A recipe for my mother

My mother has a recipe disability. She is physically unable to follow a recipe from start to finish. Fortunately, this works out to her (and the diner’s) advantage at her house 9 times out of 10; she has solid kitchen sense. (She was not the one who fried chicken in powdered sugar instead of flour.) She must be where I get my kitchen creativity (and occasional ADD). I call this disability RADD, or Recipe ADD, meaning her brain simply does not have the capacity to read “1 pound carrots” and translate that to the bag of orange sticks she bought that are sitting in the fridge (if, in fact, she didn’t buy sweet potatoes on accident, because hey, well, they’re orange also). She adds, subtracts, and substitutes with wild abandon. Again, this is not meant as criticism–it’s just the way she uses recipes, and it’s a skill I think a lot of cooks could stand to learn. She wanders through a recipe the way a child wanders through a park: if there’s something shiny that distracts her, she goes off the beaten path.

Typically my recipe ideas come to me in a BFO (blinding flash of the obvious), in the grocery store or while I’m walking the dog. But every once in a while, the dash of RADD I’ve inherited leads me down a path from an already-written recipe to another, almost entirely different recipe. This is a good thing; I’m lucky that I have two distinct modes of cooking (when I do use recipes), that in which I follow recipes to the letter, and that in which I stray from the recipe entirely.

Here’s how I came across Highlighter Chicken, so named by my husband becuase it turned everything it touched, from cutting boards to tupperware to the white bowls I served it in, a sunny shade of yellow that can only be accurately described as Highlighter Yellow (I think I’ll call Crayola):

I started with a whole chicken, which I cut up and meant to use in a recipe I found in last May’s Gourmet for Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Almonds. I mixed the chicken with cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric, as instructed, but as the chicken was about to hit the dutch oven for a quick sear (I don’t have a tagine, but I don’t seem to need one), it occurred to me that I had 2 thick slices of bacon to use up, so I diced and fried those up, saved the bacon, and seared the chicken in the bacon fat, because some pig is better than no pig, right? Then I added sweet potato, because I’d been mulling over a possible recipe for chicken, sweet potato, and thyme stew with saffron, which I have yet to create, and the mushrooms on the edge of their life from my produce drawer. I had thyme, so that went in instead of the parsley and cilantro buried (at the time) under the snow on my porch, nixing the whole kitchen string step that Gourmet called for. I replaced the water with stock because I wanted more of a stew, skipped the apricot-simmering step and put them (minus the cinnamon stick) right into the stew, left out the almonds entirely, and braised the whole thing in the oven instead of on the stovetop, because it was cold outside and sometimes nothin’ beats turning on the oven. I meant to add saffron, but I forgot. And I did find some almonds later, so a few went on top. So really, what started as a Moroccan chicken dish with apricots and almonds ended up as a Coq au Vin-style stew (I also added wine), tinged with Moroccan ingredients. We served it over fragrant basmati rice, and it was delicious. And I think the yellow is finally out of my cuticles, a full week later.

Anyway, this is the difference between a recipe “inspired by” a different recipe, as opposed to “adapted from,” in which case the final recipe is really not that much different from the first.

Enjoy. And if you want to add carrots or almonds or omit the garlic or whatever, that’s fine, too.

Love you, Mom. Have fun with your new Le Creuset. I wish everyone could cook with as much freedom.

Highlighter Chicken

Recipe for Highlighter Chicken
AKA Moroccan-Spiced Chicken Stew with Sweet Potatoes, Bacon and Thyme
Recipe 26 of 365

This recipe, written in a parody of the style in which I give my mother recipe directions over the phone, was inspired by a recipe for Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Almonds, in the May 2006 issue of Gourmet Magazine. Serve it over basmati rice or Israeli couscous.

TIME: Depends on how many things you can do at once. Maybe 40 minutes active time, plus braising for about an hour.
MAKES: 6 to 12 servings, depending on whether you eat it all at once at a real meal, standing over a little bowl at the kitchen counter mid-afternoon, or wrapping it up in a pita for lunch three days later. But probably 6 with leftovers.

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger, or 1 tablespoon ground fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon turmeric (hence the highlighter color)
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning
1 1/4 teaspoons salt, plus more for seasoning
3 tablespoons olive oil, or whatever oil, divided
1 (4 pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces (most stores sell pre-cut chickens; you can also use 6 to 8 chicken thighs or 4 bone-in breasts, or that chicken in the freezer you’ve been saving for something like this)
2 thick (or 4 thin) slices unsmoked bacon, diced (or smoked, if you want, whatever works), or a little extra oil if you don’t want to use bacon
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1” chunks
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped (or just 2, if it gives your spouse bad breath)
1 8-ounce package sliced crimini mushrooms
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, or 5 sprigs just thrown in; that works, too
4 cups (1 liter) chicken broth
1/2 packed cup dried apricots, halved
2 tablespoons honey (I wouldn’t recommend substituting maple syrup)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Or 325 or 375, it probably doesn’t matter all that much, but 350 is a good place to start.

In a large mixing bowl, or in the bowl of your stand mixer, or whatever’s available, mix the cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and 1 1/4 teaspoons salt with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, or vegetable oil, or grapeseed oil, if you’re still hooked on the stuff. Add the chicken pieces and turn to coat them on all sides, making sure to get your hands in there so you have proof that you made this dish yourself. Note: Tomorrow is a good day for a manicure.

Heat a large, heavy pot with an ovenproof lid over medium-high heat. Add the bacon, and cook, stirring, until the pieces are crisp and brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate to drain, leaving as much fat as possible in the pan, and put the plate in a place where the dog and the Sig. O. can’t eat it.

Here’s a step you should follow, even if you use skinless thighs, which you can (don’t just make the stew with unbrowned chicken, it wouldn’t be nearly as good): Add half the chicken to the pan, skin sides down, and cook for about 4 minutes on each side, or until the chicken is really well browned (turn the heat down if the stuff on the bottom of the pan starts to burn). And oh yeah, don’t walk away while the chicken is browning, because if you let it start to burn, it burns quickly. Transfer the chicken to the plate with the bacon, and repeat with the remaining chicken, adding the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to the pot before browning if the pan looks too dry. Add the second batch of browned chicken to the plate. Reduce the heat to medium.

Add the onion to the pan, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until soft. Add the sweet potatoes, and cook another 3 minutes. Add the white wine, garlic, mushrooms, and thyme, season with salt and pepper, stir, and cook for about 3 more minutes, or until the wine has evaporated and the mushrooms are beginning to let off their water.

Did you get this far?

Add the chicken broth, apricots, and honey to the pan, stir to combine, and bring to a simmer over high heat. Stir in the bacon pieces (you can also just sprinkle them on top at the end, if you don’t feel like putting them in), nestle the browned chicken pieces into the pot, cover it, and put it in the oven. (Since the chicken isn’t cooked through yet, you can’t do this step ahead.)

Braise the chicken (braising is what you’re doing right now, with the chicken in the oven in a pot with a lid on it and lots of juicy stuff around it) for about 1 hour, give or take, carefully turning the chicken pieces and rearranging them about halfway through. And yes, the top of that lid is hot (I always try to touch it).

When the chicken is done, stir the liquid and taste it, adding salt and pepper if needed. You can eat it immediately, or transfer the whole stew to another container (this helps it cool more quickly, but hey, don’t use plastic, okay?) and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate the stew overnight, and spoon off the layer of accumulated fat before reheating and serving. You can make this up to 3 days in advance, and the leftovers should be good for about a week, if you’re the leftovers type.

Good job. You made it through.

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