I guess we turned the corner on the winter frost, but it’s not exactly shorts and summer dresses from here on out. I woke up this morning to see a gray scene unfolding outside my window. Trench coats, umbrellas, rain boots, temperatures in the low 40s, though I’ll take 40s any day over below freezing, especially after the snowy winter we’ve had. But I hear we’re not quite out of the forest yet – Andrew tells me there might be some snow come mid-March? If only we could pack-up that word along with all the sweaters and scarves and hats until next winter. Who’s with me?
Perhaps because I wasn’t reared in the culture of pork eating, I am at odds with the animal. It’s not like I didn’t have pork growing up – I remember slivers of lardo and slices of speck, and an occasional pork loin, slow-cooked, studded with garlic cloves and bay leaves. There might have been a cutlet or two in there somewhere. But pork, at least in my memory, wasn’t a staple in our household in Russia, and became almost non-existent the minute we landed in America. My father, for reasons he still can’t furnish, considers pork to be somehow less kosher (or more unkosher, to be exact) than other tref foods. His ruling was final – pork was out – and so it didn’t enter our house unless my mom and I snuck some in, mostly in the form of bacon.
And so, based on this history, I’m really weird when it comes to pork. Really, oddly, inexplicably weird. First of all – we must exclude bacon from the pork umbrella. Bacon is special and is a food group in and of itself. So is speck and lardo and other cured meats like prosciutto. But other stuff is fair game. Pulled pork sandwich? Yes, please! I’ll take seconds too! Pork chop? No, thanks. Pass. Yawn. Pork cutlet? Pass, again. How about an apple-cider braised pork shoulder? Um, here’s my plate, please pile some meat on it! Confused yet?
I swear I didn’t plan this on purpose, but it’s fitting that today’s post is about chicken braised in milk – a recipe from Jamie Oliver. I made this dish awhile back in the spring, right about when temperature turned from crisp and cool to hot and sticky. We woke up one morning – and it was sweltering outside. There was no ramping up – overnight, summer arrived and it seemed ill-timed to serenade anything braised for at least a few months. I put the recipe aside, but vowed to tell you about it first chance I got. Print this recipe and tuck it away somewhere where you can easily find it. It’s going to be a staple for you this winter. I promise you.
The irony of the timing of this post isn’t lost on me either. Less than a day before we depart for vacation in England (a few days of London followed by a couple of days in the countryside), I give you a recipe by one of the country’s most celebrated chefs. I didn’t plan on posting this particular recipe right before our UK sojourn – it just soft of happened. I’ve never properly been to London, outside of business trips and whatnot, so the only way I’ve experienced London before was through the windows of a taxi – not particularly thrilling, to be honest. But this time, it’s all about seeing friends, eating amazing English food, stopping by a pub in the afternoon for a pint or two. We can’t wait. We’re very much overdue for a vacation.
And a word about English food. Somehow, the stereotype that English food is terrible still persists, and it makes me so mad because it’s simply not true. English food is simple, comforting and elegant – without pretense or hyperbole. It’s the kind of food you want to eat right about this time of year. It’s unfussy and welcoming. It doesn’t belabor the point. Maybe years ago, British food was terrible, in the same way American food was terrible. But that’s no longer the case, American food has had a remarkable Renaissance, thanks to chefs like Alice Waters, Dan Barber, and lots of others. Same goes for British food. To be fair, there’s lots of terrible food around us everywhere. Bad food isn’t hard to locate. You can have a terrible meal in France (it’s easier than you think!), Italy, or Spain. You can have terrible food in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, and other gastronomic centers of the country. And we all know that a lot of Europeans still think of American food as a hybrid of prepackaged foods, pizza, and McDonalds. Anyone who’s ever been to Times Square in New York knows that terrible food is all around us. Finding good food, food made carefully, lovingly, thoughtfully, with respect for the ingredients – takes some work. But it’s work that can be handsomely rewarded. Which is why after doing much research and asking some lovely folks about their recommendations, I’ve made a few reservations and I can’t wait to try them. I’ll have a full report when I’m back.
But more on this chicken. This recipe is sort of the recipe blogged round the world. If you’re unfamiliar with Jamie Oliver you should take the time and get to know him. You might have seen his show – Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution where he tried to get West Virginia school children to eat whole foods: including fruits and vegetables. Jamie is on a mission to get us all to eat real food. Whole ingredients. One recipe at a time. You can’t really argue with his motivation – it’s all wonderful stuff. I could go on and on about his projects, but really, you should just go and buy a book of his. Any book. You won’t be steered in the wrong direction, and my guess is you’ll return to buy a few more of his books. Jamie gives you tools to make serious food, minus the preciousness of it all. It’s food you want to take a bite out of: like this one.
One of Jamie’s postulates is that anyone can cook good food. Anyone. Just get a few quality ingredients, and let them stand on their own. And he does it here with this braised chicken. Simply put, you throw a few ingredients in the heavy bottomed pot, add the chicken, and let the whole thing just sort of do its thing. What I love is that left to its own devices, the chicken and the milk along with a few aromatics, fuse together to form something that while looks pretty pedestrian and earthly, yields you something elevated and ethereal. It’s a little bit of a rabbit in a hat trick, except there is no gimmick. The result of a few quality ingredients, left alone on low heat to ponder their fate, produces stunning, show-stopping results. After the first bite, I had to put my fork down and exhale – it was that kind of delicious. And I expect us to eat this well all throughout our trip – the English food I know has always been one of my favorite cuisines. We are coming hungry – London and Kent, you best be ready for us.
Of all the fancy kitchen terms, “braise”, I think, just might be my favorite cooking word around. And one of my favorite words in the English language. It’s a slow and lazy word, luxurious, full. To braise is to have something utterly amazing in the end that yields results far exceeding this unfussy, simple way of cooking. Braising is the antithesis to dry and boring; it is comforting and welcome no matter the season. When I see the word on a menu, I know that time has eased my food into something that falls off the bone, comes apart with a simple pull of the fork, something that’s been coaxed into a delicate state.
There’s something about braising that calms me as well. When my mind is racing and unquiet, when I am over-thinking (which is something I do a lot), braising somehow makes me slow down and take a breath. There’s something soothing about having a pot in the oven slowly applying heat to whatever it is being cooked, patiently transforming it into a dish. Time and heat and patience. And the smell that fills the house with a sense of home, as if saying “Welcome, here food is cooked with care and love. Stay awhile.” I love that feeling. If I could bottle it, I would give it out to everyone I know. There’s no feeling like it.
Could it be that making a trans-Atlantic move at the age of eleven did it? That sense of childhood home is something I can’t even recall. And moving around so much with boarding school and college and then in New York – home is something you make and create, especially in our fluid world of transient apartments, shifting jobs, career changes, or just a desire to pick up and go somewhere new. What anchors us and makes us feel safe, or at least for me, are meals we make at home. Somehow and apartment, devoid of furniture and pictures and personal mementos, becomes a home the minute you turn the stove on, the minute you set a place setting for yourself, or for others. Home is something you carry with you and the memories you make yourself.
Last Sunday, I had friends over for a Sunday supper. I like these Sunday suppers. They are our way of easing into the work-week. They let us talk and laugh and share. I wouldn’t trade these supper for the world. But in addition to the warmth and joy of these suppers, last Sunday was a meal to be remembered. In fact, the consensus was that this might have been the best thing I’ve ever fed my guests. I made twice the amount for our company and there were no left overs. Even my friends’ kids – who are ever the picky eaters, couldn’t put this chicken down.
Dear readers, this chicken is a thing of beauty. It is something that I implore you to make this weekend. Well, maybe you have Easter menus planned out, but please do it soon. This is something I’ve been meaning to cook for quite some time. And lovely Maggie and ever-so-talented Jeanette have made it and raved about it; so this was destined to be a home run. But I had absolutely no idea just how amazing this dish was. Which is why I am being so persistent in telling you to just please make it. I think you will love it. And I think you will want to make it again and again, the same way that I do. You might lick your plate clean, even if there’s company present.