Since Christmas morning, I’ve been nursing a mild but persistent cold, the sort of thing that manifests itself in unladylike snorts every few minutes and a nasal bedroom voice by early evening. It hasn’t slowed me down, but it’s made soup sound exceptionally good. So this New Year’s Day, I shelved my tentative plans for good-luck black-eyed peas masala and opted instead for a cauldron of rustic chicken stew.
And because it was indeed a cauldron, I invited my favorite Dutchman, he who crafts beautiful cutting boards, spoils me with sausage and greens, and boasts woodsman biceps as big around as my head. [And I don’t take this last lightly, seeing as the diameter of my head is pretty large; when I was little, I’d wind up in tears every time my mother tried to put me in a turtleneck.]
Nicho arrived, as is now the norm, with Swiss chard and a bag of dog food for Index, who trotted in happily and curled up on the floor in the hallway. I put a small pot of stew on the stove to reheat and cut thick slices of the Essential Baking Company’s Columbia Bread, brushed them with olive oil, and slid them into the oven to warm and crisp. Nicho set to work cleaning and chopping the chard,
which we sautéed quickly with olive oil, a dash of white wine, sea salt, and—at Nicho’s wise suggestion—a few dabs of Dijon mustard stirred in at the very end.
We sat down to deep, wide bowlfuls of stew ladled over the crisped bread, which slowly swelled with broth and yielded deliciously to our spoons. Nicho’s mustard chard made a wonderfully earthy and complex side-note, and we scraped our bowls and plates contentedly, talking between slurpy mouthfuls, watching Index sleep alarmingly soundly at Nicho’s feet. Then, rising to clear the dishes, Nicho presented me with a suspicious pink-and-white striped Victoria’s Secret box, hinting only that what lay within “could be worn.” Tucked beneath a layer of pink tissue paper I found a Ziploc bag full of homemade oliebollen and appelbeignets, doughnuts traditionally served in Holland to celebrate the New Year. And wear them I did—in my belly.
The oliebollen (which translates enticingly to “oily balls”) were cakey, dense, and only slightly sweet, freckled throughout with currants and golden raisins,
and the appelbeignets were surprisingly light, a round slice of apple tossed in cinnamon, coated in batter, and fried to golden.
I can only imagine how treacherously delicious they were the night before, fresh from the fryer and still warm. Nicho blames them for his so-called “winter chub,” which, by all appearances, does not exist and anyway is seasonless, having been a topic of conversation since early fall. He was admirably restrained, only eating half an appelbeignet, but I threw caution to the wind and downed one and a half oliebollen and the other half of his appelbeignet. After all, I’ve got the old “feed a cold; starve a fever” thing on my side.
Chicken Stew with a Secret Weapon
My half-brother Adam and his kitchen-savvy wife and kids made this stew for our family the day after Thanksgiving 2004, when we all needed a low-key, soothing, and restorative dinner. They based their recipe on one created by Jody Adams, a well-known Boston-area chef, and they served it ladled over big pieces of olive-oil-rubbed and grilled baguette. It was absolutely slurp-worthy—comforting and familiar, rustic yet sophisticated.
Recently, my sister-in-law Susan sent me a link to one version of Adams’ recipe, and through a bit of Internet searching, I found another version that resembles even more closely the one they served me. My own version falls somewhere in between the two, featuring, among other things, the addition of a Parmigiano Reggiano rind. An old trick favored by Italian grandmothers, it’s my secret weapon for adding body, richness, salt, and a round, luscious aroma to soups. And if you need a back-up weapon, slip Q and Not U’s Different Damage into your stereo while cooking. It’s delicious too.
3 large, bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts (roughly 3 lbs, preferably free range)
Freshly ground black pepper
Fresh thyme (about 10-12 sprigs)
2 quarts chicken broth (I used Imagine brand Organic Free Range), plus a bit more broth or water for thinning if needed
3 large carrots, cut into rounds roughly ¼-inch thick
3 medium leeks, trimmed, halved lengthwise, rinsed thoroughly, and cut into rough 1-inch pieces
1 Parmigiano Reggiano rind, roughly 2 inches square
1/3 cup tiny soup pasta (I used Ronzoni brand acini pepe, but you could also try stelline, which takes me instantly back to the Campbell’s Chicken and Stars of my childhood)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Rinse and dry chicken breasts, and place them in a single layer in a baking dish. Rub them with olive oil, and sprinkle them with salt, pepper, and roughly 3 sprigs’ worth of thyme leaves. Roast the chicken for 30 minutes, or until it is cooked through and the skin is golden. Set the meat aside until cool enough to handle; then shred the chicken from the bone in large flakes, discarding the skin. [Note, however, that most of the seasonings are stuck to the outside of the skin, so as you remove it, you might consider rubbing it, seasoning side down, against the meat.]
Pour chicken broth into a large pot, Dutch oven, or stockpot. Add the carrots, leeks, cheese rind, and a dash of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and let cook about 25 minutes, until vegetables are tender and broth smells lightly of the cheese. Add the leaves of 7 or so sprigs of thyme, and let cook another five minutes. Add chicken and pasta (and a bit of additional broth or water, if you feel the mixture is too thick), return the soup to a boil, turn down the heat, and let the soup simmer for 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt and pepper if needed. Retrieve and discard the cheese rind. Ladle into bowls.
Serves a lot.