The quantity of herbs heaped onto nearly every dish at every Vietnamese restaurant never ceases to amaze me. And this time of year, I crave nothing more than eating this kind of food: fresh, light, fragrant. Summer rolls lined with mint, green papaya salad speckled with Thai basil, chicken salad loaded with scallions and cilantro — oh Nam Phuong! You feel so far away.
A few weeks ago I mentioned I was reading The Dirty Life. Can we pretend we’re in book club for a moment? I want to share a passage:
First, here’s the background: Author Kristin Kimball left New York City to interview a young farmer named Mark, fell in love, and shortly thereafter started a new life with him on a farm near Lake Champlain. The Dirty Life chronicles their first year at Essex Farm, which currently provides food year-round for over 200 families.
“When we would talk about our future in private, I would ask Mark if he really thought we had a chance. Of course we had a chance, he’d say, and anyway, it didn’t matter if this venture failed. In his view, we were already a success, because we were doing something hard, and it was something that mattered to us. You don’t measure things like that with words like success or failure, he said. Satisfaction comes from trying hard things and then going on to the next hard thing, regardless of the outcome. What mattered was whether or not you were moving in a direction you thought was right. This sounded fishy to me.
This conversation played out many times, with me anxious, Mark calm, until once, as we sat together reviewing our expenses, I was almost in tears. I felt like we were teetering over an abyss. I wasn’t asking him to guarantee that we’d be rich. I just wanted him to assure me that we’d be solvent, that we’d be, as I put it, okay. Mark laughed. “What is the worst thing that could happen?” he asked. “We’re smart capable people. We live in the richest country in the world. There is food and shelter and kindness to spare. What in the world is there to be afraid of?”
I loved this. Isn’t it inspiring? Discuss.
Do you know anyone who, upon seeing the Sriracha bottle on the dinner table, says: “That’s a good sign.”? Or who likes to enjoy a side of scrambled eggs with his hot sauce in the morning? Or who, when watching Rick Bayless make chilaquiles on the cooking channel nods his head and says, “Amen, brother, amen.”?
Well, if you do, tinga is something you should add to your repertoire. Made with only a handful of ingredients, tinga derives most of its flavor from chipotles in adobo sauce, which offer both smoke and heat. Traditionally, the dish begin by boiling a chicken, then pulling and shredding the meat from the carcass. Once the meat is off the bone, it stews with onions, chipotles, tomatoes and chicken stock. Chopped fresh cilantro finishes the dish.
I will consider this post a success if, by the end, one of two things happens:
1. You feel inspired to tackle Moroccan cooking, immediately buy a tagine, preserve and then purée a batch of lemons, find a source for ras-el-hanout, and, in the short term at least, join me on a tagine-making bender, throwing any and everything possible into your new favorite kitchen tool.
2. You move to Schenectady so you, as I, have a Moroccan pantry in your backyard, a supply of Aneesa’s ras-el-hanout, preseved lemons, tomato jam, parsley chermoula, all of which make throwing together a Moroccan feast as effortless as popping a frozen pizza in the oven.
Either outcome will be a win for me, especially number two — perhaps we could meet for lunch? — but let’s start from the top.
Scenario #1. If you are more inclined to stay where you are and take a stab at tagine-style cooking…
…first disregard everything you know about braising, which typically calls for searing meat then finishing it in a covered pot with a small amount of liquid. Tagine cooking in essence is braising but there is no initial browning, no deglazing of the pan, no multi-step process. Everything gets thrown into the tagine at step one and forgotten until step two, at which point your food is cooked and you, pita bread in hand, are ready to attack it.
Last week, a friend, a reliable source of all things cooking — books, ingredients, attire, drinks — texted me a recipe. It came from Canal House Cooking Volume No. 6: The Grocery Store, and she described it as a small miracle.
I, of course, made the dish, “chicken and rice,” immediately, and then made it again, and then made it once more last night. The dish is miraculous foremost for its reception — we ALL gobble it up — but also for its simplicity: it’s a one-pot wonder calling for nothing more than butter, one onion, a few stalks of celery, one chicken, rice and water. I added a bay leaf because I can’t not when cooking rice — that’s what my mother does — but otherwise, I followed the text-message recipe to a T.
I have read over the years that good French onion soup can be made with little more than water, onions, bread and cheese.
But before last week, I had never read that good French onion soup should be made with little more than water, onions, bread and cheese, and that using chicken or beef stock in such a peasant dish not only betrays the soup’s economical roots but also muddles the soup’s pure onion flavor.
In his post on making traditional French onion soup, Michael Ruhlman describes the bistros of Lyon, France, also known as bouchons, which serve country-style fare and whose owners, often a husband and wife team, wouldn’t dare make onion soup with a costly and time-consuming stock. A “fine soup with a pure caramelized onion flavor,” he insists, requires nothing more than water, onions and a splash of wine for seasoning.
My senior year of college, a Chinese restaurant opened half a block from my apartment, and when I discovered that they used thighs to make their chicken teriyaki, I ran home to tell my roommate.
As you might imagine, my roommate neither shared nor understood my enthusiasm. Her silence spoke volumes: It mostly said, “Why should I be excited about this?” but also, “Only you would be excited about this.” (I love you, Chandra.)
I have known for a long time that most people prefer white meat chicken to dark and that no matter how many times I post a recipe featuring bone-in, skin-on thighs and drumsticks, I’m not going to make any converts. And so when I saw in last July’s Food & Wine, an issue highlighting mega-talents from the past 25 years and their tried-and-true recipes, that Nobu Matsuhisa’s recipe for classic chicken teriyaki called for boneless skinless breasts, I had to try it.
So, as you can see, I’m kind of on a Barefoot Contessa kick right now. And it’s not stopping here. I’ve got one more recipe coming, something sweet and chocolaty and festive, and I can’t wait to share it.
In the meantime, let’s talk about this chicken, which has become a favorite around here, both piping hot right out of the oven for dinner and cold straight from the fridge for lunch. Like the vodka sauce, this one comes from Foolproof; unlike the vodka sauce, this one wasn’t entirely foolproof, for me at least.
When I think of summer dinners growing up at home, I think of this meal. I think of the smell of charred garlic and basil; I think of my stepfather sweating at the grill, a slave to his stopwatch, the wrath of my mother should the chicken be the slightest bit overcooked driving his utmost concentration; I think of sitting at the table in our screened-in porch with my brother and sister and eventually Ben, too. I think of eating for hours, a time of considerably faster metabolisms. I think of the candles melting into the tabletop, the humidity just beginning to subside and the buzz of the crickets as we clear the table at the end of the night.
In the spirit of old-fashioned, unsubtle, crowd-pleasing recipes, I offer another oldie but goodie from The New New York Times Cookbook (Craig Claiborne, 1979), a recipe my mother pulled out for nearly every cocktail party she hosted and attended for at least two decades. The original recipe calls for wings, which people go gaga over, but the sauce and cooking method work just as well with drumsticks and thighs, if you’re looking for a super-easy dinner adored by children and adults alike.
While the chicken bakes for a fairly long time — an hour to an hour and 15 minutes — in the brief time it takes for your oven to preheat, your chicken can be prepped and smothered with the magic sauce, a mixture of honey, soy sauce, ketchup, garlic and oil, leaving you with an hour of freedom, perhaps to prepare a simple salad or side dish, perhaps to sit down with a good book and a nice cocktail. As with the honey-baked chicken legs, it’s hard not to play caveman while eating these drummies — a fork and knife just can’t get the job done. What can I say? This is not gourmet cooking, and it’s not gourmet eating — you might just want to break out the moist towelettes for this one.