Well. That was fun. I seem to have entirely missed April. And we’re into our second week in May and somewhere in there, I turned a year older. Happy Birthday to me, indeed. I must apologize for my silence – and tell you all, that work has swallowed me whole. It’s like the dog-ate-my-homework excuse. Except the dog here is my job and the homework, in this case, is me. Not a day went by that I didn’t think about you and this little wee space. Did you miss me? I hope so. Because, I have missed you. A lot.
Birthday celebration aside, not much else, besides work, has been going on. At least not in the kitchen. I’ve boiled water for tea. I’ve made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. One sandwich. I’ve ordered some pad thai and some Alaska rolls and I ate them standing in my kitchen while reading the Atlantic. I also acquired a whole lot of cookbooks, from which I am dying to cook, but haven’t had any time. Books like David’s new book and Ad Hoc at Home and Paris Sweets, among a few. If I could magically pull an extra week of vacation from the vacation hat, I would spend the week alone, in my kitchen, puttering around and making food. And then I’d invite my friends over and we’d have a feast. To me, nothing sounds more lovely right now. I miss my kitchen and I miss creating in it. I am hoping that work will calm down shortly. Please hope with me.
However, I’ve been trying to do this thing on Sundays – cook a supper, invite friends over and eat and laugh while sharing the food and a few bottles of wine. All the while their kids try to destroy my apartment, in the nicest way possible. This kid here, he loves to take dried fruit and nuts out of pantry and sometimes, he likes to sprinkle them around the floor. And the best part? I adore him so much, I don’t mind one bit. Not even a smidgen. And this one here – well, he gave me the most amazing birthday hug ever. I mean, this kid can hug. I think it might just be my favorite present this year. I know, I’m giving you all cavities right now. I’ll find my inner snark again eventually.
So a few Sundays ago, for one of these Sunday suppers, I wanted to make this braised chicken. Afghan food speaks to me with its layers of flavors, fragrant spices, delicately cooked meat. I grew up eating a lot of Uzbek food, which my grandmother learned to make having grown up in Samarkand, and while Uzbek and Afghan food aren’t the same thing, they are closely related. It doesn’t hurt that they share a border. My childhood was full of slow-cooked fragrant plovs, Uzbek manty (which are very different from the Turkish ones – in that they are like big dumplings, they are steamed and full of marinated chopped lamb – tasting a lot like merguez) among other dishes. And this chicken dish, while not a straight-up throwback to my early years, reminded me of spending time with my grandmother, in her kitchen, while she turned out one amazing dish after another. Let me tell you – that woman could cook like no other. To this day, I’ve yet to meet a better chef. Nothing, and I mean, nothing ever went to waste. And her repertoire was seemingly endless. I’ve never seen her reference a recipe, never saw her look something up. And while she doesn’t cook much these days, her legacy lives on.
Back to this chicken though. It is a keeper. And I mean – a keeper. I can’t tell you how good this is and how much my friends and I enjoyed it. Even this little monkey got all primitive and ran around the apartment with a drumstick in his hands. As an aside, finding pieces of chicken under my pillow – bonus! But. Oh, there’s a but. This dish here? Takes a lot more time than you’d think and is actually trickier than comes across. So my advice to you before you venture forth – take a deep breath. Also, note to yourself, out loud if need be, that this will involve many steps. This isn’t one of those, throw everything in the pot and just let it do its thing. This is a multi-step, multi-pot, sequenced affair. It requires patience and love and a strong desire to eat Afghan food that night. Oh and a sense of humor if you happen to realize that you have no idea what a “large pinch of saffron” really means. How large is large, really? Do I need a vat of it? Can I take out a second mortgage on my house? Will it take me a full month of April to cook, thereby preventing me from writing anything for four weeks straight? It’s all possible. However, I promise you, what you will wind up with is a dish that is comforting yet seductive. And while it doesn’t excuse my absence for four weeks, at least I am giving you something really worth trying out. Forgive me my silence? I promise to be better going forward.
Wait! Wait! I have an announcement! [Warning: Shameless braggery ahead!]
This upcoming Monday, May 10th, yours truly will make a small appearance on the CBS’ The Early Show about a segment on what people eat when they eat alone. In the spirit of true Russian-ness, I talk about herring, potatoes, onions and pelmeni, among other things. Tune-in and check it out!!
*Photos of kids coming later – my wireless connection is moving at snail-pace today so I can’t upload them.
Braised Chicken and Rice with Orange, Saffron, Almond, And Pistachio Syrup
Adapted liberally from Epicurious & from “Supper for a Song”
1 1/2 cups basmati rice
1/4 cup olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled and minced
coarse salt and black pepper
4 large chicken thighs and/or drumsticks, chopped in half, or 8 smaller ones
some salt and pepper
about 4 cups water
1 large organic orange
1 tablespoon unrefined granulated sugar
1/2 cup slivered blanched almonds
1/2 cup shelled, chopped pistachio nuts
large pinch of saffron threads (use your own imagination, I’m not sure what a “large pinch” in this case is)
2 to 3 teaspoons pomegranate molasses
7 or 8 cardamom pods, lightly crushed, seeds extracted
a handful of blanched, skinned baby fava beans (optional)
a handful of blanched peas (optional)
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, or a Dutch oven, heat the olive oil and throw in the onions. Cook over medium heat until they soften and turn golden. Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper and add them to the pan. Brown the chicken well on all sides, then pour in 2 1/2 cups water and bring everything to a gentle simmer. Cover with a lid and cook about 20 minutes, or until the chicken is tender.
While your chicken is happily simmering away, peel the zest from the orange with a potato peeler and cut it into matchstick strips (this is slightly annoying as the strips are slippery and are hard to stack). Blanch them in a small pan of boiling water for a few minutes, then drain and set aside.
In 1/2 cup (scant) water, in a small, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat, dissolve the sugar, then bring to a boil and cook to reduce and thicken for 5-10 minutes until the liquid is syrupy. To this, you add the orange zest, slivered almonds, and pistachios and boil for 5 more minutes, skimming off any froth that will form during the process. Strain the syrup and pour it back in the pan, but set aside the orange zest and nuts. Add the saffron and pomegranate molasses to the syrup and boil again for 3 minutes. Then add the cardamom seeds.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
Remove the chicken from its braising liquid and set it aside. Add the syrup to the liquid. Make this up to roughly 3 cups with more water. Bring to a boil and add the rice. Season to taste, and add 2/3 of the orange zest and nuts, reserving the rest. Bring back to a boil, then cover and simmer until the rice is cooked – about 20 minutes. The liquid should have all been absorbed by now.
Bury the chicken and onions in the rice and add the fava beans and peas. Put the lid back, and cook in the oven for 20 more minutes.
Serve straight from the pan or, if you prefer, on a large, warmed platter. Sprinkle the last third of the orange zest and nuts over the top before serving.