Whenever you hear about how people don’t have time to cook because we’re all so busy with work and kids and the gym and eight hours per day of reality television and internet surfing and whatnot, don’t you think, “Hey, people used to find time to cook because they had no choice. What’s the matter with us?”
I’m not thinking of a mid-century family helmed by a mother whose job description was to help with the PTA and have dinner on the table when father walked through the door at 6 p.m. I’m thinking of pioneers and farmers, men and women, who did hard physical labor all day long and still had to face the dreaded problem: what’s for dinner? I’m not saying I want to return to the era when we all had to grow or make just about everything we ate and wore ourselves—there are definitely days when I’m grateful that I can cop out and order a burrito. But contemplating that time does make me think that most people today, even busy people, could forgo takeout and make dinner two or three times a week if they cared to.
This idea is usually in the back of my mind but lately has been at the forefront because I’ve been reading about the summertime activity in Freetown, Virginia, during Edna Lewis’s youth. Berry-picking, harvesting, canning, gardening, gathering eggs, hunting for nests, mid-season planting, tending livestock, and butchering kept everyone busy all summer long (she doesn’t even mention the laundry and other routine housework that must have been incredibly time-consuming in those days), and yet they were eating the most gorgeous-sounding meals. During busy times, she says, dinner would be started before breakfast, since nobody would be free to watch pots all afternoon.
Here is her steamed chicken in casserole for a prepared-ahead summer dinner; it is quick to get started, doesn’t require much tending, and comes out simple and tasty. Don’t let the “steamed” in the name put you off; at the end there are plenty of buttery juices, delicious on top of white rice.
- Yield:4 to 5
- A 2 1/2 pound chicken cut into 8 pieces, with a few extra wings
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
- 2 medium-sized onions, chopped fine
- 1/4 teaspoon thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 cup sliced carrots
- 1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
- Salt and pepper
Wash off the chicken pieces and dry with a clean cloth.
Into a heavy pot or saucepan put the butter and heat to the foaming stage. Add the onions. When the onions are quite heated through, add in the chicken. Raise the flame and brown the chicken and onions well, without burning.
When the chicken is well browned, turn the burner as low as possible, add the thyme, bay leaf, and carrots, cover with a closely fitting lid, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. Stir by shaking the pot around. (The pot can be set into a preheated 250°F oven. Be sure it’s quite hot when set into the oven. Cook for 45 minutes.)
If you have fresh tarragon add 1/2 tablespoon about 15 minutes before the end of cooking, then salt and pepper to taste, and swish the pot around to blend in the herb. Adding the tarragon at the last gives a better flavor than if it is cooked in from the beginning. Don’t use dried tarragon; it is too strong.
The chicken wings can be removed if you like; they are added really to give thickness to the sauce, which comes from the two last wing joints.