, but had a good idea where I could find it. Realizing that people often submit back-of-the-box recipes to community cookbooks, I looked through my collection, found the recipe, and sent it to my grateful friend who, to this day, continues to serve that dish.

This leads me to realize that people really love certain foods that some of us scorn or at the very least think of as passé. And, in my opinion, Jell-O is one such nominee. There was the time when I was invited to a 1950s-style food event and promised to bring along a Jell-O mold. As it happened, I was away on a long weekend, leaving town on Thursday and didn’t want to make the dish so far in advance of the Sunday party.

When I arrived back home, I discovered that I had just two packages of Jell-O on my shelf, one green and the other red. Since I was short of time I decided to combine them and make the speedy version of the dish that involves ice cubes for quick jelling. When it began to jell, I whipped it up and added some sliced canned peaches, and the whole thing firmed up in time for the party.

The dish turned out to be some unprecedented shade of reddish-brown, but instead of fretting, I dubbed it “mahogany salad” and was on my way. To my utter surprise and amusement, my Jell-O mold was hugely popular and quickly devoured by the party guests.

Unchanged and still kicking: California dip

Another reminder of the sustained popularity of back-of-the-box recipes is that steadfast dip made up of dried onion soup mix and sour cream, what is sometimes called “California dip.” It is one of the few dips I enjoy, since I always like to know what I am eating, and many such concoctions now being served are filled with snippets of unrecognizable foods I find unappetizing.

I hadn’t thought about that onion soup dip for a long time, so I took the trouble to read the back of dried onion soup mixes when I was in a supermarket last week and, sure enough, the recipe was there. Though it has been around for more than half a century, “California dip” seems here to stay because people love it. And so I rest my case.

Back-of-the-Box Chicken Soup

Serves 10

For the chicken:

1 chicken (preferably a stewing hen)
1 onion quartered
1 carrot
1 rib celery
Salt and pepper

For the soup:

1 pound dried navy beans, soaked overnight and drained
1 cup coarsely chopped onion
2 celery ribs, sliced
1 large garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon oregano
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
Parsley for garnishing

Directions

  1. Place chicken and vegetables in a large stock pot and cover with water (12-14 cups).
  2. Cook for at least two hours until chicken is almost falling off the bone.
  3. Remove chicken to cool. Reserve broth for the soup.
  4. When chicken is cool, remove flesh from bones and cut into chunks.
  5. Add the beans, onion, celery, garlic, oregano, bay leaf and salt and pepper to the broth.
  6. Cook the soup for 2 hours or more until beans are tender, then add chunks of chicken. Add parsley just before serving.

Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.

Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”

She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.


Photo: Back-of-the-box chicken soup. Credit: Barbara Haber

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