Step One: Poach a Chicken
In uncertain times (is there any greater understatement?), comfort food can do wonders, if only for a moment. A shared meal soothes frazzled nerves, and creates a sense of communal pleasure and ease. For some, mac ‘n cheese is the ultimate. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, too, but as a pasta-avoider, I find that chicken, preferably moist and brothy, is my first choice. In the past, this typically meant chicken stew baked with biscuits, or homemade chicken soup. But lately, my whole family is loving something more exotic: a dish that, like those two familiar staples, begins with a chicken (or two) poached in water and aromatics. This new version, first published in “Minimalist” chef Mark Bittman’s wonderful New York Times blog Bitten, gives the poached chicken a flavorful Asian interpretation. Soy sauce and wine supplement water as the poaching liquid, and instead of bay leaf, onions and carrots, ginger, star anise and scallions step in.
No one can convince me that poached chicken is a particularly pretty dish. Even Julia Child was known to hide hers under aspic or creamy sauces. Bittman tries to solve the aesthetic problem by taking the poached bird from its bathwater and placing it in a hot oven to return the skin to a crisper, more appealing state. The recipe prepared as written is delicious, and worth trying. But to save time, I skip that last step. I also use a gadget that for years made me cringe and avert my eyes—a pressure cooker.
The simplify-your-life blog Unclutterer has a snarky weekly feature about appliances they term “unitaskers”—ice cream makers make the list, as do lever pull wine openers and electric juicers. (I own all three—I am lucky to have lots of cabinet space.) I’m not sure what they’d say about pressure cookers, but I remained a skeptic for many years. My mother, a great acquirer of gadgetry, once forcefully passed along a pressure cooker of uncertain provenance and indeterminate age. She insisted that I would love using it, but I was pretty sure it would explode if I actually attempted to make anything in it. I finally donated it to Goodwill when we moved from California to Upstate New York two years ago. This month, driven by the desire to can tomatoes and plums, the suspicion that I might poison people if I just used the hot water bath method, and a well-timed email blast from SmartBargains.com, I bought a new Fagor pressure cooker. I haven’t tried canning with it yet but it’s already proven its worth by making a great recipe not only faster, but better.
Pressure cookers are essentially steamers on steroids. The tight seal of the pot creates pressure which makes liquids boil at a higher temperature. All that extra-hot steam stays inside the pot, tenderizing the food. You wouldn’t want to cook broccoli in one of these, unless you’re looking to recreate the mushy elementary school cafeteria version of yore. But for meats and grains, this thing is a wonder. The recipe that follows is great as is, but made in a pressure cooker, the result is even more tender, moist and deeply flavored. If you don’t own a pressure cooker—no worries—I give directions for both methods below, and neither will disappoint.
Alongside, serve steamed long grain rice (I make mine—sorry—in a rice cooker, and like to add a few smashed and peeled cloves of garlic for flavor) and greens (tat soi and baby bok choy are both in season, and delicious) quickly sauteed until tender with a teaspoon or two of store-bought black bean sauce (Guido’s carries Lee Kum Kee brand)—an instant Chinese dinner for the lazy.
Soy-Poached Roast Chicken (adapted from Mark Bittman)
Don’t let the exotic ingredients deter you from trying this! Some can be hard to source locally, but I have had fantastic results using supermarket soy sauce, white sugar, and a bottle of riesling in place of the mei kuei lu chiew wine.
3 cups mushroom-flavored soy sauce, or any dark soy sauce
3 cups mei kuei lu chiew or any floral off-dry white wine, like gewurztraminer or muscat
2 star anise
1 14-ounce box yellow rock sugar, crushed, or 1 cup white sugar
3 ounces ginger (about a 5-inch knob), cut into slices and bruised with side of knife
2 bunches of scallions
1 chicken, 3-4 pounds
Non-pressure cooker method:
In stockpot or narrow 6-quart pot, combine soy sauce, wine, 2 cups water, star anise, sugar and ginger. Bring to rolling boil. Add one bunch of scallions. Lower chicken gently and slowly into liquid, breast side down.
Bring back to boil, partially cover, and cook steadily for 20 minutes. Turn off heat, and turn chicken over. Let sit covered in hot liquid 15 minutes.
If you plan to brown the cooked chicken, preheat oven to 500 degrees.
Carefully remove chicken from liquid, and put in skillet or roasting pan. Roast 5 minutes, or until nicely browned; keep an eye on it—it can burn easily.
Carve to serve, with or without skin according to preference.
Pressure cooker method:
Combine all ingredients, save one bunch of scallions, in the pressure cooker. Make sure to put the chicken in breast-side down.
Close and lock the top according to directions, and bring to a boil.
Set pressure to high (again, following manufacturer’s directions) and cook for 25 minutes.
Release the pressure using the quick release method (again, follow the directions), and remove chicken to a platter to carve. It will be falling apart tender—you may have to fish fallen-off wings and legs out of the cooking liquid.
Remove the skin, and carve the tender meat into serving pieces.
Trim and mince remaining bunch of scallions.
Reheat liquid if necessary. Top the sliced chicken with a few spoonfuls of sauce, and sprinkle with half the scallions. Put remaining scallions into a cup of sauce and serve at the table.
Note: You can reuse the liquid—it improves with each use. Bittman suggests that you strain it and replace the ginger, scallions and star anise each time, adding extra liquid. He also recommends freezing it between uses, or refrigerating it and bringing it to a rolling boil every few days. I do strain mine, but I neither freeze nor reboil it other than when I am making the dish. I add additional soy sauce and wine, as needed, in the original proportions, though the pressure cooker does an excellent job of conserving the liquid. —Paige Orloff