After my brother roasted our chicken upside down, resulting in crispy legs and butter-sodden breasts, I recycled the white meat in a pasta sauce. When we failed to eat the whole pot, I dreamt a lazy lunch. Five tablespoons of powdered peppers and tomato sauce switches to chili. It’s a quick-change act that relies on illusion: realer, righteous chili requires a more rigorous (though possibly less alliterative) approach. Nevertheless, a close approximation of Texas, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Washington, etc. can be achieved with a passive raffle through the spice cabinet.
We needed beans, so we walked to the corner deli. I have been buying Caribbean groceries with the mania of a bomb shelter visionary; I want to work my way through a goat carcass, sample every brand of ginger beer, and bake my own sweet rolls. Last night, I settled for a simple substitution: peas for beans. Instead of kidneys or pintos, I bought pigeon peas, more commonly found in Caribbean renditions of “rice and peas” than heartland chili recipes. Firmer and chalkier than my usual bean choices, the pigeon peas were a striking contrast to cooked tomato, shredded chicken, and soft garlic. At work, I ate the “chili” out of Tupperware and picked chicken neck bones off my tongue. None of my co-workers looked twice. Continue reading
Never season another man’s collard greens. It’s bad manners and a bit emasculating. When a bowl of collards comes smothered in hot sauce—as it does at Pies ‘n’ Thighs, a boho Brooklyn salon serving fried chicken and stroller moms—it insults the vegetable and the diner. I, for one, know how I like my greens: cooked to a soft knot, smoky and haunted with bitterness, a sweet tingle, sour bushes scrabbling through sand and clay. The taste of good potlikker, born from that struggle, resonates in my stomach like a sympathetic vibration; it boils up my esophagus and lodges somewhere near my heart, a rumbling stroke of thunder without rain. That is not to say collards should come unsalted, unpeppered, or bland—again, as they do at Pies ‘n’ Thighs. I just don’t want my vegetables dressed like Buffalo wings. I see’est thou poised with thine sauce, but restrain thy hand. Be not so presumptuous. Continue reading
After stewing a chicken in butter, I had a thigh, a breast, and a drumstick left over. For lunch the next day, I made chicken salad—only problem: no mayonnaise. Frankly, I’m not a huge mayonnaise fan, and my ____ salads (tuna, ham, chicken, turkey, etc.) trend towards easy on the mayo. Still, ____ salad needs a creamy, sweet edge. I did my best with a limited pantry, and I think the resulting chicken salad, minus mayo, turned out exceptionally well. Whether you want a respite from goopy, gloppy salads or have mustard no mayo, this recipe does the trick. Continue reading
Thomas Keller poaches lobsters in butter, so I figured I could do the same with a chicken. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a gallon of melted butter, so I cheated with a little stock. It’s imperative that you use a high quality butter—Land O’Lakes isn’t going to cut it, if only because it lacks a really pure ‘butter’ flavor. I used a cultured, European style butter. The extra buck or two pays off—with a lighter wallet, you can look forward to a rich, comforting pot of chicken lovin’. Continue reading
Cooking chili requires restraint. Although a culture of “chiliheads” exists, a group of heat enthusiasts with a serious capsaicin fetish, most Americans prefer balance between peppery fire, salt, and acid. In typical Midwestern style concoctions, tomatoes and ground beef help mute requisite chili powder and hot sauce additions. Indeed, Steak ‘n Shake’s maroon version tastes more like stew than spice, a paradigmatic representation of the Missouri preference for meat over heat. Even in St. Louis barbecue, sauces tend towards sweet rather than spicy, allowing the protein’s character to soliloquize uninterrupted. Therefore, chili cookoffs at home involve a game of spice roulette: how much seasoning to add to bring the dish just to the border of acceptable piquancy?
The best diners are the dirtiest.
Determining the authenticity of a diner proves difficult in a town like Cooperstown; a proliferation of tourist traps confuse the eye and bewilder the tongue; main street, three ice cream parlors, a wax museum of baseball legends, the hall of fame: everything dances wildly between the bases of reality. Nevertheless, somewhere between the Triple Play Café and a hidden ballpark hot dog joint the Cooperstown Diner takes a daring leap. No gimmicks, no cheap tricks, no sideshow thrills. This diner is “dirty”—the tablecloths feel waxy and get a quick wipedown after each guest (a hint of stickiness remains), and dinge crowds the walls with a veneer of shabbiness. A fly buzzes idly and then nosedives into a recently poured cup of coffee, drowning. The Cooperstown Diner feels dirty without the actual grime, age and wear accumulating a palpable presence. It is deliciously authentic.