Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Bones and Brew

It's chilly here in Portland this time of year. The warm rain gives way to windy, bitterly cold days that turn the mud into concrete-like adobe. The airstream dips down from the Arctic and blows our moderate, rainy Northwest into central California.

This is the kind of weather relatives down south reserve for the wilds of Lake Tahoe and the Donner Party. For those not familiar with California history, the Donner party were a group of pioneers who got stuck by early snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains and, well, ran out of regular food. They ended up using 'seasonal and local product.'

Could you imagine that, having to make a meal of a travel partner? Gosh, you'd have to cut away the fanny pack and Bermuda shorts; and who'd want to pull those sandels off?! Jeez, I mean how would you decide what cuts to use first? Do you go for the tender backstraps or if given some time, braise a tougher piece with lotsa flavor?

I think I'd probably opt for the veggie entree'; some tree bark and fiddlehead ferns with a splash of pure, mountain water...

Back in Oregon, the dry, frosty air of January and February lends the palate to rich, substantial flavors. Hearty reductions, marbled meats and earthy root vegetables beckon us to ladles and deep bowls. This is real, down-home, comfort food weather.

I came home one day and as I set foot in the back porch mudroom, the soothing vapors from a pot of chicken stock warmed my senses. As I unravelled a scarf, dropped a cap on a hook and hung up two layers of fleece, the gentle, savory aromas drew me closer to the source. There on the stove top sat a tall pot with a raft of chicken bones softly simmering along with onion, carrot and celery ends. Sprigs of winter thyme sprouted from within this delicious elixir. I hovered over the pot and drew deep breaths; it was like eating the air.

"So, what's for dinner?" I asked Lisa as we kissed, "This smells GREAT!"

"Well, it's kind of a Smorgy-Bob's," she stated. If it's an assortment of things from meals past, then it's a smorgasbord in our house.

"So, more to the point, WHEN'S dinner?!" I pleaded.

"Call the guys and we'll get started. Brendan, can you set the table?" the chef ordered.

"Whoa, somethin' smells good," exclaimed our tablesetter as he came up from the boy-cave downstairs.

As Pat and Liam pounded up the stairs, they too seemed pleased at Mom's choice.

"Dude, this must be Ninja Soup...'cuz it's kickin'," Liam joked with Patchy, giving him a Roger Moore judo chop and side kick.

Lisa had placed an array of bowls on the kitchen counter with everything from wild and basmati rice to broccoli and carrots. Some flat noodles occupied one bowl and sliced chicken was in another. Nine bottles of hot sauce lined the counter waiting for adolescent boys to challange one another. We ladled up piping hot broth over each unique bowl and gathered at the table.

"Mom, this is amazing, it's like better than what it's supposed to be," mused Patrick.

"Good chicken stock is the key. It's basically just bones and water," followed Lisa, "Good things have to simmer, though. You have to allow simple things the time to become great."

Here's a shot of medicine for your winter blahs...

Chicken Soup with Goodies

1 Chicken, deboned, meat reserved
4 qts water, cold
1 celery heart
2 carrots, cut in 1 inch pieces
1 onion, quarterd
few thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf

Place all (except chicken meat) in a 6qt pot and place on medium heat. Bring to a boil and immediately reduce to a simmer. Save all your skin and add to the bones for the stock.
Now, cut your chicken meat up into fork sized pieces and saute' with canola or olive oil. Be sure to get a little color on the meat; tastes better and doesn't look anemic.
Now comes the fun part: begin scavenging around your fridge for 'submersables;' things that will dwell nicely in the bottom of a bowl of broth. Look for veggies like onions, celery, carrots, cabbage, radishes or broccolli and cauliflower. Proteins to include: sausages, chicken, beef strips, salmon, shrimp. Herbal possibilities are: fresh basil, cilantro, mint, thyme or lemon grass.
The idea is to use what you have on hand; we ALL have stuff in our fridges that will wither away because they are the last of the bunch.
So, gather your goodies from 'Fridge Forraging', dice them, slice them and place them on a large tray or in separate bowls. Let the family create their own bowls and then ladle the steaming hot goodness over their creations. Finish with a squeeze of lime, pinch of kosher salt or a dash of Sriracha hot sauce!

Honest to Pete, the kids just LOVE it!
Give it a shot and lemme know of your successes.

Take care, God bless and remember:
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends...
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things."
Chef BQ.

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