Here we are, in the grayest of February weeks, living through weeks and weeks of rain punctuated by the rare afternoon of dry, if not out and out sun… just dry, at least.
February is lightened for me by my birthday, which far from becoming less important as I get older, really does provide a moment of excitement in this dull month… then we resolutely ignore Valentine’s Day because we hate 1) pink, 2) roses, and 3) chocolate. Then we wait until the end of the month for John’s birthday and then at least we can stop pretending to enjoy February and just move onto the Season of Mud That is March.
Which is why it is so important to enjoy the school Half-Term break. You might well ask: how on earth can there be a BREAK from school when we just returned from Christmas a month ago? And yet, this February, with various pressures brought to bear on us, and no one feeling particularly cheerful, the idea of a week off was strangely welcome.
Avery had been invited out to the countryside (“expect constant rain, bring Wellies and warm layers”, oh joy), so…
I’m sorry I’ve been so uncommunicative!
Frankly, my life, usually so pleasant, has been fraught with unpleasant dramas of late and I could find absolutely no motivation to relive any of it by writing it down. For example, have you ever lived in a house that was on the market, and so your life was invaded at regular intervals by realtors and the people that they thought might like to replace you? And the tidying up of every conceivable corner that this entails, not to mention not waiting to take a shower till you feel like it because someone will walk in on you, cleaning the litterboxes TWICE a day and then watching your cats be tormented by visitors and their badly behaved children? Not to mention… where will we live if the house is sold?
Unpleasantness. The fact that we absolutely adore our landlords only makes it more unpleasant.
The only pleasant things, really, have been coming up with several new ways to play with a chicken, and a grand, simply spectacular play.
So let’s concentrate on those.
Chicken. It’s far too easy to buy it as it so often appears, all cut up in convenient shapes and unrecognizable from its original self. Or even more removed from nature, those boneless, skinless chicken breasts that leave me 1) wondering where the bones and skins are, and 2) feeling sad that almost certainly no one made soup out of them. Or if someone did, it was in a lonely, sterile chicken factory where nothing is “carved,” it’s “mechanically separated.” Yuck.
Why not, instead, buy a whole chicken and appreciate every single bit of it?
Buy the best chicken you can afford so as to encourage proper treatment of the birds and discourage battery chickens. Bring the chicken home and slice off the breasts and chop off the whole legs. Put what’s left of the chicken in a big pot, add some carrots, onions, celery and whatever herbs you have around — especially if they’re fresh but not at their best — and quite a bit of good salt. If you don’t want the skin on the breasts, pull that off and put it in the pot too. Simmer as long as you like, but at least three hours, squashing the chicken carcass with a heavy spoon whenever you get the chance, breaking it up and releasing all its goodness.
Nothing spells comfort like the aroma of simmering chicken soup. Nothing.
Quite a lot of golden fat will rise to the top as the soup cooks. Don’t worry. You can use that too.
When you think the chicken soup has cooked enough, strain it through a sieve into another pot and throw away what’s left behind. Refrigerate — or put it on your wintry windowsill — overnight. When you see it next day, the fat will have hardened and you can scrape it away with a spoon, revealing the rich chickeny jelly underneath. Mmm, I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.
Save the chicken fat to saute potatoes in. I also wonder if it would be nice spread on a piece of toast, as British people do with beef fat, which they call “dripping.” I know some of you dear readers will absolutely go apoplectic over the idea that I would encourage you to eat fat, but I agree wholeheartedly with the great Nigel Slater who says, “Fat I can see is wonderful. It’s the fat I can’t see that makes me nervous.” I feel the same about sugar. Hidden anything is bad.
Now for the breasts and legs. Cut them up into bite-size chunks and make:
Sauteed Chicken Carbonara with Asparagus and Broccoli
1 cup/240 ml light/single cream
1/2 cup/120 ml half-fat creme fraiche
1 egg yolk
lots of fresh black pepper
enough spaghetti for 4 — perhaps 1/2 lb
1 head broccoli, cut into florets
dozen or so spears asparagus
1 tbsp olive oil
the meat of a chicken
sprinkling of Fox Point Seasoning or other savoury blend
1 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese
Mix the creams, egg and pepper. Steam the broccoli and asparagus and place in a large serving bowl, big enough for the whole dish. Boil the spaghetti and add about 1/4 of the pasta cooking liquid to the cream sauce. Mix thoroughly.
Season the chicken and saute it in the olive oil until thoroughly but not overcooked. Add the cooked, drained pasta, the steamed vegetables and the sauce and toss thoroughly, over a TINY heat if you think it needs it. Do not really cook the sauce or the egg will scramble.
Serve with plenty of cheese to sprinkle on top. The cheese is really necessary for that salty, savoury kick, as the dish itself is very simple. Gorgeous.
This dish has it all: plenty of protein, plenty of winter-defying greens, the comfort of pasta and a light, creamy sauce to bind it all together.
And it’s pretty to look at. Good enough for company, I would say.
Especially if your company is as entertaining as my friends the Carterets who came with their three little girls last week. My favorite bit of conversation? The mother, Sara, said, “Here’s a conversation starter for you. Where, 20 years ago, did you think you would be today, and what would you be doing?” We discussed all this for awhile — I never thought I’d be a mother, and I was sure I’d still be a professor — and finally Sara said, “Well, I’m exactly where I thought I’d be, and doing exactly what I thought I’d be doing. I just never dreamed it would be this BORING!”
Another bright spot in my gloom was a series of texts I received one morning last weekend. The first one: “So why have you gone so quiet on me today?” From a totally unknown number. The second one: “I’m beginning to think you don’t care.” Just as I was about to reply in ignorance, a third text arrived. “Nick will be out all day, so please call and text as much as you can.” Whoa! I texted back, “Who is this?” Pregnant silence. Then a little beep. “Wrong number.”
The drama! Who is the hapless Nick, and who the philandering texter?
Since my life contains such excitement only by mistake, let’s get back to that chicken I want you to buy. If you are lucky enough to have a butcher you can rely on — and lord knows, in America that is a rarity outside the really big cities — waltz in there and say airily, “I’d like you to bone a chicken for me.” Then watch and be amazed.
My butcher took a large whole chicken, whipped out a very slender, sharply tapered knife, and in little more than two minutes, removed every smitch of bone from it, turning it this way and that and tossing the bones into a pile, then shaped and cajoled the ugly flat thing back into the shape of a chicken, asking, “Do you want the bones?” I felt I would be soundly slapped if I said no, and in any case I did. So I got the bones, and a limp chicken-shaped squishy thing to bring home.
And on the advice of my delicious friend Elisabeth, I came home and produced, in no more than 40 minutes;
Boneless Roast Chicken
(serves 4 with plenty of leftovers)
whole boned chicken
1/4 cup/2 ounces butter
handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
handful fresh thyme, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
splash of white wine
sea salt and pepper to taste
Lay the chicken flat, skin-side up, in a large baking dish. Simply melt the butter and mix it with everything else, then pour over the chicken. Roast at 425F/220C for 40 minutes.
A whole roasted chicken in a quarter, LESS, of the time it takes to roast a chicken with bones. Brilliant. And you get the bones for SOUP.
Finally, when you’ve eaten lots of comforting English and American flavors in the gray winter time and you need a bit of spicing up, why not combine the meat of the two chicken breasts with any other meat you have in your freezer — a steak, a pork chop, veal or lamb or duck — slice it all thinly and make:
Chicken and Beef Stir-Fry With Roasted Peanuts, Mixed Vegetables and Ginger
2 chicken breasts, skin removed, sliced thin
1 sirloin steak, sliced thin
1/3 cup/80 ml good dark soy sauce
good glug toasted sesame oil
good glug Mirin (Japanese rice wine)
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 red pepper, cut into chunks
1 small head broccoli, cut into florets
2 handfuls sugar snap peas, cut in half
2 carrots, sliced as you like
basmati rice, steamed
3 tbsps peanut/groundnut oil
large knob ginger, peeled and sliced thickly
1 cup raw peanuts
chili flakes to garnish, if desired
Place the chicken and beef in a medium bowl and add the soy, oil and Mirin, sprinkle with garlic and stir well. Set aside to marinate while you prepare the vegetables and steam the rice.
Now, with 1 tbsp of the peanut oil in a large frying pan, fry the ginger slices until lightly browned. Remove to a large bowl. Add the peanuts to the hot frying pan and roast until slightly browned but not burned. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in the large bowl.
Add the further 2 tbsps peanut oil to the frying pan and cook the vegetables gently, covering with a large lid to steam them a bit. When they are tender, remove them to the large bowl.
Pour the marinated chicken and beef into the frying pan and cook until JUST cooked, not tough. Add all the other ingredients and toss over a high heat till hot through.
Serve with the basmati rice and sprinkle with chili flakes if you like a bit of heat.
DELISH. And so pretty, and so good for you.
In the brief moments at my disposal when I was not boning a chicken, I went to a delightful play, “An Ideal Husband” by the inimitable Oscar Wilde. Go before it closes on the 26th! It was one of those afternoons when we all would rather have stayed home, and why it is good to buy tickets in advance so we’re shamed into going out of the house. It’s beautifully cast, hilariously written, very well-acted. All the classic Wilde bits: the man with a past, the letter to a mistaken recipient, the requisite annoying Frenchman with an unbelievably fruity accent. And the costumes! Oh my.
Well, you’ve succeeded in cheering me up. Just reaching out and being bossy about chickens has helped. And the copious amounts of chicken soup didn’t hurt.