Thursday, January 3, 2008

Dark Days: Poor Man's Chicken Stew

I find myself constructing these winter meals in my head days in advance.

Where will the calories come from? I ask myself. What can I do that doesn't repeat what I did last week? Which of my two farmer's market options to employ?

Obviously, I have too much time on my hands. But soon after joining this challenge I realized how little planning I had done for the winter. Go back a hundred years or two and that would have been my preoccupation in July, August, September: planting then preserving enough various foods to get me through the dark days.

Alas, it is so hard to extricate one's self from the convenience-oriented mindset. Kicking blueberries flown in from Chile in the middle of December turns out to be not such a hard thing after all. But then make a list of all your other favorite fresh foods--lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, leeks, potatoes, apples, chicken--and see how well you do without those. That's precisely the point of this Dark Days challenge, to start poking around for local sources of all these staples. You learn very quickly that the sources are few and far between and that the available ingredients soon start to repeat themselves.

We are fortunate to have two farmer's markets still going strong. How strong for how long is the question. This week I opted for a package of two very large chicken quarters from Eco-Friendly Foods in Virginia. They are regulars at the Dupont Circle market on Sundays here in the District of Columbia.

I had in mind turning the chicken into a simple, rustic stew--the kind of stew some of our immigrant Salvadorn neighbors might recognize--using potatoes that we are still harvesting from our garden, in this case big Peruvian purple potatoes. This stew is a bit of a train wreck, because I also used the better part of a sweeet potato from the farmers market as well some cranberry beans from the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa. I mail-ordered the beans in spring intending to plant them, but they germinated none too well and from the size of the package I finally decided that these beans were meant for eating, not replicating.

I soaked them overnight and cooked them with some Henderson smoked bacon.

To make the stew, divide the chicken quarters into legs and thighs and brown them well with extra-virgin olive oil over high heat in a heavy pot. Remove them to the side, and add an onion, cut into medium dice, to the pot along with a couple of carrots, peeled and cut on an angle. Let the onion brown a little, stirring the vegetables to deglaze the pot, then reduce the heat, season with salt and black pepper and add two or three cloves of garlic, thinly sliced and continue cooking until the onion is soft, about 8 minutes.

Return the chicken to the pot, add 2 cups chicken broth and several sprigs thyme tied in a bundle. Cover and bring to a boil, then place in a 250-degree oven. Bake for about two hours, then add potatoes and sweet potatoes, about 2 cups worth cut into 1-inch pieces, along with a cup or two of beans that have been previously cooked but are still firm. You could also add some crisped bacon at this point if you like.

Bake the stew another hour, or until the potatoes are perfectly tender, the chicken is falling off the bone and the pot is redolent of garlic and thyme. Serve with a mess of hearty greens and a sturdy red wine.

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