Monday, December 10, 2007

Cold weather food

It's winter and time for warm, wholesome comfort foods. A few years ago Clever Wife had some dental work done and we ended up eating soft food for about a month. 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. I posted this recipe about two years ago, but it's worth repeating.

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 a can or two 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 that you can handle them. When you can handle the chicken, 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 or two. Refrigerate 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 it 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 but don't over do it, this is stew, not soup. Add a large 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. I use a Yukon gold potato as thickener. I cut the potato into large pieces and cook it in the stew. Just before serving, I fish out the potato pieces, throw then into the blender with some of the liquid from the stew, blast it into a good thick mush, and return it to the stew.

Garnish with the fennel fronds and fresh grated Parmesan cheese. Serve with a light salad, whole grain rolls, and another bottle of wine. Like any stew, it gets better every time you rewarm it.

This is good winter food.

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