Alex and I met during our junior year of college when we were both studying in Jerusalem. Inspired by the local bounty, we were just starting to hone our cooking skills and we delighted in exploring food together. In particular, I recall a dinner party in Alex’s dorm room that centered around a canister of Kraft Grated Parmesan that his parents had smuggled into the country. (What can I say? We were young and it tasted like home.)
At the end of the semester, we headed back to the States to finish school. Alex returned to Northern California and I to Upstate New York, but we kept in touch. I would visit him in Berkeley, where we would host lavish (by broke twenty something standards) dinner parties and tool around the Marin Hills. Alex would come to New York City for long walks and down and dirty Chinese food. For a few glorious years, Alex moved to Brooklyn, but the Bay Area called him back for a PhD in Urban Planning.
After a stint in Paris, Alex recently began working as a Lecturer in Geography at Leeds University. Somewhere in the eighteen years since we first met, it seems that we became adults. Fretting over the health of his students, Alex asked whether he might contribute a post or two. The recipes that he offers below are as suitable for starving college students in England as they are for an overworked New Yorker who finds herself suddenly pushing 40.
The Boiled-Chicken Method – Courtesy of Dr. Alex Schafran
Now that the Drunken Fig is required reading for my first year tutees (the Jewish grandmother in me worries that they aren’t eating well), it seems time to contribute some of my favorite tricks for brilliant eating on the simple. This is a super technique for the harried life, very friendly for finicky children/housemates/lovers. It also makes multiple meals at once or a classy two-course.
- Remove your hard-as-a-rock frozen chicken parts from freezer. Works with all types of frozen bits–light, dark and turkey too.
- Place in decent size pot – big enough that you can cover with water thoroughly and boil the hell out of it. I like to add a little salt at this stage, and sometimes a of bay leaf or some oregano, depending on what I am doing with it (see below).
- Boil. Yes, get over your fear of boiled meat and just do it. As it begins to soften up, you can start inserting a sharp knife to make the process quicker, but don’t cut it up too much. This should take about 30 minutes for deeply frozen breasts, longer if they are frozen together into an Übermass of poultry. (If you want to poke at your chicken, press down on it with a spatula rather than cutting into it. If it gives in easily, chances are it is cooked.)
- When your chicken is fully cooked, turn off the heat, and use tongs to remove the chicken pieces. Place them on a wooden cutting board or something that can take the heat.
- When the chicken is cool enough to work with, take a fork in one hand and the tongs in another. Hold the chicken bits with the tongs, and press down and to one side with the fork to shred the chicken. The longer you cook it, the easier it will shred. But the meat will also be a little drier and less flavorful. This takes a bit of getting used to, but you will get the hang of it.
- Place your shredded chicken in a bowl. Now you have two awesome ingredients: a ton of shredded chicken and some fresh chicken broth.
So what do I do with my poultry bonanza?
- Tacos now, soup later option: Mix some olive oil, a touch of salt and pepper, plenty of oregano and a bit of chili powder into the chicken. You can do garlic instead of chili, or both if you like. Heat up tortillas, sprinkle on some cheese (or not, if you want to be traditional), a touch of cilantro and onions and voilà. Freeze broth.
- Dinner tonight, tomorrow’s dinner cooking while you eat: Use the chicken how you will. (Last night it was with garlic spinach over brown basmati rice.) Before you sit down, chop up a bunch of veggies. If you can stand waiting a bit for dinner, a light sauté is generally recommended for the veggies, but it’s not essential. Let the soup simmer while you eat. By the time you are finished, the soup will be ready for pureeing – if that is your way of doing things. Now tomorrow’s dinner is done, save for the hard-crusted bread.
- Soup and chicken together option: Take a can of black beans, and purée it in the chicken broth with some garlic, a touch of cumin and some oregano. Serve with heaping amounts of chicken, a dollop of sour cream for sluttiness and a touch of cilantro, unless you hate it. Works with other beans and pretty much any leftover veggies you have.
- The simple two-course option: Shredded chicken takes almost any sauce and any cuisine well. I have done Japanese style over noodles and then added a touch of miso into the broth for a new take on miso soup. Sautéed vegetables and chicken over couscous with a vegetable soup is also excellent. Quinoa and chicken with a broccoli soup. Ad nauseam.
- The top class Mexican meal: Since this method is inspired by Mexican and Salvadoran cuisine, they get the top class version: Chicken enchiladas with a roasted corn and tomato soup. Actually pretty easy, especially if you cheat and buy enchilada sauce.
After admitting that I have yet to get over this past weekend’s head cold, I came home early today with comfort food on the brain. Alex’s recipes had been sitting in my email inbox for a couple of weeks and there was a three-pound chicken in my freezer. It took about five minutes to get to this stage. (I added onions, garlic, some wilted carrots and a couple of bay leaves.)
An hour later (though, in hindsight, 45 minutes would have been sufficient), I was shredding the meat. I threw the bones and skin back in to simmer while I did some work. After another half hour, I strained the broth, put it back on the heat, and added turnips, shredded collard greens, carrots, dried porcini mushrooms, pearled barley, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Half an hour later, I mixed in some of the shredded meat and dinner was served.
Thanks, Alex, for taking care of me across the many miles.