Category Archives: Chow

Pickle Chicken

Memo to Myself:  To Do the Dumb Things That I Gotta Do

Okay, I love Chick-Fil-A, and despite Willam’s excellent music video, do not feel comfy giving them my custom.

Mea culpa:  if there were a Chick-Fil-A within driving distance, I might be tempted, especially as it’s my husband’s favorite fast food.  They are sexist, racist, homophobic, and churchy, and I love none of those things.  But the light, sweet-and-savory breading, fried in peanut oil, and infused with chicken flavor…it gets me right here (thumps fist in region of solar plexus.)

Flashback:  my mother’s mother, she of the Good Basic Food, used to make something similar, but infinitely better.  After my step-grandfather (her third husband) had his heart attack and bypass surgery in the late 1970s, Granny did her best to find delicious, low-fat, low-salt recipes.  (Back then, boys and girls, we had no interwebs for that sort of thing.)  One alternative to fried chicken involved seasoned Krusteaz pancake mix used as a dredge.  No egg-milk dip was involved.  The naked chicken, unsoaked, with this light flouring, was cooked in a dry electric skillet, at very low temperature, for ages.

The chicken fat sweated out and combined with the flour to make a quasi-breading type crust that was utterly delicious.  It was crunchy and very chickeny, and the flesh was still very juicy.  There was no oil flavor; only chicken.  The pancake mix has a lot of sugar, and it caramelizes beautifully; the seasonings (paprika, garlic, onion, celery salt, pepper, and a smidge of poultry seasoning) complement the chicken and work with the sweet; and the rising agents in the pancake mix foof up with chicken moisture (if I didn’t lose you with my technical jargon, there) to make a little flour turn into a decent amount of breading.  Best of all, it didn’t make you want to ignore the chicken and just eat the skin — my usual problem with poultry.

Digression:  Chick-Fil-A deals in breasts.  (Don’t get me started!)  Chicken breasts; talk about approach / avoidance conflict!  The least flavorful part of the bird, more meat than I want in one sitting…and yet:  more acreage of skin and breading than any other piece.  If sufficiently cooked, it’s usually dry.  Fried chicken is not poached chicken, let’s put it that way, and if I love the breading at CFA, I certainly don’t love the meat.  It’s often stringy, and while it doesn’t taste like fast-food chicken, it still has an industrial quality that is probably unavoidable when dealing with a major chain.  There is no denying that even the simplest food turns voodoo under these conditions, since the hallmark of any retail chain is a product that will be reliably identical no matter where you go.  Motel 6 to THX to Starbucks, you know exactly what you’re getting.

So!  I stumbled upon a copycat recipe for Chick-Fil-A at (which I warmly recommend; Hilah is delightful and knows her onions) that involved a quick brine (30-60 minutes) in pickle juice.  No pickle flavor is imparted in the brief douse.  And I’m sure the recipe turns out well…as written.

I did not do it as written.

For one thing, I set up the chopped chicken in a zip-bag full of pickle juice a few hours before Honey was due to come home.  HOURS.

Then I realized that I had used a “zesty” pickle juice rich in chunks of garlic and dill.

Then I cleaned house, using ferocious chemicals that gave me a massive headache.  Honey came home, took one look at the clean house and headachy girl, and whisked me off to a very nice restaurant dinner.

The next day, slightly more than 24 hours after tossing the chicken in the pickle juice, we popped a bottle of wine, cranked the tunes, and checked the chicken.

The meat had white tinges from “cooking” in the acid, and even after draining, was pungent with dill and garlic and allspice and…it was dill pickle chicken!

I had altered the breading recipe, too, and it was fine.  We fried the pieces, and the pounded-flat breast quarters, and they were freakin’ delicious!  The meat was incredibly tender and juicy from the overnight brining.  I’m sure the same magic could be worked without the dill pickle-y overlay, and I’ll probably try it today.  This was nothing like the fried chicken of my youth (buttermilk soaked, heavily breaded), or Granny’s baked Krusteaz chicken, and nothing like Chick-Fil-A.

But I love dill pickles so much that I have often made the dill pickle soup from Trianon.  And I love this chicken.

Everyone else would prefer Hilah’s version, I’m sure.  Here’s the direct link:


Why must they turn my kitchen into a den of LIES?

What did we learn in class, children?  To read the assignment completely before beginning our work.  This applies to cooking as much as to chem class, or that obnoxious trick test in grammar school, in which the last instruction is to ignore everything but item #1 (writing your name at the top of the page.)  You will always be graded on your ability to follow instructions.  But when the instructions are bad, you are guaranteed to fail.

Cooking websites have continued the deceitful traditions of hardbound cookbooks, and straight-up LIE about times needed to cook certain things.  I have determined that any cooking time given in a recipe should be read as the Biblical term “40 days and 40 nights”:  “we honestly don’t know how long, but it’s a really, really long time, much longer than you would expect. ”

Five minutes means fifteen; fifteen minutes means forty-five; anything over thirty means “I hope you’re not expecting guests.”

The usual suspects:

  • Caramelizing onions:  “saute chopped onions over medium heat until soft and golden brown, about five minutes.”   The onions won’t even be completely translucent in five minutes, much less soft and golden brown.  That will take 15 or 20 minutes at least.
  • Adding raw chicken to the pan:  don’t look at the “simmer for five minutes” part; focus on the “or until cooked through” part.  If you cook that chicken for five minutes, a hologram of Gordon Ramsay will materialize and exclaim, in an angry/aggrieved tone, “Look at that!  It’s raw!  You’ll KILL someone!” 
  • The same goes for roasting chicken in a 350F oven for 30 minutes.  This might have been accurate when cavedwellers were roasting pigeon-sized proto-chickens over open flames, but a five pound bird in an electric oven has only just started to lose its varnish.  It’s still chicken sushi on the inside, and nowhere close to being browned or crackling.
  • Artichokes:  “steam for 15 minutes in acidulated water.”  Unless you are using a pressure cooker, it will still be like a rock, Mr. Spock.
  • Pot roast:  “cook uncovered for 2 – 2.5 hours in a low oven.”  This does not result in tenderness, much less browning.  The fat won’t roast, the gelatin won’t melt, and you will have a stringy grey mess of meat.  (Enjoy?)
  • Baked potatoes:  another “medium oven for one hour” lie.  While we probably shouldn’t be eating those big, beautiful Idaho bakers anyway (unless we split one Volkswagon-sized tuber between the 4-6 people all recipes seem to serve), if we throw the potatoes in the oven for the last hour while the lamb finishes, as instructed, they will only be ready to eat the next morning.  Seriously, it’s like cooking a brick until it’s fork-tender.

I could go on.  But since I’m on the subject, let me continue to speak heresy.

Roasting meat.  While it’s true that even slightly undercooked chicken makes my throat close and my eyes swell shut (as with undercooked eggs — including soft cookies, Hollandaise sauce, mousses, mayonnaise, creamy dressings, brownies, Caesar salad, and runny yolks — oh how I miss you all!), I am a fan of over-roasting most meats.  I take my steak on the rare side, so it’s not squeamishness; if anything, it’s a love of roasted fat.  The crackling, the grebenes, the parchment-like poultry skin shattering in my mouth.  The fat from beef ribs, nearly charred on the bone, or seasoned and roasted to a crisp around my prime steak.  The gods are pleased by the smell of roasting fat, and who am I to argue with the gods?

As for the cooking itself, it’s my firm belief that chickens and pot roasts should be cooked high, hot, and fast.  Low and slow cooking is great, if you want to leech all the juice from the dish, but I don’t like dry, grey meat.  I was brought up by Norwegian farmers in the northern Rockies.  They were not afraid of fat, but they raised their meat, traded with the folks up the road for variety, and hunted; cooking meat to dry greyness was a valid safety precaution.  (These days, my meat comes from the butcher, and I am more likely to get e. coli from a dirty knife chopping my salad at a diner than I am from my home-cooked rare steak.)  But I grew up eating food that was the very apotheosis of bland.  And that often meant chops and roasts that fought the knife and chewed like woolen mittens.

Get the fat to liquefy, get the gelatin to melt, get the roasty brown goodness going.  Pop that thick seven bone roast into a hot 450F oven with a good broth to cover; let it cook down, but keep adding water to keep a half inch of fluid in the bottom.   (This won’t work with a lean roast, but you shouldn’t be roasting lean meat anyway.)  To some extent, the meat will steam.  In a couple of hours, you’ll be able to cut it with a spoon, and the drippings will be suitable for Yorkshire pudding.  But it will have the rich crust sought after by steakhouses, with browned fat bits for the discerning deity.

Same thing with chicken.  Make sure the skin is dry; season it well; rub it with oil.  Fill the small roaster hip-deep with broth, and give it 400F for 90 minutes or so.  (You know the test:  wiggle the thigh.  If it’s not tight, spear the hip joint and make sure the juice runs clear.)  The best way to attack the bird is to eat the beautiful, crackly breast skin as soon as it becomes crisp (chef’s prerogative, but she may share it if she likes), and then turn the bird breast-down in the fluid.  The skin on the bird’s undercarriage gets crispy and brown, and the breast stays moist and tender.  Eat the dark meat for dinner, and let the breast sit overnight in the liquid.  The next day, the breast will be moist, tender, flavorful…really superlative.  And the gelatinous stock, scraped from the carcass, is delicious on its own, but can be scooped into a plastic bag and frozen, ready to enrich soups or vegetables on the fly, no thawing time needed.

This is contrary to conventional wisdom, folks, but keep in mind that a lot of cooking traditions started a la bonne mère, and some circumstances have changed.  Our meat is fattier now, if it’s not grass-fed, and can stand up to high heat.  Our animals drink fresh, clean water, and that is what we use to cook; we don’t need to worry about killing parasites.  We also don’t need to slow-cook stuff all day while the men plough the fields and we weed the garden.  And roasts, and birds, like us, are bigger these days.

We can talk dietetics some other time, but for now, we’re in flavor country.





Rant du jour: bread, and the clam po’boy.

Like so many rants, this is rooted in love, expectation, and disappointment.

Preface:  before I had ever run across my grandmother’s low-carb diet books, so old they stressed that you could eat all the wooly mammoth you wanted, I realized that eating bread made me feel happy and clogged and polluted.  I could choose between a dish of pot roasted beef, carrots, and half a small potato, or I could have a slice of the bread and butter that were on our table at every meal.  Bye-bye bread!

The only time it was a hard choice was when the bread was homemade, by my grandma (with whom we lived) or her sister (who lived up the road.)  My great-aunt’s bread is the best I’ve ever had.  Those hard farmer hands could knead the evil out of the devil himself, and she knew when to stop, too.  Her dinner rolls were feather light, always tender, and had the best crust!  Thick and sweet and browned, perfect for dunking, with plenty of the narcotic chemical agent found in all delicious brown foods:  caramel, bread crust, brown butter, toffee, even popcorn.  Call it the operatic demise of sugar.  Jeffrey Steingarten wrote a concise, heartfelt column about it for Vogue (June 2009, I think) that is worth reading, for information or strictly for sense memory of the most delicious foods.

He would have loved my great-aunt’s bread.  In summer, we would take tiny strawberries (not the big thyroidal white-core clonkers from the store, but ripe berries from our own garden) and make strawberry sandwiches with real butter and a sprinkling of sugar.  Glass of cold milk (whole milk for us farm kids) and that was a heaven I’ve never been to since.

So needless to say, I love bread wholeheartedly.  I also give it the fearful respect all white drugs deserve.  Cocaine, white sugar, heroin, HFCS, wheat flour, crystal meth, and pasta are all part of the same Schedule I food group.

Unfortunately, one of my great food romances is the sandwich.  I can cheerfully get by with lettuce wraps a good deal of the time, but the real deal gets me right in the breadbasket, so to speak.   (I’ve just deleted nearly a thousand words of praise for my favorite sandwiches.  No one needs a list of the delectable combinations out there. And I don’t need to torture myself, no matter how fun it is.)

So, despite my growing up with farmer white, I’ve fallen in love with the family of breads.  Challah was a no-brainer, as were all forms of rye.  I was an early adopter of focaccia, ciabatta, and michetta.  Sourdough from scratch was a cheap way to experiment with cooking when I was a broke college student, and I made great slow-rise pizza crust for my on-campus joe job back then.   The Mediterranean life captivated me for a while, and a little bread with olive oil and salt was a new kind of delicious.

Eventually I created a perfect sandwich, a gift from the saluminati on high:  a very crusty hoagie roll, lightly gutted; some shaved veggies (red onion, peppers hot and sweet and pickled, romaine, cucumber); some shaved meat (hot capocollo, sopressata, parma ham, porketta); and red wine mustard  vinaigrette (not too much.)  It’s one of the mother sandwiches, ready for anything.  Add mushrooms and black olives if you’re feeling it, or cheese, or whatever; that is a sandwich that can seat six comfortably.  Pile it on Dagwood style.  Add a fried egg if you like; it can handle it.  Shrimp can take it in a lovely direction, or sliced boiled eggs, or a pile of sauerkraut.  Seriously, you’d be pleasantly surprised.

The crusty roll is the foundation for this and many perfect sandwiches.  I have become a lover of substantial bread.

But when, lord, WHEN, did people decide that the Rustic Loaf (usually sourdough, here in the Bay Area) — unsliced, ungutted, unassailable — would make a good sandwich?  It’s thick as a brick.  I have a mouth like the Hoover Dam (seriously, I have frightened dentists who told me to open wide) and I can’t accommodate this huge chunk of dough.  It’s usually either dry enough to choke you, or a gluey sponge for excess condiments.  Either of these problems is sufficient to scrap the project and start over.

But maybe you like an inch of dense bread on either side of the contents.  Now the question is one of proportion.  A four-ounce portion of meat fits in the palm of my tiny hand, and that is undetectable in the huge wad of dough we’ve been handed.  Chances are good you were served something with a noticeable pile of meat and cheese, in the attempt to even out this block-like loaf with a pile of fillings.  It’s a mountain of food.  But guess what?  It’s still too much bread.

Because this bread is usually tough as hell.  I don’t just mean the chewy crust, I mean the tougher-than-leather interior — though the combination of both is the equivalent of body armor.  You shouldn’t have to grab a sandwich with both hands, chomp down hard, and yank the bread from side to side to win the battle of the bite.   My teeth are strong and I have a wicked jaw, but as a friend / host / cook, you should not require your guests to struggle with hand-held food like a pit bull set to fight a bear.   Such a sandwich is impossible to eat cleanly, much less gracefully.  It’s easy to jar your teeth or even loosen them on these things.

Some folks have tried to avoid the problem by hollowing out a sourdough round and filling it with clam chowder.  I have news for you people:  if your chowder is thickened with flour…to the point that it no longer counts as a liquid and can’t penetrate your bread…you have made an inedible pot of glue.  Anything that will break a sink Dispos-All and clog the bathroom pipes probably shouldn’t be consumed as food.

Try this instead:  a clam po’boy, adapted from Peg Bracken’s recipe for Eddy’s Oyster Loaves, from her excellent work, The Compleat I Hate to Cook Book.  I make them with clams instead.

  • Slice a grinder lengthwise, leaving a hinge, and toast the opened roll.  Brush the interior with garlic butter.
  • Toast the breadcrumbs with seasoning (I like garlic and onion powder, with a little parsley, cayenne, and thyme.)  Sizzle a dozen clams in seasoned butter.  Mix them together and stuff the roll.
  • Wrap the closed sandwich in cheesecloth, twisting the ends tight.  Dip the whole thing in milk.   Pop it into a medium hot oven for 20-30 minutes.  Slice it on the diagonal to serve.

“Eddy was a San Franciscan who owned a bar and made small oyster loaves for his married male customers to take home to their wives. These were pacifiers. But Eddy is dead now, and Mother must pacify herself. This is good for a special lunch. I also know a family who has it traditionally as Christmas Eve supper.”

And to all, a good night.

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