On (Home) Butchery.

I well remember my last tetanus shot. It was Fall of 2003, and I was making a pizza after arriving home late from work. I was slicing some green pepper when my hand slipped, and I sliced an incision in my left thumb so deep that it made my eyes well up with tears. The reason I remember so vividly is that I have a phobia of hospitals, needles, and anything medically related in general, and I remember trying to convince the doctor who looked at my swollen, still bleeding digit that I didn't need one.

"It's a clean cut," I said. "I just have some really sharp knives." My clever argument didn't work, and I clearly remember him assuring me that I would recall that the last tetanus I had would be in 2003. Those knives are the ones I still have, a Christmas gift from my parents the year prior, a Wusthof classic 7 piece set. And almost the same number of years later, I still bear a small scar on my left thumb to remind me not to chop hastily.

Since I spend so much time in the kitchen, I rely most heavily on my chef's knife. I probably use it more than I should, and in reality it is maybe just a tad too big for my hands. But over the years I have adapted to it, so much so that if I were to spring on another, smaller, perhaps Asian knife, I would certainly have a learning curve. As much love as I have for my current knives, there were always some tasks that I felt I could accomplish better if I had better tools, breaking down chickens, in particular.

It has been several years since I have purchased meat from anywhere other than a farm. Longtime readers will remember that I split beef and pork with my Parents that is raised near their place in southwestern Wisconsin. Local Amish raise the animals for us in the way we would raise them if we had the resources to do so. We order chickens early in Spring, that are ready and butchered in Fall. Communication is done by U.S. Mail, or by a pop-in visit my Mom does to find the date of the butchering. Last year, I got 5 chickens and I have to say that outside of Christmastime, they were the only chicken we ate at my house. Even though we aren't overly carnivorous around here, I only really left my long time (mostly) vegetarian lifestyle after my marriage to a burger and brat man.

When I look back at the reasons for my meaty aversions, I really think that I was just afraid of it. I was afraid of packages of parts, I was afraid that I wouldn't get my counters clean enough. I was afraid of under cooking it, and so most things I made were overcooked and didn't really taste that great. After we began sourcing good meat, I felt none of those concerns... and while I still don't eat a meat-heavy diet, I feel good about having an entire healthy animal to work with.

Now, I have a lot to learn about breaking down animals. I have never seen a whole side of beef and marveled at the anatomy of an impossibly large cow. But I have watched my Mom cut a bird into 8 pieces, moving the joints to find the places to cut through. Going through the motions that (with 5 birds a year) are still rather new to me, I found it was infinitely easier with this Wusthof butchery set. The poultry shears nipped through easily as I cut out the backbone, the hefty cleaver broke the sternum swift and neat. But what I am most in love with is the boning knife that made quick work of removing the skeleton parts from the pale pink flesh. I tried not to feel bad for not making such a neat work of it, but seeing as I have never removed bones before, I think I did all right. (I also take comfort that any remaining meat on the bones I discarded will enrich my stock all that much more and not really be wasted.)

spring loaded!

Since for the past couple of years I have dealt more in chicken than chicken parts, I have to say that I enjoy most a chicken in a pot (check out this one!). Roasted chickens are great, that burnished brown skin so alluring and crisp. But to make a whole bird in some kind of sauce, braising it in the oven for an hour or two until you have the best of all worlds? I almost prefer that to any other kind of meat. Tonight, I dredged my chicken pieces in flour speckled with minced rosemary, paprika, salt, and pepper and after wilting 3/4 lb. of mushrooms with some green onions in butter (and removing them from my pot), I added a little more butter and browned the chicken. I added just a little more butter and the leftover flour, and made a roux with vermouth, leftover veg stock that needed using, and half a lemon. I added everything back, topped it off with the last of the veg stock, and baked it in the oven for an hour until it was bubbly, perfectly cooked.

We'll have several days of leftovers, and something for the freezer before this chicken is gone completely.

As we were eating dinner, I thought how my next big cut will likely award me with another tetanus shot. The ten years between them seems to have gone lightening fast, and still my thumb has the little knot of scar tissue that will never quite go away. My thumbprint is actually altered there, part of my identity forever changed by my devotion to wielding sharp knives. I actually need to find a good knife sharpening service, since a shy decade of my honing has likely taken a toll on my set.

I wonder if I will be brave enough to ask my Parents' neighbor if I can help butcher chickens. If I could learn to accept the most visceral part of responsible meat eatery. I suspect I will. And when I do, I'll be sure to be careful of my fingers.

Disclosure: I did receive a Wusthof 3-Piece Poultry Set (available exclusively at Williams-Sonoma) for review. My opinions are my own, and are not embellished.

Spiced Roast Chicken Breast

Did you know that I wrote a cookbook? Well, not personally, and certainly not glossy and published, but back in 2000 my friend E and I made a compilation of our favorite "recipies" to give as Christmas gifts. I contributed 25 recipes, and was responsible for the page design. E contributed the balance and did the layout and copy tasks. It proved to be a lesson on many levels. Not only is it more difficult to compile a book than at first it seems, but the layers of organization that are required to end up with something that echos the original vision is tough. I think I do speak for both of us, that it looked nothing like we were anticipating...I know that my funny drawings surprised me when I saw them emblazoned across each page.

More than the lessons learned in joint efforts, I still appreciate our cookbook since I actually still use it. The recipes were our favorites a decade ago, and some of them are still mine today. Weather it is the Don Chapellet's Zeppelin Pancakes pilfered from the hand of Marion Cunningham, or Marcella Hazan's pesto recipe, I grab this little tome frequently to remind me of the proportions, or to be inspired by the many fish recipes E included.

Last Thursday night, I had to make some chicken since I had pulled it from the freezer, but didn't have a plan since I was running errands late into the afternoon. Fortunately, my trusty cookbook also contains one of my most favorite recipes of all time. I originally made the recipe for Spiced Roast Chicken Breast after it was included in the April 2000 issue of Gourmet, in a column I remember being particularly interested in because it only contained recipes using 5 ingredients. Besides that, it is a foolproof way to quickly roast chicken pieces or plain old breasts: started on the stove top in a cast iron skillet, and then gracefully transferred to the oven to finish, enabling the assembly of the rest of the dinner without worry. The spice combination is just made quickly of pantry staples, but is just interesting enough to call attention to itself. No one thing stands out, so you can serve almost anything with it, and the chicken stays almost magically moist.

The first time I made it was when I had my new boss and friend, GOP, over for dinner shortly after I began working at the Square Pie. We loved it, and I have made it countless times in the years following. For that first dinner, I served with Jasmine Rice with Cumin and Mustard Seeds, and a haystack of my Mom's home canned green beans. It probably is still my favorite way to serve it, but I love it with mashed potatoes and broccoli as well. I call upon it in moments of stress, and it makes me look like a "domestic goddess", sorry Nigella!

You'll notice that the recipe originally calls to preheat the oven to 450, and you can do this. Lately, I've been using a lower oven to give myself a little more dinner assembly time - 375 degrees. I also frequently mix up a double batch of the spice mix so I can spread it liberally on the chicken. It creates more of a spice crust this way.

Spiced Roast Chicken Breast (my version from Gourmet Magazine's original)

  • 2 chicken breast halves, boneless and skinless (or bone-in and skin on)
  • 1 t. chile powder
  • 1/4 t. ground cumin
  • 1/4 t. ground coriander
  • 1/4 t. black pepper
  • 1/8 t. cinnamon
  • 1 t. salt
  • veg or olive oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Mix all the spices, salt and pepper together in a small bowl. Add a tiny amount of oil to moisten into a paste. Rub into the chicken well, and let it sit a few minutes while the cast iron skillet heats over medium high heat.

Sear the meat about 2 minutes per side - a minute or two longer per side if using bone-in chicken. (Start with the side you want to present up first, so when you pop the pan into the oven, the prettiest side is up when it comes out.)

Transfer pan to oven, and continue baking until the chicken is done, about 15-20 minutes depending on the size of the pieces and if you use bone-in chicken.

Let the chicken sit for several minutes before serving to re-distribute the juices.

If you need a last minute Valentine meal tomorrow, you can pull this out of your hat in a mere half hour - and I'll guarantee, you'll be a very popular person around the dinner table.

Happy Valentine's Day!

well, I thought it was good...

Tonight, I was really in the mood for some fall-ish food. I haven't been cooking too much the past few days. Since the Food Slam Friday, in fact. Yesterday, here in Wisconsin, the entire state was on its collective edge of the seat for the most anticipated of Green Bay Packer games...everyone except me (and some others to be sure). I could envision the huddled masses keeping warm by the glows of television sets, some also by their burning effigies of Brett Favre, and others by wiping up their warm tears while still clad in Brett Favre attire. All it did for me was give me a 4th day in a row without cooking a proper supper. I think I ate standing up at the kitchen counter and continuing to work on grapes, but that is a story for another day, since I am about 1/2 done.

Most of today was rainy, windy and overcast in general, and I could think of no better way to use up some fennel I bought at the farm market a week ago already than to make braised chicken with fennel. I kind of been plotting it, since I soaked some cranberry beans (the same dried ones I had leftover from Jamie Oliver's Humble Home Cooked Beans...) and cooked them up a la Rick Bayless (with bacon) late last week.

Braised food with bacon? Sounds very fall-ish to me. I got this recipe from the newspaper several years ago, and really love it. I may have conveniently blocked it out of my memory that my Husband was not as enamored...

No matter, all of the leftovers are gratefully Mine!

Braised Chicken with Fennel:

adapted from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (circa 2005)

6-8 servings

  • olive oil
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 3 lbs cut up chicken (or I used tonight 3 chicken breasts, sans skin) really whatever you prefer
  • 1 onion, frenched (cut into thin wedges)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 fennel bulb, quartered and thinly sliced
  • 1 bell pepper (original calls for yellow, but I used green since I have a lot from the garden lately)
  • 28 oz can diced, fire roasted tomatoes (I used 1/2 a jar of home canned, and then added a few T. of tomato paste to thicken it towards the end)
  • 1/2 c. dry white wine (or, my favorite, vermouth, since I never have white wine...)
  • rosemary, fresh if you have it - 1 or 2 sprigs
  • 1 15 oz. can cannellini beans (or 9 oz. or so of home cooked beans, any variety you like)
  • parsley to garnish, if desired

In a dutch oven, or similar heavy lidded pot, brown chicken (dusted in salt and pepper) in 2 T. olive oil, about 2 minutes per side, and remove to plate. Then add onion, garlic, fennel and pepper and cook 3 minutes until softened, stirring constantly.

Add vermouth and deglaze pan, then add tomatoes, rosemary and browned chicken. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer 20-25 minutes (longer if you use bone-in cuts of chicken), turning the chicken once.

Uncover, mix in beans, and cook uncovered 5 minutes or so until sauce thickens and juices run clear. I added my tomato paste here, since home canned tomatoes are a bit jucier than store bought, I think.

I like to serve this with mashed potatoes, since then you can sop up all of the sauce. As you can see, my portion of chicken was burried beneath a mound of veg. I think that the sauce is good enough on its own to be made meat free if you desire. I think I just love fennel.

See, this was my plate:

And this was the plate across the table from mine...

I guess, it may be a recipe that in the future, I scale down and make for winter lunches. Maybe I'll even try freezing some since I have so much leftover tonight. It is also possible I could make it into a soup of some kind. Most likely, I'm going to get some more potatoes at the farm market on Thursday and eat the rest for lunch. If I'm lucky, it will feed me right up until the weekend.