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January 1, 2007

The Princes, the Paupers and the Pasta


Down through the years, the question has been asked – is royalty just a question of perception, merely an illusion handed down through the generations?


The answer is a complex one, perhaps, and best answered someplace more appropriate than a column about food. Here, we don’t ask questions of why something works, but merely how we can harness it and fill our bellies.


Wherever meat appears, it is king and usually queen. At times, when it is grilled, it is also the princess and evil, conniving magician who summons the dragon and, indirectly, Prince Charming.


Here, however, we recreate our own little kingdom, where chicken rules the land, is served by vegetables and is defended by armored knights of pasta.


First arises the question of size. How will our chicken look among its subjects.


Proportion is the guide to all things. The size of chicken chunk should be guided by the size of your pieces of vegetable – in this case, corn, peas and broccoli. Questions of how things should be are tempered here by the reality of the way things are.


Here, however, it is merely the happy regal couple, even as its supporting cast comes from the peasant class of vegetables (broccoli hails from the merchant class, perhaps profiting from the trade of spices with far-flung and exotic lands). But its station brings privileges, in this case the privilege of dominating size.


A corn kernel might be a quarter-inch squared, as might be a pea. Accordingly, by way of social order, the broccoli floret is both a tad bigger and a tad less common. But, chunk of chicken must be both bigger and even less common in the same way that a common field worker is smaller in social stature and far more common than is the land’s sole king or queen.


Thus, the chicken should be cut into cubes approximately two inches in size.


Begin to sauté the cubes in olive oil and garlic over a medium heat, enough to cook but not enough to turn them brown. As it turns white and stiffens, add the juice of half a lemon to provide a citrusy zest. Turn the chicken until cooked all the way through, and test by spearing a piece and eating (ignoring offers of land or gold you might hear offered as ransom).


Now is the time to boil water for the pasta. As proportion has guided the size of our chicken chunks, so it guides us with the choice of pasta with which it will mix. Penne is a good choice, for it represents the king’s soldiers – a robust pasta of good size, yet not so large that the king and queen must fear revolt from within the military ranks.


When the water boils, add the pasta. Stand there, and tap your toes for exactly three minutes. And, then, to the chicken in lemon and oil, add corn, peas and broccoli. Cover the pan.


How much of each vegetable? Enough to support the royal family, but not so many that you might have a peasant’s revolt on your hands. Allow this thinking to guide you.


The broccoli will naturally be a little bigger, resembling little trees as they mix with everything else, or perhaps little, green versions of the comedian Carrot Top (if this thought strikes you, banish it immediately, lest you be tempted to throw your newfound jester into the oubliette). This is natural, for the merchants are the beginnings of your own little middle class.


Cook it for just a few minutes, starting after you’ve tapped your toes for three minutes until the pasta is done cooking. A short stay in a warm pan will both soften the vegetables, but will also bring out the brightest of their colors. Thus, the pale white of the chicken is mixed in with bright yellow and brilliant greens. Who’s the real honcho now, Mr. Royal Hotshot? As we find so often, life’s relationships are complex and it is often the tail that wags the dog.


Drain the pasta, and toss with the chicken and vegetables. Dust with dried oregano and also add salt and pepper, leaning heavily on the pepper. It’s not that the chicken and vegetables are dull or bland in flavor, but that the pepper will add a little extra kick.


Perhaps the thought strikes you now – cheese?


Banish this, too, for your food is not dressed for winter, and will be smothered by a snowy blanket of white.


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