Mr. Henry is wary of gadgetry in the kitchen. He likes his old waiter’s corkscrew and his old hand-crank can-opener. If he needs to slice and dice, he takes a knife out of the drawer.
To this bastion of conservative family values one fine day Mrs. Henry, normally a woman to abjure gimcrackery, brings home a cone-shaped ceramic vessel with narrowed neck and announces the advent of the “chicken sitter,” an invention that would have delighted Vlad the Impaler.
Resembling the Mercury orbiter capsule, the chicken sitter (and try saying that three times fast) is more fun than Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang. It beats the old beer can technique all to hell. Stuff the chicken sitter with herbs, wine, garlic, lemon or what-have-you. Then impale your trussed bird on the cone.
Skin cooks crisply and evenly all around while liquid inside the cone bastes and steams the flesh. Indeed, the chicken sitter yields a perfect roast chicken with absolutely no fuss. Afterwards you can salvage the juice inside the cone to help make stock with the bones.
It could happen to anyone. It could even happen to you if you had endured three solid weeks of liquid skies.
In New York it’s been raining forever. Strange never-before-seen varieties of mushrooms are sprouting from tree roots and branches. The baby hawks have frizzy feathers. Liberal-minded New Yorkers have acquired new empathy for Bangladeshi villagers in monsoon season.
Friday afternoon a soggy Mr. Henry’s lumbered into Citarella. Center cut pork chops, sweet potato purée, asparagus under the broiler, and cucumber salad constituted his quick and easy dinner menu. The humidity, however, had sapped his strength. He needed fortification.
For strength nothing beats chicken livers, especially chicken livers Moroccan style.
To rinsed and trimmed livers add salt, black pepper, chopped garlic, a teaspoon or more of cumin, a half teaspoon each of curry powder and hot paprika (cayenne works very well, too), and a couple tablespoons of olive oil.
After the livers have marinated for a good long while, sauté them in their marinade and serve them on toast with lots of chopped cilantro (or parsley). Finish with cold clementines.
Normally Mr. Henry marinates for a few hours, perhaps a day….marinates his livers, that is, not himself. But this time he plainly forgot. Since no one else in the family enjoys this hearty delicacy, no one missed them at table.
On Monday he remembered. What would a weekend bathing in strong spices do to a chicken liver?
It worked miracles – an intensity of flavor never before experienced. Considering the gravity of the moment, he felt it appropriate to open a bottle of Burgundy at lunchtime.
One reason for this regrettable fact is that Andalusia no longer exists, having disappeared in 1492 after the reconquista. Granted, he could fly to modern Granada, Cordoba, or Seville, once the seat of medieval Islam’s glorious efflorescence, but modern airplane tickets require currency not available in current household accounts.
Or he could repair to the infinitely richer resources of the imagination. For this he need look no further than Food: The History of Taste, a compendium of lively historical essays sublimely illustrated to entice all the senses – sight, sound, taste, smell, and travel.
While Mrs. Henry was out last week, Mr. Henry doctored one of her staple recipes transforming braised chicken into an Andalusian feast, one not only quick and foolproof but remarkably inexpensive, truly a feast for the New Depression.
9 skinless chicken thighs
1 medium onion
6 plum tomatoes, peeled and diced
1 cup raisins
1 cup cooked chick peas
1 cup green olives
¼ cup dry sherry (fino)
pinch of cinnamon
saffron (if desired)
salt and pepper
If plum tomatoes are not in season, a medium-sized can of crushed tomatoes works perfectly well. Quantities are approximate.
In a non-reactive pan brown the thighs in olive oil. Set aside. Add the sliced onion, wilt thoroughly and add the tomatoes. Sauté until the tomatoes are soft. Add the rest of the ingredients as well as the chicken. Cover and braise slowly for a good 1 ½ hours either on stovetop or in the oven. The thighs will release just enough juices to create a proper braising liquid.
Serve with a crusty bread or over brown rice. A light red like a pinot noir or a Côtes du Rhone provides an appropriate pairing. As with any stew, it’s better the second day.
In the thrall of his own remembrances, Mr. Henry set out to prepare a proper Moroccan dinner for the family. Unfortunately, however, he could not devote half the day to the task, nor had he prepared pickled lemons 30 days ago. What to do?
He telephoned Nadia for help. She recommended a one-hour stovetop tagine (stew) of chicken with grated onion, saffron and ginger. In this tagine there is a curious trick common to Moroccan cooking: you load the ingredients upside down.
Nadia uses Cornish game hen but Mr. Henry prefers skinless chicken.
In the bottom of a heavy stew pot, place the chicken without oil or butter. Grate two normal sized onions in the food processor and pile the onion on top of the chicken. Add a teaspoon or more of ginger, a half package of saffron, salt, pepper, touch of cooking oil, and tablespoon of butter. With low heat the meat will brown slightly, release juices, and steam the onion. Once the covered pot is leaking steam, stir the tagine and continue cooking on low until meat is falling off the bone. If you want more sauce, add a touch of stock early on.
In Morocco this is served over couscous accompanied by prunes stewed in sugar and cinnamon. A crusty bread, however, serves equally well.
Mr. Henry inhaled the simple but exotic amalgamation of flavors redolent of ancient Andalusia and, despite Nadia’s express rejection of this idea, poured in a good half cup of dry white vermouth. Was it anathema? Well, so what if it was. The result was excellent.
Mr. Henry rarely makes a sauce without adding some spirit or other. More often than not, however, he pours not from the bottle but from the chef’s personal glass.
Lately Mr. Henry has been on a something of a vermouth binge, the dry white French version, mind you, not the sweet red Italian version. A fortified and spiced wine, vermouth adds magic to any dish that includes the flavors of Provence or the Piemonte. Think of herbs de provence, garlic, and rosemary – all rather intense flavors that can easily become too insistent. How do you force them to blend so that one does not predominate? Any white wine will work, but vermouth’s spices yield an aroma less sweet and more woody.
One of the forty or more spices in vermouth is juniper, hence its walk-on role in the dry martini. Wormwood (the origin of the word vermouth) adds another woody note, an aroma that recalls the dusty hillsides of Provence.
In the 1980’s outside Draguignan in the Var, a forest fire destroyed much of the old growth forest on either side of the autoroute that follows almost exactly the ancient Roman via Domitia. Setting out from Gawain’s castle one sunny morning Mr. Henry climbed a long hill through waist high bushes vigorously sprouting from the charred earth. For no apparent reason he kept dreaming of roast lamb. Covered in fine pungent dust, he realized he had just hiked through two miles of rosemary.
Last week he found some firm parsnips in the market and decided to roast them with garlic, shallots, olive oil, herbs de provence, and fresh rosemary. In the LeCreuset oval gratin dish, beautiful for serving, he roasted his parsnips covered for 45 minutes. The dish was nearly done but seemed, like Winston Churchill’s pudding, to have no theme. A liberal pour of vermouth and another 15 minutes in the oven was the coup de grace.
On Saturday night after Little Henry returns from fencing class, Mr. Henry usually set up place mats in front of the TV to watch reruns of Monk and to eat hamburgers. Mushrooms sautéed with bacon and onion provide a savory accompaniment. Here again a dash of vermouth brings it all together. Be sure to add it when the pan is hot so that the alcohol evaporates more completely and the food does not absorb it too deeply. Otherwise you get vegetables that taste of little else but vermouth. There is such a thing, after all, as too much romance.
As faithful readers know, Pepper is the Henry’s noble hound, a 67-pound mystery mix of Labrador retriever and border collie. For years she ate Stella & Chewy’s raw chicken or raw lamb frozen burgers, a rather costly diet. Lately, however, Pepper’s stomach has resisted the raw Stella & Chewy’s, a surprising development in light of the pleasure she takes in snagging detritus off the Broadway sidewalk.
Wisdom du jour instructs dog owners to prepare raw food, in particular raw chicken, following the theory that a raw diet mimics what wild dogs ate. Since the dog had been domesticated for 30,000 years, give or take, Mr. Henry wonders just how much chicken they have been getting, historically speaking, and thus to what degree their digestion is genuinely accustomed to such fare. Sitting around the campfire of early man, domesticated dogs probably dined on charred tubers, rotten seeds, and scraps of gristle and sinew, as well as on bones too small for man to bother cracking with a hand ax.
Mr. Henry’s personal theory is that the modern dog retains one eating habit left over from the Stone Age, however, a taste preference rather shocking to the urbane dog owner. The one reliable comestible around a human settlement, after all, season after season, was man scat.
Pepper’s list of favorite foods is topped by stinky cheese, followed by buttered toast, salmon skin, and apple peelings. Is there a pattern here?
What follows is Mrs. Henry’s personal recipe for a canine raw diet, ingredients deliberately chosen for ease of preparation. Mrs. Henry prefers boneless breast of chicken because she can throw them whole into the food processor right from the package. Lentils are the only cooked ingredient.
For even chopping, process each ingredient separately. Mix together, place in muffin tins (topped with wax paper for easy stacking), and freeze. Yield: 24 cupcake portions.
Each morning Pepper eats four cupcakes. At night she eats 1 ⅓ cups dry food, half Innova dog food and half Evo small bites (low carb), with a splash of buttermilk.
The one quibble Mr. Henry has with this recipe is the absence of added salt. Since he always shares a scrap from the table with his constant quadruped, however, he imagines she gets her allowance of salt thereby. And, of course, there are sticks to chew, grasses to munch, and treats to beg at Patagonia. The world is full of possibilities.
3 lbs. boneless breast chicken
1 cup cooked lentils
½ bunch kale (or spinach) – leaves & small stems
1 sm. bag carrots, peeled baby
½ bag cranberries
blueberries, a handful
Lady and gentleman farmers, the homestead of your dreams lies in Westchester County just up the road from Sleepy Hollow. Once the Rockefeller family’s personal dairy, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, NY, has become the most beautiful of sustainable farms. It’s pig heaven.
Happier pigs you will never see. Three-month old Berkshire piglets root around in a muddy oak grove, snuffle each other playfully, and nestle beside mama sows, two 400-pound behemoths of bounty.
Although earthy with a touch of ruggedness, Mr. Henry cannot claim to be a farmer. He does not really understand grasses, earthworms, pests, crop rotations, maturation cycles, or harvest schedules. Although an avid meat-eater, he does not possess the requisite sangue-froid to personally participate in slaughter, either.
He was perfectly capable, however, of serving himself from the salad bar at Blue Hills Cafe where he devoured the most devilishly delicious egg salad. The farm sustains a Blue Hills restaurant there as well as one in New York City.
But like most pilgrims, Mr. Henry journeys to experience the known and the unknown. In addition to much important new information regarding sows in farrow, from his noonday livestock tour he carried away an otherworldly sense of natural harmony, momentarily satisfying the perpetual American longing for utopia. He also carried away Stone Barns holy relics – t-shirt, cap, food book, heirloom tomatoes, fresh greens, and a frozen butt of pork.
But Mr. Henry’s legendary curiosity, one that in the past has gotten him into compost piles of trouble, leads him to ask the popular question of today: “Where does our food come from?”
Stone Barns chickens eat bugs and grasses. Like Gypsies they reside in ramshackle wooden caravans transported daily to a fresh spot of pasture ripe with sheep droppings the chickens pore over like college girls at an H & M sale. Stone Barns chickens know perfectly well where their own food comes from, so why shouldn’t we?
And the bees! The bees! The tintinnabulation of the bees, bees, bees, bees, bees. No colony collapse disorder plagues these honeybees. Order here reigns supreme. They understand there is work to be done on earth as well as in heaven.