Monday, May 12, 2008

Chicken Vera-style, Part I

Using up ingredients that I have on hand makes me feel like a culinary rock star. Never am I more creative, virtuous, or thrifty than when I put the quarter-bag of lentils in the pantry or the final two stalks of asparagus in the refrigerator to good, tasty use. There are certain dishes that help facilitate this soul-satisfying process, like a basic vegetable soup thickened with rice or pasta and gussied up with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of Parmigiano. Another is a recent discovery thanks to my friend and colleague Rachael.

Rachael is married to Jovan, a lovely fellow from Macedonia. Since they just had their first baby, Jovan’s mother, Vera, is staying with them for a few months, helping to take care of the little tyke and cooking and cleaning along the way. Lucky Rachael! Last week Rachael told me about one her favorite Macedonian dishes that her mother-in-law makes. She calls it Chicken Vera-style. It’s one of those amazingly flexible dishes that can accommodate – and elevate – almost whatever you have in your fridge, freezer, or pantry. Here’s the basic recipe told to me by Rachael, but none of it is set in stone:

- Chicken breasts or tenders (or even sausages)
- Two stalks celery, chopped
- One medium to large onion, chopped
- Two cloves garlic, chopped
- Two medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
- Two medium handfuls rice, white or brown
- 14 oz. can diced tomatoes with juices
- One cup chicken stock
- Fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
- Vegetables – take your pick: peas, corn, broccoli, stir-fry veggies, etc. Fresh or frozen
- Salt, pepper, oregano or Macedonian spice blend

- Simmer chicken in a stockpot or other large, oven-safe cooking vessel with celery, onion, and garlic for about five minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and enough water so everything is covered completely by the liquid. Cook in a 350 degree oven until everything is tender, about one-and-a-half to two hours.

Rachael promised that the result would be a hearty chicken stew. The potatoes and rice would absorb some of the liquid, and each component would retain its own flavor but come together in a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

But there was trouble on the homefront. My beloved husband was skeptical, shall we say, about eating a Macedonian stew...especially on a Sunday when he'd just returned from a long trip and lots of restaurant meals. Would Chicken Vera-style satisfy his craving for a flavorful, but hearty, meal? Something worth coming home to from the rigors of the Miami beach scene? We would find out.

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