Hand to Mouth

misadventures in eating

I still have tennis elbow. And a serious food aversion.

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My first job (ever) was at a Marble Slab Creamery my next door neighbor opened when I was a freshman in high school. He needed young people willing to work for $6.50 an hour and I was still fourteen enough to think that $6.50 an hour was the kind of money worth suffering the indignities and pain of food service. All I could think of was the number of Mocha Freezes I could purchase at the local Borders Cafe, the $5 flip-flops from Old Navy, and other such fourteen year old pursuits. (You add eight years to that age and I would have been calculating the costs of hookers and blow — mostly because nothing tickles the funny-bone better than the phrase “hookers and blow.”) You see, I didn’t understand the undertaking: working at an ice cream store is the darkest, deepest corner of hell. Dante knew it, too. That’s why the Seventh Circle is cold.

Scooping ice cream, for those who have scooped it, is bad enough — but places like Marble Slab and Cold Stone compound that pain by getting their counter biscuits to hand-mix things like Oreo and M&Ms and cookie dough (my gravest enemy during those harsh days) into the ice cream — on a frozen slab. If you’ve ever thought just scooping ice cream was hard, wait until you have to mix hard objects into it.

As employees, we had the right to a free ice cream with every shift (another HUGE BOON I thought at fourteen, despite the fact I was too busy trying to develop anorexia to truly appreciate it) — by the end of my four (five?) month tenure of late nights (we purportedly closed at 11 p.m., I never managed to get out of that store any earlier than 12:15 in the morning) I hated ice cream. Seeing it make me nauseated, and as sad as you might think this was, it ushered me into my Super Overconcened About My Weight And Other Such Things That I Can Never Fix Like My Bone Structure Or Worse Yet My Skin Because Wow Considering Peeling Off All My Dermis To Replace It With Skin Filtched From Alicia Silverstone Is Way, Way Creepy. So at least I could take comfort in always saying, “No thanks, I hate ice cream.”

But it’s summer again in North Carolina, a scorching 90ºF (and up) week, and all the lawns are wilting under intense punishment, both from above and around, as water restrictions start tying up hoses and sprinkler systems throughout the county. And guys? As much as I hate ice cream? It’s all I can think about.

Written by lshen

May 30, 2007 at 7:33 pm

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THANK SWEET JESUS.

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For some of us — cough should be all of us cough — who are addicted to the electric crack that is Bravo, this news that casting for season four of Project Runway has begun should sent your little heart pitter-pattering. I know it’s done it for me, easing, temporarily, the pain of not having access to Bravo and thereby missing YET ANOTHER season of Top Chef. However, if you are evil and enjoy laughing at people who aren’t aware of the power of the internet, you, too, should skedaddle over to the BravoTV repository of casting sessions for season four.

And just to give this a little bit of a food slant?

Mother’s Day Ciopinno

My mother’s love of seafood is rivaled only by my love of hardcore Southern cooking — sadly, she wins because ultimately, mussels are better for you than fried okra. (Sad.) So for Mother’s Day this year I offered to make her a seafood cioppino and let my father do the grocery run — a call I will probably regret until the day I die. Still! The soup turned out wonderfully in the end, and both parents are packing it up for lunch tomorrow. This is a delicious, fancy-looking dish that is actually very easy to put together, and fabulous for impressing people. But seriously, do your shopping on your own.

• 1 lb mussels
• 1/2 lb shrimp, de-veined, with shells split
• 1/2 lb flaky, white fish
• 1 lb littleneck clams (NOT the footballs my father brought home)
• 1 26 oz can crushed tomatoes
• 1 c. dry white wine
• 5 cloves garlic
• 1/2 c. onion, diced
• 1/2 c. green pepper, diced
• 2 bay leaves
• 2 tsp oregano
• salt and pepper to taste
• 5 tbsp olive oil
• 1 c. clam juice
• 3 c. water

VERY IMPORTANT: Clean your seafood well — scrub your mussels and clams thoroughly to rinse away dirt and sand, and be sure that your water runs clear when you do rinse them, you don’t want that stuff in your soup. Keep in mind you only want fresh, live mussels and clams, so discard any with shells already open when preparing the meal.

(1) Combine olive oil, green pepper and onion in deep, tall pot — cook until soft, 3 to 4 minutes.
(2) Add all remaining ingredients except for seafood and bring to a simmer for 4 to 5 minutes.
(3) Add, in the following order, to the pot: (1) fish (2) mussels (3) shrimp (4) clams — cover and cook for 10 minutes or until the mussels and clams have all opened.
(4) Serve hot and immediately, with your remaining (chilled) white wine.

(Or, super secret step (5) in my house, where I had to pick out the ginormous clams and halve them before I could serve in our bowls. Classy.)

Written by lshen

May 14, 2007 at 7:26 am

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Eating my way from Greece to Southern China

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Friday, my brethren and I made our way to the local Greek Orthodox church festival. Bonanza. And then this morning, my same cohorts and I made a trip into Durham, to the Hong Kong restaurant (not what it’s called in Chinese, oddly enough) for dim sum, and luckly Dex photodocumented the entire experience — even when we were slipping into a catatonic food coma.

The point is: there was a lot of eating this weekend.

I feel that eating half of this festival made up for my exposure to Greek culture coming primarily from one reluctant viewing of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Sort of, anyway.

Short of an unnatural and somewhat suspect love for moussaka and baklava, I know almost nothing about modern Greek culture — it’s a tragedy, I believe, because there was some pretty bitchin’ stuff going down at the festival: from forcing small children to dance in ridiculous clothing for our amusement to astonishingly good pastries, this was a culture that shouted “Oppa!” and broke dishes and got their jones on. I managed to restrain myself to thinking about thieving tiny, adorable Greek children dancing only once or twice (or once or twice times 893749834594875, but the point is I didn’t actually do it).

Moussaka, I think, is possibly the most perfect food on the face of the Earth: It combines savory and creamy and hearty and if you make your bechamel just right, the most wonderful flirtation of nutmeg sweet on the back of your tongue, and this moussaka was excellent. The best recipe I’ve found for this delightful treat on the internet has been by written up at the fabulous Tigers & Strawberries and is available with accompanying photographs here, in case you want to try on your own. The version being sold at the festival was made with beef instead of lamb, and heavy on cream and starches — with creamy whipped potato and cream topping and delicious boiled potato psuedo-crust, that cooked itself in all the wonderful juices from the eggplant and beef and vegetables in the filling of the moussaka during the baking process. It was unreservedly indulgent.

As if the moussaka and spanikopita sitting around waiting for me to devour them ferociously wasn’t bad enough, there was a pastry table at least as long as the entree table, and they were selling everything from loukoumathes (Greek doughnuts: only fresh-fried and drizzled in honey and sprinkled with nuts — I KNOW) to galaktoboureko (baked custard with phyllo soaked in honey — I KNOW) to ryzogalo (savory sweet rice pudding — I KNOW) among other things whose names were somehow even harder to spell. It was a labor of love to restrain myself from flinging myself in the general direction of the shortcake cookies, the spindly fried cakes, the beautiful phyllo-layered sweets, but I did it somehow.

I caved, ultimately, as I always do, in the face of baklava, which is such a killer combination of honey-sweet and nuts and crisp phyllo that it’s never even a fair fight, and this stuff was amazing. I bought a triangle and managed to make it last two days: half for desert after the moussaka and half with breakfast the next morning, and it felt like I was biting into a vacation in the Greek Isles: so sweet and wonderful it burned like sun. In fact, the summer I worked in Washington D.C. I used to brave what I affectionately called the skanky side of Pennsylvania Avenue (those of you who have lived/do live/have worked/do work/gotten lost near Capitol Hill are nodding and thinking, “Oh, next to the Cosi!” right now, even as we speak) to go to a subterranean Greek restaurant and buy containers of baklava to nurse me through my day — so all of my associations with it are of heat and delight and the bright spots of my day — as I imagine it will continue to be in the future.

On the other hand, my familiarity with dim sum culture and Asia is pretty good, if only because I’m kind of a glutton and all things food-related with the motherland are points of interest with me. If you’re a dim sum virgin, this might be a good place to get started on your lurid path to food-whoring your way through the morning tea service:

Living in the Southeastern United States doesn’t leave a lot of room for amazing Asian food — there’re pockets here and there and holes-in-the-wall patronized heavily by native Chinese/Japanese/Koreans, but they’re exceedingly rare, and with the subtle and fine art of dim sum, it’s even harder to find. Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant — apologize in advance for the character defamation — looks, from the side of the street, peeling off of the highway, like the sort of place where you would sooner find cat in the kitchen than chicken. But despite the poorly-disguised 1970s decor and appalling parking situation, on Saturdays and Sunday mornings between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. it’s your absolute best bet for semi-authentic dim sum in the Triangle. In fact, it’s really your only bet — trust me on this one: I’ve made the rounds, the other options aren’t worth your money.

They serve Chrysanthemum tea with its traditional rock sugar accompaniment and carts start rolling around the claustrophobic dining area: with steamer carts of dumplings and wraps and mysterious things and other cards with spring rolls (not to be confused with egg rolls) and egg custard cups and rice noodles, with shrimp folded inside, shu mai and fried turnip cake.

For the uninitiated, dim sum can be a pretty scary proposition — if only because you don’t know what to order, but it’s well worth the effort of learning. (All photos taken by Dex, which you can tell because they’re of better photographic quality than my own.)

Dim sum is tallied on these little sheets: usually with divisors like “small plate” and “medium” and “large,” with spaces with noting which kind of tea you ordered (we asked for Chrysanthemum, as should you), and any for-order dishes the kitchen had to pitch in additionally to serve up. Dim sum is easy and fairly inexpensive as a general rule, the three of us ate like kings for less than $35 total including tip, and we nearly had to be rolled out of the parking lot.

Clockwise, starting from the top: (1) sprouts, green pepper, and shitake mushrooms julienned and wrapped in tofu skins, braised (2) shrimp dumpling, a rice flour wrapper (note how its translucent) enclosing shrimp and waterchestnut mixture with ginger, amazing texture and subtle savoriness (3) wayward shrimp (4) “fen,” in Chinese, which just means large, flat rice-flour noodles, enclosing a vegetable and shrimp mixture and doused with an addictively good dipping sauce. Be aware: these were the leftovers after we’d demolished the actual plates.

Left to right: (1) shu mai, pork, water chestnut, and shrimp filling in wonto wrappers steamed (2) shrimp dumplings (2) “cha shao bao,” barbeque pork steamed bread — nothing like American barbeque: sweet and savory but not at all spiced. There is not a drop of cumin anywhere in that sauce. Note the cup of rock sugar.

The tofu-skin wraps before we uh…attacked them like feral dogs.

Oh Lord, how to describe this: in Chinese it’s called ‘zhong zi,” and they have a long and colorful social history that involves dead drunk poets and fish eating their bodes (please don’t ask, my people are wrong and wrong and sometimes wronger than wrong). But what it is, essentially, is sticky rice with filling: could be sweet, could be savory, ours was a mix of shrimp and pork, and then wrapped in a lotus leaf and steamed. As Dex noted, the rice comes out with an amazingly wonderful tea smell and taste, and the texture is fantastic. An incredibly time-consuming dish to make, which is why mostly you get them at restaurants like this, or, if you’re me, you trade your mother household favors in order to get her to teach you how to make them — a la the “Teach me how to make shu mai!” debacle of Christmas 2007.

And last but not least, the desert of choice for T and I, egg custards:

This has not been — at all — a comprehensive list of things available at morning tea services, but it’s a pretty safe one, and the food listed herein was enjoyed by all and pretty much safe for all to partake in. I know people get wary about Chinese food, especially when there are long menus and strange names and you are seriously concerned you might be eating a body part you totally do not want to even be thinking about — but the pictures and names here are a good guide for a beginner. But like with anything and everything else — I recommend you branch, and branch wide.

Written by lshen

May 6, 2007 at 8:06 pm

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Summer lovin’! Spiked watermelon!

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Watermelon + airplane bottles + refrigerator = hilarity for roommate and I!

Written by lshen

April 25, 2007 at 1:56 am

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Miso-glazed salmon and fridge dilemmas

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It’s getting to that time of the year when I have to start giving serious consideration to how I’m going to empty my fridge strategically without feeling like I’m wasting hundreds of dollars worth of food — then it’s two weeks to home base before jetting out to Seattle. I always think about that line in These Happy Golden Years when Laura Ingalls’ mother says she’s left enough gardens for the rabbits for two lifetimes; I’ve left enough fridges and pantries for two lifetimes already.

That said, this past weekend’s shopping excursion brought to me delights of the Asian fusion.

Miso-glazed salmon with Asian green beans

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I realized about halfway through writing out the ingredients list why this needed to be called 2^7 miso-glazed salmon, but it was just so cloying I couldn’t bear to do it.

Ingredients

• salmon steak (# corresponding to those being fed)
• 2 tablespoons white miso
• 2 tablespoons honey
• 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
• 2 tablespoons water
• kosher salt
• black pepper
• 2 tablespoons chives, diced
• 4 tablespoons soy sauce/tamari
• 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
• 5 or 6 button mushrooms

Recipe

(1) Pat dry and sprinkle both sides of the salmon steak(s) with salt and set aside in the fridge.

(2) In a small bowl, combine the miso, honey, red wine vinegar and two tablespoons of soy sauce, stir well and until mostly-smooth — set aside for the salmon. Clean and halve the button mushrooms and set aside with the sauce.

(3) Fill a medium-depth saucepan to with water and bring to a boil, put your green beans in to cook.

(4) While your green beans are bubbling up, get your fish into the oven.

(a) I personally recommend you do this in a toaster oven, especially if you’re cooking for 2 or less: take a sheet of tinfoil and double it over, folding up the edges to create a tiny, kind-of-flimsy tray — it’ll be enough to keep your glaze from running all over your pan and assist in easy clean up.

(b) Set your salmon steak(s) in the center of the foil, skin side down, and drizzle your glaze over it, arrange your cut button mushrooms around the steak.

(c) Set your toaster oven to 400 degrees — but keep a close eye on it: salmon overcooks easily.

(5) Check your green beans, they should be tender in about 6-10 minutes.  Pour away all but about 2 tablespoons (see!) of water from the pot, add the oyster sauce and remaining 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, put it back on the heat and stir — make sure to coat all the green beans and let the sauce cook down a little, turn of the range.

(6) Pull your salmon out of the oven, serve with the green beans and mushrooms.  And you could always be like me and be a tool, make risotto out of a box and serve on top of that — instant deliciousness!

Written by lshen

April 25, 2007 at 1:28 am

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Oh, public radio — how you color my life with awesome.

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This weekend my future boyfriends and girlfriends over at the fantastic Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me! had the amazing opportunity of interviewing Jonathan Gold, who became the first food writer to ever win a Pulitzer for criticism. It makes my foodie heart flutter! — or, er, spasm as it asymptotically approaches heart disease!

But in the week’s show, he recalls that the most “exotic” thing he ever ate was braised goat penis. Guys, you know something’s gone wrong with your life when you can say things like, “I see your story about eating braised goat penis and raise you a bottle of fish wine.” My story — and it’s not even really my story as I have a policy about eating reproductive organs: “no, unless it’s roe” — involves my friend Tetsuo from study abroad having grilled bull penis (which for the curious, you can still find on sale in some of the larger Asian markets around the country) the night before a group of us hit the Forbidden Palace on what had to be one the coldest days of the year in Beijing. Of course, the side effect of this is that thanks to his massive gastrointestinal strike at having to eat cock (literally), I now know where every single bathroom in the palace is, since we had to find him one every twenty meters so he could moan pitifully and I could shot through the door, “I told you not to eat animal dick!”

And instead of a related recipe for pig testicles or something, I offer this:

Work week baked chicken, for those of us who like looking like better cooks than we actually are

I recognize that while I cook to relax, a lot of people can find cooking to be taxing and frustrating. To be honest, there’re reasons I spend at least one night out a week eating at disreputable Mexican restaurants and nursing pitchers of margaritas made with the house tequila — nothing but the best for me, obviously. But sometimes, you still deserve to treat yourself and whomever else you’re feeding, and work week baked chicken is a great, easy, delicious way to do that and make yourself look like an Iron Chef in the process. This recipe takes 2 days to make but minimal cooking.

Ingredients

• one whole chicken (between 4-6 lbs), defrosted*
• 4 or 5 medium-sized red potatos
• 1/2 lb Brussels sprouts
• olive oil
• 3/4 c. kosher salt
• black pepper
• rosemary (fresh or dry)
• tarragon (fresh or dry)
• 3 to 4 slices of bacon, cooked and crumbled
• 4 cloves of garlic, one minced

* As a rule, I don’t spend much time worrying about organic or inorganic when it comes to a lot of foods (anybody who wants to can just sit around all winter eating $5 bananas), but I definitely advocate buying organic and free ranch poultry and beef whenever possible — if for no other reason, because the flavor is far superior.

Recipe

Day one:

(1) First wash and pat dry your chicken, making sure to wash out the inside as well. (Some chickens come with packets of giblets on the inside, some do not, but make sure to check so you don’t get any unsavory surprises.)

img_0024.jpg(2) In a large, wide-mouthed bowl large enough to hold your chicken + H2O, combine 1/2 c. of salt, a tablespoon of rosemary, a tablespoon of tarragon, a generous handful of black pepper, and the three whole garlic cloves, stir well and submerge chicken in the water, making sure liquid fills the inside cavity as well. Cover with plastic wrap and set away in the fridge overnight. Call out for Chinese.

Day two:

(1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

(2) Scrub and pare your red potatoes, trying to keep them approximately the same size to allow for even cooking time. Toss with olive oil, salt to taste, and half a teaspoon of tarragon. Set aside.

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(3) Wash and prepare your Brussels sprouts, removing the tough, out layer of leaves and using a knife to remove the tough bottom stem (if any) — halve or quarter the sprouts, depending on size. Like with the potatoes, you want all the Brussels sprouts to be roughly the same size. Toss with salt, olive oil, and the crumbled bacon. Set aside.

 

(4) Pull your chicken out of the fridge and remove from the brine, give it a couple of graceless shakes over the sink to dump any massive excesses of water but do not rinse — those herbs and spices are your friends. Place chicken on roasting pan and set away into your oven to cook for between 1 hr 45 minutes or 2 hours, depending on your oven — but check the meat occasionally, chicken tends to dry out easily; you want the thigh juices to run clear and the meat to be white but still tender. Baste occasionally with the juices and oils that will cook out of the meat.

(5) At the 1 hour mark, arrange your potatoes and Brussels sprouts on a shallow baking sheet and put in the oven as well, on a rack higher than the chicken. (Lower will lead to fun burning!)

(6) After another 40 minutes, pull your pan of potatoes and Brussels sprouts out, the potatoes should be browning and the Brussels sprouts will have wilted, with the bacon crumbles darkened. Check your chicken for doneness — if it needs more time, give it some more time, if not:

(7) Once your chicken is done, remove it from the oven. Take a sheet of tinfoil and fold it in half to create a tent over the breast of the chicken — let the meat rest and the juices redistribute. The tinfoil is (a) to look snazzy and (b) to help keep it warm.

(8) Put your potatoes and Brussels sprouts back into the oven, changing the cook setting to “broil” (still on 400 degrees) for 5-8 minutes (depending again on your oven) just to let everything come to a good crisp.

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(9) Serve immediately on a large platter, arranging potatoes and Brussel sprouts around your chicken, bask in the praise from your family and friends and seduce-ee.

Optional day three:

Waste not chicken stock

Chicken stock is great to have in the refrigerator, so when you have chicken, you may as well go for it.

• remaining chicken carcass (because that’s a sexy word)
• 2 large carrots, chopped into thirds
• one large onion, cut into quarters
• 3 large ribs of celery, chopped into thirds

Recipe:

(1) Strip what remains of your chicken, picking off the meat and skin and what have you. Put the carcass in a large pot and fill with water. Add all the vegetables and simmer for at least 2 hours. The longer you cook the more intense the flavors, so after 2 hours it’s your call. I left mine on the stove for a little over three hours.

(2) Ladle out vegetables and chicken and discard. Skim your stock. Optionally, you can let it cool overnight and then refrigerate the next day — skimming off the cooled fat on the surface of the liquid. Pour into containers and freeze for future use.

Happy eating, folks! My chicken and potatoes number made a total of 5 other meals for one, and would easily divide into lunch for two big eaters the next day. Fair warning: this will not freeze well and it’s not recommended, so try to sprinkle in the baked chicken (chicken sandwiches? salad?) and sides throughout the next 5 to 7 days so they stay good. Nothing makes your coworkers more jealous or hungry than when you arrive at the workplace with a real lunch — so spread the envy.

Written by lshen

April 23, 2007 at 8:15 pm

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Hand to Mouth v. Crockpot — Fight-O!

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So today, while in the process of putting together my low country comfort food Brunswick stew, I broke a crockpot.

To be fair, it’s probably foolish to take the ceramic pot out of the crockpot body and place it on the range — especially if one of the burners is still carrying a lot of residual heat, but I have to say I never anticipated it to make a loud, hideous CRACK sound and then start making a low, hissing, fizzing noise as chicken stock and tomato sauce and and water started to leak out onto my range.

There was a long, colorful moment where I said out loud, “What the crap?” for all values of (crap = other four letter cuss words) and then I realized that something here had gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Just to make things more interesting, all the potholders are in the wash, so three rags and some dripping and cussing later, the rest of the liquid leaked out into my sink, leaving me to sullenly ladle chicken and lima beans and cubed red potatoes, bacon and onion and garlic and corn into my big soup pot and to sullenly refill it with chicken stock and tomato sauce and water.

So it’s cooking on low on my range now, and I’m going to have to sit up with it tonight like a particularly colicky child — but for those of you still possessing functioning crockpots, you may want to try this recipe if you want a low-maintenance, high flavor, feel-good, savory dinner.

Brunswick Stew

The origin of the recipe is hotly disputed, with various people from various places with counties of Brunswick claiming ownership, but ultimately the only truth we know for sure is that this used to be mountain food — scrappy Green Mountain boys food, made from squirrel or whatever other small game that could be found in the forest. These days, I’m avoiding having to pluck rodents by supplanting chicken.

3/4 lb. chicken, any of the leaner cuts, sliced thinly.
1/2 large yellow onion, diced.
1 large clove garlic, diced finely.
3 slices bacon, diced.
1 cup lima beans, frozen or fresh are both fine.
1 can creamed corn (can be less if desired).
3 large red potatoes, scrubbed clean and cubed, leaving skins on.
1 14 oz. can of chicken broth or chicken stock.
3 oz. of tomato paste (I recommend purchasing it in the tube for easy resealing).
3 c. water.
salt and pepper to taste.

(1) Combine bacon, onion, and garlic and saute on medium high heat until bacon has browned and released its drippings and onions and garlic and sweated out — be careful not to burn the garlic: you’ll recognize this process from the hideous bitter smell that fills your house.

(2) In a large soup pot or crock pot, combine water, chicken stock/broth, tomato paste and incorporate. Bring to a simmer and add bacon, onions, and garlic.

(3) Reduce heat and add potatoes, chicken, corn and lima beans and leave the pot on medium-low heat at a lazy simmer, stirring occasionally.

(4) Once all the chicken has cooked through — note this by the fact that (a) it is no longer translucent and (b) more than an hour has passed, the soup will thicken itself with starch from the potatoes and from the corn — cook to the consistency you like, nothing that longer cook time = thicker soup. Salt and pepper to taste. (A slight trick I like with this soup is to cook it most of the way and let it sit and cool for about an hour, the flavors will steep together and mellow one another out — and then to bring it up to hot again to finish the cooking process.)

(5) Serve hot with thick slices of bread or, Paula Deen style over rice. Enjoy!

And in conclusion: R.I.P, roommate’s crockpot, R.I.P.

Written by lshen

November 17, 2006 at 4:13 am

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