Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Let Us Now Braise Famous Hens

So last evening, too late as usual, I was pondering the dinner situation. I had taken a chicken out of the freezer in the morning, but hadn't checked either how many would be here for dinner or what other provisions I had in store. I often do this, and usually it works out rather well. Or at least I imagine it does--but don't ask my children, they complain about the food as a matter of course.

Unfortunately, as I noticed the hour I also observed a few too many bodies in the house. And one still frosty chicken on the counter. A mental struggle ensued--to roast or make soup? Roast chicken may be my family's overall favorite meal, one I can make and expect happy smiles and empty plates. Soup may be one of my family's least favorite meals, accompanied by the aforementioned complaints or (if I am lucky) just blank stares. As any cook knows, though, soup makes one chicken feed a lot more people. Just add veggies to stretch.

I faced facts: one roasted chicken would mean complaints anyway, as everyone in my family expects seconds. I rummaged through the fridge, resigned to making soup, when a sad container of forgotten mushrooms caught my eye. That's it! "I'll make some hunter's style thing" I thought. A braise! "Let us now braise famous hens" I actually said out loud. Ok, so my kids already think I am weird, but if you don't get the reference, don't feel bad, because it's pretty old--from the New Deal era. It is pertinent, though, because we are getting a small taste of the insecurity of those times today, and some of the lessons and tools our grandparents used to muddle through could be of use now.

Braises feed more than roasts, but more elegantly than soup. First, I cut the chicken into pieces, making two parts out of each breast. I suppose there's a perfect way to do that, but I just cut at the joints and it works fine. Then I browned the chicken in some duck fat I had in the fridge (bacon fat would have served just as well, but we happen to be out of bacon), added some cheap red wine and some stock and set that pan to simmering. In another pan, I sauteed some onions, added the mushrooms (sliced) and some garlic. I did the two-pan thing to get ahead, because this way the chicken was thawing/ cooking while I worked with the veggies, which I then added to the chicken. Not classic technique, but functional. I might have added some thyme and black pepper. I threw in some olives--not hunter-ish, but they were winking at me when I grabbed the duck fat. Everything simmered for a bit less than an hour, with the stock and wine cooking down into a lovely sauce. Even I had been concerned for a bit that it looked too much like soup, so I cooked it with the lid only partially covering.

And, it worked. Not the only the braise, but the tactic. Every bit was eaten with gusto, and no kvetching about "not enough." I made a salad, put out some lactofermented veg (I think it was a French cabbage salad that was left over and so left to turn into a sort of garlicky "kraut"--nothing goes to waste here) and we all ate well.

In big families or in lean times, knowing how to make the food we have feed us all is paramount. I imagine FDR's "chicken in every pot" was probably braised (or stewed). A famous hen, indeed.

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