Hello everyone, and welcome back to Prix Fixed, Lifehacker’s menu-planning advice column.
This week’s email is a request for a meal to share with parents — parents that the email-sender hasn’t seen or hugged in far too long:
I would like to make a nice dinner for my parents next month. This will be the first time that we are able to see each other in person since the fall of 2019; which is the longest we’ve ever gone without a visit.
Number of people: 4 adults
Dietary restrictions: Both of my parents and I are on the Noom diet. Basically, what this means is that we’re really loading up on fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, and white meat. We can still do a dessert that isn’t too calorie dense (thinking something like a schaum torte with fresh fruit vs something like a date bar). As far as sides, we’re doing a lot of broth based soups, big salads with vinaigrette; not so much mashed potatoes (I miss you all the time, potatoes). We do all drink; and most of us like gin. (You can temporarily make me restrict my potato intake but you’ll take my booze from my clenched fists, Noom.)
Cooking supplies: We have a good set of pots and pans (stainless steel and antique cast iron), baking dishes, etc. There is a 35 year old kitchenaid, a food processor, but no blender. We also have a sous vide and an instant pot (both bought on my recommendation because I will not shut up about your columns) . My parents have a gas stove/oven and grill (I am bad at grilling but am willing to practice).
Cooking skills: I am a pretty competent home cook. Knife skills can always improve; but I am fully capable of following a recipe and I can riff a little if I need to or if the spirit moves me to. Baking skills are greatly improved if I use mixes. I can make a mean meringue though.
Also of note, my parents live in the middle of nowhere, like, regularly shop for “specialty ingredients” at the Mennonite store middle of nowhere, so while we have access to regular grocery fare, fancy stuff will require a drive of at least an hour one way.
Please let me know if there is anything else you’d like to know. Thanks!
I will admit that I am not familiar with Noom or its parameters, but “loading up on fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, and white meat,” is a concept I can fully wrap my brain around. When I first read that sentence, I paused, closed my eyes, and enthusiastically whispered “poached chicken” to an empty living room. I know that “poached chicken” does not sound exciting, but trust me — it is.
As A.A. Newton explained in her iconic blog about the poultry preparation, poaching is the method for maximizing the bird’s potential. “Oh, but what of the skin?” haters will moan. We’re going to remove it after the chicken is poached and fry it, oh y’all of little faith. (Did you really think I didn’t have a plan for the skin?)
Not only is a poached chicken the most tender and juicy form a chicken take, but the poaching broth is — in a word — divine. You can chuck whatever aromatics you want into the pot, but I usually go with a whole head of garlic, a whole shallot, and a very large hunk of garlic, as in “one that takes up 80% of my palm.”
The result is a simple-looking, but complex-tasting and immensely comforting dish. It feels healing, much like a good, long hug with loved ones you haven’t seen in over a year.
One word of caution: You have to start preparing the dish about 3-5 hours before you plan to eat it, but only 20% of that time requires your active participation, as the chicken gets its flavour from an extensive steeping period.
For a side, I’m a big fan of a smashed cucumber salad. (Smashed cukes hold on to dressing so much more effectively than slick slices.) For dessert, I would take advantage of late-spring’s vast bounty and grab whatever fruit is the most in season in your area. If that’s a melon, grab or make some chilli salt; if it’s a berry, grab a pint of heavy cream. If you want to do cocktails — and I would think you do — I suggest meyer lemon White Ladies or gin Old Fashioneds with fresh lemon syrup.
The shopping list
Enough gabbing — let’s shop. You will need:
- 1 chicken
- 1 large hunk of ginger (Get a thick knob that is at least 2-inches in length)
- 1 shallot
- 2 heads of garlic
- Whatever kind of quick-cooking greens you like — spinach, baby bok choy, and snow pea leaves all work well (You’ll need one large handful per person)
- 2 large (or 4 small) cucumbers
- Toasted sesame oil
- Rice wine vinegar
- Sambal oelek (or sriracha)
- Fish sauce
- The freshest, most in-season fruit your local store has to offer
- If that fruit is melon or pineapple: Chilli salt (or the ingredients to make this chilli salt)
- If that fruit is a berry or stone fruit: Heavy cream
- Whatever cocktail ingredients you need for either the Old Fashioneds or White Ladies
Pantry staples you might have but might need to buy:
- Brown sugar
- Soy sauce
To prepare the poached chicken, you will need:
- The chicken
- 1 head of garlic
- 1 shallot
- 1 very large hunk of ginger
- A large handful of salt (for exfoliating the chicken)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
- 1 tablespoon of white sugar
- 4 large handfuls of those quick-cooking greens. (Or 4 baby bok choys)
About five hours before supper time (or three hours if your chicken is very small), take the chicken out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature on the counter for an hour. (Starting a room temperature chicken in room temperature water ensures it cooks all the way through.) Once it’s lost its chill, take it out of the packaging, remove any and all giblets, and place it in a colander in the sink. Pour a large handful of salt on the chicken, give it a scrub inside and out, and rinse it off. This will remove any gunk from the skin and result in a clearer, better-tasting broth.
Set the chicken in a pot, fill the cavity with water, then rotate it so the breast is facing up and add enough water to cover. Lop the first 1/4 inch or so off the top of your garlic to expose the cloves (and make sure to give the root end a good rinse), slice your shallot in half and remove the outer papery stuff (or rinse some scallions), and roughly chop the ginger, unpeeled, into 0.5 cm slices.
Add all that to the pot, along with salt and sugar, and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Once it’s boiling, turn the heat to low and reduce to a simmer. Let simmer for half an hour, then cover, remove from the heat, and let steep for 2-4 hours, depending on the size. (Most medium-sized chickens do great with three hours, but you can’t really overcook them with this method.)
Go do something else until an hour before serving time, which is when you’ll start the cucumber salad. (If any portion of the chicken starts poking out during the simmering step, add a little more water.)
For the cucumber salad, will need:
- 2 large or 4 small cucumbers
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon white sugar
- 2 tablespoons of rice vinegar
- 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar
- 1-2 teaspoons sambal oelek or sriracha
- 1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
When the chicken has about an hour of steeping left, grab your cukes, give them a good rinse, and put them in a gallon-sized freezer bag and smash them with a heavy ladle or small pan. Break the large pieces into bite-sized pieces with your hands. Add the salt and white sugar to the bag, shake to coat, then dump the cucumbers into a colander set in the sink or a big bowl. Pop the whole thing in the fridge for an hour. Combine the remaining ingredients in a jar, close the jar, and shake to make your dressing. Set aside until supper time.
Once your chicken steeping time has elapsed, carefully remove it from the pot by sticking a sturdy, long-handled spoon in the cavity and gently tilt it upwards so the broth in the cavity spills back into the pot. (While you are doing this, have someone else start making the cocktails, and tell them to make yours first.)
Gradually lift the chicken out, using another spoon for extra support if needed. Set the chicken on the cutting board and remove most (or all!) of its skin, then lay the skin pieces flat in a nonstick pan over medium heat, flipping occasionally to ensure both sides get crispy. While the skin is getting crispy, strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve and return it to the pot. Bring the broth back to a simmer, rinse the greens, and toss them in the broth and cook until they are bright green. Ladle the greens and broth into bowls, carve up the chicken, and bless each bowl with white or dark meat, depending on the preference of the bowl’s owner. Briefly blot the chicken skin on paper towels, season it with salt, and place the skin on top of the poached chicken. Toss the cucumbers with just enough dressing to coat, and serve the salad alongside the bowls of broth and chicken.
If you’re serving pineapple or melon for dessert, chop it up and serve with chilli salt. If you are serving berries or stone fruit, get them out of the fridge when you serve the chicken so they can come to room temperature, then rinse (and slice, if needed) just before serving. Divide them up into small bowls (or tea cups), and pour as much cold heavy cream as you are comfortable with on top. You can even add a pinch or two of sugar if you are so inclined. I won’t tell Mr. Noom.