Sunday, January 29, 2006

Chicken and fennel stew
My Clever Wife has been getting lots of dental work done this year (about a new car's worth). Last year she had all of her upper teeth pulled and began adjusting to life with dentures. Now that the bones are all healed, they checked her out for a better type of denture that requires implants in the bone of her upper jaw. She got the implants on Thursday and will be healing for about seven months before they finish the project. Kids, this why you need to brush and floss faithfully. There is no substitute for a conscientious program of oral hygiene and regular professional care.*

But this isn't a story about teeth; it's a story about food. Last year we ate lots of soft food in the late winter. Clever Wife isn't a huge fan of pasta (she'll eat some but she couldn't eat it every day), so I worked on my stews and casseroles. Chicken and fennel stew turned out to be her favorite--enough so that she still occasionally requests it even after eating almost nothing else for a month. Thanks to the miracle of the modern internet, you can learn how to make this yummy dish.

You will need:
  • A chicken's worth of chicken meat.
  • Broth. If you use a whole chicken, you will, of course make your own broth. If you get lazy, like me and buy packaged, skinless, boneless chicken parts, you will want to get can of plain broth.
  • Dry white wine. Two bottles or more, depending on how much of a Julia Child** at heart you are. If you don't drink, you just need one bottle to cook into the stew.
  • A large fennel bulb.
  • A large yellow onion.
  • A half pound of mushrooms.
  • Herbs. Spices. Other stuff.
  • Cheese and crackers.

If you're using a whole chicken, chop it into parts, put it in a Dutch oven and add just enough water to cover the chicken. Add a little salt. Bring the water to boil, then turn it down to a low simmer. Pour yourself a small glass of wine and go read blogs for about fifteen minutes. When you return, the chicken will be cooked and you'll have a couple cups of broth. Remove the pot from the heat. Take the chicken parts out of the broth and let them cool enough to handle. When you can handle the meat, remove the skin and bones and discard them. Leave about one and a half cups of broth in the Dutch oven and add a half bottle of wine and a bay leaf. Save the rest of the broth. I don't need to tell you how many uses there are for homemade chicken broth, do I?

If you start with skinless, boneless chicken parts, place them in the Dutch oven and cover with equal amounts of broth and wine, a little salt, and a bay leaf. Bring the liquid to boil, then turn it down to a low simmer. Pour yourself a small glass of wine and go read blogs for about fifteen minutes. When you return, take the chicken parts out of the liquid and let them cool enough to handle. Remove the pot from the heat.

The lazy bastards and the whole chicken purists should be at the same place now.

Dice or shred the meat and throw it back in the pot.

Dice the onion and sauté in a little olive oil until the onion bits start to turn translucent. Add the cooked onion to the pot.

Sautéing is hot work, so have another small glass of wine or maybe some not-too-sweet fruit juice.

Dice the fennel bulb and sauté just as you did the onion. If you have never cooked with fennel, a fennel bulb will look to you like the mutant spawn of a white onion, celery, and dill. For the stew, we are just using the onion looking part. The little dill-like fronds are a nice garnish for fruit salads. The celery parts, when chopped, can go in the stew or in a salad. Add the cooked fennel to the pot.

Dice the mushrooms and sauté in a little olive oil with diced or smashed garlic until soft. Add the cooked mushrooms to the pot.

This is a stew; you can add a lot of other ingredients at this point, if you have them laying around. Potatoes and carrots are the most obvious candidates. A little cooked and crumbled sweet Italian sausage brings out the fennel flavor (the liquorish flavor in Italian sausage comes from fennel seed).

Add more wine to cover all of the ingredients. Add a sprig of fresh rosemary. Stir it all together, bring it to a boil, salt and pepper to taste, and cook at a low simmer for at least two hours.

Have another glass of wine and some cheese and crackers while you wait for the stew to cook. Don't spoil your appetite.

As it nears completion add about two teaspoons of balsamic vinegar. This adds a nice dark element in the background, but don't overdo it.

Fish out the bay leaf*** and rosemary stem.

Depending how thick or juicy you like your stew, you might add more wine or add a roux. I like it thick.

Garnish with the fennel fronds and fresh grated parmesan cheese. Serve with a light salad, whole grain rolls, and another bottle of wine.

This is good winter food.

* Except good genes. I haven’t been to a dentist since 1987 and my teeth are fine.
** Did I mention that I met Julia Child once? She dropped by a bookstore where I was working and offered to sign a few books. We weren't a scheduled media stop; she just happened to be in the neighborhood. The manager offered to take into the office and bring the books to her, but she preferred to sit out in the store with the employees and public. She joined me at the information desk and started signing and telling stories. And all I could think of the whole time was Dan Aykroyd.
*** My grandmother was very insistent about the importance of fishing out the bay leaf. You could choke on it and die. She also thought you had to always peel tomatoes, because, otherwise, the skin would roll up into tiny spikes and poke holes in your intestines.

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