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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Un-Fried Chicken...Lent

My father did everything he could to take care of my brother and me when he retired from the army.  Because we always had nannies before he retired, when they were gone his learning curve, as a single parent, was very steep.  Fast and steep.  It was the 60's.  Who had the time or the energy to raise kids alone back then, especially an army Major.

His cooking repertoire was limited. That being said, he embraced anything new that would make his time in the kitchen easier.  We had to eat.  He had to feed us.  That was the rule.

He had a way with Boston Baked Beans that I'll always remember. He could whip up a mean batch of them in his new-fangled pressure cooker back in the day. Tss-tss, tss-tss, tss-tss hissed  through the house for hours on Boston Baked Beans day.  It was worth the noise and wait.  They were sticky, dry, sweet, and savory.  We ate them with brown bread. 

He made killer cheese stuffed hamburgers, long before  any juicy lucy burger fame exploded out of Minnesota.  When bitten into, molten cheese would ooze from the overcooked hamburgers, spilling onto our chins and plates.  They were messy and great fun, as a kid.

He could be adventrous in the kitchen, but  he relied mostly on convenience food to feed us. Back in the 60's those foods were targeted toward  high-heeled June Cleaver stereotypes. Although my father certainly didn't fit that mold, he gobbled up the notion of it. We certainly had our share of Swanson and Banquet TV dinners. Every morning started with cold Pop-Tarts or Kellogg's Variety Pack individually wax-paper lined cereal boxes.  Eat and toss.  Convenient.

My father must have thought he struck gold  when Kraft introduced Shake 'n Bake in 1965. It became his go-to cooking method in between our regular rotation of TV dinners.  I loved his Shake 'n Bake chicken....and I didn't have to help.  I loved everything about it.  He  only used chicken thighs, and when cooked perfectly, I could pry the skin off my chicken thigh in one piece like a skin helmet.  Once off, I could fill the crackling helmet with instant mashed potatoes or peas and swallow it whole.  If he baked the chicken long enough, there was always fantastic crud stuck to the bottom of the baking dish that I'd scrape up with a spoon and eat.  Oh my.

It's the third week of Lent.  I never dreamed that giving up deep fried food would be this hard.  I needed crunch.  Greasy crunch. Simulated fried crunch. Shake 'n Bake crunch.

I made it last night.  I know, it's low brow and skanky.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, there are thousands of  "oven fried chicken" recipes out there.  Fancy ones, even.  Last night, Shake 'n Bake was an homage to my father and his efforts to feed us in the best way he knew and the time. Besides, I needed un-fried fried chicken.

I moistened the chicken with water, shook it in the bag with the coating mix, and baked it at 400 degrees for 45 minutes. I tarted up the coating mix with a few fresh thyme leaves as an homage to Keller. Ha. I couldn't help myself.

While the chicken baked, I brought a bit of civility into the mix with an adaptation of Lidia Matticchio Bastianich's braised celery, onions, black olives, and tomatoes from her cookbook,  Lidia Cooks From The Heart Of Italy.

I sliced 5 celery stalks into batons, sliced  1/2 green pepper into strips, smashed 3 garlic cloves and quartered a small tomato.  After heating oil in a dutch oven until smoking, I tossed the vegetables into the pot to cook and caramelize.  Once they browned on the edges, I added 1/2 cup black kalamata olives and 1/2 cup quartered artichoke hearts before deglazing the pot with tomato water,  a combination of 3 tablespoons tomato paste and 2 cups hot water.  I brought the braising liquid to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, covered the pot, and let it ripple for an hour until the tomato broth reduced to a glaze.

I plated the chicken next to whipped potatoes alongside the braised celery. A sprinkling of fresh celery leaves, thyme, and chives finished it off.
It wasn't the most beautiful plate of food. It didn't have to be. It took me back
to an innocent time and felt like fried chicken...and that may have been all I needed to know.

The best part?  I still had my skin helmet
and crud on the bottom of the baking dish.

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