Why Cooking Matters

Monday:        Giant Eagle Roasted Chicken with Cole Slaw

Chez Stewart Azaleas

The deer left some azaleas

Tuesday:       Hummus and Shepherd’s Pie and Lamb Burger from Whispers Pub

Wednesday:     Roasted Red Pepper Soup from Giant Eagle

shrimp

Thursday:        Adriatic Shrimp with salad and polenta

Friday:        Pizza (not home-made but from a local shop which should not be in the pizza business.  The cardboard box tasted better than the pie.

tomato soup

Saturday:      Tomato Soup and Cheese Toasts

chicken cropped

Sunday:        Sautéed Chicken with Buttered Orzo, Fennel and Leeks

We’re not just talking about food here.  The body needs fuel of course, and one doesn’t want to overeat, nor does one want to eat chicken which is hand-raised by child laborers who are starved, and there are even those among us who won’t eat meat or corn for intricate ethical and environmental reasons.  But, aside from these physical and political considerations, why spend time thinking about what to cook and eat?

Before May 9th, I think I would have answered this question purely in terms of pleasure and a certain jaunty balance in life.  But the last two weeks of misery and disorientation (aka knee-replacement surgery and recovery) have shown me that food is one of those things, like work, reading, writing, thinking, entertaining, politics and prayer that depend on our ability to pay attention to and order our lives.  In return, these activities gives structure to the chaos of hours and activities that confront us.  And, approached thoughtfully and sensibly, they can train, control and improve us.

In the hospital, I ate because I was hungry and there was little else to do.  When Barbara wasn’t there (for just one meal, I think) I enjoyed nothing except the ice water. What they did to the eggs was criminal.  And the main dish for every meal was served with a rubberized plate cover that precipitated moisture back into the food making it soggy and then dripped like a glass of iced tea in the summer sun over your sheets or your papers or your book or your swollen leg – there was no place on the damn tray to put the thing.

But all is not lost, I’ve been able to overcome the dominance of my reptilian brain a few times in the last week, and I’m doing even better this week.  Cooking is still as much a chore as it is a pleasure, but we’ll share another simple and quick recipe with you.   We ate this on Sunday evening after watching the Penguins destroy the Senators.  It was a wonderfully satisfying way to end a week.

Note:  The title of this posting pays homage to one of the best non-fiction books of our time, Pete Hamill’s Why Sinatra Matters.  The first chapter of that book is nearly perfect.  It evokes a particular generation of Americans (my father would have been one of them), as well as Old Blue Eyes, in prose that cannot be improved on.  It’s also a very handsome little book, published by Little, Brown and Company.  You should read it.  But get it for yourself, I’m not lending you mine.  Reading Hamill is a sign that my brain is, at last, returning from its anesthetic vacation.

chicken pan

ONE-SKILLET CHICKEN WITH BUTTERY ORZO

(adapted from bon apetit, on-line)

Ingredients:     Feeds 4 light eaters (add 2 more thighs or apps and dessert for heartier appetites)

4 chicken thighs (bone-in, skin on) patted dry
1 Fennel Bulb, chopped – fronds chopped separately for garnish
1 Leek, white and light green parts only, chopped
8 oz. orzo
3 tablespoons butter, divided (you’ll use 2 tablespoons to brown the chicken, 1 to finish the dish)
Salt and ground pepper
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 ½ cups chicken broth, divided (you’ll be using ½ cup at a time)
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1 Teaspoon grated lemon zest

Prep:

Zest the lemon and reserve the lemon itself for the juice.

Preheat Oven to 400 F

Season chicken liberally with salt and pepper

Cook:

Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a medium cast-iron skillet over medium-high.  (You can use stainless pan, but the cast-iron will give you a sear and flavors that can’t be beat.)

Nestle the chicken in a single layer, pieces side by side and cook until the skin is a deep golden-brown, about 7 minutes.  (If you have very large thighs cook 8 minutes).

Turn chicken skin side up and transfer skillet to oven; bake, uncovered, until chicken is cooked through, 10–15 minutes. Now transfer the chicken to a plate.  (Note:  If you have very large thighs, go the whole 15 minutes)

Set the same skillet with all the residual juices and fat over medium and toss in the fennel and leek.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, tossing from time to time, until the leek is looking golden around the edges, about 5 minutes.

Now add the orzo and cook until pasta is darkened to a nice nutty brown in spots and toasty smelling, about 3 minutes. This is important, it gives the orzo a texture and taste that will surprise you.

At this point, pour in the wine and cook, stirring, until liquid is evaporated, about 1 minute.

Add the broth ½ cup at a time, stirring constantly and letting broth absorb before adding more, until orzo is tender and broth is mostly absorbed but pan is not dry, between 10 and 15 minutes.

Remove skillet from heat, taste and add more salt and pepper to your liking; mix in lemon juice and remaining 1 Tbsp. butter, then add the chopped fennel fronds. Pile chicken on top and finish by sprinkling with the lemon zest.

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