Friday, January 11, 2008

The Holidays Recovery Regimen

When you come from my family, both sides, the holidays can be an overwhelming experience of gluttony. We are cooks and eaters. This year, like every one past, the season was rapidly punctuated by meals of grand scale interspersed with a massive quantity of holiday snacks laden with fats that stay solid at room temperature, even with the heat cranked against the winter rains. So I was relieved, in a way, when New Year's Day passed and a modicum of relative normalcy returned to my diet. In retreat from the indulgence of the holiday's baked goods and complexly sauced red meats, I like to turn to a week or two of simple one pot dishes and basic plates of lean white meats and vegetables. Here is one that soothed my gut. It's a lot of ingredients but trust me, it's fun to make, un-fuckupable and delicious.

This is something like a fast chicken noodle soup done in a dutch oven. I believe that chicken soup can heal everything, even overeating, but I also wanted to make it quickly and with a little more substance than broth. So in a way this recipe could also be called "easy braised chicken thighs and the vegetables that make them sexy".

I call for about a pound of chicken thigh fillets. These boneless, skinless cuts have a little more flavor than the breast so they stand up to their eventual boiling with more fortitude, even without any help from bones. We're going to use pre-made or purchased stock to reinforce that flavor in the broth. They also produce a very clean fat for flavoring the vegetables.

The Actors:

A pound of chicken thigh fillets
2 large leeks (cut into 2 inch strips lengthwise or diagonally cut into rounds)
1 Medium yellow onion (medium diced)
1 Large carrot (diced in small cubes)
1 Rib of celery (sliced into small crescents)
1 Pasilla or other large mild chili pepper (stemmed, seeded and coarsely chopped)
1 Large bunch of spinach
1 Small handful of barley, quinoa, or Israeli couscous, that's the kind with real big kernals. (Don't worry low carbers, this is only to impart a little starch for thickening. There won't be enough in there to make you feel guilty)
1 bunch of fresh dill or dry dillweed if you don't have fresh (but I would seriously reccommend fresh)
1 can of fat free, low sodium chicken broth (unless you've got some stock you made yourself, in which case I love you)
A splash of white wine, preferably an un-oaked, not super dry one. Even something slightly sweet will do.
Salt n' peppa
A good herbs de provence

The Action:

Rinse and thoroughly dry your thighs. Season the hell out of 'em with good salt n' peppa and herbs de provence. In a dutch oven or thick bottomed deep braising pan, over a high flame, heat just enough olive oil to keep your thighs from sticking in the heat and to impart a little flavor. Lightly brown your thighs. Not more than a minute or two per side, depending on the thickness of the meat. You're just rendering some of the chicken fat into the pan and making flavor from some good browned bits on the meat and the pan surface. Without reducing the heat, remove the meat and set aside to rest. Add onion, celery, carrots and pasilla pepper to the pot and season them again, including more herbs de provence with the salt n' peppa. Stir occasionally to keep anything from burning and cook until onions often a bit. About two minutes after you add the mire poix (onions, celery, carrots) add the leeks and cook for a minute or two more. Again, don't let anything burn, keep stirring. Once the veggies are softened, seasoned and smelling good, throw your thighs in again and add a splash of white wine. Err on the conservative side with the wine, a couple tablespoons will do. After the wine has surrendered its alcohol, add the barley or other starch, remember, just a small handful. Add your broth or stock and just enough water to cover everything. Bring to the edge of a boil and reduce heat to simmer. Let it simmer, partially covered (but letting the steam escape) for 20 minutes. Now you have two choices to make. You can choose the thickness of your meal here. It can be a soup by adding more water or stock at this juncture or a light stew in it's current reduced state. You also can choose to remove the chicken thighs, shred them traditionally and return them to the pot, or you can leave them whole. *See Note Below

After you've made your choices about the consistency of your dish and whether or not to shred, add the spinach and give a stir. Let simmer for one more minute then turn off the heat and, finally, add the dill (my favorite moment, what a smell). Let the soup rest for 5 minutes. Then, taste it. Add salt and pepper and more dry herbs if needed but know that it will get saltier and the flavors will emerge further as it cools. Now I know this recipe was long and unnecessarily detailed, but here's the beauty of it: you can forget almost any step in the process and almost any ingredient but as long as you start out with good vegetables and chicken thighs, it will be awesome. Just doctor it at the end with whatever you have in the way of dry herbs and and you can do a hundred variations on it that will never fail to make something good.

*With both of these decisions, I choose to have my thigh and eat it too. I leave the soup reduced for the first serving then thin it out with water when I reheat it and eat it again the next day as a soup. I also shred half of the meat but leave half of the thighs solid for a rustic braised presentation, sometimes eating them separately over a bed of winter veggies with some broth further reduced for sauce.


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