Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Trial and Error, Chicken Style

There comes a time when it seems like there are only three dinners, there have only ever been three dinners, and there will continue to be only three dinners until the day dinners cease to be necessary. In the Northeast, this time is usually early spring, when everything is at its deadest, nothing looks like it will ever be green again, and people respond to a cheery, "Happy Spring!" with either a hollow laugh or just a straightforward left hook. Cold weather is no longer invigorating and exciting. It is no longer an incentive to put on a bright, cozy sweater and curl up with a cup of cocoa by the flickering television. Dark evenings are no longer an excuse to light candles and look sexier than you do under fluorescents. The coldness is just cold, the darkness is just dark, and dinners are just boring.

Last month some time, when grocery day rolled around, the fridge still had a good number of potential dinners in it. If it had been time for duct tape and plastic sheeting, a month's worth of meals could have been squeezed out of the kitchen, with only a few days on the Pickles and Chocolate Diet. Where did all this extra food come from? Could it be thanks to a high level of wifely ingenuity? Does the little woman know how to make one chicken into seven dinners? She does not. The little woman had been saying, "I don't know--let's just go out" all week.

So in the interests of not spending all the mortgage money at the Indian place, we browsed for new recipes that might make life seem like living again. And we came up with Chicken with Rice. Why do we not make this already? We like chicken, we like rice, this only has four ingredients, so it must be simple, so let's make it. Broiled Chicken? Ditto.

The broiled chicken involved so much mincing and stuffing and flipping and timing and basting that it would be less work to make risotto. Not to mention the leaking ziplock salmonella-bomb of brining chicken parts that was involved. But it sure was delicious! Not easy, not quick, pretty gross to put together, but delicious!

The chicken with rice was even more work. Skinning raw chicken parts sounds easy and worth it, right? If you're a former half-assed vegetarian with little intimate experience with chicken corpses, it's neither. If I had been that chicken, I would have been glad my skin was so firmly attached to my ankles, but I'm not, so I wasn't. The combination of tenacious chicken skin, greasy hands and a sharp paring knife seemed too likely to end badly, so I gave up the knife, left it to brute force, and there ensued a lot of tugging and sweating and cursing before the damn things were skinless. The recipe went on to breezily declare several things that turned out to be unlikely if not impossible, and we eventually ended up with overdone chicken and rice that I was sure was a warm, teeming mass of bacteria. I could have made my own version of mediocre chicken and rice in half the time.

Like many educational experiences, these were no fun but they do seem likely to lead to a better future. I learned:

-Brining chicken parts for an hour makes them about 200% more delicious. It's almost not worth having chicken if you don't brine it.

-Brining chicken in a plastic bag makes for an efficient brine/chicken relationship, but the bag should be at least 50% bigger than the stuff in it. Or you could just use a rigid container that the chicken fits into snugly.

-If you're brining in a bag, don't re-use a venerable old plastic bag that's had a hard life, even if it still looks reasonably perky. It probably has a couple of little holes in it, and will make a sweet little salmonella fountain in your fridge.

-If you slice the zest off a lemon in a haphazard fashion (minimize pith but don't agonize about it) and throw the resulting eight or nine yellow strips in with some braising chicken, you'll be so happy. The strips end up soft and delicious and give the chicken a subtle lemon flavor.

-If you want to sadden your companion, who has a low tolerance for lemoniness, deglaze the broiling pan with nothing but lemon juice and pour the resulting sauce all over chicken that would have otherwise tasted just fine. Lemon juice does not "cook away" like alcohol supposedly does (yeah, I know—duh).

-Paying a little extra for pre-peeled chicken is so, so worth it.

-The two sliced onions were the best part of Chicken With Rice. Next time—three.

So, if I apply the lessons learned, keeping the delicious and discarding the tedious and/or misguided, we're left with two modified recipes:

Elemental Broiled Chicken

Chicken thighs or legs, skin and bone intact.

Brine chicken parts for one hour in a mixture of 1 quart of water, 3/4 cup of salt and 3/4 cup of sugar (the sugar helps it brown). Arrange your oven racks like this: one right under the broiler, one near the bottom. Turn on the broiler and let the oven heat up. Put the chicken ugly-side up on a rimmed cookie sheet or broiling pan (a cookie sheet makes for optimal goo-retrieval when it's sauce time). Cook for 15 minutes on the low rack, then flip to the pretty side and cook 15 more minutes, still on the low rack. Move the chicken to the top rack, and broil until the skin browns—about a minute. Set the cooked chicken aside on a serving plate and deglaze the pan with wine or water. Pour those pan juices over the chicken.

Elemental Chicken and Rice

Skinless bone-in legs or thighs (as many as will fit in a loosely-spaced single layer in your biggest covered frying pan)
1.5 cups rice
3 cups broth or water
Rind of one lemon
3 onions
2 tablespoons olive oil

Brine the chicken parts for an hour in a mixture of 1 quart water and 3/4 cup of salt. Slice the onions into rings. Heat the olive oil in your big frying pan (the one that has a lid that fits it), and let the onions cook for 10 minutes in the oil, until they're soft and have brown bits here and there. While they're cooking, heat up the water or broth—you'll want it to be boiling by the time the onions are done.

Dump the rice in with the onions and oil, stir it all up, and then pat it out flat. Lay the chicken pieces on the rice in a single layer, and scootch them down into the rice, so they touch the bottom of the pan. Scatter lemon rind strips over the chicken.

Pour the boiling water or broth over the chicken, cover the pan, and let it simmer for 20 minutes or until the chicken is done and the rice has absorbed all the liquid. If you don't brine the chicken, and you don't use salted chicken broth, you'll want to add salt to the liquid. I like a half teaspoon, which will be way too much for some and pitifully bland to others. I don't want to hear about it.


Anonymous said...

What kind of rice are you using in the Chicken and Rice recipe? We prefer organic short-grain brown, but that'll never cook in 20 minutes in a frying pan.

- Wisco Birdman

Another Anna said...

You're absolutely right. We usually use medium grain white rice, sometimes mixed half-and-half with quinoa. I have to confess that I'm not a fan of the taste and texture of brown rice. My favorite things about it are that it makes me feel virtuous and encourages me not to overeat.

I bet you could par-cook brown rice, and then add it to the chicken pan for its final 20 minutes, to give it a chance to soak in all the tasty chickeniness.