Saturday, February 20, 2010

It doesn't get any more local than family...

I find January is usually a quiet month and mine certainly started off that way. A few of us at the office decided to get the New Year and Decade off on the right foot by following Dr. Alejandro Junger’s Clean detox. I did it for five days, felt fantastic, and vowed to keep up the many excellent dietary lessons I learned.

Then the week of the 17th hit. It kicked off with my dad having a strange feeling in his chest and taking a trip to the hospital in an ambulance (turns out his heart is okay but he needs to increase his exercising and watch what he eats – especially sweets, right Dad??). I celebrated my birthday two days later at one of my favorite Manhattan restaurants, Cookshop. The week ended with us rushing my 16 ½ year old cat, Pasha, gasping for air, to the vet. The next three weeks were touch and go for Pash with lots of tears and guarded excitement as she came home. She was with us for two peaceful, adorable weeks. But it was not meant to be and I lost my little girl in the beginning of February. Yes, she was an old lady and I’m comforted in knowing she lived a wonderful life but wow, do I miss her.

Like my dad, Pasha had issues with her heart. Hers failed; thankfully, Dad’s beats on. Mine? It’s broken. While I love working on this blog, I haven’t been able to think about anything but kitty lately. What I’m learning is, like it or not, life goes on. In an effort to ease my sadness I decided to make heart-warming chicken soup and chicken pot pies.

This one's for you, Pash.

Violet Hill Farm Chicken Soup and Chicken Pot Pies

There are many incredible chickens to choose from at my Saturday farmers’ market. Quattro’s, Knoll Crest, Flying Pigs – I’ve cooked them all with delicious results. I recently read Michael Pollan was “blown away” by the chickens from Violet Hill Farm, another attendee of my Saturday market. Since MP can pretty much do or say no wrong in my eyes, I decided to try one for myself.

Violet Hill owners Paul and Alix Dench-Layton farm in Sullivan County, NY, raising goats, pigs, lamb, and guinea hens, as well as a flavorful, clean-tasting French heritage breed chicken called Belle Rouge. As I did a bit of research on them and their farm I discovered many top chefs in the city are loyal Violet Hill customers due to the superior quality of their meats. Really? Where have I been?? It just goes to show - you may have an amazing food producer right under your nose and don't realize it. Always keep your eyes and ears open...

Around the time I crawled out from underneath my rock and heard about these chickens, I also saw a recipe for chicken soup in the January issue of Martha Stewart Living. It seemed to me this recipe and the VHF chicken were made for each other. The recipe has only seven ingredients, three of which are chicken, water and salt. What better way to showcase the taste of this special bird?

The recipe doesn’t require hours of stock making and simmering which appealed to me in my saddened state. I had little interest in cooking and yet I yearned for soothing, homemade food.

I bought my VHF chicken in parts rather than whole and along with breasts, thighs, legs and wings, I also got the feet. A couple of years ago if I had found a pair of chicken feet in my bag of chicken pieces I would have screeched in horror. Chicken feet look unsettlingly human and are therefore a bit creepy. But being an alumna of Farm Camp has made me less squeamish and definitely savvier. At Farm Camp every chef tossed the feet from the bird they processed into their bag and brought them home to make stock.

The feet, you see, are loaded with gelatin. Bones and cartilage have it, too, but not nearly as much. Gelatin has been touted as a health food in traditional cuisines dating back to the ancient Chinese. It is filled with minerals like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon and sulfur, as well as amino acids and anti-inflammatory compounds. Gelatin is what gives stock and broth a rich taste and silky, luxurious mouth-feel.

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century when scientists learned to replicate the flavor of chicken and other meats that making stock from scratch fell out of fashion in Western cultures. Now many of us reach for bullion cubes and canned stocks because it’s quick and easy. The problem is when we do that we miss out on the truly wonderful qualities of the real McCoy. If you need further convincing of the virtues of homemade stocks, read this enlightening article by Sally Fallon,
president of the Weston A. Price Foundation.

What makes this soup so good is you start with water and in an hour or so end up with a beautiful, golden-hued broth filled with healthy, healing properties and comforting, soul-renewing flavor. A good chicken soup has the power to take the edge off illness and, in my case, sorrow. Sick, sad, or just plain happy, this is a delightful soup. I hope you try it.

Basic Chicken Soup
Adapted from Martha Stewart Living January 2010

This is a very simple recipe. In fact, it’s so simple I say unless you’re going to buy the best quality, free-roaming chicken you can find, don’t bother making it. I realize not everyone has access to pastured chickens from a local farm so do the best you can with your selection at the supermarket. Spend a little more and get a bird that is antibiotic-free and organic. And don’t – I repeat DON’T – buy anything labeled Perdue or Tyson.

1 whole chicken (about 4 pounds), cut into pieces (including back, neck, and feet, if you have them)
8 cups water
Coarse salt
3 medium onions, thinly sliced (4 cups)
2 celery stalks, sliced crosswise ¼ inch thick
4 garlic cloves, crushed
6 medium carrots, sliced ½ inch thick

Bring chicken, water, and 1 tablespoon salt to a low boil in a large stockpot. Skim foam. Add onions, celery, and garlic. Reduce heat. Simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes.

Remove breasts, and set aside. Add carrots. Simmer, partially covered, for 40 minutes.

Remove remaining chicken; discard back, wings, neck, and feet. Let cool slightly. Remove meat from bones, and cut into bite-size pieces.

Stir in desired amount of chicken; reserve the rest for another use. Skim fat. Season with salt.

Serves 6

If the chicken soup was meant to coax me back to everyday living, the pot pies were meant to remind me of the joys in life. Hearty, rich, and comforting, they are shockingly good and easy to make - an ideal combination.

I came across this recipe in a Williams-Sonoma catalog about the time I became Pasha’s mom (which means a long time ago). I’ve continued to make it over the years, never tiring of the pot pies' lovely cream cheese-and-butter pastry crust and luscious chicken, carrot, and mushroom filling. I recently checked to see if Williams-Sonoma had the recipe on their website; they don't and that's too bad. For me it is an old standby, a tried-and-true keeper.

Chicken Pot Pies
Adapted from the Williams – Sonoma catalog

I used the leftover chicken from the soup in the pot pies.

If you don’t intend on eating all the pot pies at once you can successfully freeze the uncooked extras. First, allow the filling to cool in the ramekins before laying the pastry across the top. This will keep the pastry from melting into the filling and produce a crisper crust when baked. Then wrap the cooled pot pies in foil and freeze. You can cook them frozen but will need to increase the cooking time to about 40 minutes or until the pot pies brown and bubble.

Pastry Ingredients
1½ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into small dice
4 ounces cream cheese, cut into small dice
2 tablespoons cold water

Filling Ingredients
4 cups chicken stock
½ pound carrots, peeled and sliced thin
½ pound large mushroom caps, quartered
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
2/3 cup flour
½ cup heavy cream
3 cups diced, cooked chicken
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
Salt and pepper

To make Pastry
Toss together flour and salt. Add butter and cream cheese. Blend until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add 1 tablespoon water and stir with a fork. Add up to 1 tablespoon more to make cohesive dough. Pat into a smooth cake; wrap and chill for one hour.

To make Filling
Bring chicken stock to a boil in a large saucepan. Add carrots and mushrooms. Cover and simmer 15 minutes, until vegetables are tender. Remove vegetables with a slotted spoon; set aside.

Strain stock into a 4 cup measure (if necessary, add water to make 4 cups). Return saucepan to heat. Melt butter then add flour. Cook and stir 2 minutes.

Add stock and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Reduce heat, add ½ cup heavy cream and simmer 2 minutes. (This is a good time to take the pastry dough out of the refrigerator to warm up slightly before rolling out.)

Stir in 3 cups diced, cooked chicken and the cooked vegetables. Add ¼ cup chopped parsley and season with salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Divide filling mixture among six 10-ounce ramekins. Roll out pastry on floured surface and cut six rounds a ½ inch larger than the top of the ramekins. Lay pastry over filling, and then flute the edge. Cut vents in top. Place on baking sheet and bake 20 – 25 minutes, until browned and bubbling.

Serves 6