Nostalgia versus the Roasted Chicken

“O dear God, not chicken again!” was a common refrain  in my household and across many other houses as well. Chicken was tasteless, a poor excuse for a good meal because it was overcooked and dry. The skin was a spongy limp mouthful of yuck. Hiding it under tomato sauce or burying it in flavored rice did not dispel the fowl’s worst qualities.

(Fried chicken was apparently in a food class by itself and had little functional relationship to the roasted, broiled, baked, or boiled fowl of gastronomic dismay. My memory is a bit fuzzy but I am fairly certain that fried chicken was an entirely separate category in the food pyramid, right up there with candy, cookies, brownies and cakes, which is why my mother would not make it very often. Fried chicken is still the top American entry for the title “Food of the Gods” in my book.)

The domesticated chicken in the West emerged from India from a small red jungle fowl. A similar chicken emerged in the East, probably from Thailand. Cocks crowing are mentioned in the Bible but when the Bible discusses sacrificing birds and eating them, the text is referring to turtle doves. Ancient Greece mentions chickens by 600 BCE but again, as cocks crowing. They were considered exotic birds. Ancient Persia deified them and a pope elevated them. The earliest chicken recipes come from Rome, where the bird was preferred boiled and served with sauces made with the offal.

No fried chicken for the Romans.

According to the New York Times, roasted chicken is supposed to be a nostalgic comfort food that evokes the ancient ritual of families sitting around the table together to eat dinner. What I remember as nostalgia was picking up a white oven-bag of a whole roasted bird from the heated tray at the Winn Dixie after band practice and before homework. The birds in those bags were always available, no matter the day. Adding to the cozy warmth of store-cooked birds was the expectation of the leftovers of this salty, greasy mess turning into an unrecognizable science experiment by the next morning. Perhaps nostalgia for roasted chicken is a bit more fiction than food writers are willing to admit.

Returning to the dish: The holy grail of the roasted chicken dish is moist meat, crispy skin, and sweet juices collecting underneath for a simple gravy. I assume that a generation ago the educated cook could turn out a great dish with just a little bit of effort on the small, non-hybrid birds. Today’s version of oversized breasts and un-exercised muscles makes the cooking overly cumbersome and usually not worth the effort: the finished fowl today is typically not a religious epiphany.

However, even with the hurdles of the modern chicken farming (which is scary), a home kitchen can turn out a decent roasted chicken. The essential tool one needs for roasted chicken is a cast iron pan. Without cast iron, this simple recipe will not work.

1 whole chicken

Butter, oil or (best) chicken fat

Kosher salt and ground pepper

 

Preheat oven to 350o F

Wash the chicken. Pop out one thigh bone from the spine. Using a knife or chicken shears, cut the chicken in half up that side of the spine. Turn the chicken over and, using the palms of your hands, press down and break the breast bone, leaving the chicken flat.

Cover the bottom of the cast iron pan with kosher salt. Place chicken in the pan, folding the thighs so that the legs are facing in. Rub the chicken with the preferred fat. Season the skin with more kosher salt and pepper.

Shove the pan in the oven and roast for 90 minutes. Ten minutes before the end, check the skin. If the skin is not crisp, turn on the broiler to crisp the skin, being careful not to burn it.

Remove and plate the chicken if serving immediately. If not plating, let the bird rest on a chopping board, covered. The juices in the bottom are usually three or four tablespoons of fat and the rest is juice. You can use these juices either to make a gravy or to pour into a mason jar for another dish. I use the chilled fat from the mason jar to coat my roasted chicken the next week and the solidified juices for the gravy.

 

Immigration 30 Jan 2017

Waiting for the train into the city, I overheard two people talking with the casual loud volume long attributed to Long Islanders while we waited on the platform. “Thank God, I did not have to fly out yesterday,” the first one said. “The airport was a mess.”

“Yeah,” said the other, “the getting in/getting out was ridiculous.”

My spirit sank into my belly, listening to these two adults discuss the spontaneous protests that broke out at JFK airport yesterday when President Trump’s travel ban was put into force. They appeared not to have a care about the issue of immigration and morally reprehensible nature of the executive order. Their only concern was selfish inconvenience. The protest spread across the JFK property, blocking lanes and parking garages, splashing the headlines, but these two did not want to discuss the politics that provoked it. To me they were ostriches with their heads in the sand.

Then I received an email from a foreign journalist trying to track down one of the board members of my organization. The reporter informed me that my board member was overseas and found herself barred from returning to the United States. She is Muslim and the reporter wanted to interview her. Frantic emails over twenty-four hours went unreturned. The board of directors bounced back and forth, debating what we could do besides pray, to help our stranded friend and compatriot. The terrible numbness of helplessness appeared on the edges of the conversation.

This morning we heard from her. She is okay and her company has provided attorneys. On the advice of her attorneys, all information is being kept confidential for the moment until they give us clearance to speak. No promises though.

My dismay and disgust with this unconstitutional and racist order did not grow when I had a name of someone I know affected by this evil decree. My abhorrence had already reached a critical mass. This morning I am left with planning an organizing initiative on behalf of my board member and praying that I do not have to use it.

Speak out. Demand that your community leaders go on record opposing this executive decree. Remind your state and national leaders that their party affiliation, Republican and Democrat, will not shield them from the repugnance in the streets of their districts. Insist that your clergy denounce it publicly. Remind your friends and acquaintances that there is no more time to hide one’s head in the sand, hiding behind misplaced partisan loyalties. Remember as well, this was only the first week of the new presidency.

Pizza, no pretensions

Pizza, for all the fanfare and faddishness about it, is another example of a flatbread. Some historians and anthropologists conclude that flatbread was probably the first type of bread created and certainly, it origins predate written history. Relatively late historical entries in the record include Persian soldiers baking flatbread on their shields out on fields and Classical Greeks serving flatbreads painted with olive oil and topped with cheese.

While flatbread concoctions such as pizza magherita emerge from noble Italian houses, pizza was a poor family’s food. The dough was basic and cooked very quickly. In Southern Italy, the very poor could bring their own scraps of dough to the baker and cook a pizza in the baker’s oven at the end of the day for a coin or two. Anything could be thrown on top. Flatbread with toppings had been sold in takeaways and in outdoor stalls for centuries to the working classes.

Pizza dough today is enriched white flour and often cut with shortening for extra crisp, very difficult for those with food intolerances. Whole wheat pizza dough is often bitter and hard to crisp, even on a baking stone. However, there is a trick, a simple ingredient that suppresses the bitterness and promotes crispy, even as a leftover for breakfast the next morning: buttermilk.

NOTE: Most buttermilks have extra chemicals. The best buttermilk is only pasteurized milk and two bacterial cultures.

This the bread machine version: (in order of placement in loaf pan)

  • 1-1/4 cup water
  • ¼ cup buttermilk
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 3 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1 Tbl sugar
  • 1 Tbl bread machine yeast

 

  1. Set on quick dough setting (45 minutes).
  2. Remove and place dough in ceramic bowl and cover with plastic wrap, letting sit until dough rises (1/2 hour to ¾ hour)
  3. Make pizza, focaccia bread, or flat bread of choice.

Can be refrigerated in Ziploc for up to 24 hours.

The Pretensions and Potholes of “Pure Food”

There is nothing quite like pretentious people whose condescension and arrogance destroys a community’s good will for everyone else. They leave behind them a wake off-putting ill will and sour judgments for those who come after them, those who are not pretentious but have the same issue. Purity of food for purchase is a maddeningly complicated issue but it is doubly so for those with food intolerances. Their pursuit safe food to consume amid the complications of the industrial food complex is exacerbated by the elitist aspersions cast upon them as they search.

Typically, two sorts of people pursue a pure food diet: those who believe that a diet stripped of modern food chemistry processes will prolong and enhance their lives, and those who already have health issues, especially people with catchall vaguely understood syndromes such as Chronic Fatigue and Hashimoto’s. Controlling what one consumes is not typically curative but avoiding certain ingredients is a significant strategy for mitigating symptoms.

Pure food is a trial of patience. Trying to maintain such a strict regimen is expensive and takes significant hours for researching, shopping multiple sites both online and bricks-and-mortar, and then cooking. (Try finding a can of tomato sauce without citric acid in it.) As an exceptional and desired purchase, pure foods are often the most expensive in the store; they spoil faster.

Pure food is any ingredient that has not been genetically altered, fertilized with aluminum-based chemicals, and has not been adulterated with man-made chemicals before it reaches your kitchen. Pure foods do not really exist in the 21st century. Most of the common grains have been genetically altered the laboratory. The pursuit of high yield fields or insect-resistant stalks using modern laboratory techniques rapidly changed the genetics of wheat, corn, soy, and other grains. There is no way back either to earlier stocks. Economics play a role as well, emphasizing bigger harvest varieties, which are not as tasty or nutritious as progenitor varieties. Even more, processes used in the fields, such as killing the wheat with Roundup® two weeks before harvest to dry out the stalks for easy harvesting, are not the best for human health. From seed genetics, to field maintenance and onto harvesting, every step has the potential to corrupt the purity of the grain.

An enthusiast must seek out “heritage grains” or “heirloom vegetables and fruits” to find ingredients that our inherited guts have learned to digest easily from centuries past. However, if the farmer uses common fertilizer, which is an aluminum product, the plant is absorbing unwanted elements from the soil. Harvesting using the chemical-kill technique reduces the purity of the grains (by absorbing the killing agent) while the techniques of harvesting fruits and vegetables before they are ripe and zapping them with gas to ripen later along with FruitFresh® to give them flavor introduces all the chemicals a food purist is seeking to avoid. A shopper in a grocery store or a specialty shop cannot truly know what happened to that product, grain, vegetable, or fruit before it arrived for purchase.

Eggs are an issue. Besides the factory-style cruelty to animals, the eggs that chickens lay are the product of what the chickens eat. The same rules apply to all manner of meat. Feeding animals is expensive, yet there are inexpensive alternatives, all of which are neither healthy for the animals nor for the human consumers.

Milk? Do not purchase ultra-pasteurized, which is seared milk overlaid with chemicals to mask the burnt flavor.

The popular response to this search for purity is BUY ORGANIC. An entire shelf of books has been written on the falsehood of the term, organic. In brief, the USDA’s primary mission is to help American food companies sell their products. Their secondary, some claim tertiary, mission is food safety for the consumer. In this context, Organic is a poorly regulated term with a porous definition and many legal exceptions. Ultra-pasteurized cream can be/is still labeled organic.

Pure foods cost more but the price sticker is not proof of quality. For those with food intolerances, the only method is to experiment. If the ingredient makes you feel ill, which is typically headaches, nausea, cramping, slight temperature, inflammation, popped-out belly, or messy bowel movements, do not eat it again. (Sound like fun, let’s try it again!) This method is neither healthy or even easy to pursue – try counting the number of discreet ingredients a person eats in one day. Further, limited diets restrict a social life, going out for meals with friends or going to visit others in their homes becomes an always losing game of how long can I stay before I feel sick?

The pretentious person takes this pursuit of pure food as a moral crusade, opting to justify their food choices as a pursuit of ethical and moral principles that have been compromised by greed and power. They play a blame game and it is this blaming behavior that sets teeth on edge and causes eyes to roll. For those trying to mitigate symptoms of poorly understood, often disbelieved diagnoses, the issue is not moral even if the moral component exists. The issue is just being able to eat without getting sick.

Food purity is not Western diets versus the rest of the world. Where allowed, food flows from distant points all around the globe. Modern chemistry and food processing techniques make this world-wide distribution possible, making the variety of available foods at any time of year astounding. However, this global food market is not always necessarily good or healthy. Food intolerances are spreading and escalating. While others can debate that food purity is a moral and economic issue, food purity is a health issue for those most affected. The afflicted still hope for a magic list of foods they can consume without getting sick, and perhaps this is the core moral issue.

 

 

 

Dirty Rice; Dirty History

One of the weekly standby dishes easily found in Louisiana cooking is dirty rice. A boxed version of dirty rice located the grocery shelves offers a popular version of the dish, “just add ground meat” and you have a great family meal. There is nothing grand about the history of the dish though and today’s recipes for the dish are a far cry from its origins – thankfully.

 

Dirty Rice was a poor family’s cooking. While the slaughtered chicken went into the stew pot up in the plantation house, the slaves or the tenant farmers were left with the chicken guts, even the chicken feet. The Louisiana plantations planted rice in the bayou where it grew plentiful and cheap for the locals. The original dirty rice was cooked chicken guts, the gizzard, heart, and kidneys, cooked in a pan. Afterward the cooked organ meats were chopped fine while the rice cooked in added water in the same pan. The two ingredients were seasoned with salt and pepper before serving. Dirty rice tastes good but the appeal loses some of its luster when considering what was being served in the better houses.

 

For the poor of Louisiana, Black, White and Cajun, dirty rice was a filling staple dish. The dish required local ingredients only and provided stomach filling satisfaction. As a family gained more wherewithal, they kept dirty rice but added more ingredients. Andouille sausage was ground pig stomachs and spices, yet, cheaper than cuts of pork but more expensive than chicken guts. The sausage was added to the pot of rice. Vegetables came and went as they became available and then disappeared with the seasons.

 

Dirty Rice has not changed. Organ meats are still the least expensive items in the meat case. Ground beef and ground chicken are more expensive but adding more rice to the dish stretches out how many mouths one dish can feed, so penny-pinchers can still indulge. Of course, one can sauté vegetables and fold them in, or add hot sauce for an added flavor burst. The dish continues to be trash cooking at its finest, perfect for wilting greens and forgotten items in the back of the refrigerator that are still usable if cooked.

 

Just as an aside, after swapping out the organ meats for sausage, chicken meat and vegetables, the dish is called jambalaya. Add some chili powder for a kick if you want.

 

Dirty Rice is presented as “authentic Louisiana” cooking, a dish that every visitor to the state should seek out and savor. For tourist dollars, one can taste the echo of poverty. Everyone should and while sampling the food, a person should also appreciate the ingenuity and skills of these poor communities that turned the least desirable ingredients into a specialty.

 

Dirty Rice

1 lb.          ground meat (any kind will do)

3/4 cup   medium grain white rice

2 cups     water

Salt & pepper

 

Sauté the meat in a heavy pan (like cast iron) until browned. Remove and set aside, leaving the grease in the pan. Add rice and water, cooking 15 minutes or so until rice is soft. Return meat to pan. Season with salt and pepper to serve.

An American Riff on the Latke

Lifting the lowly potato-onion pancake latke to a seasonal ethnic cultural point is a yearly rite of passage in these United States among the Jews. The lifting is also absurd. The latke was not a symbol of great Jewish culture or ethnic identity in Russia or Poland nor was it meant to be. The latke was a symbol of persistent poverty. As Eastern Europe and its vast spread of peasants plunged into winter at the end of the calendar year, the poor family’s larder shrunk as the fall harvest bounty disappeared. Those who had a few more pennies stocked up on sausages and salamis, well-salted and suited to stay untainted through the long, cold winter. Potatoes and onions maintained well in cold root-cellars for everyone though.

If the history strips away any romanticized version of life in Eastern Europe, it is because of a more important truth. This persistent poverty with no hope of a better life was the engine of Jewish migration to the United States from 1880 to 1923. The Russian czars of the Romanov dynasty had turned Jew-hatred into an obsession. The Jews had to leave.

America was a blessing to these immigrants. Leaving the abject poverty behind, the lowly latke is allowed a remake in the United States – An American Latke.

  • 1 russet potato
  • 1 sweet potato
  • 1 medium to large onion
  • 1 yellow squash
  • 1 zucchini
  • 1 carrot
  • (You can swap out an ingredient or simply add butternut squash, peeled and seeded)
  • Kosher salt
  • ¼ cup potato starch (for you gluten-avoiding hopefuls)
  • 1 large egg
  • Oil for frying

Shred all the vegetables and place in colander. Add a small handful kosher salt and mix thoroughly. Allow the colander to drain in the sink for 45 minutes to an hour. Quickly wash out the salt with a burst of water and then squeeze as much liquid out of the mixture as possible. Transfer to bowl and add potato starch and egg. You can pre-season with salt and pepper if you like.  Let sit.

Preheat oven to 375º (F). Fill the bottom of your frying pan with oil and heat on medium until nearly smoking. Make a patty in the palm of your hand, squeezing out the liquid. Place gently in pan and do not crowd the pan. When brown on both sides, transfer to baking sheet. Bake 15 to 20 minutes.

Let rest on paper towel for a few moments to soak up extra oil and then serve warm. Serve with applesauce or crème fresh. (I don’t recommend American sour cream products – read the ingredients.)

Daily Crisis in today’s world

Left phone at home!

Yes, you left your phone plugged into the charger on the counter. On the other hand, your phone is now fully charged.

Great lot of good that does me!! Will call later about when leaving and to arrange pick up but no way to notify if I have any problems.  Not good.

You are going through withdrawal. Your thumbs will twitch and your forehead will break out in sweat as generalized anxiety from the absence of digital stimuli sets in. Use medication and attempt human interaction to fill this acute void.

 cell-phone-icon

In Season

When I updated my climate change website and added pointers on approaches to purchasing food stuffs, one of my “friends” who may not receive another invitation to my table for awhile pointed out that my menu did not practice what I had preached. The first point was to buy in season.  This is November and there are plenty of winter squash recipes but few green vegetable recipes, such as Brussels sprouts. I will forgive but the public fault finding did send back into the kitchen. For the late fall in North America:

Fall Roasted Salad

1 small red onion

1lb Brussel sprouts

3 small beets

3TBS olive oil

Red wine vinegar

½ cup fresh parsley chopped

1tsp kosher salt

Salt/pepper

 

8 hours (or more) before serving: peel onion and slice thin. Shove slices in smallest mason jar possible. Add 1tsp of salt. Add red wine vinegar to top of jar. Seal with lid, shake, and store in refrigerator up to three weeks.

One and 0ne-half hours before serving: Preheat oven to 400o . Wash beets and either put them in pie tin and cover with foil or just wrap them in foil. Cut off stems of the Brussel sprouts and half them vertically. Roll them in 2TBS of olive oil and lay them out on a baking tray. Sprinkle with salt. Small beets cook approximately 45 minutes and medium sized ones about 1 hour. Brussel sprouts cook ½ hour.

Pull out the vegetables after roasting and let them cool a bit. Peel the beets and cut off the tops. Dice the beets and add to bowl. Slide Brussel sprouts into bowl. Add last TBS of olive oil and fresh parsley. Add pickled red onion to desired taste. Adjust seasoning by adding salt and pepper.

Can serve warm or cold, but serve warm anyway.

A Lesson in the Demise of Senator Skelos

Former New York State Senator Dean Skelos is going to jail for steering government contracts to his son as well as constructing quid pro quo arrangements for his son. The man was president of the State Senate and now he is convicted felon. At a newsy level his story is just another corrupt politician in a state with a long history of government corruption; however, the Skelos drama was almost an immitigable tragedy for the environmental health of the state.

One of the contracts Senator Skelos was trying to steer to his son was a consultant’s post for a fracking consortium. The deal was contingent on the state legislature passing a bill allowing fracking and Governor Cuomo signing off on the bill. The bill passed, regulatory agencies waffled, and only at the last minute did the governor refuse fracking in the state.

In one of the depositions, Skelos stated something to the effect that nobody wanted fracking in the state anyway. For a sum of a few hundred thousand dollars, the senator was willing to ruin the groundwater across numerous counties affecting thousands of residents and to accelerate climate change with the release that much more carbon into the atmosphere. The greed is bad enough but there is more to consider.

The consequences of fracking cannot be remediated. There are no courses of action that can purge the contamination of aquifers due to fracking. Further, there is no method to recall and seal away the millions of tons of carbon that are released into the atmosphere by fracking. Fracking is destroying areas of the country for lifetimes to come at the least and accelerating possibly irreversible climate change, which is our worst fear. Skelos was willing to do this for $400,000.

At every stage of this fracking debate in New York State, citizens and environmental organizations fought hard, bring to bear the science, the community concerns, and the moral imperative to keep fracking out of the state. Skelos did not give a scintilla of a thought to the science though he did not dismiss it. Worse, he ignored it. He had no moral compass, meaning that all of those impassioned arguments against fracking were trivialized as well. He heard all of the rancor and discord, dismissing it all in a narrow quest for the money.

Those of us who fight for legislation based on climate science are a serious lot, taking upon ourselves this burden as a life or death issue. It is. Former Senator Skelos and his ilk repudiate our fight as if it is just another political skirmish, another opportunity for scoring political points or securing personal financial gain. Their approach is morally reprehensible. Humanists and God believers alike are repulsed for the same reason of short-sighted moral bankruptcy.

The lesson of Senator Skelos is that we cannot relent on the pressure we bring to bear. Dean Skelos was never going to listen but Governor Cuomo did. In any given legislative or regulatory push, we may never know where our voice of reason and merit will overcome the obstacles. So we push; we push everywhere. To friends and foes alike, let all take note that we will not stop until our planet is pulled back from the brink.

Reasonableness

Reasonably one can argue that the death of old ideas leads to new ones but there is a process akin to mourning when a cherished belief is killed off. Learning new ideas also includes learning how to discard old knowledge that is no longer relevant or just plain wrong; in fact, this sort of learning is a necessary skill set. Knowledge changes and evolves as human beings mature and gain life experience. The ideas of a five-year-old are not relevant to the ideas of an eighteen-year-old, nor should they be. Our decades as adults are also dynamic and ideas will continue to drop and add through the years. Saying goodbye to immature ideas is part of the human process of growth.

Ideas actually have parts to them. They begin with assumptions that are taken as true simply because they exist. From the assumptions come the arguments, the justifications of the idea. The last part is the conclusions, the idea itself that appears solid because the assumptions are true and the arguments are sound. When most people talk about ideas, they take the assumptions and arguments for granted and speak only of the conclusions. However, when the soundness of an idea is in question, it is the assumptions and the arguments that are reviewed.

The idea of God is subject to the same rules of assumptions and arguments. In the Jewish, Christian and Islamic worlds, the arguments for the belief in God have been disproved over and over again. Sometimes the weakness is the argument; however, the fatal flaw in all of the ideas about God is the assumptions. (See the work of Immanuel Kant.)

When the assumption is wrong, everything that follows from it is also wrong. A loss of a belief of this depth requires a fundamental reshaping of how a person approaches and operates in the world. The old responses are now empty and hollow because they no longer make sense. While the philosopher can hide in intellectualism and scientist can stand behind rationalism, most of us adhere to the principle of reasonableness, which includes the non-intellectual components of human thought such as emotions. For reasonable people, losing a cherished idea such as a God who is personal and personally involved, is also painful, something that may require mourning.

Ideas are not purely rational or utterly intellectual, contrary to the rigid strictures of the day. There is an interiority* to our search for ideas that resound. They have to also satisfy some need in our interior life or at least offer balm to the questions of why? and why not? of our deepest thoughts. That an idea would satisfy our cravings for answers about the meaning of life or the meaning of our existence is . . . reasonable.

Reasonable as a criterion is much more personal, more personally painful than purely logical arguments. They are also much more satisfying too.

*Philosophy term indicating inner dialogue and reflective thinking of human beings.