Practical Chicken

July 17, 2012

This is the thirteenth installment of Sunday Dinners, a biweekly column from our own Tom Hirschfeld featuring his gorgeous photography, stunning Indiana farm, and mouthwatering family meals.

Today: Tom struggles to simplify his cooking life, with a full Sunday menu of Oven Braised Buttermilk Chicken with Za'atar, Middle Eastern Green Beans, and Burnt Okra with Potatoes and Basil.

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I've misplaced my picture-perfect afternoon of lazily snipping green beans and blanching them so they will be ready to sauté later, thinking about a nice recipe for roasted beets with a little goat cheese, and peeling tiny carrots with the little green tops neatly trimmed and ready to glaze in butter with a little fresh thyme. It has to be the same place as my sense of humor because I have lost that, too. I have been looking for both for well over a month, and I can't find either.

That is the dream anyway, finding these two things.

I only have myself to blame. After all, I made a decision to do things differently. I am putting things up for winter, spending the afternoon standing by a boiling pot, watching the steam rise off the smoldering water with a timer ticking away so I know when the enzymes have broken down and the green beans or squash have become ok to freeze. I am canning pickled beets, blueberry jam, and bread and butter pickles, just to name a few. To add to that, I broke my promise to myself and made the garden bigger and got rabbits instead of chickens. To top everything else, we are smack in the middle of a serious drought. In other words, my version of the "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" back-to-school essay would mostly involve irrigation, rabbit shit, and a heat wave.

In the past, my garden was grown and consumed fresh, with never a thought to winter. Anything making it through to the cold months was a long storage vegetable like potatoes, onions, or carrots.

I did this because I learned to cook in a fine dining restaurant, and we always used fresh ingredients year round. Somehow I feel like I did things backwards, because now I am learning and trying to be a practical home cook. I am desperately trying to be more realistic -- doing laundry while cooking instead of cooking from the French Laundry cookbook, or taking the kids to the library instead of rolling a foie gras torchon.

For all these reasons and more, the plated meal is a special occasion now, and secretly sometimes I don't even have that in me anymore because the damn kids are wearing me out. Even so, like an old boxer I still practice good technique -- after all that is what will get you through. It is the one thing culinary school, restaurants, and, to even a larger extent, the French Laundry cookbook taught me. Great technique makes good quality ingredients extraordinary. It is the most important thing the home cook can learn, but it also means using what you have in appropriate ways.

As an example, I will use the frozen vegetables from the garden in soups this winter, which I have been meaning to do anyway. I know it's not earth-shattering to most of you, but it is practical and I desperately need practicality. I mean, I can't believe I don't have to reduce a couple gallons of stock to make a sauce that in turn will make the chicken better! But it doesn't make it better, it just makes it different.

Instead of molecular gastronomy, I am learning to make delicious casseroles, to make things in advance, and even to use fewer pots and pans. Oh, don't get me wrong. I am excited to be learning, doing new things, and making the kids happier at dinner time -- and I mean happier because I spend more time with them and less at the stove.

But just like my belief in Sunday dinner, there are some things I won't change. I am always going to braise properly, roast correctly, and practice good knife skills. I will truss, French, and always dice ingredients to the proper size, because no matter what you are making, these are the things that matter.

Sunday Menu:

Oven Braised Buttermilk Chicken with Za'atar
Serves 4
4 chicken thigh and leg quarters
1 tablespoon za'atar
1 1/2 tablespoon garlic, minced
a handful of thyme sprigs
See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Middle Eastern Green Beans
Serves 4
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses
juice from half a lemon
14 ounces can chopped tomatoes
2 teaspoons tomato paste
kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Burnt Okra with Potatoes and Basil
Serves 4
2 cups okra, sliced into 3/8 inch slices
2 cups russet potatoes, small dice
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1 tablespoon basil, minced
Peanut oil
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
See the full recipe (and save and print it) here

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Amanda Hesser
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    Nozlee Samadzadeh
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


Amanda H. July 17, 2012
Great post, Tom!
thirschfeld July 18, 2012
Thanks Amanda!
Tarragon July 17, 2012
It would be helpful to have a video of how to prep the chicken quarters.
thirschfeld July 18, 2012
This is different from how I do it but the first part of the video where they cut around the leg accomplishes the same thing and it is a great way to French a chicken leg too.
chl0525 July 17, 2012
The chicken and green beans links are going to herbed potato salad instead.
Nozlee S. July 17, 2012
Thank you for catching that! I've just fixed it.