Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Unfussy Fowl (from "Favorite Recipes of Minnesota Meats")

There's no other week of the year during which over-sized poultry products receive as much riveted attention as Thanksgiving week, of course, much of it reaching near-existential levels of agonized scrutiny: To brine or not to brine? Baste? When, with what, butter, stock, orange juice, Dr Pepper? Whole bird or separate the parts? Stuffing in or out (and if it's out, how can it be stuffing...?)? Heirloom or Butterball? Follow Jean-Georges, or Grandma Jeanne? Chuck it all, and go out for pho?

It all gets a bit fraught, to be sure, calling for help-lines, stacks of magazines all taunting the harried cook with images of the perfect bronzen bird, and that big bottle of wine you thought would last through dinner--oops, it didn't make it past the crab dip....

As a bit of an antidote--and not that I think this is going to cause anyone to alter their Turkey Day menus--I offer this elemental preparation, chicken baked with cream and onions. A bit of flour, salt, and water are the only other ingredients.

I brought home this little pamphlet-style cookbook after helping my mom sort through stuff during her recent move:

The moment I laid eyes on this recipe, I knew I had to make it:

The simplicity of the ingredients is compelling; the confidence in the instructions inspires confidence in the cook. And, what the hell, you stick it in the oven for a good while, take it out: Supper. It's the sort of recipe, too, that starts the cook thinking of variations--sure, you could use white wine or cider instead of water; slice some mushrooms to bake along with the chicken, or other vegetables; throw in a couple of sprigs of thyme. But I doubt, really, that you would get something better than this. Get really good, local, natural chicken, certainly (Kadejan is great, always available at our coop); and for us the cream is always Cedar Summit.

The only variations we made to the recipe were these: We used thighs only, instead of a cut-up bird. I salted the chicken, then rolled it in the flour, instead of mixing flour and salt. We baked it at 375 for about an hour and a half--I would have tried Mrs Hecht's long cooking at 350, but we were running a bit late, didn't want to be having dinner in front of the ten o'clock news.... Oh, and I basted it a few times in the course of the cooking.

Alongside we just had a tasty little gratin of butternut squash, a piece of bread, and a glass of cider. We gave thanks.

I love these sorts of old-timey themed cookbooks--I've got another around here somewhere, "Dishes Men Like," I think it's called, put out by the Lea & Perrins folks, and yes, every single recipe calls for Worcestershire sauce. As for the Minnesota meats book, published in 1966, it presents a really fascinating snapshot of where the Midwestern kitchen was headed at the time. For while some recipes show the brilliant simplicity and respect for ingredients of Mrs Hecht's, and others go right back to the farm (a head cheese recipe calls, indeed, for a hog's head, tongue, and heart), plenty of others show convenience foods creeping into recipes--a chicken recipe on the same page as Mrs Hecht's calls not just for two cans of "cream" soup, but for a half-pack of dried soup mix, too.

The section entitled "Foreign Favorites" is a hoot, containing recipes for "Creole Pork Chops (Hawaii)"; "Porcupine Meat Ball Sauce (Italy)"; three preparations of "Meat Balls (Sweden)," two for "Good Meat Balls (Sweden)", and, naturally, just one for "Best Meat Balls (Sweden)".

Flipping through books like this is as much (maybe more) an anthropological as a culinary activity. I find it a bit nostalgic (coming across a recipe very like my mom's sweet & sour spareribs), a bit appalling (the number of cans that get opened), a bit disheartening (I won't name names, but a "recipe" calling for nothing but hamburger, frozen french fries, and cream of mushroom soup, can only mean: "I just don't give a damn; it's food, and if you're hungry, you'll eat it..."), and extremely entertaining, for those reasons and more.

All the recipes, of course, are attributed to women, and almost every one a missus (including one Mrs. Walter F. Mondale, Wife of U.S. Senator from Minnesota, for Minnesota Wild Rice Casserole; if you grew up around here, you've eaten this dish, and you probably liked it just fine. My mom put water chestnuts in hers...).

Favorite Recipes of Minnesota Meats Edition, copyright MCMLXVI, Favorite Recipes Press, Inc., Louisville, Kentucky.


angie said...

Hi Brett,

Although I grew up in IL, I've had that wild rice with chestnuts.

A few years back, a Wisc friend found us a copy of the Georgetown Church Cookbook (that is our church turned into weekend home while we fix up the farm) from the 70s. It is hilarious. Almost every recipe calls for a Cream of ____ Soup addition. We love the cookbook; the recipes not so much.

Happy Thanksgiving!

el said...

Ugh, I am the not so lucky recipient of my own grandmother's recipe files and indeed they're replete with cans o cream soup. It's funny, I saw your photo and thought that was where you were going with this! As a new-ish carnivore I have had to try very hard to get away from *just* roasting meats or *just* stewing them...this does seem a simple-enough mid-week dinner with parts of one of the freezer birds, so...thanks!

Enjoy your big-bird holiday. I am glad you got adopted by some foodies!

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Angie, hello El: It really is amazing how thoroughly those "cream of" soups managed to banish actual cream from the Midwestern kitchen. Seems like some big disconnect from our land and food heritage started there. But while from one point of view it's not hard to see why women of our mothers' era--increasingly working in the home and out--embraced those conveniences, it's quite another to see some...TV cook like Sandra Lee still flogging that crap for cash.

The Minnesota meats book is interesting, though, in how it straddles the divide, probably falling a little more to the incoming convenience cooking side. Still, there's that head cheese, my new fave chicken, some creditable game recipes, and...drum roll, "IMPERIAL CHICKEN OF TOMORROW"!!! I can't believe I missed that the first time through. It wants you to dip chicken in a half pound of melted butter, roll in bread crumbs, cheese and herbs, dot with more butter, then bake. It even has one whole clove of garlic in it! That will probably be worth another post....

Hope your fowls are fine this Turkey Day. Very best~ Brett

Teresa Marrone said...

Hey Brett--

This is the way that many Minnesota cooks of a certain age cook pheasant; my 83-year-old mother-in-law, rasied on a farm in Wheaton, MN, does it exactly this way. Cooking time is good for pheasant, which tends to be on the tough side. Try it some time; if you like it with chicken, you will LOVE it with pheasant.


Trout Caviar said...

Hi Teresa: Well you've just inspired me to get out in the field a few more times this year, so I can try that pheasant in cream. I'll bet grouse wouldn't be bad that way, either. Overall, the staightforward deliciousness of that preparation has been an eye-opener.

Best~ Brett