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February 12, 2007

Poaching for Culinary Pleasure


There are times when it becomes more desirable for our food to work hard and come to us with a sound sense of practicality than it is for it to be constructed of such an intricate latticework of flavor that it blows our mind.


In these cases, it is typical that the mildest flavors are used to avoid the temptation of pausing to savor. The long, dark of winter is no time to tarry.


You might, for instance, by boiling one cup of dried brown rice in two cups of water. Add the two together, boil and then turn down the heat and cover. After about 45 minutes, the water will be absorbed, and the rice will be soft.


Brown rice and the word robust rarely occupy the same sentence. That’s why people always seek to profane it by adding things like butter and salt or perhaps soy sauce. We, too, will profane it, but in a way that complements rather than smothers … by poaching chicken.


The idea of poaching might evoke thoughts of the fox, slinking into the chicken coop late at night and stealing off with the prize rooster. There is nothing clandestine or sinister involved, however. In fact, it is perhaps the least sinister thing you do that day.


Take a pot of water, add liquid and boil. Add your chicken breast.


You are now perhaps wondering what kind of liquid to use. Use personal taste and purpose as guides. Consider using chicken broth. Some say that white wine vinegar or cooking wine add a certain zang.


All things have their proper place, in the kitchen as in life. If we are to get zang, it will be from something other than our chicken breast. Here, we are after something decidedly more pedestrian. Add some salt to your water. This will function well enough as a poaching liquid.


While the chicken cooks, it is time to boil sliced celery and carrots.


A word here on these two. The masters of old tell us that the sensible, pragmatic nature of carrots and celery are the surest cure when a dish threatens to erupt into open revolt. This is often why they are added to soups and stews, where the application of heat over a long time always runs the risk of fomenting dissent.


Here, you look at your poaching chicken, your cooked brown rice and your can of mushroom soup. These are hardly the kinds of ingredients who will be easily goaded to armed revolution, and carrots and celery are not here to keep the peace. They are here, pillars of stability, to bring the dish together.


The chicken and vegetables will finish cooking at about the same time. Place the chicken on a cutting board. While it cools a bit, strain out the vegetables and add them to the rice in a casserole dish. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.


Chop the chicken into small, bite-sized pieces. Allow the size of your carrots and celery to guide you. Your mouth and teeth, and indeed your entire digestive system, prefers food of a uniform size so it can develop a digestive rhythm. If you make it accommodate different sizes at irregular intervals . . .  well, you will hear the protests from your body (the differently-sized rice seems not to evoke an angry response, for reasons no one yet understands).


Add the chicken to the casserole dish and dump over all of them the can of mushroom soup. Mix it all together, again keeping uniformity in mind. If you have estimated correctly, soup will instead turn into a cheap mushroom sauce.


At this point, a terrifying thought might strike you. This could well be one of the blandest dishes you have ever eaten, one that threatens to put you to sleep into the middle of eating.


Relax, we have an answer.


Add salt, and also plenty of pepper before mixing. Consider adding some paprika (always a dicey proposition, since paprika prefers to work with the feel of the open air on its face), or – if you are touched by a vaguely French-ish feeling – some dried tarragon.


Put your casserole dish into the oven until the top layer starts to turn dark and transform from a liquid into a thick scum, perhaps as long as 20 minutes. It might not be fit for a queen, but your sensible, hard-working cousin from the Midwest will certainly appreciate it.


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