Articles in Chicken w/recipe
“Chicken with cheese”: The words conjure up visions of that college-student standby, the fried-chicken melt. But poulet au fromage is something quite different — something elegant and perfectly delicious.
Exemplifying the cookery of early 18th-century France, long before the famous chef Marie-Antoine Carême came along and codified haute cuisine, the recipe appears in “Nouveau Traité de la Cuisine,” Published in the 1740s by a writer who used the pen name Menon. (Note that it wasn’t until the 20th century that chefs regularly began to publish their recipes while they were still fashionable; before then, chefs typically didn’t reveal their secrets until after they’d retired. So published recipes tended to represent the cuisine of an earlier era.)
Haute cuisine standards
Anyway, poulet au fromage is a delightful dish with a family resemblance to the 19th-century haute cuisine standard veal Foyot. In both cases, meat is simmered with broth and white wine and then baked under a covering of Gruyère (or Swiss) cheese; the ingredients meld into a concoction with a savory, sophisticated flavor.
But there are differences (besides the obvious fact that veal Foyot contains veal, which is expensive and troubles some people on ethical grounds). Poulet au fromage includes a substantial amount of herbs, which was more characteristic of French food in the 18th century than it was in the 19th (and is perhaps a little more to our present-day tastes). And it does not include fried minced onions, as veal Foyot does. If you felt like discreetly sprinkling some lightly fried onions on the chicken before adding the final cheese layer, however, I would be willing to close my eyes.
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Menon’s recipe calls for a whole chicken, but the chickens of his day were younger and therefore more tender than those we can conveniently get in our supermarkets. I substitute chicken breast; to make up for the slight loss of flavor due to the absence of bones, I tend to add a bit of bottled chicken base.
Properly, the herbs should be added in the form of a bouquet wrapped in cheesecloth. But if you do that, you have to transfer everything to a saucepan, because in a frying pan the liquid will nowhere near cover the bouquet. It’s therefore more convenient to add all the herbs loose; given that are no other ingredients in the cooking liquid, they’re easy enough to strain out later.
Poulet au Fromage
Prep time: About 20 minutes
Cook time: About 1 1/2 hours
Total time: About 1 hour 50 minutes
Yield: 2 to 3 servings
2 1/2 to 3 pounds chicken breast
2 ounces butter
3/4 cup dry white wine such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc
1/2 cup chicken broth
3 sprigs parsley
2 shallots, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
2 small sprigs fresh thyme
3 leaves fresh basil
Salt and pepper
1 pound Swiss or French Gruyère cheese, grated
1. Remove any bones and skin from the breasts, pound them with a kitchen mallet to flatten and cut them into pieces 1 1/2- to 2-inches square. Melt the butter in a large pan and fry the pieces in two batches until lightly browned, about 15 minutes.
2. Add the wine, broth, parsley, shallots, garlic, cloves, bay leaf, thyme and basil along with salt and pepper to taste. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, loosely covered, for 1 hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 475 F.
3. Remove the meat from the pan. Strain the cooking liquid and transfer half of it to a 2-quart casserole or baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the cheese, add the chicken pieces and the rest of the cooking liquid, and top with the remaining cheese. Cover the baking dish tightly and bake until the cheese is entirely melted, 10 to 12 minutes.
4. Raise the temperature to 500 F, remove the cover from the casserole and return to the oven until the cheese has begun turning brown in spots, 5 to 7 minutes.
Main photo: Poulet au fromage. Credit: Charles Perry
You say you want a striking way to serve barbecued chicken? Here’s one that will stick in your guests’ minds. It looks like a miniature rack of ribs, perhaps crossed with a bizarre pre-Cambrian life form.
But it has the classical flavor of browned chicken infused with the sweetness and poetic perfume of onion and a subtle hint of cinnamon. “Winner, winner, chicken barbecue” (or however Guy Fieri’s saying goes).
Its proper name is kırma tavuk kebabı, which means “split” or perhaps “pleated” chicken in Turkish. It’s one of the subtle and inventive dishes that graced the tables of Istanbul big shots back in the days when the Ottoman Empire was still a vast and wealthy affair. It was recorded in 1839 in a cookbook called Malja’ al-Tabbakhin (“The Refuge of Cooks”) that was later plagiarized with great enthusiasm by Turkish and Arab cookbook writers down to the early 20th century.
The recipe was first translated into English after “some of England’s fairest ladies and grandest gentlemen” were impressed by the Turkish dishes served aboard the yacht of the visiting viceroy of Egypt in 1862. Two years later, a certain Turabi Effendi published a collection of recipes swiped from Malja’ al-Tabbakhin and given the on-the-nose title “Turkish Cookery Book.”
The distinctive technique of this dish is to cut the chicken into strips, leaving the pieces attached at one end. This structure helps the marinade flavors penetrate the meat while keeping it in a relatively compact shape for convenience on the grill. It also makes the meat cook a little quicker and more evenly.
Turabi Effendi’s recipe calls for deboning entire chickens, but I suggest taking the easy way out by using boneless chicken breast, which lends itself very well to this technique. Turabi says to baste the meat with butter when it starts to brown, but I don’t recommend this because of the risk of flare-ups. If you want more butter flavor, basting the meat after you take it from the grill works perfectly and will certainly win the approval of your local fire marshal.
- 4 boneless chicken half-breasts, about 1¾ pounds total
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus more for serving
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon or a pinch more
- 1 large onion
- 2 ounces (¼ stick) butter, melted
- Using a sharp knife, cut the meat crosswise into 9 or 10 strips ¼ to 1/3 inch wide. But make sure your cuts reach no farther than ¼ inch from the far edge of the meat so that the “fingers” remain attached. Mix the salt, pepper and cinnamon and rub into the meat all over.
- Purée the onion in a food processor and strain the onion juice from the solids in a fine sieve (leave the windows open for this operation because of the onion fumes). Mix the meat with the onion juice, cover with plastic wrap or place in a sealable plastic bag and let marinate at room temperature for 1 hour.
- Pat the meat dry with paper towels and thread it onto skewers down the uncut edge (if your skewer is too broad for the uncut section, you can thread it through the bases of the “fingers” as well). Baste the surface of the meat and between the “fingers” with melted butter. This will keep the meat from sticking to the grill and to itself; you don’t want so much butter that there are flare-ups.
- Grill over a moderate fire, turning often, until the meat stiffens and turns golden brown, about 20 minutes.
- Remove from skewers and brush with more melted butter if you want. Sprinkle with salt to taste.
Fine accompaniments for this would be a scoop of tart yogurt and a simple green salad.
Main photo: Cut into strips, kırma tavuk kebabı — “split” or perhaps “pleated” chicken in Turkish — enables marinades to penetrate the meat. Credit: Charles Perry
Making a favorite summer dish at a friend’s house recently, I used oregano that he’d bought in his local supermarket. The baked chicken I made that day didn’t taste at all like the dish I make at home with the oregano (rigani) I bring back from Crete, or buy tied in large bunches from a Greek deli in London.
My friend had taken care to source a fine chicken and good olive oil, the wine was flowing, and everyone was having a great time. But, as far as I was concerned, the chicken didn’t taste right. I wondered whether everyone who’s enjoyed wonderful, rigani-fragranced foods in Greece has found that their dishes, once they were back home, didn’t taste quite as good. The attractive label of the herb I’d used from my friend’s shelf had declared it “wild oregano,” but was it really oregano?
What is oregano?
The answer, I discovered, is both yes and no. In the world of commercial food-supply (and, sometimes, seed-supply), “oregano” can denote any herb in the Origanum family, which contains a number of subspecies. And this is where the cook’s problem lies: Each of these subspecies has a distinct character, and not all give good results in the kitchen.
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True Greek oregano, or rigani, goes by the Latin name of origanum vulgare hirtum (or O. heracleoticum). Because the plant has more oil glands in its highly aromatic, dark-green leaves, rigani has a stronger flavor than common oregano — so strong that, eaten fresh, it can make your tongue tingle. This is the reason dried, not fresh, Greek oregano is used in the kitchen, an uncommon example of a dried herb being a better culinary choice than a fresh one. My friend had bought common oregano (origanum vulgare), a less flavorful subspecies, and the one most frequently found on the supermarket or grocery store shelf.
What’s in a name?
There’s some disagreement as to the origin of the word “oregano”: One source suggests that it’s based on the Greek word for acrid (some subspecies of oregano can taste bitter); another states that its Latin name derives from the Greek oros (mountain) and ganos (joy). If you’ve ever walked in the Greek foothills, you’ll know that this pungent herb truly is a “joy of the mountains,” covering the rocky land with magnificent abandon and perfuming the warm air with its strong, sweet scent. Rigani’s presence there dates at least to Greek antiquity, when the ancients encouraged its growth in the mountain grazing lands to improve the flavor of their goats and sheep.
The doctors of antiquity too knew the value of rigani. Hippocrates used its oil as an antiseptic and its tincture for his patients’ stomach and respiratory problems. Recently, scientists have discovered that the polyphenols and flavonoids in Greek oregano do indeed have strong health-giving properties, including, it is believed, some protection against the norovirus and the ability to block an enzyme associated with diabetes.
In the kitchen
For the Greek cook, right up until the days of refrigeration and antibiotics, rigani was invaluable as a preservative and a deterrent to flies. Out of these practical considerations came a large repertoire of marvelous dishes imbued with the taste and aroma of the “joy of the mountains.”
For flavor and beauty, rigani’s tiny, white flowers are especially prized. So too are the meat and milk of goats and sheep that feed off the summer-flowering herb, as well as foraging rabbits and other small game. Rigani, flowers or leaves, flavors grills, oven-bakes, salads, sauces, and bean dishes like no other herb. In the village kitchen it’s measured in handfuls, not with a spoon. This provides a special pleasure for the cook: with finger and thumb, gently rub the rigani in your palm to lightly bruise it, before adding it to your dish. You’ll be releasing some of the herb’s oil and its pungent, lively aroma will lift your spirits as well as perfume your kitchen.
A few years ago, before both “wild” and “Greek” became food-marketing buzzwords, “wild oregano” bought outside of Greece was usually rigani. This isn’t always true today, with a commercial supply chain that’s confused and confusing. The most promising place to find real Greek oregano is in a store that you know takes sourcing ingredients seriously, or in a Greek or Middle Eastern deli where, late summer, you may even be lucky enough to find a large bunch of this fragrant herb that’s been gathered while in flower.
Note If you are using chicken pieces, boil the potatoes for 10 minutes before arranging in the baking dish.
- One 4- to 5-pound chicken, whole or cut into serving pieces; remove skin and excess fat
- Juice of 1½ lemons
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, or to taste
- ½ tablespoon coarse-grain sea salt, or to taste
- 2 pounds of potatoes suitable for baking, cut into similar-size pieces
- 4 cloves garlic (unpeeled), lightly crushed
- A handful (or 4 tablespoons) rigani (dried Greek oregano), crumbled
- Cracked black pepper to taste
- 6 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1½ to 2 cups chicken stock, as required
- ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 1 small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves coarsely chopped (for serving)
- Heat the oven to 375 F (190 C, or Gas Mark 5).
- Rub the chicken with the juice of 1 lemon, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, and the salt.
- Place the chicken (or arrange the pieces) in a deep, heavy baking dish and surround with the potatoes and garlic in a single layer. Sprinkle the chicken with the rigani, pepper, bay leaves, and the remaining olive oil, and dot with the butter.
- Add half the stock, and bake, uncovered, 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 F (180 C or Gas Mark 4) and continue baking until cooked through but still tender – about 1¼ hour longer for a whole chicken, 40 minutes longer for chicken pieces. Baste the chicken and potatoes frequently, adding more stock to the dish if necessary.
- Transfer the chicken, potatoes, and garlic to a serving platter and keep warm.
- Strain the pan juices into a small saucepan, remove the fat with a spoon, and add any remaining stock. If there is more than about 1 ½ cups of liquid, reduce it by rapid boiling. Combine the mustard, honey, and half the remaining lemon juice and stir into the sauce. Add salt, pepper, and remaining lemon juice to taste, and heat to warm.
- Pour sauce over the chicken and potatoes just to moisten, and sprinkle with the parsley. Serve the remaining sauce separately.
Main photo: Rigani-flavored baked chicken, with potatoes, has a different taste than one made with common oregano. Credit: Rosemary Barron
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.
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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.
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.
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)
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.
- 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
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.
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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.
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.
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)
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
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.
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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.
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
Optional: Noodles, escarole, eggs. Sometimes, we added a little tomato paste, or tomatoes, the butt of the Pecorino Romano cheese
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
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?
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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
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
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
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.
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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.
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.
Hakka Salt-Baked Chicken
Yánjú jī 鹽焗雞
Serves 4 to 6
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
For the sauce (optional):
¼ cup rendered lard
1 teaspoon dry-fried salt and pepper
½ teaspoon ground sand ginger
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.
- 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