Monday, May 20, 2013

Theme: Braised Chicken

The key to cooking Dinner every day is to be prepared to do so - and the easiest way to do that is to make sure you have ingredients on hand. And, if you want to be able to cook quickly, with little effort (the bus was delayed, you're exhausted, and a family member needs to eat and get out to a meeting.) it helps if you have a few already cooked, or ready to cook, ingredients on hand.

This can also be the key to making a lunch to carry, instead of relying on the local fast food place... I've spoken before about making a lunch salad with previously prepared foods.

One thing I try to have on hand is cooked chicken. It is versatile, inexpensive, nutritious,  and it tastes good.

In this case, I bought a family pack of bone-in chicken thighs, and filled a soup pot with them. Then I poured in enough cold water to just cover the meat. I covered it (with the cover just a little ajar, to allow some steam to escape,) brought it to a slow simmer,  and simmered it about an hour, just until the meat started to fall from the bone.

Another time, I might season it, at least with salt, or add vegetables, but this time I just wanted a plain stock and unseasoned meat.

I removed the meat from the stock, let it cool, and removed and discarded bones and skin. Then I packed the meat in a couple of containers - one for the freezer, for future use, and one in the refrigerator, to use in dinners and salads. I also poured off the stock into containers, and saved it - to add to sauces, to make a soup, to add flavor to anything I make. The fat rises to the top, as it cools, and I can skim it off, or choose to use some of it for flavor. (If making soup, I discard most but not all of it - the fat does carry much of the flavor.) This is the rendered chicken fat, or schmaltz. used in traditional Ashenazi Jewish cooking in the way other cultures use bacon fat or butter - and I occasionally use it in that way, for the flavor.

I prefer legs or a whole chicken for braising - breasts alone end up dry and tasteless. And the thighs are the easiest to bone. Boneless skinless thighs would be even easier, of course.

The next day, when I did not have time to cook, I saut├ęd half an onion in a little olive oil, added enough chicken for the two of us, poured in some of the stock, and brought it to a boil.

Then I added Frozen Mixed Vegetables. Yes, if you read this blog, you know I use and prefer fresh, local vegetables from Greenmarket or a CSA. However, I *always* have some sort of frozen vegetable in the house. In a few months, they will be vegetables I have cooked and frozen for later use (aka leftovers,)  but, at this time of year, with fresh vegetables few on the ground, I have commercial frozen vegetables. Honestly, even in midsummer I may have either these or frozen peas, because they are so easy to add to things - they mean I never skip vegetables because I'm tired - they're never "too hard."

Anyhow - I heated all that through (frozen veggies just really need to be heated, they're already cooked,)  sprinkled in some Spike (a seasoned salt,) microwaved the container of leftover brown rice I also had handy (I always make rice in batches with enough for 2-3 days) and I had... Dinner. In 10-15 minutes.

Simple enough, better than a commercial frozen dinner, faster than ordering out, and I had control of the ingredients.

I will show and discuss more interesting meals. It is important, though, to remember that this is still cooking - indeed, it is cooking from scratch (though I had done some of the cooking at an earlier time.) And it really did taste good...  And it is really achievable, however busy you are. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

It's Dinner

I read an Opinion piece in the New York Times - Pay People to Cook at Home  I think there are some very valid points about valuing the work (traditionally considered Women’s Work) done at home - but I am concerned by this statement. “It’s nearly impossible for a single parent or even two parents working full time to cook every meal from scratch, planning it beforehand and cleaning it up afterward.”

Well, it may depend on how one defines "from scratch" - but I disagree.

Now, let me make this clear - I am not cooking for children now, I never have, and I do understand that there are some constraints with small children that I do not face. The major one, really, is that, if you are picking children up at day care after work, they can't really wait a few hours to eat. I can come home, sit a while, and then start a meal - a mother often cannot.

I worked in daycare, though, for years, and I know that many of the parents did cook dinner every night. (I often heated up the leftovers for the child's lunch, the next day, and we sometimes talked about time management in the evenings.) I also know that this scheduling problem gets easier as they get older (though you no longer have the time after they go to bed for prep work...) Again, I think, we are caught up in the Cooking Mystique - the idea that it must take hours and hours, and huge effort.

Although I do not have children, I do have a chronic illness, and I have had to learn shortcuts. There are times I simply do not have the energy to do much, times I have to turn to Rich and ask him to cook, times we pull something out of the freezer. So, I make sure there is something *in* the freezer, or something he can cook without direction, or something I can throw together. It does take planning, though not necessarily the precise charts often described.

I have learned to cook food for more than one meal. I have learned what wonderful servants a handful of kitchen appliances really are. (There are jobs that do take time - but it doesn't have to be *my* time.) I have learned a few things that can be easily prepared in advance, to make another meal easier. I have learned the convenient foods that are not Convenience Food, but real food - that is convenient.

And I have learned how to walk into the kitchen knowing only that we will have chicken tonight, and have a delicious meal on the table in half an hour. It may not be exciting, it may be something we ate last week (with a few flavor tweaks) but it is good - and it is Dinner. We often join a group of friends for an evening of game playing. Most of our friends order takeout - we carry something I have cooked. Often, I have found, our friends envy Rich - he gets Real Home Cooked Food! But one evening, it was the leftover of a not entirely successful experiment - still pretty good, mind you, but not quite what I'd intended. One of the men asked what it was, and I started (sort of apologetically) explaining. At which point, another woman (who cooks for her family) looked up and brightly said "It's Dinner!" And we laughed, because, well - it was. And really, on an ordinary Thursday, that is all it had to be.