Birds of a Feather

Dear readers: please be advised that some may find this post objectionable as it skirts the very edgy topic of guns. No, I’m not writing about the latest gun-related tragedy nor is it a rant on gun control.  I’m just waxing nostalgic, because guns have not always been defined by mayhem and murder.

I grew up in the mid-part of the 20th century when guns were a big part of our existence. My dad was a marksman, an avid hunter, and was very proud of his gun collection and the many trophies that surrounded us.  We belonged to a gun club where we regularly took turns at target practice and skeet shooting.  He saw to it that I had my own .22 rifle and later a .410 shotgun; I learned how to care for them, to use them responsibly, and I became a pretty good shot. It never occurred to me that they could be used for violence against another person. At our house, guns were a form of recreation and largely related to delicious food—our freezer was well stocked with bear, deer, quail, pheasant and whatever else was fair game that year.

My mom was an excellent cook and prided herself in knowing how to best prepare whatever game came through the door. Those meals were highly anticipated events and deeply appreciated by everyone.  As I think about it now, one of my particular favorites was her Pheasant Cacciatore.

Since pheasant can be quite lean, she would soak the pheasant ahead in an herb and red wine marinade to moisten, tenderize, and remove any potential gaminess. Sometimes she would start with a bit of bacon and then brown off the pheasant.  She’d proceed to develop a hearty sauce with plenty of mushrooms, onions, carrot, tomatoes and capers—perhaps she’d throw in a little green pepper, celery, or olives.  I suspect she’d combine the pheasant and all the trimmings in a heavy covered pot and gently braise it in a moderately slow oven.

The recipe has long since been lost, but that’s my best recollection.  I recently reflected on those fabulous meals while preparing my easy mid-week Chicken Cacciatore.

It is made effortlessly with this Instant Pot treatment, yet it is a distant second to my mom’s ‘classic’ version.  When nearly done, mine became a one-pot meal with the addition of a few handfuls of penne pasta!  Still, with those flavors and few favorite pieces of plumb chicken, you really can’t go wrong.

Chicken Cacciatore, PC

Although this is presented in Instant Pot format, directions are included for standard stove top preparation, too. If using dry penne pasta on final, more liquid maybe required.

Ingredients
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 to 6 chicken thighs (bone-in)
1 onion, slice
1 carrot, chop
2 ribs celery, chop
1 pasilla pepper, seed and chop
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, mince
½ teaspoon thyme leaves
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ pound mushrooms, trim and slice
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 cup chicken stock, water or other liquid
1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes with juice
2 tablespoons capers
2 cups approximate, dry penne pasta
Garnish:  ½ cup parsley and 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese

Instructions

  1. If using an Instant Pot, set it medium Sauté, and heat 2 tbsp. oil. Pat the chicken dry, season with salt and pepper, and place in the hot pot. Brown 4-5 minutes per side and remove to a holding plate. Pour off excess fat.
  2. Add the remaining tablespoon oil and sauté the onion until soft. Add the carrot, celery, pepper, the fennel, rosemary, thyme and red pepper flakes, and cook 4-5 minutes.
  3. Add the mushrooms, garlic and a pinch of salt and pepper to the pot. Stir to loosen the fond in bottom of pan with the liquid released from the mushrooms. Increase to medium if necessary, cook 6 to 8 minutes.
  4. Stir in 1 cup chicken stock or water, the tomatoes and the capers.
  5. Return the chicken to the pot, nestle the pieces into the tomato mixture to barely cover them and bring to a simmer.
  6. Lock the lid, set pot to high Pressure for 12 minutes. (If using standard stovetop preparation, cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the chicken is tender.) When time is up, turn off the pot, disconnect, and let rest 10 minutes. Carefully release any remaining pressure and open.
  7. There should be enough liquid in the pot to also cook the penne pasta. Set the pot to medium Sauté and bring back to a simmer.  Add 1 handful of pasta per serving (about 2 cups) and simmer for 10 minutes, until al dente.  Adjust seasoning and dust with fresh parsley and Parmesan cheese.  Serves 4

Get exotic: preserve lemons

Creating my own preserved lemons has been high on my to-do list for some time now.  Although there aren’t many components, it took me a while to get it together:  organic lemons, a fair amount of good quality sea salt, a suitable jar, and time is really all that is required. Lemons and Jar (480x640)

Preserved lemons, used in lieu of fresh lemons, are becoming more mainstream and often available in specialty markets.  In North African and South Asian cuisine, preserved or pickled lemons can age in salt for months to acquire their unique taste. My speedy version will be ready in about a month.  Lemons salted (480x640)After 1 week on the counter and another in the fridge, I couldn’t wait any longer and I tested my first lemon. The rind was soft with a mellow flavor.  Clearly, its growing intensity will echo throughout any dish when cooked.  In this case, the rind of only one lemon wedge was enough for a simple yet superb vinaigrette. Preserved lemons (640x480)

I’ll let the lemons continue to ripen for a couple more weeks and begin to include them in upcoming stews, one pot meals, and plenty of assorted grains and starches.

Preserved Lemons 

Ingredients
7 ripe medium organic lemons, rinse and trim ends
2/3 cup coarse sea salt, approximate
24 ounce canning jar or larger, sterilized
8 juniper berries

Directions

  1. Cut 6 lemons into 8 wedges each, and remove any obvious seeds. Fill each lemon with salt and place in the jar. Continue to press down the lemons and pack tightly into jar, distribute juniper berries evenly. Juice will be squeezed out of the lemons during the process, if it doesn’t cover the lemons, use the juice from the 7th lemon to fill the jar.
  2. Tighten the lid and let stand at room temperature for 7 days.  Each day, shake the jar to distribute the salt among the lemons.  Add more lemon juice if the lemons are not completely covered.
  3. After 7 days, drizzle a little olive oil over the lemons and store in refrigerator for 3 weeks longer, until skin is soft. Test after 2 weeks in refrigerator. Rinse the lemon before using and use the soften rind only.

Small Space Cuisine: Gumbo

I’m fascinated by small spaces―especially tiny kitchens.  Nothing is more challenging than creating great food under peculiar conditions.

Maybe that’s why I loved my time cooking on the water and making the best of whatever came my way:  on sailboats, dive boats, mega yachts―even private tropical islands, where crucial resources such as power and water are often limited.

Smaller spaces tend to make for greater efficiency since everything is within arm’s reach.  However, planning ahead is key since success depends radically on optimizing all that is readily available.

In a limited setting one-pot cuisine is a natural solution for enticing,well-balanced meals.  It might be necessary to make a few concessions along the way, but it will still be amazing.  For example, depending on equipment and space constraints, you might want to re-consider when and where to include a starch.  Perhaps it will make more sense to add it directly to the pot rather than cooking it separately.

Nothing beats gumbo when it comes to meal-time flexibility. Gumbo

By its very nature, gumbo lends itself to tons of variation, too.  Here, nutritional value is easily bumped up by the addition of hearty greens, and full-flavored black-eyed peas, precooked or canned, become a handy, satisfying support component.

For an authentic gumbo flavor, be sure to include the roux process.  Although it is time consuming, this is not a step to skip, and can be done well ahead.  Begin by slowly browning the oil and flour; when you’ve developed a rich, deep mahogany color add the vegetables to the roux.  Include protein such as ham, sausage, or chicken plus some handy dried herbs like thyme and bay; you can even add rice for toasting at this point.   Dilute it all with a good chicken stock, throw in your greens if desired, and let it all simmer 20-30 minutes, until the greens are tender.

If serving rice separately, consider one of the easy microwaveable pouches of basmati― ready in less than two minutes.  Here’s a basic recipe which allows for plenty of adaptation.

Gumbo with Black-eyed Peas and Ham

Ingredients
2-3 Tbsp. oil
¼ cup flour
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
2 cups smoked ham, cubed
2 cups sausage, andouille, polish, or garlic sausage of choice, cut into bite-sized chunks
1 -2 jalapeno peppers, seeded minced
1 tsp dried thyme
½ tsp dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1 tomato, seeded and chopped, or 8 oz can diced tomatoes
1 qt chicken stock, or more
1 tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp red pepper flakes or cayenne, to taste
14 oz can black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
1-2 lbs tender greens, kale, collard or spinach cleaned, stemmed, cup up
2 tsp file powder, optional
Add-ons:
2 cups cooked basmati rice, 1/2 cup chopped green onions, hot sauce

Directions

  1. In a soup pot over medium, heat the oil; add the flour and stir occasionally for 20-30 minutes until it reaches a deep mahogany color.
  2. Add the onion and garlic to the roux, stirring until aromatic and the onion has softened.  Add the jalapeno pepper, the dried herbs, the ham and sausage, and cook briefly to combine.
  3. Add the tomato and slowly stir in the stock, season with salt, pepper and cayenne; add the black-eyed peas and the greens if using, and cook until they are tender 20-30 minutes.  Stir in spinach just before serving.
  4. To thicken gumbo further file powder can be added just before serving, allow it to briefly simmer until it thickens.  Adjust seasoning and serve hot topped with hot rice, green onions and hot sauce.  Serves 4 or more.