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Cooking is Hope: Braised Chicken, Courtesy of Chez Panisse

02/01/2015 03:41 pm ET | Updated Apr 03, 2015

I am normally not irresponsible, at least when it comes to feeding my kids. Usually, our fridge is a lot like the one Philip Roth satirized in Goodbye, Columbus. There are drawers crammed with carrots, red peppers and purple grapes, and a freezer stocked with whole chickens and packages of flank steak. On the counters, baskets brim with bananas, sweet potatoes, apples and oranges. I have teenage boys and if I don't keep healthy food in the house, they will fill up on pretzels and Gatorade. But for this most recent snow storm, the cupboards were pretty bare.

The reason I hadn't shopped was that I had had a sinus infection for 10 days, and I had mostly been lying around the house, reading. Though I had managed to haul myself out of bed to teach two writing workshops and go to one cooking class, Friday at 8 p.m., I pulled down the shades and slid under the covers for the night.

Then a miracle happened. I woke up feeling rested, cheerful, and ready for fun! But fun did not mean a trip to the grocery store. As much as I love to cook, I don't always love grocery shopping. So I looked around to see what we had in the house that could be used to make something from Twelve Recipes, a new cookbook by Cal Peternell.

Oh, that book! Peternell, the head chef at Chez Panisse, is blonde, bearded and tres beau. There are pictures of him, laughing, chopping parsley and grating cheese with family, in their sunny house in Berkeley. He's also a talented artist and the book is filled with his charming illustrations. Hello handsome. He's married (there are pictures of his wife as well as close-ups of him chopping with his wedding ring on) so buy the book and get to know him that way because he's also practical and very funny. "Some kids have to wash the car, my kids have to wash the parsley and here's how," he explains. "Fill a big bowl with cold water and dip the whole bunch of parsley in, swishing it around like you mean it. Lift it, give it a a preliminary shake and then drip as little as possible as you walk quickly outside. Swing the bunch by the stems, flip it like a whip, spritz the sidewalk, the yard, the dog, the world."

In his seminal chapter on braising chicken legs, Peternell directs the reader not to put the chicken legs in the fridge after you've seasoned them: "Unless you're cooking in the tropics or there's a hungry, ill-trained dog capable of counter jumping, they need not be refrigerated. Leash that dog and dredge the chicken legs."

I could not put this book down and not just because of Peternell's good looks. His light-hearted directions made for a nice contrast to Edith Pearlman's book of short stories, Binocular Vision, which I was reading at the same time.

I love Edith Pearlman. She is a genius, an American Alice Munro, though her stories are shorter. Her husband is a psychiatrist; her stories are crammed with subtle observations about the complications of love, and her characters endure jarring events. One of my New York students had pointed out that Pearlman's new book Honeydew was out and asked if we could read her in class. I had taught some of Pearlman's stories from Binocular Vision when it first came out in 2011. The challenge was to find a an old story that we hadn't already discussed or a great new one. I thought about "Granski," which examines the consequences of incest at a summer house in Maine, and "What the Ax Forgets the Tree Remembers," which looks at female mutilation in Somalia and latent homoerotic desires in suburban Boston. Needless to say, many of Pearlman's stories are a bit dark. I settled on "On Junius Bridge," which deals with kidnapping,

Whenever things with Pearlman became too intense, I picked up Twelve Recipes. Adding to its many pleasures, Peternell says he wrote this book for his oldest son, who had gone off to college and needed a basic cookbook to help him get through school. My older son is going to college next year and though I don't dare hope that he will become an inventive and ambitious cook the moment he moves into his dorm, Peternell's faith in his son gives me a smidgeon of hope for ours.

And cooking is hope.

After being sick for so long, I was hopeful to the point of delusional because if I didn't go grocery shopping, we might well run out of food in the storm. Still, I chose cooking over shopping and made Peternell's Pasta Amatriciana (pasta with tomato sauce and bacon). I substituted turkey bacon for pork cheek, and everyone in the house gobbled it up for lunch. It was so successful that I decided to make his braised chicken legs for dinner. The only problem was that we did not 100 percent have all the ingredients. For instance, the recipe calls for chicken legs. We had bone-in chicken breasts. You are supposed to dredge the chicken thighs in flour. We had a big box of gluten-free flour, but not much of the regular stuff, so I had to hope that the gluten-free stuff would work (it did). We didn't have yellow onions, just shallots, and we only had one cup of chicken stock, not the three he suggests. We did have an old, open bottle of red Spanish wine, hidden behind the microwave, and we had fresh sage, celery, garlic, bay leaves and some nice Irish butter, so I figured what the hell and started to cook.

In a word, this chicken, made with old wine and a mishmash of ingredients, was extraordinary, possibly the most delicious chicken I have ever eaten. We only had four chicken breasts so I tried to limit my portion to half, but I couldn't stop myself. I ate one whole breast and then started on another. The sauce itself is exquisite. My husband asked, "Where's the rest of the chicken?" That's it, I said. Then, damning myself to hell and back, and knowing that my younger son had already filled up on the pasta, I shrugged and said, "David probably won't eat it. You can have his."

On the second day of the snowstorm, I woke up feeling pretty grim. We had no grapes or carrots and were down to our last sweet potato. I guiltily peeled the last orange, and told my kids not to use the yellow apples as baseballs, which they sometimes do when cabin fever sends them outside to bat apples around the driveway. But then the sun came out and I remembered that at the end of March, I'm flying to California to do a reading from my book at Book Passage in Corte Madera. I'll be visiting my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, who live a few blocks away from Chez Panisse. Maybe I'll stop by and see if Peternell wants to talk chicken.

Here's to a teaspoon of hope and a tablespoon of delusion.


Braised Chicken Parts (adapted from Twelve Recipes)

Ingredients:
5 chicken legs (drumstick and thigh together; I used four bone-in chicken breasts)
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
All-purpose flour, for dredging (I used gluten-free King Arthur Flour)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil or butter (I used butter)
¾ cup white or red wine, beer, chicken stock or water (I used red wine)
1 yellow onion, diced (I used three shallots)
1 large carrot, diced (I used ½ bag of baby carrots)
2 celery stalks, diced
2 garlic cloves, chunked, chopped or sliced (I sliced them)
Roughly chopped leaves from thyme, rosemary or sage sprigs (I used sage)
1 bay leaf
3 cups chicken stock or water (I used 1 cup chicken stock, 2 cups water)
6 parsley sprigs

Season chicken well with one teaspoon salt and one teaspoon pepper. Let chicken sit for 15 minutes to an hour or overnight. (I let mine sit for an hour.) You don't need to put the chicken in the fridge -- it's actually better if it comes to room temperature before cooking.

Mash up carrot, celery and onion in food processor or by hand. Set aside.

Put flour in deep bowl, add chicken parts and tumble around so chicken is completely coated. Shake off excess flour. Bring skillet to high heat. Add two tablespoons of oil or butter and once it's melted, quickly add the chicken. Cook on one side for five minutes, then turn over and cook for three more minutes. Add more butter or oil if it looks dry. Turn off skillet, remove chicken to a plate and turn oven to 450 degrees.

Pour grease out of skillet, return skillet to medium heat and deglaze by adding wine. Scrape bits of chicken off bottom of skillet with a wooden spoon, then pour the deglazing liquid into a bowl. Add remaining butter or oil to skillet, then add the onion, carrot and celery and remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic, thyme/sage, and bay leaf and cook for a minute.

Put chicken parts back in the pan, skin side up, along with reserved deglazing liquid and stock or water. Bring to a simmer, then put the skillet in the oven. After five minutes, lower heat to 325 degrees, and cook for 30 to 40 more minutes. When chicken looks done, remove chicken to a new plate, pour contents of skillet into a small, deep bowl and allow fat to rise for five minutes. Skim off top layer of grease, pour liquid back into skillet with chicken and vegetable mixture, bring to a simmer and put back in oven for five minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and eat immediately.

This is also delicious cold, three days later.


Pasta Amatriciana


Ingredients:

Salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 pound bacon, cut into short stick (I used turkey bacon)s; you can also use panectta or to be most authentic, guanciale (pork cheek cured like pancetta)
1 garlic cloves
crushed red pepper flakes
1 15-ounce can peeled whole tomatoes, chopped, juice reserved separately (I used San Marzano tomatoes)
1 pound bucatini or spaghetti (I used egg noodles)
Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese (I used parmesan)

Put a big pot of water up to boil. Add salt. Add pasta and stir frequently.

Heat large skillet over medium heat Add 1 tablespoon of oil and the bacon. Cook until bacon starts to brown around the edges, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and and red pepper flakes, cook for a second, and add tomatoes. (I crushed the tomatoes in my hand as I added them.) Raise heat and bring sauce to simmer. As the skillet gets to looking too dry and sizzle, add doses of the reserved tomato juice. When pasta is done, drain and toss it in the pan with the sauce and parsley. Add grated cheese to taste.

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